DECEMBER 4, 2017 — from ManGo's Gaming
Designer: Juma Al-JouJou
Publisher: Karma Games
1-4 players, 45-120mins
Price: £55-65 approx
Clans of Caledonia is another one of those Kickstarter projects (alongside Shadowscape) that I opted to back relatively early during it’s campaign. It successfully funded within the first few hours of launch which is perhaps testament to the hard work put in by the designer to ‘get it out there’.
Attracted partly by the promise of a Euro-style game “about Whisky, Trade, and Glory”, and the rich 19th century Scottish-based background (here’s the original Kickstarter link btw: Clans of Caledonia Kickstarter), I was also sold on the work of Klemens Franz artwork and illustration being included (he did Agricola, Caverna and Isle of Skye among others), and the fact it was billed as “a highly replayable economic strategy game” — the addition of a Solo mode was the final straw for me: I had to have this game!
On all fronts, I’m pleased to say, I haven’t been disappointed: Clans of Caledonia is an impressive, excellent game, and a nigh-on perfect (but extremely tight) blend of engine building, economic strategy, and to a certain extent worker placement, too. It has a rather smart-tastic whiff of ‘points salad’ at the end, too, which may not be to everyone’s taste, but does mean the final winner is not always so obvious.
The aim of the game is to earn Victory Points (VPs) by completing as many ‘Export Contracts’ as possible (you export ‘X’ and import ‘Y’ basically), but there are plenty of points (aka Glory) to be earned for satisfying the different scoring tiles at the end of each round, too: these are randomised at the start, but known to all players throughout, so there is room to plan for them if you want to. You also get VPs for any leftover money, basic or processed goods, and for all the hops and other goods that you have managed to import throughout the game (shown on your Export Contracts).
As well as earning VPs for all the above, there are additional VPs to be had for exporting the most contracts at game end, and for having the most settlements ‘within shipping distance’ of each other on the board.
As mentioned above, Clans of Caledonia is an impressive game, but it can also be a punishing and extremely tight one, too, and a real balancing act pretty much from the very start — a game lasts only 5 rounds, which leaves little room for error, requiring all players to get their engine-building and basic economy in place as early as possible. Money in this game is soooo tight, and you’ll often find yourself stymied by being just £1 or £2 short and unable to complete all the actions in a round that you really want to…
This tight economy is made all the more difficult because the Export Contracts required to win the game get progressively more expensive to buy as the game moves on: in the first round, you receive £5 for taking on an Export Contract (but can only hold one at a time until it’s completed — unless you’re playing a particular Clan that allows you to have two, but more on that later), but this goes up £5 in each subsequent round, costing a whopping £15 each in the last and final round.
As you can probably guess its not easy to satisfy the demands of your first few Export Contracts (you have very little in the way of basic or processed goods to utilise), which is why it’s crucial to plan ahead and try and set your goals relatively early on, and to work out how much money it’s going to cost you to achieve! It’s a brutal wake-up call for the first-time Caledonia player, but you’ll be a lot more prepared next time, and you will want to play another game and try a different strategy long before your first game ends, because despite it’s lengthy playing time (easily 2hrs+ for your first game), this game definitely has that ‘one more go’ appeal!
So how is the game played?
To be fair, set-up is a bit of a faff, in my opinion — player starting boards need to be fully populated at the start of every game (and these boards and the writing on them is quite small), the Export Contracts and scoring tiles need setting up, and there’s also an asymmetric starting procedure that allows players to select which Clan and starting money and goods they’d like to begin with (the Clan part can be skipped if playing with no Clans, but kind of detracts from the whole concept of competing Clans, really). It takes about 15 mins or so to set things up when you know what you’re doing, but you can add an extra 10-15 mins for your first few games, esp. if you’re using the Clans because players will need to fully understand the relevant special abilities of each before making a decision…
Once the set-up hurdle is overcome, the game flows a lot easier, with each round split into distinctive phases, namely Preparation, Action, Production, and Scoring.
Preparation should hopefully be self-explanatory, and basically means setting up the next round by refilling any empty Export Contract spaces, recalling merchants from the market, and turning the previous round’s scoring tile over.
The core of the game takes place during the Action phase, and it’s here that players take it in turns to perform one action from a multitude of options and play continues round the table until all players have passed (usually due to running out of money, I should add). Passing first offers a slight advantage, with players earning more money for next round the earlier they pass — this handily also decides the turn order for the next round.
Actions include sending merchants to market to buy/sell basic or processed goods (and adjusting the market prices accordingly: up for purchases, down for sales); obtaining a new Export Contract; expanding your presence on the board by placing one of your units on a space within shipping distance of your other units, and taking advantage of any neighbourhood bonuses if you can; upgrading your shipping level or technology; hiring additional merchants to expand your trading options; fulfilling an Export Contract; or of course, opting to pass.
It costs money to do most things (esp. placing units on the board), and it’s here that serious number-crunching may be required to optimise your turn and get the best you can out of your limited funds. Alas, it’s also where there’s a risk of analysis paralysis taking hold as you weigh up your options and try and plan your turns in sequence…
Once all players have passed, the Production phase is where money from deployed Workers and basic goods are generated for each player from deployed Sheep (Wool), Cows (Milk), and Fields (2 x Grain) depending on which spaces are free on their player board. Some of these basic goods can be turned into higher value processed goods if you’ve removed the relevant units from your player board: Milk can be turned into Cheese by a Dairy, and Grain can be turned into Bread or Whisky by a Bakery or Distillery, for example.
The Scoring phase is where players can earn bonus Glory points for satisfying the relevant scoring tile for that round.
The game proceeds like this for five rounds, before totals are totted up and a winning player decided, and of course, the game goes much deeper than this brief outline, and the number of options and individual nuances and strategies of play are wide and varied (and can depend very much on what Clan you’re playing with, as well).
Talking of Clans, there are eight starting Clans to choose from (nine if you include the Kickstarter one — see below), and these are drawn randomly at the start of each game (one more than the no. of players), and it’s from this reduced selection that players can choose which to start with.
Each Clan has it’s own special ability and recommended style of play, and these vary considerably: Clan Buchanan have an additional Export Contract box, for example, so can pursue two at a time; Clan Cunningham can produce Butter from Milk and sell each basic Milk good for a flat cost of £8; Clan Fergusson starts the game with more Workers deployed and additional shipping distance; Clan MacKenzie have their own whisky cellar and can ‘age’ Whisky for additional income later in the game, etc.
It’s probably harsh to gripe about Clan balance at this early stage, but there is a lot of talk on BGG (BoardGameGeek) already about potential imbalance, and I myself feel the whisky cellar of Clan MacKenzie is particularly lucrative, especially for achieving much higher income than everyone else later in the game.
Overall, Clans of Caledonia is an accomplished piece of work and deserves all the credit and praise it’s already received since it’s debut (at Spiel ’17, I suspect, but I may be wrong) — it’s gaining fans at a steady pace, and is already in the BGG Top 200, and deservedly so, I think. I’ve played it Solo several times, as well, and have no complaints on that front, either.
My congratulations go to Juma and the rest of the team for delivering such an excellent game, even if there are a few quibbles to be made about the size of the box and the effort it takes to squeeze everything in. Okay, those player boards are too small, too, but that’s just being picky!
There are several variants suggested in the rulebook —in addition to the Solo mode— to simplify scoring for your first game, remove starting Clans from the game, and tighten up the game map: all of which go a fair way to level the playing field and increase re-playability for those worried about the asymmetric start-up; and there’s even a small section dedicated to the three Kickstarter-contributed tiles (created and selected by the Kickstarter community during the initial funding campaign), so I applaud Karma Games for their efforts in this respect, but…
Although these ‘Kickstarter tiles’ were not fully playtested by Karma Games prior to release, I haven’t found any major issues with any of them (and they can of course, be easily removed): There’s a Port tile that allows you to use any of the other Ports for a one-time cost of £3, and a scoring tile that provides Glory for players occupying board spaces with a cost of £5 or £6 on them. However, somewhat annoyingly, the Clan MacEwan starting tile isn’t fully explained, and the rules ask players to refer to the website for the relevant financial benefit of producing Beer when you import Hops (that Clan’s special ability): at time of writing (Dec 2017) this is £9 for each unit of Beer produced, up to a maximum of £27 per Export Contract, but I’m a tad annoyed at having to check their website for this information — the disclaimer is already in place, so I’m not sure why they couldn’t have just put a figure in there in the first instance, and ask players to check the relevant website page for any updates…?
It’d be churlish to knock this game for a mere rules oversight, though, and I genuinely think this is a very good game indeed, but I’d heartily recommend you try it for yourself just as soon as you can and make up your own mind…