One of the things I appreciate most about John Clowdus is the way he peppers his games with moments of thematic coherence, when systems and setting enter into alignment to create an intuitive shorthand for what the game is asking you to do. In Omen: A Reign of War, these moments revolved around mythological beasts upending both the rules of nature and the rules of the game. In The North, it was sparse actions reinforcing the sense that you were renovating long-dormant machines. Even Mezo spun a cosmology in which the gods were always peering around the corners of reality, inspiring as much as directly intervening.
And in Bronze Age, this coherence has everything to do with the collapse.
The Late Bronze Age Collapse — the real one, not Clowdus’s — refers to the half century when the developed civilizations of the Eastern Mediterranean vanished in a fit of violence and a haze of uncertainty. Why? Nobody knows. Theories include volcanic eruptions, the advent of iron metallurgy, enigmatic “Sea Peoples” burning everything for funsies, or more fringe offerings like the development of subjective language overturning the more hive-minded behaviors of existing cities. No, really. That’s literally something somebody went to the trouble of writing a paper on.
Clowdus’s Bronze Age isn’t about the why. It’s about weathering the storm. And like most of his games, this is accomplished with a slender deck of cards, some basic principles, and nary an event chart in sight.
At the outset, two things are on your mind. First is your civilization. In order to appease the zeitgeist of asymmetrical powers, each player’s city-state begins with slightly different priorities. You have one generic card for basic symbols like exploration, prosperity, and society — the stuff any self-respecting Mediterranean civilization is bound to prize — alongside a unique card that utilizes two of the game’s other four symbols. This means that one city might be interested in urban development and agriculture, while another cares more for warfare and artwork. In one sense these differences are minor. No matter the combination of civ cards, no rules are altered. You and your opponent are entirely identical apart from your own personal pair of special powers. But these small alterations can make a world of difference. Properly applied, they’re going to change nearly everything about your approach to the game at large.
Speaking of which, your other preoccupation is the three decks arrayed before you. These are, well, nearly everything about Bronze Age. On one side they’re territories you can annex, a shuffled-together mix of mountains, seas, and plains. On the other, two sets of symbols you can deploy into your city-state. And while you know a little bit about what’s on the other side, because a sea will always be connected with exploration and a mountain with society and so forth, the other symbol is a gamble.
For most of its duration, Bronze Age is a war for tempo. Each turn sees you either playing an action card to one of those three decks or retrieving one. Depending on which way the action card moves, out of your hand or into it, the outcome will be slightly different. In the first case, you gain the top card of your chosen deck as a territory, draw another into your hand, and then play a symbol into your civilization to activate one of your abilities — at least, as long as your action card’s type matches its destination’s terrain. Meanwhile, returning an action card to your hand lets you either draw or play something — and then do so again for every other action card still lingering at that location.
At this point, I’m convinced John Clowdus could design a compelling card game in his sleep. Bronze Age is a clear riff on his own Neolithic, using shared locations and a limited set of action cards as speed governors you’re constantly breaking free of. But this is even better than Neolithic. Naturally, the usual emphasis on building combos is present and accounted for. Matching an action card to its destination lets you do far more than a non-match, just as certain abilities let you play additional symbols and therefore extra abilities, spooling out accomplishments that would take three or four weaker turns to replicate. Even smarter, there’s no “ownership” of action cards. If you recognize that your opponent is trying to acquire mountains, there’s nothing stopping you from grabbing both mountain action cards and keeping them in your hand. Apart from the sacrifices you’ll be making to your own tempo, of course. Bronze Age is like that. Turns are often a decision between immediate gains, riddling your opponent’s trajectory with speed bumps, or preparing for major combos down the line.
Here, though, you also need to keep in mind that “down the line” might not exist thanks the impending collapse.
The first time a deck runs dry, Bronze Age doesn’t end. Instead, unused cards are pooled from all over: most of your leftover hand, all but one of your territory types, everything that wasn’t claimed on the table, and any discards. These are piled together into three new decks and the game continues. Later, the second time a deck runs out, scores are finally tallied.
Most important is that mid-game reset. This is the collapse, and it’s what draws the whole enterprise into severe focus. The first time you play, it can even come as a surprise, eliminating many of the territories you accumulated over the past ten minutes. This is because you aren’t just forming colonies; you’re establishing holdouts. Where a diverse network will fail, specialization is what holds the darkness at bay. But because you start with three action cards that correspond to the three territory types, specialization is harder than it looks. Which returns us again to Bronze Age’s unrelenting tempo. While it’s tempting to exclusively play matching action cards or only retrieve them from where they’ve piled up, this can lead to a flabby city-state that’s begging for the Sea Peoples to treat them to a good ransacking.
The result is almost counterintuitive. Victory in Bronze Age is often about playing faster, squeezing extra actions out of every turn while avoiding any bumps thrown into your path. But it’s also about stepping back and introducing some bumps of your own. In this case, however, those bumps can function as ramps rather than obstacles, letting you get some air while your opponent continues to putter around on the ground. Investing in exploration even though it doesn’t immediately pay off, spending a few actions digging for extra cards, pooling symbols for a surprising comeback; these aren’t the tools of a booming civilization, but of a lasting one.
I only half-meant what I said about Clowdus designing a game in his sleep. The reality is that Bronze Age looks like the sort of thing that’s easy to craft, but nearly every detail indicates utmost precision. The quantity of symbols on each card. The strength of each civilization’s unique abilities. The way its duration is negotiated between players as they chip away at those three decks. The high-wire balance between certainty and taking a chance.
Most importantly, the way an impending collapse transitions from an unpleasant surprise to prescient grim reality, something that must be prepared for with both haste and precision. This urgency permeates the entire game, making every draw, play, and preparation into an uncertain proposition. Even after all this time, the Bronze Age has real brass, and proves that John Clowdus still has some of his best titles yet to showcase.
A complimentary copy was provided.