PLAYlist 26: Crystal Clans | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
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Images from Plaid Hat Games

PLAYlist 26: Crystal Clans

May 17, 2018 By Austin Trunick
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Crystal Clans is a game for exactly two players. You’ll select from the six diverse clans included in the box, each with their own svelte deck of cards representing their unique warriors and heroes. Throughout the game you’ll be drawing and using these cards to assemble little armies to march across the board, do battle, and wrestle control of areas from your opponent. There are only nine spaces on the board, three of which are designated as special “crystal zones.” Control two of them and you can earn a crystal card; collect four crystals and you win.

It’s a tight little battlefield. Just how you navigate it will depend on which of the clans you’ve selected. Each clan handles in radically different ways. The blood clan offers strength in numbers; the stone clan can build sturdy defenses; the flower clan are fast and weak but tough to hit; and so forth. As you play, you’ll become more familiar with the clans’ brands of attack and defense, and how they match up against the others. They felt well-balanced, to boot, with none feeling particularly stronger than another.

One of the cleverest elements of the game’s design is its two-sided initiative track, which counts up toward each player on their side of the board. Any action you take will come at a specified cost of initiative points; you’ll move the crystal toward your opponent the indicated number of spaces. Afterwards, if the token is still on your side of the board, you can go take another action. Not until it passes onto your opponent’s side of the initiative track does your turn end. In that regard, it’s totally possible for a player to string together quite a few small actions in a row before their opponent gets their chance to play. The big moves, though – such as claiming a crystal, and thus stepping closer to victory – cost a lot of initiative, meaning you’ll likely be handing your opponent a lot of action currency to play with. Ooh, this is cool. It helps keep the game even, too: you can’t leap far ahead without giving your opponent opportunity to catch up.

The way you build your armies is pretty neat, too. You’ll summon stacks of up to three cards, but only the top card’s traits and abilities will be active. (Cards summoned beneath it will only generically add to its stats.) Buuuuuut, there’s a way to swap these cards and shuffle the order, so that a lower card can move to the top and take over command. This allows for Trojan Horse-like strategies, where you use one unit’s ability to get across the table, then swap it for another, beefier unit to dish out (or absorb) pain. (You can also join units into depleted stacks, as reinforcements.) This army-crafting opens up a lot of options, and will help keep clans feeling fresher longer when you re-play them. Fights themselves are relatively simple affairs, using cards in your hand with a rock-paper-scissors-like system to sway the tide of battle.

Beside all of the varying combinations of clans and the units within them, the crystal deck contains 15 different cards with unique abilities, which you’ll only see maybe half of in any given game. These also change the feeling of each play session, as you’ll see a crystal that fits (or even re-shapes) your particular strategy, and want to gun for it.

Crystal Clans isn’t a particularly hard game to learn, either. The instruction booklet is simple and well-illustrated with examples; half of it is just a quick-reference glossary so that you can easily find clarifications on a rule when you encounter it in-game. Most of the educational process will come from learning the ins and outs of each clan, and the optimal ways to play them.

Games have taken us 30-45 minutes, with the closer-matched games running on the longer end, and that’s a real selling point for Crystal Clans. Sometimes the prospect of pulling a game off the shelf, setting it up, maybe teaching it to a new player, and then playing an hour-or-longer session can feel like a chore – and this is coming from someone who loves long, complicated games with tons of moving pieces. On the other end of the spectrum, everything about Crystal Clans feels quick, from setup to gameplay itself. These aren’t epic wars playing out on your tabletop – they’re lightning-fast skirmishes.

The art style (by Martin Abel) is slick and comic book-like; each clan has its own character and flavor, and that’s as much in debt to the illustrations as to card design. Although there’s not much to the components beyond a board and multiple decks of cards, it manages to look pretty appealing on the table. Something about it reminds me of colorful, addictive cellphone games like Clash of Clans – and I mean that in no way as a knock against it. Crystal Clans provides a similar, instant dopamine rush when it hits the table.

Crystal Clans has an MSRP of $39.95. The publisher, Plaid Hat Games, already has plans for expansions, offering up new clans to play with. While the box may seem overly roomy right now, it’s because they’re giving you room to grow if you wind up really liking the game and buying into its add-ons. Four new clans have been announced thus far, retailing at $9.95 each.

We had a lot of fun with this one’s fast-paced duels, and see a lot of potential as the pool of clans expands. (The rulebook hints at deck customization coming in the near future, meaning you’ll be able to craft your own decks combining the various clan types – which sounds great.) If you’ve got a dedicated gaming partner willing to deep dive into learning the clans with you, we’ll give this an even higher recommendation.

While in this column’s board game you’ll be warring for crystals, in this column’s playlist we have four warring Crystals. In one corner we have the glitchy, dark electronic act Crystal Castles, once fronted by Alice Glass; in the opposite stands Crystal Stilts, the Brooklyn indie rockers known for their fuzzy guitar work. These two fighters may dominate our mixtape, but don’t sleep on the sweet, Phil Spector-produced sounds of classic girl group The Crystals, or country legend Crystal Gayle, li’l sis to Loretta Lynn. Let’s get ready to rumble! 


Previous PLAYlist columns: Jurassic Park: Danger!, PhotosynthesisIce CoolFood Truck ChampionArs Alchimia & LemuriaA Game of Thrones CatanTroyesTwilight Imperium: Fourth EditionFlip ShipsNMBR 9UnearthEscape from 100 Million B.C., Orleans (plus Trade & Intrigue)Whistle StopCaverna: Cave vs CaveTwilight StruggleHonshuBärenpark, Notre Dame & In the Year of the DragonYokohamaClank! A Deck-Building AdventureVillages of ValeriaNew York SliceWatson & HolmesHanamikoji.


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