The best thing about Clank! is that it’s a deck-building game, which is one of those phrases I didn’t see myself using, right alongside “I wish I could take the bus more often” and “Cabbage tastes better when burnt.” And yet it’s the gospel truth. Clank! is a good game, maybe even a great game, and largely because it’s a deck-builder.
Then again, the worst thing about Clank! is also that it’s a deck-building game, so there’s that.
In one sense, perhaps it’s a miracle that Clank! functions in the first place. Hybrid designs are tough, after all, and deck-building isn’t necessarily a fit-all mechanism. For the most part, hybrid deck-builders get away with it because they’re willing to use the system at its most basic level. Tyrants of the Underdark, for example, is about warring armies, but those warring armies are about as straightforward as warring armies have ever been, while the card system in Cry Havoc is so simplistic that it melts into the background noise of whirring miniguns and shrieking orbital pods. Even games that embrace the occasional unwieldiness of a flabby deck, such as last year’s Hands in the Sea, do so by pitching themselves as exercises in bureaucratic maximization. When your deck gets sloppy, it’s because you’re administering the needs of a wide-ranging empire. When you’re overseeing a dozen-plus colonies, expecting your army to mobilize with pristine efficiency is about as realistic as marching elephants across the Alps.
Sneaking into a crowded fantasy dungeon, hoovering up every last ounce of loot you can find, and avoiding a dragon in the process, on the other hand — well, that seems just a smidgen too immediate, at least at first glance. Which is why it’s such good news that Clank! totally pulls it off. At least most of the time.
The basics are delightfully easy to explain. Each turn, you’re given a hand of five cards from your steadily-growing deck, and you must play them. Note the must. It’s going to be important. The trick is that there are five primary resources to manage, and all but one of them is beneficial. Skill, which in any other game would be called gold, is how you buy new cards — and you can bet your prettiest artifact that we’ll be talking about how cool those cards are later. Gold itself is used for shopping at the dungeon’s markets — critical if you want to buy master keys to move around the dungeon more easily — or as an extra handful of points at the end of the game. Swords are for attacking monsters or keeping yourself safe when traveling through dangerous passages, and Boots are what do the traveling. Easy enough.
The fifth resource is the most interesting, and incidentally also the reason the game is called Clank!, because that last resource is Clank. Clank is essentially just noise: the jingle of a pouch of coins, the scuffle of misplaced footing, the hollow whump of a teleportation spell, the howling shriek of that stolen Scepter of the Ape Lord protruding from your back pocket. Whenever you play a card that gives you Clank — which, you’ll recall, isn’t optional — you’ll toss some colored cubes onto the board. For now, these aren’t all that dangerous. You can even remove them with a well-timed Elven Cloak or Move Silently card, letting the sound of your passage dissolve into the background clamor of the dungeon.
Wait too long, however, and you’ll watch as those cubes are tossed into the dragon bag and pulled out at random. In a move straight out of Zimby Mojo, anything drawn from that bag is immediately doled out as injuries. Just like that, using cards like Dead Run to move around easily doesn’t seem like such a good option.
Even worse, many of the best cards in a game full of very enticing cards also happen to be noisy. Raiding a vault might give you a pretty pile of gold to spend at the market, but it’ll also send up a racket. MonkeyBot 3000 lets you draw almost a second hand of cards, but he’s got to bang some cymbals to make it happen. Every gem you steal, every wandering overlord, all make it that much easier for the dragon to deal out punishment.
It doesn’t help that Clank! is pitched as a race. Each burglar isn’t just out to swipe gold. Rather, your task is to nab one of the valuable artifacts that litter the dungeon, some of which are protected by layers of doors and traps and one-way corridors and crystal caverns, then do your darnedest to rush back to the entrance. Once somebody escapes — or gets wiped out by the dragon — the clock starts ticking towards everybody’s inevitable doom. Sometimes you’ll have the freedom to gather gold, flip a few secret tokens, and delve to the deepest reaches in hope of picking up something nice; other times your buddy will pick up the nearest golden banana or fancy ring and bolt for the entrance.
And for the most part, Clank!’s thematic sense of place works wonders. Being stuck in place because your backpack is too full of Pickaxes, Singing Swords, Secret Tomes, and assorted companions beautifully adheres to a sort of hanged man’s logic. Rattling around at a breakneck pace really does feel like taking one risk too many, especially once the dragon bag starts running out of its opening dummy cubes. And plumbing the blackest depths of the dungeon, far from potential rescue if your journey sours, makes even the most steel-hearted adventurer long for a gulp of fresh air. Nabbing a last-minute Flying Carpet or Rebel Scout can feel like the luckiest thing in the world.
The system only strains under all this heavy lifting every once in a while. For one thing, winnowing your deck of its dull opening cards is far too difficult. The only thing worse than replenishing the market and seeing a Dragon Shrine — one of the only cards that can rid you of those pesky starting Stumbles — just begging for the next player to pick it up, is being that next player and only having three gold rather than the necessary four. Hope you like using Burgle a hundred times. Meanwhile, being stuck for a couple turns in a row because of a poor draw order tends to feel every bit as artificial and galling as in every other deck-building game that isn’t named Aeon’s End. Just because it makes some thematic sense that your bulging pockets of trinkets would slow you down doesn’t necessarily mean it’s fun, especially when your turn can be over in ten seconds while everybody else spends a good long time examining all the cards for sale.
Not that any of these complaints necessarily stack up alongside what Clank! does so well. This is one of those rare deck-building games that works at a zoomed-in, intimate level, capturing the tension of creeping into a place you don’t belong, the joy of taking what isn’t yours, and the thrill of using it to teleport to otherwise-inaccessible locations. Pulling off a heist in the deepest reaches, clanging your equipment together during your hasty retreat, and still limping back out in one piece is nothing short of exhilarating.
Of course, much of that success often comes down to luck. Every draw from your deck, the state of the market, the rare combos and deck-winnowing options, not to mention the capricious nature of the dragon bag, all combine to make this the sort of game that isn’t meant to be taken seriously. But for those who just want to have a good time and laugh when they get bit, Clank! is ready and willing to go dungeon-diving.