It’s tough going these days for a farmer. It’s not enough to raise some cows and sell some milk. These days all people care about is cheese and bread and whiskey. I can’t blame them. It’s good stuff. It just means meas we have to work a little bit harder if we want to be the best of amongst the Clans of Caledonia.
How it Plays
In Clans of Caledonia, you lead a Scottish clan over the course of six rounds in an effort to cultivate and export agricultural goods. Each round, players will successively take a single action until all players have passed. On your turn, you have a litany of actions to choose from.
You can deploy a unit from your player board to the map by paying the cost of the unit and the cost printed on the map. The unit must be placed adjacent to one of your units already on the map and be on the appropriate type of terrain. Miners go on mountains, sheep go in fields, etc.
By upgrading your shipping ability, you can place units across rivers and lochs. You’ll now be able to spread across the map much faster.
Much of the game revolves around fulfilling contracts. As an action, you can take a contract from the available display. Choose carefully as you can only have one at a time and they increase in price as the game progresses. As another action, you complete a contract by turning in the goods depicted on your chosen contract. You will be rewarded with money, import goods, or victory points.
If you are ever short on goods are looking to make some cash, you can send your merchants to the market as an action. You start the game with two merchants but can hire more as another action.
At the end of each round, you will produce goods and money depending on the number of units you’ve placed on the map. Your player board does a good job of keeping track of your income. You’ll then score points for that round’s objective, which is randomized each game to keep it feeling fresh.
After the sixth round, players are awarded bonus points depending on how many import goods they’ve collected and the number of settlements they have on the map. Whoever has the most points is the winner.
Creating something wholly new is a difficult proposition. People write fan-fiction based on existing novels to create their own visions and scenarios. People remix and sample songs to put their own spin music. Clans of Caledonia is a riff on a few existing games, calling to mind Terra Mystica most of all. Both games take place on a hex map with varying terrains. Both games have players control factions with unique player abilities. Both games have player boards that organize your pieces and keep track of your income. And both games games have variable end of round scoring criterion. It could be easy to continue running down the similarities and differences, but let’s first take a look at what makes Clans of Caledonia tick.
If there’s one thing I enjoy in board games above all else is a sense of growth. Clans of Caledonia give me that in two, inter-related ways. Placing your units on the map, whether it be a miner or a cheese dairy, gives a clear visual representation of your accomplishments. When the map is littered with units of your color, you know that you’ve done well. It’s good visual feedback as to how well you are doing. To go along with that, every time you place a unit on the map you reveal income on your player board. You see the capacity of your economy growing alongside your map control. The growth is a means to the end, but it’s satisfying nonetheless.
By growing your economy you’ll start amassing resources that you will need to fulfill contracts. There are some basic goods along with some more advanced processed goods that require expensive buildings to make. Every round, your units will produce goods and the contracts are taken from a face up available display so there’s a chance to plan ahead for the things you need. What you really need to consider is turn order. Will you be able to pick up the contract before your opponents? Do they even have the ability to produce the goods for the contract I have my eye on? Perhaps not, but can they buy the rest at the market? If so, does that give me enough time to snatch that contract from under their nose? It allows you to really focus on the motives of your opponents instead of burying your head in your own little world.
Interestingly, some of the contract require beef or mutton. These are provided by turning in sheep and cattle from the map back onto your player board. This not only decreases your map presence, it also stunts your economy. It’s a decision that cuts against my desire to see things grow. I can accept it and even admire it because it’s a self inflicted wound and it provides a difficult decision point in the game.
If the game was just about spreading out on a map, fulfilling contracts it would be a pleasant enough time, but nothing all that special. The map is decently tight and allows for some nice jockeying for position, but the rewards for completing a contract aren’t very exciting. Mostly you’ll get some import goods and end game victory points. They’re necessary for winning the game, but compared to some of the other, less common awards like cash and free unit placement actions, they don’t feel as immediately gratifying. Letting you place another unit give you momentum and flows into doing more of an enjoyable things whereas victory points are just victory points. Luckily, there’s more to Clans of Caledonia.
By far the most interesting element of the game are the unique clans. Each of the nine clans included in the game have a special ability that only they can take advantage of. Clan Buchanan, for example, can have two active contracts at a time while Clan MacKenzie can age their whiskey for great returns on their investment. Every time you take advantage of your ability it’s a reminder that you and you alone can do it. It makes you feel special and breaking the established rules makes your feel powerful. And who doesn’t like feeling special and powerful?
Unique powers aren’t unheard of in the board games, but the premise alone is usually enough to garner my attention. For the most part, the powers are varied enough to for me to want to explore them all, but there are certainly some that stand out as more interesting as the others. Clan MacDonald can deploy workers in the water spaces, granting them their own aquatic play space to swim around in. When compared to Clan Fergusson which starts with an extra worker on the map and a head start in shipping, it blows it out of the water in terms of feeling special.
Now, in terms of balance, I can’t really say if any of the clans stand out as being stronger than the rest. If your group finds that some do tend to perform better, you can play with the included variant to auction off the clans. I’ll probably never bother with this variant because I’ve never been too concerned balance in games overall. I tend to place my trust in the design of the creator rather than my own ability to discern power rankings. Perhaps it’s misguided trust, but it’s also easier for me in the long run. Unless something is blatantly out of whack, I don’t fret over such things.
Clans of Caledonia does a lot of things right. I get a good sense of growth and I can feel strong and special. The variable round scoring, modular map, and variety of clans keeps each game feeling fresh. The artwork is vibrant and inviting (which is par for the course for artist Klemens Franz) and the little wooden bits are adorable. But when it’s all said it done, Clans of Caledonia will always be compared to Terra Mystica. Is it as good as Terra Mystica? In short, no. It strips away some of the complications of Terra Mystica to create a more straight forward game experience, but that also removes some the interestingness. But Clans of Caledonia is a good game in it’s own right. It also provides a different flavor of experience. It’s not uncommon to see a table of Terra Mystica Players huddled around the table, heads down, deep in thought. Clans of Caledonia plays in a shorter amount of time and offers a more breezy atmosphere. It’s the pop cover of a prog rock song.