Posted by: gschloesser | July 29, 2011

Clippers

Designed by:  Alan Moon
Released by:  Euro Games
Number of Players:  2 – 5, 1 ½ – 2 hours
Review by:  Greg J. Schloesser

Clippers is the latest evolution of Santa Fe, part of the White Wind line of games designed by Alan Moon. There are several significant differences, the most noticeable being the removal of the cards.  Plus, the theme has been changed from trains to ships and the setting is now the Pacific islands.  In spite of these and other changes, the game still has a strong feel of Santa Fe and its earlier influence, Wildlife Adventure by Wolfgang Kramer.

The good news is that the game itself is quite sound, strategic and, to me at least, enjoyable.  I’ve enjoyed my numerous playings and have found the game rather tense.  The bad news is that the developers must have been on vacation as the physical design of the game suffers from some horrendous blunders.  It makes one wonder whether the game in its finished state was ever play-tested by outside groups.

Let’s initially concentrate on the mechanics of the game and its positive features, which are many.

As mentioned, the board depicts various island chains located in the Eastern Pacific Ocean.  Each island has a specific value and players who have port markers on that island will earn those points for each ship line that reaches that island.  There are five ship lines which begin the game on one edge of the map and gradually expand westward towards the Orient and Australia. A sixth line may emerge if a one or more shipping lines reach Somoa. Players take turns placing blocks (which indicate route lines) and expanding the various shipping lines.  The objective is to maneuver these lines to the islands wherein you have port markers, while attempting to divert them from the islands where your opponents possess more ports.  Same objective as what is present in Santa Fe.

Each player begins the game with the paltry sum of $2 and 7 of their 12 port markers already in place at pre-designated islands.  The remaining five markers may be placed during the course of the game.  There are a couple of ‘Sequence of Play’ charts also available for consultation.

The game is played in 4 distinct phases:

Phase 1) Beginning with the start player, each player may either select one of the ‘special power’ plaques, place a port marker (flag) onto the board, or pass.

There are 4 types of ‘special power’ plaques available to the players:

a) 2x.  This allows the player to place 1 or 2 route markers onto the board during both Phase 2 and Phase 3.  This also doubles the bonuses a player earns during those phases.  There are three of these plaques available, so not every player can get one during a turn.  The cost of selecting this plaque is $2.

b) 3x.  This allows the player to place 1, 2 or 3 route markers onto the board during both Phase 2 and Phase 3.  However, the player earns NO bonuses during that turn.  There is only one of these plaques available and it is free.

c) 5x.  This allows the player to place 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5 markers onto the board, but only during EITHER Phase 2 or Phase 3.  Bonuses are earned as normal.  This is a great plaque to grab if you need to get a ship line to a particular island or if you wish to deplete the route markers available for a particular ship line.  There is only one of these plaques available and it costs $3.

d) Port.  This allows the player to move one of his port markers from one island and to another.  This can be VERY handy, especially late in the game, particularly if one of the islands where you have markers has not been reached by a ship line, or a more lucrative island exists.  The cost is hefty, however — $4.  Again, there is only one of these plaques available each turn.

Instead of selecting a special power plaque, a player may opt to place one of his five remaining port markers onto the board.  Each island can hold a specific number of influence markers and once filled, no further port markers may be placed at that location.  The values of islands vary from 3 – 8, with the higher valued islands being at the far-end of the board and more difficult to reach.  Players score these points for each ship line that reaches the island, so having influence on an island that is reached by several different lines can be quite lucrative.  Even better if you have multiple port markers there!  However, since a player only has five more port counters to place, he must use caution when placing them.  The opportunities to move a marker later in the game are few.

Of course, a player can pass and opt to not take any action during phase one.  This usually occurs early in the game when treasuries are bare.

Every player also has the option of purchasing a ‘branch’ marker for one of the ship lines.  Normally, routes expand only from the end of the line, but a branch marker allows the route to be split.  There are a limited number of branch markers available for each route and if purchased, they MUST be used later in that round.  These branch markers are invaluable in maneuvering the lines to islands where you have markers and/or steering them away from your opponent’s lucrative islands.

Phase 2)  In turn order, players each place one route marker (long wooden pieces similar to the roads used in Settlers of Catan) onto the board. These are placed in a fashion similar to Union Pacific and Santa Fe; i.e., routes begin at the hub of the ship line and extend outward from there. Branches are not allowed unless a branch for that line was purchased during Phase 1.  The possession of a special power plaque may allow those players to place more than one route marker.

If a player places a marker that allows a ship line to reach an island, that player earns a bonus.  If that line was the first to reach that particular island, the bonus is $2.  Otherwise, the bonus is $1.  No bonuses are paid if that particular line had already reached that island from a different route.  This is the ONLY way to earn money in the game, so it is wise to make sure you earn your fair share of bonuses during the course of the game. One should also exercise caution so as NOT to make it easy for your opponents to earn bonuses.

Phase 3)  Third verse, same as the second (with apologies to Herman’s Hermits!).  Repeat Phase 2 all over again.

Phase 4)  Players return the special power plaques to the side of the board and the start player rotates to the left.  Play then continues as above.

The game continues in this fashion until ALL route markers are depleted or until all ship lines have reached a dead end.  At that point, victory points are tallied as follows:

1) Each dollar is worth 1 victory point;
2) Each island is examined.  A port marker a player has on an island earns victory points equal to the value of the island multiplied by the number of different ship lines that have reached that island.  For example, if an island has a value of ‘5’ and three different ship lines have reached that island, each port marker on that island earns its owner 15 points (5 x 3 = 15).

The player with the most victory points is victorious.  Ties are broken in favor of the player with the most money.

The mechanics are quite easy and the game is easy to learn.  There are also several important decisions that must be made each turn, including:

Do I choose a special power plaque (and, if so, which one?), place a new port marker or pass?  If I decide to place a port marker, what island should I place it on?

Should I purchase a branch marker and, if so, which one?  When do I use it?

Which ship line do I expand and which way do I steer it?

There’s more, but you get the idea.  Each turn has important decisions to be made and you often find yourself debating which is the best course of action.  That’s a VERY good thing and, for me, helps make Clippers a very good game.  The games I’ve played have also been very competitive and just a different placement or choice here or there could have easily altered the outcome.

Now, time for the bad news.  As mentioned, the physical components and artwork leave a great deal to be desired … and that is being nice.  I’m usually a fan of the quality and professional appearance of Euro Games titles (the scoring track in Evo being a notable exception), but this one misses the mark in many aspects.  I’m hoping this is just a momentary hiccup and the good folks at Euro Games get back on track on their future releases. It’s a shame that such a good game has been the victim of some questionable development choices.

Here’s a list of the major flaws as I perceive them:

1) The flag counters are tiny … miniscule … bordering on microscopic (OK, so the last one’s an exaggeration!).  Even with great lighting, it is VERY difficult to discern the identity of the flags.  And don’t you dare drop them on the floor … you could well spend hours searching in vain for them.  Why they were made so small is beyond me.

2) Route lines and flag circles:  A couple of problems here.  One, they are printed in light blue over the darker blue design of the map board.  VERY difficult to see, even with great lighting. Second, several routes have parallel lines, indicating that two routes can be placed between those two islands.  Sadly, these two parallel lines are so close together that one wooden block easily covers both.  In both of my games, we were continually having to stand up and slide aside blocks to see if a route possessed two lines or one.  Again, this should have been caught in the play-testing phase.

3) Set-up.  Unless you have a remarkable knowledge of Far Eastern Island geography, you’ll struggle to find the starting locations for all of the counters.  They could have easily pre-printed flag icons on the map to indicate the starting locations of the influence markers or provided player aid charts for the players that indicated these starting positions.  Greg Aleknevicus took great pains to develop some excellent charts to rectify this problem and has posted them on his website.  He should send them an invoice!

Are these problems fixable?  Some are reasonably easy to rectify (use colored blocks instead of the flag counters; use the start-up charts developed by Canadian Greg; etc.), but the actual printing on the board would be very difficult to alter.

That being said, do these design/development flaws detract from the enjoyment of the game?  That will strictly depend upon the individual.  I, personally, find it aggravating and, to be frank, inexcusable.  I’ll still play the game, but will undoubtedly continue to grumble a bit.  Others have shared my views and have expressed their displeasure.  Still, there are folks who have publicly stated that these short-comings aren’t severe enough to hinder their enjoyment of the game.  Some have even stated an affinity for the tiny influence counters and the board design.  Undoubtedly, this is a subjective issue, so you are best advised to decide for yourself.

Another question that has arisen on many forums:  Is it worth owning Clippers if you already have Santa Fe?  That’s a tough one.  Again, the answer depends on several factors.  If you enjoy the mechanics and system utilized in Santa Fe and don’t have financial or space qualms about adding another game to your collection that utilizes similar mechanics, than Clippers is worth owning.  It is a very good game and has eliminated much of the luck factors found in its ancestor.  As mentioned, I find the game and enjoyable and reasonably tense.  Will I play it more than my White Wind copy of Santa Fe?  Probably initially, since it is new.  But, over time, it will probably come out as often as Santa Fe does … once or twice a year. That’s not a knock, though, as I have so many games competing for table-time that most of my games only appear that often!

So what about if you don’t own either Clippers or Santa Fe … which one should you purchase?  If you tend to enjoy games that minimize the luck element and depend more upon skill and maneuvering, then Clippers would likely be the wise choice.  Of course, please take into account the design shortcomings I mentioned earlier.  If, however, you enjoy a dose of luck and the surprise element of playing unexpected cards, then Santa Fe would be the choice.  The new GMT version is also gorgeous, with top quality components and a few added twists.  Of course, the theme may also affect your decision. Santa Fe deals with railways, while Clippers deals with shipping lines.

I still have nagging uncertainties as to the rationale behind releasing both Clippers and the GMT re-vamped version of Santa Fe at the same time.  I can’t help but feel this will hurt the sales of both games, splitting sales between the two.  No doubt, there was great interest in the re-release of Santa Fe and GMT (and, undoubtedly, Alan Moon) has devoted a considerable amount of time and effort into its production and re-design.  Clippers certainly has a few different mechanisms and features, but it is still definitely a close relative … probably immediate family.  From my understanding, GMT was kept informed of the development and release of Clippers, so that is certainly a good and honorable thing.  I just can’t help but question the rationale or soundness of the consecutive release schedule of the two games.

 

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