The Distant Future, The Year Two Thousand
After playing Richard Amann and Viktor Peter’s Kickstarter success story Trickerion: Legends of Illusion, I vowed that I would try anything else this duo dreamed up. Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait long. Anachrony — which also features Dávid Turczi in the design column — sports an even cooler pitch than Trickerion’s city of magicians. Here it’s the distant future, the Earth has been trashed, and competing factions vie for supremacy and to survive an impeding asteroid impact. Oh, and there’s some light time travel.
Anachrony, it’s weird how many of my switches you’re flipping.
Like any good time travel story, Anachrony serves up a healthy portion of déjà vu. It shares common pedigree with Jamey Stegmaier’s Euphoria: Build a Better Dystopia, not just because both take place in scorched wastelands dominated by less-than-magnanimous governments, but also in their deployment of needy workers. As is the case with most worker placement games, your little guys — in this case, brainy engineers, scientists, administrators, and geniuses — can only perform so many tasks before they get sleepy. However, instead of merely “waking up” each round, how you motivate your people is a matter of choice. Where Euphoria let you either perk up your laborers with fruit and drugs or compel them by sticking electrodes to their gonads, Anachrony allows a similar approach. Either you can force your workers to return to their chores, probably with stern words about duty and whatnot, or spend extra water rations to keep everyone happy. Both will nudge you up or down on a little morale track, one of the many many many many ways that Anachrony doles out its endgame points, and may even cause a worker to die of exhaustion if abused too often. So it goes when you’re trying to save the world.
Anachrony dares to take this concept, of finicky workers with miniature needs of their own, and take it even further, bumping into nearly every element of its design. Incidentally, this is also where the game’s greatest similarity to Trickerion arises. As was the case with its predecessor, your goals are spread across two separate boards — your faction’s home base and the wasteland capital — and both are entirely vital to any post-apocalyptic time-wandering faction’s inevitable success.
Let’s start with your base. Each side of this conflict (called “paths”) represents its own philosophical approach to solving the apocalypse. At least that’s the party line. While there is a great degree of variability in how each faction sets up, with multiple goals, leaders, and even asymmetrical opening resources to choose from, you’d be hard-pressed to convince me of the real difference between the path that brags about “progress” and the “harmony” bros, let alone the softies who claim to espouse “dominance.” As far as I can tell, picking animals to adorn their flags and exosuits is about as far as they’re willing to press the matter.
Not that this necessarily matters. Within the first few rounds, each side will quickly establish themselves as pursuing particular strategies and boasting their own strengths and weak points. Much of this comes down to your base. Early on, your home is pretty much a barracks, a place for your workers to nap. Later on, it will house all the buildings you’ve constructed, providing a wealth of new actions, bonus resources, and even the ability to travel back in time. Once it reaches this level of development, your workers are as likely to stay home as venture out into the wasteland, generating resources or purifying water or working whatever other task you’ve set up. It’s the base where most of your points are ensconced, and where the wacky stuff goes down. And yes, we’re talking about the time travel.
On paper, time travel is one of Anachrony’s neatest ideas. Crud, it’s right there in the title: anachrony, as though the entire game is going to revolve around the concept. It doesn’t, and the idea never quite lives up to its potential, but it’s still reasonably enjoyable to toy around with.
Essentially, time travel is a jazzy way of taking out a loan. Each round, you’re allowed to make a sort of bid, requesting up to two things you’d like from Future-You. Maybe you want an engineer, or a metric ton of gold to use on a particular building, or some ultra-rare timetravelanium. Or whatever the purple resource is called. We call it timetravelanium.
Point is, you make a bid, and that thing appears in your base. Boing! That’s probably the noise it makes when it appears. Without any effort at all, you have a brand new scientist, ready to work. Or a powered-up exosuit, or some canisters of water, or whatever. Time travel is like that.
Much like regular loans, temporal loans eventually come due, and that’s where all those time travel generators you’ve been installing in your base come into play. Sometime after you take out a loan, you can have one of your workers fire up your power plant and spend whatever it was you were given, effectively “sending it back to yourself” if you want to get all fancy-pants about it.
For the most part, that’s it. A whole mouthful of bluster — not to mention some hefty rules overhead — for not all that much payoff. You give yourself some uranium, only to spend it back sometime in the next few rounds. Clever players will obviously be able to leverage an early resource to their benefit, and completing the circle by sending stuff back to yourself in the past awards a couple points — because what doesn’t? — but the whole thing isn’t strictly necessary. It’s even possible to guide your selected path to victory while only flexing the space-time continuum once or twice.
There are two redeeming features to time travel. First, it lets you complete superprojects, beefed-up structures you can install in your home base. These are universally tasty, especially options like Synthetic Endorphins, which transforms your entire workforce into a compliant herd of sheep, or the Archive of the Eras, which makes all your paid back time-loans worth extra points. And secondly, as is pretty much always the case, time travel gets a whole lot more interesting when it goes wrong. Outstanding loans may cause you to pick up paradoxes and eventually anomalies, staticky little bloopers that suck up construction spaces and points until you send one of your workers back in time, 12 Monkeys style, to sacrifice themselves plugging the hole you’ve torn in the fabric of the universe.
Like a lot of Anachrony’s ideas, time travel isn’t necessarily as developed as it could have been. Scratch that — it’s very developed, and a ton of thought has obviously been poured into making it work as intended. Impactful, on the other hand, it isn’t always.
And that’s okay, because Anachrony is not aiming to be “tight.” Instead, this is a sprawling experience that absolutely buries you in stuff to do, ranging from buildings and superprojects and their attendant research prerequisites, to tweaking the particulars of your economy and workforce. It’s the sort of game that unabashedly gives you a dozen ways to earn points, then merely shrugs when you cast a glare its direction.
Note, for instance, that I haven’t gotten around to saying a single word about the main board even though it’s where the bulk of the game actually takes place. An omission we shall now rectify, exactly like sending a hapless engineer to die in the 1920s because I forgot to pay back that titanium cube. Exactly the same.
Since the wasteland is toxic, your persnickety workers aren’t willing to come down with a nasty case of rad-lung just to make a trip into town. Instead, you’ve got to first entomb them in exosuits. These aren’t necessarily a big deal, a bit like owning a car for the sake of driving into work every morning, at least if your car occasionally required an ultra-valuable power core and put you on water rationing for a month. The problem is that you need to evaluate in advance just how many of your workers are going to stay home and how many plan on heading into the capital, adding one more wrinkle (in time) to a game full of them. Need extra workers? Resources? Access to blueprints? To pump a few more literjons of water or make a trade with the nomads beyond the capital’s walls? These are all things that must be taken into consideration long before you ever send somebody trundling out of the exosuit garage.
Even better, when that asteroid finally lands, your number of easy slots for exosuits is severely scorched, along with the capital and much of the atmosphere. This kicks Anachrony into an unexpected third act. Where most worker placement games open with quick turns and gradually slow to a crawl as new workers and resources are acquired, Anachrony inverts the entire formula. Sure, by the time disaster strikes you’ll probably have plenty of structures and superprojects sitting around your base, so it isn’t as though you’ll be lacking for options. But your ability to move out to the capital becomes dangerously hampered, propelling each path to be the first to evacuate the planet. It’s a brilliant kick in the pants that makes the last few rounds considerably faster than they would have been otherwise, more of a race to the finish line than a trudge.
As a big fan of nearly everything this design team did with Trickerion, I’m happy to announce that Anachrony is the superior of the two. It takes some of the most overused elements of modern game design — points salads and worker placement — and gives them a refreshing spritz in the face. Perhaps best of all, it embodies a sprawling sense of fun, letting you play the tyrant or the benefactor, taking dips into the river of time or just focusing on matters nearer at hand.
Like its predecessor, there’s also a whole lot of stuff crammed into that box. Nearly every element can be tweaked, made more complex, or rounded out with an expansion. Want to add some thrill to the time travel? Just flip over the track and watch as each request from the future becomes loaded with some sort of perk or penalty. Want to give your path’s exosuits more of an identity? Manipulate the impending asteroid strike or maybe even erase it entirely? Go on cutesy little adventures? You can do that. The last time I played a worker placement game with so much potential for customization, it was Argent: The Consortium.
Then again, all these hundreds of tokens and cards and everything else makes setting up a royal pain in the continuum. If I could have my future-self send it back to me ready to go, I would. Then I wouldn’t set it up once we were done, and damn the consequences. Make that your tagline — Anachrony: Worthy of Chancing Paradox.