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01 March 2016
We find out if Clacks delivers or gets stuck in transmission.

Backspindle Games | Puzzle | £29.99 | 1-4 players | 30 minutes |

If you’re a fan of Terry Pratchett’s magnificent series of Discworld novels, then you’ll know how rich the source material is for potential board games. Perhaps a title about casting spells in the Unseen University? What about a bluffing game where you have to guess the contents of Cut Me Own Throat Dibbler’s ‘meat’ pies? Ooooh… wouldn’t it be great to have a city builder inspired by Ankh Morpork? So, of all the potential products themed around Pratchett’s superb patchwork of wizards, witches, watchmen and werewolves, the concept of a game inspired by the clacks (the semaphore messaging system featured heavily in Going Postal),may seem a tad unusual.

At its core Clacks is a little like the classic board game Othello, in which
people flip over tiles to reveal black or white sides. In Othello the black/ white sides represent the colours of the players but in Clacks the 16 square tiles indicate whether a light is switched on or off. You see, the clacks work by lighting up a particular sequence of six lamps to indicate a letter, e.g. two lights in the middle would mean ‘C’ while three lights down the left hand side means ‘I’.

But why are you trying to make all these letters? Well, that depends upon what form of game you’re playing. In the competitive version of Clacks you’re in a race against your opponent to successfully spell a particular five-letter word, e.g. gnome, death, troll or scone.

Meanwhile, the co-operative game sees you playing through the plot of Going Postal (kind of) and trying to send a five-letter word from Ankh Morpork to Genua before the Postal Service by using the hi-tech clacks system and its various lights.

Unfortunately you can’t just go around switching lamps on willy nilly and instead must rely on ‘Jacquards’, which display what pattern of tiles will be flipped either on or off. These Jacquards are drawn at random from a cloth bag and a player can have a hand of three cards to use in their turn. The patterns on the Jacquards range from diagonal patterns that flip four tiles, to diagonal ones that turn up to four tiles and lots more in between. Your aim is to cleverly combine these Jacquards to switch on the correct lamps and (hopefully) create a letter.

Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done, particularly in the competitive mode as you’ll both potentially be vying to use the same clacks towers. You see, although the board is divided into 16 ‘lamps’, you can’t just pick and choose which ones to use. Instead you must select what clacks tower you want and then control the six lamps around that position on the board; switching them on and off depending upon the Jacquards played. As a result, Clacks is very much a puzzle game that involves carefully working out where to go in order to turn off the correct lights to spell one of your letters… and it can be a real head scratcher.

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Another potential hindrance to your speedy spelling is the fact that each Jacquard has a stress rating. In a competitive game you can only spend five stress tokens per turn, while in the co-operative version you don’t have a limit but the stress tokens move the post office marker closer to Genua. So, once again, there’s another crucial element to consider when planning ahead… there’s nothing worse than thinking you’ve got the right Jacquards to make a letter, only to realise it’ll be too much stress on the clacks system!

Another spanner in the works (quite literally) is the Fault Report Cards. Occasionally your Jacquard will have a little red icon, which means you’ll need to draw a Fault Report Card. These are events that will affect gameplay, e.g. turning all the lamps on, restricting the amount of Jacquards you can play or forcing you to discard a Fault Report Card. In a competitive game, you’ll be using these cards to bamboozle your opponent and ruin their best laid plans.

Although the co-operative game doesn’t use the Fault Report Cards in the standard rules, that doesn’t mean it’s plain sailing and instead you’ll potentially be at the whims of the Incident Report or Operator’s Log cards. During your turn, if you don’t like any of your Jacquards you can swap them for either a face-up Jacquard, which requires you to draw an Incident Report, or a face-down Jacquard that forces you to pick up an Operator’s Log card. The Incident Reports tend to have negative effects like the Fault Reports, while the Operator’s Logs work a little more in the co-operative team’s favour.

In fact the Operator’s Logs and Incident Reports are actually the highlight of the game, as they really capture the feel of a Discworld novel thanks to the amusing descriptions that are read out to fellow players when drawn. Without these cards the thematic setting is lacking because the clacks system isn’t exactly an integral part of the Discworld novels that’s immediately recognisable, unlike characters like Rincewind or Commander Vimes.

As a Discworld game, Clacks is sadly lacking as the theme doesn’t shine through
in the core mechanics. Instead it’s left to the amusing descriptions written on the Incident Reports or Operator’s Logs, which aren’t even used in the competitive game, to give it the Pratchettvibe. Without the theme you’re still left with an enjoyable abstract puzzle game but Discworld fans may be left wishing there was more from the source material.

Buy your copy here.

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