Nary a Geared Top Hat in Sight
Clockwork Wars is the sort of game that might not survive the first glance. “Looks like a pared-down version of Archipelago,” one of my friends said when he first walked into the room, which is a longtime cardboard enthusiast’s version of “Looks like Settlers of Catan,” the proper reaction to any game featuring colorful hexes. And while Clockwork Wars holds nothing in common with Archipelago (or Catan), my friend wasn’t wrong. Colorful hexes and counters aren’t enough to set you apart in today’s golden age of colorful hexes and counters.
That’s where the second glance and the third glance come in, because Clockwork Wars absolutely survives those.
There are two things that Clockwork Wars handles so well, with such a deft hand and such a sense of innovation, that even the game’s shortcomings wither and die before you can bother to voice them. And rather than tell you what they are, I’d rather show you why they matter.
One of our recent games was played with the full five players — which is to say, with the full four players plus the fifth added by Sentience, the game’s slick first expansion. The map was huge, but never so huge that our troops couldn’t do some significant damage to any other faction with a few clever moves. In the northern part of the country, the Rhinochs and Mongrels had come to blows over a cluster of villages and research territories, constantly fighting over the prospect of the fresh conscripts and influence points those territories might provide. To beef themselves up, the player in control of the Rhinochs — rhino-people who can deploy limited-use kamikaze Crashers to win a couple key battles throughout the game — set up a Catapult in one of the spaces near the fighting. Every turn, this thing would kill one enemy soldier up to two tiles away. In Clockwork Wars, a single soldier is often a very big deal. Naturally, this began sapping at the Mongrels’ strength. The next round, they responded by putting up Missionaries in one of the neighboring territories. This turned out to be a game-changer, as Missionaries add a soldier to an adjacent hex every turn. Better yet, if the soldier were deployed to a village, that player would also earn a victory point. And in Clockwork Wars, a single victory point is often a very big deal.
Let’s pause a moment to explain what’s going on here. See, each game of Clockwork Wars features a handful of discoveries. Just a handful, nine to be precise, drawn at random from a big deck of around 50. These are familiar in concept: by accumulating research points in various disciplines, themselves earned by controlling research territories, you might eventually be able to afford a discovery. Sorcery discoveries tend to emphasize direct destruction, science is about beefing up your recruitment and armies, and religion generally makes your territories more interesting. Much like the power tiles in Kemet, the upgraded combat cards in Forbidden Stars, or the technologies in pretty much every Civilization-type game ever made, these discoveries can break the rules in all sorts of ways, giving you an edge over your opponent. Very unlike the upgrades in those games, where your newly-acquired perks are safely ensconced in your possession, the discoveries in Clockwork Wars are placed directly on the map. From that point on, anyone with a hungry eye can send troops to take possession of them.
This is brilliant stuff. For one thing, these discoveries make every game totally unique. A game featuring Missionaries and a Catapult will result in something totally different from a game revolving around a Pagoda for generating religion points, an Oracle to slip around the usual “ages” that restrict you from buying the really powerful discoveries until later in the game, and a Submersible that turns every lake on the board into a deathtrap for your opponent. But as amazing as those bonuses might sound, every discovery is also a calculated risk. That Analytical Engine might give you heaps of victory points, but can you guarantee it will stay out of your opponents’ hands?
Back in our game, the Rhinochs and Mongrels were busy launching targeted strikes at those strategic staging spots. The Mongrels sent their ultra-mobile Hunter to nab the Catapult, while the Rhinochs expended a Crasher to seize the Missionaries. Back and forth they went, often bypassing each other’s defenses.
I was playing as the boring vanilla human faction, except here the boring vanilla humans are neither boring nor vanilla. Instead, they’re masters of espionage, boasting a special unique unit called the Operative who can deploy behind enemy lines. So long as he catches the enemy with only a single soldier in his chosen territory, he kills the guy outright. Which is, naturally, what I sought to do. Watching the Rhinochs capture both the Catapult and the Missionaries was too much to bear, so I sent the Operative to sever his supply lines. The gambit worked, and suddenly the Rhinochs were forced to suffer from attrition, losing a soldier from every single territory cut off from their home base. As I mentioned earlier, a single soldier can be a very big deal. Now multiply that across five territories. Rhinoch expansion was crippled for the rest of the game.
The reason such dramatic maneuvers are possible in the first place is because all orders are assigned simultaneously and in secret, using a pad of paper and a pen. It’s such a throwback to days of yore that it feels fresh all over again, everyone hunched over their orders sheet and casting furtive glances across the map, wary of giving away their intentions by leaning too far forward. The moment when everyone reveals their moves is guaranteed to set your heart pounding. Sometimes, multiple gambits and stratagems will unfold at the same time, players breaking through each other’s lines at different points, discoveries changing hands, citadels and cities captured, endangered territories abandoned to enemy armies that never bother to arrive.
Back in our game, while the Mongrels were beaten by the Rhinochs, who were busy being beaten by me — and while I was being beaten by the Troglodytes and their Elemental Storm discovery — trouble was brewing in the west. Unchecked, the Inventions (the faction added by the expansion) were happily harvesting the forests in their quadrant of the map, aided by a Harvester discovery that doubled their victory points. It was hardly surprising when the final scoring phase revealed that everyone had roughly the same pitiful score but them.
It might seem like a downside that the player left alone will almost always be the player who comes out on top. But experienced players will immediately recognize that Clockwork Wars is one of those games where no player should ever be left to their own devices. There are any number of ways to counter even distant opponents, including the blatantly powerful espionage cards that bend the rules in ways that put most of the discoveries to shame. If there’s anything about Clockwork Wars that will frustrate those who prefer to leave huge swings out of their games, these are the prime suspects. With one card, you can wipe out territories, replace enemy troops with your own, swing victory points in your favor, or whisk a threatened discovery to safety.
However, even these aren’t as damaging as they might first appear. For one thing, not only are they rare, only making a few appearances each game, but they’re also so universally overpowered that you can simply work towards playing one of your own. Being the first to deploy an espionage card feels a lot like painting a big red target on the seat of your pants. For another, a single game of Clockwork Wars is surprisingly brisk, clock(working) in at around an hour and a half. If a particular map doesn’t give you any opportunities for scoring, or if another player cuts your supply lines and leaves your troops starving and considering desertion, or if an espionage card or discovery ruins your best-laid plans, then the game is over before you know it, leaving plenty of time to give it another shot.
All in all, Clockwork Wars is one of the best games I’ve played in a very long time. It draws on ideas new and old to provide something that feels doubly fresh, and knows that there’s a time and place for both deterministic battles and the unexpected swings of surprise maneuvers, overpowered discoveries, or unanticipated espionage cards. Best of all, every single match is packed with direct confrontation, thievery, and opportunities to undermine those who least expect it. Just writing about it gives me anticipatory chills for our next game.