10 September 2018
Can the sparkling card game keep its shine?
How best to use the time given to you. That’s the philosophy at the heart of most competitive tabletop games: with some exceptions, everyone is handed the same fixed allowances of actions, turns and rounds, and the winner is the person that best optimises their pool of options in the same amount of time as everyone else. Player interaction, asymmetric setups and luck can have a sway, but everyone otherwise is generally given the same chance by the game.
Crystal Clans is different. Here, it’s not the game that decides how much time and opportunity to hand you, but your opponent – and vice-versa. At the centre of its board-based battle for control of three crystal zones is a dynamic initiative system that oscillates back and forth from player to player. If you choose to perform more expensive options – summoning additional powerful creatures or claiming one of the four crystals needed to win, for instance – it hands your opponent more ‘free’ actions on their own turn. It’s tightly executed, and the momentum feels smooth; you’ll soon find yourself optimising actions to squeeze as much out of your turn as possible, while avoiding pushing the gem-like token too far onto the opposite side of the board.
This flexibility provides lots of room to play around with the six balanced but distinctive factions included in the core box. With a simple card-driven combat system and straightforward movement and ability rules, Crystal Clans’ depth is found in mastering the unique skills of these decks, from the fast Blood clan to the Flower clan, which can swing clashes by putting enemies to sleep. Squads max out at three units a side, each of which have three basic traits – attack, defence and move – so the action feels as fast and fluid as possible, never slowing down with excessive combat resolution or rule-checking. Learning the clans’ different boons also deepens what initially seems like a shallow tug of war over the central crystal: expect your first couple of games to feel a little one-note in places, but later matches to spread out further across the board.
The relatively light gameplay is buoyed by a fetching art style featuring bright fantasy visuals and charming cartoonish characters. The board has plenty of personality – the discard pile is a graveyard, the draw zone a training school – and the undead, floral, dwarven, magical and whatnot specialisms of the clans are depicted with just enough distinction to make them feel different but of the same world. The pleasing visuals are matched by smart graphic design – cards that are stacked overlap to keep the stats needed during battle visible along the top edge, while the bottom lip is used separately during battle to add effects and other buffs using the game’s rock-paper-scissors-style combat. While squads can be rearranged when they activate, only the visible ability of the top card applies – making it important to order squads carefully, as they can often wipe each other out without giving lower units the chance to use their skills.
The core gameplay and six factions present in Crystal Clans’ core box give the base game more than enough to stand on for the moment, but it feels like the game’s true longevity will depend on future expansions. There’s no custom deck construction available, for example – the six decks are simply shuffled and reused in whole for each match. That will be enough for those after a light, fun two-player game that’s ready to roll in a matter of seconds, but even the six distinct clans might wear thin over time for those looking for a more serious competitive experience to invest in. There’s certainly room in the over-large box for more decks – although an inlay better suited to keeping the cards organised would’ve been nice to include. (Our tip: flip the cardboard and use the two outside channels instead of the single central valley.)
Still, what’s here is a very promising start. It looks fantastic, plays beautifully and toes the line between accessibility and depth with ease. What remains to be seen now is whether that promise holds up in the long term.
Crystal Clans plays fast and light, and offers plenty to dig into in its core box for casual players thanks to a generous offering of factions. Competitive players may not be as hooked for as long, but this could prove to be the foundation of something special.
Designer: Colby Dauch, J. Arthur Ellis, Andrea Mezzotero
Artist: Martin Abel
Time: 30-60 minutes
This review originally appeared in the June 2018 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here – or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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