Sunday, 22 July 2018

Clans of Caledonia

Plays: 3Px1.

The Game

Caledonia is the what the Romans called the area of Scotland. I had to look this up. In Clans of Caledonia, you play competing clans, each developing its own farming and manufacturing industry. This is a development game and a resource production and conversion game. Eventually you convert all your efforts to victory points. It has a strong spatial element, and a little bit of supply and demand mechanism. It's a medium weight strategy game, leaning towards the heavier side.

The game board is made up of four large pieces. They are double sided so there quite many combinations you can play with. There are rivers and lakes dividing the land into sections. During the game you want to have settlements in many sections, because there is an end-game scoring for settlements. You will need to attain certain levels of technology to be able to expand your settlements across rivers and lakes.

The five shields on the left side of this scoring board represent the five rounds in the game. These shields are randomly set up before the game starts, and each shield specifies a round-specific scoring. E.g. every two processed goods scores 3 points. The square tiles at the centre are the contracts. These are refilled at the start of every round. You may claim a contract and then later fulfill it by supplying the goods required. The contract indicates the rewards. The most common rewards are imported goods - cotton, sugar cane, tobacco and hops. These are worth points at game end. Normally you can only hold one contract. You need to fulfill it before claiming a new one.

This is the market board, which shows the prices of the locally produced goods. If anyone buys such goods (from the bank), the price goes up. If anyone sells, the price drops. To buy or sell, you need to use merchants - those cubes. Used merchants are placed here to indicate which goods you have bought or sold. Within the same round, you cannot buy something you've sold earlier, and you cannot sell something you've bought earlier. Merchants are returned to your hand at the end of the round.

The two tiles are a starting resource tile and a clan tile. They are set up randomly, and you draft them before the game starts. The unique ability of the Campbell clan is they build factories for processed goods at a discount. The more of the same factory type you build, the bigger the discount.

This is your player board. These columns of pieces are your production facilities. You needs to spend money to build them, i.e. place them on the main board. The first column is sheep farms, they produce wool every round. The second column is cattle farms, which produce milk. Both these farms can produce mutton or beef too, but you need to slaughter your animals, and thus have to remove the farms from the map. No more wool or milk next round. The third column is cheese factories. Each converts one milk to one cheese every round. The fifth column is grain fields. Each produces two grains per round. The fourth column is bakeries, which convert grain to bread, and the sixth column is breweries, which convert grain to beer. The two rightmost columns are your workers - woodcutters and miners respectively. When you build a woodcutter's hut or a mine, it makes money for you every round. Regular factories must be built on plains, while woodcutter's huts must be built in forests, and mines on mountains.

The cubes along the bottom row are merchants. You can spend money to train more, i.e. move them off the board to become available for use. The helm piece indicates your shipping technology. You need to improve this tech if you want to expand your settlements across rivers and lakes. The two small tiles at the bottom right are techs you can spend money to improve too. They increase the income from woodcutters and miners.

This player reference card lists all the actions you can do. Every round the players take turns performing one action at a time, until everyone passes. Many actions cost money. As your funds dry up for the round, you will soon run out of actions you can do, and will be forced to pass.

Random ports are set up at the four corners of the map before the game starts. Ports give single-use bonuses if you connect to them. You connect to a port by building right next to it, or near enough such that your shipping tech is high enough to connect your building with it. Once you use a port bonus, you place your marker on the port to indicate so, like in this photo. The bonus of this particular port is a simple $10 income.

This port at the bottom right lets you swap two of your production facilities with something else (except grain fields).

Constructing buildings is expensive. You not only have to pay for the building itself, you also need to pay for the land. The land price is shown on the map. Hexes with many terrain types are expensive, because you can build anything on them. Hexes with just one terrain type are cheap.

The main flow in the game is building production facilities, producing goods, converting goods, and eventually fulfilling contracts, thus gaining imported goods which are worth points at game end. There is also a cycle of generating income to fuel your production. You spend money on woodcutter's huts and mines so that you can make more money in the future. During the game there are ways to score points. The round-specific scoring can give many points and is something you want to plan for. At game end, in addition to the imported goods, there are two other major ways of scoring. Firstly, you compete in the number of contracts fulfilled. The player who does best scores the most, and others score less. Secondly, you compete in the number of settlements you have. A settlement is a group of connected buildings. Rivers and lakes break up settlements, so if a connected group is split by a river, that group is considered two separate settlements.

One interesting aspect of this settlement competition is the sheep farms and cattle farms. When one such farm is removed because you decide to slaughter the animals for meat, it may cause a settlement to break into two. For game end scoring purposes, this can be a good thing. It is possible to specifically plan for such a thing.

The Play

Allen and Han. Han was in town, and we had planned to meet up to play together well ahead of time. He brought the game and taught us to play.

During game setup everyone gets to start two settlements. Right from the get go you need to think about your board positioning. This greatly affects the rest of your game. Will you have space to expand? Are you near ports? What are the terrain types and land costs nearby? Will you get hemmed in by your opponents? And so on and so forth. There is a rule in the game which allows you to trade at lucrative prices whenever you build next to an opponent. This is an incentive for players to build near one another, and results in competition and tension. I played white, Han was blue and Allen red.

I (white) pretty much ignored my settlement in the lower left. At this point I had three settlements. One at the lower left, and two in the group at the lower right. That group was split by a river, so this was two settlements, one on each side of that river. Allen (red) had four settlements now. He had two groups of buildings, and both were divided by rivers, so each group was actually two settlements. Han (blue) had the most - 5 settlements. By this point he had not only expanded across rivers, he had also expanded across lakes. He was also first to have reached a port - the one at the top right.

Han's strategy was to make money first. He very quickly deployed all his woodcutters and miners. These two columns on his player board were now empty. Also he had upgraded their techs so every one of them earned a higher amount of money. More money means more things you can do. Han was the most successful in expanding his business empire across the map.

I (white) was the weakest in expansion on the map. I could not hope to compete in the number of settlements. Only Allen could compete with Han. However I did work hard on the contracts, completing them early, and completing them as frequently as I could. I became #1 in contracts and secured my lead till the end. The competition for space on the map was intense. We all needed space to build our farms and factories. Our buildings needed specific terrain types. There was the competition for number of settlements hovering over us (well, maybe not me). So there was a constant pressure to fight for land.

The round-specific scoring affected how we played. Points didn't come easy, and we needed to make every bit count. In our game, the Round 4 scoring was 3pts for every two processed goods. To make the most of that, Han stockpiled a lot of processed goods, saving them till scoring and only using them in the next round. I had considered that, but I wanted to complete my contract quickly so that I could get a new one. Claiming contracts costed money from Round 3 onwards, so I wanted to claim them early. I was also worried someone else might take what I wanted.

The scoring track looks busy and confusing, but is actually not complicated. The main scoring markers are the three round ones at positions 25, 20 and 18. The three hex-shaped markers at 9, 8, 4 are just markers to keep count of each player's number of settlements. This is just for the convenience of seeing where you stand in the settlements competition. The grey, green and brown markers are the total numbers of cotton, sugar cane and tobacco the players have collected from contracts. The total number needs to be tracked because at game end, these three imported goods score points based on scarcity. The goods type with the lowest count is worth 5pts each, the one with the medium count is worth 4pts each, and the one with the highest count is only worth 3pts each. Before you claim a contract, you need to evaluate how many points it is potentially worth based on what imported goods it gives. You also need to consider whether you will affect the imported goods value when you complete the contract.

That pad on the right is the scoring pad. It lists all the things you score for at game end. Unused goods and cash are worth points.

My board situation did not look good and I had expected to do poorly. However our final scores were not too far apart, and I managed second place, due to the contracts. Han was the clear winner. Neither Allen nor I could beat his money kingdom. Being cash-rich meant he had plenty of options and he could do more than us. Allen was actually quite rich too, because his clan power let him sell milk without merchants and at the best price.

The Thoughts

The goods production, goods processing and eventual conversion to points in Clans of Caledonia are not particularly notable. We see this in many Eurogames. The spatial competition is something I find interesting. Many Eurogames abstract away the map play. I like the player interaction in the spatial aspect of the game. The money-first strategy seems to be very powerful. I can't think of any reason not to follow it, which is a problem if I am right. It would mean the strategy is one-dimensional. I wonder whether players who have played more will all tend to take this approach. Perhaps it is not a matter of whether to pursue this general approach, but a question of how far to pursue it. Like in Dominion, the key is deciding when to stop building your engine and actually start using your engine to earn victory points. Money is your tool and more money makes you more powerful, but it is still just a means to earn points. Your ultimate objective is points.

I like the clan powers. Without them I think the clans will feel rather bland. They drive players to play in different ways, and different combinations of clans in a game will result in a different experience. You want to make good use of your clan power, and you also need to understand your opponents' clan powers. Knowing how they will play is useful. The clan powers bring personality to the game.

I find there is a good mix of tactical and strategic decisions in the game. The strategic aspects include making use of your clan power, reaching out to ports, building many settlements and completing many contracts. Amidst working towards these longer term objectives, you encounter many decisions that are tactical in nature. You watch what contracts your opponents are holding, what goods they are holding, where they might be competing with you on the map, what the round-specific scoring criterion is. You analyse the situation and pick the most efficient move. There will be opportunities and threats you need to react to, e.g. someone encroaching on "your" land. There is plenty to keep you busy, and this is one of the strengths of the game.


Anonymous said...

Interesting write up.

Just for curious, how do you feel this game compare to Caverna?

As from the review I read through, this game seem have less multiplayer solitaire situation appear.

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

I haven't played Caverna so I'm not sure how these two games compare. I have played Agricola. The player interaction in Clans of Caledonia feels more than Agricola because of the spatial competition on the board. That said, I don't think Agricola has too much of a multiplayer solitaire problem. Also the player interaction is of the nature of taking the stuff your opponents need before they do, this still creates much competition and tension.