Whist, Bridge, Pitch, Euchre, Hearts, and Spades. All great, popular, and fun games, to be sure. But can you call them epic? I mean, it’s only so much collecting points and suits, right? What if you could use a card game to record pages of history, writing accounts of kings and wizards in political intrigue and monster attacks from an ancient, mysterious land? Now that would be a neat trick, eh?
How it Plays
Okay, so theme aside, Chronicle is a trick-taking card game in the vein of such classics like Whist and Hearts. During one hand of play, called a “round,” players take turns tossing in cards to a succession of tricks, called “meetings,” each consisting of one card per player. When everyone has added a card to a meeting, the winner collects them and leads a new one to begin the next meeting.
The lead player to a meeting will usually determine trump for that trick. Whatever suit she leads is the only one that may be played in that particular trick. If she leads with a wild card, then the next player may play any suit to declare trump, or so on. Once a suit is determined, players must follow with either trump or a wild card. If they cannot play either of those, they must play another card face down and it has no effect for that meeting. The player with the highest trump card still in effect wins the meeting. She takes those cards and lays all of them face up before her – even the ones that were played to the trick face down. Except you don’t always necessarily want every card and, in some cases, entire tricks!
Chronicle has three suits of “allies” – ten cards each in love (red), power (blue), and wisdom (green). These character cards are ostensibly people who provide aid and assistance like a princess, merchant, thief, or even assassin. Valued 1-10, each card has a unique benefit or ability that impacts play. These vary from simply protecting a particular card to completely shaking up the normal way meetings are won. The values in each suit share the same power as their counterparts. For example, all three 8’s allow you to force another player to discard a card. There are also six wild cards, additional characters with some potentially powerful capabilities.
The goal of each round changes from hand to hand and is determined by a history card, of which there are thirteen. These represent momentous events in your mysterious land such as revolts, natural catastrophes, and the coronation of a new king. In some cases, the objective is to collect the most allies of a particular suit. In others, it’s the exact opposite and you’re trying to avoid them. Another one calls for collecting as many allies as possible regardless of suit. In any event, the individual (or individuals) who meets the history card’s objective wins a Fame point.
However, while you’re trying to achieve the demands of the history card, there is a little catch: the game has four Evil cards, one of each suit and one wild. If you wind up with one or more of these, you forfeit any chance to win Fame – unless you’re able to collect all four, in which you case earn 2 Fame points and everyone else loses. Now, thankfully there are various card abilities you can play in later meetings which allow you to get rid of these traitorous allies. Alternately, you can try to win the Angel – having it as your ally allows you to ignore any captured Evil. Of course, be careful when you play Angel – there’s one card that opponents may use to steal it from you!
The game continues a number of rounds until one player earns 3 Fame points. Ties are possible, although there’s an option to play until it’s been broken, if you wish. The winner becomes the keeper of the chronicle, which is cool. Because you know what they say? History is written by the victors!
The End? Or the Never Ending Story?
One drawback to classic card games is that there isn’t any theme. Many gamers like to travel back in time, go into the future, or jump into a fantasy world. Those players want a bit more excitement than the mere collection of points and suits typically generates. There have been a number of commercial card games over the last 25 years hoping to rectify that issue by splashing a bit of theme onto a traditional framework. Chronicle is one such effort. But does it succeed more in attracting theme-seeking players or in adding a fresh twist to an old mechanic that card gamers will love?
Let me first address the second part of that question. I’ve played – and still do, thanks to an iPhone – a ton of trick-tacking games in my time. They were a part of my childhood and frequent centerpieces at family get-togethers. They have sentimental and nostalgic value, because my grandparents taught me Pitch, Hearts, Spades, Euchre, and Pinochle. It wasn’t unusual for us to play these games until the faces wore off the cards. Since then, I’ve also learned and enjoy Whist, All Fours, Schnapsen, Briscola, Tressette, Madrasso, Jass, and Belote, even going as far as buying Italian, German, and Swiss-suited decks for some of those.
So I may be a greater trick-taking fan than the average hobby gamer – or reader of iSlaytheDragon. However, you need not be a dyed in the wool card player to enjoy Chronicle. Any fan of one or more games I’ve just mentioned should find something to like here. That’s because Chronicle combines a lot of elements from many familiar classics, and injects new life.
As for the theme-seeking players? Honestly, if you’re not already some sort of card game fan, I’m not sure this one will pull you in. Thanks to its variable card powers, you’ll certainly prefer it over classics and enjoy it as an occasional casual game. But it won’t convert you, by any means. The motif of players recounting historical events gives the design an interesting flavor, as well as a backdrop for fantastic art. Alas, this is no Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The theme doesn’t always make sense.
For example, the Mother lets you steal an ally from an opponent. That sounds rather un-motherly! At least she’s part of the Love suit. And her counterparts are the Barbarian (Power) and Fortune Teller (Wisdom). Say what? The Merchant (considered Wisdom) arbitrarily reverses the order of strength for a meeting. The “Fool” forces an opponent to discard three allies, which is actually a pretty wise move. Also, the history card events are hit and miss, as far as making sense. I don’t bring this up to fault the game, or prove that I think too much about such things; just to note that theme won’t be making any waves here.
Chronicle does shine in elevating trick-tacking to an entire new level. Yet, it’s grounded in so many elements long standard in many classics across the genre. It includes trump, but it changes each trick, instead of every hand, if at all. You have penalty cards in the form of Evil. There are multi-point cards, one in all three suits. Trying to collect all evil cards is a style of “shooting the moon.” And my favorite thing to do in a trick-taking game – sloughing off and sticking an undesirable card on an opponent – is still front a center here, and can often give you an additional bonus even, to boot!
Of course, Chronicle doesn’t just stop with a fresh twist on old mechanics. Its card powers really ramp up game play, thus enhancing strategy. There are still some familiar tactics to employ that are common to many trick-taking games. For example, since players must follow suit in a meeting, you can often coax certain cards out of them. That’s a staple to traditional games. Hand-in-hand with that concept, cards that have already been played are open information, so you can fine-tune your strategy by process of elimination as the round wanes.
Just don’t fall back on all those old tried and true trick-taking strategies too much, though. Because in Chronicle, your opponents’ cards risk upsetting your strategy and changing a trick at the flip of wrist. One card may force you to pick up something you’ve just played. Another can force you to discard a card. As mentioned earlier, there are cards that reverse the rank so that ‘1’ is high on down to ’10.’ Still another can end the trick outright as soon as it’s played – which could work out well or poorly for you.
Other card abilities have some neat little benefits. You can play an ally straight to your collection, a nifty way to protect something valuable. You can pick up an ally from the table, adding it back to your hand to use again later. And you can discard an ally – useful for getting rid of Evil cards. All of these abilities give you more ways to win cards besides the usual means of simply taking them in a trick, which is what you encounter with this style of game. There is a learning curve in discovering all of these nuances. But the game is served well by its richer strategy.
The history cards add tremendous variety. Or, at least relatively speaking with trick-taking games. These change up the goals each hand so that you’re not playing for the same objectives every single round. There is some positive trick-tacking, in which you’re aiming to collect the most of a particular suit (or all suits), as is common to most games of this nature. There is also some avoidance trick-taking, in which you do not want to win tricks, ala a design like Hearts. Then there are a couple of history cards which have you combine the rules of 2 and 3 other cards, respectively! Yes, those games can be much more chaotic, but seriously fun.
The artwork is really good, and also distinctive. I’m not sure how I’d describe it, but once I heard it explained as a cross between woodcut and manga. Seems to fit. The design layout is also nice, readable, and not crowded at all. The text is readily understandable, although the icons are not generally helpful and so are a bit of waste. The cards themselves are a nice quality on good stock with a linen finish. Plus the game comes with Fame tokens to defeat the bane of all card games – having to keep score with pencil and paper!
Chronicle is not your grandpa’s trick-taking game. It’s deeper, more chaotic, and offers much more interaction than classics in the genre. The theme is neat and adds an intangible that does enhance play. However, it’s not integral, nor will it attract gamers already lukewarm to card games. But for players who enjoy the genre, die-hard and casual alike, Chronicle takes simple, familiar elements and injects fresh life into them to create some surprising, but not convoluted, complexity. While this design may not make history, you nonetheless just might find yourself passing many hours of casual enjoyment.