Clans of Caledonia: A Game about Whisky, Trade and Glory. This was the title of the Kickstarter for Clans of Caledonia the board game and I’ve got to say that name caught my interest right away.
In this economic strategy game for 1 to 4 players, you take on the role of one of many Scottish Clans in 19th-Century Scotland and work to improve Scotland through trade and export.
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What do you get in a copy of Clans of Caledonia
Clans of Caledonia was designed by Juma Al-JouJou and features art from Klemens Franz. It was Kickstarted in 2017 (funded in under three hours) and published in North America by Karma Games. Since being published it has been nominated for seven awards, including the Golden Geek Best Strategy Game and Golden Geek Game of the Year, but has so far failed to win any of them.
It plays one to four players in anywhere from half an hour to two hours based on the player count.
To see what you get in the box, check out our Clans of Caledonia unboxing video on YouTube.
One thing you can’t help but notice with Clans of Caledonia is how heavy it is the first time you pick it up. That’s because there is a ton of cardboard and wooden components in the box.
When you first open the box, on top of everything else you will find a ton of little baggies filled with all kinds of colourful wooden components. There are pieces in individual player colours along with a ton of resource tokens. There are ten of each resource: milk, wool, cheese, grain, bread, and whisky. Plus one of each export good: cotton, tobacco and sugar cane. As well as four of each production token in each player colour: cows, sheep, bakeries, fields, distilleries, and dairies. There are also thirty-two worker meeples, which is eight for each player. Plus twenty-eight merchant tokens, seven for each player. As well as a small baggy with a number of clear discs which are used to track market resource prices. Finally, there are four special markers for each player: a shipping token, a settlement token, a turn order token and a glory token.
The game also includes a pair of plastic dice with unique symbols on them. These are only used in the single-player version of the game. A scoring pad is included, which I found to be a good indication of just how heavy this game is. The four detailed summary cards also seem to confirm that this is a weighty game.
Clans of Caledonia has a really solid rulebook with a ton of examples and callouts. It contains nine-page of rules and a couple of reference pages. It’s one of the better rulebooks I’ve seen.
Hiding under the rulebook is one of the densest stacks of cardboard punch boards I’ve ever seen. These are all very well cut requiring almost no pressure to punch. These punch boards contain the four map modules, nine starting resource tiles, twelve goods tiles (in case you run out of wooden pieces), nine scoring tiles, fifty export contracts, nine ports, seventy coins split over three denominations, nine clan tiles, four glory tiles, sixteen port markers, eight technology tiles, four export boxes, four player boards, one market board, one export board, and nine different clan boards, plus some special tiles that go with the various clans.
Karma Games really packed this box. This is probably the most densely packed board game box I’ve ever seen.
A quick overview of Clans of Caledonia
You start off a game of Clans of Caledonia by randomly creating a map out of the four included player boards and the port tokens. Players each take a player board plus all of the items in their selected player colour and build their player boards. Similar to games like Terra Mystica and Gaia Project players will cover spots on their player board with a number of wooden pieces. As these pieces are later played onto the main board, income will be revealed on the player boards.
Next, a number of random clans (one more than the number of players) are paired randomly with starting income tiles. These clans and tiles are drafted in reverse player order. Each clan in the game is unique and has a special ability that will change one or more aspects of gameplay.
The export board is seeded with a number of export orders and the market board is placed out and value tokens are added for all resources at their base value level. Five random scoring tiles are placed to the side of the export market board. Players then place two workers on the map, paying any costs (both for the worker and for the hex they place them in).
Each round starts with a preparation phase, this is skipped the first round. This phase normally has players refilling the export board, retrieving their merchants, and flipping the last rounds scoring tile face down.
Up next is the action phase, where players take turns selecting and completing one action each until everyone has passed.
Trade: Use your merchant tokens to either buy or sell goods on the market. After each transaction, the value of goods is adjusted based on how many goods are bought or sold.
Obtain an Export Contract: Take an export contract from the export contract board and pay its cost (the cost goes up as the game goes on). Note the board is not refilled until the end of the round.
Expand: Take one of your production buildings or one of your workers from your player board and place it on the map, paying any costs. Costs are determined by the type of building/worker plus the cost of the hex you wish to place it on. When placing a new building/worker you may get the Neighbourhood Bonus, allowing you to buy goods at a discount based on what types of buildings, belonging to other players, you place next to. If you build the last of a type of building (revealing the last space in that column in your player board) you may get the chance to purchase a random export token. Players can also take advantage of the port tiles if they build within shipping distance of them. Using the ports grants a player a one time or ongoing bonus.
Upgrade Shipping: Normally you can only place buildings next to a spot you already own on the map. Increasing your shipping allows you to build over rivers. Increasing it further allows you to place buildings and workers across the loch. The higher your shipping the more loch squares you can cross.
Upgrade Technology: This improves the tools your workers are using so that they generate more income. You can increase the equipment for each type of worker once.
Hire a Merchant: Each player starts with two merchants, which allow them to buy or sell goods. Players can purchase up to a maximum of seven merchants by using the hire action.
Fulfil an Export Contract: Pay the goods depicted on your current contract to receive the rewards on the tile. This empties your export box freeing it up for the purchase of another export contract.
Pass: End your turn. The order players pass sets the turn order for the next turn as well as the amount of bonus money they receive.
Once all players have passed you enter a production phase. During this phase, players will earn income and resources from all of their buildings in play. They will also have the option of refining some of the goods produced if they have the correct buildings in play to do so. For example, a field will produce two grain. A bakery can turn one of those grain into bread, or a distillery can convert one grain into whisky.
The final phase is scoring. Each round players will score something based on the scoring tiles that are placed next to the market board. After five rounds there is also an end game scoring round. Here players will get points for the glory they have already earned during the game thus far, plus their leftover goods and money, the number of import goods they have (with the value being determined by how many of each were imported by all players) and finally for the number of settlements they own.
Settlement scoring is one of the most complicated parts of the game and reading over that part of the rules a couple of times is worth doing, as is watching a video. Settlement scoring is not about having expanded to the most map spaces, but rather having the most individual non-touching settlements by the end of the game.
All of these rules could be modified by a player’s clan. Each clan is completely different from the other. For example, Clan Buchanan has a second export box they can use, while Clan Campbell gets a discount on buildings that process goods, Clan Cunningham can create butter out of milk and sell it, Clan Fergusson starts with three workers on the board, and Clan Macdonald can place workers in Lochs which represent fisherman, and so on.
My thoughts on Clans of Caledonia
I picked up Clans of Caledonia based on many strong recommendations from my peers. Many of these recommendations came when I was talking about my plays and enjoyment of both Gaia Project and Terra Mystica. It seems people cannot help but compare these three games.
I think the fact that I purchased Clans of Caledonia myself is a good indication of how much I expected to like this game. Since I’ve started to receive review copies of games from designers and publishers two things have happened. The first is that I don’t buy a lot of games anymore, and the second is that when I do buy games I make sure I’m only buying games I am certain I am going to enjoy.
Long time fans of my content know how much I love asymmetric gameplay and Clans of Caledonia is definitely up there for having some of the most asymmetric player powers out there and lots of them. The game comes with eight different clans, all of which have very different ways of changing up how the game is played. Each clan requires players to focus on a different aspect of the game and I love that.
I am also a big fan of how everything looks in Clans of Caledonia. Having unique wooden pieces for all of the different buildings and resources is a huge bonus. These resources could have easily been different coloured cubes or even cardboard chits and it would still have worked, but having uniquely shaped pieces is a huge bonus. It’s also something that helps the game be more accessible, which is great.
While the learning curve is a bit steep, mainly due to the eight different actions you can take each turn, each individual action is pretty easy to understand. The real weight of this game comes in the interactions of these actions and even more so how your actions will affect the other players and how their actions will affect you.
While there is no direct conflict in Clans of Caledonia, like ways to remove another player’s pieces from the board or to steal resources, there is a ton of indirect conflict. Map positioning can be vital, the timing on buying and selling goods due to the market price being affected can be incredibly important, as can making sure you get to go first on a turn to get that export tile you really want.
There honestly isn’t a part of Clans of Caledonia that I don’t like. My only complaint is that I skipped over the Kickstarter and missed out on the deluxe edition with it’s upgraded components and metal coins. Not that I have any real complaints with the component quality for the retail version of the game.
Clans of Caledonia is a meaty economic game with a ton of indirect player interaction. Where long term strategy and planning can really pay off, but where you still have to be willing to adapt and change your plans based on what the other players are doing. It can be unforgiving of mistakes but, to me, that’s a feature of the game and not a flaw. If you like heavier strategy board games I strongly suggest checking this one out.
The inevitable comparison of Clans of Caledonia to Terra Mystica and Gaia Project.
To be honest I don’t really get it. I don’t understand why everyone seems to think that Terra Mystica, Gaia Project, and Clans of Caledonia belong in the same group. Terra Mystica and Gaia Project, yes. Gaia Project is an evolution of Terra Mystica, so it makes sense for them to be compared but I don’t see what either has to do with this game.
I will admit there are some similarities. All three games have you taking things off a player board and then looking at what’s under what you took off to see your income for each round. There are other games out there that use this mechanic as well, such as Eclipse or Tapestry, and they don’t seem to get lumped in with these games.
All three games have you placing things out on a hex map and when you place next to an opponent’s piece something happens. The thing is what happens is very different in this game. By placing next to an opponent’s building you get to immediately go to the market and buy a good at a discount. You are the one rewarded here, not your opponent. That completely changes how the mechanic works and the strategy behind taking advantage of it.
Finally, the other big thing these games have in common is the asymmetric player powers. Again, this is a mechanic that has been used in many games and I wonder why that causes these three games to be lumped together. Why isn’t Tzolkin with Tribes and Prophecies included in the comparison then? In that game, you draft starting resources and a starting tribe (think clan) in ways very similar to Clans of Caledonia.
Yes, I think Terra Mystica, Gaia Project and Clans of Caledonia have some things in common, but many board games have things in common with each other. I really don’t think tossing Clans of Caledonia in a bucket with those other two games is a fair comparison. Clans of Caledonia, despite having a few things in common with Terra Mystica and Gaia Project, plays very differently. I find myself in a completely different brain space when playing Clans of Caledonia.
I personally own both Terra Mystica and Clans of Caledonia and think that’s a perfectly valid choice. One doesn’t replace or outdo the other, they are very different games and I find I get the desire to play one or the other at different times. I don’t think liking one means you will necessarily like the other as well. I also don’t think the reserve holds true. If you hate Terra Mystica you may very well love Clans of Caledonia. Each of these three games stands on its own merits.
Have you played this Scottish themed strategy board game? If so, what’s your favourite Clans of Caledonia clan? Let us know in the comments!