Walcome ye lass (or laddie). It be the mid 19th century and Scotland is transforming with Industry! The quiet villages of the countryside are being overrun with bread factories, whiskey distilleries, and cheeseries. Always sticking to their traditions, each of the Caledonian clans has a proud speciality. They hope this will put them ahead of the other clans while they compete on the international export market for who can push the most goods, and thus become the most glorious of the Clans of Caledonia.
1-4 Players| 1-2 Hours (30min/player) | Designed by Juma Al-Joujou
Scotland, or Caledonia as the Romans called it, is the perfect place to set an agricultural economic game. Having returned recently from a visit to Scotland, I can definitely see why – the country is pretty much made up of cows, whiskey, and Klemens Franz-esque cartoony folk. After playing the game and seeing the attention to detail to all the clans (each having authentic tartan and coats of arms), I was actually surprised to learn that the designer of Clans of Caledonia – Juma Al-Joujou was not Scottish. I naturally assumed it was a homage, but he’s actually from Germany! It’s clear to see this game draws strong inspiration from Terra Mystica, but it stands on its own. Clans of Caledonia provides several things that Terra Mystica doesn’t, making it a distinctive addition to the boardgaming world.
How does it work?
Clans of Caledonia is played over 5 rounds, with players selecting from a number of actions available on each of their turns. Actions include buying or selling resources on the local market, building structures on the board to expand your clan, upgrading abilities, and taking and fulfilling export contracts. Export contracts are the primary points source in the game. There are several other ways you can get points throughout that shouldn’t be ignored, such as the end of round bonuses and the end game settlement scoring.
Most actions have some cost in dollars, and so once your money runs out, you are forced to pass. When all players have passed, the round is over. At the end of each round player’s basic structures produce goods (milk, wool, wheat), and their factories can process basic goods into refined goods (milk → cheese, wheat → bread, wheat → whiskey).
Each player chooses a clan tile at the beginning of the game which gives that player a special ability. These abilities range from discounted building costs, to bonuses when producing certain resources (at the end of the post I discuss each one in more detail).
What do I think?
I’ve played around 10 games of Clans of Caledonia at this point. I haven’t played the solo version of the game so I won’t comment on that, but I’ve played with varied player counts from 2 to 4. I think the game scales well between those player counts. The variable map and clan abilities lead to a different experience every play, though the strategy for each clan and map is mostly transferable between games.
The Good Stuff
- The game is quite non-confrontational while still being fairly interactive between players. The map provides an interesting puzzle in where to build, and when to move next to other players to benefit from neighbour bonus. You can make blocking moves but it is rarely the end of world for the blocked player.
- The economy system (the market board) works surprisingly well for such a simple system. It is very intuitive and provides a lot of opportunities for ‘buy now it’s cheap!’ sort of events.
- The art is perfect for this style of game, the pieces are all very charming and the quality of production is very nice.
- Expanding your clan on the board is satisfying and fun. Generally placing a building is worthwhile, thus promoting building.
- The production system and production chaining is intuitive and well executed – all basic structures (sheep, cows, fields) produce goods (wool, milk, wheat) and these can be fed into advanced buildings (factories) to make bread, whiskey and cheese.
- I like games where scoring is largely obfuscated and it’s hard to know who will win till after the game is over. This leaves people thinking simply about how to maximise their score rather than block other players.
The Bad Stuff
- Export contracts don’t flush at the end of each round. This is fine if the players are being super efficient and doing 1+ contracts per round but this virtually impossible. As a result, usually less than 4 new contracts will come up each round. This forces players to take contracts they are poorly optimised for and cater to them. While this is probably intentional design it just feels annoying when playing.
- Leading on from the above point, the game flow feels clunky – you can’t move smoothly from one export contract to another, you basically stall after each one and need to re-configure to do the next one. Almost always you fulfil a contract and get a new one, then spend the round setting up your engine for it so you can complete it at the beginning of the next round with the stuff you get during end of round production. Most notably, this doesn’t work in the last round, so you pretty much always feel screwed at the end of the game.
- Another last round gripe in addition to the last point – the production at the end of the last round feels a bit useless. Sure you get a few points, but making all that stuff and not being able to fulfil another contract is a let down.
- Taking export contracts gets more expensive as the game progresses. This just feels like it slows down the end game. During last round there isn’t much to do when you can’t afford to take many (more than one) contracts.
- Clans feel unbalanced (see the end of the post for my assessment of each clan).
- Settlement scoring is weird and requires re-explanation for newer players every round. It’s exhausting.
- Everything is too small. While I said the production values are great, it is surprising to open the game for the first time and see the size of the pieces. If you are used to Caverna sized resources, prepare yourself as this game’s pieces are about half the size. The functional issue with this is people with big fingers will have a harder time manipulating the board without knocking things.
- The neighbour bonus (buying resources when you build next to opponent buildings) is unintuitive and offers the neighbour no benefit/incentive. It might make sense if part of the purchase cost went to the neighbour.
- There’s a random chit of a person for no reason and it’s confusing. I can’t for the life of me figure out what it’s supposed to be for.
- The end game scoring is extremely non obvious to new players.
That’s a pretty long list of complaints. While I feel all those points are valid, I still rate Clans of Caledonia highly. It’s easily in my top 10, and I have enjoyed every play of it so far. It really rubs the engine building rash, and it’s a heavy enough game with light rules that can be taught in 10 or so minutes. Comparing it to Terra Mystica, I prefer it as more streamlined, with the addition of a very well executed economy system. If you like building up an engine that consists of cows, bread and whiskey, and don’t mind your friends constantly talking in poor attempts of a Scottish accent, then Clans of Caledonia is the game for you!
If you are interested in my thoughts on each of the clans, read on:
The most straightforward way to assess a clan’s usefulness is to determine how many additional actions they will provide you during the game, as being able to do more things roughly translates to getting a higher score. While I ignore the factor of settlement scoring in most of these assessments, settlement scoring has only once caused a change in position in games I’ve played (the scores are rarely very close), so I don’t consider it as important as fulfilling contracts. Easier access to cheaper building locations can make a small difference, but it is on the order of $10 savings per turn (maybe one additional action) rather than $30+ additional income of some clans.
Ability: Extra export contract slot (total 2). When taking export contracts, you may take up to 2 for the cost of one.
This can be powerful, so long as there are contracts available that align with your production engine. When I played this clan I found I did a greater number of smaller contracts. I would say this clan is mid-strength on average. Having more options for contracts can be good, but the ability doesn’t provide you with any additional capacity to fill contracts so this will still be a bottleneck.
Ability: Increasing discounts on building factories ($3, 4, 4, 5 off for the next of a type).
I think this clan’s ability is strong. There are no situations where you will not be building factories, and the amount of the discount on them leaves you with enough spare money per round to build an extra building. This equates to more resources that can be used to fulfil export contracts.
Ability: At the end of each round sell unlimited milk for $8 each without affecting the market price.
This clan is very powerful, and especially new player friendly. The obvious strategy here is to spend the first 1-1.5 rounds building cows, and then you basically have $32+ extra for every subsequent round. This is about 3 extra actions worth of money.
Ability: Starts with 3 workers (rather than 2), 3 shipping (rather than 0). all starting workers must be placed on the border.
While this clan has an apparent early game advantage, you start off worse financially than other players as you need to pay for a third worker. This means less actions and less expansion in the first round. The only advantage of the worker is geographical spread. Additional shipping may be helpful, but it’s certainly nowhere near as powerful in terms of ability to do more actions and get more points as some of the other clans.
Ability: All 8 of your workers are essentially fisherman which can be placed on forests, mountains and water. You may ‘row’ one water based worker to an adjacent space per turn. Each earns $4, and your workers cannot be upgraded.
This ability, while good for spreading across the map also provides little ability to perform extra actions, and actually decreases the potential maximum income for the player. You are pretty much guaranteed to win settlement scoring, but there is not much help with regards to fulfilling contracts.
Ability: Producing whiskey gives $3 per barrel. In addition, whiskey can be aged in the cellar, for $7 (one round) or $15 (two rounds)
This clan is very powerful, similarly to Clan Cunningham in that it provides lots of cash for extra actions. The obvious strategy is to set up two distilleries in round one, start aging whiskey and get the rest of the distilleries in round 2. From then on the 4 whiskey produced gives $12 a round, plus an additional $15 each round from round 3, the last round giving $22 (as you would take the 7 and 15 off). Compounding this you will have a lot of spare whiskey to sell to many enable further actions. I think this is the strongest clan.
Ability: Placing buildings on river delta spaces has a $3 discount.
This clan ability is quite weak. It can only be used a few times a round, and there is a lot of competition with other places for the desired spots. The net benefit of this clan, even if it made river delta spaces free, would only be 1 or 2 at most additional actions per round.
Ability: Start with +3 merchants. You get $1 each time you interact with the market.
I don’t see much advantage to having extra merchants without additional production or money producing capacity. This clan has a minor early game advantage trading in their starting resources for money/other resources but past that the $1 bonus hardly enables extra actions and thus provides no benefit to fulfilling more contracts.