City of Iron, a game by Ryan Laukat, impresses not only with its gameplay – which is deep and intriguing – but with its sense of aesthetic cohesiveness. This is a game designed from the ground-up, brick by brick, until it hangs together as a statement of the designer's artistic intent. The art, by the designer, tells a story of a steampunk world populated by varied strange factions. The game itself tells a story of struggle and greed, and the allure of evil. I like it very much.
CITY OF IRON
There is quite a lot going on in this design, but most of it is driven by cards. In fact, the game looks sprawling when it is on the table – you will need a generously sized table to accommodate the board and all four players – but everything that's laid out is really only there to track the state of the game. The game itself is in a deck of cards, and the decisions you make when using those cards. You stare at your hand, you choose what you like from your deck, you draw and discard, and explosions of choice splash across the table.
The game is beautiful. The colours streak across the field of play like some gorgeous alien mural. Landscapes and clouds and water and fire and desert and pigs and toads and robots and silks and salts and crystals and rats as far as the gamer's eye can see.
But beauty is not restricted to the game's artwork. There is real beauty in this game's systems, and in how they push on a player to make crucial decisions at every junction.
The game takes place over seven rounds, each of which sees a player take three actions. There is, then, only 21 actions that a player can take in the entire game. That maybe speaks to how tight this game feels. It is, let's just say straight away, a game that can only improve with repeated plays. There's no way you can fully switch out a chosen strategy within one session. This is a game to be experimented with, poked at, and is therefore a game that might allow a player to excel at it.
On a basic level, the game is about building structures in cities that you control. You begin the game with your home city, which can hold five buildings. These buildings can be bought from a central pool of cards. Your city will also spit out Citizens and Military Units, cards that you draw from a deck. As the game progresses, you will recruit more Citizens and more Units into that deck using the money and research that your society produces.
When you build, you pay a cost and buy a card. An Academy, for example, will spit out Science tokens at the end of the turn. (These Science tokens are essential for building certain other buildings, and recruiting certain types of characters/cards.) A Turnip Farm will grow turnips. A Mine will produce gold. As players build structures that produce resources, they will track how much of these resources they produce on the board – and players will compete throughout the game to produce the most of these resources. Being the best turnip farmer, or best silk producer, or the master of machine parts, will generate bonus coin and influence when the game reaches a scoring round.
This battle over resources is a key element of the game. Players win by having the most influence, and controlling these resources is where most of that influence will come from. The resources also work in all manner of interesting ways too – if you recruit a Merchant, for example, you can choose whichever resource you control the most of and use your Merchant to convert that number into coins. You do this by using an Expert Action.
Expert Actions are where you use your Experts, the people you've recruited into your deck of cards. Maybe it's a Tax Collector, who will instantly generate money. Maybe it's an Architect, who can tear down a building you already own and instantly build a new one. And maybe it's an explorer, who can travel off to discover new cities.
See, you only get to build five buildings in your initial city. Spoiler – that won't be enough. So at some point you'll send a recruited Explorer out with some others to settle a new city so you can continue to expand. And here's where your control over your deck of cards is crucial. As you recruit new people into your deck, you will be drawing them and using them for their actions or their skills. Characters like Researchers and Scientists will be able to support an Explorer, their combined skills allowing her to travel further – meeting distance requirements on these newly discovered cities – to claim them as her own. Soon you realise that controlling your deck, and knowing which characters will be moving through your hand, will be how you can take a real grip of this game.
You can see this in the neutral towns that you can conquer too. There are towns available to claim, if you can play cards out with enough attack strength to conquer them and enough of a distance total to reach them. These conquered towns reward a player with resources, adjusting their standing on that all-important resource track.
And this is where the game gets frightening. When you conquer these towns, they can be conquered again, stolen from you, by your opponents. And as the game develops, and you realise that the space between victory and defeat is deliciously narrow, the possibility of other players assulting your towns to flip your resource totals becomes startlingly real. So then – what? Do you focus on putting more distance between you and your rivals on hotly contested resources, making the town attack less worthwhile? Or do you build a giant Iron Dragon and place it in your town as part of a defensive strategy? Or do you go on the attack yourself?
I'm only telling you the bare minimum about this game's rules, really. There's plenty of other stuff going on. Cities award influence bonuses for certain end-game results – I won a game by satisfying my home city's demand that I have the most recruited Experts in the game, and my expanded city's demand that I produce at least 7 different types of resource. I didn't go into how some buildings require certain land types to be built on – you might need to build a certain thing on a floating island, which can itself only be settled by an explorer who is supported by an airship. I didn't go into the huge number of ways that your cards can interact with each other, or how important the bidding phase for turn order can be at the start of every round – and how the Fixer can mess around with all that.
City of Iron is a clever, clever game. It makes you think hard. It makes you really turn your decisions over and over in your head. It shakes your confidence. It asks you the difficult questions. And it is scary. I love a game that makes attacking another player seem irresistibly rewarding. But I especially love it when a game makes the notion of creating an enemy nerve-wracking. In City of Iron, if you go to war and start direct aggression with another player, it's not going to be pretty. And that's beautiful, isn't it? That's the kind of tension that makes for a great game experience.
But more than this, more than this - there's something about this game that makes it feel different from every other game I've played. It leans in a strange direction. There's an oddness to it that is really charming. It's the first Ryan Laukat game that I've played, but it won't be the last. Because - hey - I think this guy gets it. I think he really gets it. He hasn't just put some game mechanics in a box. He's made a little world for us all to visit, and poured a lot of himself into that mix. Mr Laukat - lemme at your other games. Lemme just be at them.
Exciting. It's pretty bloody special.