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Designer Diary: 250+ Plays of Iron Curtain, or How to Measure Replayability

Daniel Skjold Pedersen
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Iron Curtain is a short and brutal microgame cramped with tough decisions in a 20- to 30-minute time frame. You play as the U.S. or the Soviet Union, map out the Iron Curtain to your advantage, and control the most countries and regions on your side of the curtain.

Playing Iron Curtain well is no easy ride. We have made an effort to include as many interesting and tricky decision points as possible in the slight twenty-card framework. You will play cards that aid you greatly, but also open new opportunities for your opponent to take.

The Journey that Began 13 Days Ago

Before I continue, let's pause for a minute. I feel this is the time to thank all of you who played 13 Days, our first Cold War game, and shared the love and wonderful stories. I can positively say that Iron Curtain (and 13 Minutes) would not have existed today had 13 Days not been so well received. We are immensely grateful. This is why we design games, so thank you all.

The Third Cold War Game

When 13 Days came out, it was branded the Twilight Struggle filler game. I used that moniker myself, not knowing if it would come back to haunt me one day. I still don't know.

13 Minutes, which was released in early 2017, is the 13 Days microgame. It boils down the experience of brinkmanship in a box.

Following this line of thinking, Iron Curtain could be said to be the Twilight Struggle microgame. I may be going out on a limb here...again. Time will tell. Iron Curtain shares some game concepts with the 13 Days/Minutes titles, but it very much has an identity of its own.

Different Game, Same Cold War

I asked on social media for topics to discuss in this diary, and the question that came up the most was how we decided to make Iron Curtain different from previous Cold War games. Three games in fairly short succession will beget that question.

The short answer is that there is no "13" in the title.

The artistic answer is that Iron Curtain by intent has a distinct look with more vibrant colors and layout. The message we are trying to convey is that this is not 13 Days II…or III…or whatever! We hope Iron Curtain will stand on its own legs and be judged on its own merits, good as well as bad.

The game design answer is that Iron Curtain offers a different core experience from the other games. I will highlight two key experiences below that were design goals of ours from the outset. There are more, but I will leave that for you to explore.

First Design Goal: Building the Iron Curtain

Iron Curtain has a proper in-game geography, something that wasn't present in 13 Days/Minutes.

Cards double as actions and as key countries during the superpower struggle. When you play a card, it immediately goes to the table next to countries of the same region. As the game progresses, the world map is built one country at a time.

How you build the world now matters a great deal. When you want to expand your influence later, you are limited by your current presence on the table. Except for certain events, you may move only into adjacent countries, so some countries are within easy grasp, while others will take much greater effort to reach.

This is a feature you may — no, let me rephrase — this is a feature you should use to your advantage. How so? Be the first to drop two or more cubes onto a country to control it and create a temporary safe haven behind that line where you can drop cards. Play the first card of a new region so that you have the freedom to place that card where you have easy access to it and your opponent does not.

I love how the "map" looks different each time you play

Second Design Goal: Adding Doses of Suspension and Agony

Iron Curtain has no scoring cards of the type with which you might be familiar in Twilight Struggle and no hidden agendas as used in 13 Days. In fact, every card is a potential scoring card.

A region scores when all cards of that region are played to the table. So should you play early to jump ahead in that region, or wait to control when the scoring will happen? Or perhaps abandon the region entirely, discarding the card at the end of the round? Managing and sequencing your hand of cards is the single greatest challenge you will face in this game.

What all this means is that you will see scoring approach all over the table — at the same time. You are constantly trying to pre-empt your opponent's moves in, say, Africa and Europe, yet you also want to put pressure on them in the Middle East and Asia. The card you want to play allows the use of only two cubes, so what do you prioritize?!

Asia scores when Japan, Vietnam and Pakistan are all on the table, then again at the end of the game

250 Plays and Counting — A Playtester's Perspective

We always intended Iron Curtain to be a highly replayable microgame with layers of depth, a game you can play over and over and still learn new tricks.

The question is: How do you measure replayability? How do you know when you've succeeded? This would be the perfect moment for me to derail the designer diary and go on an analytical rant, but I won't. Instead I sat down to talk to Sagad Al-Serjawi, a most dedicated playtester who has played an insane number of games of Iron Curtain.

You could say I am turning this designers' diary into a playtester's diary.

Daniel: Hi, Sagad. Thank you for joining this designer diary. So tell me, how many games of Iron Curtain have you played?
Sagad: I don't know! I stopped counting after 250 games. I played with everyone from friends to family to strangers at a bar one time. You can say I got addicted...

D: Why do you think you went on to play such a huge number of games?
S: It's a fun game, and no turns are the same. There is always a new challenge to figure out. The game takes place during the Cold War, and you can really feel the pressure from your enemy; whether you play the USSR or the U.S. you will always find new ways of winning (or losing).

D: Do you prefer to play a particular side?
S: Hmm, I'd say U.S. for no particular reason. Both feel balanced.

D: Do you recall a cool move you made during a game?
S: Well, my friend had taken Cuba and invested a lot of energy in holding it. I was playing USSR and got the Brazil card at the right moment so that I could use the ability to remove his cubes from there, thereby making it possible to enter.

The evolution of the Algeria and Poland cards from early prototype to finished cards

D: With all those plays did the experience change over time?
S: It sure did. To be honest, the first time I heard about Iron Curtain I did not believe it would be something for me, but to my surprise it is now one of my favorite games. The first time you play Iron Curtain everything will be a surprise. You don't know what the different cards do and what tactics to use, so the first game is usually quite slow. Then you get the flow.

D: How many games had you played at that point?
S: After around five games I understood how the game is built. I began planning bluffs like placing some cubes in Asia while my sole objective was to conquer Europe. At this point I also planned which cards to throw away in the Aftermath, and where to invest influence cubes. I personally loved this state since there were still room for mistakes. The best way to learn is through mistakes. That changed at a later point.

D: How did it change?
S: Once I hit the point of mastering the game, everything turned from kids play into hardcore thinking. It was fifty or so plays in. At this point I started thinking several moves ahead and I knew all cards in and out. I had no room for mistakes — any little mistake could cost me the game. The tactics changed as well. You start building scenarios in your head and learn when to drop off the opponent's cards.

D: Thank you, Sagad, and thanks to everyone reading all the way to the bottom of this diary. Have fun with the game.

Daniel Skjold Pedersen

P.S.: If you are at SPIEL '17, swing by the Ultra PRO and Jolly Roger Games booth as Asger and I will be there to say hi and demo/sign games on Friday, October 27 at 13:00-14:00 and on Sunday, October 29 at 12:00-13:00.

It feels kind of crazy that we now have three Cold War games
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