Clank! Catacombs Design Diary: Artifacts

Clank! Catacombs Design Diary: Artifacts

Clank! Catacombs will be available for pre-order from Thursday, August 4th – Monday, September 5th.

Hi Clank! fans! I’m Paul Dennen, creator of Clank! Catacombs, here with a preview of what’s in store and some design backstory on how we got there.

I was on vacation when the idea for Clank! Catacombs came to me. I simply wanted to make a version of Clank! that more closely resembled a classic dungeon crawl, with players exploring mysterious territory rather than traveling across a known map. The goal was straightforward, but some of the properties of Clank! as a game presented challenges to working out a feasible design.

Today, we’ll be looking at how the map is changing and what that means for exploring the Catacombs.  We’ll be talking about other aspects of the game in future Design Diaries, so be sure to subscribe to the Dire Wolf Newsletter if you haven’t already.

Dungeon Tiles: Making a feasible map

Clank! boards are split into two zones: a safe zone and the depths. It quickly became clear that – in addition to a special starting tile – there would need to be two types of dungeon tiles: safe zone tiles vs. depths tiles. Some amount of randomized safe zone tiles are thus placed atop the full stack of randomized depths tiles to create the full tile stack. As unknown territory is explored, players would simply reveal the top tile from the stack to continue “building” the dungeon.

Not wanting players to be able to predict the next tile under most circumstances led to two general rules for the Catacombs:

  • A written rule: There are 6 safe zone tiles but only 4 of them are used in each game. So, even when you reveal the final safe zone tile, there are three possible tiles it could be.
  • An unwritten rule: The game should be calibrated so that it’s unusual for players to reach the final depths tile.

Artifacts: Choosing how greedy you want to be

The biggest design challenge in making a version of Clank! where players explored the board is that it disrupted one of the basic principles of the game. In a normal game of Clank!, even after a few turns, you can start to get a sense of which artifact (or artifacts) you are aiming for. Now, as most good Clank! players would tell you, you should always be flexible, and you should be willing to change your plans based on the actions of the other players – or the dragon! But, by mid-game, you’d likely either already have an artifact (perhaps to put pressure on the other, greedier players) or you’d be engaged in a plan to go to a specific area of the board to grab a high-quality artifact.

With Catacombs, nobody knows even where the artifacts are, so how does the game allow players to choose the appropriate amount of greed? Or, to put it another way, how do players make proper risk-reward decisions and evaluations? And how can disparately valued artifacts be reasonably distributed across the tiles?

The Artifact Stack

As “wacky fun” as Clank! may be perceived, it’s set up in a generally fair way, where the highest-valued artifacts are appropriately placed in the dungeon; the most valuable artifacts come with the highest level of challenge or risk. It would be a pretty bad experience if someone immediately found the most valuable artifact just from sheer luck of flipping a particular tile. In Catacombs, even the first iteration used an artifact stack to start tackling this fairness issue. At the start of the game, all the artifacts are stacked in order, with the least valuable artifact on top. Then, as players discovered artifact tiles, the topmost artifact would be taken from the stack and placed on that tile.

Pretty quickly during early playtesting, I wasn’t fully happy with that technique and I wanted to see a bit more excitement and randomness in finding artifacts. So, I added “+” and “++” artifact tiles to inject a bit of variance, so that players wouldn’t know exactly what the next discovered artifact would be. When a player discovers a “+” tile, they take the second artifact from the top of the stack and put it on the tile. Similarly, when a “++” tile is discovered, players take the third artifact from the top and put it on the tile. This rule isn’t to say that these players are simply lucky to discover these tiles, and the reason is that these tiles present more of a challenge to take its artifact. More monsters might be guarding it, it might be behind a locked door, crystal caves might slow you down, etc.

Here’s an example of a “+” tile, where you must either travel a long way past a crystal cave, or you’ll need to have a way to get through the locked door.

Artifact Compression

After a long period of playtesting, the team decided that, while the artifact stack addressed much of these balance questions, there was still a bit too much variance in the game, where some players got too much value for luckily finding very high-valued artifacts too quickly. So, we decided to lower the impact of artifacts in general by compressing the artifact range to numbers between 5 and 20 (whereas in normal Clank!, you can find artifacts worth 25 or even 30).

Other Treasures

So, we now return to that critical question of how can we allow players to choose their own level of greed? In more general design terms, how can one player who believes that another player is having a better game, opt into a riskier strategy that comes with a potentially high payoff? If there’s no “30” artifact on the board that can be identified as the highest-risk, highest-reward path, how else can a thief opt into to an extra greedy strategy?

The answer is a mixture of something tried-and-true – stay in the depths longer and keep collecting valuable goodies – but also something new: make good use of your lockpicks.


That’s a subject for our next Design Diary! On Tuesday we’ll take a look at how you can unlock some of the new features and strategies of Catacombs, where the essence of Clank! remains the same, but it comes with a new exploration/dungeon crawl paradigm to explore and enjoy.

I had a ton of fun designing Catacombs – thanks for reading about part of what makes the design tick. We’ll be kicking off pre-orders next Thursday as Gen Con gets underway, with more spoilers and reveals to come along the way!

– Paul Dennen

Catacombs pre-orders begin Thursday 8/4! Sign up for reminders & updates!