I wrote this in 2022, but it was so good that I scheduled it for today...
So I am really into this new show on the Peacock Network called Timeless. This unequivocally means that the show is doomed. While I was watching, the show reminded me of a fantastic, older game, so I figured I would tie my night up with a pretty bow and introduce the game and the TV show to you in case either slipped under your radar. They are so perfectly paired that NBC would be stupid NOT to ask Looney Labs to print a "Timeless" edition of the game for the holidays. Even if NBC misses this golden opportunity, "Chrononauts" will still makes a great gift for Timeless fans and history buffs alike. Let's take a look.
I'm a huge history nerd. I read history books for fun, so when I heard about NBC's timeless I was super excited. It's a show about three people working for a secret government agency, travelling through time and working to "patch" the timeline that the bad guy keeps changing. They are like astronauts in time... almost like... Chrononauts. Huh? Where have I heard that before?
Chrononauts is an amazing game for 1 - 6 players that focuses on you - a time traveler with a secret mission, travelling through time to repair paradoxes in the timeline. It is a fantastic game to play with a group of friends, light enough to teach to family, and has a theme that it easy to understand and get into. If you have a group of three or more, this game becomes a slam dunk for family game night. That being said, today we are going to look at an often overlooked aspect of this game -and by far my favorite - its solo play.
If you have read the site for a while, you know that I love games that can be played solo - and I have played a lot of them. Unfortunately, the great majority of games that claim to be "written for solo" fall into one of two traps. They are either far too complex for a single solo sitting, or they play out like you are exercising the game mechanics against a dumb robot. The first set of games are just a pain in the butt to drag out and set up, while the latter are great for learning rules but fall flat on multiple plays. Chrononauts dodges both of these traps. Its solo play is so elegantly old school that when you are playing it feels like the game could have been designed in the board gaming's golden age of the 1950's instead of the late 1990's.
Looney Labs calls this version of the game "Solonauts". In this variant, you setup the timeline and randomly deal eight chrononauts to the table. Your object is to get them all home to the timeline that is native to them. Play is achieved through a reduced deck of cards containing only "Inverters" and "Patches". Inverters allow you to flip "Linchpin" cards and change the timeline. When a linchpin is flipped the timeline is altered, sending ripples of additional changes throughout the timeline which you also flip. Flipping these "Ripplepoints" creates paradoxes in the time stream, which brings us to "Patches". These cards play on top of a particular paradox, healing the timeline by creating an alternate event for that historical moment. Frequently the timelines of your chrononauts will contradict each other, so expect to be flipping linchpins back and forth throughout the game. The trick here, like traditional Solitaire, is that you can only go through the deck once.
So lets take a look at a specific chrononaut to understand the game a bit better. This is Oliver. Oliver has an unhealthy obsession with Shakespeare and could be considered a stalker. For the safety of the great bard, we need to return him to his "native" timeline. In Oliver's world President Woodrow Wilson succeeded in his bid to keep the US out World War I in 1917 and Dr. Martin Luther King became President of the United States in 1974. So... to get poor Oliver home you have to flip the linchpins that will create paradoxes in these two points in time - and then patch them with the "correct" historical events. Also, in Oliver's timeline, (just like our own), the stock marked crashed in 1929 - and this linchpin must remain stable in his history. It takes a lot of planning to get all eight of your chrononauts home, because each patch is only represented by a single card. You will have to plan for all the permutations of the timeline as you go through the deck. At the end of any play, if the timeline matches Oliver's card you may remove him from the bottom of the board and place him at the top of the field. He is saved (and out of your hair).
Let's put Oliver on hold and take a closer look at the timeline, which serves as the game's play area or "board". The timeline consists of 32 distinct points in history; thirteen of which are linchpins with the remaining nineteen as ripplepoints. Below is the timeline at the start of the game. It represents our native timeline. Under the timeline you deal the eight random chrononauts. You then play the first five cards from the deck face up under the chrononauts. These five cards form your hand. As you play any one of the five cards you draw a replacement. You may also discard any number of patches from your hand and replace each of them with a new card. That is the extent of the rules. Like Solitaire the gameplay seems easy, but in actuality it is deceptively hard.
So back to Oliver. By the time I got him back home the timeline was a mess. You can see I had six paradoxes in play with several patched. The deck had worked my timeline into a corner. I was struggling to keep certain patches in play to send as many of my poor chrononauts home as I could.
Which brings us to the reality of Solonauts - there is some luck involved. Sometimes the ordering of your deck is a deal-breaker. I'm OK with that. Like Solitaire, while a bad deal spoils the ultimate goal, there is still deep strategy and forward thinking. Even with a loss players will still find some satisfaction in seeing how far they can progress. This luck factor and the"turn a card and play" mechanic combine to give Solonauts the classic feel that I mentioned earlier. It is as if this game was a long lost Parker Brothers game from the late 50's. Its simple packaging and card art also reinforces this retro vibe. Chrononauts is fittingly a gaming paradox.
This is the perfect game for a night in front of the television. It is engaging without engrossing and you can pick up a game after long pauses. Playing Solonauts makes me think back to nights as a child sitting with my Nana at her house while my Mom was in graduate school. Sitting quietly in her chair, my Nana played game after game of Solitaire. In her lap was a folded board from a forgotten game of Risk as her makeshift card table. Playing long into the night, she never surrendered to sleep until Johnny had at least completed his monologue. Maybe that memory is why I love Chrononauts so much.
Chrononauts is an amazing game, and you can't beat its $16.00 price point. If you like it, there is even a companion game called "Early American Chrononauts", that can be combined into a giant "mega-timeline". For the Solonauts variant, both of these editions work equally well - pick your favorite era (or both) and go for it.
Until next week, take time to learn history so you are not doomed to repeat it.... and make sure your fairgoers love German cake!
Timeless airs on NBC Mondays at 10pm eastern / 9pm central. No NBC didn't pay me to say that, but it sounds cool, doesn't it?