Clockwork Wars Review
on Nov 5, 2015
These Euro/Ameritrash hybrid games are out of control. I’m beginning to run out of fingers to count them all, and now we have another 10 pound box full of Euro wooden bits and thematic conquest ready to crush my digits. I’d be even more aggravated if all of these games weren’t so damn good.
What’s really astounding is that in a niche jam packed with Eclipse, Blood Rage, Cyclades, etc. – these games still keep coming out and they still manage to keep carving out a unique edge of the playground to do their thing. Clockwork Wars does this fantastically, appealing to those who love the aforementioned games but maintaining its own distinct flavor and personality.
It depicts a steampunk world on the edge of extinction. Pollution and destruction have torn apart the land and warring factions consisting of wise bipedal dogs, vicious gorillas, hardy rhinoceros, and driven pure bred humans clash over the age old contested hexes. The formula starts off very similar to those old friends but takes some sharp turns before careening off the cliff into a new and unfamiliar territory.
This is a very beautiful release from Eagle Games, containing thick and gorgeous hexes, lovely wooden bits, fantastic player screens, and evocative art. Nothing is lost by the exclusion of miniatures as you will often stack units in contested hexes and shift forces via deployment very rapidly. The board is extremely dynamic and the functional nature of the bits while maintaining streamlined beauty is appreciated.
The turn order is very fluid and one of the games’ greatest strengths. Much of the action is simultaneous so downtime is minimized – a feature which none of its peers can boast. You first recruit units based on villages/cities held and then write down orders on a piece of paper to secretly deploy your stack of warriors. You can deploy to adjacent territories or locations two distance away as long as the intervening hex started off empty and you leave at least one unit behind. This means you can dart across the map with large numbers relatively easily. If your buddy is being his abhorrent self, drop all 6 of your recruits on his doorstep and liberate the Citadel he’s holding.
Combat in the game is exceedingly quick due to its deterministic nature. The player with the most units in the hex destroys his foes, keeping only the difference between his forces and the second strongest behind. This means clashes are deadly and the game state can shift in the blink of an eye.
Nuance exists in a reinforcement step where players can move troops out of adjacent Citadels – a type of hex found moderately in play, or play an Espionage card. Espionage cards are very swingy “take that” style effects such as wiping out a number of enemy troops or bringing in reinforcements from off map. They’re brutal and extremely satisfying.
Deterministic combat is often something I find extremely unsatisfying but Clockwork Wars pulls it off with panache. It shifts the dramatic tension from rolling buckets of dice to that simultaneous hidden deployment system. That moment of reveal where your buddy starts piling up a huge stack of troops on one of your key regions is a punch to the gut that I greet with a smile. The oomph provided by the burst of a well-timed Espionage card is the icing on the cake as a very Euro-style combat mechanic blossoms into a shining star.
After combat is resolved players gain resources based on hex control to purchase Discovery tiles. Much like the revered Eclipse and Hyperborea, Clockwork Wars urinates on the grave of the tech tree. There’s no baroque or confined system of civilization advancement here, rather nine Discovery cards are revealed at the start of the game out of a pile of 36. They vary in power and escalate by age so you can only purchase the stronger ones later in the game, although they do all start revealed.
Like the rest of the game, the Discovery system is simple and elegant getting to maximum satisfaction and enjoyment as quickly as possible. In my first play of this fantastic game I saved up Sorcery to purchase the Cataclysm in the final age, giving me the ability to swallow hexes whole with a massive worm of the apocalypse. I took out large swathes of troops, devoured scoring tiles, and ushered an era of fear into the steampunk kingdom.
That’s the entire game. Over seven total rounds you’re gaining troops and deploying them, cutting large holes in your enemy’s line, and acquiring unique and powerful technologies. The aim is to occupy scoring tiles which populate the map and only offer points at the end of each age – turns two, four, and seven. By spacing scoring out the game has this really unique tempo of not requiring you burst into action immediately, rather making strong pushes at the end of each age for maximum carnage. It reminds me a bit of the end game cycle of Eclipse where huge momentum swings occur and the board is under constant assault. It’s not quite as reckless here as you do need to maintain for the future at the end of the first and second age.
If you noticed I didn’t mention troops moving about the board. That’s because they don’t. You simply deploy large stacks each turn and your existing troops are stuck in previous hexes, maintaining your supply lines.
The supply system is particularly interesting as troops must be able to trace back a connected string of controlled hexes to a city or your capitol. This is checked at the end of the battle phase and any hexes severed from their supply source lose a single troop in each. The beauty here is that this will diversify your attack priorities as breaking a supply line can be as important as controlling a key resource hex.
When scoring occurs there’s also this really exceptional mechanism called Pollution which results in all units in the scoring hex dying except for one. In practice this odd sounding rule is fantastic. It means that if you push with an enormous force you will end up tossing a large number of troops in the grinder as they are choked off. You have to weigh whether the sacrifice is worth it and then balance this across all of the scoring hexes in the game while trying to determine how many troops your opponent may deploy and where he wants to hit. This is the headspace the game occupies and the work and planning always feels intriguing and full of excitement.
If there’s one complaint I can throw at a 90 minute thematic conquest game full of unbridled excitement, it’s that the game lacks a degree of asymmetry. Each faction is basically separated from its peers by a single unique unit. These special troops do function in drastically different ways but as soon as it’s killed off then the color and flair of playing a race of dogs is sucked out of the design.
Despite this, the unique units are fantastic. The Rhinochs can throw down a huge siege engine beast of burden that explodes taking out three enemies. The Pure Breeds have a special forces Operative that can deploy every single turn anywhere on the map and auto-kills the enemy force if it’s only a single unit. The Mongrels (dogs) have a Hunter that can move about the board and provide a strong +2 support to a fighting force. Finally the Troglodytes (apes) have engineers that garner additional resources. Each is flavorful and feels significant in the grand scheme of things.
Clockwork Wars undoubtedly measures up to its peers. While mechanically very different, I find it most strongly resembles Hyperborea in feel. Hyperborea is a fantastic game but it’s a confused child stumbling around at night compared to Clockwork Wars. This design features twice the tension and twice the drama in the same amount of time. It kicks down the door and hits you in the jugular right from the get-go. It’s the type of game that should be the talk of the town and I will keep pumping my fist to break the silence.