Sunday, May 13, 2018

Games That Don't Suck: Clank!

While the archetypal fantasy plot is probably the quest, the archetypal fantasy gaming plot is almost certainly the dungeon crawl, a search for treasure and magic in an underground ruin, populated by monstrous beasts and humanoids. I’ve written elsewhere about the Cold War and sci-fi influence on this old and important stereotype. One of the earliest fantasy board games, Dungeon (which your humble narrator first played forty years ago), essentially sent players onto a dungeon map to defeat monsters and take their stuff. Dungeonquest, Talisman Dungeon, and One Deck Dungeon rang their individual changes on this theme, as did the byzantine and lavishly (over)produced Descent.

If I feel in the mood for some dungeon-crawling, as an old D&Der sometimes does, my go-to game is now likely to be Clank!, a new offering from Renegade. The 2016 title has a familiar premise: players descend into a warren of caves and chambers beneath an old castle, fight monsters, steal various forms of loot, and escape. The game board depicts treasure rooms, secret rooms (with various secret prizes), crystal caves (which stop forward movement), and an underground market (because why the hell not) where adventurers can buy keys and backpacks and other goodies. Connecting hallways turn the dungeon into more of a maze, with extra-long corridors, guarded corridors, locked corridors, and one-way corridors to navigate, unlock, or foil.

The game mechanic that makes this title elegant, strategic, and rather unusual is deck-building, the same playing feature at the core of Dominion. Players start Clank! with a weak deck representing their resources and actions: skill points to buy new cards, swords to fight guards and monsters, and boots to move from room to room. On each turn, each player draws five cards from his/her deck, plays them in any order, and then discards their played hand and any newly-bought cards. Before the game begins, players lay out five cards from the game’s master deck, representing monsters they can fight (for gold, usually), new skills or equipment they can buy with skill points, and gems and other treasure that build their victory point total. Purchased or defeated cards are replenished after each player’s turn.

The game’s clumsy title refers to another aspect of play that makes it much more of a treasure hunt and survival match than a hack-and-slay festival: an invulnerable central enemy. Within Clank!’s dungeon resides a powerful dragon whom the players must evade, even as they steal her treasures and (sometimes) her dragon eggs. Whenever the players make noise – and there are many action cards that generate noise (or “Clank”), they must put one or more cubes of their own color into a box on the game board. Certain cards contain a “dragon attacks” icon; when a player reveals one, everyone places their cubes in an opaque bag and draws out a number of cubes equal to the current “threat level.” Each drawn cube of a player’s color inflicts one wound on that player; ten wounds put them out of the game. Play starts with some black dummy cubes already in the bag, representing missed attacks. As the game progresses and the players collect treasures, the dummies are exhausted and the threat level (number of cubes drawn) increases, making each dragon attack likelier to injure someone. In addition, once a player leaves the dungeon, automatic dragon attacks occur on each of those player’s subsequent turns until the other players escape or are knocked out. Clank! thus includes a press-your-luck feature, a nice mechanic to have handy if a player is behind on victory points and wants to take a risk on a knock-out victory.

Clank! currently retails for $50-60, not including two supplements (which I haven't tried) and the over-elaborate (IMHO) sci-fi version Clank In Space. As with Dominion or Pandemic, the sticker price may seem a little high, but one will get more game play and far more entertainment out of it than a less expensive and more generic title.

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