There’s a phrase we use in English, one meant to strike upon its hearer the importance of a topic or the need to keep an atrocity close at heart for fear of its repetition. You’ve heard it before, cast in somber and memorializing tones: “Lest we forget.” The irony, of course, is that we’re a fastidiously forgetful species. We forget things all the time. As a defense mechanism, forgetfulness is unrivaled. In the rare occasion that we don’t forget, we do our damnedest to afflict ourselves with collective amnesia. Lest we recall.
John Clowdus’s history trilogy plays like variations on a theme. Its three titles, Neolithic, Bronze Age, and The Middle Ages, are mechanically similar. They’re all about excavating cards from a deck and then using those cards to build toward a brighter future.
They also express something deeper: cultural memory, in all its complexity and simplicity.
It’s been a while since we traveled to The North, John Clowdus’s high-tech take on an apocalyptic wasteland. Such a while, in fact, that there’s now a sequel, The West: Ascendant, which abandons the robotic striders of the frozen wastes for the latent facilities of the blasted wastes. Seems a wanderer can’t catch a break.
Nobles is a snack. Like John Clowdus’s Pocket Galapagos, it’s a bite-sized solo game preoccupied with the movement of cards from one place to another. Unlike that game, Nobles also taps into the joy of putting things into their proper arrangement, even when — perhaps especially when — it doesn’t feel much like a game at all.
One of the oft-unacknowledged talents of designer John Clowdus is his ability to evoke a complete world in the most compact format possible. I’m not only talking about Omen: A Reign of War, although my affection for that card game has been documented and documented again. Clowdus is also responsible for the messy prehistory of Neolithic, the undying carnival that is Hemloch, the collapsing Bronze Age, and, more recently, the chilly The North. His games are transportations in miniature, showing a cross-section of a world that stretches far beyond the limitations of the small boxes he crams them into.
The same is true of Dirge: The Rust Wars. Returning to Aaron Nakahara’s dilapidated style from The North — with additional contributions by Liz Lahner of Bronze Age — Dirge evokes biomechanical vultures picking over the last scraps of bone in a world that’s fallen apart and won’t be put back together again.
John Clowdus is best known for his sharp two-player designs, including gems such as The North, Bronze Age, and the big one, Omen: A Reign of War. Instead of sticking to the script, his latest effort is a solitaire game that fits into your pocket. Even a small pocket will serve. How does it stack up? Let’s take a look.
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.
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.
John Clowdus is best known for his small designs. And, naturally, in today’s episode of the Space-Biff! Space-Cast!, he’s willing to talk to Dan Thurot about small games old and new, including which of his titles he prefers to Omen: A Reign of War. But now Clowdus is also a bona fide big-box game designer thanks to Mezo. Listen in as he spills the beans about the challenges and advantages of designing a game that can’t fit into your pocket.
Somewhere underneath the dudes-on-a-map genre lurks an even more specific subgenre, the dudes-on-a-map-beseech-the-gods-for-aid genre. For short, the “god-botherer.” You know the type. Cyclades, Kemet, Blood Rage, Rising Sun. They’re an excuse for ordinary plastic molds to genuflect and summon something far greater. Those little dudes are going about their business when — blammo — here comes a table-trembling hulk of sculpted muscle and claw. The elder plastic.
At first glance, John Clowdus’s Mezo is another god-botherer. It has dudes. It has gods. It has the appropriate gap of scale between said dudes and said gods. But because Mezo was designed by John Clowdus, his first-ever title that isn’t a Small Box Game, it’s anything but a ripoff or an homage or just another god-botherer. If anything, it’s probably best described as “three or four bidding games at the same time.”
It’s been two years since we saw a proper Small Box Games release from John Clowdus. Unless we’re counting Kolossal’s printing of Omen: A Reign of War. Which I’m not, in case you were wondering. A professional printing may be glossy, but there’s nothing quite like the home-packaged feel of Clowdus’s limited runs, right down to its too-tight box and ribbon for prying the cards loose.
Thankfully, Clowdus hasn’t lost a step. The North is, at the absolute least, one stylish set of cards, with Aaron Nakahara’s chilly artwork raising the occasional goosebump. It also happens to be a deck-builder. Of course, Clowdus being Clowdus, that doesn’t make it like any deck-builder you’ve ever played before.