In how many board games can you travel to the past so that you can help make things easier in the future? Too few of them, that’s what we say. But at least there’s Back to the Future: Dice Through Time, a cooperative family game where players work together to fix the timeline.
It really feels like a worthy companion game to the films, playing around not only with locations from them, but the four key times as well… and then weaving a time-travel adventure through them where you don’t just travel from place to place and era to era, but can send ripples through time.
The theme makes it perfect for all ages, and the design goes right along with that – it’s colourful and inviting, and you can’t help but want to get involved. We love the artwork, which depicts scenes from the movies in an ultra-simple style, which means it both looks like Back to the Future, but is also its own thing.
When the game clicks into place and lightning hits the Back to the Future: Dice Through Time clocktower, it’s maybe our favourite cooperative game available to buy right now. It ties how the game works into its theme in a way that is thrilling and fun to a degree that few games match.
But at the same time it’s a game that leaves you more at the mercy of random chance than some games, so while some turns are truly triumphant, some will leave you feeling like you’re trying to paddle your measly little hoverboard over a lake.
We still thoroughly recommend it, it just means it doesn’t quite take the crown of being our top pick for a cooperative game overall – but it might still be the one you want to buy the most, especially when it’s so well-priced.
Back to the Future: Dice Through Time: Price & who it’s for
Available for around £25/$30, Back to the Future: Dice Through Time is just as family friendly as the film it’s based on. It plays up to four players, and it actually works well with any number – including one, if you just want a game to puzzle out on your own.
Being a cooperative game means that people of different ages can all play together without there being any kind of handicap, and while the suggested age of 10+ seems about right to us, you could go a bit younger when kids are playing with adults, as long as they won’t mind having suggestions made to them.
It’ll take around 40 minutes to an hour to play – more players will mean more time.
It’s easy to understand how the rules work overall, and actually playing is quite simple, but there’s a little more complexity than it appears at first – a few fiddly things to remember that will just put it a little out of the reach of younger kids.
However, the difficulty is easy to tweak from ‘pretty trivial’ to ‘maximum brainpower required’, so that can also help kids who understand the rules but not the strategy to play it without frustration (or for adults who don’t want the puzzle to be too intense).
It’s also the type of cooperative game that requires you to be highly collaborative for victory, with successful end results at higher difficulty levels usually coming from planning before anyone takes any action. There’s no hidden information here, so everyone can see what everyone else could do, meaning it’s easy to strategise together… but that also means it’s possible for one domineering personality to take over the game, telling everyone else what to do for victory.
Some people don’t mind playing with a player like that, especially if it works and you all win! But it also drives some people up the wall, so just know that this is a game where someone could be a real Biff about it.
Back to the Future: Dice Through Time: How it plays
The aim of Dice Through Time is to collect objects from the films that have been scattered throughout time and space, and return them to where they came from. Return them all and you win! The board represents five different locations in four different timelines (arranged in a grid that makes it clear to understand), and these are what players will move between to make this happen.
The wrinkles are that players can’t share the same space without causing more timeline problems, and each timeline has a Biff who moves around the board, and if he’s on a space, you have to deck him before you can do anything there.
Between rounds, ‘Event’ cards are drawn from a deck and get placed on the corresponding location on the board – these are moments from the films, and each card has a set of symbols on it that show what’s needed to complete the Event, making sure it happens just as history says it should. The whole danger in the game is that the more unsolved Event cards there are on the board, the more the timeline is fracturing, and the more the ominous ‘Outatime’ tracker goes up the scale – if it reaches the top before you’ve returned all the objects, you lose.
So what you’ll do on your turns during each round is move around the board to get to Events, complete them to clear them from the board, and then you get to pick up one of the misplaced objects you need to win the game – which you then carry to the location it needs to go to.
This is where the dice come in: each player has four dice of their own, and at the start of each round, you all roll them at the same time. The symbols that come up determine what actions you can take that round: one symbol type lets you move locations within the same time; one lets you move through time in the same location; one lets you reroll other dice; and so on.
These dice are both blessing and curse. When you roll and get a great combination of symbols for what you’re hoping to do next, it feels great – a little like the thrill of winning at gambling.
But they also mean that sometimes you want to do something very basic, and the winds of fate mean that you just… can’t. You haven’t rolled the right thing.
The game tries to give you three ways to deal with this element of chance. First, if you have two matching symbols, you can treat them like a wild card, and use them for any action.
Second, whenever you return one of the objects, you get a token that has one of the symbols from the dice on, and you can use that once to do something extra on a turn, but what symbol you get here is also up to chance, so may or may not help.
The third way is one of the game’s key tricks, and actually can solve this problem… but only with enough players. It’s possible to leave your dice on the board so that players who are in the future can use them if they’re in the same location but in a later time.
So let’s say you’re in 1885 at the Clock Tower and have a symbol you don’t need – you can leave that dice on the Clock Tower, and another players could visit the Clock Tower in 1955, 1985 or 2015 and make use of it. If you left the same dice in 1985, a player in 2015 can use it, but not one in 1885. And you can even leave these dice on the board between turns, so they’re ready for next time.
When this comes together, it makes the game genuinely magical. It means players are working together across each other’s turns, and makes the theme of the game feel like a real part of playing, not just a nostalgic name pasted onto the box, as with too many licensed games.
But it’s only effective when you have a minimum of three players, and is only a key part of the game when you have four – because otherwise you’re unlikely to have someone who can realistically be in the right place at the right time.
Usually one of these three tricks will help you out with poor luck on your roll… and early on in the game, bad rolls don’t matter much anyway. But when things get to crunch time, it really can be the case that nothing helps.
It probably sounds like we’re criticising Dice Through Time a lot on this point, but it’s only because it can be so good. The times when the fun stumbles don’t happen constantly, but they’re still frustrating when they do.
That’s especially because the game is perfectly designed to ratchet up the tension between potentially winning and losing as you go on: effectively, every single game we’ve played has ended in a situation where the final turn would either be a win for us or a loss. We never had a case where a game felt hopeless or where we just cruised it (partly because we made sure we were playing at a challenging level of difficulty).
But to give you a real-world example: in one two-player game, we got to what we knew would be the final turn knowing exactly what we needed to do, which was pretty basic. We just needed a not-terrible dice roll to move to a location, deck Biff, clear an Event and return the final piece.
But we didn’t roll what we needed, and we’d drawn a special Event card that stopped us from using the power of combining two matching symbols into a wildcard. We simply couldn’t do the quite basic tasks, even though we knew what it was.
To be clear, it’s fine for a game to beat you on a final turn! It happens in games like Pandemic, and we don’t mind it at all there. Just… not like this. Not in a way where you couldn’t actually have done anything differently.
Of course, in that case we just cheated – pretending we never drew that Event card, and so were able to win – since it wasn’t our fault that the odds betrayed us. We’d had so much fun playing throughout the game, we really didn’t want the last turn to leave this aftertaste of deflation.
That’s the takeaway of this game, really – it’s massively good fun, and when it isn’t, you can always fudge it to fix the problem, if it doesn’t feel right. You just shouldn’t have to, ideally.
Back to the Future: Dice Through Time: Verdict
There’s nothing cooler than saying “Okay, I can travel back to 1955, drive to the school, deck Biff, use the tool you left me from 1885 to fix the Enchantment Under The Sea dance, and return Lorraine’s Dress to its rightful place.”
It’s not just satisfying in the game, but it feels like you’re Marty reciting a plan to Doc – pure movie magic. And then to do all that and know that it’s put you one key step closer to winning is the perfect bow on it.
That’s the draw of this game – it’s a good cooperative puzzle in a great big nostalgic hug of a theme that it really it really feels like it deserves to wear. It’s just that much like the DeLorean at its heart, it’s got the odd reliability problem.
Back to the Future: Dice Through Time: Also consider
Our pick of the cooperative games is Pandemic, in which everyone works together to stop the outbreak of diseases around the globe while also trying to find a cure for them. It’s been around for a decade, but talk about a game for our times…
Each player is a specialist with a unique power, and everyone gets just four actions on their turn, and between each player’s turn the disease spreads more. It’s a truly expert piece of tension-building design, because you have to balance keeping on top of outbreaks while also researching the cures – you can’t really do both at the same time, and you have a limited number of turns to complete the game. You’ll have to start making gambles about where in the world is safe, and you’ll be wrong a lot.
The basic version of Pandemic is a perfect place to start, and is actually still very family friendly, but is more fiddly to set up than BTTF:DTT, so if you want something that’s quick to jump into, Back the the Future may be the wiser choice.
There are also expansions for Pandemic (we very much recommend the ‘On The Brink’ expansions, which adds lots of variety to the game), and if you like the idea but want a faster, cheaper version Pandemic: Hot Zone North America is a slimmed down version made to play in about 25 mins.
Finally, if you like the idea of something involved, there’s Pandemic: Legacy. This is one of the greatest games ever made – it starts off as regular Pandemic as described here, but you’ll play a campaign with a specific story, where decisions you make will actually alter the board permanently. It’s utterly genius.
If you want a cooperative game with a bit more bite, take a look at Jaws – another movie game from the same publisher as BTTF:DTT. In it, most players are working together to track down where the titular shark is; but one player plays as the shark, trying to eat swimmers without giving away their location around Amity Island.
But when the players track down the shark, there’s a twist! You flip the board and the final act plays out on the boat, with the three cooperative players trying to take down the shark, and the shark trying to eat them right up. How well you did earlier in the game determines what options you have in the second phase so it all ties together. Like BTTF:DTT, it really uses its theme well, and is a great price.