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.
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.
If you’ve been following Space-Biff! for more than a Thermopylae minute, you’ll know that I’ve mentioned Omen: A Reign of War once or twice. This is one of those rare games that opens with a bang and just keeps going, producing more kicks per minute than a two-story dojo. Now its creator, John Clowdus, has signed with Kolossal to give his small-box classic a bigger-box treatment, including a third entry in the series that steps away from the warring demigods of Greece and toward the warring demigods of Persia. So, you know, it’s super original.
Anyway, what makes Omen such a great game? Let’s take a look.
Here we are at last, taking a look at the final installment of John Clowdus’s second-latest trilogy of Small Box Games games. This time it’s Hemloch: Dark Promenade, and it’s by far the most interesting of the three.
Another day, another Small Box Game by John Clowdus. This time it’s Seii Daimyo, where much like every other game about Feudal Japan, your goal is to unite the country’s warring clans under a single Shogun.
Fortunately, the execution is more interesting than the setup.
Another year, another trio of small box games from small box games king John Clowdus, proprietor of Small Box Games. Except this time I’m so far behind that he has some other games out, which pretty much makes me a filthy truant, and—
Deep breath. One thing at a time. First up, Cartouche Dynasties. This is a single-deck ditty about building a kingdom in Ancient Egypt. It has nothing to do with either cartouches or dynasties.
Now let’s uncover what else it’s been lying about.
For a few years now, Omen: A Reign of War from Small Box Games has been one of my favorite card games. With all the subtlety of a Spartan dory to the gut, its primary strength rested in its outright meanness, allowing a skilled player to leverage his cards into terrifying combos that won battles and robbed an opponent of options.
Thus, the announcement of Omen: Edge of the Aegean, no mere expansion but a follow-up, a sort of parallel development of the Omen system, got me nearly as misty-eyed as Odysseus. And for anyone who doesn’t quite understand that reference, the hero of the Iliad and the Odyssey is a huge crybaby. Like, huge. The guy can’t stop himself. When he hears a bard sing a jingle about his tricksy victory over Troy, he weeps. When Calypso, hottest nymph in the isles, decides to invite him over for a feisty sex-party, it’s waterworks time.
I, on the other hand, was merely on the verge of weeping, for I am a manly man compared to whiny Odysseus.
What happens when Small Box Games ditches the small boxes entirely? Probably something like Akua, John Clowdus’s first foray into the silicone polymer-reeking world of dry erase games. It comes on only two sheets, one for the board and another to explain the game, and even trusts that you’ll have a few different colors of dry erase markers sitting in a drawer somewhere.
And yet, for all its sparsity of components, Akua is anything but straightforward.
Size matters. In board games too. The appeal of Small Box Games isn’t just that John Clowdus makes small things, it’s that he makes things you can carry around without much trouble, that can fit ten to a shelf where a single regular-sized game might sit, that provide some of the best ounce-for-ounce gameplay out there.
Take Neolithic, for example. Crammed into a box the size of a deck of playing cards, this is the sort of thing that would be easy to overlook on a game store shelf. But to discount it for its size would be doing it a disservice, because this is one of the cleverest little games I’ve played in a long while.