Back to the Future: The Card Game

[When it comes to games, Marty Goldberger has an impressive resume. He worked for SPI games in its heyday, designing Inkerman and serving as a developer on many SPI titles including the legendary Campaign for North Africa “monster” game. Marty is a Mensa member and adventurer, diving with dolphins as well as plunging into depths of over 800 feet in a submarine. Marty first appeared in GA Report in the Summer 1997 issue with his review of Bob Abbott’s Genius Rules. This review is Marty’s 5th for GA Report and, as it happens, our celebration of our past, present and future is in keeping with Marty’s review as he goes “back to the future”.]

(Looney Labs, 2-6 players, ages 11 to adult, 20-60 minutes; $20)


Reviewed by Marty Goldberger

Well, we’re sending you back … to the future! Almost ten years ago (in the Fall 2001 issue of Gamers Alliance Report), I reviewed Chrononauts for Gamers Alliance. Looney Labs, whose line of games include Fluxx (featured in the Summer 1998 GA REPORT) continues its string of successes with Back to the Future: The Card Game.

backfutureThe premise is that you are a descendant of one of the characters in the Back To The Future (“B2TF”) movies. Other time travelers have been monkeying with the past and endangering your existence. (Perhaps you were warned by the disappearance of your image from a family photo.) Your task is to get history back to the way you think it should be and then freeze reality by stopping Doc Brown from inventing time travel. (As a reader of science-fiction for 50+ years, this solution seems odd to me, but for game play it works fine.)

B2TF, as designed by Andrew Looney, is a “pure card game” for two to six players, comprised of three sets of cards: “TimeLine”, “ID Cards” (identities) and the “Game Deck”. The various card sub-types are printed in different colors, making it easy to unravel the thread of the history-scrambling at any instant in the game.

The cards are clearly marked as to what happens when each is played and the game is in constant flux as cards (and players) interact with each other. The well-written rules booklet (the only component other than the cards) is printed on sturdy material. Chrononauts players will probably need a single run-through to understand the differences between the two similar games. (The rules have a convenient side-bar highlighting those differences.) Best with 5 or 6, game length increases with the number of players. Play time ranges from two-players’ 20 minutes to a tableful’s raucous hour.

Game set-up is simple. The Game Deck (the backs have the game’s name plus the familiar initiating time travel lighting effect and a reminder Universal owns the movies’ copyright) is shuffled and three are dealt to each player. Each player is issued (dealt) a random (and secret) “Cusco Employee ID” card. (Don’t put the remainder aside because the Game Deck Action card of “Not Yourself Today” can force you to give up your Secret ID and take a new one.) Players are faced with the challenge of molding Time itself to meet their secret identity and then to “uninvent” time travel.

The Timeline cards, dated from 1885 to 2015, are placed face up on the table. This creates a timeline of history with cards color-coded to indicate if the card is a “Linchpin” (nine) or “Ripplepoint” (15). These cards are laid out in a 4×6 rectangle and maintained in date-sequence order with their “True History” sides (purple and blue) face up. A single card occupies 23 of the date locations. A stack of five cards is placed on the “NOV 5 1955 4:20*” (aka “B1”) location. A card’s ahistorical side (face down) is salmon colored for a Linchpin and a muted orange for a Ripplepoint. Both faces/sides of each TimeLine card contains a short description of the “actual” event and its alternate history. They are well marked to make it easy for players to locate these cards as well as other cards in the TimeLine with which they interact.

The basic player turn is to draw one card and play one card. Sounds simple but … the play of a single card can ripple throughout the game’s universe. The (62 card) Game Deck deck consists of the following types of cards: Item (17), Time Machine (6), Action (17), Power Action (14), and DoubleBack (8). You use them singly or in combinations to affect the historical/ahistorical status of the “TimeLine” (game board).

The biggest difference between B2TF and Chrononauts is how the TimeLine is changed. Cards that alter the TimeLine enable you to flip a Linchpin card (over or back). Only two Game Deck cards, the “Time Train” and the “Time Car v3” may flip any Linchpin and have no restrictions on being played during your turn. The six Time Machine category cards are comprised of the Time Train and five Time Car version# (1…5). Activation (use) of the other four Time Cars requires you to either have a specific Item on the table in front of you or to discard a card from your hand. The older game’s powerful Change History via ‘Reverse Fate’ cards (that flip any Linchpin) do not exist. However, the Chrononauts’ restricted use Change History cards have been retained and expanded. These DoubleBack cards are all specific to a single Linchpin. The eight cards in this category affect different Linchpins (the 8 that do not include the invention of time travel). All of these cards have a “soup’d up” capability. If you have an Item specific to that DoubleBack card on the table in front of you, you may, IN ADDITION to the regular action, discard that Item and flip any Linchpin of the TimeLine. There are three “Hitch A Ride” Action cards. If the previous player changed the TimeLine during their turn, this card may be played on your turn to flip any Linchpin.

Changing history at one point in time affects future history. Each Linchpin card lists its related Ripplepoints. Whenever a Linchpin is flipped, either to the altered version of history (red) or back to the original version of history (purple), each related Ripplepoint must undergo a separate reality check. If all of a Ripplepoint’s conditions have been met (some require 2 or 3 Linchpins to be in certain positions), that card is flipped to its altered history side else it is flipped to its original history side.

For those familiar with Chrononauts, B2TF has done away with ‘Patch’ cards. The altered history side of a Ripplepoint is in effect a “Paradox” that has been Patched. The “Gray’s Sports Almanac” Item has a special power. If it is on the table, only the player it is in front of may Change History at the B-2 Linchpin of the TimeLine.

Item cards are always played face up and they may be “spent” as money/fuel/currency to power a Time Car or soup-up a DoubleBack card. Action cards can affect Items, redistribute cards in players’ hands, and even force someone to change their Identity.

Finally, the Power Action cards can affect the game flow by allowing you to take any card from the draw pile and immediately play it, take any card from the discard pile and immediately play it, and even stop an opponent’s card as it is being played.

Unlike Chrononauts, B2TF has only one way to win. Each of the ten (secret) ID cards describe the alternate-reality you are from. Each lists its win-condition of three or four specific Ripplepoint Timeline card situations. One or two will be original history and the remaining one-three will be altered history conditions. However, this is only first part of your attempt to win.

When you play a card that alters the B-1 Linchpin. You are required to clearly announce that you are attempting to change the “Emmett Brown Invents the Flux Capacitor” card before flipping the top card in that stack. This is to give the other players a chance to stop you by using one of the various “Oh No You Don’t” cards in the game. If no one blocks your attempt, you then flip the top card at B-1. Four of the five cards altered reality side indicate mysterious forces have prevented you from winning. If this occurs, discard that card and continue playing. If the back reads “Emmett Brown Hangs a Clock” AND if you have met the conditions on your ID card, you win and the game is over. (Ergo, the odds are 1-in-5 at the beginning of the game, increasing to certainty after the first four attempts fail.) You ARE permitted to alter the original history at B-1 even if you don’t have the correct ID conditions. If this results in the “uninvent” time travel card and one other player has the their ID conditions met, that player wins. In all other cases, turn the five B-1 cards face down, shuffle, and reset the stack.

Everyone must beware as time travel allows each player to be here, anywhere, everywhere! Nothing is safe and there is nowhere to hide. Each turn, the player must decide whether to alter everyone’s history or directly affect the players themselves. Go with the flow in a game’s opening rounds. It is usually a good idea to play an Item from your hand to the table or to steal an Item from another player. Flipping a Ripplepoint to a side that is not part of your ID conditions is only mildly risky in the early stages of a game. Sometimes it is best to spend your turn killing time by drawing a card, not playing any card from your hand, and then drawing another card. This tactic increases the number of cards in your hand. However, by the mid-game life is more dangerous. Any play that is to your advantage is also a double-edged sword.

Constructing your alternate-reality is laborious. It is also in competition with the other players, some of whom probably have a TimeLine requirement that is the opposite of your own. There are a number of cards that give you the ability to play multiple cards from your hand on your turn. Obviously you should try to hang onto these until you reach a win-in-one-turn situation. Remember that flipping the B-1 card is a double-edged sword if you don’t have the ID win conditions met.

Action cards that manipulate the players can quickly turn the mid-game into the unexpected endgame. Just because your hand seems ‘blah’ to you, does not mean it is now worth gold to someone else. Action cards that redistribute the hands can give the right card to the wrong player. You better be right that an opponent is close to winning before you play an Action card that forces a change his/her Identity/Mission. (Remember, just because an opponent flipped the B-1 Linchpin and didn’t uninvent time travel does not mean that player has set the TimeLine to his/her win conditions!) The Not Yourself Today card can morph you into position for a Win.

B2TF is designed for the movies’ aficionados and feels faithful to the movie history/universe/reality. B2TF is not (quite) as chaotic as Chrononauts and much saner than Fluxx. A game of B2TF takes longer than Chrononauts because of the requirements in getting cards that permit you to flip the LinchPins you need set.

The box cover to Back To The Future: The Card Game declares “Go back in time, save the future.” It should also mention it’s a fun game to play!


Have feedback? We’d love to hear from you.

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