Review of Clans

Review Summary
Playtest Review
Written Review

January 14, 2004


by: Shannon Appelcline


Style: 4 (Classy & Well Done)
Substance: 5 (Excellent!)

A fun abstract stratgy game with bluffing elements, all covered with the thin veneer of a prehistoric theme. If you enjoy most of these elements, a well-worthwhile purchase.

Shannon Appelcline has written 679 reviews (including 357 board/tactical game reviews), with average style of 4.03 and average substance of 3.85. The reviewer's previous review was of The Ark of the Covenant.

This review has been read 8507 times.

 
Product Summary
Name: Clans
Publisher: Rio Grande Games, Venice Connection
Author: Leo Colovini
Category: Board/Tactical Game

Cost: $27.95
Year: 2002

SKU: RGG207


Review of Clans
Clans is an abstract strategy game lightly themed as a battle for supremacy in the neolithic age. It's by Italian designer Leo Colovini.

Players: 2-4
Playing Time: 30-45 minutes
Difficulty: 3 (of 10)

The Components

Clans comes with:

Gameboard: This small six-panel board is printed on textured cardboard. The majority of the board is taken up by a map featuring 12 regions of 5 territories each, for 60 territories total. Four types of territories--steppes, grasslands, forests, and mountains--are all easy to distinguish; lakes also exist to divide territories from each other. The map itself is colorful but a little blinding.

To the right side of the map is an "epochs" chart, which shows favorable and unfavorable territory types for each period, as well as a scoring track. The epochs chart is entirely iconic and easy to read. The scoring track only lists every fifth number, and I've found this to be a bit of a pain during play.

Wood Bits: The huts are simple wooden huts painted in five colors: green, yellow, blue, black, and red. They're nicely evocative, though the green and blue can shade together in low light. The discs are also wood, painted in the same five colors. They're placed on the scoring track to determine how well each color is doing.

Cardboard Bits: The 5 secret clan cards each depict, on their front, a hut with a roof thatched in one of the five player colors. They're very nicely drawn and are printed on sturdy, textured cardboard.

The village chips are circular yellow chips, showing a silhouette of a hut. They're initially placed in the 12 spaces on the epochs chart, and claimed as players create villages. They're printed on the same nice cardstock as everything else, but are very plain. I'm also surprised they aren't each marked with a "+1", as that's their scoring value at the end.

Rule Sheets: The game comes with 3 rules sheets, 1 each in English, French, and Italian. If you're reading this review, you'll probably only need the English version. Each of the rule sheets is just 4 pages, printed full color with copious examples. There's even a section of "Tactical Hints", which I love to see in rule books. Overall, the rules are done quite well.

Overall the components of Clans are somewhat beautiful and evocative, and they're easy to use. The game thus scores an above average "4" out of "5" for Style.

The Game Play

The ultimate goal in Clans is to spread your people far and wide by including them in as many large and successful villages as you can.

The Setup: The game starts with the 60 huts being placed on the 60 territories on the board. This is done in a fairly specific manner, with a group of five huts, one per color, being placed in a local region of five territories. Afterward, the territories won't be used at all; they just exist to help ensure that the hut color don't clump up during the otherwise random setup, and so disadvantage a player.

Once all the huts are on the board, each player takes one of the face-down clan cards, thus discovering which color he is playing in the game. He keeps it facedown, so that no one else knows his color.

The 12 village chips are placed on the 12 spaces on the epochs chart and each of the 5 scoring discs is placed on the scoring track at "0".

A Digression on Colors: In case it's not readily apparent, the fact that the color you're playing is secret is one of the hearts of the game. Whenever points are scored in the game they'll be scored by colors, not by players; the appropriately colored scoring discs will be advanced on the scoring track, but no one will know what belongs to whom. In fact, no one knows what colors are actually being played at all, since 1-3 colors will be unplayed by any player, depending on how many people are in the game.

This all allows for the possibility of bluffing and deduction. Players are often reluctant to explicitly benefit their own pieces, because it'd give away who they're playing, and everyone is always watching all the moves carefully, to try and figure out what each move means.

(The other core of the game, the village construction system, is fairly strong on its own, and I suspect that if you hated bluffing you could just have all clan cards be face-up. You'd lose half the game, but I think what's left would still be interesting.)

Moving Pieces: After that gameplay is very simple. Each turn a player moves all of the huts from one territory into an adjacent territory that also has huts in it. (Touching territories are adjacent, while some lakes scattered about the board help divide territories from each other.) Clearly this means that on the first turn the first player will move just one hut into a nearby territory, but as the turns advance larger sets of huts can be moved at once.

There's one exception to the movement rule: you can't move a group of 7 or more huts unless you're moving them into a territory with the same number of huts or more. (This rarely comes up.)

Scoring Villages: After a player has done his move, he now looks and sees if there are any new villages--these are collections of 1 or more huts in a territory that is completely surrounded by territories that are entirely empty. It's possible to form more than one village on a single turn with clever moves, but it's more likely that you just form one, usually by moving the huts in the last non-empty adjacent territory either into the soon-to-be village or out of the area entirely.

Once a village has been formed you can start scoring it.

Strife. First, you see if any strife occurs. If all 5 colors of huts are represented in the village, then all single huts of a color are eliminated.

Epoch. Next, you check the current epoch. This is displayed on the Epoch chart. There are 5 Epochs: #1 lasts for four villages, #2 three villages; #3 and #4 two villages; and #5 applies only to the last village. Each epoch has one favorable terrain and one unfavorable terrain, all marked on the chart.

If the village you created is in the unfavorable terrain the village is instantly destroyed, and all the huts are removed.

If the village you created is in the favorable terrain, it will be worth a number of bonus points equal to the epoch, from 1 to 5.

The player who created the village also gets to take the village chip in the current space on the epoch chart. This will be worth a point at the end of the game.

In the case where multiple villages are created at the same time, the player who created them gets to choose which order they're created in. This can be relevent if the epoch chart is at the edge of epochs, and each village will be created in a different epoch; the player can try and benefit a village that's better for him and hurt a village that's better for his opponents.

Score. Finally, score is calculated based on whatever huts are left in the village. The basic score is equal to the number of huts left in the village plus any bonus for favorable terrain. Each color with at least one hut left in the village is given that same score, and that color's scoring marker is advanced.

Note that your score doesn't depend on the number of huts your color has in the village (as long as you survived the strife). This means that you want to try and minimize your number of huts in each village, while maximizing those of your opponents. If there's a 5-hut village that has just one of your huts and 4 of your opponents', he's expended a lot more resources than you for the same payout.

Finishing the Game: The game goes until 12 villages have been formed, and thus all 12 village markers taken. Alternatively, the game ends when no more moves are possible (presumably because the players formed less, big villages, though I haven't seen this happen in the three games I've played).

At this point each player reveals his color. Each player then advances his color's scoring disc a number of spaces equal to the number of village chips he collected. The winner is the player who's colored scoring disc marks the highest value. (Unplayed colors don't win even if their total is higher, though that's unlikely.)

Relationships to Other Games

Oddly enough, there's been a lot of interest in prehistoric games in recent years. Besides Clans (2002), we've also seen Carcassonne: Hunters and Gatherers (2002), The Settlers of the Stone Age (2002) and Mammoth Hunters (2003).

This game is a fairly typical Leo Colovini design: a clever abstract strategy game with a thin veneer of theme. It may have ultimately been influenced by Wolfgang Kramer's Heimlich & Co. (1984), wherein each player has a secret color, and is trying to move their color forward on a race track without giving away who they are.

The Game Design

Overall, Clans is a very good combination of abstract strategy mechanics with bluffing. Here's some of the highlights:

Bluffing Well Designed: The bluffing and accompanying deduction are both well designed. You only control a single color and so it's very simple to see how your actions could suggest you were that color or another one; conversely you only have to figure out a single fact concerning each opponent (and usually do so by eliminating colors he clearly isn't).

Strategy Simple but Deep: The strategy of the game is fairly simple--you just have to move the huts from a single place--but there's a lot of depth. Do you try and gather together opponents' huts or spread out yours? Alternatively do you bluff and do a seemingly positive action to other colors or a seemingly negative one to your own? Do you try and create strife in an upcoming village or do you try and avoid it? Do you clump up your own huts to avoid strife? Etc. The couple of game rules lead to a lot of possibilities.

Plays Fast: Overall the game is quite short especially given its strategic depth.

Here's an issue of game design that's neither positive or negative.

Some Elements of Memory: There's a certain element of "concentration", as remembering an opponents' moves will help you to figure out who they are and thus how they're doing. If you like memory games, no problem. If you dislike them, I suggest having each player set all the huts he eliminates (through strife or unfavorable conditions) in front of him. This will help you see what colors a player has been opposing. A similar mnemonic could probably be used to mark villages that a player made.

I only have one negative comment:

Game Increasingly Chaotic with More Players: As the number of players increases the game shifts from strategy to tactics; you have a decreased ability to really make plans and carry them out because there will be a number of actions before you go ago. Theoretically, this is an issue of what type of game you like, but since I think the strategy is one of the game's strengths, I ultimately consider it a deficit. The 2-player game works great, while the 3- is OK.

Overall, Clans doesn't have any amazing innovations, but it's an enjoyable game that works quite well. I'd originally given it a "4" for Substance, but since have realized that it's a very good filler, combining deep gameplay with short gamelength, which has popped my rating up to a "5".

Conclusion

If you like abstract strategy and you don't mind bluffing, Clans will be a very good purchase for you. Clans appeared in the 2004 Games 100 as the best abstract strategy game of the year, and I'd say fairly rightfully so.

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