Vikings! Pirates! Turn-based strategy! (instead of the expected, “Oh my!” [which I not-so-subtlety got to throw in there anyway]) Sign me up, immediately!
What else could be added to that list to make Iron Tides even more special? Random map generation. Yes, that is there. Random, individual fighter statistics, regardless of class. Sure, add that as well. How about making it a rogue-like with permadeath? Check.
Crash Wave Games Inc. is ticking all of the boxes to make one of the most interesting and fun to play games, even in Early Access, that I have run across in a while.
The map for Iron Tides is square-based and heavily shrouded with fog of war. You might think you could easily move from one square to the next until you run across an encounter, but that is where the first massive wrinkle comes into play. Each square you move into causes loss of stamina within the crew. When you run out of stamina, your crew will start to become hungry which will wreak severe damage to them. Then, if your crewmen/fighters go into battle hungry, they will start already injured. So, as carefully as possible (since you never know when your path will be blocked), you have to ease from square to square while always watching your stamina level. Between missions, you need to make sure and buy some food at Norhaven (which is your base of operations). During your travels, you might find food, or receive some as a reward for battles, however it is something you must pay careful attention to and, more importantly, plan ahead for accordingly.
At first, Norhaven is simply a marketplace to buy items and sell goods that you have plundered along the way. When you complete a quest, you are rewarded with Hacksilver and Glory, both of which can be spent on various things. Shortly after completing a couple of quests, the Great Hall will open for you to acquire more crewmen (which may not be the only means to do so). A few more victories along the way, then the Docks will open for you to start adding to and/or upgrading your ship.
Interestingly, most of your turns are not consumed on the map! The majority of your time in Iron Tides is spent during battles. Strategic fighting is the mead and food of Iron Tides (like ‘meat and potatoes’—sorry, I’ll try harder). Whether you are confronting pirates, outposts, or other various non-spoilery predicaments, the incursions are where this game shines the most. Since you are usually outnumbered, you must figure out the most efficient way of defeating your increasingly tougher foes without getting your own troops killed. Each skirmish also contains various low obstacles, which block movement, but not Line of Sight, and higher obstacles that block both traverse and LoS.
To complicate matters further, regardless of how many crewmen are on your ship, a lot of times, you are limited to only a few members that actually get to partake in the encounter. During the time that you are setting up for combat, many decisions have to be made right then and there. Since you know that at the end of the confrontation that your survivors will gain experience, WHO you choose to take into battle is of the utmost importance. Only the actual people fighting gain the points that are later used to level up. If you always send your most seasoned units, your lesser troops will not gain any experience points. Do you send a weak(er) assortment, to gain experience, and risk losing some or all of them? Do you always send your best, to build a few great fighters, but then be tactically devastated later if you lose one? If you always send your greatest, and with a minimum of three units for each battle, what happens when four or five of your people are allowed to go into the fray? During setup, although you get to see the layout, the obstacles, and number of enemies, you do not get to know the types of adversaries that you will face ahead of time. All of these things have to be taken into account before the clash even begins!
Once into the fray, you still use the square-based system of movement, generally only two blocks at a time. Melee units cannot attack diagonally, but ranged units can—only if they have a clear LoS though. Another great feature of Iron Tides is that ranged participants cannot shoot through their own troops. Although that may be common in many other wargames, the inability to fire through your own people simply adds another, deeper layer to your positioning thought process. In addition to the three Fury Points that are used for attacking (and are separate from movement points), each of your soldiers also have certain abilities that may be used while in combat. Your basic melee swing or arrow shot only costs one Fury Point. However, once you start to level your fighters up and more complex abilities become available, the price cost in Fury Points also start to rise. Just as the individual statistics of each person can vary widely within each class (Vanguard, Hunter, Berserker, etc.), there is also a very wide range of special abilities that become available the longer you play (as long as you keep them alive obviously). “Command”, “Bandage Wounds”, and “Throw Axe” are among some of the early, possibly intrinsic abilities available. The more complicated and expensive ones, you will have to find on your own (while also keeping in mind that everything is randomly generated for each new game!). Adding even more intricacy during the battles are the possibilities of blocking attacks, dodging, missing, etc.—from friend and foe alike. Nothing is ever a ‘given’ or predictable.
Iron Tides is already a deep and sophisticated game for you and your Vikings to try to survive. However, it is also very accommodating for newcomers and veterans alike. Each function or new gameplay component is very well explained, as well as slowly easing you into the more complex features inherent to the game. I never had a feeling of being overwhelmed by the game’s mechanics, at any point. Any difficulty arises from the strategic decisions that have to be made along the way, just like a strategy game should be.
I am completely impressed with Iron Tides and genuinely look forward to playing with the things that they will adding in the future.