Creating Chrononauts


or, How I Invented a Time Machine Disguised as a Deck of Playing Cards
By Andrew Looney

People often ask me how I came up with Fluxx, how long it took, etc, and I always feel like they're disappointed with my answer. That game practically designed itself, with all the key design points coming together in my mind on a single day (July 25, 1996 to be exact). But Chrononauts, my new time travel card game, took almost 6 months of deliberate brainstorming, research, flow charting, mechanics tinkering, playtesting, development, and refinement to create. Let's travel back in time now to the beginning of that process, and find out how it all came together.

Late one night last January, I had a vision of a time travel card game that would be fast, easy to learn, and totally fun to play, in which players could change history, explore alternate histories, and bring home souvenirs like dinosaurs and other stuff that doesn't exist anymore. As a lifelong fan of time travel stories, I wanted my game to include nods to the many different time travel stories I've enjoyed over the years, with lots of my own ideas and fascinations stirred into the mix as well. Most of all, I wanted it to be rip-roarin' fun, with as little ponderous head-scratching as possible, given the complexity of the subject. I wanted my third card game to provide all the thrills of time travel with the same sort of fast, easy-to-play fun as my first two card games, Fluxx and Aquarius.

I didn't think anything like this had ever been done before. Time travel has been used in lots of RPGs (Steve Jackson's "GURPS Time Travel" is an excellent resource), and superficially in some arcade games, but hardly ever (to my knowledge) in regular card or board games. The only example I could think of (not counting Rio Grande's pending release, entitled "Time Pirates") is Prism/TimJim Games' "Time Agent", published in 1992, and it's altogether different from the kind of game I wanted to make. Time Agent uses a complex, chit-and-tile-based board to simulate the changing flow of history, and the galactic scale of the game left out most of what I think is cool about time travel, namely changing the course of famous historical events and imagining the different worlds that would be created as result. What good is a time travel game if you don't get to prevent the sinking of the Titanic, the attack on Pearl Harbor, or the murder of John Lennon?

So I started reviewing the literature of time travel, to find out what people were most interested in using it for. The Titanic came up a lot (although attempts to keep it from sinking usually fail), as did the assassination of JFK (or Lincoln, in the case of stories written before 1963). Plus of course, everybody wants to go back and kill Hitler. Naturally, I wanted to include all of these events in my game, along with others that occurred to me, like the launch of Sputnik, the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, and the explosion of the Hindenburg. I began developing a complex flowchart, focusing on about a dozen of these historical "linchpins" (major events that a time traveler could theoretically alter the outcome of), and the possible futures they might have lead to had things gone differently. But then the question became, how to use this in a game?

At first I envisioned a card deck filled with famous historical events, five to seven of which might be out on the table at any given time; but this quickly evolved into an ever-present grid of 32 cards that simulates the TimeLine of Changeable History. Certain cards on the TimeLine, called Linchpins, would represent the 13 turning points in history that can be reversed by the players during the course of the game. In my earliest experimental prototypes, there was a corresponding counter-event for each of these Linchpins; for example, to prevent the sinking of the Lusitania, you needed to draw the "Lusitania Arrives Safely" card, then place it over the "Lusitania Sinks" card on the TimeLine, thereby altering the flow of history. This mechanism was greatly improved when we realized we could turn those pairs of cards into double-sided cards, and then use more generic action cards like "Prevent Assassination", "Avert Disaster", and "Reverse Fate" to invert and restore the Linchpins. Thus, when you flip over the 1912 Linchpin, it instantly changes from "Titanic Sinks" to "Titanic Avoids Iceberg." This double-sided-card trick is very effective, causing the headline to seemingly change before your eyes, like a newspaper in one of the "Back to the Future" movies.

OK, so by now I had an interesting mechanism for simulating the changing of history due to meddling by time travelers, but I was still a long way from having a finished game. What would the players be trying to accomplish? How would you win?

To answer these questions, I had to start comparing this card game to a Live Action Role Playing game. LARPs are one of the few gaming genres where I've seen time travel used effectively. Back in 1985, at the dawn of the LARP age, I was the primary writer on Reklone-3, an Interactive Literature game (that's what we called it back then) about a gathering of 75 time travelers, summoned to repair a widening hole in the space-time continuum. I thought about that game a lot as I developed Chrononauts, hoping to infuse the card game with the same sort of layered and multi-directional action one finds in a LARP. This is why there are 3 different ways to win in Chrononauts. Each player has a unique character, with a goal of returning to the alternate reality they came from; they are also issued a secret mission, which requires they track down a particular set of unique historical artifacts; and finally, all players share a "big picture" objective, namely to amass enough victory points (in the form of extra cards in hand), each earned by repairing damaged areas of the TimeLine called Paradoxes. Having several goals at once provides an interweaving of game elements not unlike the intertwining of plotlines in a movie or sitcom, while also giving the player two other paths to victory whenever fate makes one path seemingly unattainable.

Finally, I looked to my successes with Fluxx for ideas on implementing the race to obtain the right combination of rare and amazing artifacts. This would be akin to the "widget hunt", a staple design element used in many a LARP game, but with a mechanism very much like the Keeper system used in Fluxx. However, instead of using one shared goal for all players, each player would have a unique goal, as in Aquarius, dealt out at the beginning of the game and kept secret until achieved by some player. There are also single-use Action cards, again working very much like the ones in Fluxx, but named appropriately for the game. For example, the equivalent to Steal a Keeper is called Get There First, the idea being that if I can go back in time to the moment just before the moment when you saved those scrolls from the burning library of Alexandria, then I can grab them myself, thus causing them to vanish from your display case and reappear in mine. (Not that they'll stay mine for long, of course, since with a Rewind card you can make anything happen again, except this time, the way you wanted it to.)

Chrononauts is currently in the final stages of Beta-testing. Those of you with time machines are encouraged to skip ahead to Halloween and pick up a copy of the finished game right now.

Update: Chrononauts is now available! Read more about Chrononauts and buy it here!

Copyright © 2000 by Andrew Looney.

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