Steampunk is more than just a visual style in the superlative Clockwork Wars

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A tech tree should be a game’s skeleton, giving it its shape. And since a tech tree is variable, it should create distinct shapes. These choices will make this kind of game; those choices will make that kind of game. A tech tree is a way to let a game design itself as it’s played. A latticework of possibilities, different every time. Clockwork Wars is my favorite example of a tech tree in a boardgame.

After the jump, wait, there are tech trees in boardgames?

So obviously Clockwork Wars is steampunk. You can tell from the name. But when you take a closer look, you might mistake it for Ameritrash. Ameritrash is the dismissive label applied to games with lots of pieces, lots of randomness, lots of systems crammed together, and usually lots of plastic in the box. Americans, who also wear floral print shirts when they’re on vacation overseas and vote for Donald Trump, supposedly love this stuff. You’d never guess Clockwork Wars isn’t Ameritrash from the box, which is one of those enormous “where am I going to put this?” prestige priced edifices with room for hundreds of miniatures on the inside and artwork on the outside that all but confirms the presence of dozens of toys frozen into overdramatic action positions, ready to be piled up against each other on an elaborate board depicting the continent of Steampunkia in exhaustive detail.

But then you open the box and discover only nine miniatures. If even that. Some copies of Clockwork Wars have wooden cylinders in place of some of the miniatures. Components are nestled snugly into their assigned places. Lots of tiles, a few cards (not many), colored wooden discs. Cardboard player shields. A pad of paper for some reason, probably scoring. Where are the dice? Are you supposed to provide your own? You can’t believe the dice aren’t included in a game that costs as much as Clockwork Wars.

It takes reading the rules or actually playing to discover that Clockwork Wars finds a comfortable niche between the thematic excesses of Ameritrash and the sterile streamlining of Euro games. Euro is the dismissive label applied to games with abstract pieces, deterministic gameplay, and a cavalier disregard for something so pedestrian as theming. Europeans, who listen to Serge Gainsbourg, watch black-and-white movies, and happily pay high taxes for their crappy government run healthcare, supposedly love this stuff. Pfft, they say with their thick accents, theming. Even chess goes a little far with its theming, says the Euro purist who sees no point in putting a horse’s head on the knight when a playing piece with a slightly angled top would do just fine.

But Clockwork Wars understands equally the value of theming and elegance. The rules are simple. You can explain Clockwork Wars in 15 minutes. There are no dice, no decks of cards, no face down tiles, no piles of chits, no inscrutable worker placement tracks. Everything is visible and immediately apparent. Much of the strategy comes from everyone having to simultaneously decide where he’ll put his new armies. One part planning, one part psychology, and one part lucky guess, all unencumbered by randomness. That’s the elegance. No self-respecting Ameritrash would play this way.

The theming comes from exceptions to these simple rules, most of which are in the tech tree. This is how Clockwork Wars expresses its steampunkness. The average steampunk is just artwork: a Victorian top hat, a lightning gun, brass gears, and an airship somewhere in the background. There. Steampunk. But Clockwork Wars presents a tech tree with three flavors of “tech” as an expression of the genre. Magic, science, and religion each provide distinctly themed exceptions to the simple rules. They each break the game in specific and unique ways. Generally speaking, religion gives you forceable conversions and special holy warriors. Science lets you move units around, raze forests, and field robots. Magic lets you burn things and play tricks. Generally speaking. By breaking the game in specific and unique ways, they give each game of Clockwork Wars its shape. These choices will make this kind of game; those choices will make that kind of game.

But how does an elegant boardgame do a tech tree? How does it avoid the sprawl of frontloaded rules exceptions in Kemet or the myriad drawn-out upgrade options in Eclipse? How can a boardgame take shape by giving you 45 ways to break the rules? Because that’s how many tech cards come with Clockwork Wars. 45. 15 for each of the three flavors. 18 if you get the expansion, for a total of 54. It sounds like having to figure out Kemet all over again. Where’s the elegance in that?

Clockwork Wars does something my favorite games do: it leaves most of the pieces in the box. When you set up a game, you randomly deal out nine techs, three from each branch. The other 45 will be sitting this one out. The lucky nine that made it this time will each break the rules in specific ways, giving your upcoming game its own shape, which is different from the shape of your last Clockwork Wars game, which will also be different from the shape of your next Clockwork Wars game.

(A minor point of order here. They’re not called “techs” in Clockwork Wars, because only the science would be considered technology. The religion and sorcery are religion and sorcery, respectively. What most games might call “techs”, Clockwork Wars calls discoveries.)

In some games, the discoveries will fly fast and loose. One of us has gunpowder, another one of us has power armor, and yet another one of us controls a secret religious society, each a powerful twist to how battles are fought. Gunpowder gives you a bonus in battle, but only if you spend a little sorcery to light it up. Power armor is considerably more expensive, but it always works. It’s power armor. And the secret society lets you send spies into battle as soldiers, essentially giving you an off-map pool of reserves that can show up during any battle. The battle system in Clockwork Wars is simple enough that these are the sorts of things that decide the outcome. The rules stand aside and let the discoveries do the heavy lifting.

Other discoveries impact the game in both more subtle and more important ways. Astronomy is an advanced discovery that obsoletes all but the most powerful sorcery and religion. It just wipes them out of the game. When someone discoveries Astonomy, half the discoveries go back in the box, even if they had been claimed by someone else. When Astronomy is in play, when it flips up as one of the nine cards during the set-up, discoveries are uniquely vulnerable. Or when Transmutation, a sorcery that awards its owner victory points for every discovery, is in play, the discoveries are uniquely valuable. Or when both Astronomy and Transmutation are in play and now discoveries are uniquely vulnerable and uniquely valuable.

And some discoveries just crack open the rules entirely. In one of my favorite games, I discovered the steam train that let me move my units around the map. This is a game in which units don’t move. At all. You deploy them and that’s where they stay until they die. Unless you discover a steam train. Now you’re the only guy who can move his units. Blitzkriegs is a world of trench warfare. Oh, the delight of utterly confounding your stream train-less opponents! The dirigible also lets you move units with even more flexibility than a steam train. However, I’ve never seen the dirigible. That’s the thing about discoveries in Clockwork Wars. When so many pieces go back in the box, you never know what you’re going to get and therefore what you’re not going to get. One day, I’ll see a dirigible.

In the last game I played, a two-player match, only one discovery was claimed. A water mill, which benefits from controlling a tile with an adjacent lake. It was the perfect map for a water mill, with a tile situated nicely between two lakes. So I saved up science points, took the card during the discovery phase, and it was mine. No one else could discover it. But unlike the usual concept of research, whatever you take has a physical location on the map. When you discover something, you also decide where it will be located. If you lose that location, you lose the discovery. Now it belongs to the guy who took the location. Now someone is using it against you. Now they have a steam train and you don’t. Now they’re earning victory points from Transmutation. Now their soldiers are wearing the power armor you paid for. Not only does the tech tree in Clockwork Wars give the gameplay its shape, it can also gives the map its shape. If you want to use power armor, steam trains, water mills, djinnis, or rituals of blood, you have to be prepared to defend them.

My water mill was defended from behind by my unique faction unit, a mechanical arachnoid beetle with long range artillery (speaking of giving the map shape!). So most of the game was my friend and I tussling over that water mill, throwing resources into the fight. It became a point of pride. He wouldn’t leave it alone and I wouldn’t let it go. In the end, I held out.

But if there’s one thing that breaks the Clockwork Wars rules more than discoveries, it’s espionage cards. He played a card called Surveillance, which let him go through the deck of espionage cards and take any one he wanted. He sifted through the small deck. I waited patiently, flipping through the rules. He narrowed it down to three of them. He pondered them. I didn’t mind waiting. It was only a two-player game and it was going to be close. He finally took one into his hand and shuffled the rest back into the deck, grinning the whole time. He was up to something.

On the next turn, I braced the water mill for another attack. He didn’t attack it. Instead, he fought a bunch of small pointless battles elsewhere on the map. Uh, okay. Way to squander one of your turns in a game that only lasts seven turns. Did I mention Clockwork Wars only lasts seven turns? Because it does. A game of Clockwork Wars is not a long game.

After his pointless battles were resolved and I still held the water mill, he slapped down a card called Propaganda. You play at the end of a battle phase to earn victory points for every battle you won that turn. His marker hurtled forward on the victory point track. My only hope at that point was to save all the resources I would have spent on discoveries to instead cash them in for victory points when the game was over. It wasn’t quite enough. At 20-19, he won by one point. The water mill was the only discovery to come out.

Those seven turns took us about an hour and a half. And he’s a very slow player. Another brilliant aspect of Clockwork Wars is that the running time isn’t much of a factor because it’s never not your turn. A two hour boardgame can feel like an eternity if you only get a turn every fifteen minutes. But a two hour boardgame in which its never not your turn — especially a really good two-hour boardgame like Clockwork Wars — is one long turn.

It does this mostly by having short simple phases with plenty of interactivity. The combat, for instance, isn’t the usual in which everyone takes turns moving pieces on the board. Instead, it’s simultaneous deployment. You write down where you’re putting your new units (the included pad is for deployment, not scoring). Everyone agonizes over it because no one is sure what anyone else is doing to do. It’s bluffing and counterbluffing, guessing and second guessing, writing and erasing. One of us has written down his orders. He’s ready. He puts down his pencil. Another one of us has obviously changed his mind about something because he’s furiously erasing something. So you take back your piece of paper and change something back, because if he changed his mind, he probably made an assumption about what you were going to do, which you might want to rethink. Finally, we all reveal what we’re written and we place our units. Battles happen. Quickly and with no dice. Clockwork Wars is not complicated and there is no randomness. You aren’t rolling dice or flipping cards (the powerful espionage cards are more rare than discoveries). If you put a premium on pacing, if you play boardgames rarely enough that you want to play at least a couple before everyone calls it a night, Clockwork Wars is as reliable as Swiss clockwork for its immaculate pacing and compact running time.

The most time consuming part of the game is the setup, which includes assembling the map out of hexagonal tiles. There are templates in the manual so you can set up balanced maps, but you can instead hand out tiles and build the map one hex at a time, round robin. This is how you get the most interesting maps, but I can assure you someone is going to get screwed by geography. Is the trade-off worth it? I think so. It’s a short enough game that getting screwed by geography isn’t going to comprise your entire evening.

The publisher, Eagle-Gryphon Games, recently released Empires: Age of Discovery, a slick but drawn-out worker placement meets territory control game, full of agonizing decisions and relatively complicated numbers calculations to finesse who’s going to get how many victory points when. I like Empires a lot, but it’s the worst kind of brain burner: one that will take the whole evening and have people looking at the clock and fretting about what time they have to get up for work in the morning. You could play two or three games of Clockwork Wars in the time you’d spend on one game of Empires: Age of Discovery. And the difference is that each game of Clockwork Wars would feel dramatically different, based on which factions were playing, how the map was set up, which espionage cards got slapped down onto the table, which of the four imperial courts sat off to the side to offer opportunities for intrigue, and of course, which nine discoveries form the tech tree.

That’s Clockwork Wars in a nutshell: modules that come together in unique ways to give each game distinct shape, varying based on what’s included this time and how it interacts with everything else. But unlike a lot of games with similar structures, it all fits very smartly into its steampunk theme without cluttering the gameplay with a bunch of rules and playing pieces. The essence of Clockwork Wars is simple rules broken in manageable ways to evoke steampunk’s genre mash-up of magic and science. Euro elegance smartly married to Ameritrash theming, simultaneously both and neither. You’d never guess that this is designer Hassan Lopez’s first design. In his debut game, he manages the best of Ameritrash, the best of Euros, expressive theming, smart mechanics, seriously deep replayability, and superlative pacing. There aren’t many boardgame boxes that hold all that.

  • Clockwork Wars

  • Rating:

  • Boardgame
  • Your goal is to vanquish your foes and accumulate the most victory points through seven turns of play. You earn points by fighting for control of territories that contain valuable natural resources. To win these battles, you need manpower gained by seizing villages and developing them into cities. Invest in research and discover astonishing new technologies, like magical Golems, an Analytical Engine, and the wondrous Spire of the Gods. Position your troops, research powerful discoveries, employ espionage, and conquer your enemies to win the game!
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