City of Iron is a pretty game. Every character and every background, every landscape and every creature, even the fonts and symbols are handsomely created and will no doubt garner praise from even the most casual of observers. And while these individual pieces of art stand without peer on their own, taken as a collective whole, they sell the players on the grand vision of designer/artist Ryan Laukat's world. Whether it's the yak-like srika roaming turnip fields, or monstrous tentacles being harvested from the ocean, there is just enough familiarity throughout this steampunkish world to keep the player grounded but enough mystery and wonder to keep players eager to explore. Luckily, the game behind the art is more than able to take you on this journey.
City of Iron has you controlling one of four humanoid races in an effort to grow your fledgling city-state into a vast empire. In this world, power equals resources. Whoever can control the various resources will be rewarded not only with economic riches, but also precious Victory Points. These resources vary from the relatively mundane and abundant turnips to the exotic and scarce demons in a bottle. Control the resources, control the world.
Each round begins with an auction for turn order, with the player who went last in the previous round starting things off. In my experience, money was tight enough to keep bidding to a minimum and often resulted in a simple reversal of turn order. Only occasionally would a player feel the need to turn things up a notch and bid big. The auctions serve to give players some agency over their own fate and take turn order into their own hands if they willing to pay a price. The auctions are short, fast and purposeful.
After player order is established, everyone will take turns establishing their empire. There are two paths to take in your quest to rule the world: internal and external expansion. Every player begins with a city in their own little corner of the world and you can choose to improve it on your turn by purchasing buildings from the central board. Do you buy the moss garden and claim an early stake in the thriving moss pillow market? Or perhaps turnip farms are more your style? A market for demon traders seems legit, right? All viable options. Not only do they provide you the valuable resources to collect victory points, but they also provide you a steady income. Even still, you may decide to invest in the people of your city by building an academy which in turn provides you science tokens which can be used to buy even better buildings in the future. Or how about a theater to entice your citizens to serve you more often?
The options are plentiful and varied and each choice you make will define your empire. You can build early and often, cranking out low end goods such as turnips and ore creating a profitable industrial complex. Or you could pamper your citizens and focus on a few lucrative high end goods.
There are limits to your growth, however. Each city has a limit of five buildings. Once you reach the limit, you can increase the size of your city by building districts or founding new cities. Founding cities requires the exploration of other lands and again you are faced with a choice. Explore the tame plains and deserts or venture far and away to the edge of the world which allows you craft valuable resources such as silks.
But why spend expend all your effort gathering resources and income when you can just take it? Military expansion is an equally viable method to bolstering your budding empire. In addition to the four aspiring superpowers controlled by the players, there are neutral towns scattered throughout, living off of the profits of their own resource production. By annexing towns you not only claim these profits for yourself, you also control the resources produced which are ultimately needed to win the game. If only military life were so simple. While attacking another another player's city is off limits, attacking a previously conquered town is fair game. This makes for a lot of posturing and tense back and forth. Timing is critical as you don't want to have a town taken from you before collecting your resources and income from it.
At the end of every round, players receive any income they are due and victory points if it is a scoring round. And then, In one of City of Iron's most interesting elements, you will have an opportunity to recruit characters into your fold who will aid you with various specialties and abilities.. These characters are split into two types: citizens and military personnel. Of the two, the citizens have the more varied abilities and focus on improving your city or increasing your funds. The Junk Bot, for example, lets you search the discard pile for any building you'd like and the Tax Collector gives you an easy boost to your coffers. The Military characters are a little more straight forward and allow you to conquer more powerful profitable towns. The abilities of these characters will define the focus of your empire and differentiate yourself from your neighbors. The choice of who to recruit is difficult, meaningful and has far reaching consequences. It also comes at a cost. Every coin spent on recruitment is one less coin to be used in the following round. Not so bad if you're just planning an attack, but it can be crippling if you really need to purchase a building.
Overall, the character cards work beautifully and if I had to choose my favorite aspect of City of Iron it would be the this. It's unique, challenging and allows you to customize your empire as you see fit. Even the way character cards are drawn into your hand offers something new and interesting to think about. The deck from which you draw your recruited character cards is never shuffled and you are free at any time to look through it so you know which characters will be drawn next. And when you discard them, you do so in any order that you wish, allowing you to influence the order of which they will be drawn in the future.
The character cards are City of Iron's greatest strength, but they are also the source of most of its flaws. The first time you are exposed to the majority of them is after the first round and it does so in a heavy handed manner. You get to sift through the entirety of the character cards in the game. Even when you've been accustomed to their abilities over repeated plays, the choice can be overwhelming. It can be a lot to take in and a lot to plan for all at once, but luckily this is done by all players simultaneously so down time isn't a big concern. They can also take a bit of time to execute on your turn especially when contrasted with other options you have such as drawing a card or taxing which take all of five seconds. Not only do you have to play out the cards and their repercussions, you then have to think about the order in which you will discard them adding even more time to the other players' wait.
Another eccentricity brought on by the character cards is the fact that players will tend to bury their head in their hand of cards or shuffle through the available characters instead of looking up at the other players and engaging with them. It wasn't constant, but it was noticeable. Normally, this would be a negative mark against a game for me, but I was always fascinated and engaged with my character cards that I could overlook it.
There's also an excellent sense of escalation in City Iron. Whether it's turning your meager turnip churning city into a factory filled industrial powerhouse or taking your small militia of foot soldiers and adding iron dragons and magicians to the fold, the sense of growth is present and tells a compelling narrative of your humble beginnings into (hopefully) the most powerful empire in the world.
City of Iron isn't prefect, but it's is very good. The choices are meaningful and the options plentiful. Like any game with multiple routes to victory, if a single player is allowed to pursue one avenue unfettered they will likely win. But this is a small price to pay for the ability to head out in the direction of your choice and is easily countered with the awareness and aggressive play.
City of Iron is a pretty game. Thankfully, it's also a good one.