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Subject: Clockwork Wars: First Impressions after First Playthrough rss

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Jeremy ZJ
Singapore
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Why I got Clockwork Wars (CW)

I like my light, social deduction and bluffing games like Resistance, Dixit , Sheriff of Nottingham and Lifeboat. I decided I wanted to expand my repertoire to include something that retained what I liked about these light games (the player interaction and bluffing) but add on a layer of strategy that can make players in my group "feel like a brooding general perched over a map". At the same time, I wanted something that was accessible to fairly new players, could finish within three hours, and wouldn't take an hour to explain (a la Civilization). After poring through many game reviews only CW seemed to fit the bill, but it was pricey and I had missed the kickstarter. I decided to give CW a shot, somewhat apprehensive about being disappointed later.

This review includes the Sentience expansion and painted miniatures based on one playthrough:
50min Setup and Rules explanation, 2hr40mins Gameplay
Played at: Singapore

Overview
The designer describes CW as a "conquest game set in a fantasy-steampunk universe". I think CW is a medium to slightly heavy game that has a well designed mix of area-control, worker placement, bluffing and hand/resource management. Once set-up and explanation is done, the game becomes fast-paced and flows smoothly. There is some element of luck in this in the form of drawing from an espionage deck, but otherwise luck does not feature prominently in this game. This is notably a diceless game.

The game features 7 rounds, with the player with the most VP at the end winning the ganme. Each round can be summed up like this:

Players choose a spymaster tile (a tactical bonus for that round)
Players draw workers based on their control of the map and technologies
Players simultaneously write down their deployment orders in secret
Players act out their deployment and then may make some adjustments (called reinforcement)
Players resolve battles in a simple and quick process
Players buy and activate technologies

Components 9.5 / 10
Clockwork Wars comes in a hefty and sturdy 40cm x 32 cm box.

Simply put, CW contains the best moulding insert I have ever seen in a board game. It is evident that whoever designed this moulding did so in a very deliberate, intelligent way that features two storeys. The map hexagons sit snugly in their place and are easily retrieved. The large general and court tiles can be placed on top of the hexagons, forming a neat "cover". Similarly, the insert allows you to place the player screens and writing pad over the discovery (technology) cards as a "cover". The moulding even accommodates sleeves, which was a relief after having had to throw away resistance and Tokaido mouldings.

Overall, the artwork is great and helps establish CW as an IP in its own right. The map, court, general and spymaster tiles are printed on thick cardboard and feel sturdy. The discovery, discovery token and espionage cards are also good in my book. Even the generic round wooden discs appear well-painted. Multiple artists were engaged for the artwork and there is some minor inconsistency in the art styles.

I don't play miniature games so it is difficult for me to evaluate the miniatures, but overall I do think they are nicely detailed and great for sprucing up the map.

I did feel there were a few minor issues in the components department:
Early age (bronze) colour needs to be more distinguishable from Late age (gold)
IP tokens (currency to buy discoveries) come in denominations of 1 and 3, but their reverse side is the same and indistinguishable. This wastes some time in having to flip and find the right tokens.
The miniature tank had a droopy bent cannon, which was easily fixed with hot water
The plastic stands don't open wide enough to be of any use. Not really a major issue as you can just lay discovery tokens on hexagons.

Rulebook 10/10
The rulebook is beautiful and well-illustrated. Even the background texture is aesthetically pleasing. Examples are clearly shown and brought out appropriately. I only had a minor semantic issue with the term "influence points", which is thematically more related to a political court than a technology. I got around this by calling IP "innovation points"

Set up and rules explanation
While not a heavy game, CW definitely takes a significant amount of time to set up and teach. You will require a lot of table space. Players will need to get up and walk to the discovery cards to read them. I spent approx 50 minutes to set up and explain to 4 players my first time, but I reckon I can easily do it in about 40min next session.

Gameplay 10/10 (based on 1 session)



(In this section, I will reference other board games for illustrative purposes, please do not see this as a personal attack on your favourite game)

I moderated CW for 4 players who were all new to the game. Two were light gamers, one preferred heavy games, and one was somewhere in between. We set up the 4-player map "diamond" and I guided the players along the flow of the game.

Fast and Smooth Pacing
As mentioned in the overview, once set up and rules explanation were finished the game flowed very smoothly in a fast pace, with only brief lulls for me to introduce espionage card effects, discoveries and generals. This can be attributed to the round system, whose phases are consistent throughout the game. By the end of the 1st or 2nd round, players will already be familiar with the rules and flow for the rest of the game (exception: it is not feasible to explain every card in the espionage deck).

To draw an example, I view games like Imperial Settlers and SmashUp as having a problem where gameplay has to keep pausing with every card played because everyone has to read what that card does. This also alienates new players because they feel "unprepared" for each card since it is not possible to explain each and every card at the start.

Clockwork Wars avoids this problem by having rules that, while requiring lengthy explanation at the start, are consistent and do not keep require constant elaborations, exceptions, or introduction of special powers that make new players feel at an unfair disadvantage. While the espionage deck has many unique effects, is also seemingly balanced by being one-time use and having a manpower and spymaster cost, so across the whole game only 4-5 espionage cards were activated.

Meaningful, Strategic Decision Making with Depth
Even though I did not directly play as a player, I could sense the apprehension and uncertainty on players' faces as they wrote down their deployment orders. In CW, almost every decision is deliberate and there is very little luck involved. Players not only have to consider what map tiles to go for, but also think about their opponents' moves, whether to deploy to court, sacrifice workers for IP, whether to activate their espionage card, reinforcement order, and how to use their faction's unique unit(s).

For comparison, a game like the starting of Betrayal at House on the Hill has a problem where decisions are not deliberate or meaningful as players are just randomly wandering and exploring the house while waiting for the haunting to happen. Conversely, Five Tribes often has situations where there are a plethora of possible actions but the actions are not deliberate. Until the very late game, it is not practical to consider your move's effects on other players, so you may make your move without even knowing or considering whether you harmed or helped your opponents.

Bluffing / Player interaction
While CW is not a hard negotiation or bluffing game like Resistance, Sheriff or Cosmic Encounter, there is definitely a healthy dose of player interaction and opportunities for bluffs, counter-bluffs and mind-gaming. In my session, players were trying to "verbally claim" territories, declare their "intentions for peace", commenting on each others' moves or IP, and even trying to catch where another player was glancing at. Also hilarious was when the court got flooded with workers and there was a tie. The purchase and movement of the steam tank was met with many "oohs" and "ahhs". Funnily enough, the tank never took part in any battles.

Simultaneous Deployment
I don't claim to be a board games veteran so I'm uncertain how many other games have a similar feature and how original this feature is. Anyway, players in my session were initially stunned by, and later on praised the simultaneous deployment system. This simultaneous deployment simulates a fog of war, but players are not completely in the dark as they can make guesses to others' intentions and make adjustments during reinforcement.

Replayability / Balance:
Since this review is only based on one session I can't really comment on replayability or balance, although the modular map tiles and pool of 54 discoveries seem to ensure great replayability.

Overall: 10/10 (based on one playthrough)
I was quite impressed that the game appealed to both the light and heavy gamers in my session. I think CW managed to strike a great balance between mixing up the different genres, accessibility to new players, rule complexity and strategic depth, and game length.

To sum up:
Good mixture of different genre elements
Still exciting for the heavy player in my group
Remains accessible to new players willing to play something longer
Great array of meaningful strategic choices without being overwhelming
not a multiplayer solitaire
Good pacing, exciting gameplay
components look great
low luck influence, if that's your thing
probably high replayability
components are great, artwork is beautiful
attracts alot of attention from onlookers at your table

very minor issues for some components
long set up and rules explanation (relative to my other games, but this is necessary)
needs a lot of table space
expensive (but for good reasons)
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Paul Paella
United States
East Aurora
New York
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Excellent review, and I agree with everything stated. I can't emphasize enough how precise and useful the insert is. I ALWAYS throw out inserts, replacing them with baggies, including games such as Lords of Waterdeep. I kept the insert for CW and it works great, mostly due to the clear plastic cover that keeps everything snug, even when the box is angled oddly.

My one issue with the game, and it can't even be considered an issue for me due to an included variant that addresses it, is how the free-for-all nature of the game can play out in a chaotic end-game.

If you're familiar with free-for-all games like Eclipse, Runewars, City of Remnants, Cyclades, etc, you may know what happens in a lot of these games. Players who fight can eliminate each other by depleting their resources due to fighting, giving other players a wide-open opportunity to roll over them. Or, 2 players gang up on one and roll over them. Or, no one fights and one player is the obvious front-runner near the end of the game and everyone gangs up on them, often wiping out their lead and making it so they can't compete. Often, the end-game comes down to a chaotic scramble for VP, or, a new perceived leader is the target of everyone's wrath and the process repeats, or Kingmaking results in who wins. Many players love this in a game. I find the end-game in these types of games very random and unrewarding, even though I play them often.

Clockworks Wars addresses this by including a 2v2 team variant. Two teams of 2 compete against one another, and the game plays out in a completely different way, with no Kingmaking. 2 sides ganging up on one means the victims teammate isn't helping or is free to exploit whichever enemy is vulnerable. This is how I prefer to play, and I wanted to thank Hassan for including this variant. I believe I asked if it could be included during the Kickstarted and he did! meeple
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Hassan Lopez
United States
Greenfield Center
New York
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Thank you so much for this detailed and nuanced review. It's a real thrill for me to see people playing (and enjoying!) Clockwork Wars halfway across the world. Awesome, awesome stuff.

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Richard Hills
Australia
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severian73 wrote:
Thank you so much for this detailed and nuanced review. It's a real thrill for me to see people playing (and enjoying!) Clockwork Wars halfway across the world. Awesome, awesome stuff.



Clockwork Wars also reached halfway across the world in the other direction, to Canberra the capital city of Australia.

I particularly enjoyed the CW positron-electron combat system, a big improvement on the tedious dice-rolling in Eclipse.
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Rock Bronson

Kansas City
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Excellent, concise review. I think you'll be pleased with the replayability, as a different map can play very differently, as do different Discovery trees.
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Rodney Cockrell
United States
Corona
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I too agree with everything you said. Great review, Jeremy.
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