When you see a nautical game with ships, cannons and boarding crews, your thoughts naturally turn to pirates. But Clear the Decks! is not another pirate game. There's neither pirate nor plunder to be seen in this ship-to-ship nautical combat game designed by Chris Pinyan and published by Crispy Games.
In this co-operative (2–4 players) or solitaire combat game, players command sailing ships of the Napoleonic era encountering and engaging with a single enemy ship. That ship will have 2, 3 or 4 stacks depending on the type of ship chosen at set up (ie: the difficulty level you set for yourself) and each stack will comprise cards (face down, other than for the top card) representing that ship's cannons, crew and structure. The card will show its vulnerability; for example, it may show it can be hit with a 24-pounder cannon firing grape shot.
Players' ships each have three cannons (an 18, 24 and 36 pounder) which can each be used to target positions on the enemy ship provided the player has appropriate ammunition cards. Attacks can be supplemented with additional cards from the player's hand, representing the effect, for example, of particular crew members. Once fired, a cannon will take a turn before it can be prepared to fire again so you'll need to be wary of going in quite literally with all guns blazing or you'll face a turn when you may be able to do little more than watch helplessly as the enemy ship blasts you out of the sea.
Tho' no player is controlling the enemy ship, and tho' that ship will be out-numbered whenever you play Clear the Decks! as a 2-4 player co-operative, that ship is no sitting duck. Its cannon cards will return fire and may send over boarding parties to raid your ship. Either way, it will be targeting your cannons: two hits on one of your cannons and it cannot fire; three and it's destroyed. Your aim is to reduce the enemy ship's card stacks till they expose the hull cards at the bottom (and which still, by the way, are flipped to show their attack & defence); the enemy ship's aim is to take out all your cannons so that you lose the game. Attacks are considered to be simultaneous so that even when your bombardment destroys a cannon on the enemy ship, it still gets to have fired back unless prevented by some special effect card text.
Crispy Games have done a great job with Clear the Decks! The game is atmospheric and the combat is surprisingly tense. The co-operative element works well, especially as the rules allow as an action for players to pass one of their cards on to another player. This can prove essential if, for example, you just don't have the ammunition needed to match the enemy ship's vulnerability. The rules could be clearer in places but they do provide well for the game's scaleability, both to match the number of players and to ramp up the difficulty.
And we need to give a shout out to the high quality of production and the great art by Santiago Reinoso. The cards are sturdy and there are playing boards that can be mix and matched to create the various ships. Shown here on Board's Eye View are the neoprene player mats that are sold as an optional extra. They aren't by any means essential but they are an attractive aid that keep the player's cannons ship-shape while conveniently tracking damage and boarding parties. All the boards and player mats are largely bling, however: Clear the Decks! is essentially a card game.
Clear the Decks! had us coming back for more. Our one disappointment was that there was no player vs player (PvP) option. This is a development we'd like to see if the designer has plans to take the game further. We reckon it ought to be possible to generate a very playable PvP option using existing cards and components...