Wot I Think: Ironclad Tactics

By Rich Stanton on September 25th, 2013 at 9:00 pm.


The American Civil War was a pretty big deal over there, I hear, and Ironclad Tactics poses a profound question about it. What if, instead of all that boring nonsense about bondage and confederacies, it was really all about robots? And what if, for example, the Native Americans had robots too with tomahawks and ting? Wouldn’t that be pretty awesome?

The answer is that yes, yes it would.

Ironclad Tactics is a card game which doesn’t really play like a card game. This is more reminiscent of Plants Vs Zombies, with two armies battling across five lanes to get their Ironclads to the other side and score Victory Points. The Ironclads are of course robots, and make up the backbone of these beautifully-stylised factions – each one a little collection of Civil War miniatures, pootling and chugging along until, with a bloody splat, they collide.

Your units, tactics and parts take the form of cards, with your hand being replenished as each turn rolls over. There are six factions total and these further subdivide into Ironclads and infantry. The Ironclads are hulking radiation-powered robots that can squish infantry simply by walking over them, as well as equipping various guns and headpieces – and are also the only units that can earn Victory Points by reaching the opponent’s end. There are tonnes of different Ironclads – armoured, cheap, fat, dancing, hidden – and a bevvy of loadout options, meaning you can end up with some pretty funny lineups. I’m a fan of a trumpet-playing armoured frontline, buffing up a fragile cannon-toting rear, perhaps even with a woodchipper up front to slow the enemy advance.


In the face of this it’s pretty impressive that the infantry can, if used correctly, hold their own. They do less damage and can’t be augmented in the same manner as Ironclads, but are also much cheaper and capable of capturing flags (which give you more Action Points to play cards) and traversing certain terrain that the robots can’t. They’re definitely support rather than the meat of the army, and will get crushed in straight-up fights, but have a tricksy side to them – like the Zouave, a rifleman that can duck incoming fire, or the Fox Runner, a scout that can suddenly whip out a rifle.

The campaign is sizeable and, after the first few levels, structured around unlocking cards by fulfilling different criteria – so one level might challenge you to squish at least four infantry with Ironclads, or protect a statue on the field, and so on. This gives the game an odd though not unpleasant rhythm whereby you kind of steam through two or three levels, then go over them again with custom decks to wring out all of the possible cards.


Some might have a problem with this, because you don’t really have an option – to have a decent experience in multiplayer, you need to unlock cards. But Ironclad Tactics’ decks are efficient beasts consisting of only two factions and twenty cards, so building a deck for each level isn’t the big timesink it would be in other CCGs. The deck builder helps, too, with all the cards and filtering options presented clearly; once you’ve got the hang of things, it takes a couple of minutes at most to chuck together a specialised task force for any troublesome objectives.

The Ironclad Tactics campaign also has two subsidiary modes that are clever in theory but badly let down by their restrictions. Skirmish and Nemesis let you play most of the levels against another player, with one of you taking the role of the baddies and, in the case of Nemesis, using a specially-constructed boss deck. What a brilliant idea.


In practice these modes may as well not be in the game, because they’re restricted to friends only – that is, you need someone on your Steam friends list who also has the game and has played through the campaign to the same point you have. I didn’t, so I ended up adding random folk from forums in a desperate attempt to try out these modes and only succeeded in getting two games – it was a ballache, the kind of thing you shouldn’t ever have to do.

The real problem is that you’re not just missing out on these modes, but they actively hinder your progress in building a killer deck – every Skirmish and Nemesis challenge has unlockable cards associated with it, which obviously you can’t get if you can’t play. The few games I was able to get were fun because of the super-specific objective-based levels, but this badly needs patching to make use of the game’s random 1vs1 matchmaking. At the very least it should let you play against a tough AI to have a chance at the card unlocks. As it is these modes are a real frustration.


As all of this suggests you can’t play online, really, before finishing the Campaign. You just don’t have the cards, and later cards walk all over their earlier equivalents. This isn’t a huge problem, not least because the campaign’s gimmicks do a good job of forcing you to throw together troubleshooter decks, so you’ll have a good idea of potential playstyles. I favoured a mix of the Confederate and Native American factions, the former offering simple brute force and offensive variety while the latter have some of the best custom Ironclads in the game.

The Random 1vs1 matchmaking has a healthy playerbase, and the ongoing reward of a new faction’s cards unlocking one-by-one as you stack up the wins. As Ironclad Tactics begins to reveal its depths the value of certain units shoots through the roof. I didn’t use ‘concealed’ Ironclads, which can be deployed behind an existing Ironclad anywhere on the board, much in Campaign – but online, when you need one more VP, they’re absolutely killer.

The time constraints on each turn, which don’t feel too tight in Campaign, suddenly begin to throw all sorts of wrenches in the works and it’s no exagerration to say entire matches often hinge on one bad move. One of the best aspects of Ironclad Tactics is how its system plays out in a turn-based manner, with defined periods for movement, actions, deaths etc – but the game never pauses. That is, you’re able to queue moves to happen at just the right interval or, in the worst case scenario, get your timing wrong and screw moves up.


The best thing about Ironclad Tactics online is that it’s surprising. I hadn’t been using the jetpack Ironclads much, more fool me, until an online opponent turned up with a deckfull and promptly zoomed up to my poor troopers and squished ‘em. Though the maps are assiduously symmetrical, there are also a variety of rules – so you can be playing straight-up, with the addition of flag areas to gain extra AP, or you might be in a blitz game that starts each player with 30AP and you only need 2 victory points to win.

The main problem with Ironclad Tactics multiplayer is one common in card games, from Magic all the way down. This is that, when one player gets in a leading position, they’re far too often unassailable and the match has a lingering death. In Ironclad Tactics’ case this is because you can basically camp out your opponent’s spawning squares, and then slowly win over five or ten minutes of blowing away everything they send in while building up a ginormo-army behind your frontline.

It’s basically asphyxiation, strategy-style, and I’ve both done it and had it done to me. There is an argument that if you end up in such a position you somehow deserve it due to bad play, but to my mind one bad move should not make for a slow death with little hope of escape. And as a player it puts you in an uncomfortable position. I’ve been in games where I knew for a fact I could win by being a dick, basically, and throttling off my opponent’s entry squares – if you do it, you feel like a bad man, and if you don’t then you’re no longer playing competitively.

The fact that finely-poised matches can utterly tip one way with a bad move isn’t the problem, so much as the match then taking ages to reach the foregone conclusion. But I don’t want to overstate the issue because Ironclad Tactics otherwise seems quite balanced and this is a flaw across nearly every strategic card game.


One thing I will say in mitigation is that I had a longer list of issues with Ironclad Tactics; people leaving matches resulted in a draw, there were one or two cards that seemed ridiculous, and a few limbo-like matchmaking issues. And then, on Tuesday morning, a patch dropped that solved all of this – so developer Zachtronics is both paying attention and committed to fixing problems.

Ironclad Tactics is a streamlined take on deck-building that still manages to offer huge variety in its armies, and beyond all of that has great sound effects when you squish little dudes under hulking behemoths. I hate to finish off like the guy advertising cheezey peas, but this is one of those cases where, if you like CCGs and lane-based strategy games, you’ll love Ironclad Tactics.

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28 Comments »

  1. lordcooper says:

    “CCGs and lane-based strategy games”

    I generally dislike both of these things, yet find this game oddly brilliant. Give it a go!

  2. Jenks says:

    Rich did you get a chance to try the co-op mode? My main interest in this game would be to play through the campaign with the wife, I’m wondering if that is possible and how well it plays.

    • Patrick says:

      I bought it day one (I got the 2 pack and shared with with my brother). We have played 6 hours so far all on co-op. I find the experience quite fun. The way it works is similar to the single player. There are still 5 lanes. However, each players has their own deck and each players gets half the AP. This means that, if you want, each player can specialize their decks. For example one player can bring Ironclads and guns and the the other can bring infantry. We have had a lot of fun.

      One note, you do have to communicate a bit (which I think is good) if both players try to make the same move at the same time (play a unit in the same lane for example) the person who did it second will fail to make their move as it is invalid.

  3. Hypnotron says:

    pootling?

    what is pootling? does it involve a change of underpants?

  4. President Weasel says:

    I bought it because of Spacechem and rather enjoyed it, although the story is a tad short. The challenges and multiplayer should make up for that, plus if Zachtronics had just said “we made Spacechem, would you mind giving us some more money?” I would have said “you had me at Spacechem, Zachtronics”.

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    darkChozo says:

    I really enjoyed this game, played through the campaign with challenged at a rate that I haven’t really done in a while. Really scratches my itch for card game mechanics without introducing too much metagame overhead, something which I avoid by preference. Some criticisms (of the campaign, don’t particularly care about the multiplayer):

    1. Felt a bit short, not in terms of value of money, but in terms of pacing. I dunno why, but it felt like they left a lot of stuff unexplored.
    2. Was a bit heavy on counters. Most of the missions felt like a lost cause on your first go unless you were lucky, because it was usually necessary to build your deck in a certain way to have a chance (ie. one mission was built around hiding infantry behind heavy ironclads, so if you don’t have AOE you’re screwed. Another required you to bypass armored obstacles, so you either need lots of mobility or 2+ damage weapons or you’re screwed.), and there was no way to know what you’d face until you’d already played the mission. May or may not be an issue in multiplayer, but it felt like a lot of rock paper scissoring (infantry > slow ironclads/singleshot weapons > fast ironclads/AOE > infantry).

    Still, it was tremendous fun.

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    Gap Gen says:

    Every game should have Zouaves. I’d buy Call of Duty: Gun Penis 2 if it had bearded men with orange trousers.

    • President Weasel says:

      These zouaves have natty hats that get knocked off by bullets, then they quickly put them back on for the next shot. A really likeable little animation that made me and my co-op partner say something along the lines of “ha, that’s really good” (sorry, we weren’t speaking for posterity at the time),

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        Gap Gen says:

        At least you weren’t commenting on the enemy’s ability to hit an elephant at a given distance.

        EDIT: So the French actually sent people into battle dressed like that as late as WWI. Although I’ve heard that if it weren’t for the Boer War being a big old exercise in ways to fuck up militarily, Britain might have sent its troops into the trenches dressed in red.

  7. Shadow says:

    “The real problem is that you’re not just missing out on these modes, but they actively hinder your progress in building a killer deck – every Skirmish and Nemesis challenge has unlockable cards associated with it, which obviously you can’t get if you can’t play.”

    I need to clarify something about this, since it could be misunderstood by people unfamiliar with the game: in most cases, playing Skirmish or Nemesis unlocks the fourth instance of a given card you most likely already have 3 of, if you’ve done the other SP-friendly challenges.

    Making the distinction is important, since people could otherwise think this is a much bigger deal than it is, that you miss out on a considerable number of unique cards if you don’t/can’t play multiplayer. That’s not the case.

  8. malkav11 says:

    I didn’t even really notice this game existed, much less that it was from Zachtronics. Now I must have it.

  9. Triplanetary says:

    I don’t know, I’ve been giving this game the cold shoulder because when I first saw the title “Ironclad Tactics” on Steam, I got excited thinking it was going to be a turn-of-the-century naval warfare simulation, and then I clicked on it and was dismayed to instead see a bunch of steampunk bullshit.

    But on the other hand, I didn’t know until now that it was made by the developer of Spacechem. I do love Spacechem.

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    stahlwerk says:

    Will playing this game somehow, by any chance improve my Dominion skills?

    Also huzzah! for Zachtronics, huzzah! for Spacechem!

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    shinygerbil says:

    Did an RPS article just use the phrase “and ting”?

    Bluuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuud

  12. MadTinkerer says:

    Now we need a good English Civil War game with robots. Or at least a good French Revolution game with robots.

    Oh no, I just thought of Steampunk Les Mis: Do you hear the clockworks tick? Turning the cogs of angry bots! It is the clicking of the gizmos who now have independent thought!

  13. RSeldon says:

    Just got this yesterday. Not far in but it’s very charming so far.

    EDIT: Bah, I don’t know how to make links work right now. But the 100% Achievements Guide someone wrote for it is a truly inspired piece of literature.

  14. snikolenko says:

    In 1-on-1 games, the “hopeless prolonged death” problem has a very simple solution: just resign. If Ironclad Tactics doesn’t have this option, it really should.

  15. aphazard1 says:

    You can resign a match, very easily.

    I wanted to like this game, it has a lot of interesting ideas and the theme is rather charming. But I just did not like the experience at all. Look at the images in the article — the “not enough action points” showing on every card in most of them. That is 99% of the game — sitting around uselessly, unable to take any actions. When I play a game, I like being able to actually do something more frequently than rare occasions.

    It also seemed that the AI was not playing by the same rules I was, either with its deck or with action points. The deck issue may just be that early in the campaign you don’t have a wide enough range of cards to build the required 20 without including a number of less useful ones. But the action points problem is game breaking (to me, anyway, obviously lots of others have no problem).

    Disappointing. I don’t regret trying the game and sending more cash to the devs of the brilliant and enjoyable Space Chem, which has provided me with many hours of fun. But still, disappointing.

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