I often see discussion threads on BoardGameGeek about so-called “hidden gems”, those games that aren’t very well known, but are really great. Every time I see these discussions, Clans comes to mind. Clans (Leo Colovini, 2002) is a 2-4 player abstract game that plays in 30 minutes or less. I’m not really sure how to describe the primary mechanic. It’s not worker placement, because all the pieces begin the game on the board. It’s more like worker clumping (I sincerely hope that term catches on).
The game board is broken up into many areas, each with five distinct spaces. These areas are represented by different land types (fields, plains, mountains… it looks almost like Catan). There are five colors of pieces, and players set the game up so that one of each color is represented in every area. In other words, the pieces are distributed semi-randomly, such that each color is evenly distributed across the entire board.
The board has a score track and a sort of game timer track, indicating two land types, one which is worth extra points and one which is worth nothing. As the game goes on, these will change, such that fields might be worth extra points now, but in a few turns might be worth nothing.
Once the board is set up, players each secretly receive a tile that tells them which color they are. This is the real meat of the game here; all 5 colors are used in the game, regardless of the number of players, but you and only you know which color you are.
A player’s is incredibly simple: they move all the pieces from one space into a non-empty adjacent space. That’s it. That’s the game. Okay, there’s a little more, but that’s mostly it. Basically, every turn, you vacate a space by moving all the pieces into an occupied adjacent area. You can move pieces of any color, and you will need to, in order to win the game. Once a space is vacated, nothing can ever be moved in there for the rest of the game.
If your move causes one or more occupied spaces to be completely surrounded by vacant spaces (I call it “completing” a space), you get a point, and those spaces are scored. The scoring system is pretty straightforward, with one weird rule. It works like this:
If less than five of the colors are present in the space, every color there gets points equal to the number of pieces in the space. For example, if the space has 3 red, 2 blue, 1 yellow, and 1 black (blue not present), then all colors except blue score 7 points (3+2+1+1).
If all five colors are present, then any color that contributed exactly one piece is considered to not be there and does into score. Suppose that there are 3 red, 2 blue, 1 yellow, 1 black, and 1 green in the space. Since all five colors are there, yellow, black, and green do not score, because they only contributed one piece. In this case, red and blue would each score 5 point (3+2).
If a space ever has 7 or more pieces in it, those pieces cannot be moved again, but other pieces can still be moved into that space.
I mentioned the game timer track a moment ago. When a space scores, you look at what land type the space is and see if it has any modifiers. Every time a space is completed, the game timer ticks up one. Several times throughout the game, this will mean that a new land type becomes good and a new land type becomes bad. The good land type will have a bonus of 1-5 points, increasing as the game progresses. The bad land type scores nothing, regardless of how many pieces are there.
As you may have gathered from my sub-par description of the game, it’s a really good idea to keep your color secret. Ideally, you want players to think you are a completely different color. The reason for this is if your opponents know what color you are, they will try to make sure your color doesn’t score. This gives the game a slight bluffing element.
Suppose I’m playing red, and my pieces are present in a space with only one occupied space adjacent to it (in other words, a space that is one move away from being complete). If the adjacent piece is yellow, I have two choices: I can either move it into my own space, thus completing it, or I can move it the other way (assuming there is an occupied space the other direction). Either way, this vacates the adjacent space, thereby scoring my space. If I move yellow away from my space, that gives players the idea that I’m not yellow, because if I was, I would have wanted to move my piece into the space that was about to score. If I move yellow into the space, a player might interpret that to mean I am the yellow player, trying to grab some extra points. You can see how this gets interesting. Sometimes, it is even good to knowingly waste some of your own pieces by moving them into and completing a space on the current bad land type, thus scoring 0 points. Doing so may convince players you are a different color than you actually are, because you just intentionally denied yourself points.
Whenever I am teaching this game, I always warn players that the game will end way faster than they expect. Like, it may take 10 full turns to really get moving, but when it does, it’s over in a heartbeat. You often hear reviewers talk about games that build up to a tense, memorable endgame, but you won’t find that here. Clans does not really have much of a crescendo, or, if it does, it is very quick. I can see two opinions about this. On the one hand, the game doesn’t overstay its welcome. My wife and I can finish a game in 15-20 minutes. On the other hand, the ending may be unsatisfactory to those who like games that have that sense of growing tension.
Overall, I find Clans to be a very enjoyable experience. My usual strategy is to try to stay in in a close second place for most of the game, until the very end. I mentioned earlier that you get a point for completing a space, but I didn’t mention how significant this can be. I have found that the points that players get from completing spaces are often the swing that ultimately decides the outcome. This means it may be beneficial to complete spaces even if you don’t score, just because those bonus points add up, and, more than likely, if you don’t, you opponents will.
The game works with any player count, but it is certainly best with two. The back-and-forth thing really comes out in this game. It’s very fun to try to read your opponent’s moves, wondering if they moved that blue piece there because they are blue, or because they want you to think they’re blue.
Clans is not really the type of game that produces a lot of memorable moments; I don’t really have any “Remember that one game of Clans where I…” stories, but then, most abstract games don’t produce these moments. The game is (basically) themeless, but again, as an abstract, that’s not unusual.
I must say that, despite being almost 15 years old, the game still feels fresh. I have not seen many other games with this “worker clumping” mechanism, and it would be interesting for new designers to explore. If you like short abstract games, Clans is definitely worth a look.