Dale Yu: First Impressions of Clockwork Wars


Clockwork Wars

  • Designer: Hassan Lopez
  • Players: 2-4
  • Ages: 13+
  • Time: 60-120 min
  • Times played: 2 with review copy provided by Gryphon Games

clockwork wars

Clockwork Wars is a steampunk themed game where the 4 rival races (Purebreeds, Troglodytes, Rhinochs and Mongrels) fight over seven turns to take control of their hex-based world.  As the story goes, the humans (Purebreeds) created a number of hybrid races: human-chimp, human-rhino and human-dog.  These four races are fighting over territory and trying to mine them for their natural resources which can then be converted into discoveries which will help them win the overall battle.


The world is built in setup – using hex shaped tiles.  You can choose from a number of pre-determined maps in the rulebook or you can build your own.  You can also choose to use the realistic birds-eye tiles or the more simplistic icon based tiles.  (As you would likely guess, the Eurogamer in me much prefers the simple icon based side…).  Each player takes control of one of the races and gets all the bits for that race.  Each of the races has a few unique units that are specific to it.  The game is played in 3 Ages: Early (turns 1-2), Middle (turns 3-4) and Late (turns 5-7) – and each of the three types of influence (Sorcery, Religion and Science) has a discovery card drawn for each of the ages.  These 9 cards are set up in an array near the board.  Each player is also given an order sheet (more on this later).  3 General units are also placed near the board. Finally one of the 3 Court cards is chosen and placed face up on the table as well.  Each player puts a single unit on the Court card to act as a spy, and each player is dealt an Espionage card at random.

Each of the seven turns in the game follows the same 5 phases

1) Spymaster Phase

2) Recruitment Phase

3) Deployment Phase

4) Combat Phase

5) Research Phase

Additionally, at the end of each Age (i.e. after turns 2, 4 and 7), there is a scoring phase.

In the Spymaster phase, each player will get to take one of the 6 Spymaster actions – there are 6 tiles that match the actions on the main board.  Starting with the first player, each player chooses a tile and takes the action depicted on it: for example, Conscription allows you to add one worker to your recruitment pool while Technophilia gives you the ability to go first in the Research Phase of this turn as well as scoring you 1VP.

In the Recruitment phase, you collect workers (wooden discs) to use this turn.  You get 4 discs each turn for your capital.  Then, you get 1 worker for each village and 2 workers for each city that you control.  Villages are orange tiles on the map, and you control them if you are the only player with units on that territory.  Cities are village tiles that you control with 3 or more units.  You take all your allotted discs and hide them behind your player screen.

In the Deployment Phase, players choose if they want to assign workers or Unique units to the various territories on the board on onto the Court card that is face up next to the board.  This is the meat of the game – and it is done secretly and simultaneously.  Each player has a deployment orders sheet.  They record the number of units to be placed on a tile (using the alphanumeric code that is printed on each tile/court card).  You are not obligated to place all the units that you have behind your screen, and you are not limited in how many pieces you can place on a particular location.  However, you are limited in where you choose to place units.  You can only place units in: 1) territories that you control, 2) territories directly adjacent to those you control, or 3) territories that are 2 spaces away from one that you control but ONLY IF the intervening territory is currently empty – if so, you can place one in the empty adjacent territory and then place any number of units in the one which is 2 spaces away.  Once all players are done deploying, the moves are revealed, and each player moves pieces to the appropriately designated tiles/cards.  Then, the players assess the board and see if there are any conflicts to be fought.

Examples of the hex tiles

Examples of the hex tiles

If you choose to place your units on the Court card, they become Spies instead of Soldiers.  Once placed on the Court card, they can never leave.  Also, there are no conflicts in Court, all of the pieces simply co-exist there.  You will want to have Spies in the Court for two reasons.  First, you will get a bonus in each scoring phase if you have the most Spies at Court.  Second, remember that Espionage card that you got at the start of the game?  They all have some gamebreaking abilities, and you can play them if you discard a Spy unit from the Court card.

example of an espionage card

example of an espionage card

So let’s get back to those fights happen in the Combat Phase.  Any hex that has units from at least two different races will be fought over.  First, players get a chance to bring in reinforcements – this is done in turn order from the Start Player – and when it’s your turn, you are able to reinforce any or all hexes in which you will be fighting.  If you control an adjacent Citadel, you may move units from them to the battle.  You could also use certain Discovery tiles and Espionage cards to bolster your forces, and three of the four races (all but the Troglodytes) have a Unique Unit that give some reinforcement abilities if they are in the right place. After each player has had a chance to reinforce their disputed hexes, then the battles begin.

The Start Player will resolve all the battles that he is in. They can be fought in any order.  In each hex, each player calculates his Army Strength – this is generally the number of soldiers in the hex, though some Unique Units and Discoveries can add to this.  The player with the higher Army Strength wins.  the winner gets to keep a number of units in the hex equal to the difference in Strength.  The loser must remove ALL of their units from the hex and put them in their reserves (though any Unique Units are removed from the game entirely).  If there was a tie in strength, all units from all parties are removed and no one wins (though there is a Spymaster action which gives you the win in a tie situation).

Once all the battles have been fought, then there is an Attrition sub-phase where all players look at their hexes to see if they are in direct contact with either their Capital or a City that they control.  If so, nothing happens.  For hexes that are not in supply – i.e. you cannot trace a line of controlled hexes in your color back to either your Capital or one of your Cities – each of those hexes loses 1 unit.  This could mean that you could lose control of a hex if you only had one unit in it.

The final phase of each turn is the Research Phase.  There are three types of Research that can be done in the game: Sorcery, which provides direct damage to your opponents; Religion, which tend to be defensive in nature; and Science, which is more of a hodgepodge of stuff.  You generate research points in each of the three disciplines if you control the matching color hex on the board.  You can also sacrifice unused workers behind your screen for 1 research point that can be of any type.

Then, in turn order, players spend their points to buy Discovery cards or General units.  The Discovery cards each provide you with a special ability that “breaks the rules” of the game.   When purchased, the matching token for it has to be placed on your capital or a hex of matching color that you control. Once placed, it does not move for the rest of the game.  If someone else would take control of that hex which contains the marker, then that player would also take control of the Discovery.  Each hex can only hold one Discovery tile.  Each of the 3 Generals gives you a powerful ability used in battle on the map.



Discovery Card

Discovery Card

The Research phase concludes with each player, again in turn order, having a chance to activate any of their Discoveries.

This would normally end the turn.  However, if the current Age comes to an end (the end of Turns 2, 4 and 7), there is a bit of scoring before moving on.  There are a few different ways to score points:

  • For Forest Hexes that you control – 1VP for each unit in that Forest to a maximum of 3VP
  • For Lake Hexes that you control – 3VPs if you have at least 2 units in that Lake
  • Some Discoveries can be activated in this phase and will score points

The player with the most units in the Court will get a special bonus (changes based on the Age and the specific Court in play)

some of the possible courts

some of the possible courts

After scoring, all players must pay a Pollution penalty – all players must reduce their forces in each resource territory down to a single unit.

If this is one of the first 6 turns, the turn ends, the Start Player marker rotates on position clockwise and the game goes back to the first phase in the next turn.  However, if this is the end of the 7th turn, the game ends.  There is a little bit of endgame scoring: players score 1VP per 3 research points left unspent at the end.  If there is a tie, the player with the most controlled hexes on the board wins.

Thoughts on the game

I’ll be honest with you – this wasn’t a game that was high on my radar at the start of the Summer. However, the designer of the game sought me out at Origins, and I’m glad that he did.  Clockwork Wars is well thought out meld of thematic conquest game mixed with a secret and simultaneous action selection and resolution phase.  It is not the first such game to have secret planning of moves – but it’s the first one of the sort that I have personally played in many years, and it was a refreshing change for me.

Though I’ve only played the game twice, both have been engrossing games that have kept me interested and active in play for the duration of the game.  The first game was about 2 hours, but that included a full rules review as everyone was new to the game.  The second game lasted about 90 minutes, and that felt just about right for this sort of game.

Early in the game, players stay close to their home bases and build up territory and resources.  Given the placement rules, you are sort of forced to do this – however, the size of the board is such that by Round 2 you are already in close contact with at least one of your opponents, and by Round 3, everyone is in everyone else’s business – fighting for key hexes and resources.

I like the way that the game gives you different things to focus on.  You could spend most of your energy trying to expand the reach of your army on the map.  You could commit all of your forces to this battle. Controlling key hexes in the scoring phases is an easy way to rack up the points.  You could also be send some of your units to Court – partly to gain the bonus at each scoring Phase, and partly to give you the ability to play some of the gamechanging Espionage cards.   The Discoveries and Generals can also be very strong, and you must gain the right resources in order to buy these.  You can’t dawdle though – these Discoveries and Generals are first come, first serve – so there’s always a bit of time pressure in acquiring them.

Like most games that I prefer, you have too many things that you’d like to do on a turn and not enough actions to do them all.  You must keep an eye out on all the possibilities and adapt your play as the opportunities present themselves.  Everything is in the open, so you always know where your opponent’s pieces are – but the difficulty comes in trying to predict what they are going to do so that you can most efficiently use your own pieces to achieve the things that you want to get done.  It can be really disappointing when you commit a large number of pieces to a particular hex to take it over and then find out that your opponent didn’t even bother to defend that hex.  Sure, you win the hex, but you then lost the ability to use those other pieces elsewhere on the board.  And, unless you get the special Spymaster action, you really can’t move pieces on the board once you place them.

One of the deployment sheets from a recent game

One of the deployment sheets from a recent game

Speaking of the Spymaster actions – they do help inject a bit of strategy and variation to each round of the game.  Each of the actions is useful in its own way, and depending on what your strategy is, they could be essential to your success.  There are enough different choices that you usually get some positive use from your Spymaster action on each turn.  This does highlight my one quibble with the game mechanics – I dislike the way that start player is randomly determined and then passed clockwise around the board.  Without an evenly divisible number of turns, I don’t like the way that the game arbitrarily decides who gets to choose Spymaster actions first.  I’d prefer there to be some sort of game-state related method to choose the start player after the first round.

Though I’m not really big into most wargames, this one is good for me due to its simplicity.  I like the simplification of the battles themselves.  No dice need to be rolled to determine the outcome, and no modifiers are added to the battle to make it more confusing to resolve.  Place the pieces, see who has more, check for supply, move onto the next turn.  Easy Peasy.

The components are really well done.  The hexes are nice and sturdy.  The art is nice, though I don’t see much of it.  I love the dual sided nature of the board – and I choose to play with the plain side with the Icons.  I love the way it’s easy to pick out the color/icon on the plain side, but inexplicably, the identifying code for the tile is in print the same size as the colored map side – and I wish they had used the extra space on the icon side to make the text larger to make it more easily seen.  There’s nothing else to be shown but the color background.

6 tiles, 3 of the artsy side, 3 of the plain side

6 tiles, 3 of the artsy side, 3 of the plain side

One other thing to note about the components – the vac tray and cover are well thought out with exact sized wells for pieces as well as a cover which lies snugly over the entire thing to keep pieces from moving about.  Bravo on this to Gryphon Games.  There are also some pretty cool plastic miniatures for the three generals – though I’m probably not the best person to comment on them as I’m not overly caught up with such stuff.  The wargame-prone folks that played or looked at the game were impressed by them though.  The vac tray has a few empty spaces for other figures that I suppose are coming in an expansion?

Nice custom Vac tray

Nice custom Vac tray

The player screens are nice, but not overly useful.  The rules tell you exactly how many discs each player has, and your “provinces” are in the open – specifically tell you to place them where everyone can see them.  Thus, though I can’t see how many discs you have behind your screen, I can count what’s on the board and what’s in your “provinces” and know what is behind your screen…  So really, the only function is to hide your sheet while you’re writing your orders – but we tended to write on the backs of magazines or on clipboards, so this wasn’t a big deal for us.

Inside of the player screen

Inside of the player screen

As I said at the top, this wasn’t the sort of game that I thought I’d like, but I’m glad that I gave it a try.  It’s an intriguing take on a map conquest game, and one that is set up nicely for Eurogamers to enjoy.  Now that I’ve played a few times, I’m ready to make up some new maps and explore the world of Clockwork Wars some more.


Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it!
  • I like it. Dale Y, Craig V
  • Neutral. John P
  • Not for me…

About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
This entry was posted in Essen 2015, Reviews. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Dale Yu: First Impressions of Clockwork Wars

  1. Hassan Lopez says:

    Thanks for the coverage, Dale! I always enjoy reading your detailed explanations and analysis. It was a pleasure meeting you at Origins. I hope you get a chance to play the game some more and explore its variability. As for the additional spaces for miniatures in the insert, people can currently purchase: 1) plastic miniatures for the races’ Unique Units, 2) the Sentience expansion which includes another, 5th race.

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