I have a hoodie that I quite like. It has a chubby unicorn with a colorful rainbow mane on it. Even though I like it, I rarely wear it. Because it is – contrary to its size specification – a bit too tight for me to venture out in it, no matter my mood. I always have to wear it for a few hours before I feel comfortable in my dad bod. This becomes relevant again towards the end of this review.
Clockworker is a pleasant board game in which we use little plastic robot miniatures to produce resources and spend those to acquire skills, buy victory points, or open up new opportunities to produce more resources. Among experienced gamers, you might think of this as a “worker placement” game, and that’s not too far off. Clockworker is perhaps more closely related to Machi Koro than to Agricola. Instead of a board, there is only a card display from which you can buy cards and place them in your own playing area. The miniatures, which really live up to the word “mini”, are taken from those cards to be put into your own supply together with a resource depicted on the card. Instead of the often (and unjustly) criticized dice in Machi Koro, we fill and empty our cards quite deterministically over the course of the game. As a result, instead of the thrill of gambling, play focuses is on the challenge of efficiently planning your turns.
The goal is to find the right rhythm in order to obtain resources each round, which you can then directly invest into special abilities, victory points or further resource generators. The rules are robust and even elegant. Once you get into the flow of things, this handy optimization puzzle gains a nice sense of momentum. Soon enough, you find yourself in a positive feedback loop. It’s fun to keep it running as well as you can. Instead of the game punishing inefficient play with additional costs, you’re incentivized to invest your resources into future turns.
In short: Clockworker is a really good game. It’s a lean design that offers positive reinforcement and eschewes confrontation. Instead, you find yourself in a scoring race where smart planning and efficient execution are crucial.
Unfortunately, this all comes with a noticeable flaw: the game’s visual design makes it difficult to get into the game. This is annoying, since the comparatively short play time alone makes it a good choice to get Clockworker to the table on a whim.
The problem here is not the quality of the illustrations. They are, if you take the time to look at them closely, humorous and charming. They are bursting with details and show humorous moments from the year 2XXX in which cuddly little robots do factory work for us. But the theme of a game is more than just visuals. It doesn’t just serve the purpose of framing the game’s mechanics and our interaction. Above all, it must be able to do these things without stalling the game’s flow.
Because if incorporating the theme somehow slows down gameplay, people react the way they react to all obstacles: they look for the easiest way around them.
Here, that means replacing the game’s terms with ones that are easy to understand. Instead of talking about “operation,” “repair,” and “communication,” you simply buy something from the display. This can be a resource card, ability card or victory points. Experienced gamers are used to these little cognitive shortcuts during play. Even if it mutes the theme somewhat, it makes the game flow more smoothly.
Atmospheric illustrations can do a lot to trigger the imagination during strategic considerations. But even here, Clockworker unfortunately comes to a halt just before the home stretch. The illustrations are imaginative and full of charming idiosyncrasies. They paint an interesting picture of a distant robot future. At least if you choose to pick them up before or after the game and study them carefully.
During the game, you only notice them out of the corner of your eye, as you concentrate on gameplay-relevant icons. Since you only perceive the pictures superficially in these moments, only a vague impression of rusty browns and sandy beiges remains.
Finally, there are the small symbols on the ability cards, which are intended to express the associated rule. In an abstracted manner they communicate when the rule is applied, and what the consequence of applying the rule is. But this information can’t always be clearly deduced from the symbols, so play doesn’t really flow smoothly until you’ve memorized those effects. Admittedly, another hurdle that experienced gamers will hardly notice, as they are practiced in quickly committing small if-then-effects to memory, with each new game that hits the table.
To be clear, none of this breaks the game. Even when taken together, it doesn’t make the game unplayable or unenjoyable. Clockworker is a game whose strengths outweigh its weaknesses. But the small blemishes, make diving into the experience more difficult than it needs to be. You get the impression that the creators were more concerned with producing a beautiful game object rather than providing a smooth experience.
The great irony of Clockworker is perhaps that it is a game that trains players to optimize play towards a specific goal. At the same time, the graphic design does not live up to this. Every time, playing Clockworker has felt like putting on my hoodie, that is slightly too tight. I know it’s going to be a little awkward and uncomfortable at first. But after a while, I’m fully into it and enjoying it. But I also keep getting asked why I don’t ditch the sweater when I so rarely take it out of the closet. I think Clockworker will share a similar fate.