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Great Scot? – Clans Of Caledonia Review

Clans Of Caledonia is a box that has found its way into the hallowed hall of BGG’s top 100 games in very short order indeed, an mightily impressive feat for the first big offering by designer Juma Al-Joujou.  A mid to heavyweight economic Euro of the type we have seen so many times before, Clans Of Caledonia takes the industrial changes of 19th century Scotland as its subject, but does it really deserve its spot right up there near the top of the pile, or is it overrated, overbloated and overcomplex, like so many of these modern games appear to be, just too clever for its own good?

Do good things come in small packages?  Let’s find out!

Well, it is a good start, for Clans Of Caledonia does all the right things before you even open the box, and that is some kind of achievement in itself.  I have lost count of the number of times I have had to say that a box is too big for its contents – in fact, if I press Ctrl+V now it will probably paste it into this review.  This is occasionally the product of a one-size-fits-all philosophy (à la Fantasy Flight), sometimes of lazy oversight (à la Fantasy Flight), but Clans Of Caledonia has one of the most economical boxes I have ever seen.  It takes up very little space on a shelf, can be held easily in one hand, and yet it is stuffed to the gills with boards, tokens, chits, all those little goodies that ardent fans of these economic Euro games want to see.  It is a little like a Rosenberg box, but viewed from space – in fact almost the only thing it lacks in comparison with its Rosenbergesque cousins is various stacks of cards, but everything else is there.

Clans Of Caledonia Board Game

Commendably economical box for an economic game.

I’ll mention now that some compromises have been made to ensure that Clans Of Caledonia makes it into that bijou package, although there are fewer compromises than one might imagine.  When it emerges, genie-like, from its bottle and lays claim to your table it looks for all the world like a normal Eurogame, but the trade off for that economy of packaging is that some things have been scaled down ever so slightly, and that shrink-to-fit approach is most noticeable in the iconography.  Firstly this is often very small, and secondly, more problematically, it replaces text almost everywhere, which is not a problem once players work out what the iconography means, but it can make one or two things just a little bit more of an uphill struggle than perhaps they should be during the learning process.  Is the compromise worth it for the result?

Clans Of Caledonia Board Game

Lots of lovely bits and pieces.

Commodities and actions – this all sounds familiar!

Setting up Clans Of Caledonia is probably the most fiddly part of the game.  There is a central map board made up of four sections, which is double sided to keep things interesting, a market display where the prices of the various commodities vary according to demand, and each player receives a board and a full set of tokens, representing traders, technology, workers, sheep, cheese, whisky, grain and so on, but it is a delight to see that the cheese tokens look like cheese, the sheep like sheep.  I know that vegimeeples and animeeples have been around for a while now, but it is still a pleasure sometimes not to be dealing with cubes.  Each player is dealt a clan at the start of the game, giving them a special ability, contracts are placed, and the scoring for each of the five rounds is revealed.  Once set up and good to go Clans Of Caledonia looks pretty decent on the table, inviting you in with its colours and open spaces, just right for economic exploitation until overfarming and overfishing leaves…oh hang on, that’s a few years down the road yet.  As you were.

Clans Of Caledonia Board Game

Bread, cheese, milk, wool, money, wheat, whisky – guess which is which…

On each round players take turns to choose actions until all have passed.  Workers can be placed on certain terrains, as can livestock, goods may be bought and sold at the marketplace, trades can be made, contracts can be fulfilled, technology and shipping can be upgraded, ports may be used, merchants may be hired – it’s a bustling, thriving economic community right there on your table.  Passing takes a player out of the current round, but earns them an economic benefit, so taking this option sometimes feel like a case of finding out who will blink first.  Once all players have passed the production phase kicks into gear as workers earn money, and animals and farms produce wool, milk and grain which can then be processed into cheese bread and whisky for better prices if you have the right facilities.

Clans Of Caledonia Board Game

Hard to fit more into this box. Mmm, desiccant!

Everything is explained by icons!  That’s a good sign!

That is pretty much it as far as the game goes, and Clans Of Caledonia is helped along by the fact that the rules are a delight to teach.  Everything a player really needs to know – prices, bonuses, conversions – is on their board or their player aid, if small, and the iconography is ultimately useful, even if some of it needs to be figured out, as I mentioned above.  Crucially, though, Clans Of Caledonia is easy to explain and half way through the first round, after placing, improving their shipping range, buying and selling a little at the market and taking a contract, players will know nearly all they need to know about the game and can spend the rest of their time thinking about how to play best.  It is an intuitive learning experience, allowing players to get into the meat of the game with the minimum of obstruction.

Clans Of Caledonia Board Game

Everything is there in the icons.

That balance between rules that are simple and gameplay that is challenging sometimes feels tricky to find in the modern Euro, which loves to throw in wrinkles, exceptions, components, rule books and heaven knows what else in a massive box just for the sake of it, mission creep expressed as bloat, but Clans Of Caledonia feels as if it has the balance just right.  A novice boardgamer might find it a little overwhelming at first, but anybody with a working knowledge of how hexes and markets and contracts work will find themselves right at home in pretty much no time at all, meaning that there is precious little time lost in those crucial early plays looking up exceptions or clarifications in the rule book.

It’s definitely good…but is it great?

Clans Of Caledonia is not entirely perfect, however.  There are a couple of moments where the iconography could definitely have been better explained in the rule book, and playing in two has a different dynamic than a higher player count despite a slightly smaller board.  This feels best with the full player count, not just because of the competition for space, but also because players can trade with each other, but it is still a satisfying play with fewer people around the table.  So Clans Of Caledonia ticks all the modern Euro boxes easily and impressively, with all those elements that players desire in this kind of game.  That lack of those different professions and buildings that appear in many of the Rosenberg games may count against it slightly, but it gives Clans a lithe and streamlined feel that still requires that its players adapt to what is in front of them.

Clans Of Caledonia Board Game

Get off my land!

In short, Clans Of Caledonia does almost everything right.  It is variable, interesting, dynamic, thematic, easy to learn and brilliantly portable, but possibly its greatest strength is that this is a big box game in a small box, a characteristic it shares with the wonderful Glen More, my other McLove.  While I initially thought that one would inevitably have to mean that the other could not stay, I definitely now feel that I can have both in my collection.  Clans Of Caledonia feels like the elbows out version of Glen More, with its more dynamic market and its open map, but there is so much that Glen More does well, especially its nifty scoring and roundel system, that I could not bear to be parted with it, so let’s throw a cèilidh and welcome them both to the collection instead.

Clans Of Caledonia Board Game

The market reacts to player forces.

Light on boring conversions, high on theme!

Many of the recent conversion games I have played have left me feeling emotionally uninvolved in the narrative of the game, to the extent that the artwork of Klemens Franz (often found on these kinds of things, as it is here) can bring out a Pavlovian shudder in me.  Personally, if I feel that the mechanisms obscure the theme then I simply cannot get enthused by the game, but if those mechanisms support and amplify what the cardboard is supposed to represent then count me in as long as the game plays well.  Clans Of Caledonia has cast away the cobwebs of those snorefests with their bells and whistles added just for the sake of it, it seems, and managed to do something interesting and engaging that, yes, feels familiar at its heart, but which crucially feels just about different and streamlined enough to be fresh.

Clans Of Caledonia Board Game

Contracts, scoring, and much more besides.

Even the individual player powers (what self-respecting modern Euro would be without them?) actually feel useful and provide a tangible difference to a player’s strategy.  There are also bonus points that change from round to round and from game to game, the imported goods that score differently at the end of the game depending on how rare they were – good grief, I am actually smiling as I write this, at the extra layer of strategy that little choice brings, that also makes sense thematically.  It is not overload of things to deal with, and it keeps Clans Of Caledonia from heavyweight territory, but it is enough.

Fancy a challenge?  There’s a solo mode too!

I have left one of the best bits to last, for Clans Of Caledonia also comes with a thoroughly convincing and involving solo mode that is a joy to play.  You throw a few dice at the start of each round to simulate market forces, and the map is very tight indeed, but this is a real challenge, something to enjoy and to savour.  As so often, it is a little less colourful than the real deal, but it is good enough to give Clans Of Caledonia a decent stab at the double life of a solo and multiplayer game.

Clans Of Caledonia Board Game

It plays well as a solo game too.

In the end Clans Of Caledonia does an accomplished job of presenting itself as a streamlined and finely honed modern economic Euro, neither bloated with rules and exceptions nor too light and frothy to promise any kind of decent replayability.  That replayability, though, is not on the scale of some other games, because here the change is achieved within a set framework of goals and rules largely by altering the values of different products and spaces at various points in the game, but it is at the right level to make this a decent and interesting play, capable of hitting the table even with people who have not encountered it before.

Not too heavy, not too light!  But not average either!

Clans Of Caledonia is therefore an ideal fit in that middle ground that is found between lovers of heavy games and those who want a little more meat on their gaming bones.  It is too complex and interwoven for gamers in the early stages of their exploration of the hobby, but would likely satisfy many others, and despite its impressive solo mode, it does get better as it approaches the full player count.  Despite many, many things in its favour, I have found myself coming back time and time again to the thought that Clans Of Caledonia is a finely tuned evolution rather than a revolution, and thus it receives 8 out of 10 game rather than anything higher, but it definitely sits on the upper edge of that mark, and, as such, comes highly recommended.

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Nick O'Neill

I have been playing Hobby games for as long as I can remember, including Waddington's Formula-1 in my teens and family card games before that. I mainly play with two, sometimes more, and I'm happy to give any game a try. I lean towards medium-weight games with simple rules and deep gameplay. Homo ludens and proud of it.