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Subject: A GFBR Review: Irondale - Depth and Interaction in a Small Package rss

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This week, I had the opportunity to review Irondale by Small Box Games. Not just Irondale, but also both expansions, The City Expands, and The City Complete. First, I should note that John Clowdus, co-owner of SBG and designer of Irondale, was a real pleasure to converse with. He even recommended a few games for me that are published by other companies.

Irondale is part of SBG’s Pure Card line, so all you need is the game itself. This game hits an almost perfect balance between different ideals: putting in enough strategy to keep the game interesting and innovative while at the same time keeping it brief enough that the game doesn’t get old or dull. Irondale was a blast to play and I can see it becoming the new card game de jour in my group.

The Basics. Irondale begins with but four buildings. From there, each player takes turns adding building cards from their hand to the city. They can score points based on what it is built next to, and any special abilities, and then they pass their turn to the next player. When Irondale reaches a respectable size (predetermined based on number of players) everyone gets a final round and the person with the most points wins. That premise is simple enough, but Irondale allows for tons of interaction and strategy.

The first interesting mechanic is that players do not automatically draw cards, as they would in most games. Instead, players must spend their points in order to draw - one point for one card. Because of this rule, buildings that let you draw are very powerful. Each card you draw is a card you don’t have to spend a point for on your next turn. Moreover, if you can play buildings that make other players discard, you are effectively costing them points since they will likely want to draw to replace those cards.

Nearly every building has a "special power" that takes place when it is built. And about half of the buildings also have a special ability that is triggered whenever a building is built next to it. As a result, the placement of your construction within Irondale is supremely important. High Court, for example, will require players to discard cards when built or built next to. If built attached to only one other building, that leaves three sides where your opponents can get you back. Best to build it where it’s already surrounded on three sides, and then build next to it to block it in.

Another interesting aspect of Irondale is that it has three identical decks: Blue, green, and brown. When a player draws, he can draw from whichever deck he pleases. Blue cards aren’t "better" than green or brown. Instead, every card in the game has three copies - one for each deck. So a player can draw from the same deck, and guarantee different cards, or can draw from multiple decks and see if duplicates (that can be devastating) will show up.

The game also says that it is for two to four players. I’ve played it with five without any problem. We simply stopped at the four player limit of 28 buildings. There were enough cards to go around and, with the additional cards from the expansion, I can’t see how playing with more would harm the game experience. Perhaps there are some balance issues that make particular cards "broken" at higher player levels, but for the most part I think it could be played with five or six without incident.

Irondale, as just the base game, is a great activity. But there was a little bit of clunkiness to it in certain aspects. Gate Houses are worth points based on how many Gate Houses are in the game. But there weren’t really enough cards to thin it out. Often, all three gate houses would be built with the last builder really reaping the rewards. Also, it could sometimes be difficult to get rid of an undesirable card that would hold up your master strategy. Happily, both of these issues were addressed perfectly in the expansions.

In the City Expands, it introduces a wealth of new cards. Not only do the cards blend well with the existing set - lending to several new and interesting strategies - but it also watered down the impact of the Gate Houses and other cards that were especially lethal in multiples.

Additionally, when the City Expands, it adds four new modular ways to play. The first includes four new start buildings that are basic (i.e. without any powers). This was helpful because the base game used four specific buildings with "build next to" powers that could really give an advantage to the player going first. Now, play is evened out a bit between the rest of the players. Also, it adds usefulness to the Master Plans. There was a small bonus of two points or two cards before. Now, the player can choose points, cards, extra buildings, or an increased hand limit. And it also provided a way to get rid of unwanted cards (discarding nets the player a point, though that point is then usually used to get another card).

The one piece I didn’t like was the City Square card. This changed the game so that each player is really building his or her own city. Building inside someone else’s city is possible and a good way to throw spite around. And cards that have an impact based on other buildings "in the city" only check for the player’s city in which they are built. In practice, though, players tend to play little games of solitaire which detracted from some of the fun in the base game. Plus, players added the build cost of the buildings in their city to their final score - so building anywhere else ends up being highly discouraged. Luckily, it’s modular and one bad bit out of a brilliant expansion is nothing to complain about.

The City Complete adds a new box capable of holding all of the cards. Except, it’s just sort of a big box. It would be one thing if it was the perfect size to simply put all the cards in it, either face up or on their size, but it’s not big enough for the former and too long for the latter. It might have been nice to separate out the three decks into the base box, the City Expands box, and a new City Complete box, but the City Complete doesn’t include a box that size. While it’s certainly nice that it’s all in one place, my gamer’s OCD acts up a bit when I try to arrange the cards in the City Complete box.

The expansion does hit the perfect tone in cards, though. It adds just the right amount of new cards (much fewer than in the previous expansion), but they are targeted to a needed area. The Gardens, for example, allow players to get new cards - a vital lifeline, especially late game, while Rubble allows the player to build over an area of the city - great for reusing "build next to" powers that had previously been boxed in. While their use is defintely situational, they are situations that come up and are well served by the additional expansion. The City Complete also includes new rules (better than my house rules) for people who have cards discarded and can neither build nor draw cards (because they have no points) on the first turn.

Components: 3 of 5. As a Pure Card game, the cards are really the only thing to judge in this category. The cards are durable and have a nice gloss. They are a little thinner than I’d like - which allows a little bending from aggressive shufflers (you know who you are!) - but they are completely serviceable and I have no worry about permanent damage. The City Complete box is a little oddly sized, and the rules booklets are small, folded paper inserts. While clear and concise, their double-sided folded nature does make referring to them mid-game a bit of a pain.

Strategy/Luck Balance: 4 of 5. As a card game, Irondale features a significant amount of luck. Sometimes you draw good cards, and sometimes you get things that would have been helpful a turn ago. That’s just the nature of the beast. However, once the cards are in your hands, Irondale provides a fantastic array of strategic choices. There are cards that hurt others, cards that help you, and of course, the "build next to" cards. So even if what you have is suboptimal, you can use what is already out there. Plus, there is no "overpowered" card. There are several good combinations, but there isn’t a single "god-mode" that signals game over for everyone else.

Mechanics: 4.5 of 5. Every expansion of Irondale improves upon the base game. By the time City Complete rolls around, this game is darn near perfection. Each card is simple, yet conveys a wealth of information. Master Plan, build cost, points based on what it’s built next to, and special ability text. With the addition of the the City Expands, there are so many choices to be made, not only with building placement, but also with what will be discarded and how Master Plans will take effect. If there is any negative here, it is only that there is a lot of in-game text. Players familiar with the game will be able to make choices more quickly than a newcomer who will have to read every card as it is played.

Replayability: 5 of 5. Irondale is extremely replayable. Every game is different as each player builds his or her piece of Irondale. The city looks different each time and gives rise to different combo powers. Sometimes players focus on hurting their rivals, other times it comes down to a few massive point plays. The experience is very different from game to game and the opportunities are similarly unique.

Spite: 2.5 of 5. There are many, many spite cards in this game. I would estimate that between 40-50% of the cards hurt other players - principally by making them discard in one way or the other. But, at the same time, it’s hard to give this game a high spite rating because, with rare exception, there is no targeted spite. All of the spite cards impact all of the other players - not one targeted individual. Thus, you don’t have games where the players can gang up on one player or where the leader can be stopped purely through spite. At the same time, be prepared to discard your good cards from time to time.

Overall: 4.5 of 5. Irondale is fun, and fun every time. With the additional cards from the expansions, there are so many potential combinations of cards and powers that every game is a unique experience. Really, Irondale’s two expansions shouldn’t be thought of as merely "new rules" or simply "new cards" like many expansions are. Instead, it should be viewed as a single game which, through two expansions, has reached a near perfection of entertainment. The amount of interaction and depth of strategy is remarkable - especially considering this game can be played in about thirty minutes. If you are a fan of card games, as I am, it would be hard for me to recommend a game more highly.

* A special thanks to Small Box Games for providing a review copy of Irondale and its expansions.
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Scott Everts
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Nice review! I got this awhile back and just got the City Complete expansion. Still need to get it played. Thanks for giving me the extra push to get it played soon!

One thing that would be cool is an updated, complete manual that has everything in it. Having the rules spread out between three manuals makes it harder to reference rules. Plus some rule changes were added in the expansions. I'd love a new one that I can print out and not have folded into a tiny square!
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Lyle Williams
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Good review! I recently purchased Irondale and played it several times during the past three days. Everything you say about the game in the review is true. Irondale has fantastic replayability and it plays differently each time.

Having purchased and played Irondale, Bhazum!, and Wax from Small Box Games, I highly recommend all three games to those who enjoy card games.

Thanks for taking the time to review Irondale. Keep up the good work!
 
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