I love collectible card games (CCGs, for you acronym lovers). I love the tactile nature of them, the artwork, the interlocking mechanics of a well designed system. I love the thrill of opening packs of cards and the crushing disappointment when you get no rare ones.
I want to love real time strategy games (or RTSs. I’m not writing ‘real time strategy’ every time it occurs in this review). I can see how deep and tactical they can be; ordering armies and gaining resources, thinking 3 steps ahead to try and curtail the enemies approach and attack, laying waste to your foes.
I’m awful at CCG and RTS games. If it doesn’t involve smashing shit in the face really hard with something blunt I’m left running around in little circles flapping my arms, screaming “I DON’T KNOW WHAT I’M DOING!”. I can see what I’m supposed to do in both, but I inevitably fall back on throw all my guys at the enemy and hope for the best.
You might see where this review for Ironclad Tactics, a tactical real time strategy game with card based mechanics, might be going. And you might be right. But maybe not…
Set in an alternate steampunk version of the American Civil War, you control human infantry and steam-powered mechs, the titular Ironclads. The story is a bit thin and forgettable, but is nicely told through illustrated comic panels between battles.
Before entering a battle you can edit your deck of cards using a library unlocked by fulfilling certain criteria during missions, be it just finishing the mission, completing the puzzle mode for that mission, killing a certain enemy and so on. Some of these cards can be upgraded by fulfilling different criteria, which adds another level of tactical play. Each upgrade comes with it’s own benefits and detriment, for example increased health, but increased cost to play.
The battlefield is split into lanes with the enemy advancing from the right and the player from the left. The win condition is usually acquire x Victory Points, which is achieved by getting your mechs to the opposite side of the battlefield. Sometimes to unlock cards you’ll need to get the points by other means, such as using mortars to bombard the enemy.
Combat and movement is in real time, controlled by an unpausable timer which is split into 4 sections; Play, Act, Kill and Move which are worth explaining, no matter how obvious they may seem.
The Play phase is when any card you’ve chosen from the row of 5 cards in front of you is put into play and activated, such as putting a unit on the field, arming that unit, or healing that unit. The Act phase is where the unit activates any weapons or buffs that have been applied to it. Kill is where if fatal damage is dealt the unit dies and Move is, well, where the units move. You can pause units at any time to block the lane, though your units only move through enemies if they’re significantly smaller than your unit, such as infantry (which results in a pretty nasty squishing noise and a little pixelated gore).
It’s a simple sounding system, but an effective one as it makes you think on your feet and do your utmost to make the best use of the cards that you have. It’s a fast paced system that can feel a little fraught, but mainly in a good way.
The problem is Ironclad Tactics doesn’t really explain much to begin with. In a time when tutorials are bandied around like super-strength lager in the park at night between tramps, sometimes they’re necessary and while Ironclad does have tutorials, they’re not overly detailed on how the mechanics of the game work.
Still, persistence and practice mean that soon enough you’re arming your units and preparing the next one mentally to try and sway the battle in your favour, and when you do pull off a well-planned strategy to deal with the tide of mechanical death marching your way it can be very satisfying.
But it can also be incredibly frustrating. The resource for playing cards is Action Points (or AP). AP is generated at a rate of about 1.5 per Play phase, although some levels have points you can control to gain more AP per turn. These levels generally start with a lower AP generator, so getting cards out can be infuriatingly slow. It feels like you’re permanently urging the timer to advance quicker so you can get your Ironclads and Infantry out to stem the tide. It’s not helped by the controls, which while fine in general, lack the immediacy of the mouse that the PC version has. Sometimes you select a card because you finally have AP to play it, but you find it’s slid off the row of cards by the time you’ve moved the cursor to the unit you were going to apply it to, or the timer has moved beyond the allotted phase where you can play it.
Another frustration is that you’re at the mercy of the random nature of card draw, so not only are you screaming for more AP, you’re hoping to whichever deity of your preference that the card you desperately need comes out.
But that is the nature of CCGs. That’s part of the thrill. The deck limit in Ironclad Tactics is 20, so building a deck to reduce the variance is much simpler than, say, Magic: The Gathering or any other ‘proper’ CCG you could mention, but you can never truly eliminate it. It’s the luck of the draw.
Ironclad Tactics is a bit of an odd beast. It took me a good old while to get my head around it, to work out it’s little quirks and nuances and there is a good game in there, but not a great game. It’s packed with content as it includes the 2 extra DLC campaigns from the PC version, it’s charming and the mechanics are sound, but there’s something missing from it. It never elevates itself to the “one more mission” compulsiveness that games of a similar ilk have and, in all honesty, it rarely made me want to play it for any great length of time. It’s not a bad game by any means, it’s just…Fine.
Ultimately it’s a game that feels like some of the mechanics are a little bit too wonky to be truly great, but if you have a knack for real time strategy you’ll get a good deal of enjoyment out of it. For the rest of us who lack any kind of tactical planning ability, there’s always Shootymans XXIV round the corner.