I’m going to put my bias on the table right now. I really like Alexander Pfister’s games. They generally have a nice mix of strategies that are all nicely balanced. More recently, he has also started adding campaign modes to his games. For a designer who mainly focuses on Euro-style mechanisms, this is something pretty unique to him. Enter, Cloudage.
Cloudage, a game which he co-designed with Arno Steinwender, is a game where 1-4 players will captain massive airships and manoeuvre them over the scorched surface of the Earth, years after some cataclysm has befallen it. The back of the box hints that some shadowy group called ‘Cloud’ is behind all of this, so you’re going to have to set out to deal with them.
Up in the Clouds
The winner of a game of Cloudage is the player with the most points. Very novel, I’m sure you’ll agree. You’ll get points by visiting far-off cities and fighting off air pirates there, improving your airship, or planting new growth to help the world recover. There are a few other ways to pick up points too, but these are the main ones.
To set up the game, you will lay out a few world titles. These depict the cities of Cloudage as well as a few other features and rewards that you may be able to pick up on your travels. The exact tiles you choose to lay out will depend on which scenario you’re playing as well as the number of players.
On your turn, you’ll be producing resources by running your engine. Then you’ll be making your way between cities scattered throughout the desert. Each of these cities is guarded by Cloud militia who you can choose to do battle with for a bit of a reward. These cities also give you a few options to choose from after you’ve arrived. You can send a drone on your airship down to either gather resources, upgrade your airship or plant new growth. That last option isn’t always there, but I’ll come back to that.
Upgrade wise, you’ve got a bunch of upgrades on your airship that can boost your speed, weapons, or planting ability. You’ve also got cards which will help with either resource production, movement, or building. You’ll get some points for most stuff but, generally speaking, cards will cost you water resources and airship upgrades will require scrap metal. If you choose to upgrade, you get to do two on your turn and everybody else gets to do one.
Cities on the horizon
If you are after resources instead, you get to choose one of three city districts to visit. These districts are represented by decks of cards. Whichever district you choose, you get to add that card to your movement deck. You can choose any resource you would like from that district by placing your drone on it. There are four resources up for grabs: water, scrap, power and project cards. Power is the only resource that hasn’t come up yet. Basically, power is mainly used to draw extra cards or power your production mechanisms at the beginning of the round. Some cities will allow you to take some new growth tiles that you can use later to replant the Earth.
Once you’ve chosen, everybody else around the table also gets to choose a resource too. You never know how much of each resource is available, as the cards themselves are placed in these sleeves with a cloud sticker that obscures the values. These cloud stickers obscure most of the city, but you can see the movement value of the card and the number of new growth tiles it grants if any. There are also two bonus actions available. One allows you to do an upgrade; the other allows you to remove a card from your movement deck. However, you don’t know which resources these bonus actions are on. If you choose the resource with one of these actions on, you get to do it after you’ve taken your resource.
As I’ve mentioned movement decks, I probably should explain what they are. At the start of the game, each player starts off with an identical deck of movement cards. These have values between 0 and 3. During the production phase, each player will draw two cards off of this deck. You will be able to move up to the value of the larger number and take project cards or power equal to the lower number. These cards are also used to boost your combat value.
Keeping it lean
You can see from this that it’s pretty good to have a slim deck of high-value cards to make sure you are zipping around the board up to your ears in resources with more project cards than you can shake a stick at. This lean deck approach is something found in quite a few deck builders and it is quite satisfying to do right!
The last action you’ve got is planting new growth. This will allow you to spend the plant tiles you’ve collected and collect the rewards on them. You can boost the number of tiles you can place at one time by upgrading your airship’s planting ability.
That is pretty much the whole game. The player with the most points at the end wins. The only other ways of picking up points that I’ve not mentioned are maps, missions and production. Certain spaces on the map have points on them. If you fly through that space, you get the points, simple. Mission cards will come out periodically during the game and reward you for doing different things. Exactly when they get drawn depends on which game scenario you’re playing.
Lastly, the production phase happens at the beginning of each round. Everybody starts off with the option to run their production engine to convert one power into two water resources. Some project cards will give you the ability to upgrade your production engine. This allows you to move up the production track. The further up the track you go, the more it costs to run your engine, but the better the returns are. Eventually, you will be able to produce victory points as well as water each turn. A nice touch is that you can actually use any level you’ve already progressed through, so you don’t have to run at maximum power all the time. But why wouldn’t you if you can?
More than one way to replant the world
And that’s how a game of Cloudage works. There are two ways to play through: a scenario-based, one-off game or a full campaign with a story. There are three different scenarios which are basically equivalent, rules-wise, to a game at the beginning of the campaign, a game two or three chapters in or one towards the end of the campaign.
Scenario one has none of the planting mechanics and only the most basic project cards. Scenario two adds in the planting as well as most of the more advanced cards. Finally, scenario three basically has everything thrown in with the exception of the story-related content. Honestly, I’d skip scenario one. It is really bare-bones and doesn’t show this game in the best light. Apparently, this is something the designers themselves have said on Twitter.
The campaign version takes you through a seven-chapter story that allows you to explore what happened to cause the Earth to turn to desert as well as who is behind it all. To manage expectations, this is mostly light set dressing. Don’t go into this expecting some kind of rollercoaster story that will leave you breathless on the edge of your seat. If you’ve played Expedition to Newdale or Longsdale in Revolt, it’s very similar to those. I’m not begrudging it being there as it definitely keeps it fresh and engaging. I’m also only about two-thirds of the way through it so far, so I can’t really comment on the final payoff. I’d say the fact I’m not going to just read how it all ends to be able to talk about it in this review says something though.
I can see my house from here
The components and artwork are both very good. The player airship boards are nice and clear, and the double-sided jigsaw piece upgrades are a nice touch. The artwork on the project cards is also pretty good, although it is repeated a lot. The fact you have to put stickers on a lot of components before your first game is kind of annoying but it’s not too bad. The cloud cover card sleeves are a bit of a gimmick, as the same effect could’ve been achieved by just having some info available on the back of the card and then you flip it to reveal the missing information. Still, some people may quite like it.
I enjoyed the gameplay, although it is quite a solitary experience. With the exception of getting in each other’s way on the map, there isn’t a lot of interaction between the players. You do have to watch each other a bit to make sure you’re not going to get beaten to an objective, but on the whole, you’re mostly concentrating on your own little engine.
Speaking of solitary playing, there is a solo mode. I’ve gone and besmirched its reputation in the past on this very site. I have since discovered that my main issue came from me misinterpreting the rules. I’ve since gone back and played a few game solo and can confirm that the solo mode is a lot better if you actually play it correctly. Whoops.
Better than cows?
But do I think this is Pfister’s next big game? No, I don’t. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a very good game with some excellent moments in it. But when you compare it with some of his other games such as Maracaibo, Expedition to Newdale or the incredible Great Western Trail, this feels like it comes up a little short. The systems all work well together but they are just a little bit too shallow. In these other games, you can strategize and plan a few turns ahead. In Cloudage, however, you are at the whim of your card draws. You may find you just can’t get to where you need to be to execute your brilliant plans due to some bad cards. Because of that, you tend to find yourself reacting more than planning. Which is absolutely fine, but it’s just not something I enjoy as much.
I’m still going to finish the story. I am absolutely going to show it to everybody I used to play with before the plague rolled into town. But my feeling is that once that is all done and dusted, I probably won’t hold this in as high regard as I do some other games in this genre. It makes me a bit sad. This is a very good game, but because of the name on the box, I wanted it to be a bit more.