Crystal Clans

Colby Dauch, J. Arthur Ellis, Andrea Mezzotero
14 - 199
InteractionComponents & Design

Why would anyone fight for crystals? Maybe because they are shiny. Maybe because of their powerful magic. Or maybe you just can’t stand the thought of another clan getting them. One reason is as good as the other. Crystal Clans hints at a rich setting with its clans’ personalities expressed through special abilities and the units each clan fields, but the setting doesn’t go beyond those hints, not even to tell us why those crystals are so important.

Catching Crystals – How to play Crystal Clans

But important they are. The game starts with each player picking a clan deck – out of six, in the base game – and ends as soon as a player has collected four crystals.

“Each player chooses a clan” is a simple instruction in the rulebook’s Game Setup section, but your pick changes everything. The six clans have very different strengths and weaknesses, and they all have easier and harder match-ups. What that means is, don’t just go “I pick one, then you pick one”, because the second player can then pick a counter to the first player’s clan and first player is not going to be happy about that. Agree to some other system of picking clans. That really should have been official and in the rules.

Clan picks done, Crystal Clans eschews the traditional turn taking in favor of a simple yet effective initiative system. Every action you take has an initiative cost. After paying it on the initiative bar, if the marker is still on your side (or in the neutral zone up to your opponent’s 1 space) you take another turn. For better or for worse.

You don’t even have that many different actions to pick from each turn. One, you may summon fresh units from your hand, up to three at a time. Each unit has an initiative cost that has to be paid in full. Units that are summoned together, or that end up in a space together some other way, form a squad. You stack them up in such a way that the combat values of all units are visible but only the top unit’s battlefield ability is. Only that battlefield ability is active, but all units in the squad contribute their combat prowess.

Second option, you spend initiative to activate a squad. The cost of that is the highest activation cost of a unit in the squad. (Not the sum of all activation costs. We tried that, because reading rules is hard sometimes.) Then you may reorder the squad, changing its battlefield ability if the top card changes, and move the squad one space. That doesn’t sound very fast, but the board only has nine spaces, so it’s actually plenty fast. Finally, if there is an enemy squad in the same space, you may fight.

A fight starts with each player playing a Battle Card from their hand. They are the same cards as the units, but you ignore the unit part and only look at the bottom part with the battle effects. Used this way, each card has a battle style: Bold, Guarded, or Tricky. In Stone-Paper-Scissors style a Bold style has a greater effect against a Guarded style, a Guarded style has a greater effect against a Tricky style, and a Tricky style against a Bold style. After resolving the Battle Cards’ effects you sum up each squad’s total damage. While there is at least as much damage left as the enemy squad’s top card you remove that card to the discard pile, then see if there is enough damage left to destroy the next unit, and so on. Both squads deal damage at the same time, so you rarely come out of combat without losses.

The other three actions finally get you those coveted – for some reason – crystals. First, there is the regular way. If you control two of the three crystal zones on the board, meaning you have a squad there and your opponent doesn’t, you may spend a crystal card’s initiative cost and take the card. They are expensive enough that it will usually be your opponent’s turn afterwards.

The other way to gain crystals, which relates to the final two actions, is from your opponent’s misfortune. When your opponent has to re-shuffle their discard pile because their draw pile is empty, then you immediately gain a crystal without paying any initiative cost. Every player has to go through their own deck, of course, to draw fresh hand cards. This does not happen automatically in Crystal Clans, you have to take a Replenish action to refill your hand with five cards. This costs three initiative, no matter how many cards you draw. You may even discard hand cards first, but that should be well considered. After all, you’re milling through your own deck.

With the Invade action you can help your opponent go through their deck faster. A lot faster, even. If you have an unopposed squad in your opponents home zone you may pay three initiative to force your opponent to discard cards equal to your squad’s attack value. A strong squad can force them to re-shuffle with two or three attacks.

And that’s it, except for one detail. Those crystals you’re after have special effects, too. When you gain a crystal you pick from a selection of three. Their effects are generally powerful, but often situational. Some have a one time effect that makes you turn the card over after use, but it still counts for your victory.

Is Crystal Thievery for me? – Our Verdict

Crystal Clans has a number of things going for it. Even though the rules are simple you have a number of strategic options as well as some interesting constraints. Giving your opponent a crystal when you have to re-shuffle your deck is one such constraint. You may want to discard a full hand and draw five new cards in search for the one card you want, but is that the smartest choice when it uses up a full fifth of your deck? The limit of three units per squad, only one of which can use its Battlefield Ability, is a tight constraint as well.

As for options, let’s start with the obvious winning strategies. Try to gain crystals the honest way, or try to mill your opponent’s deck for it. Or maybe start with the one and then rush for an invasion when your opponent gives you an opening. The very small battlefield makes this interesting. The enemy home zone is very close, but you have very little space to avoid enemy squads. This leads to very tense moments on the initiative track. Making a big move is always tempting, but thanks to the initiative mechanism it’ll allow your opponent a big move, too.

There is a flip side to this tension. Careful players may keep dancing around the low part of the initiative track, neither wanting to give the other an opportunity. That’s strategy, you might say, but Crystal Clans really doesn’t have enough space for dancing around each other. The other big downside is the luck of the draw. Drawing the right card at the right time or not makes a huge difference sometimes, and the “or not” case can be rather frustrating.

Nevertheless, Crystal Clans is a fun game for two players. If it wasn’t obvious from the rules section, there is a lot of direct conflict involved. If that’s not your cup of tea consider yourself warned. If you do enjoy this style of game then Crystal Clans is quick to learn and play and is pretty well balanced – even if a deck is the scissors to your paper that doesn’t automatically mean you lose, just that you face an uphill battle. (But seriously, come up with your own way to pick decks beyond “choose one”!)

We still don’t know why we’re after those crystals. So what. The hunt is reason enough.

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