|Clacks: A Discworld Board Game (2015)
|Meeple Like Us
|Leonard Boyd and David Brashaw
In our review of Discworld: Ankh Morpork I wrote what is effectively a love letter to Terry Pratchett’s wonderfully warm and funny universe of magical misadventure and narrative causality. More than that though, the review was a chance to reflect on what makes a satisfying theme and how there are various levels at which it can be successfully applied to a game. Discworld: Ankh Morpork did reasonably well in some regards, but failed to really capture what fans love about the series. It’s not the only Discworld game though – we have other opportunities to explore.
Today I’m going to talk about Clacks, which I believe is the only Discworld game that can still be purchased for something approximating its RRP. If you’re a fan on a budget, this might be the best chance you have to own a little slice of Great A’Tuin in cardboard. Our job is to work out whether that’s a course of action I would advise.
One of the most remarkable things about the Discworld books is how they build a compelling and believable sense of progress into the world despite lacking a fixed thread of overarching narrative. Books series like Game of Thrones or the Expanse have dense linear plots where each element of the story is a stepping stone on to the next. You follow them in order or you don’t follow them at all. This is a useful way of structuring a series – it creates context and a chain of cause and effect. Discworld doesn’t really have that. It’s a universe where you can dip in and out and don’t need to worry too much about skipping individual books or whole sub-sets of the books. Find Granny Weatherwax tiresome? Skip the Witches books entirely, or at least until Tiffany Aching takes over as the main protagonist. Sick of Vimes? You’d probably enjoy the Wizards books more. The characters merrily skip in and out of their spotlight but the truth is that all of the Discworld books are, fundamentally, just about the Discworld. In reality, the books are about anything and everything and that’s what made them such an effective setting for so many different and diverse stories.
But that does mean that there’s fair amount of, uh, culture shock that might happen if you don’t follow the rigid rails of release date chronology. So it is here with Clacks. If you started off in Ankh-Morpork with the vaguely Medici flavoured metropolitan intrigue you’d be well within your rights to be a little puzzled at the tonal shift. We move from courtly politics into the realm of what seems to be a kind of steampunk telegraph system. Here, you play a ‘Clacks’ operator tasked with transmitting words across the back of A’Tuin through the medium of manipulated light symbols. It’s a bit like the warning beacons of Gondor except that they usually carry the sell-price of pork futures rather than a call for martial assistance.
In many ways, the introduction of the Clacks represented a state change in the style of the Discworld books. It’s when they moved from more traditional fantasy mindsets into extended essays of the sociological impact of technology, and the rate at which technology improves and evolves. The Clacks game then isn’t a sequel to Discworld: Ankh Morpork or even particularly a sibling. It’s an entirely distinct beast that just so happens to share similarities in vocabulary. It draw from a different part of the rich tapestry of Pratchett’s work. Unfortunately, it doesn’t ever really do much more than adopt the trappings of the theme. It never really inhabits it.
There are a number of variations and modes of the game but they all work fundamentally around the same core. You have a clacks operator that can stand within a 2 by 3 region of lit and dimmed lamps. That region defines a semaphore footprint – if you can get it to match a letter on the clacks alphabet, you can transmit that letter to the next tower in the chain. You’ve got a word, or two, you’re hoping to send on. When you’ve transmitted all the letters of your word, you win the game. Or not, depending on the specific game mode being played.
To manipulate the lamps, each player on their turn can play one or more jacquards that flip the state of any of the lamps on the board according to a set pattern. Each jacquard has a particular amount of stress it costs in order to play, and that represents the mechanical grind of the gears and rods that drive the mechanisms. As such, each player has a fixed budget of stress they can put on the system at any one time. Large scale, simple alterations cost little stress but are so broad based an intervention that they rarely do what you want without causing problems elsewhere. Smaller and more precise changes are more costly. You’re left trying to balance the complexity of the changes versus the jacquards in your hand versus the likelihood that one of the other players will upset your pattern before you get to finally transmit it.
There are a few other things you have to deal with, including the stresses associated with moving (which you have to do before you can manipulate the lamps); fault cards that can be used to throw a metaphorical (and occasionally literal) spanner into the works of other players; incident cards and operator log cards; and some ‘last letter sabotage’ rules that let players have one final opportunity to keep themselves in the game. Those are just fripperies around the edges though – the core of the game is matching board state to jacquards to the letters that need transmitted to make up your word or words.
This is honestly a pretty interesting puzzle you can crunch your way through. Since every turn must begin with a move you have a complex set of interrelating limitations that are like trying to spread a cracker with pate from a disobedient lazy Susan. Where you position yourself before and after is as much a part of the task as the spreading itself. So too is the requirement that players must always have enacted a state change before transmitting a letter – you can’t just look for where a match is on the board, you need to actually make that match. Preferably while you undermine the hard work being put in by everyone else around the table.
If it all sounds a little bit unsatisfying and abstract though, well… you’re not wrong. Ultimately the only thing that makes this a Discworld game is the words you use (all drawn from the whimsically evocative Discworld vocabulary) and the framing devioce of the clacks themselves. It feels like an opportunistic game – where a design and a licence came together and didn’t seem like a bad match. That’s a far cry from it being a good match though. As a Discworld game… well, it doesn’t get the same rush of affection that would come from it being a good artefact of a world I adore.
I feel like I’m saying this a lot these days, but as a game it’s… fine. No great, substantive flaws that make playing it feel like a weird punishment from Hell’s Department of Narrative Irony. Similarly though there are no great moments of excitement or even accomplishment. There’s enough here to draw your attention but not so much that you get overwhelmed. Problematically though it’s only ever a game where you react because you’ll often be collateral damage in the state changes enacted by every other player. It feels too wildly unfair in that respect, and yet not targeted enough to make that unfairness a fun part of the give and take of play. When you’re not actively making changes to the shared game state, there’s little point in even paying attention. You can’t plan out your moves, because they’ll almost certainly make little sense by the time your turn comes around again. Fundamentally the tasks are so self-contained and atomic that it feels more like checking off a todo list than it does transmitting an important message from Ankh-Morpork to Genua. As a result of this it never really feels fun in any meaningful sense. It’s like doing a shift in an office job about which you don’t have any strong feelings.
In the books, clacks operators are a breed apart – proto-computer nerds more driven by a love for the technology than the aims to which it is put. A reverential bunch of techno-priests erecting both the tools of communication and the primitive rites and superstitions that will bind it together in a human context. Indeed, this site itself observes a tribute to Terry Pratchett that is encoded into the bones of the Clacks.
Operating the clacks in Discworld was a dangerous occupation. High winds and threshing and unreliable machinery conspire to create a circumstance where people die in the line of duty as they try to untangle cables and rigging to keep the messages flowing. When that happened his or her fellow Clacks operators would put their name into the ‘overhead’ of the Clacks. GNU Terry Pratchett. ‘Pass on this message. Do not log this message. And when this message reaches the end of its journey, turn it around and send it back’. Better someone live forever in the overhead than in the ground. There are hundreds of sites on the Internet that observe this tribute to Terry Pratchett, because a man is not dead while his name is still spoken.
The problem is there’s none of that intensity or love in Clacks. It feels like an administrative duty, not an act of passion. What there is of the Clacks and the odd people that run it is contained only in a few perfunctory cards and side references.
One might argue that I am unfairly critical of a mismatch of theme and application when it comes to Discworld, and those people would almost certainly be right. Clacks is fine. But a Discworld game should be more than fine. Everything about it seems… an act of contrived convenience. For example, players in the competitive game will be constantly undermining each other with acts of vandalism of the protocol. And yet, clacks operators were intensely proud of the Clacks as a system, not of their own role in it. The next tower must be respected, because they’re the ones respecting the one after that. If any tower falls, if any message fails, the entire endeavour is undermined. This was technology for social good, and its operators were fiercely proud of their role in it. It’s not possible for a competitive game of Clacks to exist unless that competition is against the less-advanced version of its own technology.
The co-operative game at least doesn’t violate the basic ethos of the Clacks because it focuses on a battle between the postal service and the clacks service – essentially the final plot beat of the (excellent) novel Going Postal. But again in that it fails to really capture what was important about the novel and certainly lacks the amazing and moving conclusion to the whole affair. Clacks as a game is so bound up in the details that it has missed entirely what the system is supposed to be about. I get shivers up my spine when I think about the Overhead. Clacks is something of a negative accomplishment – I can’t imagine a game that seems less interested in trying to capture any of the magic of its premise.
And yet… there are still comic touches in here that I think are so authentic that they seem to have come from the brain of Pratchett himself. I particularly love the framing of the manual.
So, where do we stand?
The question really here is … ‘does any of this matter?’. Let’s take that scenario by scenario.
Can you play Clacks if you don’t know anything about Discworld? Yes, you absolutely can.
Will you get more out of playing Clacks if you have some knowledge of the books? Yes, a little.
Should you play Clacks if you’re not a big fan of Discworld? Well, probably not. ‘Fine’ isn’t a sufficient benchmark for games in this day and age. You can play clacks and have a decent time, but you could play any number of other games and have an extraordinary experience.
So that leaves only one real intersection of theme and gameplay – should you play Clacks if you are a big fan of the Discworld? And for that I’d have to say…well, you won’t do yourself an injury but life is short and you won’t get anything particularly special out of it. Clacks doesn’t take you on a visit to the Discworld, but you can occasionally glimpse it off in the far-off distance. If you are a fan like I am, you’ll find that more frustrating than anything else.