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Subject: A Bottom Shelf Board Game Review of City of Iron rss

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Alex Singh
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City of Iron is a pretty game. Every character and every background, every landscape and every creature, even the fonts and symbols are handsomely created and will no doubt garner praise from even the most casual of observers. And while these individual pieces of art stand without peer on their own, taken as a collective whole, they sell the players on the grand vision of designer/artist Ryan Laukat's world. Whether it's the yak-like srika roaming turnip fields, or monstrous tentacles being harvested from the ocean, there is just enough familiarity throughout this steampunkish world to keep the player grounded but enough mystery and wonder to keep players eager to explore. Luckily, the game behind the art is more than able to take you on this journey.


The bidding and player order track

Overview

City of Iron has you controlling one of four humanoid races in an effort to grow your fledgling city-state into a vast empire. In this world, power equals resources. Whoever can control the various resources will be rewarded not only with economic riches, but also precious Victory Points. These resources vary from the relatively mundane and abundant turnips to the exotic and scarce demons in a bottle. Control the resources, control the world.

Each round begins with an auction for turn order, with the player who went last in the previous round starting things off. In my experience, money was tight enough to keep bidding to a minimum and often resulted in a simple reversal of turn order. Only occasionally would a player feel the need to turn things up a notch and bid big. The auctions serve to give players some agency over their own fate and take turn order into their own hands if they willing to pay a price. The auctions are short, fast and purposeful.


After player order is established, everyone will take turns establishing their empire. There are two paths to take in your quest to rule the world: internal and external expansion. Every player begins with a city in their own little corner of the world and you can choose to improve it on your turn by purchasing buildings from the central board. Do you buy the moss garden and claim an early stake in the thriving moss pillow market? Or perhaps turnip farms are more your style? A market for demon traders seems legit, right? These are all well and good. Not only do they provide you the valuable resources to collect victory points, but they also provide you a steady income. Even still, you may decide to invest in the people of your city by building an academy which in turn provides you science tokens which can be used to buy even better buildings in the future. Or how about a theater to entice your citizens to serve you more often?


Available buildings to purchase

The options are plentiful and varied and each choice you make will define your empire. You can build early and often, cranking out low end goods such as turnips and ore creating a profitable industrial complex. Or you could pamper your citizens and focus on a few lucrative high end goods.

There are limits to your growth however. Each city has a limit of five buildings. Once you reach the limit, you can increase the size of your city by building districts or founding new cities. Founding cities requires the exploration of other lands and again you are faced with a choice. Explore the tame plains and deserts or venture far and away to the edge of the world which allows you craft valuable resources such as silks.


Various lands to explore and found cities in


But why spend expend all your effort gathering resources and income when you can just take it? Military expansion is an equally viable method to bolstering your budding empire. In addition to the four aspiring superpowers controlled by the players, there are neutral towns scattered throughout, living off of the profits of their own resource production. By annexing towns you not only claim these profits for yourself, you also control the resources produced which are ultimately needed to win the game. If only military life were so simple. While attacking another another player's city is off limits, attacking a previously conquered town is fair game. This makes for a lot of posturing and tense back and forth. Timing is critical as you don't want to have a town taken from you before collecting your resources and income from it.


Independent towns waiting to be conquered


At the end of every round, players receive any income they are due and victory points if it is a scoring round. And then, In one of City of Iron's most interesting elements, you will have an opportunity to recruit characters into your fold who will aid you with various specialties and abilities.. These characters are split into two types: citizens and military personnel. Of the two, the citizens have the more varied abilities and focus on improving your city or increasing your funds. The Junk Bot, for example, lets you search the discard pile for any building you'd like and the Tax Collector gives you an easy boost to your coffers. The Military characters are a little more straight forward and allow you to conquer more powerful profitable towns. The abilities of these characters will define the focus of your empire and differentiate yourself from your neighbors. The choice of who to recruit is difficult, meaningful and has far reaching consequences. It also comes at a cost. Every coin spent on recruitment is one less coin to be used in the following round. Not so bad if you're just planning an attack, but it can be crippling if you really need to purchase a building.

Overall, the character cards work beautifully and if I had to choose my favorite aspect of City of Iron it would be the this. It's unique, challenging and allows you to customize your empire as you see fit. Even the way character cards are drawn into your hand offers something new and interesting to think about. The deck from which you draw your recruited character cards is never shuffled and you are free at any time to look through it so you know which characters will be drawn next. And when you discard them, you do so in any order that you wish, allowing you to influence the order of which they will be drawn in the future.


The character cards


Conclusion

The character cards are City of Iron's greatest strength, but they are also the source of most of its flaws. The first time you are exposed to the majority of them is after the first round and it does so in a heavy handed manner. You get to sift through the entirety of the character cards in the game. Even when you've been accustomed to their abilities over repeated plays, the choice can be overwhelming. It can be a lot to take in and a lot to plan for all at once, but luckily this is done by all players simultaneously so down time isn't a big concern. They can also take a bit of time to execute on your turn especially when contrasted with other options you have such as drawing a card or taxing which take all of five seconds. Not only do you have to play out the cards and their repercussions, you then have to think about the order in which you will discard them adding even more time to the other players' wait.

Another eccentricity brought on by the character cards is the fact that players will tend to bury their head in their hand of cards or shuffle through the available characters instead of looking up at the other players and engaging with them. It wasn't constant, but it was noticeable. Normally, this would be a negative mark against a game for me, but I was always fascinated and engaged with my character cards that I could overlook it.

There's also an excellent sense of escalation in City Iron. Whether it's turning your meager turnip churning city into a factory filled industrial powerhouse or taking your small militia of foot soldiers and adding iron dragons and magicians to the fold, the sense of growth is present and tells a compelling narrative of your humble beginnings into (hopefully) the most powerful empire in the world.

City of Iron isn't prefect, but it's is very good. The choices are meaningful and the options plentiful. Like any game with multiple routes to victory, if a single player is allowed to pursue one avenue unfettered they will likely win. But this is a small price to pay for the ability to head out in the directions of your choice and is easily countered with the awareness and aggressive play.

City of Iron is a pretty game. Thankfully, it's also a good one.

http://www.bottomshelfboardgames.com/
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Jer Wolfe
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Very well done! I was always on the fence because of the easy path to victory with military and especially using the race Hogmen, from the myriad of complaints from the community.

Even rahdo said military was way to powerful and if left unchecked made for a one sided game, but in a rare instance he redid his thoughts after being contacted by the designer, Ryan. He was shown different strategies that were just as viable as military.

My only question would be if these other strategies are indeed viable then why does almost all the complaints focus on the one sided military? We don't have the designers ear like some people so if this game is balanced, as Ryan claims, then why the need to sway opinions? Even you stated "if left unchecked" but is that not true in a myriad of games, like the culture track in Nations, or the gods track in Tzolk'in?

Just trying to grasp, without playing the game yet, why the bad press about one sided military? And the need for the designer to contact and explain other strategies? Is that not one of the challenges of playing strategy games like that? If anything the designer contacting rahdo and having to show viable startegies, other than military, had the reverse effect on me, than I assume Ryan thought rahdo's original final thoughts had on us all.

I play about 50/50 of my games with my wife, so she loved Tzolk'in until someone beat both of us, soundly by a spread of 80+ points by doing nothing but god actions and only focusing on that acpect of the game. It basically broke what was at that time, as I said previously, her favorite game. Granted this other player is your typical min/maxer that eats and breathes BGG strategies, but making this rich and varied game just a lesson in min/max was to much for her.

I mean to say my wife is no slouch in the strategy dept, she found a major error in Kings of Air and Steam during a playthrough. She figured out all you needed was 2s and 3s for movement and upgrade your train fully along with placing all your depots and never upgrading your blimp. Then you should win 99% of the time, unless the other players do the exact same thing. Then all the game is from that point, is the different market prices and who got randomly lucky during setup of the market.

I see City being the same way, regards to it would boil down to min/max and I see military being that "gods track". What were your player counts, and frequencies? I want to like this game I really do but I was sorely disappointed with Ryan's other game Empires of the Void. But I do not see or read of the issues I had with EotV being any aspect of City of Iron.

From your excellent review it does seem that the game may have that Tzolk'in issue, but as I alluded to earlier don't most strategy type games have that aspect of if someone is left unchecked? So why all the negative focus on military in this game, unless it is a bit more than "left unchecked". I would really like to know but so far the fence is where I guess I will be staying for a bit longer, even with your excellent review of hopefully a stellar game for me and my game group. Just not sure.

EDIT- Sp.
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Jennifer Schlickbernd
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Because people play a game once, make a profound judgement, and then move on. Military is there, so they must use/abuse it, so it works against a set of new players, so now it's broken.

People don't trust designers (with good reason because of historical game design horrors) and so if an obvious strategy works the first time against equally inexperienced players, then it must be 'broken'. My issue is that people don't seem to be able to do deeper analysis, every game is definitive proof of such-and-such and won't actually look hard at games to see what's really possible.

Back in the day, there were fewer games and more trust. I could just imagine what BGG would do to Advanced Civilization if it were released today, it would be destroyed.

City of Iron is one of the few Kickstarter games I still own and enjoy playing, there is a lot more to it than meets the eye.
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joel hansen
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City of Iron has tight final scores among experienced players. Different strategies are all viable to get those points. I appreciated what you said about, "if left unchecked".

I guess if players choose to ignore where other people are on the production tracks, or which endgame bonuses someone else is likely to get, then the end game could be surprisingly skewed in favor of the person who has the most of those endgame bonuses.

It hasn't happened in my plays. In fact lately, it seems that simply exploring enough cities to get the "most distance" endgame bonus has been enough for me to win against a military-focused strategy, because the end game scores are just that tight usually.

Something else to note: My copy of the game has a small set of special town that you can conquer. Putting those cards into the game really does change the game. I am wondering if people who claim the military strategy is so strong are using those.

They really ramp up the power of the military strategy. But they are an optional expansion, so I don't think that people should be reviewing the balance of the base game based on a set of what are really promo cards in my understanding.
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Jer Wolfe
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@Jennifer
@Joel

Thank you both for your replies.
So it seems I could beat Mr min/max (or any player that focuses on Military) with strategies that are apparent, but most players don't facilitate them fully or just ignore them and go for the easy strategy?

What were the player counts in your games? I'm asking because the wife loves Ryan's art I see me playing this more with her and the occasional gamer friend that comes over.
My normal game groups is usual 5-6 so City would not even be considered on a typical game night.

As I said My wife loves Ryan's art, but his other game, while beautiful, just left us hollow like we were playtesting a prototype with balance issues.
I really don't want a repeat of the pretty but, runaway leader issue.

Regardless thanks you both for your comments and insights, it is nice to hear the other side once in a while.
Which Is why I really appreciated Alex's review and wanted to comment.
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Alex Singh
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First of all, thanks for the responses, discussion and thumbs. This was my first review and I was a bit apprehensive about posting it.

Wolfe13 wrote:
My only question would be if these other strategies are indeed viable then why does almost all the complaints focus on the one sided military? We don't have the designers ear like some people so if this game is balanced, as Ryan claims, then why the need to sway opinions? Even you stated "if left unchecked" but is that not true in a myriad of games, like the culture track in Nations, or the gods track in Tzolk'in?


I've by no means mastered the strategy of this game, but I didn't find the military too powerful. It is a very straightforward path to victory and definitely strong, but it's available to everyone equally. Economic expansion is a little bit more nuanced to do well.

Both strategies will lead to easy victory if left unchecked. This is not a solitary game. You are trying to control the world's resources and you have to keep an eye on what your neighbors are doing. Denial, turn order and player attacks should be used to the detriment of your opponents as much as to your benefit.

That said, I have not played two players, only three and four and from my experience I don't see myself playing a two player game of this, but I will glad line up for a three or four player version. I'd need some time gathering my thoughts as to why I wouldn't play with two if you're interested.
 
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Jer Wolfe
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@Alex

Yes, very much so!
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Alex Singh
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Wolfe13 wrote:
@Alex

Yes, very much so!


Let me preface my thoughts by stating again that I haven't played a two player game. My reasons for avoiding a two player session doesn't have much to do with any balance issues (perceived or otherwise) and more to do with the two player games I enjoy. At its fundamental core, City of Iron is an area majority game. Most area majority games don't appeal to me as two player games. It becomes a game of tit for tat. I take a one point majority, you take a one point majority. I'll take control of this and you can have that.

For a game that has a such a strong developmental narrative, this aspect doesn't sit well with me. The idea of two superpowers going back and forth over resources like petulant children doesn't feel in line with the tone of the game I got from the plays I got with 3 and 4 players.

Perhaps a dummy player would alleviate this feeling or a doling out points based on how much control you have rather than an all or nothing approach would change things. But this is a problem for most area majority games with 2 in general.

I didn't have as much time to gather mu thoughts as I would have liked, but I hope that helps.
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Jared Quist
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I have played several games of City of Iron. I have played with 2, 3, and 4 players. I would agree that with an inexperienced group of players the "military strategy" is overpowered, but it only takes one game, with one player abusing it, before everyone else realizes that they need to get in on the military action too. City of Iron is incredibly balanced, but just like any game you need to take the time to understand all of your strategy options.

In City of Iron military is good, but if you put all of your money into military then you will not have enough money to spend on buildings that give you even more resources, or you won't have the ability to expand your civilization and will quickly run out of space for more production. The "military strategy" takes a lot of investment, and only minimal payout. It is very hard to maximize your points using it because you get fewer resources attacking towns than you do from building buildings. At best you will be able to have a majority on one or two resources, but will be lucky to get second on all the others.

To sum up, the "military strategy" only works if you are the only one attacking towns, otherwise you are trying for a really tough win.
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Jer Wolfe
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@everyone

Update-
I now own City and our first 2 player game was a 2 point diff. My wife used the Hogs and I used Arc, she won.
Should have bought that +3VP silk building instead of cards for the measly 2VP, would have tied then and the tb would have gone to... most coins, sigh her... Lol

Anyone on the fence, I am here to tell you this is by far the most beautiful, best quality of components and well balanced game, so take the plunge!
The majority of BGG buzz about one sides victories/balance issues, are just plain wrong. You just have to find other paths to victory, most challenging!
Additionally, we did not even use the bonus towns, but will next game... ninja

Thanks to all who replied here and pushed me off the fence, by far my favorite game to date... Thanks again!!
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Alex Singh
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In glad to hear you enjoyed it. It really is a great game. Hopefully you get a chance to play with 4 and let us know how it differs in your experience.

Wolfe13 wrote:
@everyone

Update-
I now own City and our first 2 player game was a 2 point diff. My wife used the Hogs and I used Arc, she won.
Should have bought that +3VP silk building instead of cards for the measly 2VP, would have tied then and the tb would have gone to... most coins, sigh her... Lol

Anyone on the fence, I am here to tell you this is by far the most beautiful, best quality of components and well balanced game, so take the plunge!
The majority of BGG buzz about one sides victories/balance issues, are just plain wrong. You just have to find other paths to victory, most challenging!
Additionally, we did not even use the bonus towns, but will next game... ninja

Thanks to all who replied here and pushed me off the fence, by far my favorite game to date... Thanks again!!
 
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