Sand in Yer Crack
John Clowdus has always trafficked in games with a homemade feel, and not only when he’s stretching shrunken boxes to make the cards fit. In some ways it’s Small Box’s foundational ethos. Here’s a guy making the type of games he likes, in print runs so small it’s possible to step over them, and he’s having the time of his life doing it.
Sandstone takes this ethos to a new level. Apart from the cards, Clowdus took as direct a hand in the production as possible. The drawstring bags and box are hand-stamped. The pieces are hand-poured. There’s a signed card detailing the care that went into each copy and explaining why there might be some imperfections. The interior of the box declares which of this “small batch” you hold in your hands. Mine is first printing, number 100 of 100. A nice round number.
And then there’s Sandstone itself. It feels like a home-brew as well, in ways that are both endearing and somewhat rough.
For anyone who’s played one of Clowdus’s games, Sandstone’s overall structure will prove entirely familiar. The harder question is whether that’s the familiarity of returning home or the familiarity of suffering through a high school reunion that none of your friends showed up to. Even after playing the thing a half-dozen times, I’m not sure which side the scales feel more weighted in favor of.
It starts with the turn structure. This is an abstract-ish game, about erecting towers and strongholds across a landscape that’s two-thirds barren. More importantly, it’s a game about keeping those edifices from eroding. We’ll return to that last part in a moment, because it’s the best thing about Sandstone. For the moment, erecting all those towers and strongholds isn’t as breezy as simply commanding the placement of a few cornerstones. Every turn provides a list of three actions: build a tower, build a stronghold, or use a card. From this list you’ll pick two items, never more or fewer, and never a duplicate.
This overall structure is persnickety, but that won’t be anything new for fans of Clowdus’s work. His games often feature a two-pronged struggle, not only against your opponent but also against the limitations of the actions afforded to you. To some degree this is true of many games; here, as in some of Clowdus’s other designs, that struggle is more akin to taming a wild horse than trying to determine which action best suits the moment. Take, for example, the “tower” action. This permits you to establish a tower, but only adjacent to a stronghold. This can come across as a wasted move because strongholds project their control to any empty adjacent space, while towers simply control the space they’re seated on. In terms of control, you’re building a tower that controls its space, but you already control that space. This, then, is often a setup to the alternate function of the tower action, which lets you build a tower on a card where you already have a tower. Between one usage of the tower action and the other — which, it should be reminded, you cannot use within the same turn — it’s possible to gradually play hopscotch across the map. Meanwhile, if you control more forests than your opponent, and you happen to place a tower next to their tower, you can replace their tower with your own. But! Only if those two towers share the same terrain card. If towers are adjacent across two cards, your takeover bid doesn’t count.
Like I said, it’s persnickety in a way that other small abstract titles are not. The same goes for your other actions. Building a stronghold either replaces two towers with one stronghold or teleports an already-constructed stronghold into the place of another tower. The game’s three ability cards trigger more flexible options, like removing a tower, placing a tower anywhere, or swapping two towers, while also featuring a more powerful version that only triggers if you play the card from your hand rather than from the central market (which only happens once per player per game), or if your opponent has played more of that card than you (which I’ve only seen happen once).
Oh, and each player only gets ten moves per game.
It should be noted that only getting ten moves feels terribly restrictive until it doesn’t. When the game slides into focus, it’s more like a thunderclap than a click, permitting state-altering moves that sweep away enemy towers, seize control of crucial terrain, or ensure the longevity of your desert empire. Much of this has to do with how each space confers some bonus that seems minor until it’s absolutely crucial. I’ve already mentioned forests, which can replace an opposing tower with your own in the proper (and rather narrow) circumstance. Deserts grant access to the priority card, which is effectively a “go first or go second” option, except it also lets you tinker with the availability of the cards in the market or, in a pinch, acts as a tiebreaker by letting you take a winning turn right before your opponent.
But the most interesting space is the mountain, tied as it is to the game’s central theme of crumbling edifices. Every round concludes with upkeep, in which you receive “gold” from mountains to maintain what you’ve built. Every mountain provides two gold and each tower requires one. The tricky part is your all-important strongholds, which cost as much upkeep as you have strongholds, making them increasingly expensive to maintain. Anything you can’t afford crumbles to dust, and therein can be found Sandstone’s most beguiling possibilities. Capturing or blockading mountains is paramount, yet such measures are often easiest accomplished by those who hold enough deserts and forests. Like the best abstract games, every single placement or movement matters; it’s just that those placements and movements are unusually tricky to suss out in advance.
The broad strokes are where Sandstone shines, especially in a tight play that sees multiple strongholds and towers rising and falling in a time-lapse fencing match. It’s the finer points that are fuzzy: the actions themselves, the sense of struggling against your own arsenal, the slowness of seeing a strategy take shape — if it does at all, considering the ever-changing nature of the game’s card market and competitive landscape. These combine to make Sandstone one of John Clowdus’s more homemade offerings. Interesting but rough around the edges, full of new ideas that never quite slip past their aging format, smartly conceived but sitting atop a foundation of sand, Sandstone is a vivid but flawed offering from one of the hobby’s most independent auteurs.
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A complimentary copy was provided.
Posted on August 29, 2020, in Board Game and tagged Board Games, John Clowdus, Sandstone, Small Box Games. Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.
This sounds like a very elegant game. Minimalist but great to play against tricky opponents.
Or, am I wrong? Are the main winning tactics too obvious after a couple of games ?
Another question: when, how much and where… if I were to buy it? Thanks for your interesting reviews.
This one is a pickle; I wouldn’t call it elegant, but it isn’t strictly inelegant, either. It demands a competent opponent who’s willing to wade through its learning curve with you, while also being light enough that it’s hard to justify playing over a number of other titles.
As for acquiring it, I have no idea whether Clowdus has extra copies or when he’ll be doing another print run. Maybe send him a message, even if only to pester him to do another printing?
I’ve been playing a lot of Clowdus games lately: The North, Bronze Age, and Hemloch: DP. It’s interesting to see the blend of those games with the more “abstract” elements of the towers and strongholds. For Sandstone, I was only able to play one learning game against myself. The extra layers that fit together a little differently (the extra wincons, maintenance, and overall balancing act of each play and counter-play) made this one burn a little more, when usually I can handle these learning games no problem.
All that said, I cannot wait to actually play it. In your response above, you say, “It demands a competent opponent who’s willing to wade through its learning curve with you, while also being light enough that it’s hard to justify playing over a number of other titles.” What games in this space are you referring to (merely curious for branching out, etc.)?
Thanks for the well thought out review!
Plenty of Clowdus’s other titles that you’ve already mentioned fit the bill quite nicely! The same goes for a few abstract games; I would rather play chess or The Duke, for example. There are even some lighter wargame-style titles out, such as Dual Powers or 13 Days, that are fast but not quite as much of a wrestle with the limitations on what you’re allowed to do on your turn.
Thanks for your response. My first impression definitely left me with the feeling that I had to play it with someone else, obviously. My main gaming partner is my brother, and he loves the games I mentioned in the first comment (me too- works out well). We just haven’t had the time to try this one out together, so I cannot speak to these dichotomies and/or critiques that your final paragraph addresses.
I saw The Duke on one of your yearly wrap-up lists (and I think you’ve written that you’re not the biggest abstract fan [maybe?]), and that’s one I haven’t played that interests me too.
On the contrary, I enjoy abstracts quite a bit! I played competitive chess in high school, and I enjoy a number of games that are abstract, especially those that still try to evoke a thematic statement despite their abstract / minimalist trappings. Poor abstract games, on the other hand, I could do without…
I tend to misread/misremember things sometimes- not sure where I got that idea then! Anyway, I agree with your sentiment and will add that I could do without poor (insert any genre). All games are abstracted to a degree, so minimalist games that evoke thematic statements within the confines of their scale (abstract games or not) are ones I appreciate quite a bit. That’s neat that you played competitive chess; it’s a game I haven’t played a ton of and am quite bad at.
Oh, no worries — I don’t expect anyone to remember oddly specific things about me. =)
If you’re interested in abstract games that make thematic statements, I did a series last year on “Abstracts Get Political.” It’s only three entries, but they were enjoyable enough to write that I consider revisiting the idea every so often. It didn’t attract many eyeballs, but it’s fascinating what some designers can come up with even in minimalist spaces.
Ooh- those were all good. I definitely remember seeing you release that series but did not read them at the time. The posts, especially, the first one, kind of had a “Revisionist History” vibe, spotlighting the peculiarities of this game within the game within the women’s suffrage movement.
Also, I found what I misread: “I usually don’t play abstract games, but from now on when I do, it’ll be The Duke.”
We have a cat named Duke and I enjoy abstracts, so I read your review of The Duke after browsing all of your year end posts. Well, read and misread. Thanks for the responses and reviews!
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