Saturday, August 4, 2018

Game Review - Clear the Decks! (Age of Sail Cooperative Ship-to-Ship Combat Card Game)


Set up of "Clear the Decks" - Jim Schmidt


Well, it’s been more than two years since I have posted.  Many reasons – a busy work and family life and – frankly – some burnout on the primary focus of this blog (Civil War medicine) and writing.
That said, I’ve been a very active reader the past two years and in the past 6-9 months, I’ve switched gears to another subject and have been immersing myself in reading about the Age of Fighting Sail, especially the period from the American War of Independence up to the Civil War, both fiction and nonfiction.

That reading has extended to following several groups on Facebook and it was about 6 months ago that I started to follow with great interest the development of a card game called “Clear the Decks” being developed by Chris Pinyan of Crispy Games Co. Evidently my “likes” and “Wows” and “Loves” on the game's Facebook page attracted Chris’s attention and he kindly offered me the opportunity to playtest a prototype copy of “Clear the Decks” as part of promoting his Kickstarter campaign, which runs through 16 August 2018.

Clear the Decks logo - Chris Pinyan

I have reviewed hundreds of books, many of them here on the blog, but I’ve never reviewed a game before, so this is a fun and interesting experience!

I decided to rate the game on several factors: Concept, Art, Rulebook, Playability, Scalability, and Expandability. As noted above, this was a prototype/pre-publication version and players should expect some changes in the final version.

Concept –> 5/5

I’ve absolutely enjoyed and loved my recent immersion into the Age of Fighting Sail, mostly through reading but also through film, visits to ships, including a visit to the USS Constellation (1854) in Baltimore, and building plastic scale models.

I’m not a regular gamer but I do like to play games.  A friend introduced me to “Magic: The Gathering” about 20 years ago, and I played that for several years; my oldest son and I played “Flames of War,” a WWII wargame for several years, 12-15 years ago, which combined gameplay with painting of 15mm miniatures. Since then, I’ve played other games with family and friends, including Battle Cry (Civil War), Memoir ’44 (WW2), 1775 Rebellion, Fluxx, Settlers of Cataan, and others.

I was looking for a fun Age of Sail game and there are some, but most of the games I found included an aspect of wind/sailing mechanics or focused on Exploration, rather than ship-to-ship combat.
What immediately drew me to “Clear the Decks,” was its simplicity as a card game and its emphasis on combat rather than sailing.  Likewise, on Facebook, his website, and in interviews, the developer explained his influences and motivations, and they were very much in line with my own – so not only had I found what looked like a fun game, I had also found a kindred spirit.

You will find a short introduction to the game in the video below.


Artwork -> 5/5

The developer has spared little expense in making this an attractive game.  The artwork by the talented Santiago Reinoso is engaging and pleasing.  It’s a testament not only to the artist but also to designer Chris Pinyan for effectively communicating his vision for the cards and tokens to the artist.

Lovely artwork enhances the enjoyment of the game - Chris Pinyan

 Rulebook -> 3/5

If I could offer advice on an area for improvement, it would be the rulebook, which you can download freely here.

The good news is that the description of the setup of the game is pretty clear. That said, I do not think actual gameplay is adequately described, and I actually learned more from some gameplay videos and other play tester reviews on YouTube.  Likewise, the rulebook included typing and grammatical errors (to be expected in a prototype) and – most disappointing - the aesthetics of the cards are markedly absent from the rulebook.

Gameplay -> 4/5

The most important part of the game is actual gameplay, and this is definitely a fun game to play!
I played both a 1-player game and a (solo) 2-player/2-hand game using one of the simpler ship scenarios (see Scalability, below).

My 24-pdr preparing to fire on an enemy ship gun - Jim Schmidt

 Setup took 5-10 minutes, which is just fine. Typical gameplay times are listed as 30-90 minutes, which sounds about right. While I played solo in terms of play testing, even my simulated 2-player game made the cooperative aspects evident, which the designer has emphasized.

I think a natural extension would be player vs. player (see Expandability, below) rather than the cooperative scenario against the enemy ship as designed.

The Ship Event and Fortune cards are my absolute favorites, as are the Tactics cards.

 
Some of my favorite Fortune, Tactic, and Ship Event cards from the game - Jim Schmidt
 I found the enemy ship “Crew” and “Boarder” cards to be interesting but I think their function as separate (and multiple) draw decks to unnecessarily complicate otherwise straightforward and entertaining game play. Finally, periodic references on the cards to “discarding a random card” seems silly and there is no mechanism in the rules to ensure that randomness (for instance, making another player remove the card from your hand).I would change to simply "discard."

I have not played enough to be able to remark on typical game outcomes. One reviewer had noticed that the cooperating players won every time against the enemy ship in their several sessions, but that may be anecdotal. For my part, I felt like the proportion of “Ammunition” cards to other cards (Fortune, Officers, Marines, Tactics, etc) in my hand was excessive, which limited my ability to exercise some game options, but the designer has indicated that there is some mathematical rationale in the ratio of Ammunition cards in game play.

A description of game attack mechanics - Chris Pinyan

 But, make no mistake:  I thoroughly enjoyed playing the game!

Scalability -> 4/5

I think the designer has done a great job in this aspect. The game can be played with 1-4 players, with enemy ships comprising 2, 3, or 4 card stacks, and even among those ships there are no less than nine options – from a small cutter to a brig to a frigate (although I wonder why he did not include the option for a multi-deck “ship of the line”).

Multiple game boards allow for different size enemy ships - Chris Pinyan

In any case, especially for multiple players and larger enemy ship options, game play will not be repetitive.

Expandability -> 5/5 

I think there is great potential here for expandability from the “base” game.

I already hinted at the natural extension to player vs. player rules above.

While playing the game and studying the cards, I was already thinking of some of my own design (not that the designer may not have already thought of them himself):

Ship Event (benefits the enemy ship): “Mutiny” – an immediate effect in which the next player loses their turn and all officers in his handbut is still subject to counterattacks from the enemy ship

Fortune (benefits a player) – “Prize Money” – several options – draw new cards…more cards allowed in hand for 1 or 2 turns…ability to have more than one type of cannon, etc.



The possibilities are (almost) endless and I can certainly envision a card “expansion pack.” 


To add an aspect of “verisimilitude” I did a setup of the game with one of the model ships I had built and with some (unpainted) 15mm miniatures as “boarders.” Indeed, while it is essentially a card game in terms of play, the inclusion of ship boards and tokens means that it is not entirely portable, is boxed, and affords the possibility of some figures, etc

"En garde!" cry the Boarders! I set up the game with a ship model and some miniatures - Jim Schmidt

 I do hope that the designer takes advantage of building a player community where players can log game scenarios and outsomes, participate ina forum, suggest new cards, etc.

Conclusion

My overall score for “Clear the Decks” is 4.3, decidedly above average – highly recommended for game and Age of Sail enthusiasts.


Finally, although I have a very playable prototype, courtesy of the designer, I am pleased to say that I am a backer of this Kickstarter  project!

Many thanks again to Chris Pinyan for the review copy and I wish him every success.


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