The Quest for the Perfect Game - Reviews to Extract the Essence of Games by Nicholas Hjelmberg
Clans - Simply Brilliant (Published 12 May 2015)
The more games you play, the more does it take to impress you, and you often find yourself wondering whether there is anything new under the sun left to discover. But the greater is the pleasure when you actually do find an impressive game that rises above the general mediocrity. This happened to me last weekend when I got to play Clans for the first time.
Clans had been on my radar for a while. Interestingly enough, I first learnt about it through a negative comment by Alex Harkey regarding its game-defining concepts. The idea of playing all colors at the same time but secretly supporting only one intrigued me and I had already, unknowingly of this gem, used a similar mechanism in my own game Iconoclasm. But Clans is not easy to find nowadays so when I saw it at a game event, I immediately proposed a play and convinced two other players to join me.
The box was opened and the more we saw and heard, the more eager we got. The game board with its different territories is colorful and spatious. The colored huts you play with are sturdy and pleasing to the eye. Preparing the game is quick - simply assign each region one of each hut and then randomly place one hut in each area.
The rules are even simpler. Move all huts in any area to any adjacent non-empty area. Once a group of huts cannot move any further (i.e. all adjacent areas are empty), a village is formed and each participating color scores equal to the number of all huts in the village. This rule alone would be enough for an interesting game with several strategic and tactical options. Bringing your color to big villages and opponent colors to small villages will benefit you. Bringing more than one opponent color to "your" village will also benefit you, as it is colors and not huts that score. The redundant hut will thus increase the score for all colors in the village while missing the opportunity to score elsewhere. But there was more to come.
While bringing many huts to a village increases the overall score, bringing all colors to a score achieves the opposite. With all colors present in a village, a strife erupts that eliminates all single huts in the village. This gives a very interesting take that mechanism where you can deny opponent colors points. But which are the opponent colors?
As I have touched upon already, the colors are secret. You do not know which colors the other players have, nor do they know which you have. As the huts are moved around, you must deduce which colors the others play to identify which colors to block and which colors to let go. (You do not have to have the highest score to win, only a score higher than any other player's score.) This keeps all players engaged in the movements and reduces the perceived downtime significantly.
So far we loved the game but the wizard Colovini had even more up his sleeve. There is a terrain dimension and a time dimension as well. An epoch track in the game not only serves as an end game timer (the game ends after the 12th village) but also gives terrain and time bonuses. Depending on the epoch, some terrains score extra while other terrains do not score at all. Furthermore, the later a village is formed, the higher does it score. This is also something you must take into account when planning and playing Clans. So few and simple rules, so much brilliant gameplay!
So how does it feel to play Clans? The first few rounds you may really feel like a wandering tribe: lost. Should you start with your color or another color? Should you form many small villages to claim the village bonus (worth 1 extra point) or prepare large villages where your color is present? So many questions that only show the immense depth of the game. But you quickly get into the game and starts seeing patterns and opportunities. Villages are formed and scored and the colors take turns to be in the top of the score track. The secret colors and the escalating scoring keeps the game open to the very end when the colors are finally revealed. A truly magical experience comparable to classic games like Tigris & Euphrates.
So who would not like Clans? Well, if you prefer thematic games you may better look elsewhere. There is a theme in Clans for those who appreciate the symbolic language: roaming clans that slowly gather together, uniting against "the others" that are not part of the village (or fighting internally if there is no external enemy to unite against). Why mountains would be better than fields in some epochs is less clear, as is why younger villages would be worth more than older villages, that should have had time to grow bigger. This does not concern me a bit but I mention it for those who feel that an immersive theme is more important than an immersive game.
How about Alex Harkey's criticism that I referred to in the beginning of the review and that led me to Clans? He claims that you do not get a benefit from identifying an opponent color. I respect his gaming knowledge and experience but my own experience, although limited, tells another story. Thanks to having deduced the opponent colors, I managed to exclude those colors from the final village on behalf of the non-player color and claim the victory. However, this was a 3 player game and I do agree that Clans may not scale well with 4 players. Perhaps a 6th color would help?
Nevertheless, Clans is a stunning example of how few and simple rules can create a deep and and immersive game and I can only regret that this gem does not have a higher rating at BGG.
The Quest for the Perfect Game is an endeavour to play a variety of games
and review them to extract the essence of each game. What you typically will
find in the reviews include:
What does the game want to be?
How does the player perceive the game?
What does the game do well and why?
What does the game do less well and why?
Is it fun?
What you typically will NOT find in the reviews include:
A detailed explanation of the rules.
An assessment of art, miniatures etc. with no impact on gameplay.
Unfounded statements like "dripping with theme" and "tons of replayability".
Unless stated otherwise, all the reviews are independent
and not preceded by any contacts with the game's stakeholders.
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