CloudAge

Arno Steinwender and Alexander Pfister

Artist: Christian Opperer

Publisher: Nanox Games / Capstone Games

(Photo credits: Tino_Nanoxgames)

Pfister’s latest big box game will probably be sold out on the first print run. He is currently one of the hottest designers for heavy Euros and in CloudAge, he shares designer credits with Arno Steinwenner. Now, I don’t really know who the brains behind this game is, but credit ought to be given to both these designers. There are however, lots of Mr. Pfister’s fingerprints on CloudAge. Prior to publication, it was announced the game is much lighter than Maracaibo or Great Western Trail, two of Mr. Pfister’s signature heavy Euros. However, his ludography is quite diverse with lighter games such as Broom Service, Port Royal and Oh My Goods also found in his portfolio. CloudAge is right smack in the middle and I would peg it as slightly more involved than Broom Service.

CloudAge is the third or maybe fourth game that showcases Pfister’s renewable legacy system. In any case, CloudAge has a campaign mode with an evolving narrative that builds upon each game. New elements in the form of new rules, legacy tiles, story cards are added to the game as the story unfolds across the campaign that lasts for 7 chapters. Unlike previous games, CloudAge also adds a major mechanism into the story arc. Players that complete the campaign mode can register their scores to compare their achievements and gain some satisfaction in completing the story. Importantly, players can also enjoy standalone scenarios that represent specific chapters of the game. More on that much later.

CloudAge is set a post-apocalyptic era where an environmental disaster has ravaged the world and water is scarce. Cities are now surrounded by uninhabitable terrain where airships dominate as the mode of transport. Like any good dystopian setting, the world is also terrorized by an rogue entity called Cloud Militia. Presumably, this paramilitary group is flying around in airships and making peoples lives miserable. In truth, the militia’s presence barely makes a dent in game play and serves only to enrich the narrative (I have played through 4 chapters in the story and the militia may eventually play a more central role).

In the game, each player controls an airship that is flown across a modular board consisting of 4 double sided map tiles pieced together in a linear configuration. Players fly their airships from one end of the board visiting 7-8 cities in as many turns. Since this is not a race, there is no end point in the map, and players are allowed to progress at their own pace, but the board elements do increase in difficulty and also in rewards as the ship flies from end to end.

Each turn, players will flip two cards from a personal deck with numerical values (0-4), constructed throughout the game via deck building. For the two cards, the lower of the two values will allow players to gain energy or pick project cards while the higher value is used as ship movement. As ships visit cities, players will get to pick a fight with the militia and gain rewards, mostly in the form of water, cards or VPs. Fighting is very abstracted and does not involve dice. To win, players must match or exceed a militia strength value indicated on each city by pooling together card modifiers and flipping additional cards from the personal deck to reach the required value. Once the militia is beaten and rewards collected, players then move on to the action phase. The fighting of militia is just one additional way for players to gain resources. Players can easily choose to ignore combat by opting not to fight.

During the action phase, players get to choose between two options: building or collect resources. The active player gets the full benefit of the action while all other players get reduced action. For example, the active player gets two item to build while all other players get to build only one. Later in the campaign or in advanced scenarios, a third action of placing growth tiles becomes available. For the building action, players get to either play project cards to gain special abilities or upgrade ships to boost movement or weapons. Cards or ship upgrades eventually translate to bonuses, modifiers or VPs during the game… all pretty standard affair for Euros.

For resource selection action, there is a gimmick or twist: players get to decide which resources they want based on partial information. Three decks of 8 cards are sleeved together with the surface of the sleeve showing a cloud that partially obscures the resources illustrations on the face up card. There are 4 resources (metal, water, energy and cards) and 2 bonus actions in each card and each resource value is directly represented by how much of the illustration on the card it occupies. Because the view is partially obstructed, one can guess which resource is the most abundant and where the bonus actions are located. Once the active player chooses a sector and resource, all other players get to choose the remaining resources available from the same card. In addition, each resource card also acts as a navigational card for deck building because there are numerical values tied to each card. Once the resources are distributed, the active player takes that card and add it to their deck building pile. This “cloud” mechanism is no doubt a mechanism, or novelty if you will, to provide partial information. Thematically, it’s pretty well done since this action is painted as sending out drones to fly above the clouds and scout the cities for resource gathering purposes. So, cloud cover provides only partial information, as the drones cannot give a complete snapshot of the terrain. In reality, this mechanism is not too big a deal for those who worry about luck. Most of the time, you can pretty much guess the most abundant resource. However, the lower value resources which occupy a smaller area, can be much harder to gauge, but even then, you can make a pretty educated guess.

Once players finish up their actions, the round ends and a fresh round begins. The game as mentioned, lasts for 7-8 rounds depending on player counts. The end of game scoring is a mish-mash of categories including VPs from ship upgrades, project cards and mission cards (which are distributed in the beginning of each game and during play through the campaign mode). A large chunk of the points are also picked up during the game when ships fly through specific regions, fight cities that give VPs’ and also by playing specific project cards for scoring. In addition, there is a also a production board where players get to convert energy to VPs’ and water at the start of each round.

For me at least, there are two aspects of CloudAge I enjoy. First, the theme. I like it and it is very appropriate for the design and also a great choice to showcase the narrative power of the renewable legacy system. I think post-apocalyptic themed games are still underrepresented in may Euro games, and I am not talking about zombie games. Not surprisingly, post-apocalyptic theme is often lost in Euro-styled games because the narrative doesn’t agree with the structure of how Euro games are often designed. In Euro games, farming, trading, building or highly organized economic activities sits well with many of the core Euro mechanisms that are usually more structured and regulated. Not surprisingly, these economic themes are overrepresented in Euro games. On the other hand, story telling themes such as horror, sci-fi, post-apocalyptic are inherently more dramatic, chaotic and less structured. Hence, they are more suited for mechanisms which showcase lots of variability (lots of card text, modifiers, minis, variable powers) and push your luck (dice chucking, blind draws) situations. Today, the “Ameri-trash” school of design has successfully integrated many Euro-style mechanisms to elevate the quality of their design, but the reverse is still not true. Euro games still struggle to diversify their themes.

In CloudAge, the theme is fun and more importantly, it is a great showcase for the narrative power of the renewable legacy system, more so than in Maracaibo, in my opinion. In Maracaibo, the story within the campaign mode is buried by complexity of the game. To play the game with any player count is a hefty investment in time and so, the story takes a back seat and slows to a crawl. I just cannot pick up and play Maracaibo whenever I like. Moreover, if I remember correctly, legacy elements in Maracaibo do not progress if players choose not to participate or visit specific locations. Even though the story elements are present, the actions may not align with your overall strategy. I know that because I have made many sub-optimal moves in Maracaibo just to advance the story and this can be frustrating. Why can’t we have both? Well, CloudAge settles this problem by moving the story forward in campaign mode regardless of the winner and independent of whether specific goals are met. Different story cards are drawn and read throughout the game depending on collective decisions and branching story lines (caveat, I have not finished the campaign mode). Moreover, the campaign mode greatly alters the main mechanism by introducing the third action of placing growth tiles. This action is tied to the main story and involves a significant change in strategy, something not present in Maracaibo where the changes are mainly ancillary. Together with the reduced complexity and shorter play time that facilitates more sessions, these changes allow the story elements to share a much larger spotlight in the overall gaming experience.

While players may swoon over the “Cloud” mechanism, I think it is the incremental improvements to the renewable legacy system that deserves more attention, and praise. I admit, the system is not for everyone. Some will want the full experience of CloudAge without the accompanying story for which the designers have anticipated by including scenarios extracted from different parts of the campaign. I suspect this will satisfy some but others might be annoyed that a certain amount of legacy elements will be excluded from the full experience. Bear in mind, this game is no where near as complex as Great Western, Mombasa, Maracaibo or even Blackout and if you enter the game with these expectations when playing the scenarios, you will be disappointed. Instead, I think CloudAge is better experienced in a campaign mode where substantial game elements is revealed over 7 chapters. The campaign length is just right in my mind, and is achievable even by many of us that get distracted by the latest shiny.

There are a few concerns. The campaign mode I have experienced is with 2 players and the board already feels crowded. I have a sneaky feeling that the campaign is less attractive at higher player counts because choices are more limited and also because the diversity of opinions makes it less likely everyone will buy in to the campaign mode. Luckily, switching between player counts mid-campaign probably doesn’t detract from the game too much. I also thought that the opening sequence can get a bit scripted. There are only a handful ship upgrades and cards that are useful off the bat. Having the third action of upgrading and placing growth tiles greatly expands the options. I don’t mind the slow progression in the campaign mode, but obviously, chapter 1 has already been axed in the new printing.

CloudAge is primed for an expansion and it would be disappointing if the expansion is not centered around the renewable legacy story mode. There is a tremendous opportunity here to frame any new modules in the context of continuing the main narrative. New cards, tiles will certainly be included in the expansion, but I hope the designers will try and and cater to both the scenario and campaign gamers. While new mechanism can be introduced, I do caution the designers not to ramp up complexity and instead consider substituting game elements. After all, as I had mentioned, the mid-level complexity is what makes CloudAge attractive. Clearly, the ship upgrades are modular to begin with and substituting the plant growth upgrades with an exciting new mechanism would be a good place to start. There is also room for improving the narrative. Perhaps a more descriptive and better developed story line with creative add ons to the main board. There is a fine line here and you don’t want half the game to be reading text from a book, but I think there is still some room to push in that direction.

Finally, I would also be remiss not to mention the potential for CloudAge to have a co-op mode. I am not always a fan of coop games but the theme, mechanism and gameplay are literally begging for a co-op experience (Race to plant new growth tiles while fighting the militia as a team). I know this is hard, but how bold would it be if several chapters of co-op play is incorporated into the experience. Whether this blended co-op/competitive experience flies will depend on how the story is crafted. Regardless, it would be groundbreaking.

I admit that CloudAge is the first game in a while that made me want to play back to back games just to see how the game unfolds. At heart, CloudAge is still a Euro with a strong narrative and different from an Ameri-trash that integrates Euro mechanisms. The feel is familiar yet distinct. The system also feels unique when compared with a full legacy game such as Pandemic Legacy. That it is renewable also means the game has value after completion of the campaign mode. CloudAge is its own beast and is a great vehicle to showcase the system. This game should not go unnoticed just for this aspect alone.

Last but not least, please Mr. Pfister, consider coining a term for your renewable legacy system?

Initial impressions: Good

Follow up:

Be forewarned that there are some spoilers in this section in terms of the renewable legacy story.

We have now finished playing the overall campaign which for us, lasted 8 chapters. One more chapter than the expected 7 due to the branching story line. It is possible to play fewer chapters depending on how the goals are completed. I thoroughly enjoyed the campaign and the “trivial” story. I think CloudAge is best played through the campaign mode. The pieces that are added to the board make sense, as are the new actions. Playing the scenario is fine as the last scenario provides maximum complexity, but I can see why there is a disconnect in mechanism and how the story develops. Also, the story is not “trivial”. As I mentioned, Euros have struggled long and hard against rich story-telling themes. This is but one solution, but it works.

Personally, I felt driven to play back-to-back-to-back 2 player games with my spouse. In a way, this was a perfect marriage. For me, I enjoy a game for its novelty and delving into new concepts in board game design and so will rotate games quite often, never quite playing a game extensively enough. In contrast, my partner enjoys repeated plays of the same game and is very good at it once she absorbs all the nuances. This was clearly the case with CloudAge as I won the first few chapters and she swept the remaining ones. CloudAge and the renewable legacy system melded both of our desires and allowed me to experience how the mechanisms unfold over a compelling narrative while also allowing her to hone her skills over repeated plays. We both enjoyed the game for slightly different reasons.

It’s true the campaign in CloudAge is not for everyone, and that’s a crying shame. If you dislike an evolving game with new rules being introduced over time, you will likely find some scenarios to be subpar and lacking context. Again, this is not Great Western Trail or Maracaibo and if you are expecting a heavy, rich game with a huge deck of cards, you won’t be as thrilled in CloudAge. Then again, my original assertion that the length of the game makes the narrative stand out stands after completion of the campaign. The renewable legacy system has some advantage over your traditional legacy system as it is renewable and the game can be passed along and not discarded. That is a huge benefit in my book.

The game is not without some flaws. Movement in airships feel weak as a strategy as compared to laying growth tiles. We frequently did not make it to the final board and even as I tried, I lost badly. The benefits from movement (including the mission cards point values for visiting cities) are underpowered. This is a missed opportunity. The way mission cards are dealt with is also irksome. Some missions like combat award many points will those like visiting cities are lame. Everything else in between feels disconnected with the story mode. There is some leeway for improving the mission cards. Perhaps even more substantial and narrative driven (e.g. Jericho is in dire need of water, if you can deliver 5 water to this city, earn more VPs…etc.).

Overall, this has been a fun experience for us. Now, whether it has any value beyond the campaign is a personal call. We will likely put it away for a while and turn our attention to something else. We may come back in the future, but not quite sure when that will be. Certainly, with the “right” expansion, we might be tempted to revisit the game sooner. I hope the renewable legacy system picks up steam and is embraced by other Euro designers as a means to delve into story-telling themes.

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