I have mixed feelings about Clank! — and that’s a sentence that would sound much less dramatic without the obligatory exclamation mark. When I wrote about it way back in 2017, my stance veered wildly between “This is an approachable and clever hybrid deck-building game” and “This feels deeply artificial, and also there are way too many dead turns.” I haven’t touched its offshoots: no Clank! In! Space!, no expansions, not even the legacy-game version. Ask me what designer Paul Dennen has been up to and I’ll excitedly tell you about Dune: Imperium instead.
In a way, that remoteness gives Clank! Catacombs the air of a reunion. Not a high school reunion, and certainly not a creepy polygamist ancestors reunion. Rather, a reunion with an old friend — more of an acquaintance, really — who’s become way cooler than you remember.
Then again, maybe it’s that I’ve changed, too. Five minutes into this reunion, it’s apparent that my old friend is still carrying around some of what made him such an oddball half a decade ago.
If you’ve played Clank!, the core of Clank! Catacombs is pretty much the Clank! you know and remember. You’re a thief breaking into a tomb to steal as much treasure as your bag of infinite holding can infinitely hold before the resident dragon turns you into the burnt ends of a döner loaf. It’s a stealth game. Sorta. In abstract. Certain actions, usually those with some veneer of loudness like breaking apart a skeleton or flouncing around the catacombs accompanied by a lute-playing bard, result in cubes being added to the dragon’s bag. Every so often, you draw from that bag to determine whether anybody has been injured. Little by little, these injuries compound with the scrapes of regular adventuring. Some thieves escape with their loot, others die. And some “die” within crawling distance of the exit, which is nearly as good as escaping in healthy condition. Who needs legs when you’re rich?
It’s a solid formula, a mix of press-your-luck and deck-building that’s deeply capricious but leans into it and somehow comes out all the more engaging. Unlike most deck-builders, your deck sprawls into a flabby mess, filled with companions and loot and magical tomes and some junk you nicked from the market because you had a free purchase and nothing else looked interesting. There are precious few opportunities to prune the deadwood, so the trash you began with will likely accompany you through the entire adventure. That can be something of a nuisance, especially in the early going when a bad pull might see you dropping a bucket into Moria’s depths because you held still with so much intensity. Whatever. It’s Clank! All its smoothness and all its flaws are preserved intact.
With one exception: the map. That glorious map.
The map is the “catacombs” portion of Clank! Catacombs, and it really deserves an exclamation mark of its own. The idea is remarkably simple. Rather than plumbing a fixed map, you uncover the layout of the tomb one section at a time. And let me tell you, it’s a health code violation down there. Every tile includes eight routes, but they wend around one another, curving in unexpected directions or leading down unidirectional corridors. There are locked paths, which you can open with lockpicks, this edition’s new resource for getting around. There are monsters who’ll gnaw on your shins if you don’t give ’em a whack. Mixed in among the empty chambers are treasures of many varieties: little ones that offer minor perks, big ones that need to be lockpicked free of their chests, prisoners who are similarly trapped but offer new ways of earning loot. There are rooms that terminate your movement, markets for purchasing goods, portals for hopping around—
And the effect is stunning. The original Clank!’s map offered many of the same beats, but their fixed appearance soon led to preferred routes, safer passageways, drops you knew well to avoid. When you’re pawing around in the dark, nothing’s so easy. You can slip down a one-way corridor and get stuck, find yourself facing three monsters when you’d only anticipated one, continue plumbing deeper and deeper in search of a portal. That last one is the board game equivalent of trying to lose weight by eating your way through to the other side. Then you stumble onto the tile you’ve been looking for! The dragon is getting closer. You’re hurting. You haven’t seen a market in an age. You could take the portal right now… but there’s some good loot around that next corner. Just one more trip down a side corridor and you’ll have enough to win. Surely you can make it.
I’m not sure what happened. Did Clank! get better or am I going soft on its all-or-nothing brand of deck-building and cardplay? To be sure, this approach accentuates what made Clank! interesting in the first place. Crud, I’d even go so far as to say that it snaps the decks into new focus. On the fixed map, it could be infuriating to draw a hand with no moves. The same is true here, but every detail is about wading upstream in melt season. You’re fighting on multiple fronts: against your shoddy deck, against the map, against the prospect of having a nice artifact sniped out from under you. Against temptation, even. Note, for example, how the high-scoring artifacts appear in ascending order of points, drawing you ever-deeper into the darkest tunnels. Previously, getting home was as much about counting spaces as about the luck of the draw. Now there’s another layer to consider, the tangling pathways of the deep and how to navigate them not only efficiently, but in that particular roundabout way that earns a heap of loot but deposits you back onto safer footing before the whole thing crashes to an end. That’s red meat to go along with Dennen’s milk of a system.
And then somebody refills the market with a card that asks everybody to rotate their tile. The labyrinth is rearranged. Your plans are undone. Yet it’s such a suitable intrusion that there’s no point getting upset about it. A dancing dungeon is hilarious in a way Clank! always wanted to be but never quite managed until now.
As I noted before, Clank! Catacombs is very nearly identical to that unassuming hybrid game from 2016. Perhaps most of all, it feels much the same in the moment: the same broad types of cards, the same twice-removed stealth and health system, the same pursuits.
But this is the one I’d rather play. There’s no telling whether Catacombs will catch on the way its predecessors did. But it’s easily the one with the clearer identity and sense of space. I guess Dennen’s been up to something other than Dune after all.
A complimentary copy was provided.