by Tom Harrod - @buryboardgames
WBG Score: 8/10
Player Count: 2 players
Published by: Elwin Klappe
Designed by: Elwin Klappe
Clash of the Ardennes is the quintessential game of cat and mouse, occurring within a haunting, snow-capped, Belgian forest. You’ll play as a relentless general, staring steely-eyed at your opponent across the table. Can you outwit each other in accomplishing your secret Objective?
This is a two-player abstract strategy game, set on the backdrop of the Battle of the Bulge. One of you plays as the Axis, and the other, the Allies. You both have an army of troops at your disposal of even, identical weight. There’s no board as such, but rather a ‘jigsaw’ frame, depicting the Ardennes region of Belgium. It’s a woodland terrain, and in December 1944 it sat choked under a deluge of snow. Oh, and talking of wood: every tile in Clash of the Ardennes is wooden, not cardboard!
Each payer takes a secret Objective Card. These goals tend to involve capturing and dominating ‘Streets’ within the frame. It could be a specific Street, or a quantity of Streets among the seven available. These are not literal streets; the term means getting your troops to reach your opponent’s side of the frame. But this isn’t a simple stroll through the woods. Your opponent isn’t going to let you rock up to their front door. They’ll place troops of their own to block you. And when your troops square off against each other, nose-to-nose, that’s when a Clash occurs…
The Beating Heart Of Clash
The heartbeat of Clash of the Ardennes is the tile placement of your wooden units. They come in a variety of ranks and types. As a result, some are larger than others. The biggest – the General – is the same length as five of the smallest – an Anti-Tank Mine – lined up one after another.
On your turn you spend four action points to deploy your troops within the seven Streets inside the frame. These include:
• Place any of your units in any street – 1AP (action point)
• Take any rear unit and place it to the front of the street from which you removed it – 2APs
• Retreat a leading unit from a street; return it to your supply – 2APs
• Retreat a leading unit from a street where you’re blocked; return it to your supply – 3APs
When you place a unit, you slot the tile in any Street of your choice. It advances from your side of the frame. From a theme-meeting-mechanisms point of view, it’s advancing/encroaching ever-closer to the enemy. Tiles cannot overlap. This means that they cannot overhang beyond the frame’s boundary, nor can they sit on top of an opponent.
Straight away, this provides something of an abstract puzzle. The quantities of player troops are public knowledge. It costs the same amount of APs to place a unit, regardless of size. You’ve only got a limited supply of them, though. Your smallest troop tile is the aforementioned Anti-Tank Mine. Considering five of these make up the largest troop tile – the General – I’ll refer to this tile as 1/5. (Let’s call The General 5/5, but more about him, later.) Your most common tiles are Infantry, which are 2/5 long. You’ve also got a bunch of tanks, which are 3/5.
Troop tiles aren’t a mere variation in size for the sake of a placement puzzle, though. When your units reach your opponents’ in the same Street, a Clash occurs. Each unit can trump another in a Rock-Paper-Scissors manner. It’s not quite as simple as A > B > C > A. This is more akin to Rock-Paper-Scissors-Lizard-Spock! (Fans of The Big Bang Theory: that one was for you…)
Who Beats Whom In A Clash?
Taking the three main units into consideration, it’s simple to explain which is the ‘stronger’ unit in a Clash. The Tank beats the Infantry. The Infantry beats the Anti-Tank Mine. And the Anti-Tank Mine beats (yes, you guessed it!) the Tank.
Let’s say the Axis player placed a Tank down a street, and it comes face-to-face with the Allies’ infantry. A Clash occurs, and the Allies player has to return that Infantry tile to their supply. If multiple troops of the same type sit back-to-back in this line, they too get booted off the Street. (In this example, if two Allied Infantry line up next to an Axis Tank, both Infantry lose the Clash.)
You learn from your mistakes quick in Clash of the Ardennes. It’s not a sensible strategy to place units of the same ‘weight’ next to each other in the same Street. Two matching units don’t beat each other, but instead both remain on the Street. The attack ends once the unit comes up against a stronger or equal unit.
Digging A Little Deeper
There are extra layers, though, within this system of X trumping Y, adding deeper strategical considerations into the mix. First of all, this comes in the form of Infantry ranks. Each player has the same nine Infantry tiles. Six of these are Privates, who are the lowest rank. Two are Corporals – one rank higher – and you have one Sergeant, higher still. A higher-ranking Infantry beats a lower-ranking one in a Clash. Also, it wipes out any lower-ranking units in the row, up until the point it meets the same (or higher-ranking) unit. This includes Anti-Tank Mines.
Your Corporals and your Sergeant are powerful troops within your arsenal. They’re your insurance, and can prove deadly if placed at an opportune moment. Each player also has four one-off Special Units. (One of these, The Mortar, is a Kickstarter Exclusive.) These four units each come in different sizes:
• The Spy (1/5 in size)
• The Mortar (2/5)
• The Command Tank (3/5)
• The General (5/5)
The Spy might be small, but it is fierce. This can beat anything on the board in a Clash, except for another Spy! There is a limit to the Spy’s power, though. At most, it can attack/remove the first two units in a Street. The General, meanwhile, is the largest unit. This can beat everything but the Spy, and a Tank. (Think of it like the Big Daddy of your Infantry units, in that respect.) It’s also a bully of a tile, because it eats up the Street at an alarming pace.
The Command Tank is like a regular Tank, but it can also attack Infantry units on either flank to the left and right. If this causes a Clash, the opponent has to remove the Infantry unit and all other troops in front of it (if applicable). Whenever you have units along a Street, after all, they need to be in one continuous line – no gaps between troops. The Command Tank can be devastating, wiping out an entire Street at a time! (You can’t use this to flank Tanks though – only Infantry.)
Last up, the Mortar is an interesting tile. This has a single arrow on it and you can use this to ‘fire’ in that direction over a Street. You can only use this to attack Privates. Like the Command Tank, the opponent also has to remove all units in front of said Private.
Your Over-powerered Ace(s) In The Hole
These Special Unit Tiles feel like your ace in the hole – and you have four of them! There’s a catch though: you can only have one of them on the battlefield at once. Theme-wise, this is the weakest points of Clash of the Ardennes. There’s no ‘fairness’ in real-life war. It makes sense from a mechanisms point of view, though. These are over-powered units. The challenge is not only knowing when to play them. It’s also trying to manipulate proceedings so you can remove one and place another.
At the moment you place a marker down to signal the Street is yours on a permanent basis. And here comes the brilliant twist: your unit tiles stay in place on the Street. Don’t worry: your opponent can’t touch them (using the Command Tank, for example)… but neither can you. You can’t return them to your supply. You might have stormed to a finish towards claiming a Street by using your massive 5/5 General. But at what cost? Now that General’s locked in place for the rest of the game. And that means you can’t use your General again. Neither can you use any of your other Special Units for the rest of the game.
Recalling Units, And Inching Forward From Behind
Remember, one of the action points at your disposal is relocating the unit tile at a Street’s rear and placing it at the front. This costs you 2APs, but it’s a handy way to retain more units at your disposal. This can prove dangerous, though…
If you slink forward, using, say, three units rolling in front of each other, you leave yourself open. Your opponent can wipe out the whole street by attacking one solitary unit. (If the Command Tank or Mortar takes out the rear unit in that street, for example.) Then you’ve left with no remaining investment or foundations in that Street. Nothing to show for all that ground you made up! One Objective requires having to capture the middle Street with four units. As you can appreciate now, that’s a lot harder than it sounds.
You can also remove units from the front of a Street. A good example might be: you spend 1AP to place your Spy, creating a Clash. The opponent has to remove their losing units. You could then spend 2APs to then retrieve your Spy. Then you could spend your fourth and final AP to place another unit (Special or regular) out into this (or another) street.
Defence Is The Best Form Of Attack
There’s a certain art of ‘defence is the best form of attack’ in Clash of the Ardennes, in the form of ‘blocking’. On your turn you can opt to not Clash, even if your units meet your rivals on a Street. You can leave your unit there, acting like an immovable object. You might do this for many reasons. One might be that you’ve run out of Action Points to spend this turn. (Because after the Clash, the ideal scenario sees you using further APs to creep further forward along this Street.)
Another reason might be because you want to cause irritation for your opponent. In order for them to advance along this Street, they’ll have to spend 3APs to retrieve their leading, blocked unit. Then they’ll have to spend 1AP to place down another unit – presumably one that can beat yours. Of course, this might not be possible if the gap remaining doesn’t allow for such a thing. But even if they can place a new unit, and then beat yours, they’re now out of APs. You could then spend Action Points in this Street to undo their previous turn.
A third reason for blocking is that a big part of Clash of the Ardennes – if you want it to be – is bluffing. This is a game about deep-rooted player-to-player psychology. Like in a real battle, you can’t show your hand in public. Sometimes you have to lure your rival into traps and false starts. Playing the occasional sacrificial troops here and there distracts your opponent. If your Objective is to conquer the middle Street, should you pump all your focus into it? What about a decoy attack on a separate location?
The Objectives feel like they’re balanced. Every time you claim a Street, you earn a secret Victory Card. This is a bonus you can cash in at an opportune moment, or sometimes straight away. Some of these are game-changers, such as getting to see your opponent’s Objective! Or getting to claim back two units from the Street you claimed. (Vital if one of these was a ranking Infantry unit, or a Special unit.)
An Affiliation With Your Troops
And so, we move onto the aesthetics. Clash of the Ardennes is a glorious work of art. You can tell with certain projects that they are a labour of love. This is one such game. And oh goodness, those wooden tiles! They raise Clash of the Ardennes high on a pedestal: striking table presence meeting delightful tactility. With clair-ligne artwork like this, you can’t but help feel an affiliation to your troops on a gut-wrenching, human level. This is the kind of art that transports you to the era with the click of one’s fingers.
It’s important to note at this stage that this is a preview copy of Clash of the Ardennes. It’s on Kickstarter at time of press (running until 3 April 2021), and the finished product will look even better. There’s plans to add in a grid of sorts to the sky tiles that make up the frame. This will aid players looking at the distance between troops at-a-glance. Designer Elwin Klappe confirmed a player aid is coming (detailing which troops beat which, and a reminder of Action Points). Those subtle additions would elevate gameplay even further.
Final Thoughts on… Clash of the Ardennes
There’s quite a few mechanisms at play here, and they dovetail together with delightful ease. The rock-paper-scissors mechanism, partnered with the abstract strategy tile-placement, encapsulates the tense, terrifying tone of the historic battle, itself. This is about the small victories, inching forward along a Street one tile at time, pushing the enemy back.
The wooden tiles are a delight. The board itself looks big when you fit the frame together (measuring at 61x85cm). This isn’t too disimilar, though, to larger game boards such as Scythe. You won’t be able to play this on a small, circular coffee table.
Having a wooden frame adds table presence in spades. But would a board itself be a more practical approach? Not as quirky, nor as fun as a wooden frame, I’ll admit. If a board had grids running along each Street, it would make them quicker to digest at-a-glance. As it stands, having a wooden frame is quirky at least, without bordering into gimmick territory. Having tiles in a wooden finish does add a sense of deluxe grandeur into the gameplay.
Overall I’m impressed with this preview copy of Clash of the Ardennes. It’s a suspenseful affair, like two predatory sharks circling each other. If you like what you see, click here to check out the Kickstarter, which runs until 3 April 2021.