Board in the Stacks: City of Iron

In City of Iron, players lead one of four nations and compete against each other for resources. You may be the hogmen, the weird albino elves, steam-punky humans, or <ahem> toads. But, in order to become an empire, you need to control the means of production. That’s right, you’re socialists and these aren’t your typical resources either: turnips, glow moss, tentacles, silk and bottled demons fuel the people’s developing economy. Comrades, to control the means of production you need to train and develop your civilian populace, recruit a strong military, and create the steam and air ships needed to move into new and unexploited lands. You also need steambots with mustaches. But if you need a quick boost you could always conquer (or re-conquer) an independent capitalist town.

The Game

  • Designer: Ryan Laukat
  • Publisher: Red Raven Games
  • Players: 2-4
  • Time: 120 minutes
  • Type: hand management, deck-building, fantasy
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An awkward image of the board showing the resource tracks, the market and some unexplored lands.

The Rules

You are representing one of four nations (The City-State of Arc, Cresaria, The Hog Republic, and the Toads of Om). Each nation has two decks from which you can gain the expertise of your populace: The Military and the Citizenry. Each deck has its own particular strength and when played together in your hand it helps formulate your overall strategy to gain economic control and influence over the land. This influence is primarily determined by your ability to gain an advantage over 10 different resources and goods which come out through three building decks. Deck A has mostly turnips, moss, mutant sheep, and ore. Deck B has mostly tentacles, salt, bottled demons, and factory parts (Gods Alive! I love this deck). Deck C has mostly buildings which provide influence for other resources plus silk and crystals. As rounds progress, these decks will populate the market and be available for purchase.

Each player starts with their home territory and a district which can support five building cards. In order to expand and grow, players can explore new lands which will provide room for more building cards or attack and conquer the nearby “free towns” for resources and income. Each explored territory will provide an additional bonus condition that, when met, will provide additional influence at game’s end. Each free town will supply resources but control of those town could be wrested from you by competing nations.

At the end of day, you build both your decks with experts, draw them into your hand and play them to allow you to explore new territories, purchase buildings, conquer towns, and occasionally take free actions. All in order to gain precious, precious resources and goods which provide influence and income. Much Euro.   

Your capital district is looking nice. It only holds five building cards so make them count.

The game is seven turns long, each with four phases which correspond to the four seasons (it gave me Viticulture flashbacks…).

Spring (Bid)

It is the Spring, love is in the air and players bid for turn order. It may cost you some money to guarantee you first go, or you can hang behind to watch your loved ones frolic.

Summer (Actions)

It is the Summer, no vacation for us, players can do one action in turn order for a total of three actions (this does not count any Free Actions). Their options for state-sanctioned enjoyment are to

  • Build by purchasing an available building card from the market. This building gets placed in one of your cities only if you have room in your city and if the city has the requisite land type (grassland, forest, sea, mountains, desert, tropical, and … flying island?). Each starting city can accommodate five buildings. Certain cards can increase this capacity through the addition of districts or players can explore and found new cities.  
  • Store Building Cards in their hands and pay for them later.
  • Draw a Card from their military or citizen deck and place the card into their hand.
  • They can Research (pay four coins for one science token). Science is a form of currency for certain building cards and expert actions.
  • Play a card from their hand for an Expert Action detailed on the card. When playing a card for an Expert Action, they may need to play additional cards as a Skills payment for the action. There are three skills represented by icons of each of the cards. Distance is represented by a green compass rose. Red Guns represents offensive ability and a blue Hammer to represent…ingenuity? Engineering? Communisms? It really isn’t clear but just take for granted that some actions requires a payment of cards in order to activate that action. Expert Actions can be free actions which allow you to take a Free Action by playing that card without it counting towards one of your three actions for the turn. Some actions are Reactions which contain bonuses or actions which are only applied when certain conditions are met.
  • Players can Tax and gain one coin.
  • And they can Attack a Town. During the initial set-up there are three stacks of unconquered towns. Each requires a certain amount of Guns and Distance to conquer. The player will play a certain amount of cards to equal the amount of icons necessary to conquer a town and then take the card into their tableau and gain the resources displayed. Each town has an unconquered and conquered side. Each town starts out unconquered and once a player takes that town it gets flipped over to its conquered side. Which means that the town can still be taken by another player through the Attack Town action but it is more difficult due to your increased military presence in the town.

Important Note: When playing a card for it’s icon (hammer, gun or compass) it can only be played for one of those icons. The free market is not encouraged.

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I’ve got my eyes on the turnip farms of Hogtown. Easy pickings.

Autumn (Collect)

It is Autumn, like the leaves from dying trees, discard and rake away the first four remaining buildings in the market. Slide everything to the left and draw up new buildings, filling the slots available according to how many players are playing. On the 3rd, 5th and 7th rounds, players will score influence from the goods tracks and from building cards in play. Players collect income, science, and bonuses from building cards in play, town conquered, and bonuses from the goods track. Lastly players will draw up new military and civilian cards into their hands. This is done according to the citizen and military icons present on building cards and district cards in play.

Winter (Hire)

It is Winter. Players purchase new citizen and military cards to place directly into their hands. It is about as fun as staring into a blizzard. Players can take forever to slowly drift through their decks, read the effects, check the prices, etc. etc. etc. This is the one phase that I wish desperately could go faster. It is done simultaneously but even then, there will likely be one person agonizing over a purchase, window shopping through the deck, or stopping to build a mechanical snowman. Every other phase in the game is snappy and quick so it is especially frustrating that this phase goes so slowly. After each player makes their decisions about which cards to purchase, they put them face down in front of them. Once everyone is decided, they flip and pay the necessary coin and science.

Just a couple potential civilian hires. Nice clear iconography plus anthropomorphic animals to boot.

The Rub

Theme and artwork is classic Lauket.

If you have seen any games by Ryan Lauket you will not be disappointed. The card and board artwork is gorgeous and varied. I’m a huge fan of how he decided to differentiate between the citizen and military expert cards. The background of the citizen cards has a bright blue gorgeous sky while the military background is sulfuric and yellowed. It is simple and subtle and a testimony to how much thought Ryan puts into the aesthetic of the game. There are anthropomorphic hogs, lizards, plus airships and people riding snails. Everything is perfect and amazing. The board is a massive improvement on the first edition and I love the flexibility in placing the building card market on or off the board. The roundels (sic) for tracking resources are nice but don’t leave enough room for all four cubes if you are playing the full player count. It is a tiny complaint and barely worth mentioning.

Gameplay is simple to learn but too tight for new players.

The game provides some variety in how you attempt to win but despite several paths to victory, the gameplay is so tight that if you try to switch strategy partway through the game you are doomed. With only seven rounds and three actions each round, you need to make sure each action counts towards your strategy. For example, deciding to explore and discover a new land can take four actions and three rounds to achieve. When moving forward is that time consuming, one misstep can tank it (or if someone else grabs it before you). This can lead to a tense and pleasurable experience if you are playing with experienced players. But will be constricting to new players or those still exploring what a strategy. It also means that individuals with a couple of games under their belt have a huge advantage over new players making this a poor gateway game. At the end of the day, this is a game about efficiency and doing the most with the limited amount of actions you have available and prior knowledge of the decks is pivotal. It also makes the free actions provided by some of the expert cards exceedingly valuable.

Another success in hybrid games.

Ryan hit peak “hybrid” with the fusion of storytelling with euro-styled gameplay in Above and Below. In City of Iron the seeds to that game are apparent with it’s own hybrid style of play with hand management along with economic warfare and exploration. Players have three main options: develop their lands and cities, explore new lands to develop, and/or conquer established towns (either off the board or in another player’s tableau). Similar to the mechanic in Above and Below, where players can barter with each other to gain resources, the option to attack other players is rarely used in a game session but when it does it can blow the game up (in a good way). Players are given a wide choice of how they want to play the game and even during the friendliest games you know that some of your tableau is not completely safe. It reminded me a bit of the Air Strike option in The Manhattan Project. It rarely gets used but you know it is there and people keep preparing for it in a cold war sort of arms race but when it hits…everyone is on their feet. It as successful in City of Iron and some ability to strengthen your defenses more may make it more palatable.

Interesting deck-building component but heavy on the AP

Let’s clear the air here. Deck-building is not a favorite mechanism of mine. I don’t like Dominion or Trains. I can enjoy A Few Acres of Snow about once a year. City of Iron’s deck-building component is interesting in that you have two different decks to develop. This begs the question – If I don’t like a single deck deck-building game, would a duel deck be any better? The answer is yes and no. Since City of Iron isn’t solely a deck-building game and has more mechanisms to offer, I don’t mind it too much. It is slimmed down but with everyone purchasing new cards from their own personal deck, it can gum up the game. The process of purchasing cards, plus the ability to discard cards in a preferred order, and the two separate decks (civilian and military) slows everything down and with the other seasons moving so quickly, the flow of the game is disrupted once you hit the Winter Phase. If you are an experienced player and know the basic layout of the deck, it doesn’t take too long but new players are ground to a halt.

The Bottomline

City of Iron is a graphically engaging, tight, and unforgiving hand management, city building game that provides multiple paths to victory and just enough asymmetry to make the factions approachable once you learn the basics. It shines after a few plays once everyone understands the components of the decks. The artwork is (unsurprisingly) inspiring. If you have the patience and a group sold on Above and Below, then City of Iron will bring you joy. 

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