Looks great, plays ... meh.

Looks great, plays ... meh.

Nobody knows the true origin of the famous Duck Test, but I like Douglas Adams’ version best:

“If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, we have at least to consider the possibility that we have a small aquatic bird of the family Anatidae on our hands.” -Douglas Adams in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency

I thought Aether Captains: Clockwork Cabal was a game. It looks like a game. A beautiful one. A single deck of stunning cards that transforms into a player mat and a random map and a little adventure. It quacks like a game, with a pawn going here and there, and cubes moving every which way. But it is not a game. It is not even a entertaining pastime.

Playing the Game

Looks great, plays … meh.

The object of Clockwork Cabal is to obtain the 6 parts of the Antikythera Device before 60 hours have passed. This requires running around a map formed randomly from a City Sector Deck and overcoming challenges that require Health, Strength, and/or Knowledge. You begin the game with 6 Health, and if it ever goes to zero you lose. Then you roll a 12-sided die and use that number for either your starting Strength or Knowledge, and the difference between that number and 12 for the remaining attribute. A clever timer card is used to track the hours that have passed, and another is used to track pieces of the Antikythera Device.

To begin the game you place a Society Hall card from the City Sector Deck on the middle of the table. This has a special ability that lets you gain one Health for every two hours you spend, or one Strength for every one hour you spend. You can do this every time you return to this card.

There are black arrows on each side of the Society Hall card showing all the directions you can travel in. You choose one, flip a card over from the City Sector Deck, and place it adjacent to Society Hall in that direction. You can then move to the new card or stay put, but either choice uses up an hour.

Some of the City Sector cards are simple map pieces with black arrows pointing in two or more directions, and you can move off of them to keep expanding the map. Others have Key symbols printed on them, and if you obtain a Key you can travel between any two cards that have a Key symbol and lose only one hour. To get the Key you must travel to the map card from the City Sector Deck that has The Amber Market, where you can spend two Health and two Knowledge for it. The market also lets you purchase The Lens for three Health (this lets all Knowledge tests require one fewer Knowledge), and lets you exchange Strength for Knowledge.

What you’re really looking for when running around the map are cards from the City Sector Deck that have Cog symbols printed on them. These let you draw a card from a separate Location deck. A lot of these cards are events or challenges that require you to spend Strength, Knowledge, hours, or Health. Some give you bonuses and are laid on top of the Cog card, changing the arrows that appear on it (which can cut you off from cards you need to get to. Some do things like rotating a City Sector card, also changing the arrows. Six of them, though, are pieces of the Antikythera Device, and if you overcome the challenges printed on them you claim that piece. Get all six before you die or time runs out, and you win.

Is it Worth Your Time?

I look for three main things when assessing games of all types:

Are the Decisions Interesting?

Not at all. This is a game where things happen to you, not where you make things happen. You have to decide what direction to move in, which ultimately may have consequences, but they are unforeseeable. You also must decide when to regain Health and Strength, or when to get things at the market, but these decisions often are obvious. Overcoming challenges from the Location Deck, including the ones with pieces of the Antikythera Device, requires no thought or skill at all. You reduce the attribute called for, or roll the 12-sided die and win or take your lumps. One of the most frustrating things in the game is the sixth piece of the Antikythera Device, which you get if you roll a 6, 9, or 12 on the die. That’s it. I don’t know how repeatedly rolling and moving a time marker down the track until you achieve a goal is supposed to be entertaining, and likely never will.

Is There a Clear Sense of Accomplishment or Failure?

While you can obviously win or lose the game, it doesn’t feel like you actively played a role in either outcome. You move around and either run out of time or get killed or win. There’s no way to feel like you played smart or stupidly since the decision-making is so light and the randomness factor is so high. My immediate reaction after winning my first game was, “that’s it?” After playing several more times it became clear that that, indeed, was it.

If There’s a Theme, is it Tightly Integrated with the Design?

From a graphic design perspective this is a triumph. It’s gorgeous and does a great job of evoking its steampunk setting. From a game design perspective this is a disaster. If you’re supposed to get some sense of exploring a city, being ambushed by the bad guys, solving mysteries, and obtaining something of extreme value, the mechanisms all fail. There is a vague sense of exploration since the city unfolds at random, but Location Cards often change the map arbitrarily. Fighting bad guys requires reading what you’re supposed to do and doing it instead of strategizing and implementing a plan. You don’t discover pieces of the Antikythera Device, you run smack into them. And when obtaining a piece of it requires nothing more than adjusting a few stats or making a series of thoughtless rolls that you can’t modify in any way, you might as well be playing any other solitaire game.

The Verdict

In computer science, a corollary to the Duck Test is this layman’s version of the Liskov Substitution Principle:

“If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck but it needs batteries, you probably have the wrong abstraction.”

Clockwork Cabal is the wrong abstraction. It isn’t a game. It needs modifiers. It needs to let players be more proactive than reactive. It needs a design instead of a script dictated by a random number generator. I had high hopes because it looks like a supermodel, but it turned out to be a vapid one. There’s no need to waste time with this when there are so many better solitaire games available (some from this same designer).