I was recently afforded the opportunity to preview the ship-to-ship combat card game Clear the Decks! (by Crispy Games Company) that first piqued my interest over a year ago, at the Connecticut Festival of Indie Games (CT-FIG). I've been wanting to share more details of the game ever since CT-FIG 2017 and I am now able to, so please read on to my review, below, and if my take tickles your whiskers, click here to get in on the Clear the Decks Kickstarter, which launched today!
AVAST YE, A CLEAR THE DECKS! REVIEW
OVERVIEW: Clear the Decks is a cooperative card game in which 1-4 players each control an Age-of-Sail era ship that is used to attack and defend against a singular enemy ship. Each player utilizes their three canons (18-pounders, 24-pounders and 36-pounders) via Ammunition player cards, while Officer and Tactic cards provide opportunities for other actions. Enemy ship cards that represent the crew, events and structure of the enemy ship are divided into multiple stacks (the exact number depending on the ship type) and discarded as they are "destroyed" by player attacks. Face-up enemy ship cards that are not destroyed by a player attack give instructions as to what effects they have when counterattacking or at other moments in the game (such as repairing damage or sending boarders on to a player ship). If the enemy ship's hull is completely destroyed and thus only the leak level remains, the players win, but if all of the canons of each player ship are destroyed or disabled (by boarders), the enemy ship is victorious.
PRESENTATION: This review is based on the pre-Kickstarter version of Clear the Decks!, but for a play test copy, I found the art, graphics, quality of materials and layout to all be well done. The terminology and other historical elements found throughout the game are a nice touch, as well. The rulebook does have some minor errors and could use a few clarifications, but I expect these items to be addressed in the published version. Likewise, I assume the enemy ship tiles will be of higher quality, but they were perfectly fine for a test copy and I like the efficiency of the design: four tiles for three different ship sizes. And I wouldn't change any of the art, as I think it all fits the theme and style of the game well. For a card game, I'd currently rate the presentation of Clear the Decks a 7 out of 10, but that will likely improve.
COMPLEXITY: Clear the Decks! uses a simple card-matching mechanic to resolve canon fire effects, but the cycle of reloading canons and the different types of ammunition effects vs. target type adds a welcome element of strategy to the process. Other elements that players must consider are the Counterattack effects , Consequences and special abilities of enemy ship cards, which can provide extra defense to attacks or additional damage by attacks, among a variety of other possibilities. Players will sometimes not be able to destroy all of the faceup enemy ship cards on their turn and so decisions must be made to lessen the damage to be taken on a counterattack. Limited sharing of canons and cards are also options that add to the decision-making. (If you give up your Grape Shot card now, will you be stuck without ammo on your own turn?) Although not a seriously crunchy game by any means, there is enough strategy to keep players interested and busy, but the rules are light enough for my 11-year old to comprehend. For a card game, I'd rate the complexity of Clear the Decks a 6 out of 10.
GAME PLAY: The mechanics of the Clear the Decks! are sound and simple enough to keep the game moving and fun. The game's scalable difficulty is simple to employ, but unless I'm doing something wrong, I think the game might be too easy, as the players have won every game that I've been in to date. This is easily remedied by adding more canon cards to the enemy ship assembly deck, but this will also extend your game. (In my experience, the length of gameplay for 2 - 4 player games has averaged about two hours. I've haven't yet tried a 1-player game.) A better option might be to boost up the abilities of the enemy ship cards for the published version. For a card game, I'd rate the game play of Clear the Decks a 7 out of 10, but still with room for improvement.
VALUE: With 9 enemy ship types, 6 rule variations and 1-4 player options, Clear the Decks! has decent replay value, especially if it could be toughened up, but I think player-vs-player rules would really make this game shine. You know people are going to house-rule that in short order, so why not have official PVP rules that we can all agree on right away? With the cost as yet unknown, I will have to reserve my judgement on value, but in light of developer Chris Pinyan's remarks about pricing at 2017 CT-Fig, I believe Kickstarter backers of Clear the Decks! will not be disappointed.
EDIT: Pricing has been announced at $29, which I think is exactly where it should be, so you can be confident that you are getting good value for your money. Additionally, Chris indicated to me this morning that others have inquired about player-vs-player rules and that it might be doable in an expansion, which has me excited for the future of this game, as well!
OVERALL: Clear the Decks! is simple enough to play with your whole family, but with enough strategy to keep your gaming friends engaged. I would recommend it for anyone over the age of 8 with an interest in combat and/or sailing games. So, consider pledging for the whole nine yards, because time and tide waits for no man!