Game Review by Rafael Cordero
Euro. Ameritrash. Mechanical. Thematic. While these words make it easy to quickly lump games into various categories or screen out a game you don’t think you’d like, they’re slowly losing their relevance and importance in this hobby as more and more games blur the lines and take the best from all worlds. So it is with Clockwork Wars, a criminally under the radar release from Eagle Gryphon Games. It’s a game where some of the abilities and mechanics are so eruptive they scream for a rich story (more on Cataclysm later) yet so mechanically tight that it can be played with wooden cylinders on art-less tiles and lose none of its tension.
In Clockwork Wars, players take on one of 3 human-animal hybrid factions or the race of Pureblooded humans in an all-out civil war. A modular, and potentially randomized, board is built out of hexes that each provide different bonuses to the player who controls them. While forests and lakes will provide victory points during the scoring rounds, other hexes like spires or citadels provide valuable tech research points or even the ability to reinforce battles. These hexes are double-sided, allowing players the choice to play on a board with excellent gritty art or abstracted colors that simply show the function of the hex. While the story and setting of Clockwork Wars are excellent, the game never relies on it to smooth out rough edges or fill in gaps; a problem that is unfortunately all too common in this hobby. Right out of the gate players are treated to a simple to understand rule set that can get you playing quickly. I’m not exaggerating at all when I say that you can learn, teach, and play through your first game of Clockwork Wars in about 2 hours and, most importantly, not feel like it’s a “learning game” or that the game “doesn’t count”. The learning process mirrors the game: fast, visceral, and exciting.
Unfortunately, your unique units can be killed and once gone there is no way to get them back. My one complaint about the game is that there is no way to bring them back or repurchase them, so once they’re gone your faction loses what makes it special. It’s a minor complaint however, as the game still feels asymmetric to a level I’ve only ever felt in Cthulhu Wars. It’s those Discoveries I’ve mentioned, and to a lesser extent the Espionage cards, that really give the game it’s assymetric feel. Discoveries come in three flavors (Science, Sorcery, Religion) and three ages. Early Age discoveries can be purchased during any point in the game, but the incredibly powerful Late Age discoveries have to sit there teasing and beckoning you until the last 3 rounds of the game. You only play with a subset each time, so every game will feel different. And when I say incredibly powerful, I mean that they can be devastating. The Cataclysm ability I mentioned earlier allows you to consume an entire hex, removing it and any army parked on it from the game completely. Once a turn, you can poke a hole in the very map of the board choosing to eliminate Research Hexes, Cities, or even the victory point generating Resource Hexes from the board. When it happens to you, it feels like your opponent is breaking the game which is why it’s a brilliant feature that in Clockwork Wars you can tear across the board and rip your opponent’s discoveries right out of their grubby hands. Oh yes; once purchased, Discoveries live on the board which means you can take advantage of your opponent’s careful research by conquering their land and taking that power for yourself. Your valuable technologies are only worth something to you if you can defend them.
Which brings me to the end. I’ve saved deployment and combat for last because it’s my favorite part of Clockwork Wars. Many games want a game round to occur simultaneously in the abstract time of the game, yet the rules still have opponents taking turns. This provides for numerous mechanics that have to account for that, with hex activation in Twilight Imperium or unit activation orders in X-Wing being two primary examples. There is nothing wrong with those systems, but Clockwork Wars has chosen to embrace true simultaneous play by having players write their deployment orders on a pad of paper and resolve them at the same time. Once deployed, workers can’t move, so the tempo of Clockwork Wars is one of ever growing conflict seen through a strobe light. The tension is huge as you have to guess when, where, and which of your opponents is going to break an uneasy truce before it happens because once they drop a stack of discs on your important city it’s too late to reinforce it. Since hexes only score 3 times during the game, and there may only be about 19 points available to score in any given scoring round, it’s vitally important that you don’t waste resources defending an uncontested space. Every rounds comes with an incredibly meaningful and impactful moment of realization. Predicting what your opponent is going to do feels incredible; guessing wrong hurts.
Clockwork Wars is an excellent game, and may end up being the best game I’ve added to my collection in a year that includes Imperial Assault, Forbidden Stars, and Pandemic: Legacy.The story is great, the mechanics are great, and even the insert is great. It accelerates quickly and never lets up and is the kind of game that will have you pulling your hair, jumping up in celebration, and yelling at your friends in the best possible way.