Ironclad Tactics suffers from something of an expectations problem. It’s the next original game from Zachtronics Industries, whose previous game you should have heard of if you care about puzzle games at all: SpaceChem. I loved SpaceChem; it was an immensely clever piece of work and the only game I’ve ever played that’s made me think so hard I’ve given myself a headache. Moreover, its presentation and soundtrack managed to evoke an omnipresent feeling of “Science is awesome!” despite SpaceChem itself having very little to do with actual science, and that’s always going to score bonus points on a site called The Scientific Gamer. Following up one of the few games I would actually genuinely describe as inspired was always going to be tricky, and Ironclad Tactics falls intro the trap I half-suspected it would: it commits the (forgivable) sin of merely being okay. For most games, this would be enough. For something which is inevitably going to be compared to SpaceChem, however, “okay” falls some way short of the lofty standard set by its predecessor.
For me, then, playing Ironclad Tactics resulted in an inescapable sense of disappointment which I’m not sure I can divorce from any objective quality the game may or may not have, and which is going to colour this review a little bit. This probably isn’t all that fair. Ironclad Tactics might not be SpaceChem, but it’s not trying to be. Instead it reaches back to Zachtronics’ earlier Bureau of Steam Engineering for thematic inspiration around which to base a sort of deck-building card game set in an alternate version of the American Civil War fought with giant steam-powered robots. You build a deck of twenty cards from whatever you have available, with the cards being anything from Ironclads themselves to their armament to supporting infantry units to special tactics and maneuver cards that can turn a battle in your favour when played at the right moment. This deck is then used in an adversarial matchup with another player – either a campaign AI or an actual human being – which is played out on a narrow 5×10 game board. Stuff you deploy goes down on the left hand side of the board, and your objective is to move it all the way to your opponent’s side of the board in order to score victory points. Get enough victory points and you win.
So far, so boardgamey, right? This isn’t something you’d particularly need a computer in order to simulate, but where Ironclad Tactics starts getting complex is with its turn timer and action point gathering system. The turn timer is completely automated and cannot be stopped, which is probably the key concept of Ironclad Tactics and which adds a time pressure element that goes hand in hand with your complete inability to affect anything that happens on the game board without playing a card. You can order your units to pause where they are, or tell a paused unit to start moving again, but everything else is either automated – there are no attack orders in Ironclad Tactics, with Ironclads and infantry automatically attacking the first enemy unit in range – or requires you to spend some of your precious action points to play a card in order to change the battlefield to your advantage.
This is complicated further by the random way in which your cards are dealt to you: there’s a track of five cards at the bottom of the screen, and every turn the rightmost one shuffles off of the end of the track to be replaced by a new card drawn from your deck. You have no way of affecting the draw order or draw rate, and so you have no way of guaranteeing what’s going to be available to use at any one time. Here we come across the first of my actual genuine problems with Ironclad Tactics (i.e. one which doesn’t stem from the whole “It’s not SpaceChem” thing): it is the first deck-building game I have come across that doesn’t let you affect the draw in some way. This utterly cripples what’s possible in terms of actual tactics and places you firmly at the mercy of the random number generator; you might want one of the four Maneuver cards you put in your deck in order to get one of your units to change lanes, but if the game doesn’t feel like dealing one to you you’re stuffed. You can’t keep one in your hand for a rainy day because cards are constantly dropping off the end of the track, and you can’t try to draw more cards from your deck. Instead you just have to sit there and hope one turns up. And if you were thinking that maybe you could just build the deck in order to maximise the odds of a Maneuver card being available I have some rather bad news: there’s a hard cap of four cards of each type allowed in any single deck.
This makes Ironclad Tactics a deck-building game where the deck-building has been intentionally crippled in order to accentuate the random element of the game. Perhaps if that’s what floats your boat you’ll get on slightly better with it than I did; speaking personally, though, this drove me up the wall. Several times I lost a campaign game because of the draw, immediately restarted with the exact same deck and won a ridiculously lopsided victory because the RNG gods had decided to stop fucking me over and finally gave me the cards I needed. It’s an error which is compounded by the bizarre way in which new cards are spoon-fed to you over time for completing various special objectives, or – even worse – must be acquired by using older, shittier cards a certain number of times, which has the effect of massively restricting what is possible in terms of deck composition and tactics until you’ve played the game for an hour or two. Once you have a decent set of cards unlocked you can actually start to build a deck to suit your personal preferences and tactics (that is, if the RNG will actually give the right cards to you), but until that moment comes Ironclad Tactics comes across as a startlingly braindead experience.
Then there’s the question of theme. As game concepts go I am reasonably certain this is one of a kind, so I certainly can’t fault Ironclad for unoriginality or lack of imagination. At the same time, though, I’m sure giant steam-powered robots shouldn’t leave me this cold. It’s undeniable that a lot of thought has gone into the game design of Ironclad Tactics, but it seems to share a critical flaw with a lot of European-style board games in that their mechanical design often has sod-all to do with their actual theme. So it goes with the eponymous Ironclads; you could replace them with tanks, rhinoceroses or the giant rock from Rock Of Ages and what you’d end up with would still be functionally the same game. Where SpaceChem played well to its sciencey theme even though it wasn’t scientific at all, Ironclad Tactics fails to connect with its steampunk stylings in any but the most superficial of manners.
I suspect this is because Ironclad Tactics has been designed first and foremost as an adversarial game that can be played against other human beings. When you do this purity of design tends to be at the forefront of your mind in order to keep things fair and balanced for both players, and if that comes at the expense of the flavour you just have to trust that the mechanics will be sufficiently compelling that the players won’t care. Unfortunately this means Ironclad Tactics runs into two problems. One is that I think it’s too RNG-dependent to be much of a long-term multiplayer prospect, and so gearing the entire thing towards multiplayer may have been a bit premature. The other is that this has come at the expense of what Zachtronics is known to excel at: brain-taxing single-player puzzle scenarios. It’s true that there’s a couple of campaign levels that do provide for this, but in general the whole thing is rather too sterile to be anywhere near as satisfying as I think it could have been.
Most telling of all is that this is the first game Zachtronics has developed that’s really been able to indulge itself in terms of production values, and yet the “simple” flash game I linked earlier in the review does a far better job of playing to the steam-powered giant robot theme than Ironclad Tactics does with its hands-off gameplay and comic-book storyline. It’s arguable that I’m not playing Ironclad Tactics in the way it’s supposed to be played, and that I was looking for something completely different that Ironclad Tactics definitively is not. Even if that’s true, though, I still think it’s a severely flawed game that didn’t show a single flash of brilliance in the several hours I spent with it. And when you consider where it’s come from, well, it’s hard not to be disappointed with that outcome. I didn’t start this review particularly badly disposed towards Ironclad Tactics, but the more I think about it the more I’d have to say it’s not even a game you should buy when cheap; it’s never more than mediocre and can occasionally be immensely frustrating, and you can’t even get any enjoyment out of the giant robots. Even Pacific Rim got that right, for crying out loud.