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.
A complimentary copy was provided.