Sometimes surprises come in the smallest of packages, and that rings true for tabletop games as well. I’ve played full board games with multiple components that boil down to (sometimes too) simple gameplay; conversely, I’ve also found small card games that end up with some new layers and strategy to them.
Claim’s theme is a fantasy world where the king has died, and two people now vie for the throne. To win the crown, you won’t need dragons or bad writing, but instead enough followers in each faction to have the most support.
Do you have what it takes to earn the favor of the realm? Or will your support (and claim) be stolen from you by your opponent?
On its surface, Claim appears to be a basic trick-taking game, where players lay out cards and try to have the highest in a suit (or Faction). Play the top card, and you win the trick as well as get to go first on the next round (be the Leader).
Like most trick-taking games, there’s a rule of matching suits, in this case, that you must play a card that matches the Faction played that round. If you can’t, you’ll lose that round, and the Leader earns the prize.
If that sounds boring, that was my original thought, until I read the rules and played the game. Claim has several unique mechanics and gameplay that make the experience so much more intricate and fun than it seems.
For one, there are two phases, and each one has a different focus.
Phase One you’re not competing for the cards you’re playing, but instead for the Followers that you’ll use to compete with during Phase Two. The Leader reveals a card from the deck and both players play a card from their hand; whoever wins gains the revealed card, the loser draws a random card, and the cards played are discarded.
Given your focus is on whether you want the revealed card later in the game, this adds a level of strategy in determining if you try for it or purposefully throw the attempt (and give it to your opponent). Also, as the cards currently in your hand will be used only in this phase, they don’t matter as much for scoring or direction as the ones you’re battling for from the deck.
Phase Two is when players compete for tricks in the form of both cards being played. You’ll be using the 13 cards you earned in Phase One. The game works the same way, except in this case you’re actively building scoring piles for each faction.
Once all 13 tricks have been fought for, players score to see if they won enough support for the throne. Whoever has the most cards of a faction earns that group’s support (with ties going to the highest card); at the end, whoever has three of the five faction’s favor is the winner and crowned king.
On top of these two phases and the unique scoring system, Claim also adds layers of strategy by having each Faction behave differently.
At their very base, the Factions are asymmetrical, with differing quantities and values for each one. The real fun is that all but one Faction (Goblins) has additional effects on the game.
Knights automatically trump Goblins, meaning they’re great if you’re going for a win with either. Similarly, Doppelgangers act as “wild cards” and can be used against that Faction (even if you have a card in that suit), allowing you to steal a trick you might have otherwise lost.
Undead and Dwarves both have unique effects that are dependent on the phase in which they’re played.
Undead are prizes to be won during Phase One, as they are not discarded while competing for Followers (like other cards). Instead, whoever wins the card revealed from the deck also wins any Undead cards played (and adds them to their scoring piles).
Dwarves are cards you want to get rid of during Phase Two, as whoever loses the trick gains any Dwarf cards played. This rule essentially means that to earn the Dwarf faction’s support, you must play the lowest Dwarves or waste them on tricks with other suits.
By having two phases, unique scoring, and five Factions (four with special rules), the level of strategy in Claim is astounding.
Do you focus on winning the Undead during Phase One? Do you aim for Followers of a given faction that you know you’ll want in Phase Two? What about playing bad cards to avoid picking up Followers you don’t want, such as low-scoring cards or even high-scoring Dwarves? When playing in Phase Two, do you aim for more cards or the highest ranked one?
What I also loved about Claim is that you have all this strategy in a game that fits in the palm of your hand. It’s small size, and quick play makes this a perfect travel game that you can pop out and play just about anywhere.
I do have two critiques, however, as no game is perfect.
Although a great, fast game, Claim is not easy to learn or teach in the beginning. The phases, scoring system, and Faction rules led to a lot of confusion from some players; it was only after a couple of games under everybody’s belt that the real fun began.
Another issue is that this is only a two-player game, so it’s not suitable for parties or even small groups. Claim serves best as something quick to play when it’s just two of you, whether a couple, siblings or just a pair of friends.
The former criticism there is little to do as it’s those mechanics that give the game so many routes to victory and replayability. The latter I’m not sure if there’s an answer, given the limited card numbers are designed around two-player play, but I’d love to see an expansion or adaptation that brought the game up to 3-4 players.
Overall, I’m very impressed by what Claim provided me given my presumptions based on its size and a brief explanation. It hides so much strategy in it, and even my casual gaming wife ended up shuffling the deck to play another session after her first time.
While the unique mechanics can be difficult to learn or remember, once they’re down this game is fast, fun, and even vicious at times. It’s perfect for bringing along to places, so long as everyone knows that only two people can play it at a time.
Think ahead, court the right factions, and do your best to win the support you need to claim the throne.
Claim is currently available for pre-order online. 2 players, 25 minutes, Ages 10+.
I give Claim a competitive 4 challenges to the throne out of 5.