Tide of Iron

(image by zombiegod @ BGG)
Fantasy Flight knows how to push my buttons. They are well known for their massive, epic games with tons of plastic and cardboard. I take one look at a new release and any semblance of willpower I have crumbles to the ground. When I first saw the images of Tide of Iron, I knew I had to have it. Tactical squad-based World War II combat with awesome plastic army men? Sign me up!

Tide of Iron is Fantasy Flight’s answer to Memoir ’44 by Days of Wonder and Squad Leader by Multiman Publishing. The former is a very simple card-driven combat game based on the Commands & Colors system used in Commands & Colors: Ancients and Battlelore, while the latter is an incredibly detailed tactical battle simulation. Tide of Iron finds the middle ground, offering far more complexity and a system closer to Advanced Squad Leader but toning down the scope and providing tons of chrome.

There are really three parts to Tide of Iron:

Components

Tide of Iron is gorgeous, no doubt about it. The game comes with extremely thick modular hex boards to build maps, hex overlays for different terrain and chits to represent entrenchments, pillboxes, razorwire and more. I really love the terrain components as everything is very clear and heavy duty.

(image by ram47 @ BGG)

While the terrain looks fantastic, the real stars of the show are the plastic army men. The base game comes with American and German units with different molds for infantry, elite infantry, commanders, machine gun nests, mortars and a bunch of different vehicles and tanks. These immediately take me back to my youth playing with the classic green army men and lend a seriously awesome “toy factor” to Tide of Iron. Each unit has a peg on the bottom which snaps into a round base with four peg slots. The base represents a single squad which you may customize however you’d like. Infantry take up a single peg while heavy weapons like the machine gun take up two. You could have one squad of three infantry and a commander while another has a machine gun nest accompanied by a normal and elite infantry. The round bases also have a clip on back where you can stick in a specialization chit to turn them into special units like medics or engineers.

The concept behind the squad creation is one of the really cool features in Tide of Iron. Each scenario gives players a set number of units but you can split them into squads however you’d like. Unfortunately the figures also lead to one of my main complaints with the game. While I understand what Fantasy Flight was going for with the pegged army men plugging into the squad bases, the problem is that they don’t fit in that well. Most have extra flashing on them and aren’t uniformly shaped so they either fit poorly or don’t fit at all. I actually took time to trim the extra flashing off of each peg and even then some still don’t make a very good fit. Ones that fit too loose are a pain because they fall out too easily when you handle the squad but others fit too tight and are tricky to get out, possibly breaking off the pegs.

Ultimately the figures end up as more fiddly than cool. I love the customizable squad concept but the bases are not as easy to use as I would like. It isn’t a deal breaker but you will no doubt feel some frustration with the squad bases at some point. I’m actually considering trying to modify my bases and units to use magnets somehow; we’ll see if I ever get inspired enough to make it happen.

Gameplay

Fantasy Flight sometimes struggles with rule books but I feel they did a great job with Tide of Iron. The book is filled with lots of great examples and offers a really handy index. Sure, you may still have a few questions here and there but overall I think the Tide of Iron rulebook may be their best.

Tide of Iron really shines when it comes to mechanics. Scenarios detail the objective, setup, victory conditions and number of turns played. Players are given specific units they assign to squads and set up on the board. A single game turn is played over several rounds of back-and-forth unit activation as listed in the objective. For example, each side may activate three units at a time (until all units have been activated for both sides) or it might be lop-sided with the Germans activating three and the Americans two It is a great system as it helps lend to the real-time feel of the game and gives players very interesting decisions to make. After all units have been activated the turn ends, you check for control of victory conditions, do some cleanup and continue.

(image by Konwacht @ BGG)
You have several different options when activating a unit. Generally you either move, fire, go into “op fire” (delay your attack until an enemy moves into line of sight) or play a strategy card. After activating a unit you place a fatigue marker next to them to indicate they may not be activated again this turn. Op fire is a big part of the game as you need to decide which units need to be used offensively and which can be used defensively in reaction to enemy movement. You also have two options when it comes time to shoot: normal and suppressive fire. A hit on normal fire simply kills off an enemy figure (removing them from the squad base) while a hit on suppressive fire pins that squad, essentially making them inactive for the rest of the turn. When you make an attack without moving (called concentrated fire) you may also combine fire with other unfatigued units within line-of-sight of the target, allowing you to make a single stronger attack rather than multiple weaker attacks.

I really feel like the combat system nails the feel I want from a tactical squad-level game. Killing off units permanently weakens a squad but sometimes you need to pin down a unit (especially machine gun nests) so you can push forward. Combining fire can be extremely powerful but it fatigues every unit that participates so you need to weigh the odds and determine how important that additional firepower really is versus another separate attack. There are rules for cover (adding to a unit’s defense) and special units that give bonuses (commanders add plus one defense against suppressive fire, for example) which all add complexity of the decision-making process. Running through open ground towards a machine gun nest will almost always result in your squad getting mowed down but laying down suppressive fire on that nest first might open up a window for you to advance and get a better position. Those decisions and the moments that play out really make Tide of Iron fantastic.

Scenarios

As a historical game, Tide of Iron comes with a bunch of scenarios recreating battles during World War II. No matter how great the game system is, poor scenarios in a scenario-based game can really ruin it. I won’t go so far as to say that the scenarios ruin Tide of Iron but I feel like they don’t always make the fun immediately apparent. Many scenarios put one player as the attacker and the other as the defender. This usually results in the attacker having interesting tactical decisions to make while the defender holes up and adjusts as necessary. In many war games the idea is that you switch sides and play a scenario twice. Given a single scenario can easily take two to three hours to play out, that’s not always an option in Tide of Iron. Unfortunately this means that one player may be stuck in the less interesting role.

(image by joebelanger @ BGG)

I’ve seen many comment that the scenarios are not “balanced” but I think they miss the point of these scenarios. They are based on real battles, few of which I doubt had equal odds for both sides going in. As a simulation I think Tide of Iron succeeds and the scenarios succeed in giving players a feel for the situation they are attempting to recreate. Unfortunately that does not always equate to equal fun for both players. I think it is very possible to create scenarios that are very well-balanced but they will likely be less historical. How much you enjoy the scenarios will likely depend on how much you really care about a truly balanced outcome.

One aspect I think the scenarios do a great job with is abstracting out elements that fall outside the squad-level focus of the game. There are a bunch of different card decks and special cards that come with the game. Each scenario details which decks each side gets. For example, the Americans might get the Air Support Deck to help represent bombing runs the player can perform while the Germans get the Reinforcement Deck to help represent additional support that appears over the course of the scenario. Rather than represent these on the board they come into play through cards the player draws and puts into play. The cards really add a lot of depth to the game while adding almost no additional complexity.

When All is Said and Done

Tide of Iron sort of straddles the line between war game and designer game. The rules and underlying system are fantastic and really capture the feel I want in a tactical war game. There’s enough complexity to give you really interesting decisions to make but not so much that everything can’t be summed up on more than a couple of pages of cheat sheets. The components are gorgeous but not quite as functional as they should be. Scenarios really set the stage for a historical simulation although they don’t always result in an equal match between sides.

When all is said and done, I love Tide of Iron. It is not without its flaws but I think the good far outweighs the bad. Like many of Fantasy Flight’s other games the experience of playing is what matters, not the outcome. This isn’t a game for everyone, though; I highly recommending playing before buying if you can. Tide of Iron does have elements that will easily turn someone away, but if it hooks you it is all over. I only get to break out Tide of Iron a handful of times each year but for me it is worth it every time. I just hope Fantasy Flight takes away some valuable lessons in component usability.

Bootleggers and theme in board games

I’m always fascinated by the use of theme in board games. I think games tend to fall into one of the following five groups:

* No theme – Usually found in abstract strategy games like Go, these games have no theme. They are simply a set of rules to play but the components are not meant to represent anything specific. It is the purest form of gaming.

* Abstract theme – There is a theme but it does not really relate to the mechanics at all. Any number of themes could easily be placed on top of the mechanics and it would work equally well. Many games fall into this category, especially designer Euro-style games like Ra and Puerto Rico. The theme is generally irrelevant and does not impact one’s thoughts on the game.

* Applied theme – Here the theme makes sense in terms of mechanics and probably helps contribute towards your thoughts of the game. Ticket to Ride is a great example; building a network of links works perfectly with a railroad theme and people may very well have their feelings about the game influenced by the rail theme. At the same time it could easily be themed differently and work just as well.

* Integrated theme – This is all about the theme; the game really would not function without it. Most war games probably fall into this category as the game is about that specific war. The theme often contributes equally with mechanics – if not more – when it comes to your enjoyment of the game.

* Pure theme – You play this for the theme and experience, not the mechanics or depth of play. I think many classic children’s games fall into this grouping as well as something like Tales of the Arabian Nights or comedy-heavy games like Munchkin. Even thought there may not be much in the way of mechanics, the theme can often be enough to make these games highly enjoyable.

(image by Fawkes) @ BGG)
Bootleggers is one of the best examples of integrated theme I’ve played. It is prohibition in the 1920s and each player is a mob boss producing hooch and running it to the speakeasies across town while trying to take out the competition. Whoever has the most cash at the end of twelve rounds wins.

The game play is fairly simple. Each player has a hand of numbered “muscle” cards and at the start of the round each player picks one in secret and reveals simultaneously to determine turn order. Then, in turn order, each player gets to pick up one “Men of Action” card which usually involve all sorts of rule breakers. After picking cards, players roll dice to determine how many crates of alcohol they’ve produced, load them into their trucks and send them to the speakeasies to sell for profit.

First, the components do a great job of evoking the theme. The main game board shows all the different speakeasies around town with era-appropriate store fronts and the track for Men of Action cards has different entertainers and other characters all dressed straight from the 20s. Each player has a set of plastic Tommy gun toting mobsters and trucks that the wooden cubes (representing crates of booze) actually fit into. One look at the game and you can immediately figure out what the overall concept is, even without knowing a thing about the rules.

(image by angelotti @ BGG)

What impresses me most is how well the mechanics tie into the theme. The most brilliant part are the Men of Action cards. Many allow you to upgrade your stills to roll more dice for production or get more mobsters to influence the back rooms of the speakeasies, making it more likely for you to turn a profit there. The rest are rule breakers, though, and these are the key to the game. Most can be held in your hand until you wish to play them. In true mobster form, though, deals may be made at any time for anything you can imagine and nothing is binding. More often than not the Men of Action cards are used to extort money from another player. The threat of playing a card on someone can be more powerful than actually playing it on them!

Many other games have “take that” mechanics where you may play cards and take actions that directly (and usually negatively) impact other players. The mobster theme in Bootleggers fits perfectly with that style of play. Combine that with freestyle non-binding negotiations and you have a game that perfectly nails the mob theme. For example, I may have a card that allows me to hijack someone’s truck once it arrives at a speakeasy and steal the profit from its sales. Instead of outright playing that on someone I can threaten to play it on them unless they split the profits. After all, receiving something is better than receiving nothing, right? Better yet, they may counteroffer to give me an even larger split to play it on someone else at the table. Many games with deal making often have fairly strict rules around what can and cannot be negotiated; Bootleggers has no such restrictions and these threats and negotiations really become the heart of the game.

(image by basilmichael @ BGG)
The other thing all this negotiation does is help reduce some of the luck in the game. You roll one or more six-sided dice to determine how many crates you produce and how many crates the different speakeasies will purchase. You can mitigate luck in production by buying and selling crates or buying/renting trucks from other players; at the speakeasies you play influence which may give you preference when it comes to selling, or you may be able to strong arm your way into others’ profits by using Men of Action cards. There is most certainly luck but I feel it is very manageable.

My only real complaints are with some of the components. The artwork is great but the there’s a lot of extremely small text on the cards and many of them are unique. This means each round you spend time reading the cards out loud – often multiple times – to make sure everyone knows what is available. As much as I enjoy the artwork I think they could have made it a little smaller in favor of larger text. Also, the little plastic trucks are extremely cool but they come in three sizes: small (4 crates), medium (6 crates) and large (9) crates. The problem is that the trucks are all the same physical size and are only differentiated by the number 4, 6 or 9 on the roof. There’s no line to help to know which way is up for the numbers so it is very easy to get confused between the 6 and 9. Finally, the game comes with paper money which I think we all know by now I’m not a fan of. Use poker chips; not only is it easier to handle but it fits perfectly with the theme!

Thankfully none of that takes away from the fun to be had. This isn’t a game for everyone; you need to accept that you’ll get screwed over and blackmailed by other players. Once you accept that and start having fun with the theme, Bootleggers shines. Few games marry theme and mechanics together this well. You can find it for cheap online ($20 or less), which is sadly the only reason I even became aware of it. If a mafia-rich theme and a little dice rolling sound good to you then I strongly suggest you get Bootleggers into your collection.