Gaming Unplugged: Chronicle

April 22, 2011

Trick-taking card games have been a staple of gaming for centuries, from Hearts and Spades to more modern variants like Wizard and Xactica. Japanese game designer Seiji Kanai puts his unique twist on the format in the form of Chronicle, published in the US by Z-Man Games. 

Chronicle consists of a 36-card deck, comprised of three suits valued 1-10 and six wild cards, and twelve “Historical Chronicle” cards that determine the scoring for each round. The object is to accumulate three Fame points, but the manner in which that is accomplished will vary from round to round.

Each round the entire deck is dealt out to all players (from three to six; if five are playing one card is discarded face-up before dealing), then the top card of the History deck is flipped over. This card will determine the conditions to earn a Fame point this round as well as indicating which player will begin: whoever has the specific card listed reveals it and begins with any card (s)he wishes. As with most trick-taking games, subsequent players must follow whichever suit (blue = power, green = wisdom, or red = love*) is lead; if a wild card is lead, the first non-wild card determines the lead suit. If a player cannot follow suit they must play a non-wild card face-down; wild cards are always considered to be “on suit” and can never be played face down. Normally, whichever player played the highest-valued card in the lead suit would collect all played cards, turn them all face-up, and put them in front of him/her as “allies”.

I say “normally” because each card has a special power, most of which take effect when they are played face-up; others modify how allies are counted at the end of the round. All of the similarly-valued cards across the suits have the same abilities, to keep things from getting too crazy. Of special note are the one-valued cards, which along with the “Demon” wild card are denoted as being “Evil”. Anyone who controls an Evil ally at the end of the round is disqualified from scoring that round unless one of two other conditions are met: 1) they also control the “Angel” wild card (which discards all Evil allies that player possesses before scoring); or 2) they control all four Evil allies, in which case they score an “Evil Victory” of two fame points while everyone else scores absolutely nothing. This is much more difficult than it sounds, as several other cards allow you to steal, discard, or otherwise eliminate cards or allies, and once one of these four cards is in the discard pile an Evil Victory is impossible.

A round ends when one player is out of cards in his hand; all other players add the remaining cards in their hands to their allies. Keeping certain cards (like the Angel) in your hand to surprise other players is a useful trick if you can manage it. Once the Evil-controlling players are eliminated, the remaining players check the current scoring condition. This is usually controlling the most/fewest of a specific suit of allies or all allies in general, plus a few curveballs; this is a count of raw cards without consideration of actual values, although it is important to note that the two-valued cards in each suit count as three allies when scoring, which can be a hindrance or a boon depending on whether the goal is to have the most or the fewest. Everyone who meets the condition scores one Fame point and then a new round begins unless someone has three (or more) Fame, in which case the game is over and that player wins; if there is a tie for Fame, you can either keep playing until the tie is broken or just let the tie stand.

A game of Chronicle is supposed to take about 30 minutes. However, your first session or two might take much longer as everyone gets used to what the cards do and how the game works. Our first session took over an hour, which was outrageous. Our second session was a much more reasonable 33 minutes, although that was played using the optional “two Histories” rule where we used two scoring conditions each round  that are scored independently; once everyone knows how to play this variant is highly recommended, even by the game designer himself.

Like most Z-Man card games, you can pick up Chronicle for $10 or less. Once you get past the initial learning curve it is a solid addition to a gaming library, even if it is a little long for what it is sometimes.

*Sadly, this isn’t a Legend of Zelda-themed game.