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Subject: How Clockwork Wars Distinguishes Itself in an Already-Crowded Genre rss

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Jordan K
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One of the more intriguing "dudes on a map" games to come out in recent years, Clockwork Wars is squarely in the war/euro hybrid genre. Some might argue that it is simply a very confrontational worker placement game, but the “feel” is closer to other area control games (Runewars, Cyclades, A Game of Thrones: The Board Game (Second Edition), etc.), so that is how I will classify it. I missed out on the Kickstarter campaign but took a chance on the game after reading the rules online (available here) and am glad I did. I won’t waste time summarizing the rules, instead focusing on the gameplay experience and whether or not it might appeal to your group.

Before I begin the review, I offer you my biases: I am a gaming omnivore who enjoys the whole spectrum of games, from light social deduction to medium worker placement to heavy economic or empire-building games. I have a strong preference for well-integrated themes and attractive art/components, but gameplay always comes first. I don’t mind direct conflict, and my tolerance for randomness decreases as a game’s play time increases; for example, Catan takes way too long for the amount of luck involved, but that level of randomness would be acceptable for a short filler game, like Love Letter. With that out of the way, here are my observations on the experience of playing Clockwork Wars.


I will begin with the game’s strengths:

thumbsup Clockwork Wars offers perfect playing time for the amount of depth. We were at 90 minutes by our second game (three-player), and we're usually on the slow side. With some experience, speedier groups (even four-player) could probably cut that down to around 60 minutes (not including setup/tear down). While I love epic conquest games that last three hours or more, it can be a challenge to get them to the table. Clockwork Wars offers a rewarding experience in a much more manageable block of time.

thumbsup Players are not locked into any one strategy. You can either heavily emphasize or largely ignore various aspects of the game (the espionage cards, villages/cities, the court, discoveries, generals, etc.) and still have a shot at victory as long as you are playing well.

thumbsup The game will be significantly different each time. I love that the tech "tree" will likely never be the same in any two games. Add to that the highly customizable map layouts and you have some tremendous replay value.

thumbsup The slowest phases of the game are performed simultaneously, so there is little downtime. Everyone writes down their deployment orders at the same time (think a stripped-down version of Diplomacy). Each other phase moves from player to player very quickly. If everyone is on top of their turns, you might never have to wait a full minute between decision points, which is almost unheard-of in this style of game.

thumbsup There is no player elimination (your starting hex is immune to conquest and will always generate 4 workers for you) and no turtling on VP-generating hexes (thanks to the clever pollution mechanic).

thumbsup Perhaps most importantly, the game rewards skill over luck. There is a bit of randomness in which espionage cards you draw, but the otherwise deterministic battles and simple but well-executed rules regarding reinforcement and supply lines mean that attentive players who have a good plan and some flexibility will be victorious over those who do not. This game offers many opportunities to make a clever play that catches your opponents off guard at a critical moment (and makes for a great story later!).


Of course, no game is perfect, so you should consider whether these potential weaknesses would hinder your group’s enjoyment of the game:

thumbsdown As with most multiplayer conflict games, there is the potential for kingmaking and/or “bash the leader,” although this has not yet been a problem in our games. If three players gang up on a fourth from the beginning, that player will probably have no shot at winning. However, the more likely scenario is that an obvious lead will not be established until the last turn or two, and a player whose opponents all band together against him/her at this point might still be able to outwit them, such as with a surprise surge in the court or opportunistic play with the Leviathan or a late-age discovery. Of course, there is also the option to play two-player or using the included team rules, which would eliminate these potential problems entirely.

thumbsdown The unusual theme (steampunk with a dose of sorcery and human-animal hybrid factions) may or may not appeal to your group. The art is excellent, the graphic design is generally functional and the wooden discs are, in my opinion, the right choice for workers, although some gamers would no doubt have preferred miniatures for all units. I don’t feel particularly immersed in the game universe, but I do feel engaged with the gameplay, which is more important.

thumbsdown Because victory depends on paying attention to what your opponents are likely to do and attempting to outmaneuver them, misreading the situation can be potentially disastrous, which could frustrate some players. If you think you’ll surprise your opponent by dropping six workers into the court or a key hex and he/she ends up bringing seven, the experience can be deflating (here, again, is where flexibility in your strategy is key). This is not a friendship-destroying game by any means, but there are some gamers who take plays like this personally, so Clockwork Wars may not be to their taste. You probably already know if there are any such folks in your group.


Conclusion

If you enjoy multiplayer conflict games, you owe it to yourself to give Clockwork Wars a try. It does enough things differently (and well) to hold its own in an already-crowded genre, and I am happy to have it in my collection.
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John Di Ponio
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Thanks for your thoughts Jordan. I totally agree with your analysis of the game. When I first received it via kickstarter, I dove in and began to think that this was going to be be something I have already played in the past. Its hard to trump Runewars in my household but I gave it a shot with the normal gaming group (my sons and daughter) and it proved to be a very good game. The play did include the Clockwork Wars: Sentience expansion so we could have 5 players. I wasn't expecting to have as much fun as we did. The expansion does add quite a bit to the game as far as territories and a couple more Discovery and Espionage cards but I don't think not having the expansion takes away from the game at all.

I was the one that misread the situation of my opponents and it did prove disastrous but hey, that's my fault!
I, for one, can't give a thumbs down to the unusual theme. This is kind of what drew me to the game and it plays very well to fit the theme.
In all I am very happy that I backed this game.
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Jordan K
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Thank you for the comment. I agree that Runewars is an outstanding game, although I expect CW to see more table time in my group due to the shorter length.

I will probably pick up the Sentience expansion at some point (one of my friends insists on purple pieces...), but I was impressed that Clockwork Wars feels "complete" with just the base game.

Regarding the theme, I am sure that some groups will love the game because it's so unusual, while others might be turned off. I'll leave that up to the individual gamer, since tastes vary. I was pretty neutral on the theme, but I like how each of the factions feels different due to the unique units. The excellent illustrations help with this, too.
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Hassan Lopez
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Greenfield Center
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Thanks so much for taking the time to write this review, Jordan.

As for your last con, I'll say this: I recently played a 2-player game against a good friend and completely underestimated his aggressive, blitzkrieg playstyle. I was the Trogs, he the Purebreeds, and on the third turn he attacked my one remaining city, while also cutting my supply lines to a large part of the map into which I was happily expanding. For the rest of the game I was back-pedaling, and it was so painful to see the smirk on his face. I totally deserved the loss, but you definitely have to be psychologically prepared for (embarrassing) outcomes like this. I still consider it the mark of a game that rewards skill and strategy over luck, but in that sense, it's not "blunder-friendly."
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Jordan K
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I appreciate your comments, Hassan. As I hope was clear from my review, I think you've got a real winner here!
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David Hodgson
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severian73 wrote:
....it was so painful to see the smirk on his face.


I was trying really hard to hide that smirk. My only regret is not taking a picture of the final game state.
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Doug Epperson
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Frederick
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severian73 wrote:
Thanks so much for taking the time to write this review, Jordan.

For the rest of the game I was back-pedaling, and it was so painful to see the smirk on his face. I totally deserved the loss, but you definitely have to be psychologically prepared for (embarrassing) outcomes like this."


My gaming buddy and I refer to this feeling as "THE TASTE OF BILE." gulp

Meaning that terrible taste that rises to the base of your throat when your friend gives you the what for with that evil smirk. Later, you wake from your sleep in a cold sweat knowing you've been had.
ninja

But we believe that when this happens, you have the right of "Dee-mand" on choosing the next game.

It's more fun than playing what we call a Euro weenie game....where everyone gives each other hugs and goes out for ice cream after the game. II think it's more fun to give your buddy the taste of bile. Muhahahaha....
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corum irsei
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Great review that really sparked my interest in the game!
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