Clank! in Review

The pitch for Clank sounds a little like the board game equivalent of magnetic poetry. A deck-builder? Combined with a dungeon-crawl? It feels focus-tested within an inch of its life. There are so many deck-builders and dungeon-crawlers out there that my eyes glaze over whenever I hear about new entries into either genre. That’s my excuse for why I gave Clank a pass for so long. I really only picked it up because it seemed like something I could play with my son, and because it is one of those games that has been extensively distributed in Asia. Most game stores here have several versions and expansions on their shelves, so it was only a matter of time. I’m glad I took the plunge, because while Clank doesn’t sound like anything fresh, it makes up for it by being well-executed, with a keen sense of what it wants to do and with few of the annoyances that dog either of its well-represented genres.

Chief among Clank’s many pleasures is how it handles deck-building. Ever since Dominion changed the hobby in 2008, deck-building has served as a genre that is best-suited to optimization. The whole mechanic is built around feedback loops. You keep adding cards to a deck that will allow you to execute some particular goal, usually to generate points. This boils down to a couple of key strategies that have always been key to deck-building. One is to identify a couple of cards that jive well together, and to hammer them to generate big combos. Another is to remove less efficient cards from the deck, making it more likely that the really good stuff is drawn. As a result deck-building has always favored experienced players, and punished people who have to shift strategies in mid-stream. Or at least that was my experience with Dominion, still the most popular deck-builder out there and one of the best in terms of polish.

Clank does require some of this stuff. In this game the cards generate four different resources, three of which you want. (We’ll talk about that fourth one in a minute.) Movement lets you travel deeper into the dungeon, while attacks let you defeat monsters along the way. Skill serves as the currency for buying new cards. You need to strike the right balance to get in and out of the dungeon with the most treasure. But Clank also doesn’t seem that interested in being an optimization exercise. There are a couple of stock cards that are always available, ensuring that you can always buy a card with more attack or more movement. But the more interesting cards are all in one big deck, with six available at any given time. There’s a decent chance you won’t see exactly what you need for sale, so it’s hard to build really killer decks. In a half-dozen games I have yet to find a card that isn’t at least pretty good for its cost, so it’s while it’s hard to build a deck that will wreck everyone it’s also pretty easy to build a half-decent one. There also aren’t many card effects that let you cycle cards in your deck endlessly, and even fewer that let you actually remove cards from your deck. As a result, you don’t go through your cards that quickly, and you can’t really fine-tune stuff on the fly.

The board is actually two-sided, with a beginner’s map and one for more advanced players. Expansions have added other maps and cards.

This will drive some people crazy. Clank is not a game that is interested in tournament play. But the plus side is that most people will get what they need to do very quickly, and will have a decent shot at winning. It wants you to have fun right away, instead of insisting that you “git gud” before you figure out how to steal treasure. This laid-back feeling extends to its structure. Rather than there being a precise action and buying phase (think of the ABC turn from Dominion) you can just put all your cards out there and do all your things in whatever order you like.

As a dungeoncrawl, Clank draws the most from classics like Dungeonquest, albeit with much less interest in making the players lose. The shape of the game is almost identical though. Your adventurer needs to travel deeper into the catacomb, stealing as much treasure as possible then leaving before you get destroyed by the dragon. Remember that fourth resource generated by cards, the one you don’t want? That would be clank, a representation of noise made while shuffling around the dungeon. Expressed in colored cubes that sit in a pool on the board, every so often a card will trigger a dragon attack. When that happens, all those cubes go in a bag, and a few are drawn out that have the potential to become damage on a character. Some of the nicest cards generate a bit of clank as well, meaning that someone who buys all the best stuff will be more likely to suffer the dragon’s wrath. It’s not a punitive measure, but it’s definitely possible to overstay your time in the dungeon and to get yourself killed before you leave.

As a genre, dungeon crawls have had their problems. One big one is mess that can be generated with tons of wandering monsters. Clank sidesteps this by making monsters a type of card in main deck. When they come up they can be “bought” with attack, and immediately discarded for an instant benefit. Until then they can have adverse effects on the game state. It’s a really great way to make players want to fight monsters, and to give them a meaningful impact on the experience, while still avoiding clutter in the game state and in record-keeping. There are also “features,” isolated things in the dungeon like a shrine or a ladder, that are represented as cards in the deck as well. Like monsters, they are purchased and immediately discarded for an effect. The board itself is mostly just a network of locations. There are a couple of spots that hold artifacts, and collecting one allows you to leave the dungeon and trigger the endgame.

All of these different elements mesh together really well, and Clank does a great job at forcing the player to be good at a few different things. You do need to optimize your deck a bit, but you also need to know when to take a big risk, and when to admit that your plan just isn’t working. That it does all of these things without ever feeling burdensome is impressive indeed. Clank is the sort of game that looks like low-hanging fruit at first, but reveals a lot of smart design when you get into it. I can play it with my kids and with casual gamer friends, and more importantly, I really want to.

Steam: Rails to Riches and Its Complicated Family

steam box cover

We all have games that we admire more than we enjoy. Or else games that we only enjoy in a narrow set of circumstances. One such game for me is Steam, originally published by Mayfiar Games in 2009. It was the result of a labyrinthine rights battle around that time. You see, Steam was based on the 2002 game Age of Steam, itself designed by Martin Wallace. Owing to a messy divorce with original publisher Warfrog Games (At least I think so. I followed the whole thing and still couldn’t explain it to you.) Age of Steam somehow ended up fracturing into numerous different titles. One of these was a reprint of Age of Steam reprinted around 2011.  The second was a version called Railroad Tycoon, based on the classic series of PC games and eventually rebranded as Railways of the World when the license ran out. The last was Steam, the version with endorsement of the original designer, and the version that I own.

In all of these forms, the game represented a sort of Euro-style reimagining of the venerable train game. As a genre, train games have almost as rich a history as wargames. There are certain markers that always need to be hit, like laying track, transporting goods, and managing finances. In different measures these have always been the focus on games with extensive product lines, like the Empire Builder or 18xx series. Age of Steam hit all of these elements, but it did so in perhaps the most stripped down way possible. The goods were simply different colored cubes. The finances were mostly handled in a simple system of loans and interest. In general the focus was on abstraction, an embrace of the idea of train games above the minutiae.

(In this Wallace was in sync with another popular Eurogame: Power Grid. Friedemann Friese’s classic has its roots in the route building and economics of trains, even if it doesn’t actually deal with them.)

Martin Wallace’s big contribution to the train game was to put playability above details. This was done graphically as much as it was mechanically. Goods are shipped to any city that matches the color, rather than the cubes representing any real life commodity. The player doesn’t deal with specific historical train models, but rather represents advancing technology through a series of levels, from 1 to 6. Even the goal of the game, to generate income and points through transporting goods, works better in mechanical terms than in simulationist ones. Since the player gets points for each length of track they use, it is more advantageous to use the most circuitous, inefficient route you can. Heck of a way to run a business.

age of steam
The newest version of Age of Steam. The deluxe edition has a price to match.

The upshot of all of this is a game that is definitely thematic, but in that sideways way that Eurogames used to embrace. It’s all mechanical theme with little care for visual trappings. One could make the argument that abstracting so much historical detail misses the point of train games in the first place, and I don’t think that’s completely off-base. But in all its forms Age of Steam is still a compelling title, even as it inches toward two decades in age. The question is of course which version to get. As I said before I own Steam, even though I’m not actually sure it’s the best version.

That sounds kind of silly, but then our game preferences are matters of the heart. In my case, it is thanks to my friend Brad that I own Steam at all. When it hit shelves in 2009, it was after several years of Age of Steam, its predecessor, not being readily available. My friend Brad, always more of a Eurogamer than I was, eagerly bought a copy. We played several times, and my own response was always one of mild enjoyment, edging up to appreciation depending on the day. I also played a game or two of Age of Steam and Railways of the World, but Steam remained my primary point of reference for the whole dysfunctional family. After I eventually moved away I didn’t play it again for years, until I suddenly found myself wanting to try it again. By this time of course I lived in Manila, and the prospect of ever getting a copy was distant. But amazingly I found an old used copy on forgotten shelf at a store here. My nostalgia got the better of me and I bought it without a second thought.

game in progress
Steam has an understated but classy presentation. I actually really like it. (image taken by user killroy_locke on

Revisiting the game has been an interesting experience. I’m at a place in my life where I’ve become much more comfortable with games that don’t quite line up with my tastes, and so I think my estimation of the game has definitely gone up. Upon reflection, the design is frankly brilliant. There are a lot of complex economic elements that go into rail games that are all expected to be there, and Steam hits them all so efficiently. In particular, I want to praise the game’s financial system, which revolves around an income track. Your position on the track dictates your income each turn, whether positive or negative. You can choose to move down the track to get a little more money, but if you go negative you will actually owe money to your investors. Or maybe it’s the bank. The real brilliance is that it can be either one. It represents the whole spectrum of financial management in a single system. It’s tough as nails and I love it. I am also a big fan of the way cities on the board grow. Players have the option to develop minor cities on the board, making them produce goods that can then be shipped around the board. It’s a great way to represent the urbanization of minor cities in the age of rail. All of this in a game that wraps up in a reliable 90 minutes if you play the gentler basic game.

But how fun is all of this? Well, pretty fun, but it has a certain stuffiness about it. Steam was born out of an age when Eurogamers were generally afraid of luck at all, and once the board is set there’s none at all in Steam. If you like planning that much then bully for you, but I think it lends the game a sort of fussy quality, altogether too much control for any game that wants to recreate the real world at all. This is in contrast to its relatives. Age of Steam at least lets you draw cubes randomly when new ones are placed on the board, and Railways of the World has cards that inject a little bit of chaos into the system. In a vacuum both of those things would be preferable to me, because Steam definitely favors the more analytical players at the table. It’s the sort of game I like best when played with people around the same skill as I am, because otherwise it’s not much of a contest. I’ve never been one to see extended networks in the abstract, and so I always play games like this at a disadvantage.

railways of the world
Railways of the World is perhaps the most decked out version, with enormous maps, plastic pieces, and take-that cards. It’s fun, but approaches too much of a good thing.

Steam could stand to loosen up, but it’s also the most approachable game in the series. It is somewhat more forgiving for inexperienced players, and provided with both a Basic mode (which I frankly prefer) and a Standard game closer to Wallace’s original release. It has a good deal more polish than the original game, with none of the chromed-out overproduction of Railways of the World. I feel like it’s also shorter than either Age of Steam or Railways of the World, though my memory is a bit hazy there. Most importantly, it’s just the version I know best. Sometimes familiarity lends importance, and that’s definitely the case here. There’s a decent chance I’d prefer the other two games all things being equal, but all things aren’t equal. They aren’t the ones I own, and I’m frankly not inclined to buy another similar title.

Oddly enough, Steam has become the rarest game in this little family tree. It’s become less common recently, still available here and there but far more obscure than its siblings. I think Mayfair determined it wasn’t worth trying to compete with a NEW new version of Age of Steam that has recently become available, or with the Railways games, which are still active as well. It’s kind of a shame, because in its way Steam was pitched squarely at the new gamer. It’s a nicely produced, affordable game, more forgiving than its siblings but still basically the same game. Not only that, but it opened up a huge library of expansions. Of course there were those designed specifically for Steam, but with very little conversion you can also use the numerous maps for Age of Steam. But instead we have the bigger, more expensive editions that are pitched at people who are already gamers. They have much to recommend them, but Steam is the one that to me best fulfills the promise of a train game for gamers of every type.

Star Wars: Outer Rim

box cover

It’s hard for me to gauge the buzz in board gaming circles these days, but the release of Star Wars: Outer Rim this last summer completely passed me by. From way over here in Asia, it barely seemed to register at all. The consensus was one of muted approval, a perfectly cromulent game but little more. I’m glad I gave it a chance, because while Outer Rim is a different game than I expected, I am altogether in love with the game I got.

At first glance Outer Rim appears to be in a very particular tradition, that of the pick-up-and-deliver genre. Merchant of Venus is a good starting place for games like this, where the player builds a network of routes to move items around the board. Games like Xia, Merchants & Marauders, and the Firefly board game have all riffed on this in various ways, adding different narrative elements like ship customization and combat. The results are generally very appealing to me, which was what attracted me to Outer Rim in the first place.

Outer Rim certainly has all the trappings of the genre. You take on the role of a scoundrel from the Star Wars universe, and then make your way through the outlying planets in the galaxy. This can be accomplished by moving cargo around the board, but you can also be a bounty hunter or go around the galaxy doing odd jobs. These different activities make you money, which can then be used to buy a better ship and do more stuff. The end goal is to make a name for yourself in the form of fame, and the first person to 10 fame is the winner.

There is a fair bit going on here besides mere pick-up-and-deliver. Furthermore, if you go into Outer Rim with the logistics of trade as your primary desire, you might leave disappointed. The board is actually a long corridor of systems, surprisingly linear in its design as opposed to the large network of locations in, say, Merchant of Venus. It is never very difficult to come up with a route to what you’re doing; either your goal is close or it isn’t. In truth Outer Rim is much more interested in letting players explore the Star Wars setting, doing what they like and making a name for themselves however they like best. It actually has much more in common with big adventure games like Talisman or Arkham Horror, more a light roleplaying experience than an economic one.

Outer Rim has a weird arc instead of a traditional board, making deliveries feel far more linear.

In that regard Outer Rim succeeds admirably. Other FFG Star Wars games have sought to recreate specific situations from the beloved movies, usually large-scale conflicts. Games like X-Wing, Rebellion, or Armada all put players in the role of Rebels or Imperials, maybe with some Scum and Villainy thrown in for variety. But Outer Rim is the first board game I’ve played that seems to really recreate the Star Wars universe itself. It represents a vibrant ecosystem of characters, spaceships, and worlds playing out against a backdrop of intergalactic conflict, and the player is given the option to experience it as they think best. You can take the role of famous characters like Han Solo or Lando Calrissian, more obscure ones like Bossk or IG-88, or ones that didn’t even appear in the movies. The game pulls from all three film trilogies, the various TV shows, and even the comic books. And it’s all there for you to explore.

This sense of freedom is pervasive, even as the characters steer you toward different strategies. Indeed, the character you play can make a huge difference in how you interact with the galaxy. Some are well-suited to bounty hunting, while others are really built for smuggling. But there’s never a big penalty for mixing and matching, for taking on a small smuggling job to make some extra credits. You can also build a crew for your ship, made up of characters like Chewbacca or Maz Kanata who might fetch nice bounties if captured by other players. You can even turn on your own crew members and turn them in for bounties if you want to. Outer Rim offers a huge range of narrative possibilities, playing out with surprising specificity.

Other board games have pulled off this trick as well, but what impresses me most about Outer Rim is how efficiently the game does it. Instead of feeling like a sprawling mess of a game with piles of seldom-used subsystems, it feels like it was designed to use the bare minimum of cards and tokens possible. This has been interpreted by some as a lack of content, an obvious attempt to leave something for an inevitable expansion. The game doesn’t really need more cards though, because the variety here is not achieved through huge piles of cards, but through mechanical interactions. The game changes quite a bit based on where NPCs are located, what ships are available, how patrols move, and what characters are in the game. Of all of FFG’s designs, it reminds me most of Battlestar Galactica, another design that relied on permutations of the same relatively simple setup. (Indeed, the games share a designer in Corey Konieczka, here sharing design credit with Tony Fanchi.) Outer Rim feels like a complete and finished experience, and while I would love to see more characters and more planet encounters, it feels like the sort of game that could easily be brought down by an expansion that isn’t quite as well-considered.

The narratives generated in Outer Rim feel surprisingly detailed, without a whole bunch of mechanical cruft.

Design-wise, Outer Rim is not at all flashy. There are very few elements that feel innovative or particularly unique. But it’s a classic case where basically everything here works well. Fantasy Flight has an unfortunate history of games that are great aside from one particular issue, often the combat. This was also an issue in Merchants & Marauders, the very fun pirate game with combat so overwrought that the players avoid engaging with it. Nothing in Outer Rim feels like a hassle, and the efficiency of the design means that all of the different mechanics come up in basically every game. The lack of “innovative” mechanics also means that you can engage with the game’s fun parts right away. At no point have I felt like I was at war with the rules, or that they were forcing me to learn something before I could enjoy myself. It just works, and it lets the players have fun on the first try. The only bit that feels a little undercooked to me is the use of “secret” cards, special player actions that can be gained on different planet encounters. They aren’t something that kills the flow of the game, but they are the only part of the design that feels like an afterthought.

To be fair, the experience does have some bumpy moments. While the design feels cohesive and intuitive, it does have quite a lot of rules, and there will be some references to those rules while you internalize everything. It’s also not a particularly deep experience. A lot depends on card flips a die rolls, and those who want more control might find themselves frustrated. Perhaps more worryingly, the game takes a while to get going. The first third to the first half of the game are occupied by small stakes, easier jobs and simpler bounties that allow you to get better ships, crew, and gear, thereby allowing you to go for the big stuff. As a result, the early going can feel endless, since most of the fame generated comes in the back half. It’s hardly a deal-breaker, but it’s a 2-3-hour game, and patience is definitely required if you want to see what it has to offer. However, the pace does have its benefits. I always feel like I’m able to explore as much of the galaxy as I want, and a faster pace might cut that short. I am fine with the tradeoff, but others will think it too long-winded. That’s especially true if playing with the full complement of four players.

Look, I’ve only had this game a short time. But in that short time I’ve played a whole lot. I have yet to find any major red flags in Outer Rim that would prevent me from giving it my highest recommendation. It’s exactly the Star Wars game I’ve wanted for years, a chance to play in the universe I’ve loved since I was a kid with very few boundaries. The fact that it’s in a well-designed game with few mechanical issues is just icing on the cake. This is one of my favorite games in a long time.