Clans of Caledonia

Juma Al-JouJou
1 - 4
13 - 199
InteractionComponents & Design


Here’s another first for us: we’re doing a review of a game that doesn’t exist yet. At least, not really. Clans of Caledonia only just started it’s run on Kickstarter, but thanks to Tabletopia we already had the chance to test it extensively.

Clans of Caledonia is the new game by Juma Al-JouJou and Karma Games, previously presented here with Green Deal. Clans of Caledonia is a very different game from that one. Both are heavier games with a strong economic component, but that’s where it ends. Instead of a tidy, modern office Clans of Caledonia sets you down smack in the middle of the Scottish highlands some time in the 19th century. No, it’s not Outlander – The Boardgame.

How to rule the highland – The Rules

As a clan chief, your goal is to expand your clan’s holdings, get rich, and become famous for exporting your superior highland products and importing what doesn’t grow there. But it’s a bit of a way before you import or export anything. You start the game with a purse full of coins, your good clan name and two highlander meeples on the map. The clan you pick gives you a powerful special ability and your starting goods for this round. The two meeples are your initial workforce that will make you some money. But nothing comes for free, not even your startup meeples. Like everything you place on the map, you pay for the thing – a miner or woodcutter, in this case – and for the hex you place it on. That’s all the preliminaries done, you’re ready to play.

Prototype (Photo provided by Juma Al-JouJou)
Prototype (Photo provided by Juma Al-JouJou)

A game of Clans of Caledonia lasts five rounds. Each round follows a very simple structure for a game of its heaviness. There are four phases to a round, and only one of them has the players taking actions. Or, to put it the other way around, players can take all the actions available to them in any order, as long as they can pay for them. There are eight actions to pick from every turn. None of them are very complex on their own, and your virtually guaranteed to use them all during the course of a game.

Let’s start with expanding because that works the same way as placing your initial two workers: you pick what you want to place, you pay for that, you pay for the space, and you place it. The only difference to the initial placement is that now your expansions have to be adjacent to something you already have on the board. As to what your options are to put on the board, there are a few. You have more workers to place, miners on spaces with mountains or woodcutters on spaces with forests. In the production phase, after all players have finished their actions, those guys will bring in the money. Money is nice, of course, but it’s not everything. Other things you place on the map either produce basic goods or refine them. Sheep produce wool, cows milk and fields two units of grain a round. Cheese dairies turn milk into cheese, bakeries and distilleries both take grain and produce bread and whisky, respectively.

The Market Board (Tabletopia)
The Market Board (Tabletopia)

All the goods thus produced can be used in the next round. One use is simply to make more money. Sell them at the market. As another action, you can send one of your merchants – you have two, initially – and buy or sell any of those goods. One merchant can trade one unit of goods, but as long as you’re only trading one type of good you can place as many merchants as you want. After you buy goods, the price goes up by as many steps on the market board as you bought units. After you sell the price goes down the same way. But why would you buy goods, anyway? To export them!

Obtaining and fulfilling export contracts are the two next options, and you want to pay attention here because exports are a point factory. Obtaining export contracts is simple enough: there are five or six of them available, and to pick one you pay a price that changes each round. On the first round, you get five pounds, on the last round you pay fifteen. You can only take another contract once this one is fulfilled. But that’s easy, at least, all you have to do is take another action and discard the goods on the left side of the contract. Those can be anything you can produce, plus beef or mutton. To fulfill those two, you have to remove a cow or a sheep from the board.

What you get from a contract is slightly more complex. Getting money is easy, of course. We all know what to do with that. A free expand action is also easy to get into. It’s not quite free, but when you get one of these you may immediately expand without paying the cost of the board space. Similarly, a bonus upgrade action gives you a cheaper upgrade – see below. The interesting parts are the good you import in return for your exports. Hops will be worth one victory point at the end of the game. The other three – cotton, tobacco and sugar cane – derive their value from their scarcity. The rarest of them, the one that was imported the least at the end of the game, will be worth five victory points a piece, the second one four and the most common one three. That’s a lot of points if you play it right.

The Box
The Box

Three more actions – and don’t worry, we’re almost through – are upgrades. You can hire up to five more merchants to give you more market power. You can also upgrade your miners and woodcutters to bring in more money. And finally, you can upgrade your shipping, expanding the range where you can build on the map. The first upgrade lets you cross rivers, with each upgrade after that you can cross one water space when expanding – start new villages across the water. This option is important for the endgame scoring – again, see below – and it lets you more easily reach the ports in the four corners of the board, where each of them has a nice bonus waiting.

The last action available is, of course, to pass. Once all players did, the production phase happens as described above, then there’s the round scoring. A scoring tile determines what is worth extra points each round: number of your workers on the board, number of goods in your supply and a bunch of others, randomly drawn before the game and public knowledge since then. After the fifth round, the round scoring is followed by the end game scoring. In addition to the points scored during the game, points are now awarded for your money and goods, your imported goods as described above, bonus points for having the most fulfilled export contracts and for your settlements. Here the shipping upgrades matter again, because the bonus applies to settlements within range of your ships. Once all those points are counted, you have a winner.

Our Verdict

Now, I realize the above description doesn’t have a lot of structure. That is, unfortunately, an effect of the freedom to do anything at any time that Clans of Caledonia gives you: it’s difficult to describe the game in a manner that gives you a sense of its flow. But it’s not a problem of the game itself. You always have a clear idea what your options are. You have a less clear idea which option will benefit you the most, meaning you’ll have to make many meaningful decisions. In our test games, I don’t remember a single time when a decision didn’t matter. Everything costs you some of your rather scarce resources, and everything lies on some path to gain victory points. The best ratio of resources to points, though, that’s never obvious.

Highland Farming
Highland Farming

The best way to gather points does change from game to game, too. The round scoring tiles play a role in this, and so do the available export contracts. But the biggest impact on your strategy is your clan. Whether you play as Clan Buchanan, who can have two export contracts at a time, or Clan Stewart, who start with more merchants and get a bonus for trading in the market, or any of the other six clans, will steer you into very different strategies. But as far as we could tell, the clans are also well balanced. As long as you play to your clans strengths, none of them has an advantage over the others.

That’s our impression for Clans of Caledonia in general, [pullthis]it’s balanced to a very fine point. Everything you do can help you win if used right, yet nothing is overly powerful. Also, very little depends on luck.[/pullthis] Clans of Caledonia is not without a little randomness, the new export contracts coming up each round can end up being good or bad for you. But besides that little element, it’s all about your skill.

Clans of Caledonia also does work well with any numbers of players, albeit with a different feeling. In two players, you have a lot of control over what is happening and can thus play very strategically. On the flip-side, the market is more static with only two players using it, taking away some of the tension of fluctuating prices. With four players, the market is much more lively, but there is obviously more that can go wrong between your turns, with three other players mucking about. Differences aside, though, Clans of Caledonia is great with two, three of four players. And even with four, you don’t have to worry about downtime. Thanks to players only taking one action at a time, you rarely have to wait long for your next move. Just don’t rely on the thirty minutes per player for your first few games. That is true once all players have a feeling for the game, but until then you should expect a game to last significantly lower. I’m not a big fan of the solo mode, but then I’m the wrong person to ask about that. The main draw for me in games is playing with friends, solo play is not my thing.

Prototype Player Board (Photo provided by Juma Al-JouJou)
Prototype Player Board (Photo provided by Juma Al-JouJou)

Finally, for obvious reasons we can’t say anything about the component quality: the components don’t exist yet. But the design is done, and it’s another great job by illustrator Klemens Franz. What could have been a boring hex map looks vibrant, and the player boards, market board, everything else looks just as good. All the components also do a superb job showing you the information you need at just a glance. Especially the player board is a great example how things should be done, with not only your units cleanly lined up but also showing your production for the round and your available research.

So, would I recommend backing Clans of Caledonia? Not for everyone, to be sure. This is a heavy economic game, it is somewhat unforgiving of strategic mistakes, and playing it will take up the evening. If that is the sort of game you like, then yes, Clans of Caledonia is a recommendation. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.

(Edit: Designer Juma Al-JouJou rightfully pointed out that the game type on the real game is shorter than it is on Tabletopia. It’s a great platform, but moving pieces with the mouse is more fiddly than doing so by hand. So games with the physical game will be quicker than our test games)

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