Clank! came out to some acclaim last year, the first published design (as far as I can tell) from Paul Dennen. It is far from the first deckbuilding game with a dungeon-fantasy theme. That honour probably goes to 2009’s Thunderstone, and there have been more since. But Clank! (punctuation included at no extra charge) adds a board, as well as several intriguing mechanics that set it apart.
Deckbuilding is an elegant way to incorporate the growth of a character in a dungeon-themed game. Instead of stop-starting the game every time you puncture a slime mold or throttle a goblin, ponderous record-keeping when you level up, hemming and hawing over which stat you’re going to raise, you simply purchase better cards that go into your deck to represent mad skillz and precious, precious loot.
And Clank! is all about the loot. As in whoever accumulates the most of it wins. The major pieces of loot, which start on the board face up, are called Artifacts, and are generally worth the most points, but you can usually only ever carry one, you can’t drop one once you pick it up (#stickycurse), and of course the bigger/better Artifacts are buried deeper in the dungeon, which by the way did I mention you have to exit without dying in order to win?
There are lots of other smaller pieces of loot that start on the board, some face up in known places and some face down randomly thrown around, which is a cute way to represent maybe having a treasure map with some parts readable and other parts blurry or smudged. I like it.
The three currencies in the game are Skill, Fight, and Boots. Skill is used mainly to buy cards from the Dungeon Row (which is not called the Market because there is actually a place called The Market on the board where you can buy treasures and keys and stuff). Fight is used to “buy” certain other cards from the Dungeon Row, and also reduces damage as you move around the board. Boots actually do move you around the board. You need lots of all three. You start with the usual weak-ass cards giving you 1 skill, or 1 boot…but you also start with a couple of cards that do nothing but increase your Clank.
Clank, you say? That’s not good, is it? No, it is not. You see, children, there is a dragon in this dungeon. She has some fancy-shmancy “fantasy” name but the game says it’s okay to just call her Nicki. She’s mainly a sleepy dragon, but every once in a while she wakes up and she goes all aggro.
When you generate Clank you add cubes of your colour to the Clank Pile on the board. When certain cards come up in the Dungeon Row, Nicki makes an attack which involves (1) tossing whatever cubes there are in the Clank Pile into a little black velveteen drawstring bag representing Nicki, and (2) randomly picking cubes out of that there bag. The bag starts the game with a bunch of black neutral cubes; when those cubes come out of the bag it means Nicki swung and missed. When cubes of a player’s colour come out of the bag, why then ouchies for that player. And if a player ever takes ten ouchies and has not yet escaped the deeper part dungeon they are out of the game. (If they have already escaped the Depths by then, they are considered to be rescued by townsfolk and can still win if they have the most loot.)
This means that Clank! has player elimination, something almost unheard of in today’s tabletop world and something you must be able to accept if you want to play the game. And, if you’re teaching or suggesting the game to others, you really oughta tell them.
Clank (the mechanic) is one of the things that distinguishes Clank! (the game) from its dungeon-deckbuilding rivals. It integrates theme extremely well, and it makes for lots of agonizing decision-making when it comes to buying cards. Should I buy that card that gives me 3 Boots AND 3 Clank? Maybe I should buy that cheaper card that actually reduces Clank? Oooh, that emerald is worth 10 loot if I buy it, but when I acquire it I instantly generate 4 Clank…
The other mechanism that sets Clank! apart is how it ends. You see, you can’t leave the dungeon (voluntarily) until you grab an Artifact. The first time a player is either knocked out by Nicki or escapes with an Artifact the endgame is triggered. Everyone else has four turns to leave or be killed, and Nicki attacks every round with increased ferocity as she realizes her deductible won’t cover treasure lost through delving. So a player who sticks around near the entrance picking up scraps (plus one shitty Artifact) just might be able to escape quickly and win over more intrepid delvers who go deep but don’t have enough Boots to get back. On the other hand, the pickings are mighty slim near the surface…
Clank! has a surprising amount of replayability. The board is two-sided, for one, making for very different layouts. The semi-random distribution of treasure, plus the fact that not all Artifacts are used every game (when playing with fewer than four, anyway) also helps, as does the random availability of cards in the Dungeon Row. Finally, Dire World Digital and Renegade Games, the publishers, have just released an awesome app which not only adds support for a new multiplayer mode but also (huzzah) enables solitaire play. There is also an expansion coming out this year with new boards and monsters, promising even more variety.
The game is not without fault; player elimination is something I feel could have been avoided. I’ve seen the argument that knocked-out (or early-exiting) players “only” miss four rounds of play, many of which will be cut short as Nessie’s growing strength knocks out more players. That as may be, it still conceivably represents a good chunk of time, especially if players have put together some combo-rich decks. Perhaps someone will figure out a way to houserule around it—maybe (as in games like Eaten By Zombies or Shadows Over Camelot) by having eliminated players (or revealed Traitors) take over the role of the Boss, so that players don’t have to wait out the clock.
Or players could just suck it up and enjoy what, overall, is a great blend of deckbuilding, delving, and push-your-luck. I’m just sayin’.