I’m still impressed by how Ryan Laukat manages to not only design his own games, but also publish them and illustrate them himself. That’s a tremendous amount of work to put into a game by yourself. Now granted this method has its pros and cons. You don’t get the mis-match between theme, mechanics and art that some games will have, but on the flip side, you run a greater risk of mistakes or issues arising in the final production.
City of Iron , the original, was received well by reviewers, but didn’t take off with all the buzz and there were reported issues with it. Now we’ve got a new edition of City of Iron and having not originally played it before, I’m coming in with a fresh outlook into one of Ryan’s earlier ventures. Is this new edition a complete experience that doesn’t require any more tweaking or reboots?
Designer: – Ryan Laukat
Publisher: – Red Raven Games
Ages: – 12+
Time: – 90-120 Minutes
Players: – 2-4
BUILD, CONQUER, SETTLE, HIRE . . .
In City of Iron, players represent one of four nations – The City-State of Arc, Cresaria, The Hog Republic, and the Toads of Om. Yes, you get to be a race of anthropomorphic pigs or toads in this game, no joking, I made many Bucky ‘O’ Hare references while playing Om in my last game. Your aim is to gain economic control and influence over the world, which is primarily determined by your ability to acquire and control the monopoly on 10 different goods that exist. Not all of these goods can be found on your home land though and so you’ll want to explore new locations and create more cities whether by peaceful settlement or military conquest.
Each nation has two decks from which you can gain the expertise of your population in the fields of Military and Citizenry. Each deck has its own particular strength and when played together in your hand it helps formulate your overall strategy to gain economic control and influence over the land.
Each player starts with their home territory and a district which can support five building cards. This is their starting city. In order to expand and grow, players can explore new lands or build more districts which will provide room for more building cards or alternatively, they can attack and conquer the nearby neutral towns for resources and income.
At the end of the round, you build both your decks by purchasing new experts, and drawing them straight into your hand. Playing these on your turn can allow you to explore new territories, purchase buildings, conquer towns, and occasionally take free actions to make your turns more efficient.
City of Iron is seven rounds long, each with four phases which correspond to the four seasons, though there’s no thematic tie-in. It’s just to separate everything out.
Spring (Turn Order Bidding)
Players bid for turn order much akin to the mechanic seen in Five Tribes. Opting to go first will likely cost you some money, but guarantee you get that all important building or land you need. Settling for the back of the line will at least give you a little income boost as compensation.
Where all the nitty gritty happens – players can do one action in turn order for a total of three actions – so you’re only getting 21 normal actions in a game of City of Iron, and you need to make every one count.
- Build by purchasing an available building card from the market. This building gets placed in one of your cities if you have room and if the city has the requisite land type.
- Store Building Cards in their hands and pay for them later – think Splendor for an example.
- Draw a Card from their military or citizen deck.
- Research by paying four coins for one science token. Science is a form of currency for certain building cards and expert actions and ignoring how important these are will be your downfall.
- Play a card from their hand for an Expert Action detailed on the card. Some abilities require skill symbols from other cards (a card can only be used for one purpose) such as distance (compass), strength of arms (guns) and engineering (hammers) and all must be played at the same time.
- Players can Tax and gain one coin (if you’re doing this action then something has gone wrong in your world).
- Attack a Town. There are three stacks of unconquered towns. Each requires a certain amount of Guns and Distance to conquer. The player will play a certain amount of cards to equal the amount of icons necessary to conquer a town and then take the card into their tableau and gain the resources displayed. Each town has an unconquered and conquered side, the latter being what the card flips to when the player takes it. This side has a higher strength value due to the players new fortifications. Other players can attack and take these towns, but it will be harder for them to do so.
This is essentially the admin phase where income and science is collected, scoring takes place (on certain rounds) and board refreshing happens.
Winter (Hiring Experts)
Players purchase new citizen and military cards. After each player makes their decisions about which cards to purchase, they put them face down in front of them. Once everyone is decided, they flip and pay the necessary coins and science tokens – we’ll talk more about this phase later and not in a good way…
THE COLOURS OF THE WIND
As stated, Ryan does all of his own illustrations and it’s no lie that he is talented. All of his games tend to follow a similar style, but wow is City of Iron gorgeous to look at. Bright colours everywhere, attention to detail and a simple graphic design. I’m not sure he left a single colour on the palette out, it’s just so varied. You’ve got humanoids, anthropomorphic toads and pigs, lands that look like something straight out of a fantasy or sci-fi epic (I swear the red nation’s homeland is straight out of the opening to Star Trek Into Darkness) and even a sky differentiation between citizen and military cards.
The board for the most part is eye candy, but it’s a nice touch that it gives you the option to place building cards on the board rather than underneath it and to be honest, you’re going to do that every game as this is one huge table hog. You need space on the table so do not play this on anything small, even your starting city with a few buildings is space intensive.
The roundels for tracking resources are nicely done except you don’t get much space to put your cubes on, and with multiple players it gets a bit fiddly.
7 rounds and 3 actions in each, that’s only 21 actions to perform your strategy and some tasks may take several actions to finish off. Such as setting up to explore a new land, or acquiring the funds and Science tokens to build a new building. It’s an understatement to say that City of Iron is unforgiving in this regard. If you mess up or have something you’ve worked for stolen from you, it’s a major setback. If you don’t like that sort of thing, stay away from City of Iron at all costs, but I feel it’s going to appeal to a lot of Euro players.
I don’t like the Science tokens that are present though. There seems to be too great of a reliance on them as so many buildings and experts have them as part of the cost. Given that they cost 4 coins by normal means and require potentially multiple actions/cards to acquire otherwise, it can really screw up a player if they’re unable to get them easily. It makes grabbing an early Academy almost vital for that one Science token every round, especially for buying Expert cards. It’s a demoralizing feeling to look at your deck and realise you can’t buy 75% of them without a Science token.
CHOOSE YOUR PATH, BUT BRING A GUN
I feel that there are a lot of ways to play City of Iron and it certainly rewards repeated plays. Do I go heavy on exploration, or do I conquer everything? Do I build up a giant city on my home land, or do I monopolise one or two resources earn from that? You don’t notice it at first but slowly all these different paths open up and that’s City of Iron’s strongest feature. It feels like an open-ended civilization game, despite being tight in nature.
I’m also a little concerned that military strategies may be the dominant path of City of Iron. To explore lands, you have to get plenty of cards to meet the requirements and all you get from that land is more space and a new potential point earner at the end (which given that they are all only two points means they’re pretty ineffectual on the ending). To gather resources from buildings in bulk, you need loads of money and science tokens and both are hard to come by quickly.
Whereas with military, all you need is a bunch of Military expert cards and a way to draw them fast. Build them up over time and buy a couple of barracks/slums and you’re pretty much set. Then you get to go to town (figuratively and literally) on the attack which gets you a wide spread of resources and extra income. 3 games have been won thus far with a heavy emphasis on military and it concerns me that maybe it’s a little too easy to exploit that path.
LITERALLY FREEZING THE GAME
Now let’s talk about the Winter phase. At first glance you may think that having all these cool looking Experts to choose from is good for variety and options, and you’d be right. Although, there’s one frozen hell of a downside. The game progresses relatively quickly through the other seasons but when it gets to this stage it grinds to a shuddering halt as every player stares at all these cards, considering options, assessing costs, re-reading all the abilities, etc. It is impossible to avoid analysis paralysis no matter how good you normally are and with more players this phase takes forever to complete; often to the point where one’s engagement is broken. I guarantee you nearly half the game length will take place in this phase alone and as such I’m reluctant to bring this out with 4 players ever again.
Now, not every Expert card is particularly useful I must admit, there are some I will never use depending on the nation I’m playing and some you’ll need in every single game regardless. The balance is a little off here, but on the plus side, it’s less cards to have to stare at constantly in the Winter. This is an area that really needed attention from the changes to 2nd edition.
VERDICT ON CITY OF IRON
City of Iron is unlike any other civilization game you’ll ever play and I mean that in a positive way. Even though you’ll recognise some elements from other games, they work together here to create a hybrid that feels so different as you play and this feeling keeps you engrossed from start to finish… mostly.
The biggest issue relates to the amount of time wasted by the wealth of Expert card options available. Even if the rest of the game goes quickly, the Winter phase will grind it back to a halt and spoil it a lot. Repeated plays will help, but not solve this problem, and as such this is not recommended for new players as they will have a major disadvantage.
Overall, I think this is an extremely tight game. With only 21 actions in the game and such a heavy burden on Science, having something stolen from you or making one wrong move can ruin your day with little recovery possible. The nation cards range from mandatory to almost useless and some unique ones seem a lot better than others. In terms of game strategies, it seems far easier to be militant than peaceful with the former being responsible for far more game wins, which has a negative impact on replayability.
The changes from 1st Edition to 2nd Edition are relatively minor and I don’t agree with all of them, but they did aid in streamlining the experience. City of Iron may not have blown me away as the best civilization game ever, but what it did do was bring me something that I find ultimately more appealing; a sense of uniqueness and innovation within.
YOU WILL LIKE CITY OF IRON IF:
You want a really unique blend of mechanics that are familiar yet handled in a very different way.
You enjoy tight games where making mistakes will cost you.
You enjoy civilization games, but don’t want the three to four hour time length that comes with them.
YOU WILL NOT LIKE CITY OF IRON IF:
You aren’t happy with the changes that have arisen since the first edition.
You struggle with learning a game where you have lots of different cards to absorb from the word go.
You feel that military is too dominant a strategy.
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I'm known as The Broken Meeple, a blog, podcast and YouTube channel devoted to board and card games. I live in Portsmouth, UK, working as a Chartered Tax Advisor and I enjoy playing games of many genres and varieties with as many people as possible.