Originally published on Steam

I got this game in a bundle a few years ago and assumed it was some sort of turn-based wargame. Going through the main campaign was pretty easy until I hit a wall on about the 8th or 9th level (of 19). It seemed like a poorly designed game with a very uneven difficulty curve. So I uninstalled it and forgot it existed. Recently, I noticed there was a sale on Zachtronics games. Since I enjoyed the SpaceChem demo and was interested in programming-type games, I thought I'd see if anything caught my eye. Imagine my surprise when I noticed I already owned one of their games: Ironclad Tactics. Knowing the developer and their style of game, I thought I'd give it another shot.

In truth, this is a deck-building puzzle game with steampunk story set in the Civil War-era United States. You can't necessarily play the game in a straightforward way. The strategy comes from selecting cards before each battle starts. There is tactics within each stage to pull off your chosen strategy, but winning is mostly about getting the right cards. So doing well means collecting the right cards and knowing how to use them. All the stages can (and should) be replayed to get new cards if you perform certain feats, such as using a particular set of cards. Many cards can be upgraded by meeting certain conditions, such as using them to attack a certain number of enemies or get a number of victory points.

The trick is it's hard to know how to pick cards until you play the stage and fail. You might get lucky the first time by picking cards that happen to work well, but that's the exception. It might help to look at the optional goals, but winning those often depends on cards that you aren't guaranteed to have yet. Trial and error don't exactly work the best with a narrative game. Neither does replaying the mission you just beat to beat it a different way. This might be why the story doesn't stick with me at all.

On the other hand, building an effective deck and using it well can be a lot of fun. The true gameplay loop includes quitting a mission halfway when you realize a card isn't working or you need another card added in. Often a card seems pointless when you first get it, but starts looking useful when you try later stages or combine them with newly unlocked cards. Some levels have puzzles that illustrate the use of certain cards. (The puzzles aren't all that hard, but they are reasonably enjoyable and quick.)

Putting together decks is somewhat simplified by not allowing more than 2 factions. Since each faction has distinct characteristics, you can plan decks that combine strengths. The levels have an interesting variety of obstacles and a few have unique objectives which give more reason to explore various deck combinations. Each deck is also given appropriately themed names such as "The Monroe Engagement" and "Remarkable Bastion". (I don't know if there is any particular method to these names or if they are just random.)

Considering there is a New Game Plus mode and the expansions are now bundled with the base game, there's plenty of content and replayability here. My sessions tend to be short since they do get puzzly and my brain gets tired after I complete a challenge. I do enjoy returning to the game after a break, however. I might complain a bit about the luck required sometimes (often when a needed card doesn't show up), but that's part of the challenge of building an effective deck. Most likely the solution is to swap out whatever cards aren't helping.

In summary: an enjoyable game if you know what you are getting yourself into.