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Clacks: A Discworld Board Game» Forums » Reviews

Subject: Clacks: A Discworld Game- What's Right (and What's Not) rss

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The invention of the Clacks Semaphore Messaging system revolutionized communication for the citizens of the Discworld.
However the wave of progress is not without its victims, and the Clacks signals the end for Ankh-Morpork's post office.
But the post has vowed to not go down without a fight, and has challenged the Clacks to a race to see who's fastest.
It's up to our players to decide what the future has in hold for Discworld, and whether technology or tradition will reign supreme.


So I've been waiting for this one for a while. Clacks is a puzzle-based game that draws its theme and design from the wildly successful Discworld series of books by the recently departed Sir Terry Pratchett, who was one of the world's (and my) most loved authors. First off, let's take a look at how Clacks works as a game, and then we'll get into my thoughts about the signals that Clacks is sending.


GAMEPLAY OVERVIEW

Clacks is a game for 2 to 4 people that can be played either competitively or cooperatively. There are some differences in how each version is played, but the basic mechanic is the same in both modes.

The game is centered around the 4x4 grid of lamps, which have two states: either on, or off. Players may change the lamps from on to off by using jacquard tiles, which are drawn from a bag. Jacquard tiles may be played anywhere so long as the entirety of their pattern fits within the 4x4 grid; they may also be rotated or mirrored. When a jacquard tile is played, all lights in the pattern will flip to the opposite side- if they're off, they'll turn on, and vice versa.

In both game modes, players are assigned specific words to spell, which are illustrated on the message cards. Messages are composed of 5 letters, each which has an associated pattern that the players must replicate to transmit that letter and move to the next.

In the competitive game, each player receives one word and attempts to complete it before their opponents. Players are limited to the number of tiles that they can play in a turn through the concept of stress points, which are represent by the small gear icons on each jacquard tile. Five per turn is the limit. Additionally, players must use the tower selector buttons to choose a specific spot from which they will attempt to complete their pattern. Correct patterns will not count unless that player's pawn is in the center of the completed pattern. However, no one is left alone to their own devices- players may collect fault report cards (drawn when receiving a tile with this icon), which have effects that can either help themselves or hinder their opponents. These cards can be played at any time, and can certainly swing the favor of the game in many different directions.

As for the cooperative game, the players are assigned 2 words that they must successfully transmit as a team. By completing these letters in sequence, tower figurines are added to the board, bringing players closer to their goal of reaching the finish line of the game track. Players are no longer limited as to the number of tiles they can play each turn by tile stress points- instead, stress points will move the game opponent figurine along a track as well. If too many stress points are accrued before completing the assigned words, the opponent figurine will reach the finish line first and the game is lost.

The tower selector buttons are disregarded in co-op mode; so long as the pattern can be formed on the board, you may score the letter and move on with the message. Co-op players have some resources that they may employ to complete their goals, but being able to select a tile by hand rather than through random draw has its costs- taking one of these tiles means you must apply the effect of the associated card, which again may help or hinder you.


GAME MODES- COMPETITIVE VS CO-OP

So as you can see from the overview, Clacks is more or less an abstract puzzle game. Given that there's two ways to play the game, I think it's probably best if I split the discussion into two parts.

First up is the competitive game, and for the most part, it's pretty enjoyable. I do like the braininess of trying to visualize the effect of your tiles, and finding solutions when the board initially appears to be unusable. The stress point constraint forces you to come up with some creative moves, and that can feel rewarding. However, there is a bit of a caveat.

The only real issue I have with the competitive mode is a bit amorphous to describe, but I think I can nail it down like this: the other player's turn doesn't really matter to me. Let me explain: in my mind, a good competitive game will invest you not only in what happens on your turn, but also in what happens on other player's turns. You develop and build your strategy on your turn, and then adjust and redefine it by watching the actions of the other players. In Clacks, however, you're never really interested in what the other players are doing- you're only waiting around to see what they've done. What I mean is that there's no real point in observing what happens on other players' turns, because the only thing that will matter for your strategy is what the lamps look like at the start of your turn. The nature of the how the jacquard tiles work doesn't allow you to plan in advance, and as such you're gonna zone out when it's not your turn.

Now I'm not saying Clacks is the only game that this happens in, not by a long shot. What I am saying is that I've always found more enjoyment in competitive games that have a design that interests and invests me in the entire play through, including other players turns. And I can see that the designers put some effort into trying to reduce this solitary nature through the Fault Report cards, which you can play on other turns to inflict a sort-of "take that" limitation. Unfortunately, given that there's only really 4 or 5 different effects of these cards, it's like there's not enough meat on the bone.

Fortunately, this issue completely disappears when you switch over to cooperative mode. In my opinion, coop is a more enjoyable experience. You find yourself interested in what the other player is doing; you're looking at their tiles, trying to see a certain way to make that pattern. Clacks in co-op mode is a game full of AHA moments for all players. One aspect that is really interesting is how visual perspective plays into finding the solutions- what I mean is that the literal sense of each player viewing the board from a different angle leads those players to see patterns that the other players' dont, and that really lends into the feeling of teamwork. The coop game also has a tile passing mechanic, in which you'll give an unused tile from your hand to the next player in line. What I've seen happen more than a few times is that this mechanic leads to a cool combo, where you set it up and the next player gets the pattern in. That part of the game can be really exciting, and again makes you feel like a team. Simply put, in my opinion, co-op is the stronger option of the two modes.

Finally, on the gameplay note, I'd like to say that I think Clacks can be a bit deceiving when it comes to looks. When I first sat down to learn it, I had the idea that it was going to be fairly heavy and lengthy- something that required tons of brain-crushing thought and planning, and that games would take probably around an hour. Lemme say, I was completely mistaken. I haven't seen a game last more than 20 minutes in either mode- this is with two players- and I've played it multiple times in the same sitting, even as a end-of-night cooldown. The co-op mode is not particularly difficult, even on hard mode, and most competitive games feel fairly quick without any huge chance of steamrolling or runaway victories. Most competitive games I've played have felt evenly matched, given players of similar maturity and cognitive development. If you play against your 6 year old nephew Timmy, you're gonna crush him. Do with that what you will, ya candy-snatchers.


THEME- WHAT WORKS, AND WHAT DOESN'T

Anyways, let me move onto the theme of Clacks, which is probably the reason that many of you are reading this review. As I mentioned before, Clacks is based on the Discworld series of books by Sir Terry Pratchett, or more specifically a single book in that series called Going Postal. If you're not familiar with Pratchett or Discworld, here's a quick rundown: Discworld is a satirical/comic fantasy world in which a huge cast of semi-recurring characters go through adventures that often parody modern-day life. They're hugely popular, with 46 novels in the series, and over 80 million copies sold over a 30 year period.
Unfortunately Sir Terry passed away in mid-2015, leaving behind a literary legacy as well as thousands upon thousands of devoted fans, and I am one of them. I have read, loved, and owned pretty much everything that Pratchett ever wrote and consider him one of the finest satirical authors of the 20th century. So if you're into Discworld, hopefully you'll find me qualified to speak to whether or not Backspindle games got it right when it comes to Clacks.

And this, discworld fans, is where we gotta have a little heart to heart. See, I really really wanna like this game. I want it to do justice to the ideas in Going Postal. There have been 5 discworld boardgames released over the years, and Clacks is the second from Backspindle- Guards, Guards being the first- and the general consensus among some Discworld fans is that not all of the games have really gotten it right- either the theme wasn't integrated well, or that the game design itself- ie mechanics/how it plays- was crap. Of the 5, there's 1 (or maybe two, if you're generous), that can be considered "good" games. So there's a lot for Clacks to live up to. We all want a Discworld game that feels "right".

As for Clacks? Well, I'm sorry to say that I can't give it a straight thumbs up or thumbs down either way. There are things it gets right, and then there are things it gets... let's say, less right. As far as drawing upon Going Postal as source material and centering the flavor of the game around it, it does well. But it's how it handles the details of that source material that leads to some issues. Allow me to clarify.

First, a quick refresher of the plot in Going Postal: a charismatic con-man turned good named Moist Von Lipwig is reluctantly coerced into taking over the management of the postal office of Ankh-Morpork (the Discworld's central city). The Post is in shambles as a business, namely due to the competition of the Clacks Company, which employs a new technology that can transmit messages across great distances in mere minutes, where sending a letter via post would take days if not weeks. The Clacks company is run by a robber baron of sorts by the name of Reacher Gilt, who is more or less a Class-A Bastard.

Now Lipwig believes he can revitalize the post office even in the face of insurmountable technological odds, and he challenges the Clacks to a race in which the first to deliver a message to the far-off city of Genua will win. I won't spoil what happens, and there's a decent amount that I've left out, but that's the basic gist of it. Simply Put: Von Lipwig and the Post are the novel's protagonists; you want them to win. And the Clacks are the antagonist, a careless corporation run by a greedy fatcat.

And that brings me to what I meant by disconnect: In Clacks the boardgame (and most notably in the coop version), you will be playing the role of the Clacks Company- the novel's bad guys. You're racing against Von Lipwig, trying to beat him to the finish line. And if you have the familiarity with and enjoyed Going Postal as much as me, then that feels a bit weird at first.

Now it's not gamebreaking or anything- and to be honest, it doesn't really affect the competitive version. But I've gotta admit that about halfway through my first co-op playthrough, I realized I was racing against the characters I always saw as the good guys. Sure, I still wanted to win- I mean, I want to win any game I play- but it just felt a bit weird, for lack of a better term. I don't want it to necessarily sound as though it's a criticism, because I think designing the game centered around the Post Office would've made for something less enjoyable from a player's standpoint. It's just an interesting design choice I felt I should note.

Disregarding this slight issue, I'd say otherwise the theme is handled very well, and it's integrated into the game design about as well as you're ever going to get with something that's essentially an abstract puzzle game. The art concepts are spectacular- Amber Grundy is the game's artist- and you can tell she loves Pratchett's works and put her soul into what she could. From an informational standpoint I have some slight dings on some of the component designs- most namely, the fact that the background of alphabet pattern player aid's graphics are the color negative of the word target cards. But look, I'll admit I use to be a graphic designer and I'm probably being too nit-picky here.

The rulebook's cover art is awesome, it looks like an old Haynes repair manual. The rules are competently explained with a good amount of examples; the only slight issue I had was how they describe the tower selector buttons for the competitive game, but once you actually put the description into practice, things clear up quickly.

As for game components, for the most part it's great. Cards are on good stock, the board is a good thickness- although it will take some time to sit flat- and the wooden lamp tiles are nice and chunky. My only concern is that the lamp icons are stickers that you apply before your first play, and these sometimes do not last over the years. There are some extras included though. Admittedly painted tiles would've probably driven up the cost a fair amount.


WRAP-UP: IS CLACKS WORTH IT?

So, the standard question: should you buy this game?

Well, if you're a discworld fan and you don't hate puzzle games, I'd say go for it. Look, I'm not saying that you should expect some amazing gaming experience here: the mechanics and design, while handled well, are not particularly groundbreaking. Clacks reminds me a lot of an old 70's game called Amoeba, which had a reprint by Ravensburger game that I think they called Tantalus. What Clacks is is a good little puzzle game that's not too complicated, it plays quickly, and I find it good for situations where I want something with a little mental bite, but without a huge time investment. Like I said before, it's a good end-of-night game. I do think it will probably work better for 2 players rather than 3 or 4; couples who both dig Pratchett's work will probably be into this.

If you don't know or don't care about the background of Clacks theme, then I'd say it's probably more of a try it before you buy it scenario. A knowledge of Discworld books is not necessary to enjoy the game, and it won't handicap you, but you're not here for the theme, then honestly there are better puzzle games out there. Look at stuff like Yinsch and the Gipf series if you haven't checked them out. At $30, Clacks is a little pricey for a puzzle game where half the components will hold no emotional interest for you.

Overall, let me put it this way. I do like Clacks for its simplicity. Not every game in your collection needs to be some groundbreaking design that revolutionizes tabletop gaming while solving world hunger, brining peace to all mankind, and doing your taxes as well. Sometimes a game is good not because of what it brings to the table, but rather what it leaves behind. And on that note, Clacks gets it right.

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Allie Tyndall
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Great review, thanks. Answered all my questions. As a Discworld fan, playing against Moist would be a really big deal for me.
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Bart Rachemoss
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Great review!

In another thread, Sherry Wallace came up with a solution for the thematic clash:
Reza58 wrote:
As a huge Discworld fan, I thought the same thing. So I set it a little later in time and decided it would be a race between Adora Belle with the Clacks and Moist with the Post Office for bragging rights and possibly dinner.

I think this could work for me. Going Postal was the first Discworld book I read so there is a special place in my heart for Moist and Adora. Of course, I hope it is for possibly more than possibly dinner.
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Hey, sorry for the delay, was out of town at a con. That's actually a really good idea, best thing I've heard of yet for integrating the mechanics with a "lore-friendly" theme. Thanks.
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Ryan Opp
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Some observations here.

1 of the 5 Discworld games is a good game? I think that is a tad harsh. The two Martin Wallace games had wonderful theming and very workable mechanics, which combined with the artwork, make a delightful experience for Discworld fans and the occasional non-initiate as well. The Guards, Guards game, Backspindle's first, had character illustrations by a favorite artist, Stephen Player, but they couldn't hold together the boring, fiddly rolling experience, and lame, uncanonically-believable storyline. And of course there is Thud, which is almost in a different category, because it is not as much about the Discworld characters themselves, but rather the game that those characters play in their leisure, based on a past battle on the Discworld, but ultimately very abstract. And comparing that to games of that type in other fandoms, Star Trek Tridimensional Chess, Cheops (from Dune), and any others I've come across, it is the most superior, and I would play it even if it wasn't Discworld.

So, having an in-depth familiarity with all the other Discworld games, I would come to a different conclusion about theme versus gameplay on this one. Really, the theme seems kind of slapped on. This game has the least original artwork in it, and not a single character, only scenery and machinery. As we fans know, the characters are the driving force in the Discworld books, and the little Moist meeple isn't enough emersion for me. However, I find the visual puzzle aspect quite appealing, and not familiar with the similar puzzle games mentioned in the review, I think this is one of the strongest games mechanically in the Discworld group, besides Thud. It is the current favorite of the non-Discworld readers I have introduced Discworld games to, and thus may serve as a gateway to the others.

I do like it a lot, recommend it, and play it frequently. I have one house rule I urge you to adopt. In the competitive game, start your meeples on the closest center transmission space to you, not off the board. Off the board gives yet another large advantage to the first player, in that there is no one in his way, and the first player is already a half-step ahead on transmission as it is. In the case of a three-player game, start the odd player on the board as well, with the dark dwarf directly across from him where the fourth player would start.
 
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Mat1da wrote:
Great review, thanks. Answered all my questions. As a Discworld fan, playing against Moist would be a really big deal for me.



The clacks operators were good guys though, they did it for the thrill of getting those messages through as fast as possible.

I see it as those people you are playing as.
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