(Originally published on June 3, 2013)
Designer: James M. Day
Player count: 2
Publisher: GMT Games
The American Civil War was witness to many land battles, but also to the first clash of ironclads—ships armored with metal plates so as to make them less vulnerable to fire and explosive damage. The previous decade had seen developments such as steam-powered ships, explosive shells and metal hulls, but the ironclad was the first machine to bring them all together. And in 1862, at the battle of Hampton Roads, history was made as ironclads USS Monitor and CSS Virginia met in battle for the very first time.
Iron and Oak brings those metal behemoths to the table top in a tight and simple package. The game is a purely tactical affair, with the board depicting a five by five tableau of blue grid boxes on which ships maneuver to get into advantageous positions.
Scenarios assign a varying number of ships to each opponent (usually between one to four ships per side), distribute special abilities or hindrances, and lay out board elements such as reefs, current, wind, and the occasional mine field.
Each active ship is assigned an order card upon the start of the owning player’s turn. In addition to allowing movement from one box to another, orders range from Anchor and Refloat to Crossing the T and ramming and torpedo attacks! Order cards are revealed one at a time, in any sequence of the player’s choosing.
Once a ship has moved, it can open fire. Depending on the attacking ship’s armament, the player rolls one or more polyhedral dice and retains the single highest number. (For instance, the CSS Richmond attacks with a d10, a d8 and a d4.) A yellow d8 is also rolled to determine hit location. The target gets to roll defensive dice for said location, and also retains the single highest number. (For instance, the USS Indianola rolls a d10 and a d4 to defend its amidships section.) If the attack number is equal or less than the defense number, it’s a miss. But damage is dealt in increasing dosage if the attack number is more than, or double, or triple (!) the defense number.
The clever twist here is that the very first hit on a given ship section doesn’t inflict damage. It effectively makes a dent in the hull—one which the next hit will exploit. Each further hit also increases the number of “dents” on that section, making subsequent damage all the more devastating.
Now an attack that triples the defense number inflicts a critical hit, which requires a roll on the dreaded Critical Hit Table. The captain might die, or the boiler might explode, or the engine or the rudder might be damaged… Some of those are repairable, while others you’ll just have to learn to live with. A particularly vicious hit might cause a fire to break out on one of your ships, forcing you to use part of your crew to fight the inferno, thus hindering your ability to maneuver and fight.
Enough hits will sink a ship, which might be enough to earn the opponent a win, depending on the victory conditions of the specific scenario being played.
Scenario instructions also have each player dealt a hand of Action Cards (between six and 12, depending on the battle). Those are special actions or modifiers that can be played during movement or combat. But that hand is all you get: you do not gain additional cards during the game. The best a player can do is set aside a card and draw a replacement—but only one per turn, only if he hasn’t played any cards on his turn, and only up to half his starting hand. Once you hit that limit, you have to deal with whatever Fate gave you.
A game ends whenever victory conditions for the chosen scenario are achieved. Those generally involve sinking a portion (or the entirety!) of the opponent’s ships, or escorting one specific ship to safety.
As is usually the case with a GMT product, the quality of the components is excellent. The cards are printed on good stock, the counters look pretty (I especially like the oblong ones for the ships), and the paper map does what it does best: lay flat.
I do have three minor production gripes with Iron and Oak, and the map is one of them. The thing is, it doesn’t just lay flat—it looks flat as well. It’s essentially a grid of blue boxes, with a turn track at one end. In all honesty, though, I’m at a loss as to what I would have done differently: there’s only so much dressing up you can achieve with rows and columns of blue rectangles. But there’s no denying that it’s not a map that screams excitement.
The second thing that bugs me is the subtle variation in color on some of the order cards. This means that an opponent who pays close attention might notice that your Maneuver 1/2 card is the one with a slightly different back. I doubt very much it’ll cause any real trouble during play, but my OCD reflex always kicks in when material used for a secret selection mechanism does not look exactly the same from one piece to the next.
My last rant has to do with the shield tokens, placed on each ship location as it gets chipped away. There’s simply no room for them on the ship cards: the tokens end up covering some bit of necessary information no matter what. Perhaps a smaller ship silhouette would have left enough room on the ship card for larger location boxes which, in turn, could have accommodated shield tokens more readily.
On a different note, I really like the cover. Somewhat subdued, in a palette I usually don’t see on wargames. Well done.
RULES OF ENGAGEMENT
Without the campaign and optional rules, the rulebook takes up only 18 pages. Short enough to read it twice on the bus ride to work. The workings of the game are easy to decipher, although a couple of odd omissions unnecessarily obfuscate some parts. For instance, the way order cards are distributed at set-up is never expressed clearly. It becomes fairly obvious when playing the game that each ship gets its own set of four cards, but the rulebook needs a line that spells it out. The rules also don’t say what happens to a played order card. Does it get discarded? Picked up and reused? Players quickly figure it out on the battlefield, but the rulebook never addresses this directly.
As for the rest, everything’s peachy! The rulebook, short as it is, sports a solid index (one of my favorite features) and is structured in a way that makes it quick and painless to find a rule during play. The player-aid cards help a lot here: I find myself reaching for the actual rulebook only for critical hit descriptions.
(One warning about the player-aid card: there’s a mention of current modifiers in the Maneuver Response Chart, and it doesn’t belong there. Those modifiers only apply to the Maneuver Roll itself. That little glitch really threw us for a loop during our first game.)
Campaign rules bump surviving vessels to the next battle (in a sequence of at least five, and probably less than 10 engagements), with both players struggling to repair maimed ships and replace killed crew before the cannonballs start flying again.
The 35-page playbook includes short designer notes and a brief example of play, along with 11 scenarios, plus guidelines to generate single scenarios as well as campaign games. Those offer a nice variety of engagements, involving anywhere between three and 20 ships—sometimes even forts! Current and wind conditions change from one battle to the next, and shoals and mines may very well bar your way.
I’m having a lot of fun with Iron and Oak. Part of it is the game length: with most battles taking between 60 and 90 minutes, I can easily play two or three engagements in an evening. The other part is the sheer fun of ship-to-ship combat. On occasion, you may end up in a tactical cul-de-sac: you’ve played all of your action cards and either you can’t maneuver anymore or else you already occupy the sweet spot, and you just shell away at the opponent until something breaks. But most of the time, you’re trying to negotiate a mine field (or a grid box that might be just a tad too shallow…) while fighting a fire that threatens to sink you without outside help. Now take your best shot at the approaching ironclad that looks like it’s aiming to ram what’s left of your wooden beauty.
What’s not to like?
There is a simplicity and a directness to Iron and Oak that please me. It’s a very fun tactical wargame that provides a nice breather in a gaming space (the American Civil War) usually filled with zoomed-out strategy titles.
I was worried about replayability at first, but the package guarantees 22 sessions to start with (11 scenarios played to and fro), plus a scenario generator—and that’s not counting the campaign scenario generator. So I think I’m covered for the near future.
GMT’s other naval ACW title, Rebel Raiders on the High Seas, is a strategy game with rules that link to Iron and Oak as a means of resolving combat. I haven’t had a chance to try Rebel Raiders yet, but I already know that its “alternate combat rules” are right up my alley.
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