Time travel is a concept that is both fascinating and frustrating. It has inspired countless works of film and literature, with its enticing potential for intrigue and imagination. Yet attempting to manipulate the rules of time is often fraught with unforeseen consequences for the protagonists — and gaping plot holes for the writers.
Few have done it well, but I’ve got to root for someone who stares down overwhelming odds of failure for a small shot at greatness. So when I heard about a board game that confronts time travel head on, I approached it with great excitement tempered by a heavy dose of skepticism. Let’s take a look at Anachrony.
How it Feels to Play Anachrony
In Anachrony, you take the role of one of four post-apocalyptic tribes, scrambling to prepare for an impending catastrophe that threatens the last threads of human existence. People from the future have warned of a giant asteroid heading toward the planet. The cataclysmic impact is inevitable, but the time travelers can at least offer crucial aid and resources needed to prepare to evacuate the planet’s last major city. While vitally important, this aid from the future comes with a heavy cost – the risk of creating temporal paradoxes.
Your tribe has a few types of skilled workers, and as the leader it’s your job to assign them to various tasks as you see fit. Some of these job sites must first be built in a player’s home area, while others are available on a first-come first-served basis in the Capital and surrounding neutral areas. Nearly every site carries a specific requirement to place workers there, such as specific types of workers, water, certain ores, or mechanized exosuits. All of these resources are in relatively short supply, which creates a constant tension as you continually struggle to keep stocked with what you’ll need next.
This is where the game’s distinguishing feature comes in — the ability to borrow resources FROM THE FUTURE. Even before you’ve mastered the ability to time travel, you can request resources out of thin air from your future brethren, giving new meaning to running a “Just In Time” inventory system. Of course, there’s no such thing as a free shipment of neutronium — you’ll have to “send back” those resources at some point in the future, and until you do so and close the time loop, you run an increased risk of creating temporal paradoxes.
While it’s not the end of the world if you create a paradox or two (the approaching asteroid will handle that just fine), it’s certainly not good — three paradoxes lead to an anomaly, which blocks access to valuable building space in your home area and bears additional costs if it’s not eventually cleared. It’s a problem you’d like to avoid if at all possible, but there’s not enough time, not enough bodies, not enough resources.
Once the asteroid hits, it’s a mad dash to take what final actions you can and evacuate the Capital. Adding to the crescendo, last-ditch actions in the Capital briefly become more powerful, but also hasten its collapse.
That sense of urgency that permeates Anachrony from start to finish, that’s what immerses you in the theme. You’re not sitting back waiting for other players to finish their turn while thinking about how to squeeze out a few more victory points — you’re frantically trying to find a way to keep your fragile engine from stalling for long enough to salvage what’s left of your tribe and prolong the very existence of humanity.
Critique of Anachrony’s Design
In my opinion, Anachrony embraces the theme of time travel brilliantly. It doesn’t try to explain away paradoxes or pretend they wouldn’t happen, but instead builds a mechanic around them. In doing so, Anachrony takes this potential negative and turns it into a positive, adding to the thematic feel of the game. They also avoid getting too bogged down in the specifics of these paradoxes, staying just vague enough to actually seem to make sense.
The designers maintain that same balancing act through other areas of the game as well. Don’t get me wrong, there are a ton of details in this game which allow players to explore an array of strategies and get plenty of replay value. The key is that the game does not feel indiscriminately detailed. Take the buildings for instance. Anachrony features dozens of buildings with unique powers, but only eight of these buildings are for sale at any given time. The design of the building components puts the explanatory iconography front and center, not wasting space on art or even titles. The game features stunning artwork where space is available, and avoids it where it would detract from ease of play. In a game that rewards ruthless efficiency, I’d expect nothing less.
One area where the designers may have been too “efficient” was in the player aids they provided. Each player gets a double-sided reference card about the size of a standard playing card, and the back of the rule book has a glossary of icons. My first time trying Anachrony was with a group of three other first-time players, and although we had all studied up on the rules beforehand, we frequently found ourselves flipping through the rulebook hunting for an answer that we could not obtain from the reference cards or glossary. And with the rulebook constantly flying around the table, the glossary on the back of it was rarely accessible. For a game with this much detail, I would have liked a double-sided, page-sized player aid, separate from the rulebook.
Although I approached Anachrony with skepticism, I came away very impressed with their clever take on the premise of time travel. The apocalyptic narrative and the enduring scarcity of time and resources make for a nail-biting, brain-burning adventure. If you like moderate to heavy Euro mechanics with a compelling theme, I feel confident that Anachrony will be a game that you’ll want to keep coming back to.
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