Claudio
United States
Portland
Oregon
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The final village is formed and scored. The scoring markers are strung out on the track, a cluster of four colors and red a mighty leap ahead.

"So who the heck are you? I know you're not red." Mike is flustered. I've known Mike for over 30 years. He was my best man. He's cocky and likes to talk smack. We've played scores of chess matches and hundreds of poker hands together.

"Are you yellow?"

Priscilla, his wife, seems quiet when you first meet her. She is a pop singer. Her songs are sweet, sad, and nostalgic without being syrupy. And she's a Catan shark with a foul mouth.

Normally, I would try and hide my smugness, but with Mike - and, after a long weekend of gaming, with Priscilla too - I let it shine through. No, I illuminate it, power it up. I flip my red tile and laugh demonically.

Clans looks like an abstract. But it isn’t. It is an espionage engine bolted to an abstract chassis; pieces move, but the core problem of the game is about intelligence gathered through opponents moves and counter-intelligence disseminated through your own. (So, in a more general sense, it is and abstract in that it abstracts concepts of intelligence work.)

There are sixty pieces in five colors distributed randomly but evenly across a board of different colored landscapes. On your turn you move all the pieces in one space to join the pieces in another. No going to empty spaces, so the board shrinks. If a move isolates a group, the group is scored. All colors present - no matter their quantity - score an amount equal to the number of pieces on the space. An exception: if there is at least one hut of each color present, the singletons are wiped out before the calculation is made. In any case, the pieces are removed from the game.

Terrain can make a difference. Depending on the stage of the game, one terrain type gives a bonus, and another causes all pieces to be worth zero. The last scoring gives a big bonus to whichever terrain is scored and there is no nullifying terrain type

Once the scoring is over, the player who caused it gets a point chip. Twelve chips will be taken by players and twelve regions will be scored for the five colors, regardless of player count.

If this were all there was, it would be just a cute abstract. Learn to look ahead, fork your opponents, use turn order and the shared scoring to create some quick partnership plays.

The twist, of course, is that your color is hidden until the end. The result is a slick game of bluffing and deduction where every play takes you deeper down the rabbit hole of indirect aggression.

Alas, most players don’t get to the real game. The first play or so is just about getting up to speed on how to score points. After all, how do you hide your intentions if you don't even really have intentions to begin with? So you figure out how get your singles to a big party without getting bounced by that last color in. You learn how to take away points from the other colors (players, maybe?) by doubling or tripling them up in places where they won't be able to kick out your singleton. You learn to double up with another double so you zap the other colors and score your 4+ points. You learn to time your moves to take advantage of the bonus terrain and punish the other colors with the nullifying terrain.

None of this is particularly difficult to grasp. It is a touch dry. It is, frankly, not that interesting. And, alas, it can drive people away from the game.

Hopefully, by the end of the first game, everyone is starting to understand that they must hide themselves. Perhaps they are starting to learn How to hide themselves. And how to seek.

The game is not long - a mere half hour or less - and so, it makes sense to play another game right after the first. And again. With each passing game, the effort to lie lower and lower while still scoring points gets more and more intense. The effort to decipher your opponents indirectness becomes excruciating - particularly when you get close to the final scoring with the big bonus. On that last region, you will be either very right or very wrong.

The indirectness of the competition drives you to seem almost random in your moves, favoring no color, aggressing no color. Yet somehow you score. Or others score for you. You must be patient and not grab easy honey pots. You must not be overtly cruel unless your opponent has given up the hiding; every color but theirs could be yours in your opponents’ eyes.

Of course, you also don’t want to give away when you’ve identified an opponent’s color. Like any good counter-intelligence operation, you keep your discoveries to yourself. Did the Allies make use of all the Enigma transmissions. Hell no! The last thing you want is for your opponent to stop sacrificing little gains in an effort to hide himself.

The agony of not doing the obvious – obviously attacking, obviously scoring – is the sweetest part of the game. Of course, you need to be sensitive to signs that you have been blown. Then naked aggression is in order. Score as many points as you can.

The more you play, the more the game becomes about constructing narratives, equally possible alternative stories where you could be blue... Or black... Or green... Or yellow... Or RED!

Which brings me back to Mike and Priscilla. I brought Clans down to L.A. because, after a couple of plays, I thought it was a pretty neat, fun game for three that was easy to teach and learn. We ended up playing ten or more times together over the course of the weekend - mostly the three of us, but sometimes just Mike and I. As we all became more familiar with the game and with each others play styles, we became more and more hooked. At the end of the weekend, I left it for them as a gift.I bought a new copy and rated it a 10.
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Jonathan Harrison
United States
Fisher
Illinois
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So long ...
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... and thanks for all the fish.
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Glad to see this game get some love. You've described Clans well, and very compellingly. There are other 3-player games I play first, so this doesn't come out often. But what you've written makes me want to get it out again.
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Maarten D. de Jong
Netherlands
Zaandam
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Amen to that.
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Tim Park
United States
San Rafael
California
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Great description of a game I'd love to play some more. Perhaps if my opponents had read this first, they'd still want to play, as well.
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Serious? Lee
United States
Coppell
Texas
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Lost in thought.
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Jason's video got me interested in this game and your review just confirms my impressions of how much I'd like this game.
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James Fehr
Canada
Edmonton
Alberta
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Hi there! Follow my gaming exploits on Twitter (fehrmeister)
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Excellent review of an underrated classic! Looking forward to bringing this to the table again.
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tom moughan
United States
Rochester
New York
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ahh....I love the smell of a stack of sketchily placed animals in the morning!
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too true.
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Matt N
United States
Broomfield
Colorado
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One of the best reviews I've read in giving a feel for a game. thumbsup
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Rahn
Australia
Melbourne
Victoria
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Cracking review! Thanks for posting. Now to track down a copy.
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Sean Carrick
United States
Beaverton
Oregon
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My only complaint is with your description of this game as mediocre. This game is objectively fantastic.
 
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Claudio
United States
Portland
Oregon
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figarojones wrote:
My only complaint is with your description of this game as mediocre. This game is objectively fantastic.
Glad you are enjoying it, Sean! To be clear, I don't think of it as a mediocre game. It is a mediocre ABSTRACT game. If it is played that way, it is mediocre. But it is NOT an abstract.

But I think you get it.
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