Clank Catacombs turns the concept of treasure hunting upside down, at least compared to its previous iterations. While Clank has always featured some unknown elements, between random card draws and secret tokens. The actual act of spelunking for treasure felt less like a dungeon dive and more like a preplanned heist since you had the equivalent of a completely accurate blueprint to the dragon’s den.
You can find a video version of this review on my YouTube Channel.
In other Clank games, you always knew where the treasures were. After a few runs, the game could become an exercise in optimizing actions rather than plucky thieves pushing their luck on how much loot they could carry out without getting eaten.
In Clank Catacombs, you have no such knowledge. The labyrinth is different every time, and each new tile that’s revealed has the potential to shake up your previous plans.
Clank Catacombs isn’t an objectively better version than standard Clank, but a decidedly different take on the same idea. It forces the players to utilize a different set of gaming skills while maintaining the same fundamental gameplay that makes Clank, Clank.
It does, however, recapture the overall theme of a bunch of bumbling greedy thieves delving into the dangerous unknown in search of treasure.
|Gideon’s Bias||Clank Catacombs Information|
|Review Copy Used: No||Publisher: Dire Wolf|
|Number of Plays: 10+||Designer: Paul Dennen|
|Player Counts Played: All||Player Count: 2-4|
|Fan of Genre: Yes||Genre: Deck Building|
|Fan of Weight: Yes||Weight: Medium|
|Gaming Groups Thoughts: Loved it||Price: $60|
The staple of the box is undoubtedly the catacomb tiles. These thick cardboard tiles make up the maze that you and the other players stumble through in pursuit of riches. They look nice and work great with a couple of caveats. The tiles need to be randomized, and you’re going to want to find a safe way to do that. Early on I just shuffled them, and that led to some of the tiles’ edges becoming nicked pretty quickly.
Secondly, once a bunch of tiles are placed, the Catacombs become an erratic web of twisting pathways. That is, of course, the point, but it can be a bit of a visual overload. Many times, I’ll have to use my finger and trace the individual paths to plan my route because it can be easy to get mixed up and run to a dead end.
In standard Clank fashion, you’re given a bunch of Clank cubes, a nifty bag, and a dragon token. The Clank board tracks your damage and the ghost dragon’s anger. There’s a bunch of tokens split between treasures, secrets, prisoners, and market items. Of course, no deck builder is complete without a stack of cards which Clank Catacombs has plenty of.
The cards have excellent artwork and the design is as great as any other Clank, but I will say that the overall thematic framework is somewhat generic. Most of my Clank experience comes from Clank! in Space where pretty much every card was a funny reference to something in media culture. That’s not really the case here.
The rulebook is nice and clean, and you get a handy sheet telling you what various tokens do. Clank Catacombs is simple to learn whether you’re new to Clank or a fan of other previous titles.
A Clank of a Different Color
The thing about Clank Catacombs is that it’s very much still Clank, if that sounds redundant, you would be somewhat correct. There’s very little in the way of new mechanisms. If you know how to play Clank, you already know how to play 95% of Clank Catacombs. In fact, the game is compatible with cards from previous Clank expansions. It helps to think of Clank Catacombs as an expand-alone game, rather than a sequel or spin-off.
You use cards to move around the catacombs in order to collect loot, fight monsters and buy new cards for your deck. Some cards and actions cause you to generate Clank, and when a card with the dragon symbol is pulled, it attacks. Everyone’s Clank cubes are added to the bag, a certain number of them are pulled based on the dragon’s rage, and if your color cube is pulled, you take damage.
This means that Clank Catacombs inherits the strong points of its predecessors. It’s still a clever combination of card and board play. The game still gracefully manages to evade the common deck-building flaw (i.e the concept of having a thin deck being more effective than a thick one) by tying extra points to cards. Most importantly, it’s still a game of pushing your luck and playing chicken with the other players.
The few changes that Catacombs made to the formula are significant enough to change the entire mindset of how the game is played, however. All without changing how you actually play it.
Catacombing for Loot
Instead of a static board, the play area itself is built while you play. Each time you move off the edge of a tile, you draw a new one and place it. You can orient the tile however you want, as long as the pathways connect and you could legally move there. This change has a large impact on the game. For one, it makes the game more variable. The maze is always different each time you play.
The initial purple tiles come from a separate stack from the rest and represent the safe zone. Basically, if you eat dirt on any purple tile you still get to add up your points. Beyond that, the maze is pretty unpredictable.
It also changes the overall mindset many players might have. On a static board, someone could dive straight for a piece of treasure and bail. It was an effective strategy, but often cut some of the game’s fun off at the knees. Clank is a race sure, but you get the most fun out of it by going for a few laps, so to speak. Clank in Space mitigated this somewhat by requiring you to gain access to the artifact area, but still largely suffered from it overall.
In Clank Catacombs, you have no idea where the artifacts are. They appear on specific tiles somewhere in the stack. Furthermore, the artifacts enter play from the least valuable to the most valuable. There is a couple of exceptions to that rule, but generally speaking, if you want a high-scoring artifact, you have to spend more time digging for it.
Those changes allow Clank Catacombs to maintain the same type of push-your-luck style of race while making it far less attractive to try and cut the race short. You’re foolhardy thieves after all! You want your pockets stuffed full of shiny things, not just the first shiny thing you see!
Clank is somewhat light on player interaction, and that’s always bummed me out a bit. Clank Catacombs is no different but there are a few subtle ways that the game enhances interactivity. The concept of exploring already boosts it to some degree. You do have to factor in the other players when choosing to reveal a new tile, and how to align it.
Lockpicks also aid in player interaction, albeit indirectly. Each player is given a few lockpicks, and various market items and cards can grant you more. You can place a lockpick on a locked passage to open it, but doing so opens it for everyone, so you need to think it through.
There are also a bunch of icons on some of the tiles that you can open with lockpicks to gain a reward. Once opened, no one else can gain that reward, so there’s another layer to consider when exploring.
However, one of the most important aspects of lockpicks isn’t a game mechanic at all. It’s how seamless the game’s setup becomes simply because they exist. In other Clanks, you had to separate and place a variety of tokens all over the board. Since the board doesn’t exist when you set up Catacombs, that’s obviously not possible. Instead, you just randomize them and place them aside.
When a tile is revealed, you don’t place tokens on it. If you use a lock pick to gain something, you just take one from the set-aside piles. It really reduces the fiddly nature of the game, and I thought that was a pretty cool side effect when the lock picks were already nifty additions.
Cards from previous Clank expansions are compatible with Clank Catacombs, which is nice, but one thing, in particular, stood out to me. Clank Catacombs is compatible with the Adventuring Party expansion and includes rules for how to implement it. That’s important for two reasons.
It makes Clank Catacombs playable at player counts 5 and 6, and it also allows the use of the special characters found in Adventuring Party, and I really enjoy them. I do feel that the Invisibility Cloak item included in Adventuring Party seems like a poor fit for Clank Catacombs given the careful focus on navigation. Negating monsters in tunnels is a bit too strong in Catacombs. Other than that, the whole thing translates over really well.
I also want to point out that while the box says 2-4 players. You can play Clank Catacombs solo using Dire Wolf’s fantastic companion app, and I really recommend it. I’m a big fan of optional apps in board games. You get all the benefits of having them, without the danger of your board game becoming a useless doorstop if the app is ever discontinued in the future.
For me, Clank Catacombs is the definitive Clank experience, especially since it’s compatible with Adventuring Party. The sheer variability that the tile system offers makes it more attractive than other Clank titles. That said, as much as the tile system introduces positive changes it also introduces a great deal more randomness.
You can run into situations where the tiles seem to favor the other players with artifacts while you’re on the other side of the labyrinth with no recourse but to settle for what you can and try to survive.
There is certainly some appeal to being able to form a singular plan on a static board. I prefer adapting to the unknown, but I can’t deny that I’ve become frustrated at times and felt like there was nothing I could do to offset my bad luck.
The variability more than makes up for those bad moments however, especially when you factor in just how fast and tidy the game’s setup is due to the tile and lockpick system.
Clank Catacombs feels like graceful evolution of the Clank formula while staying true to all the aspects that made Clank such a great game in the first place. The occasional middle finger from the randomness of the tiles is offset by the enhanced variable nature of the game where exploration feels exciting every time you play. The compatibility with Adventuring Party and excellent solo app are just icing on the cake that was already pretty sweet.
Interested in the card holders I use in my photos? They are from InfinitionsTabletop on Etsy
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- The tile system adds a bunch of variability to the game
- Not knowing where the artifacts are and the order in which they appear keep players from cutting the game short
- The lockpick mechanism is clever and also makes the game quicker to set up than other Clank titles
- The compatibility with the Adventuring Party expansion is great
- Excellent optional solo app
- Like all other Clanks, player interaction is somewhat limited
- The extra randomness can be frustrating at times
- It can be difficult to visually process large dungeons