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Subject: Here's what would happen if Carcassonne, San Juan, and Ark had a baby rss

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Eagle-Eyed Superhawk
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Theme

The rules do a fine job of summarizing the theme of Irondale: “In Irondale, players are expanding the city of the same name. The city is expanded by constructing buildings, in the form of cards. When the expansion is completed, the player contributing the most to the city’s expansion wins the game!”


Components

Irondale consists of 72 cards divided into three identical 24-card decks: one blue-backed deck, one green, and one brown. Each deck contains exactly one copy of each of Irondale’s 24 buildings.

Every card represents a building. Each card shows the building’s:
• Name
• Type – Commons, Academia, Improvement, or Dwelling.
• Cost – How many other cards you must have in hand in order to play the building.
• Ability – This may affect scoring, limit where you can build, allow you to draw/steal cards, force opponents to discard, or decide who gets the next turn.
• Point Value – One value for each of the four building types; you can choose the best scoring option based on adjacent buildings.
• Master Plan – This consists of two different building types. If you built those types this turn, you may discard a card with the appropriate Master Plan and gain i) 2 points, ii) 2 cards, or iii) a point and a card.

There is an excellent card spoiler on the publisher’s website here. You can get a pretty good idea of how the game works just by clicking through a few of the cards.

The rules are relatively short and concise, contained entirely on one 7”x10” sheet of paper, with graphics to help describe the card components and scoring.

There’s occasionally some seriously funny language in the rules. My favorite sentence: “The second building a player builds must be built either next to the building that the first building was built next to, or next to the first building he built for the turn.” See the Stable card for more linguistic gymnastics: “When the Stable is built or built next to, the next building you would build may be built next to any other building.” But it all makes sense after you push through the repetitions to get to the meaning.

The card art is crisp and functional and easy on the eyes, the lines clean and the colors neutral. The cards are very readable and easy to follow, with one exception: two of the card type symbols in the scoring boxes are a bit hard to differentiate. But each type is always in the same position; once we figured that out it was cake.

The Guild Halls in my copy of Irondale are somewhat blurry. It looks like there was some minor printing error; I don't know if it will extend to other copies. They’re not difficult to read or play with; it’s just a minor distraction.


Playing the Game

Setup
Setup is extremely easy: set out the three decks, place four preset cards in the middle of the table, and deal four cards to each player.

Anatomy of a Turn
1. Draw. You may spend points to draw cards (one point per card). There is a hard hand limit of five which may only be exceeded using the Embassy.

2. Build. Play up to two building from your hand. To play a building you must have a number of cards in hand (not counting the one you’re building) at least equal to the building’s cost (the number in the upper right). You can play adjacent to any card on the board—a la Carcassonne—but some cards restrict what can go next to them. The played building’s ability will trigger, and the abilities of some adjacent buildings may trigger as well.

3. Master Plan. If you played two buildings this turn, and you have a card in hand whose two-symbol Master Plan matches the buildings you played, you can discard it for the 2 card/point bonus. (Remember when I said that the three decks are identical? That was a small lie. Each deck does have one copy of each of the 24 buildings, but each otherwise identical building has a different Master Plan. Everything else on the cards is the same.)

4. Scoring. Scorekeeping is very convenient. The backs of the cards are numbered 1-4 on the brown deck, 5-8 on the green, and 9-12 on the blue. Use the card backs to add your score for the buildings you played plus any master plan points to your point total.

5. Upkeep. Consolidate your points to as few cards as possible. Check for the game-end trigger.

Game End
The game-end trigger is quite simple. Once Irondale reaches a certain size—16 buildings in a 2 player game, 22 for 3 players, and 28 for 4 players—each player gets one last turn. Most points wins, and cards-in-hand is the tie-breaker. Since it’s quite common to play 2 cards per turn, this means that you only get 5 or 6 turns per game on average.


Thoughts

The abilities in Irondale do work well together, taking maximum advantage of the different building types. There is an assortment of creative abilities; the designer really tapped a lot of design space.

While the rules are simple, there’s something of a learning curve with regards to the building abilities; experienced players will have a significant advantage. Irondale felt very solitaire to me at first, and I think that’s because all those abilities felt a bit overwhelming. In fact Irondale is pretty interactive, both in the obvious way—forcing discards, stealing cards and turns—and in kind of an indirect Carcassonnian way—blocking access to powerful buildings, bouncing key cards back to your hand, and shutting off entire sections of the board.

The variety of abilities does mean that Irondale is ripe for analysis paralysis. Each turn you have to determine which buildings you have enough cards to play, which two (or three, with the Hovel) combined will maximize your points, what order to play them in, whether you can complete a Master Plan, and if each of your plays is allowed by adjacent card abilities. It’s a lot to keep track of when planning a turn. If you’ve played Ark, with its jumble of rules regarding what cards can be played, you might have some idea of what an Irondale turn feels like.

The payoff is that after a few games, cohesive strategies begin to emerge. First force discards with the High Court or Thieves’ Den in order to wring more points out of the Exile’s Tower as your second building. Libraries can be used to set up a huge Gate House turn; then add Sage’s Tower to REALLY go bonkers. Use the extra play granted by the Hovel to end the game unexpectedly. And as my wife demonstrated one evening, a Lord’s Stead next to a Bath House takes some setting up but is good for a monster point total.

Irondale scales down well, but two-player plays quite differently from four-player. With more people, the likelihood of making it to your next turn with your hand intact drops like a rock due to the twelve cards (three copies each of four cards) that force discarding. You’re able to plan ahead more in two-player.

I have one noteworthy criticism of the card design. Cards in play fall into three categories: 1) buildings that limit what can be played adjacent (Sanatorium and Lord's Stead, for example), 2) cards that trigger when built next to (Embassy, Library), 3) non-interactive cards (Estate, Sage's Tower). These categories are extremely relevant when planning one's turn.

I think they need different background colors: say gray (a 'dead-zone' color) for placement-limiting cards, red (an 'active' color) for cards that trigger when built next to, and the neutral tan for non-interactive cards. It would be so much easier to take in the board at a glance, knowing which cards to avoid, which to read, and which only require a glance at the building type.

To reiterate my impression of this game: Carcassonne, San Juan, and Ark got together and had a love child named Irondale. But while it is reminiscent of all of these, it really has its own unique identity, with interesting decisions and fairly deep strategy. It’s well worth the price.
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Lyle Williams
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Good review! I agree with your point toward the end of the article about having different color shades on cards to help when looking at the card layout.

My game partner and I have become addicted to playing Irondale. We have not had the opportunity to play with three or four players so far.

One question: Have you had the opportunity to play Wax, Bhazum!, or Tempt by Small Box Games? If so, how would you rate any of these games?

Thanks for taking the time to review Irondale. Keep up the good work!
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Eagle-Eyed Superhawk
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trixie1129 wrote:
One question: Have you had the opportunity to play Wax, Bhazum!, or Tempt by Small Box Games? If so, how would you rate any of these games?


Woof, sorry for the late response. I have not played Wax. Bhazum I've played a few times. It has been a while but I remember it being a solid game.

Tempt, I really liked at first, but my rating has gradually dropped. There's one Temptress card that warps the game, and the turn structure as described in the rules is kind of screwy and counterintuitive. Smallbox Games' Omen: A Reign of War feels like a much much better implementation of the basec Tempt design. Omen is more interesting and elegant.
 
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