Tide of Iron is Fantasy Flight Games’ World War 2 squad level game, designed by the oddly named John Goodenough. Riding the line between Wargame and Ameritrash, it’s the latest mega hyped game of the board game masses everywhere. But does it live up to the hype?
You can read the rules on Fantasy Flight Games website (www.fantasyflightgames.com)
The “Wow” Factor.
Tide of Iron is the 4th “coffin box” Fantasy Flight Game (FFG), which are a series of games that come in boxes big enough to bury your mother-in-law in. With such a big box and hefty price tag, the game sure looks impressive, but in comparison to the other coffin boxed games the “wow” factor falls short. Twilight Imperium 3 took a week to punch out all the tokens and cut the minis from the spurs, Descent knocked it out of the park with its hoard of oversized minis, then World of Warcraft seemed to up the anti again having more cards then a casino and more plastic then Paris Hilton’s purse. After experiencing these mammoth games, Tide of Iron (TOI) seems a little bare and less impressive. In fact I have managed to squeeze the entire contents of the game into the smaller Twilight Imperium Shatter Empires box, which is something I would never be able to do with the other 3 games in this series. Still this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as the game is now more portable, and the original box left a lot of room to so later expansions can fit in quite easily.
The game comes with a hefty 48 page rulebook, so a bit of reading is involved. A lot of people have trouble with FFG rulebooks, but I found this one quite clear and easy to understand, with plenty of illustrations and examples. Interestingly FFG broke from tradition and made the rulebook a standard A4 size, as opposed to the big square size they normally use. While I like the square books for their uniqueness, I have to admit the standard size is easier to wield while referencing the rules during play or doing a spot of reading in bed or on the shitter. The rulebook also has an index on the back, something other FFG rulebooks are sorely missing.
The scenarios come in a separate book, and there are 6 of them in total. While 6 doesn’t sound like many, the scenarios are quite detailed and range from middleweight to complex (for the system), and seem very replayable so they should last you a while.
Strangely enough one of the ‘weakest’ components in the game is the miniatures. There are a lot of them, but they are quite small (especially as they don’t come attached to bases) and somewhat rough, with some having moldlines and prominent spur nubs, and a few of the tanks even having messy glue marks. The miniatures clip into bases (4 minis per bases) via a little peg at their feet, and a lot has been said about the risks of breaking this peg off as some of the minis are a very tight fit. The plastic is quite soft however so they should take quite a pounding without damage – I got pretty rough with them and so far, so good. Putting them in and out of their bases can be quite fiddly, but after a while I got a technique down and can now do them quite fast. The bases do make actual game play easier (moving one base sure beats moving all four minis) so overall I like them.
The 2 player reference sheets are, to put it bluntly, crap. For starters rather then being on cardboard like the World of Warcraft ones were they are on floppy paper, the same type as the rulebook. I’d be tempted to laminate them, except that the information found on them is terrible - the description for resolving an attack isn’t detailed enough leaving out crucial steps (such as choosing your attack type), some information is misleading (such as an officer’s rally ability neglecting to mention attacks are made with half firepower) and they don’t even list terrain and cover rules! Very poor overall.
Thankfully things improve dramatically when it comes to the boards. These things are awesome, thick, sturdy and impossible to warp unless you’re using an oxy torch to do it. In fact these things are so solid that they feel more like light wood or masonite then cardboard. I dare say if you walloped your opponent across the face with these you’d do a fair bit of damage, so watch out of someone decides to overturn the table in a fit of rage. They were well worth the release delay they gave the game.
Finally, you get a fair (but not ridiculous) amount of counters, chits, and board overlays on very thick cardboard with lovely artwork. No complaints there. A deck of 110 regular sized nicely finished cards are included. The artwork on them is attractive, the font clear, and they have a white boarder so they should last for the long haul. The dice are small (9mm) with rounded corners, very similar to the basic chessex ones.
Overall contents wise you certainly get your moneys worth, even if it does feel like bit of a step down from the other coffin boxed games.
The game itself is scenario based, with most missions having a defender and an attacker. While the scenarios get progressively more complex, even the first one isn’t that simple, introducing vehicles and multiple strategy decks from the start. Therefore I recommend downloading the early bird scenario from FFG’s website and playing that as your first game. For some strange reason this actually can’t be found in the scenario section of the site (go figure) but rather under one of the design notes: (http://www.fantasyflightgames.com/tideofiron_designnotes5.html).
Setting up the game is relatively quick, simply involving configuring the boards and slapping on a few overlays. The only time consuming part is force construction (which involves snapping the different units into the squad bases in different configurations), but I’d argue that comes under game play as it actually involves making choices, with a feel similar to constructing your army in a miniatures game.
The great thing with squad construction is there doesn’t seem to be any ‘obvious’ way to construct your force, with different choices having well balanced advantages and disadvantages. For example grouping your mortars gives you one devastating attack which will hold off anything, but separating your mortars allows you to try and suppress 2 targets rather than one. Grouping your elites together means your opponent will be hard pressed to suppress them, making them excellent units for assaults and objective captures, but it will also make them bullet magnets, and since they die just as easily as regulars you may be better off spreading them out. Should you put your officers in with your regulars to give them faster movement or place them with the machine guns to allow them to keep shooting even if they come under fire? There is a lot to think about, and the way you construct your forces will greatly influence how you will end up approaching the scenario (and vice versa.) In short this part of the game offers real choices, and we have yet to see any ‘pre-scripted’ setups in our games where people are always using the same force configurations.
The game is of what I would consider medium to medium long length – expect 2 hours for a scenario, probably stretching to 3 when you get the bigger ones. Despite it’s length the game moves at a brisk pace, with players alternating moving a few units each at a time, so downtime is minimal.
The underlying mechanics are robust and quite simple, and even inexperienced players should pick them up after only one read through of the rules. Where new player will struggle is in the details, since there are a lot of modifiers, special cases and exceptions to remember. Expect a few games for most board gamers to become comfortable enough to play without constantly referring to the rules, though wargamers should be able to master the rules before breakfast. There is nothing which sticks out as amazingly groundbreaking, but what is there is very solid and works wonderfully well.
The game basically involves issuing commands to squads and playing strategy cards. The game plays like a standard wargame where you can issue whatever order (there are bit over half a dozen to chose from) to whichever squad you like, which while some may argue is not ‘realistic’ makes a nice change of pace from the card driven games like Combat Commander (which I have been playing a lot of lately) where you feel the need to scream “JUST GIVE ME A FUCKIN' MOVE CARD ALREADY!” at the deck every so often. Like all war games you are mainly capturing and holding things, in this case it’s either objectives which give you victory points or an outright win, or objectives which give you “command” points, which is a currency in the game that allows you to use strategy cards to do things like grab the initiative, call in air strikes, or summon reinforcements.
One of the great things we have noticed with the scenarios is that they tend to encourage people to play all over the map, as opposed to some games where 80% of the action occurs on 20% of the board with obvious choke points and the like. Here we have found scenarios can be approached in different ways and from different angles, which gives them a lot of replayability since you don’t get that sense of déjà vu that happens with some games where the same areas get fought over every game.
Combat involves a ton of dice giving the game a nice epic feeling; there is nothing worse in my mind then simulating the expenditure of several hundred rounds of ammunition with ONE die roll. There are no combat resolution tables in the game, instead you modify the dice rolls themselves and score hits on certain numbers depending on your range. There are 2 types of attack you can make in the game – normal, which inflicts casualties, and suppressive, which pins and possibly routs squads. While some may argue this isn’t a great simulation (after all, wouldn’t a squad receiving casualties make them stop and go to ground?) from a game play perspective it’s a real winner, and the calls you make here is what will probably win or lose you the game. While the temptation is to always perform normal attacks (bloodthirsty lot we are), suppressive attacks are essential to any good offense or defense, especially considering that scenarios have a time limit so each turn is crucial.
Don’t get too attached to your little toy soldiers as the casualty rate in the game is very high. In fact the worse thing you can do is play this game after playing Combat Commander, a game where dislodging a squad from a building is a real pain in the ass, and normally involves multiple squads to pull it off. In TOI I moved my squad into a building thinking they’d be safe for a few turns only to watch in horror as they were torn apart within thirty seconds. Vehicles are a little sturdier but even they don’t tend to last too long. With combined fire squads can and do take out tanks, though by the time they do most of them have already been turned into pate. In short, stuff dies.
The strategy cards represent things like off board artillery, reinforcements, special commands and just general story events and are divided into different decks of which each side will get a few depending on the scenario. A familiarity with what each deck has helps a lot during the game, so I recommend allowing new players to read through there decks before the game so they have a basic idea of which deck they want to draw from and how much effort they will want to expend capturing objectives that gives them command (the games currency) in order to bring these cards into play. The strategy cards are a simple and effective way to not only bring a bit more depth to the game, but also give a unique feel to the different operations and forces in the game. My only complaint with them is that the Germans kind of got screwed with only getting one ‘reinforcement’ deck, I would have liked them to get another unique deck to make them feel more, ahh, German. The Americans got a reinforcement deck and an air strike deck, with the rest of the decks being generic. Can’t wait to see what a Russian expansion deck will get, lots of cards allowing you to shoot your own men I suspect.
Don’t believe the box – this is really a two player game. The game comes with 2 shades of bases for each side to allow up to 4 players to play, but apart from a few restrictions the game is identical to the 2 player game, with people simply playing on one of two teams, similar to War of the Ring. It’s still fun to play like this, but to me it’s a stretch to claim it’s a real three or four player game.
Tide of Iron is pretty much what we expected it to be, a lavish, epic ameritrash / wargame hybrid (though it seems to fall more towards the ameritrash side) that sacrifices some detail and realism for gameplay and is perfect for those who want a squad level World War 2 game without the overbearing detail that often accompanies wargames. Strangely, the game has a feel not unlike a miniatures game, with its emphasis on force construction, maneuvering, targets of opportunity completing objectives within a strict turn limit.
Recommended for those who:
Like the setting but found Memoir ’44 too basic.
Enjoy medium to high level ameritrash games.
Want to play a wargame but consider gameplay more important than simulation.
Like to explore a game in depth.
Enjoy excellent production values.
You don’t like dice.
You’re a high level wargamer and don’t see the point in playing something simpler.
Don’t like games with more that 3 pages of rules.
Don’t like violence or war glorification in games.
Tide of Iron gets a definite stamp of approval from me.