I have a pet peeve when it comes to board games. I have an incredible aversion to lame pop-culture references, and I'm instantly put off of a game if it tries too hard with them. I don't hate all pop-culture references; in fact, one of my favorite games ever is chalk full of them, but I do dislike it when the references feel forced, hamfisted or cheesy. Clank! In! Space! is full of the latter kind of reference, and while that really shouldn't detract from the game overall, when the nicest thing you can say about them is "Oh look, another reference," it does. Your mileage may vary of course, and I have no doubt that there will be some people out there who enjoy the way Clank! In! Space! handles references, but for me they remind me of all of the other little niggling things in this game that bug me that, when added together, make me look at the game in a more negative light than it probably deserves.
Clank! In! Space! is built on a mechanical foundation that I really like. It has deckbuilding as a core mechanic that players use to move around Lord Eradikus' ship in an attempt to steal the most valuable loot and then get out while the gettin' is good. There is a reason that deckbuilding is such a popular mechanic in board games because it is rewarding, fun and gives a constant sense of gain as you acquire new and more powerful cards, and I have played quite a few games recently that use it as the core mechanic to accomplish some broader goal. The problem here is that I've played quite a few games recently that use deckbuilding as a mechanical foundation, but they all do it better.
I'm going to continue with the negative before swinging around and talking about what I do like about the game, but I feel like I need to get it out of my system before I'm ready to talk about what the game does right. Clank! In! Space! can have a huge runaway leader problem. The game tasks the players with starting in the same location, moving through Lord Eradikus' ship, stealing one of his Artifacts, and then getting out to an Escape Pod as quickly as possible, scoring as many points along the way as possible. One of the problems is inherent to deckbuilding games in that it takes a while for your deck to really get off the ground. Due to the nature of moving through the ship, and the fact that the game is a race to get in, grab loot and get out, if one person manages to snag some good cards early they can take a nigh-insurmountable lead. Once a person has managed to escape the ship, they are effectively out of the game, and they only attempt to damage the other players when their turn comes up. Conversely, if a player takes too much damage they are killed, and then they too are out of the game, and if they didn't make it back to the Cargo Bay they don't even get to count their score. The game effectively has two forms of player elimination, one for the players who have done extremely well, and one for the player or players who are doing the worst. The game essentially adds insult to injury if you have fallen behind by just piling on as one or more players sit safely on their fat pile of loot while you struggle in vain. The game doesn't always end this way, as sometimes the players manage to remain close, but all but one game that I've played so far has seen one player run away with the lead. The game is a race to get in and get out with as many points as possible, but it feels frustrating when you are so far behind you don't even get to count your points because you died too far into the ship.
Clank! In! Space! does have some neat ideas, especially the titular Clank mechanic, and when it is a close game it can be really fun. Some cards that you draft, and two from your starter deck, give you Clank, which is a thematic representation of your player making noise as you sneak about the spaceship. Certain cards and events trigger an attack by Lord Eradikus, and when this happens you gather up all of the Clank that has been made by the players and place it into a bag. A number of cubes, depending on the current Rage level when the attack is triggered, are then drawn from the bag. If any cubes of your color are drawn you place them on your health track as damage. The Clank system gives the game a great risk vs reward feeling, and it keeps things tense as you move around the ship doing your best to stay unnoticed. The Rage level also increases at various points throughout the game, ramping up the tension and danger as players move deeper and deeper into the ship.
The ship itself is another of this game's strong points. There are multiple paths through the ship, and each player has to stop and hack two Data Ports (that must be different from those your opponents hack) in order to proceed deeper into the ship where the real goodies are stored. Deciding which path to take, and getting to your destination before your opponents is fun, and new paths can open up or be closed off as the game plays out. The board is modular, and a few of the tiles are double sided, so you can alter the layout of the ship between games which keeps things interesting and dramatically increases replayability. You need to build your deck around the path that you plan to take through the ship, as some routes require more movement, and some require that you have Swords available to fend off dangers along the way. The fact that each player needs to hack two different Data Ports means that players will need to move away from each other, and thus face different challenges as they progress. The more valuable Artifacts are also stashed deeper into the ship, so you need to decide if you are willing to settle on a lower value target and then get out as quickly as you can, or press you luck and take the time to go for the big score. There are also secrets to discover, and Markets that you can visit to purchase items to help you on your mission, and three of the board segments are double sided, so taking different routes through the ship from game to game can provide quite a different feel, and there are enough cards that you wont see them all every game, so it will take quite a few plays before anything starts to feel repetitive.
The deckbuilding here is also solid. Many of the cards belong to one of three factions, and some of the cards have bonuses that are triggered when you play other cards of the same faction. Tailoring your deck around those bonuses (if your opponents let you of course) can be powerful, and it's fun to fire off a combination of cards and abilities. You can't focus simply on one area, such as accruing tons of Boots for movement or a bunch of Swords to fight, because you do need to move around the ship and deal with the obstacles along the way, but there are a wide enough variety of cards that you can come up with some really interesting and powerful card interactions.
Clank! In! Space! can be a lot of fun, but there's no telling when one play might go off the rails for one or more of the players. Due to the random nature of the way the cards are made available to be purchased there is plenty of room for one player to take an insurmountable lead. The game is best when players remain competitive throughout, but there is no catch-up mechanism if someone falls too far behind or gets too far ahead. The player-death aspect can actually be exiting when one player overextends and goes deeper into the ship than they should have, and the death mechanic is in the game to provide excitement, but it can just as often be bad luck that kills you as the choices you've made. The different paths through the ship, and the various press your luck elements do give the game quite a lot of replay value, and as long as you don't mind the fact that players can get blown out so badly that they don't even get to count up their score, and you are okay with cheesy pop-culture references then you will have fun with the game.
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A note on Clank!: Clank! In! Space! is the second game in the Clank! series, behind the original game that is simply entitled Clank!. The two games are very similar, so if you already like Clank! then you are almost certainly going to like Clank! In! Space!, although there isn't really enough new an different in this version to turn you on to the game if you didn't like it before, unless you really disliked the fantasy setting of the original and love the sci-fi setting of this one.
A note on “chrome”: Clank! In! Space! has very nice components and the cards are good quality, although the backs of the cards are mostly white so you will probably want to sleeve them sooner rather than later because any smudges will show very obviously on the backs. The modular board is nice, especially the double sided tiles, but the pieces are irregularly shaped, so it can be difficult to put together initially.
The bottom line:
Clank! In! Space! is a fun game that can be a letdown when one player gets out too far in front or one or more players fall too far behind. The game is really good when it remains competitive, allowing the press your luck elements to determine who wins, but thanks to the luck of the card and cube draw there's no telling if any one playthrough is going to be a dud for one or more of the players. Deckbuilding is a tried and true mechanic, and it's well implemented here, but it takes a while to ramp up to the most fun and tense portion of the game, and it can really fizzle out at the end if one person takes a sizable lead. I like games that use deckbuilding as a mechanic rather than as the central focus of the game, but I've played a number of other games recently that do it a bit better. The modular board is a bit wonky to set up, but the fact that you can alter the layout to increase replayability is a big positive, so if you do enjoy the game you will be able to switch up the board to keep things interesting game to game.
Get this game if:
You really enjoy deckbuilding games.
You like games with silly, cheesy themes and references.
You like games that pit you in a race against the other players.
Avoid this game if:
You dislike deckbuilding games.
You prefer cooperative games.
You hate the idea of player elimination.
The copy of Clank! In! Space! used for this review was provided by Dire Wolf.