This was a two-fer Tuesday for me at board game night. Not only did Quarterstaff Games have the new Back to the Future card game from Looney Labs on the shelf, which I snapped up and then out of its shrinkwrap to immediately get out on the table, but I also learned Zombie Dice, which is exactly what it says on the tin.
Back to the Future: The Card Game
This is something I’ve been looking forward to for a while. I’ve adored the films since watching the off-air VHS recording of the original film my mother made for me and my brothers back in the late 1980s. Similarly, I’ve been a fan of Chrononauts since picking the game up a couple years back. Bringing the two together I was a little nervous reading some of the pre-release reviews that have circulated around that mentioned changes from the Chrononauts parent mechanics, but I decided not to worry about that and play the game in its own right, doing my best not to think “Gee, this is different from Chrononauts.”
That, it turned out, was difficult. Trying to explain the game to Bill, Nonny, Nicole and Chris while unpacking it, I found myself on a couple occasions falling back on my knowledge of Chrononauts — even after announcing to the group that I wouldn’t — only to discover that element had changed in Back to the Future. The Timewarp card type, for instance, is now called Power Action, setting it up as a spiffier sort of Action. There are no Inverters anymore. Time travelers change past and future events by using an iteration of Doc Brown’s time machine or a Doubleback card.
But I’m getting things out of order. “Time travel,” as the Doctor once remarked. “You can’t keep it straight in your head.”
Anyway, in Back to the Future, every player draws from a pool of identity cards. These identities are descendants of the characters in the films. One might find they’re Buffy, some future descendant of the Tannen clan, Verne Brown, glimpsed at the end of Back to the Future III, or Marty McFly III, among others. Each of these characters has a problem: they need get back to the future — their particular future, that is. These poor time-lost souls come from a unique, exclusive future that depends on a combination of key turning points that occurred in the Back to the Future universe over the course of 130 years, many of them depicted in the films, such as George McFly’s decision, or lack thereof, to confront Biff at the Enchantment Under the Sea dance.
This timeline of turning points, represented by a grid of cards representing events from 1885 to 2015, is made of two kinds of events: linchpins and ripplepoints. Linchpins can be altered by a savvy time traveler with the aid of a time machine or Doubleback card. Either George confronts Biff at the dance or he doesn’t. The results of that decision are the ripplepoints, the effects of that key decision. If George confronts Biff, he goes on to become a successful author, among other things. If he doesn’t, other, less positive events occur, like Biff marrying Lorraine.
In order to alter linchpin events and subsequent ripplepoints, which are noted on the timeline cards with convenient icons and grid location notes, one needs a time machine or a Doubleback card. Both of these have their drawbacks. The time machines, all iterations of Doc Brown’s original tricked-out DeLorean, require a second element for them to function properly, with the exception of the flying time train from the end of the third film, which runs completely on steam. In the case of the original version of the time car, for instance, it requires a rod of plutonium to function, one of which is an Item card in the game. With a time machine and corresponding Item to make it work, a player can flip any linchpin on the board, sometimes getting another effect as well, depending on the iteration of the time machine used.
Doubleback cards, on the other hand, affect only one specific linchpin on the timeline. They can flip it in either direction, depending on the player’s choice. If the player also has a specific Item, like Gray’s Sports Almanac, they can flip another linchpin of their choice.
This brings up one of the other card types in the game: Items. These are artifacts of note from the films. Some of them work with other cards, such as the time machines and Doubleback cards. Others, like Telegram from a Future Friend in the Past, have a direct effect of their own, often canceling cards played by others.
Additionally, there are Action and Power Action cards. These let players monkey with the game somehow, redistributing cards around the table in the Temporal Vortex or Rewinding to use a card consigned to the discard pile.
Play consists of drawing a card and playing a card. So it’s going to take several turns to restore history to its “proper” course of events, even assuming a player gets precisely the cards they need. It invariably goes on longer as people get involved in tugs of war over certain events. Some need it one way, some need it the other.
Once a time traveler has rearranged history to suit their needs, there’s still one more task. In the world of the Back to the Future films, time is fluid and highly susceptible to alteration by visitors from another era. The only way to definitively protect one’s own version of history is to prevent time travel from ever being invented in the first place. So once a player has recreated their history, they have one more change to make: the moment when Doc Brown cracks his noggin while hanging a clock in the bathroom, when he first conceives of the flux capacitor. Only Doc seems nearly fated to invent time travel. There are five copies of that linchpin card. In one version of history, he successfully hangs the clock and goes about his business. If one of the other four cards are drawn, Doc has his concussion / revelation and the game goes on.
I’ve only played the game once so far, so these are extremely preliminary impressions. Back to the Future: The Card Game very faithfully implements the feel and storyline of the film trilogy, but does so at the cost of an easily played game. Traveling through time, for instance, to flip a linchpin is fairly difficult. A player needs not only a time machine, but the corresponding Item that makes the time machine work. This emulates the films to a tee. But it also means that the player needs two specific cards to accomplish something. This is, to be honest, a huge drag.
In the game we played, I’m not sure if anyone bothered to try to make any iteration of the time machine work. Instead, we all either played the time train or played Rewind to get the time train out of the discard pile. Even given that the deck of drawable cards in Back to the Future is relatively small, what are the odds of getting precisely the two card combination required to activate a time machine?
Further research reveals there are two “fully equipped” time machines: the time train and the flying DeLorean seen throughout Back to the Future II. I guess the functional DeLorean never hit the table for whatever reason in our game. Additionally, the old and cranky DeLorean, the one with a substitute control chip the size of a pinball machine from the beginning of Back to the Future III, only requires the player to discard a card to power it, which is much more doable than having one specific card in the whole deck.
I have similarly dubious thoughts about the Doubleback cards. They’re a little more useful as is, because they can flip linchpins by themselves, but the odds of getting the correct Item to earn the bonus linchpin flip seem low enough that it’s not worth the headspace to track the information.
In winning, I find myself wondering why Andy Looney decided what he did. Given the short — relative to Chrononauts — timeline and number of events that ripple from a very small pool of linchpins — George punching Biff is the Back to the Future equivalent of killing Hitler, in terms of its effects on subsequent events — players will find themselves contending fairly fiercely over the arrangement of historical events. Given the amount of effort that goes into arranging history correctly, why make it more difficult to win, and extend the playing time, by adding the one in five chance of successfully completing the game? The first answer that comes to mind is it was to make the game last longer. And honestly, given how that first play went, I think the game overstayed its welcome. Between the plethora of cancellation cards like Memo from the Future and the difficulty in achieving an identity’s win conditions, I can’t really say that randomizing element is necessary or even helpful. If I want more of a game like Back to the Future, I’ll play another round, not hope the current one doesn’t end just yet.
Make no mistake, I plan to play this one several more times. I want to give it a fair shake because it’s got a lot of disparate elements I like: an Andy Looney game based on Chrononauts with the skin of one of my all-time favorite movies. And it does a really good job of recreating the time travel element of the films. But I’m thinking that doesn’t necessarily make for a good game. Last night, most of my fun came from thinking about the movies and uttering the occasional choice piece of dialogue when playing certain cards, like Don’t Be So Gullible, McFly.
More on this one once I have additional plays under my belt.