Ironclad Tactics is a computer-based card game set in a relatively low-key steampunk world, around an alternative US Civil War. The game has been out a while, even though the PS4 version which is the one I’m reviewing only came out recently, so I won’t go to huge lengths to avoid spoilers in this review – so head’s up.
The PS4 version comes with the main campaign, along with the bundled expansion battles ‘The Rise of Dmitry’ and ‘Blood and Ironclads’, representing pretty good value for money (it took me about 8 hours to burn through the main campaign and to dip into Blood and Ironclads. I have not played more than that, but I think that gives me enough grounding to review the game).
To play the game you build a deck of 20 cards from those you’ve unlocked while playing. Those include soldiers, ironclad steam robots, weapons and modifiers for them as well as tactics and options for everything else. Cards start out basic but you can unlock more and more as you go on, from several factions including native Americans, bandits/mercenaries, experimental technology and the weapons of your enemies.
These cards get fed, at random, into a queue of cards at the bottom of your screen, while you gain points with which to buy them, turn by turn (turns are timed, so you have to think fast a well as tactically). When you have enough points you can deploy a card and each turn cards advance and fight.
It plays like a hybrid of ‘Plants Versus Zombies’ and Tower Defence, with several lanes down the screen where you need to block enemies getting to your end of the screen while getting your own troops to the other side of the screen. The key is to deploy at the right times, in the right numbers and to leverage options on different levels to get more points for deploying more troops. Different levels have different terrain (that may block ironclads and give cover to troops, let you fire mortars, or earn more points each turn).
There’s enough variety and slow introduction of new elements and tactics to keep the gameplay engaging an involving throughout the storyline and into the secondary campaigns, though the novelty does start to wear off as the variety is tapped out (mostly after the main campaign).
In the main campaign you take the part of engineers working for The Union who helped develop the ironclad technology. When it’s revealed that the Confederate forces are also using ironclads they enter the fray to even the odds and soon find out there’s some sort of greater conspiracy going on.
You play them as they travel from coast to coast, battling confederate forces, mercenaries and unusual, experimental ironclads and airships to get to the bottom of the mystery and to bring the war to a close.
As stories go it’s fairly predictable – even the twist – but it’s perfectly serviceable as a hook upon which to hang some battling robots.
The story is presented in some hyper-stylised comic-strip ‘cutscenes’ (press to reveal the next panel) which are reminiscent of European children’s comics in many ways, especially ones like Asterix or Tintin. They’re also similar in many ways to Valiant Hearts – an interesting, but depressing – WWI puzzle game.
In this sort of game the graphics aren’t that important, but the cartoonish and exaggerated style is somewhat at odds with the relatively low key and relatively serious and grounded approach to the steampunk setting and technology.
Still, all things considered the style is neat and fun, the information accessible on the cards and the story presented in a fun and interesting way.
Style: 3 (A little more flare or animated cutscenes would have taken this over the top).
Substance: 4 (The tactics are surprisingly deep and the wide variety of cards and interactions makes for lots of ‘aha’ moments).
Overall: 3.5 (Good value for £11.99 – 20% discount if you have the PS+ membership).
Steampunk games – and media in general – tends to go horrendously over the top far too often. RPGs like Victorian throw in everything – including the kitchen sink – to become Victorian Shadowrun, many games hurl in magic, werewolves, vampires and just about anything else you can think of with zero restraint.
I’m much more of a fan of ‘hard’ steampunk, having been a fan of genre since The Difference Engine. There’s a paucity of decent steampunk media that take this harder, alternative history approach. Ironclad Tactics isn’t quite ‘hard science’ since the ironclads ability to think and operate is never explained and ‘Belgian anthracite’ turns out to be a radioactive ore.
Still, in a sea of over-the-top ‘slap some cogs on it’ steampunk with no clarity of vision, Ironclad Tactics is admirably restrained.
It would also make the basis of an excellent actual, physical card game or skirmish wargame. Might have to look into the latter as a ‘fan thing’.