Strategy games cater to a niche audience. Collectible card games cater to an even more selective audience. Combine the two, add in real-time battles, and even some very light RPG elements, and what do you get? Why, Ironclad Tactics, of course!
A Piece of Alternate History
The game takes place in the late 1850s at the height of tension just prior to the American Civil War. The story is played out with comic book-like cutscenes, which are sadly devoid of any voiceover work. You play as two engineers who are under the direction of an important master engineer, and encounter friends and enemies along the way. The story is good for a few slight laughs here and there, but it’s mostly predictable and simply moves you to your next battlefield location.
As this is a collectible card game at heart, you begin with a basic starter deck, which includes everything you need to destroy your enemies with extreme prejudice. Gameplay consists of two teams duking it out on a grid-based battlefield. Your goal is to collect enough (usually eight) Victory Points before your opponent to win the match. These Victory Points can be collected by moving certain units all the way across the battlefield without being destroyed. You can also earn these VPs by occupying mortar cells that occasionally show up on the field.
The Different Phases of War
Each match is comprised of turns, which are further divided into four phases. Fully half of each turn is the Play phase, during which time all players can lay down any cards they desire from their hand of five, provided that they have enough Action Points, or AP. You earn one AP each turn, and more if your opponent manages to secure some VP, in a nice balancing act by developer Zachtronics. Following the Play phase is the Act phase, where any pieces on the field perform their actions such as shooting. The Kill phase comes next, where any units that have been too damaged are destroyed. Since the game is turn-based, everyone gets a chance to fire their weapons under normal circumstances. Finally, the Move phase finishes up the turn, where any units that are able to move and have been told to do so move forward by at least one grid cell.
If it sounds like there’s a lot going on, we’ve barely scratched the surface. Each unit starts on the extreme edge of the battlefield, and by default will move a cell towards the enemy’s side. You can select an individual unit and stop its advance by pressing X on them, and a “play” icon turns into a “pause” icon to let you know the current moving status of the unit. This is a seemingly small aspect to the game at first, but when you’re managing or deploying several units at once it is something easily forgotten. I don’t know how many units I accidentally lost to the game’s first boss character simply because I forgot to tell them to stop advancing.
Say Hello to My Big Friend
Your main unit is the game’s namesake, the Ironclad. These are steampunk-ish robots, which can equip various arm pieces and hats to attack and utilize various tactics. They don’t look too far removed from an invention from a certain Dr. Robotnik, if he was limited in his technology. You can equip guns, such as rifles, which fire in a straight line, to swords to attack all around, and rockets. There are a lot of options for these Ironclads, and as you use each card enough times you can unlock an upgraded version of the card, which you can use when you make a new deck. You’ll quickly accumulate so many cards that limiting yourself to just 20 cards can be a tough task.
Be prepared to lose, and lose a lot, as you get used to the many mechanics in Ironclad Tactics. You go into each mission blind, as there is no indication as to what you will face before you start a battle. You’ll often unlock cards that are of no use to you in the upcoming fight, which can be frustrating to learn the hard way. While most games tend to hold your hand with an in-depth tutorial, the one included with Ironclad Tactics is minimal. Some gamers enjoy trial-by-fire types of experiences, and perhaps this is a good genre to pair that methodology with. But gamers who are used to more forgiving introductory missions will probably get frustrated in the early going.
The interface is also pretty sluggish. You have to select a card with the d-pad, and then select the lane of the battlefield to place your chosen unit in. While placing units is easy enough, if you want to play equip a card to something you have to select the card, then move around the battlefield one grid at a time before you get to the unit you want to apply the equipment to. There are no hot-buttons to quickly select a unit type. Perhaps it is most telling that half of a turn is comprised of the Play phase, as mentioned earlier, where nothing really happens onscreen. Part of the reason for this may be to allow you some time to think, but it’s mostly used to mash the directional pad and X as you frantically try to place your pieces.
There’s a lot to like in Ironclad Tactics, but many of its positive aspects are weighed down by some design issues. You have to prepare a deck carefully, but unfortunately it’s a blind preparation the first time through any campaign mission. There’s a large variety of cards, but without memorizing what each card does you’ll barely have enough time to play them properly before the computer attacks. I truly believe this game could have benefited immensely by including an option for real-time battles. Suddenly, a frantic button-mashing battle would become more akin to a chess game, each piece carefully selected and positioned as the player plans their next four moves before actually executing on them. Unfortunately, with the game as it exists right now, only those who can commit to learning the quirks of the turn system and limited deck size will find the game rewarding.
Review copy was provided by the publisher. For information on scoring, please read our Review Policy here.