Clans was designed by David Brin and Steve Jackson and published by the similarly named game company in 1998. It is playable by 4+ players and takes 4+ hours to play to completion.
What You Get
Not too much. The game comes in a plastic ziplock. In the bag are the rules, a couple sheets that are laid out to make the board, and two pages of cutout counters, one slightly thicker tan paper, and a couple forms it is best to copy because you are to record information on them. You need to also provide some dice. We ignored the counters and came up with substitutes as they were extremely flimsy. So, kind of on the Spartan and crummy side as far as components go.
What You Do
The game is a semi-coop, in that you all represent a member of a prehistoric tribe trying to survive and procreate in a harsh world. You choose a sex, name, and determine if you are ‘weak’, ‘average’, or ‘strong’ (if playing the optional rule, which I recommend). Then, you decide what your role in the tribe will be: craftsman, making baskets and spears for food collection, a gatherer, or a hunter. Hunters have the chance to collect the most food, but put themselves at risk and have a reasonable chance to come home empty-handed. Gatherers always find something, but often just grubs and berries, difficult to keep a whole tribe going. With large groups, maybe >8, you can set it up to have two tribes playing. Once the tribe is formed, you need to choose a starting location, one of the four environments in the game: forest, veldt, hills, or swamp. Each has different selection of huntable and gathering foodstuffs. Now you are ready to play.
A turn consists of first declaring your activity. Most of the time, this is pretty obvious, as you follow through with your standard task. It is possible to learn how to become a craftsman, but it is difficult, and you will always be second-rate compared to the original. Gatherers can join in a hunt, but they are almost liabilities. Once everyone has decided their actions, they are carried out. This is done in a simple way: craftsmen roll a die, with high numbers meaning they are successful at producing the object they were working on. Gatherers roll 3d6, adjusting for the season (either warm or cold) and their ability: high rolls mean nutritious fruit while low rolls may mean more clams. One gets a bonus of rolling twice if a basket is available from the craftsman, but after use there is a chance it will break. The hunter does similarly: a 3d6 roll with modifiers to determine the catch. The variety of results is larger here: mice get you 2 food units, while the mighty hippo gets you 80. Low rolls can mean injury or even worse, death, and elimination from the game.
The next phase is eating. Everyone needs 4 food as an adult, plus 2 per child, plus two extra for pregnant woman, plus two extra is a pregnant child is also nursing young. Anyone not fed dies. Food is not a communal thing: a lot of negotiation goes on here. Then comes the screwing phase, to be direct about it. Any two players of the opposite sex can decide to give it a go, each rolling a die, with a total of 9 or better resulting in pregnancy. A marker is put on the growth chart for the child. After a warm/cold cycle three dice are rolled for the birth: a 5+ results in a live birth and the deed is recorded and possible future victory for the tribe and individual victory for the players are influenced.
After all the fun is over, 3d6 are rolled for a random event. These range from spoilage of perishable food (only grain is considered to be non-perishable) to attacks by jackals which carry off children, to severe injuries to the miraculous finding of an unused spearhead. Finally, tribes may decide to relocate, as excessive overhunting can drive away all the game of a region or nasty fires can deplete available forage, forcing a move which is actually costly as additional food unit expended. After this phase, the season marker is advanced. After 20 two-season turns, scores are tallied by size of tribe and individual awards for most prolific tribe members.
There are rules with dealing with conflicts, which could even escalate to violence. Laws can be made and voted on by the tribe (or imposed by the strong) of any type the players can imagine. There are also rules for electing a ‘chief’ and lots of optional ideas how to vary the game rules in more exploratory ways: what about hermaphrodite characters, litter births, and the like. Additional rules handle interaction and transfer of personnel between tribes.
What I Think
This game is much more than its parts. It is a fascinating look into the dynamics of groups that must rely on one another, remaining selfish to one’s own interests. It must be role-played, and people must be out for themselves. This is a coop where quarterbacking removes all enjoyment. It is a child’s brick set: you can shape this world almost any way you would want using the skeleton of rules contained in the booklet. There are already several things I would want to do: increased loss of children or mothers in childbirth, increased chance of disease in swamps, perhaps even a chance of weapons innovations.
Larger groups would appear to work better: four was a lot of fun, but eight would perhaps be double so. And the game runs long: we played three hours and got through 11 years with only four players. And speeding it up would be to take away from the fun of the game, which is the innuendo, the bickering, the grandiose strut of returning from the hunt laden with antelope or the megaload for the gatherer. Naming the children, listening to couple negotiations… this is what the game is about, and not the final score. In other words, plan to sit multiple hours or don’t bother to start. Play the roles to the hilt, and it can be a very rewarding experience. Rules lawyer or trying to run the show? Go pull out the latest Euro and steer far from this sprawling, messy, entertaining game.
Because this is better with lots of players and lots of negotiating time I think it might be ideal for forum play. If only I had the time to try it out...
I haven't thought about this in years. It is indeed a long game, and a bit fiddly for what it is, but the dynamics are cool.