The PLAYlist 05: Clank! A Deck-Building Adventure

Jun 05, 2017 By Austin Trunick Bookmark and Share


No matter how lightly you tread, your footsteps echo through the cavern like the clanging of bells. Treasures of untold value await you at the tunnels’ end; but, so does a sleeping dragon, which you dare not wake. In the periphery of your vision, a glint of light grabs your eye. You stop. Something metal – something golden – has caught the reflection of your flickering torch. Could it be the riches you’ve been searching for? You cautiously lower yourself to one knee and lift the object into your light: an exquisitely-crafted gold armlet, inset with the largest emerald you’ve ever seen. It twinkles as you turn it around in your hand. “Meh,” you think, “I can do better,” and toss it over your shoulder. You realize that was a bad idea even before the jewelry loudly bangs off the wall. From deeper in the tunnel, you hear an ominous roar. You squint as your eyes adjust to a growing, fiery glow. “Is it just me?” you wonder to yourself, “Or did the temperature in here just rise a few degrees…?”

This week’s subject, Clank!, is one of the most engrossingly thematic games we’ve played in a long time. Sure, it may look like your standard, dungeon-delving fare, what with its ragtag band of heroes sneaking around in subterranean tunnels on the hunt for dragon’s treasure. What separates it, though, from the gazillion other goblin- and wizard-stuffed games out there is its tone, which pulls off a rare feat of being both very tense and very, very funny. Let’s look closer.

Paul Dennen’s Clank! A Deck-Building Adventure is a 2016 release from Renegade Game Studios, playable by two to four players in roughly an hour. The central conceit of the game is that you’re an adventurer, and your purpose is to get deeper into the caverns than your fellow adventurers, nab the best piece of treasure, and then (if you can) escape alive before a dragon eats ya. There’s a big ol’ push-your-luck element to the game, since the farther-off, more valuable treasures are significantly riskier to go after than the cheap ones near the Earth's surface. You also need to factor in that all of this is a race, as once another player picks up a piece of treasure you’ll have no choice but to go after one deeper in the caves.

At first glace, Clank!’s setup feels like a lot to take in. On the board itself you’ll find a mess of little rooms connected by twisting passages; these are covered with icons, tokens, and wooden cubes. Alongside it there will be two lineups of cards with pictures of weapons, treasures, monsters, and adventurous hero-types (each with text, numbers, and icons of their own.) It can all be quite dizzying on your first play, but the designers did a nice job of making its iconography pretty self-explanatory, and after a round or two the haze should lift and what everything means will become clear.

A four-player setup for Clank!

Each player is given a slim deck of cards, their own private fistful of cubes, and a tiny wooden figure. (Each figure – or meeple, in gamerspeak – holds a different weapon, a cute touch.) Clank!'s core gameplay will be familiar to anyone who’s ever played Dominion or any of the similar-styled games to emerge in its wake. On your turn you’ll draw five cards, which you’ll use to move your token around the board and/or add new cards to your deck. These newly-acquired cards will help you move faster, fight harder, or acquire yet even more cards. They’ll eventually be shuffled into your deck and find their way into your future hands. Each deck you build will be unique from any other player’s at the table, and significantly different from game to game. Hence the subtitle: A Deck-Building Adventure.

But why is this thing called ‘Clank,’ you ask? Shouldn’t it be called something more generic like TunnelQuest, or comically heavy metal-sounding, like Dragonstrike: A Descent Unto Certain Doom? Well, the explanation, fine folks, is what makes Clank! unique. The idea is that treasure-hunting – avoiding traps, clobberin’ goblins, and everything else involved – is noisy business. You really don’t want to wake that dragon, but almost everything you do makes sound. And, in general, the faster you’re racing through the tunnels, the noisier you are. So, do you creep around slowly and quietly, or do you run headfirst, screaming into the tunnels, and let your shield bang against the cave walls? (Remember, the fastest adventurer gets first pick of the goodies.)

Noise, or clank, is represented by those little wooden cubes. When you play a card that allows your token to speed ahead past other players, you have to toss a certain number of these cubes into a holding area, which at some point soon thereafter will be transferred into a handsomely-embroidered dragon bag. Whenever the dragon wakes up – which, trust me, will happen often – you blindly draw a specified number of cubes from the bag. If a cube of your color is drawn, you’ve taken a hit. Take too many hits and, well, you won’t be leaving that dungeon alive, know what I mean? (Grim, I know.) As the game goes on, each draw from the bag becomes tenser and tenser. Not only is your supply of hit points shrinking, but each time someone nabs a piece of treasure the dragon will get more and more pissed. (Understandably; how would you feel if strangers came into your home while you were sleeping to steal your crowns and your gold-encrusted drinking cups, huh?) As the dragon token moves up along its “rage meter,” its attacks become more dangerous as an increasingcubes are drawn from the bag on each strike.

And this is the beautiful thing about Clank!: there’s a palpable tension each time someone has to reach their hand into that black bag. “Please don’t draw my cubes,” you’ll beg your friend, as if he were somehow able to feel colors. And then, inevitably, he or she will pull three of your colored cubes, everyone will laugh and you’ll lovingly curse at them. It’s like spinning a roulette wheel but desperately wanting any number but yours to come up.

Clank! really hits its stride once everyone at the table gets a real sense of the riskiness involved in this clank mechanism. (New players should have a grasp on this by about halfway into their first game.) When one player plays a card combination which lets them speed ahead several spaces, their opponent will whistle and ask, “You sure you want to do that?” as they toss a bunch of their cubes into the proverbial danger zone. Getting to the most valuable treasure pieces in Clank! requires not only a significant amount of luck, but real cajones.

The final third or so of each game of Clank! is where those tension levels really go sky-high. Once the first player makes it out of the caves, it triggers a countdown on a hypothetical doomsday clock. On each of that player’s next three turns, they pull increasingly more cubes from the bag. Meanwhile, for everyone else the game becomes a desperate smash-and-grab job, as they try to snatch whatever treasure they can and rush out of the tunnels. After four rounds of this, the dragon gobbles up any adventurers remaining underground. (It's a doozy of a way to go out.) All survivors tally their riches, and the player with the highest score wins.

Like I mentioned at the top of this column, the game’s strong sense of theme is the biggest factor in our recommending Clank!. Passing up those early treasures to go for a better score feels truly risky, and the game is balanced in a way so that it’s very likely that one or more players will find themselves in a down-to-the-wire race for the exit by game’s end. There’s a true rush in those moments when everyone at the table holds their breath as someone reaches into that dreaded black bag to pull out a handful of cubes. Clank! feels like a game with high stakes, even when those stakes are nothing more than the fate of your faceless adventurer.

The box recommends Clank! for ages 13+, but kids a few years younger shouldn’t have much problem picking it up when playing alongside adults. While strategic thinking in building your deck can make you more likely to win, luck – and often hubris – will play a big part in determining who’ll come away the victor in any given session of Clank!. Because of this, we’d endorse this game for family play, since the luck factor does a good job of leveling the playing field for mixed age groups. (We tested the game with both an adults-only group and an adult/child arrangement and the last third of the game was equally thrilling with both setups.)

After quite a few plays, it’s not inconceivable that it could start to feel like you’ve seen the same combination of cards again and again. Clank! comes with a double-sided game board, which provides some extra variability out of the box. For those in need of more, there’s already one expansion out for the game (and, one would assume, more on the way.)  For around $25, Clank!: Sunken Treasures adds another two-sided game board, new rules, and more cards to shuffle into your dungeon decks.

For this column’s playlist, we’re taking inspiration from Clank!’s creative volume dynamic, where making too much noise at the wrong moment can mean the difference between winning or becoming a dragon's lunch. This years marks the 30th anniversary of the debut release from one of modern rock’s most influential bands, Pixies. While the band only put out four full albums during their initial run, the impact they had on many of the musicians who’d lead the upcoming wave of alternative rock was immeasurable. (Bands and artists such as Radiohead, the Smashing Pumpkins, PJ Harvey, Blur, Pavement, and Weezer named Pixies as inspiration for their own music. Most notably, Kurt Cobain cited the band as an influence on the songs that became Nirvana’s landmark Nevermind.) Pixies were well-known for a songwriting style that utilized sudden leaps and falls in volume; Steven Cantor and Matthew Galkin’s fantastic documentary about the band’s 2004 reunion was appropriately titled loudQUIETloud: a film about the Pixies. Our Pixies-focused playlist for Clank! showcases these dynamics, and includes songs from both the band’s classic and modern eras as well as solo tracks from singer/guitarist Black Francis, plus a few songs by the Breeders, the band led by Pixies’ founding bassist, Kim Deal.



Join us next time, won't you, as we play games we love soundtracked by tunes we adore. Meanwhile, if you'd like to check out some of our prior columns, please follow the links below. 

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Previous PLAYlist columns: Villages of ValeriaNew York SliceWatson & HolmesHanamikoji.



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