Table of Contents
|Clacks: A Discworld Board Game (2015)
|Meeple Like Us
|Leonard Boyd and David Brashaw
Oh, how I want to love Clacks. I want to love any game that looks to expand the Discworld franchise that I so adore. As I write this I’m contemplating the logistics of moving to Sweden as a result of a job offer. I’ve separated out my thousands of books into ‘Books I really want to take’ and ‘Books I can live without’. The first category takes up a single bookcase of ten shelves. Three of those shelves are filled with Terry Pratchett books. I’ve written before about how important the series is to me. The thing about this kind of passion for a fictional universe though is that fans can be the strongest advocate for tie-in products or they can be their harshest critics. I suspect I’m in the latter category. Clacks got two and a half stars in our review, and while it’s coming with me to Gothenburg it’s only because of Terry Pratchett’s name on the box.
Or is it?
I like to point out in this blog that games get two chances to shine – once in the review and once in the teardown. Clacks may not burn particularly brightly as a game, but perhaps it has a signal it can transmit with regards to accessibility? Let’s fire up the ol’ signal lamps and find out.
Each of the clacks lamps is separated by a green or blue symbol that shows where the clacks operator meeples can stand. These are a problem in terms of the palette but it turns out to be pretty much irrelevant in play because the orientation of the board conveys the same information. You always deal with the clacks lamps as they face you and as such the valid positions of each meeple is deducible from context.
Slighly more problematic are the meeples, although the specific hues chosen for them are not quite as much of an issue as they could be from the red, green, blue and black colour scheme. Still, in poor lighting this will perhaps be an issue. The only thing meeples do though is show where your semaphore region is and as such there’s not really a risk in asking which one is yours. There will only be two on your ‘track’ of icons anyway and in most cases it’ll be easy enough to remember.
Other than that, there are no elements in the game that use colour as the sole or primary channel of information. Jacquards are differentiated by their pattern, words by their letters, and individual event cards by context specific text.
We’ll tentatively recommend Clacks in this category.
Well, technically the only thing a player needs to be tracking is the six Clacks lamps in the semaphore region determined by their meeple, and a single word of five letters. The game comes with a Clacks alphabet board, which with regards to this category, made me wince the first time I took it out of the box.
I imagined this being the only way people could find the patterns they needed to make letters and that was going to be a huge problem in terms of cross-referencing against the board and dealing with a shared piece of reference material for the table. But no, because Clacks also shows the symbols on the card that players hold to indicate their word:
The letters here are clear and well contrasted, as are the clacks codes. For the latter though they are also quite small but in the event a player is able to perform a close inspection they’re easily accessed and examined.
Jacquards are something of a problem with regards to contrast. They can take effect all over the board state… the problem is that the number of cells that comprises a pattern is almost impossible to see against the background in some circumstances.
Fault card information and stress is more obviously marked against the background colour, but the actual patterns themselves – not so much.
And that leads us to the huge problem at the heart of Clacks…
That board state is simple in that cells are either ‘on’ or ‘off’. You need to convert it into a configuration that has your meeple at the centre of your lamps. And at a position that that you can manipulate to be in a particular combination of on and off while other players are manipulating the board in their own favour. Coupled to this, each of the jacquard patterns can be rotated, flipped and mirrored as desired. Every time a player’s turn comes around they need to consider all of the possible permutations of their options to attain their letter goal, because they can’t really gradually work towards it with any sense of stability. That pattern will have changed, sometimes dramatically, by the time their turn comes around again. The lowest cost jacquards have the largest board state impact so it doesn’t even matter if one player is in one corner and others are elsewhere. They’ll likely be changing distant game state constantly.
But that’s not even the largest issue – you often won’t be able to achieve your goal in a turn and every time you begin your next turn you need to move somewhere. That costs stress, which means that there is a complex relationship between current position, future position, available jacquards and the ways those jacquards can be budgeted. Every single turn of Clacks is a complex puzzle of position and management of state. It is going to be hugely more difficult to contemplate all the possibilities if it must be done with substantive reference to memory as opposed to visual inspection of the board.
As you might imagine, the game is almost completely inaccessible for those that are totally blind, and not much better for those that aren’t.
We don’t recommend Clacks in this category.
There’s a particular style of game that thrives in what is basically ‘tree based processing’. You look at a game state and consider how to apply the tools you have to bring it around to what you need. That’s generally fine, but often you are in a position to use multiple tools within a round to accomplish the goal and that makes things much more cognitively taxing. You need to consider each of your tools, and what you could do with the remaining tools if you worked from the state your first tools had enabled. Sometimes it’s layers and layers and layers of ‘if this, then that, then that’ with many possible places to start thinking. Processing each node of that tree is a big fluid intelligence ask, but being able to meaningfully compare and contrast each node against other equivalent nodes is a massive memory burden.
Part of the issue here for Clacks is that you can’t work incrementally towards this goal in most circumstances – the churn of the game state is too great. And that introduces an additional set of considerations with regards to where you can move and what you can do when you move. I’ve spent solid minutes in silent, frustrated consideration in Clacks just trying to calculate out a path to my goal. Not an optimal path – any path at all. Games that ask that of their players rarely do well in this section of a teardown.
On the upside, Clacks asks very little in terms of literacy (the words you transmit don’t matter, just their patterns), and only a little more in terms of numeracy (tracking your stress budget per round). It has a co-operative mode that would alleviate some of the cognitive costs outlined in this section but unfortunately not to the point that the game becomes meaningfully more accessible. The game flow is very consistent, although the number of actions a player can take in a round is less so. The additional fault and operator cards add in an element of additional complexity here, but their use is largely optional. Losing them from the game wouldn’t make much of a difference to the experience.
Nonetheless, we can’t recommend Clacks in either of our categories of cognitive accessibility.
Players unable to compartmentalise their turns will likely find this game intensely frustrating. You sometimes luck into a combination of lamps that’s exactly what you need. You also often find that a configuration you are working on is changed by another in the course of them attempting to send their own letters. There’s often no malice in it, but also the whole design of the game is designed to permit a kind of organic, systemic malice to emerge. The word that each player is attempting to transmit is face up, open information and as such everyone will know what letter you’re trying to send. You transmit each in order, so there’s no ambiguity as to which you might be working towards. Given that the game is already pretty challenging, this can be infuriating.
That’s troublesome enough in this category but there’s also a fair amount of take-that encoded into the cards, many of which are specifically designed to create difficulties for players in the middle of their word. Some of these aren’t targeted, such as the operators log card that turns every lamp on or off. Some though can be played to interfere with a specific person, such as the card that forces the current player to use jacquards of stress two or lower.
An optional rule too is the ‘last letter sabotage’ which allows a player, under certain circumstances, to rob another of a win condition. It’s hard to do and not a mandatory part of the game but omitting it is presented as a variant. That’s the ‘quick game’ and I think that’s a somewhat more stigmatising way to incorporate the option. If the standard game could be made more edgy with the inclusion of the sabotage rule that would be a lot easier to sell than ‘Ah, let’s just leave that rule out’. This isn’t a critical issue, but every little helps as I often remark in these posts.
All this said, there is also a cooperative version of the game that takes a lot of the sting out of this section and that would be an appropriate variant if someone is likely to be impacted by the issues discussed.
We tentatively recommend Clacks in this category.
There’s not a huge amount of card play in Clacks. You have a word that is open state information and a set of jacquards that will cycle in and out of your hands but honestly I don’t think there’s a real problem with them being played open given the nature of the game. In the event purity of the design is important, a card holder will be important – technically the stress cost is located along the bottom, but you can freely rotate the cards so that the lip of the holder is not obscuring that information.
Pleasingly, Clacks offers a number of ways to unambigiously reference lamps and have the jacquards actioned. For one thing, orientation of a Clacks letter is always facing the player that controls the meeple so there’s no need to indicate a region of the board with regards to transmitting letters. It’s always centred on the operator meeple. The spaces they can go are numbered, and even if they weren’t there are geographical regions that can be used to indicate parts of the board. ‘North of Skund tower’ for example. That’s all great.
The main interaction with the game board will be flipping a lamp from one side to its obverse, and the chunkiness of the tiles will be a boon there. There is though a fair amount of adding stickers to the tiles that must to be done before the first play and that is the trade-off there.
If full verbalisation is required then it’s a little less rosy a picture. Communicating how a jacquard is to be applied is a little tricky because they permit flipping, rotation and mirroring. Some jacquards, particularly low stress ones, are easier to explain than others because their effect is across the whole board state. Others, less so – consider the one in the bottom row, second from the left in the image below.
That’s ‘Flip a lamp, skip a lamp, flip a lamp’ but how do you describe where you want that to happen and in what orientation?
It can certainly be done, but not as fluidly as you might hope. ‘Start at the lamp left of 12, and moving north flip one, skip one, flip one’. Not too bad. But what about if you want to describe the one in the top left? It’s a little bit harder. ‘Centre on the lamp right of twelve and then orienting north flip the lamps that are one up on each diagonal’. Again, possible to do but it starts to become harder to describe and also action. It’ll become easier with practice but it would have been nice if there was a better way to do this.
We’ll tentatively recommend Clacks in this category.
Gender neutral language is used throughout the manual, and there is very little representational art in the game at all. Really the only gendered figure is Moist von Lipwig who appears in the game as a golden meeple in certain game modes. A reasonable effort has even been made to balance the words used in the draw deck to include a blend of men and women, although there are some obvious characters from the series that could have been incorporated to make this even better. The cover art for the game shows a nocturnal Clacks post on the outskirts of Ankh-Morpork (you can tell by the presence of what I assume is supposed to be the Tower of Art) and has no human(oid) figures visible.
In terms of cost, this is easily the most affordable and easily obtained Discworld game but I suspect there is a time window on how long that will be the case. As far as I know the Pratchett Estate has not granted any new franchise licences for a long time and I don’t know how long Ninja Division will be in a position of being able to provide Clacks in its current form. Certainly all the other Discworld games are difficult to get at a reasonable price. That includes Discworld: Ankh Morpork, The Witches, Thud, and Guards! Guards!
If you wanted a Discworld board game, this would be the one to get and at an RRP of £30 it’s of a reasonable price even if I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it for the gaming experience it provides.
We’ll strongly recommend Clacks in this category, but largely because of a favourable comparison to the other games set in the Discworld universe.
There’s no formal need for communication during the game, and no need for literacy either. The words used are derived from the Discworld vocabulary and thus a little esoteric but just work with them on a per-letter basis, and each of those letters translates into a 3 by 2 cell neighbourhood of 1s and 0s.
We’ll strongly recommend Clacks in this category.
Given the grades across the board here, there are no intersections that come to mind where an individual component grade doesn’t already result in the game not being recommended. It’s a consistently inaccessible game except with regards to socioeconomic, emotional and communication factors, and those don’t really come into conflict in the aggregate.
Clacks is a reasonably configurable game when it comes to play time. The standard game is ‘one clacks card, made up of five letters, but someone might sabotage your last letter’. A quick game loses the sabotage element. A longer game can make use of two clacks cards, and the co-operative variant permits players to potentially drop out of play by having someone else action their turn.
Sometimes a game gets two chances to shine but doesn’t at either opportunity. Clacks alas is one of those, and that makes me sad because I rarely have anything about which I am unquestioningly enthusiastic. Discworld happens to be one of that vanishingly small subset of my affections. I am a Terry Pratchett fan boy. I want to love everything that has his name on it. I’m also a massively critical asshole though and I can’t let my own love of something get in the way of an analysis.
Sadly there’s very little in here that truly recommends Clacks to a player – the sections where it performs best are the ones that are least likely to be problematic in any case. It excels in those areas largely because it doesn’t include anything that would be an issue rather than because the game is designed around or for those groups.
We gave Clacks two and a half stars in our review. It’s a very underwhelming game set in a universe far greater than its design would imply. But still – if you really want a Discworld game for your shelves, and I can certainly understand that impulse, it’s pretty much the only one you can currently get at a price roughly in the region of its actual RRP. So, it’s got that going for it.
A Disclaimer About Teardowns
Meeple Like Us is engaged in mapping out the accessibility landscape of tabletop games. Teardowns like this are data points. Games are not necessarily bad if they are scored poorly in any given section. They are not necessarily good if they score highly. The rating of a game in terms of its accessibility is not an indication as to its quality as a recreational product. These teardowns though however allow those with physical, cognitive and visual accessibility impairments to make an informed decision as to their ability to play.
Not all sections of this document will be relevant to every person. We consider matters of diversity, representation and inclusion to be important accessibility issues. If this offends you, then this will not be the blog for you. We will not debate with anyone whether these issues are worthy of discussion. You can check out our common response to common objections.
Teardowns are provided under a CC-BY 4.0 license. However, recommendation grades in teardowns are usually subjective and based primarily on heuristic analysis rather than embodied experience. No guarantee is made as to their correctness. Bear that in mind if adopting them.