|Clank!: A Deck-Building Adventure (2016)
|Meeple Like Us
|Medium Light [2.22]
Somewhere out there, for any game that has achieved any kind of distinction in a crowded marketplace, is a convert that has made the propagation of that game their personal mission. They have felt the Call and inducted themselves into the Holy Church of Buzz. And, sheep that I am, I often find myself attracted to the sheer animal intensity of their enthusiasm.
It starts off slowly. I feel a kind of radiated warmth from the heat a game is generating amongst the cardboard commentariat. The hotness intensifies. The fires spread. Almost everyone is talking about it. The ones that aren’t soon will be because everyone else is talking about it. The blaze becomes all consuming. Everyone is burning in the radiance of its glow and they’re delighted. They’re gradually incinerated in a bonfire of agreement and appreciation, and after a few weeks all that remains are the ashes that blow away into the wind to the dissipating cry of ‘Best… game…. ever…’
‘Wow’, I think, ‘that game must be absolutely marvelous’. I go out of my way to buy it, often amidst a throng of people equally enamored by this ludic luxury that has been the focus of so much attention. I play it a few times and come away from the experience thinking, ‘That was a perfectly acceptable way for me to spend my precious free time’. In terms of the hotness though, it often feels like I’ve just been burned.
It might be because I am a crusty middle-aged man that longs to replace his autonomic system with a dispassionate algorithm. It might be that a long burden of weary cynicism has left me unable to experience real joy. Maybe though it’s just because that warmth you feel coming off of a heavily hyped product is rarely truly authentic. We’re all forever marching away on the hedonic treadmill and the new will always be more intoxicating than the familiar. The hype for Clank did not at all gel with my experience.
In fact, that would be the theme of this review had I not decided last night to give it one more try before sitting down to write up my thoughts. I had experienced a perfectly solid game of fantasy larceny expressed through deck-building but I had never come away feeling truly satisfied. Something was nagging at the back of my mind, telling me that I had missed something – not a rule, or a system, or even a measurable amount of the content in the game. Instead, I felt I was missing something more fundamental. It was like there was something skewed within the geology of the game’s sedimentary layers. We played it again with a little twist – this time I engaged in a bit of psychological gamesmanship with the intention of convincing Mrs Meeple to be greedier in her explorations. And bugger me if it didn’t turn out that when she really got the taste for thievery Clank was genuinely something exciting.
This is how Clank works – you get a standard set of cards in the most traditional version of deckbuilding imaginable The religious observance of the formalised rites of game development have been fully honoured. The card-play in Clank would please even the most fanatical zealot. How many cards do you get? You get ten. How many do you deal out? You deal out five. Lo, these are the commandments of deck-building as they were handed down from Saint Vaccarino. Hallowed be these purified rites. Blessed be our observance.
We then pop down the board, and here’s where we start to diverge a little from canon. Clank is far from the first deckbuilder to make use of a a physical map, but what’s remarkable is the spatial complexity of the game environment. The individual squares represent rooms in a dungeon. Lines show paths, and those paths might be locked, unidirectional, full of monsters, or make for especially slow progress. Some rooms are ice caverns that halt movement. Others are healing springs. Many contain treasures whereas some are the subterranean equivalent of a branch of Starbucks.
Some of those squares contain artefacts and grabbing one of those is what sets the tempo of the game. You’re a burglar, delving into the crevices of the world to steal a treasure and haul it back to the surface for fame and profit. As soon as a player escapes the dungeon with significant loot in their pockets they hit the ‘abort’ button on the adventure. At that point everyone has to frantically escape before the dragon lurking in the depths loses her temper and goes, as the sacred texts put it, ‘absolutely raving librarian poo’. The dragon’s wrath is the drumbeat of exploration. Those drums end in a crescendo so aggressively violent that the neighbours two streets over call the police because they think someone just electrocuted a marching band. Clank is all about balancing risk and reward, and finding the point where you should race for the surface before anyone else thinks about beating you there.
The cards that you deal yourself from your deck on your turn are encrusted with special effects and symbols. Some of these are the ‘skill’ that you’ll use to buy new cards. Some show feet which you use to move through the game. Some have swords, and those swords can be used to kill monsters and pass through dangerous passages unharmed. The more you have of all of these, the better your prospects will be as you delve ever deeper into the richest parts of the dungeon.
As with all deck-builders you begin with a limp, lethargic card collection of dubious value. Your main job throughout the game is to add new and more powerful cards that grant you swiftness of foot and sureness of mind. You have a reliable set of standard cards from which you can purchase improvements, but the real meat of the game lies in the special supply of shifting dungeon cards that get purchased and replaced over the course of the game.
Some of your cards have a special effect that revolves around the idea of ‘clank’, which is an abstracted way of referencing the noise you generate and the mistakes you make in your adventures. Whenever a card tells you to add clank, you take the appropriate number of your coloured cubes from your supply and pop them into the dragon bag.
Don’t worry about that just yet. They’re only cubes in a bag, what’s the worst that can happen?
That’s your turn. It’s spent by you flipping over five cards from your deck, shuffling your discard deck into a new deck if necessary, and then actioning out the effects and spending the symbols you acquire. Essentially these give you a budget of activities for your larcenous ambitions. You can spend them in chunks, shuffle around when you do what and when, and basically try to leverage your cards in a way that will give you the biggest payload for the minimum risk. You’ll be eyeing up the standard offering of cards because they serve as the bread and butter of improving your deck. They’re unexciting but deeply functional. Exploration cards and mercenaries give you the ability to move more freely around the board and buy ever more expensive offerings from the dungeon row. Before too long though you’re going to move onto the more sophisticated fare of the other cards and that’s where things start to get more interesting.
The dungeon row ties itself into your game in more intricate ways. Some cards have an effect on the game as soon as they arrive in the row. Some create ‘danger’ which changes the way certain things work as long as the card is still present. Some give you special one-off effects when you first add them to your deck. Other cards, such as devices, are used once when you buy them and then returned to the box. Most cards are bought with skills. Monsters are fought with your swords.
Look at the emerald. That’s a really nice card – it costs five skill (shown in the bottom right), gives you five victory points at the end (shown in the top right) and whenever you find this in your hand you get to draw a new card to essentially replace it. It’s not hugely useful in and of itself but it’s worth a lot of points and doesn’t do any active harm when you draw it. It also has an ‘acquire’ action along the bottom – when you buy this card you take two of your cubes and add them into that dragon bag. It’s okay, don’t worry about it just yet it’s all going to be fine.
At the end of your turn any of the cards you bought from the dungeon row get replaced from the deck and every so often you’re going to draw one that has the dragon icon along its right-hand edge. The Dragon’s Eye for example is an excellently valuable card under the right circumstances, but when it enters the row it tickles the attention of the dragon that we’ve thus far avoided disturbing. The mark of the dragon indicates she briefly awakens and makes a lazy attempt to main everyone that has been traipsing mud all the way through her otherwise pristine lair.
This is where all your clank is going to come back to haunt you.
The dragon (her name is Nicki) has a level of rage that increases as things happen in the dungeon. When you pick up an artefact, her rage increases. If you collect one of her valuable dragon eggs, her rage increases. As she gets angrier and angrier, you draw ever larger numbers of cubes from the dragon bag. That bag initially contains twenty-four black cubes that represent spent but largely impotent aggression. The rest are cubes that you and everyone else around the table puts in there as a result of your adventuring. You don’t want to put clank in the bag – that’s just going to end up being deferred punishment that comes at you in unpredictable proportions.
When dragon cubes are spat out during an attack they don’t go back into the bag – they’re gone for the rest of the game barring special card effects. As such, as time goes by the risks get ever higher – fewer black cubes, more of your coloured cubes, and ever larger numbers of them drawn each time. When one of your cubes is pulled from the bag, it gets placed on your heath tracker. When that’s full, your game is over.
No single part of Clank is particularly good. The deck-building is functional but uninspired. The dungeon exploration is solid but uninvolved. The clank system is basically the clerical advancement model of Village without all the darkly satirical undertones. When you bring them together they work well enough but they don’t really create huge amounts of excitement. The game mechanisms in Clank combine to create something that is a perfectly acceptable way to spend your precious free time. This is where I found myself feeling like I wasn’t quite getting it – I can see on paper how these systems should cohere to send electricity through a gaming table, but I had never observed it myself. That’s because Clank is missing something that players need to bring to the experience, and there’s nothing in the game itself that incentivises them to do so.
The last ingredient of Clank is risk-taking, and beyond a shallow exhortation as to the importance of gathering points it never does anything to make you want to engage in this behaviour. You can’t leave the dungeon unless you’ve collected an artefact, and so the sensible strategy is almost always to race down to the first artefact, grab it and escape the dungeon before anyone has even claimed theirs. It’s not even hard to do that – gather movement cards at the cost of everything else and you can zip merrily in and out before the others have gotten their boots on. The easiest treasures to get in Clank are very easy to get. The seven-point treasure on the easiest side of the board is eight movement points away if you don’t want to take any risks, and six if you don’t mind taking a bit of damage. You’ll be able to make that journey in three or four complete rotations of your deck even if you don’t buy any movement cards – six or eight turns, in other words. Sure, to get that you have to sacrifice your chance at any other points but remember nobody can leave the dungeon until they have an artefact. Once you’ve gotten out there are dragon attacks of increasing severity every turn until everyone has escaped or is dead.
If you fancy being riskier and going for a fifteen-point treasure, it takes… six points of movement to get there and the same to get out. You’ll take two points of damage and get a small treasure in the process.
If you want to add another two points of movement you can pick up a five-point monkey idol on the journey, getting you in and out for fourteen points of movement. Each full cycle of the cards is also going to get you the skill to buy at least one or two explore cards, and each of those gives you an extra point of movement. If you build for speed, you will move very rapidly through the dungeon and there’s not a damn thing anyone can do to stop you.
On the more complicated board this is how much movement is needed to take you to an artefact and then back out of the dungeon.
The 25 and 30 treasures are not directly comparable because they either need keys or circuitous routes, but the point stands – you don’t need a lot to get one of these treasures and the tempo of the game is set by the most risk averse player. Some of these direct paths are even more lucrative than they look in the table – the five-point treasure will take you via a monkey idol worth five points. The twenty point one will take you via two small secrets and two large secrets and they may be worth victory points or other benefits of their own. The problem here is that the game is all about stealing a treasure but it’s possible for someone to steal the lowest hanging fruit and still win. That’s especially true since those players that escape get a bonus ‘mastery’ token that is denied to those that die in the dungeon. Victory is not guaranteed for the fastest player, or even particularly likely – the game doesn’t end the minute someone escapes but the risk for those within continues to escalate for several turns until everyone is dead. Even if the nervous player ends up losing though it doesn’t mean that anyone else will be satisfied by their win. Clank is a game that needs everyone to be prepared to delay their gratification until the moment when it is most likely to be entertaining. If that doesn’t happen the deck-building never has time to make a difference and the scoring systems never pivot enough to be interesting. The collection of points only matters in comparison when external factors of dragon-murder don’t skew the calculation. If someone hits that ‘abandon ship’ button your job either becomes ‘buy enough movement to get out safely’ or ‘buy cards that have victory points’. In either case, you lose all your opportunities to really enjoy what you’re doing because necessity overrides all other concerns.
The alchemy of this game experience needs players to look beyond the base mechanics of victory and into the experience of exploration. The game is actively set up to disincentivise this – the risk in the early rounds of the game is always going to be much less than the later rounds because of the way the dragon cubes get used up. Taking a point of damage ten rounds into the game is so much worse than taking a point in the first round because of how high the stakes get and how much more likely your cubes are to be drawn. The result is that if you’re playing with someone that’s skittish and driven by the chance to win you’ll find the game ends before you really have a chance to start. The game systems actually undermine what you need to do to have fun. There is considerable dissonance here between the fact of victory and the experience of it.
What’s needed then is for players to look beyond winning and look at winning big. Mrs Meeple died in the dungeon last night because I had engineered the circumstances of her demise. She still found a quiet pride in being, as she put it, ‘the richest corpse in the dungeon’. No kidding too – if she had made it out she would have had a score that was almost double mine. She lost because I convinced her that taking the most convenient treasure would inevitably result in her losing the game (and it might have, too). I then pointed out that if she bought a backpack she’d be able to get two artefacts, probably before I was able to even get to one…
And then, when she was making her way the second treasure that would have cemented her victory I ran ahead to grab it and started my escape just as her deck was running out of spare movement.
The right time to snatch an artefact in Clank is not when you reach it but when it’s going to be at its most comically inconvenient for everyone else.
That’s what made Clank interesting. It’s not the urge to jump, it’s deeper than that. It’s not even the urge to fall. It’s the urge to make everyone else fall.
Clank is a push your luck game that doesn’t give you a reason to push anything – you need to bring that to the experience yourself. If you do, then everything changes as you get deeper and richer. The texture of the competition shifts – getting the next treasure becomes not about being the first out but the richest out. That’s not true early on, but it becomes true as the game progresses. The clank you add to the bag becomes increasingly psychologically weighty – the impotent dragon cubes that leave the bag are only temporarily reassuring. They tell you you’ll survive this round, but your odds just got worse for the next. The clank bag becomes less about being a simple roulette wheel of injury and becomes increasingly the payback for your mounting hubris. Clank should end with someone roasted to death by dragon-fire as they try to pry one more gemstone out of the eye-socket of a forgotten stone idol. That only happens when everyone has an artefact and the comparison of accumulated points can begin.
When someone finally breaks the stalemate, and hauls their collected artefact to the surface, it should prompt bestial roars from everyone else at the table. That in itself becomes a comedy of errors as they start buying up the secret tomes that serve as lucrative dead weight in their hand. They might be exactly what you need to pip someone to a win but every single tome you buy is going to slow you down at exactly the time you need to be speeding up. Your deck in Clank will behave like every nightmare you’ve ever had of frustrated acceleration against an unforgiving deadline.
That leaves me in a tricky position here – we review games as they come out of the box on Meeple Like Us, and I’m firmly of the belief that a vital element of making Clank an exciting game is missing from what you’ll unpack from the punchboard. If your group is happy to make up the difference you’ll likely find this a heart-pounding experience in the last few electric rounds of criminal compromises. If your group approaches games as a puzzle of optimisation then Clank has almost nothing to recommend it. More than this, the systems of Clank abruptly break apart when even one player is looking to optimise their win rather than maximise their points. The amount of time you spend in the dungeon is dependent on the time the least adventurous player is willing to spend there. You can house rule incentives, of course, but you can’t get around the fixed constraints of the game geometry. There are only two maps in Clank and neither of them say ‘Dig deeper’ to anyone that’s playing.
So, what kind of people are in the group you’d be playing this with? Are they prepared to roll the dice and risk a heroic failure, or are they likely to bank on a modest and inevitable success? If it’s the latter, look elsewhere for your fun. That attitude is the diesel in the petrol engine that completely knackers the engine. If your group’s view on victory is not quite so binary then Clank at its best will absolutely earn its space on your shelf. Clank is the deckbuilding equivalent of going all-in on a hand of poker. It’s hitting on twenty in blackjack. Sometimes you just have to roll the hard six, and Clank is a game that is all about rolling even if you don’t have to. That’s not going to work for everyone, but if you think it’s going to work for you I’d be happy to recommend it for your attention.