Plaid Hat Games is probably my favorite board and card game company. They have created several games that have been favorites of myself and my children. The first game of theirs that I bought was Mice and Mystics, several years ago. It was our family’s first dungeon crawl board game. It immediately became our favorite game. That game led to me deciding to experiment with full blown role-playing games with my children once I saw how much my children loved the aspects of role-playing games that were in Mice and Mystics. It was also the first game that I painted the miniatures for. Plaid Hat put out a PDF giving instructions on how to paint the game and I decided to give it a go. Fast forward years later and I and my children are loving the hobby of miniatures gaming and painting. Right now, my children are painting the miniatures for Stuffed Fables, the spiritual successor to Mice and Mystics. Both of those game, Stuffed Fables and Mice and Mystics, are my recommendations for the two best tabletop games for parents to play with their elementary school children.
But before Plaid Hat Games put out games with miniatures in them, they put out a card game where the cards stood in for miniatures. The game was Summoner Wars. Summoner Wars happens to be a favorite with the students in my after-school game club. The game is one of the miniatures games that wears its evolutionary descent from chess on its sleeve. Thus, it’s a good game to introduce to a school club that centers around chess. Of course, once the students played Summoner Wars they didn’t want to do chess anymore… But Summoner Wars is now out of print and getting harder and harder to find for purchase.
So, enter Crystal Clans! Crystal Clans is the newest 2-player card game from Plaid Hat Games. Once again, cards are standing in for miniatures. But this game is not simply Summoner Wars 2.0. It’s definitely its own game as much as any two miniatures games are their own games. Obviously, you will see some similarities to Summoner Wars, based on their mutual chess/ miniatures lineage, but those similarities do not define the game by any means. So, let’s take a look at the game…... and……. compare it to Summoner Wars along the way!
The first thing you notice about Crystal Clans is how gorgeous the game is on the table. Plaid Hat Games has always had stunning artwork and graphic design compared to other tabletop game companies. This game just pops right off the table visually in a way that outdoes even the company's own earlier games. The colors are extremely vibrant and complementary, more so than any other tabletop game I’ve seen to date. The illustrations have a wonderful modern cartoon aesthetic to them. Actually, I think Netflix should take this game and turn it into a cartoon series. Plaid Hat Games has already done the graphic concept work and world building for them.
The cards do their job of standing in for miniatures very well. They have the fighting stats of the units on them, along with any special abilities the unit may have, just like Summoner Wars. That means as Plaid Hat Games expands the game they only have to print new packs of cards in small boxes. There’s no need for extra manual pages explaining the functions of the individual units.
The board is a grid across which the unit cards move, but it is a smaller one than Summoner Wars had. There are only 9 grid spaces on the entire board and two of them are the players' home zones. Crystal Clans goes the extra step of offsetting the grid patterns on adjacent rows in order to add some extra visual and tactical interest, however.
The goal of Crystal Clans is to acquire four crystals. There are three crystal spaces on the board to be fought over by your units. If you manage to start your turn with your units on a crystal space, then you are considered to be in control of that space. If you control two crystal spaces, you may purchase a crystal card. Each crystal card is unique and comes with a special ability that may be used later in the game, besides giving you your victory conditions. One other way to get a crystal is if your opponent runs out of cards in her draw pile and has to reshsuffle her discard pile into a new draw pile. In that case you get a free crystal.
In order to conquer the crystal spaces, you need to spawn your unit cards out onto the board. This is done using the same unique mechanism that you use to buy crystals and initiate battles. The game has an initiative tracker on the side of the board. The initiative tracker goes from twenty on one player’s side, down to 0 in the middle, and then back up to twenty on the other player’s side. Players move a crystal on the tracker toward their opponent’s side of the board every time they take an action. As long as the initiative is still on your side of the board you can continue to take actions. The units and crystals cost different amounts of initiative to spawn or obtain depending on their power. When you spawn a unit or buy a crystal you subtract initiative from your side of the track, toward your opponent’s side of the track. So, if the initiative was at nine on your side of the board and you spawn a unit stack that costs seven initiative, the crystal tracker would then be moved toward your opponent, down to the number two on your side. You could then perhaps spawn another unit costing five initiative. At that point the initiative crystal marker would move past the zero and on to your opponent’s three space on her side of the board. Once you pass the one space on your opponent’s side of the board it becomes her turn. She can then spend the initiative until it gets past your one space on the track. Thus, if you are sitting on your two space, for example, and you take a move that costs a lot of initiative (like buying a crystal) you will push that crystal marker far up on your opponent’s track, giving her lots of initiative to spend on her turn. This adds a wonderful push-pull feel to game turns that incorporates a nice little extra amount of strategy into what could have been simple alternating turns.
The game comes with six different clans to choose between in the base game box. Of course, Plaid Hat Games is busy pumping out many additional squad decks for purchase, as they did with Summoner Wars. Each clan plays very differently and features the same vibrantly colored, attractive artwork as the rest of the game. Units can usually be stacked three deep on a space to form a squad. One clan (the blood clan) can spawn more units into a single squad. The units each have your standard miniatures game attack and defense stats, along with special moves.
Battles have a slight twist to them from what would be standard in this type of game, however. The units all have a symbol on them. There are three symbols. The symbols are used to add a rock, paper, scissors aspect to the combat. When you have a battle, each player plays an additional unit card, from their hand or draw pile, face down on the board. This card is unrelated to the face-up unit cards currently battling on the board. The face-down unit card will have a symbol on it and a description which explains what special thing will happen in the battle, based on what the other player’s face down unit card’s symbol is. The main part of the battle is simply comparing attack and defense stats of opposing squads of face-up units, but this face-down symbol comparison part of each battle adds a bit of luck to the situation that would not be there otherwise (due to the lack of any dice being used in the game as is done in most miniatures games). This luck is such that there is no statistical reasoning happening with the players. It is simply blind chance. You don’t have a clue what symbol your opponent may have on her face-down card. However, the special actions that happen during this symbol duel do not usually overpower the stat-based squad face-offs that constitute the main part of the battle.
Besides attacking your opponents squads, you can also attack their castle. If you move onto their castle (called their home zone), you can force them to discard cards from their draw pile for every attack point you do to them. This is a way to force them to burn up their draw pile faster.
I and my children really enjoy this game. I and my son, who plays Summoner Wars in my game club, prefer Crystal Clans to Summoner Wars now. The initiative tracker mechanism, the stream-lined gameplay, and the vibrant art push this game over its older sibling in our estimation. My older daughter has not played Summoner Wars yet, but she loves Crystal Clans and says it is one of her favorite games. You can hear the children talk about the game in episode 3 of our podcast, where we also discuss which clans we like best out of the base set clans. This game will be a new go-to game for us when we want a quick miniatures game fix without going through all the involved set up of a full miniatures game.
Parent/ Teacher Recommendations
This is a great game for families with children age 7 and up, if the children have some experience playing modern tabletop games. If the children are new to hobby games I would push the age up to about late 8 or 9 to be able to handle the game. The game is also a great one for after school game clubs. It is perfectly school-appropriate for that purpose. The theme is a generic fantasy one of various “clans” battling for control of magical crystals. Summoner Wars had a darker feel to the theme and artwork than Crystal Clans.
The gameplay does make use of a lot of mental math with adding up unit battle stats and adjusting the initiative tracker. A neat thing about the way the initiative tracker works is that the game really sets up a younger player for understanding how basic computation with a number line including the set of negative numbers works. Second and third graders will get a cool tactile benefit from the game in understanding that math concept. All the adult needs to do is tell the child, “we’re going to call your opponent’s side of the initiative tracker the negative side,” and boom the children will be adding and subtracting across zero in their heads before the first game is over.
For these reasons, I think this game will be largely replacing Summoner Wars in the game rotation of my game club.