Monday, March 15, 2010

Card Game Review - Irondale

If you've never played a game from Small Box Games, you're depriving yourself. The entire company is basically one dude and his wife, and they print everything locally and ship it all over the damned place. The designer, John Clowdus, has a thoroughly twisted mind. Not like baby-oil-and-shaved-badgers' twisted, but more like how-the-hell-did-you-think-of-that twisted. His games are simple to play, once you learn the rules, but they're so unlike anything else that you'll have to read the rules six times before you understand what you're supposed to do. The ironic thing is that the rules are usually one piece of paper. It takes some serious mental hijinks to be able to come up with really simple rules that make perfect sense, but only after you read them repeatedly. I've said before that John's games are absolutely brilliant, even when they suck.

Irondale is classic Clowdus. The cards are kind of cheap, because it's really hard to find a high-quality linen-stock printer willing to do a 100-piece print run. The rules are printed on both sides of a single piece of paper, and the design is all home-grown. Unlike many Small Box Games, Irondale contains only cards, not the copious quantities of hand-assembled pieces that have been in John's game in the past. Since Irondale is part of the Pure Card line, that kind of makes sense. It also makes sense that the Clowdus clan doesn't feel like spending two hours assembling each of 100 games to make enough money to buy a nice meal.

But if the cards are a little on the cheap side, the rules are pure gold. The way the game is built means that you'll make your brain sweat every turn as you try to come up with the highest-scoring combinations as you build the city of Irondale. Each card is a building, and you score points according to the kind of building next to the one you're building now. You can build two buildings on your turn, so often your first play is to set up a big scoring opportunity for your second play. Unless, of course, you're as confused as most of my family, in which case your first play is to put down a card, discover that you can't play it there, then pick it up and stare at your hand a while longer.

To make your head hurt a little more, different buildings do different things. They might offer extra points if you build specific buildings next to them, or let you draw cards, or let you steal stuff from the other players. So now you're not just trying to put down one card to build another card, you're trying to put down the right card in the right spot so you can follow it up with another right card in another right spot, and all the while you're trying to draw more cards and steal from your opponents and get more points and plan for next turn.

In case you're not completely paralyzed with indecision at this point, on the off chance that you're still able to put together a useful play without thirty minutes of pondering, Irondale adds in the master plan. If you build two of the right kinds of buildings on your turn, you can get more points or draw more cards. So now you plan how you'll put down the one card to benefit the second card, all while keeping an eye on all the cards placed so far and trying to walk yourself through the convoluted series of events leading up to your inevitable win. You'll place the bath house next to the gay bar, which will get you two extra points and a social disease, then you'll put the county lockup in the corner formed by the bath house and the Baptist church, which will earn you the eternal gratitude of the Bible-thumping zealots and just might cost you the next election. The jail will let you make other people throw away cards (theoretically, I'm making this up now - there are no gay bars or Baptist churches in Irondale, in case you were wondering), so you'll wait for all the discarding to happen before you reveal your master plan, which was to build a jail and a bath house, which earns you two more points and a jail full of inmates who are more likely to share makeup tips than stab each other.

In case I'm not conveying this properly, Irondale is a very complicated game. The box says it is medium weight, but I think Clowdus lied to us. There is an insane number of elements to consider when you take your turn, and if your brain is not capable of juggling a dozen things at once, you're going to get completely lost. That, or you'll just slap the clown college down next to the military academy and watch the bodies pile up like cordwood. It's incredibly well-designed, and all goes together brilliantly, but it's a hell of a lot to take on board.

Unfortunately, a couple design decisions confuse the hell out of me. The main game play is great, but I fail to understand the purpose behind trading a card away when your turn is over. Not only do the rules not tell me what to do if nobody wants the card, but the trading makes it more difficult to plan for next turn, because it's harder to control what I keep for later. Not to mention the fact that it seems largely pointless. If the game needed to let you toss your old cards to get new ones, it could have just let you discard to draw new cards. That's a fairly simple solution.

The scoring method is particularly wacky. To keep track of your points, you take two cards and line them up next to each other. Spin the 1 so it faces the 11 and you've got 12 points. What the game needs in a desperate way is a scoring track. We kept track of our points on a piece of notebook paper, because this card scoring thing is just unnecessary complication and it looks really silly. I think it might also be the reason that there are three different decks, all containing pretty much the same selection of buildings and making me wonder why half this stuff happened at all.

If I do play Irondale again - and I might, I enjoyed it quite a bit - I'm making some changes. For starters, all the cards go in the same pile, and I don't care what color the backs are. For another thing, we're killing the trade step and just letting you buy new cards with discarded ones. Third, I'm painting the doors on all the outhouses I can find. That actually has nothing to do with the game, it's just a recurring dream I keep having.

I wouldn't say that Irondale is my new favorite game. It's way too tricky to play with most casual gamers. But if you like to do mental calisthenics when you play games, Irondale will rock your world.


So much going on, you'll need to plan ahead for every turn
Brilliant interaction and smart card plays
Neat buildings on the cards

Can be very confusing
Cheap cards
A few questionable design decisions

You can find out what new mad science Clowdus is making all the time at his site:


James Sitz said...

Nice review, Matt. It coincides with my own thoughts.

When reading through the rules, I thought, "wait, what?" A few times, and then I stopped reading and actually tried it out.

Afterwards, I think I said, "whoa, I need to sit down." But I was sitting down.

It's definitely a good game for the types of people who like to min-max the heck out of things and look for fun combos or loopholes.

Todd said...

I bought this one based on your review, and I'm happy with it (even though the rules don't really fit in the box unless you don't mind the flap being half open and stressed).

But I have no idea what you're talking about when you refer to trading cards with other players at the end of your turn. Did I just miss it or did SMG update the rules?


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Anonymous said...

Heya guys, the new print run (May 2011) has better quality cards, artwork and no weird trading rule. The whole thing makes a lot more sense now and I urge you to give it a go.