Overview: What geek wouldn’t love to have a time machine? And what time machine is more iconic than Doc Brown’s souped-up DeLorean? Back to the Future: The Card Game from Looney Labs puts you and your fellow players into the world of Marty McFly, Biff Tannen and Doc Brown as you travel through time, changing important events to ensure your own existence.
Players: 2 to 6 players
Ages: 11 and up
Playing Time: 20 to 60 minutes
Rating: Just like the movies: not scientifically accurate, but fun nonetheless.
Who Will Like It? If you’re a fan of the BttF movies, then it’s definitely worth trying it out, at least for the nostalgia, and if you’ve enjoyed other Looney Labs games like Fluxx or Chrononauts, then you’ll have a leg up on learning this one. However, if the idea of time travel hurts your brain (or if you’re too well-versed in physics and hare-brained ideas about time travel hurt your brain) then this may not be the game for you.
The game pulls heavily from the movies—the timeline is based on major events from all three films, and all of the item cards refer to things found in the movies: plutonium, Mister Fusion, hoverboards, Gray’s Sports Alamanac. The Time Machine cards, which allow you to make changes to the timeline, are based on the various vehicles from the movie—Time Car v1 requires plutonium; Time Car v2 runs on lightning; Time Car v3 is the fully-powered flying version. There’s even the Time Train (from the end of BttF 3). Again, if you’re a fan of the movies, you’ll feel right at home in this game.
The game consists of 100 cards: 24 cards to make up the timeline, 10 ID cards (each player gets one at random), and the rest are the game cards. The quality of the cards is fine but slightly on the thin side. The illustrations on the cards, depicting the DeLorean in its different incarnations and various important objects from the movies, are excellent and help set the theme. It’s too bad they had to put all the Universal Studios trademark and copyright info on the card backs, though, because it makes them look a little cluttered, but that’s a minor quibble.
Although there is a timeline as with Chrononauts and some of the cards are similar, it’s important to note that Back to the Future is not played exactly the same way. The game starts with the timeline set in its default state. Certain points on the timeline are “linchpins”: important events that cause “ripplepoints” elsewhere in the timeline to change. For example, in the original timeline George McFly doesn’t confront Biff after the school dance, and later in life gets a job working for Biff. But if that linchpin is flipped—to George McFly punches Biff—then the Ripplepoint flips, showing that George publishes his first short story.
But what’s the point of fiddling with the timeline? Well, each person gets an ID card of a character, and that character can only exist if the timeline corresponds to their history. For example, Verne Brown is the son of Doc Brown and Clara (the schoolteacher in 1885), so he can only exist if Doc Brown arrives in the Old West and marries Clara. Buffy Tannen is the daughter of Biff and Lorraine (Marty’s mom), so she could only be born if Lorraine marries Biff instead of George. Of course, the trick is that all of the characters are from different timelines, so you’re competing against each other to fix history. In order to win the game, however, you then must go back to 1955 and prevent Doc Brown from inventing the Flux Capacitor, thus un-inventing time travel and securing your place in history.
While the game is essentially a draw one, play one sort of card game, there are a lot of different modifiers. Some items can be used for special benefits, and special action cards allow you to pull things out of the discard pile or peek through the draw pile. You can also steal items from other players or otherwise interfere with their plans. It can be pretty confusing at first, but part of the challenge is trying to hit a constantly-shifting target.
There is quite a bit of luck involved since it is a card game; however, there is also a good deal of strategy in how and when you use your cards—but knowing how the cards work and what cards are available is important. The first time through you’ll spend a lot of time reading all the cards, but once you become familiar with the deck the game can move a lot more quickly.
Personally, I’m a fan of a lot of the Looney Labs games, and this one has a similar feel so I enjoyed it. It also doesn’t hurt that I like the BttF films, and the game captures the best parts of the movie without making you sit through the not-so-great parts in the sequels. I would say the game is weaker with only two players—my wife and I tried it and she quit, because until you get the right card, you could just spend each turn flipping and re-flipping the same card on the timeline, getting nowhere.
The only other thing that would have been nice is a little explanation of who each character was supposed to be. Some were obvious: Marty McFly III, for instance. But who is Darlene Needles? Is this somebody from the movie that I should remember, or is it some character made up for the game who happens to exist in a particular timeline?
If you’re not familiar with the movies, it may still be an interesting game but would probably also be a good bit more confusing, as you may not understand why certain events on the timeline are linked to each other. I think it would still be playable, but not nearly as much fun.
Wired: A time-traveling DeLorean, hoverboard, metal pie plate and an overpowered locomotive. Isn’t it about time somebody made a Back to the Future game? (And I don’t mean an NES game where Marty can die from a bee sting.)
Tired: Not so great with only two players, and probably wouldn’t make sense to people who aren’t familiar with the movies.
Disclosure: Looney Labs provided a review copy of the game.