Looney Labs -- makers of Fluxx and those bizarre Icehouse pieces -- are once again in their element with Chrononauts, a time-traveling card game that is almost too clever to work. Almost.
Unlike other games, it's the complexity of Chrononauts that saves it from mediocrity. With a heady central "timeline" mechanic, and a 44-page booklet of rules that reads like an operations manual for the Flux Capacitor, it would be pretty easy for the crunchy game to fold under the weight of its own ambition. Luckily for Looney, time travel was never meant to be easy, and it's too damn fun hopping through history to allow a little bit of complexity to get in the way.
In Chrononauts, players act out the roles of paradox repairmen, assigned to repair the rips and tears in the time-space fabric created by their own cavorting. At the same time, each chrononaut is also carrying out a few side missions during their travels: every player is commissioned to locate three special artifacts from across time, while also trying to make it home to their own unique alternate reality. By completing any of these three tasks -- repairing enough paradoxes, collecting three artifacts, or setting the timeline properly -- a player wins the game.
The problem is that each of these tasks requires an entirely different mode of gameplay to complete. Looney Labs readily admits to the complexity of Chrononauts, going so far as to suggest beginning players skip the full game, and instead play two pared-down mini-games -- Solonauts and Artifaxx -- to get a better handle on the rules. For better or for worse, a lot of the game's complexity is due to the "timeline" mechanic, which is by far the most compelling and rewarding element of the game.
The timeline is composed of 32 cards, each depicting an important historical event from 1865 all the way up to 1999. Certain timeline cards, called "linchpins," can be directly affected by the players (Lincoln's assassination can be averted, for example, or the attack on Pearl Harbor can be called off). Changing one of these linchpin events also causes ripples in the timeline, turning other events into paradoxes (the Great Depression can only occur if World War I begins, which only happens after the Archduke Ferdinand is killed). Too many paradoxes can cause the game to end, so players must play "patch" cards to fix the paradoxes, altering history to coordinate with the changes made at the linchpins.
The system is confusing to grasp and difficult to manage, but ultimately fascinating due to its complexity. What's more, the interweavings of various major events gives a very particular view on history, most likely that of Andy Looney and the game's other creators. If Chrononauts is true, then Germany would have won WWII if the attack on Pearl Harbor had been canceled, and the failed assassination of John Lennon could have prompted a ban on firearms and prevented the shootings at Columbine. Sometimes obvious, and sometimes controversial, a hop through history with Chrononauts is definitely a conversation-starter, if nothing else.
Unfortunately, Chrononauts often plays like two separate but parallel games, instead of one whollistic design. Altering history and fixing paradoxes both work cleanly within the timeline mechanic, but collecting artifacts fails to involve the timeline in any way, and plays out like a watered down version of Fluxx. While adding a bit more color to the product, the artifacts at times still feel like an afterthought, and one wishes they took any advantage of the patented time-traveling mechanic.
But again, luckily for the folks at Looney Labs, the solidity of the timeline more than makes up for the game's other flaws. It's always possible to be too clever, but Looney dodges the bullet this time and ends up with a surprisingly fun, if a bit overloaded, title.
Final Verdict: Card-game virtuosos and wannabe time-travelers are encouraged to take it for a spin, but we urge you to read the manual first; once this baby hits 88, you're gonna see some serious shit.
Scott Jon Siegel is a fledgling game designer, and fancies himself a bit of a writer on the topic as well. His words and games can be found at numberless, which is almost always a work in progress.