Designer: Juma Al-JouJou
Artist: Klemens Franz
Publisher: Karma Games
I have heard about Clans of Caledonia before playing. Probably most gamers have. The game pretty well-received when it came out and had some buzz to it. Most of the reviews, reports and one-on-one conversations were largely positive. I was told that the game was a standard Euro but with very tight game play. As far as first impressions go, the size of the box, which was extremely compact for a heavy game was the first thing I noted and wrote about in a separate article. I was truly impressed with how the game of this weight could be organized into such a small box. Really a credit to the designer and publisher. Without elaborating too much, I really hope other publishers take note.
I have never heard of the designer Al-JouJou and a quick search on BGG show that he had designed another game called Green Deal, so I was certainly intrigued by Clans. The game truly is a Euro through and through. The game is a pure resource conversion: build infrastructure, harvest raw materials, convert raw materials to secondary goods, fulfill contracts and get victory points. So then, what does Clans of Caledonia bring to the table?
For starters, Clan has a pretty unique method for collecting raw materials which is quite multi-faceted in a way that is both good but can be confusing for beginners. Unlike your standard resource conversion, each raw material can be used in several ways. There are three primary raw materials: sheep, cattle and wheat. All three primary resources can be placed on a modular map to generate a continuous resource of wool, milk and wheat. These primary resources are not worth much point-wise at the end of the game and to maximize their usage, they need to be processed. Wool itself is not converted to anything but milk can be processed into cheese while wheat can be turned into bread or whiskey. To make these processed goods that are worth more points, each of these secondary resource must have a corresponding infrastructure. For example, to make bread, you need to have a bread/baker meeple on the board. Similarly, to make whiskey, you need to place a distillery on the board. For each infrastructure, you can only covert one raw resource each round, so the conversion process is…extremely slow. For example, to make whisky, one first must get money to plant wheat on the fields, then build a distillery before the wheat can be converted to one barrel of whiskey each round. The same goes for baking bread or making cheese. In addition to being processed, raw materials such as cattle or sheep can also be slaughtered and converted into beef or mutton. This is done by removing the animeeple on the board during contract fulfillment.
So why go through all the trouble of collecting all these materials? Well, to fulfill contracts of course! Players get to buy one contract (two if you start with a specific clan) to fulfill. One has to complete a contract before purchasing another to replace it. The object of the game is to collect enough primary and raw materials to satisfy these contracts as quickly and frequently as possible to score points. Contracts often require processed goods, wool or meat. So, they can be tough to fulfill especially if you pick up a wrong contract. For example, if you choose a contract that requires 4 barrels of whisky but have no wheat, or distillery, you could be in trouble given the slow pace of resource harvesting and conversion. There is no option to discard a contract tile. The game is unforgiving that one. Once you commit to a path, you better take advantage of it and not stray too far as you could be stuck with a non-producing contract.
Luckily there is a dynamic resource market to help you get some of the ingredients you need…that is if you can pay for it. One can visit the market to pick up the required products or raw materials for a price. Prices will fluctuate depending on collective sales and purchases of each item over the course of the game. One uses merchants to visit the marketplace to purchase goods. However, you can also get a discount if you construct buildings on the map that is adjacent to other infrastructures on the map belonging to other players. For example, to buy whiskey, one needs to place or build something next to another player’s distillery…. only then can you buy extra whisky with your merchants at a discounted rate. But this is only a one time deal. Careful planning is required to optimize each move and to plan ahead to buy things for cheap.
If it isn’t obvious, money is a central feature of the game. To place buildings, workers, purchase from the marketplace or buy new contracts, one needs money. Money is primarily earned by placing workers on the map areas showing a forest or mountain. These workers are then turned into woodcutters and miners that will earn you income each round. The more workers you place, the more money you get. Once you start getting resources, selling goods in the marketplace is also another way of earning money. Although I think goods are so precious and needed for contracts that you won’t be selling the majority of the processed items.
The modular board is interesting. There are lakes and rivers that separate the board and players must be able to navigate these waterways by upgrading their shipping route. This allows players to spread out when placing settlements. Yet, the game encourages players to cluster and piggyback off each other for access to the marketplace. These two aspects of the game are in direct conflict and players must decide which is more important and it is not always easy to figure it out. I think it is quite possible to get locked into an area and not being able to expand easily. The board fills up quickly and so if you get hemmed in, it will be costly to escape.
Clans of Caledonia is too complex a game to rehash all the rules. There are 5 rounds to the game, but not enough time to optimize the engine. The game is solid, heavy and quite brain burning, but it is not flawless. For one thing, the game can be confusing for first-timers, even for veterans. The wooden pieces for bread and bakery are the same, albeit different colors. “Bread” on the board represents a baker and does not generate any goods at the end of the round unless you have wheat. Since both share the same pieces, it can get confusing. It is also challenging to keep track of all the ways raw materials and processed goods are used and their exceptions to the rule: Sheep produces wool, but wool can’t be converted to anything. They can be purchased from the marketplace, but then mutton is not. Mutton can only come when sheep is slaughtered. Wool and mutton are required for contract fulfillment. This is different from wheat which can be bought and sold at the marketplace but then is worthless for contracts because they can’t be used for it. Yet, wheat is needed to make bread and whisky which requires a separate infrastructure to produce….. ahh it can get convoluted. Because not all resources are used to fulfill contracts, you need at least one full introductory game before the nuances are clear. Once you are familiar with process, it shouldn’t be too hard to remember. Still, playing it for the first time was a struggle and the game felt disjointed.
Another aspect of the game I have a hard time grappling is long-term planning. While working on one contract at a time, one needs to build, harvest and convert the right things to fulfill a contract. However, contract turnover from the main board is rapid. You need to pick up new contracts as soon as one is completed so you have a goal you can work towards. Idling and waiting for the right contract to come along is probably sub-optimal. This means that the 2 whisky factories you built for the first contract could be useless toward fulfilling the second one which requires 4 wool. Of course, one would like to avoid such a scenario if possible but it largely depends on what contracts are available. For a game with 5 rounds, the harvest-production cycle is a tad bit too slow for my liking.
Finally, there are a couple of things in the game that feel rough on the edges. These are gaming elements that I think can be completely eliminated to streamline the game. First, the 4 port tiles granting special properties if you can reach those tiles seem tacked on and detracts from the main game. The one-time powers are nice but hardly game breaking. Why include when most players just ignore? Next, the 1 coin gained for advancing certain imported goods on the goods track. Players are gaining 40-50 coins every round. That single coin incentive is completely an after thought and slightly ridiculous. No one is clamoring to get that coin. I am also not a huge fan of how shipping distances are done. The ships routes determine how far you can spread out on the map, but I found it confusing when combined with rivers and lakes. It isn’t intuitive for me. The game end scoring of clusters based on shipping distances is also confusing. I know this is an integral part of the game but to me, it feels rough.
There is one thing that deserves mention in the game….. The Clan powers. Each player gets a clan in the beginning with special powers. Now this is nothing new but, but the clans really really drive your focus in the game. Each power is unique and when utilized properly, will be a game changer. So, when dealt a clan, it’s best to shape your entire game and strategy behind the unique powers of the clan. I usually don’t think much of these asymmetric starting tiles but in the case of Clans, it is a huge part of the game.
Overall, I am impressed with Clans of Caledonia. It’s true that Clans is just another resource conversion game with a modular map. I have plenty of those lying around and that hasn’t bother me too much. The theme itself is as old as time and again nothing special. But when all the elements are combined, the game is a pretty decent. I am happy to play it but won’t be seeking out a copy since I have too many Euros in this weight category and theme.
Initial impressions: Good