Available at the end of March, Crystal Clans is a new game from designer Andrea Mezzotero, published by Plaid Hat Games. Still riding high from the resounding success of Stuffed Fables, has Plaid Hat found another winner?
I was immediately drawn in by Martin Abel's art. The box alone looks stunning, with bright colours and a quirky, cartoonish cast to the fantasy theme. With so many boxes being - let's face it - underwhelming, I think this alone will encourage people to take a look at this game.
Within that lovely box is a two-player card game that combines a few different mechanics, including some that are brand new (according to Plaid Hat, anyway). The board, allowing for the game's area control element, is nicely designed and uncomplicated, and the cards look intriguing (with more great art from Abel). There aren't really any other components, so pretty much all the action will come from the cards.
What's the game about?
Crystal Clans sees players control one of six factions - Water, Flower, Skull, Blood, Meteor and Stone - as these factions vie for control of powerful magic crystals. The factions all have different identities, and I imagine that the long term fortunes of this game will be determined, in part, by how well and how distinctly each faction plays out.
I like the fantasy theme that comes through from the cards. The Water, Flower and Stone factions seem to nod more to Eastern influences than Western, and the presence of Meteor in particular suggests that the team has tried to build their own unique fantasy world.
As for the gameplay, players command their factions to compete for the magic crystals via the game's area control mechanism. Cards are deployed to the board as units, which can then be combined into squads. Squads move between the board's different areas, some of which allow you to buy a victory crystal, and when players try to occupy the same space, there's combat and some or all of the cards involved might be destroyed.
What are the mechanics?
The mechanic that Plaid Hat Games is really hyping up seems to be the action/cost mechanic. Players can take a number of actions on their turn - playing cards on the battlefield, moving squads, battling and buying crystals are the main ones - but they all cost 'initiative,' which is counted on a track at the side of the board. Each initiative point in you spend in action costs, causing you to move the initiative counter up the track towards the other player.
Your turn ends after one of your actions has moved the initiative counter into the opponent's half. The further towards them it is, the more initiative they'll have to play with next turn. This mechanic is intriguing to me. I love the back and forth nature; it seems perfect for a highly interactive, head to head game. Everything you do directly influences your opponent in some way, and vice versa.
Further interaction comes from combat between opposing squads, which occurs whenever one player moves a squad into a space controlled by another. Once opposing squads are in a space, they can't move out until one or the other has been destroyed.
Each squad has an attack and a defence for battle (combined from each individual card's stats), but that's not all that matters. Every card doubles as both a unit and a battle card, and when a battle is triggered, each player chooses a battle card from their hand. When the cards are revealed they'll have some effect on the outcome of the battle, and each one belongs to one of four 'rock, paper, scissors' type categories that can strengthen or weaken them depending on which category of card the opposing player chooses.
The effects are then resolved and damage is applied to each squad, starting from the top unit and working down until all combat points have been spent. It sounds complicated in writing, but it looks like it'll be pretty straightforward in practice.
Those are the main mechanics, but, as is typical with strategic card games, most units have abilities that alter them in some way or that can be activated in players' turns. I imagine that this is where the flavour of the different clans will come through the strongest, giving each faction a different strategy and play style.
Using card effects, movements and battles, each player tries to move their squads into crystal spaces where they can buy the all-important crystal cards (which also have some kind of effect on the game). The game ends when one player has collected four crystals.
So, is Crystal Clans worth checking out?
I think Crystal Clans looks like a fascinating combination of strategic card play and area control, with an innovative action point system that I really like the look of. Most of the games I play are head to head, and I can easily imagine how this game's initiative system will lead to very interesting, back-and-forth turns.
Thanks to the initiative track and the multi-use unit/battle cards, it seems that Crystal Clans is going to present its players with a lot of interesting decisions, and the way they've designed the battles means that there'll be plenty of things to think about in your opponent's turn.
Which cards to play as units and which to save for battle will be a crucial decision nearly every turn, which I can see adding to the complexity of the game. I think many players will enjoy this aspect of it, but it will probably lead to some longer turns and to some players taking a little while to make a decision. For a game with good, strategic depth that's to be expected, and while it won't be everyone's cup of tea, I can see a lot of gamer's really enjoying the challenge of working out which cards to play and how to use their initiative points each turn.
There's certainly a lot that looks appealing about this game, from the visuals to the strategy. Time will tell if Andrea Mezzotero and Plaid Hat Games have done enough to create a truly great game that stands the test of time, but I, for one, am inclined to give Crystal Clans a chance to see if it lives up to the promise.