From the Game Room: Ironsworn

Playing the roleplaying game Ironsworn.

An occasional post from Robert

Roleplaying games (RPGs) are having a renaissance – led by the massive surge in popularity of Dungeons and Dragons over the last several years, which has created the space for independent game designers to flourish.

Ironsworn stands out from the crowd of recent roleplaying games in that it can be played in three modes: guided, co-op, or solo. The guided mode is the traditional way of playing an RPG, with one person acting as a facilitator, setting the world and challenges for the other players to overcome with their characters. In co-op mode, no one person fills that role, with every participant playing a character, and sharing the world-building and facilitation duties. In solo mode, a single person plays a character, overcoming challenges of their own creation within a world they have developed to their tastes. Regardless of the mode you play, Ironsworn provides tools to assist in world building and challenge creation, in addition to its wide variety of character options. Last, but not least, the game designer, Shawn Tomkin, offers the PDF of the full core rulebook and related files for free at https://www.ironswornrpg.com

What is the game about?
It’s about completing journeys and quests in a gritty, low-fantasy frontier world. Characters swear vows on iron to take a journey or to complete a task, driving the action and the story, hence the name, Ironsworn. The default setting is iron age fantasy that is Viking-inspired, with worldbuilding tools to adjust to your taste. For example, you (or you and your group) can decide whether or not to include magic, firstborn (elves, giants, etc.), or supernatural horrors, and how prevalent these elements are if you are including them. The system is quite flexible in terms of the setting. There is an active online community of Ironsworn players. Some of them have adapted the Ironsworn system to settings inspired by the cultures of Japan, Africa, and South America and to different genres, such as the wild west and cyberpunk. 

How do you play the game?
The core mechanics of the game include rows of checkboxes to track your character’s progress toward completing their journeys and vows, moves (actions your character can take with mechanical benefits and consequences for successes and failures), many tables to help flesh out details of the world and its inhabitants, and dice rolling (naturally) to determine degrees of success and to use on the tables. 

The main dice rolling mechanic is to roll one standard six-sided die as an “action die,” to which you add your character’s relevant stat and any situational modifiers to determine an “action score.” You also roll two ten-sided “challenge dice” and compare the action score to the value of each challenge die. An action score that is higher than both challenge dice earns a full success, called a “strong hit.” An action score that is higher than only one challenge die is a “weak hit,” denoting a partial success or success with a cost. An action score that does not exceed either challenge die results in a “miss,” or failure, although this can be interpreted as a success with a significant cost. 

Regardless of the outcome of a die roll, something always happens to move the story forward. The description of the particular move attempted provides direction for where to take your story. For example, when your character makes the move to “Gather Information,” a strong hit means that “you discover something helpful and specific’” whereas a weak hit means “the information complicates your quest or introduces a new danger,” and a miss means “your investigation unearths a dire threat or reveals an unwelcome truth that undermines your quest.”

Want to see or hear an example of how Ironsworn is played?
Want to see or hear an example of how Ironsworn is played? I highly recommend watching the second season of voice actor Trevor Duvall’s Me, Myself, and Die YouTube channel, in which he used Ironsworn as the game system. The game’s designer, Shawn Tomkin, and his son, Matt Click ran a short podcast series showcasing Ironsworn and Delve, an Ironsworn supplement (not free, although there is a free preview available). The podcast is called Ask the Oracle, which can be found on PodBean and on other major podcatchers such as Apple Podcasts. 

Finally, if, like me, you are more interested in science fiction than in fantasy, you are in luck! Shawn Tomkin recently Kickstarted Ironsworn: Starforged, evolving the Ironsworn system and placing it in a gritty, sci-fi setting (think the outer rim of Star Wars, or Firefly, perhaps even Alien). Learn more here on the Ironsworn website where you can sign up to be notified by email when the pledge manager is available for late backers. Otherwise, it should be available for retail sale in spring 2022. While the game is in the late stages of development, a preview version of the game is available to Kickstarter backers. For an excellent example of how the preview version of Starforged plays, check out The Bad Spot on YouTube.

From the Game Room: Catan

The Catan Board

An occasional post from Robert

First published in 1995, Catan was the game that drew me (and millions of other people) back into boardgaming. It was so different from the classic family board games of my childhood, such as Pachesi, Sorry!, Clue, or Monopoly. Yet it was not as complex or as long of a game as the Avalon Hill board games I played as a teenager. Catan ushered in a new era of modern boardgaming. Due to its popularity, multiple editions, variants, scenarios, expansions, and spin-offs have been released, including an excellent phone/tablet app. See all the options at Catan.com. There’s even a Catan novel!

The game’s modular board of hexagonal tiles means that even the setup of the game varies from game to game, yet the system to set it up is simple and relatively quick. On each turn, the current player rolls two dice, which determines which resources are produced that turn. Since resources are gained by all players at those locations, and since trading resources is a big part of the game, even when it is not your turn, you are still engaged in the game. You are not just sitting there idly waiting for your turn to come around again. 

As dice rolling is a core mechanic in the game, there is a bit of randomness/luck involved, yet there are various strategies to follow and multiple paths to victory. It’s a game that is suitable for family game night, yet also holds rewards for strategic or even cutthroat gamers. 

Because trading is such a key aspect of the game, the base game of Catan does not work well for fewer than three players. For a 2-player Catan experience that also adds exploration and other challenges, try the Catan: Explorers & Pirates expansion (base game required), or Rivals for Catan, a 2-player card game based on the same concepts as the original Catan, but designed for two. Because of the way resources are generated for all players at the same time, no version of Catan is really suited for asynchronous play. 

Catan board games

From the Game Room –The Builders: Middle Ages

The Builders: Middle Ages

The Builders: Middle Ages is a clever little card game for 2-4 people of all ages that can be played in about 30 minutes, or asynchronously. The theme is literally what it says on the tin (the game comes in a small “tin” box.) It’s a game about constructing buildings in the European Middle Ages. Players take on the role of a general contractor, recruiting workers of various skill levels to send out to work on small to large construction projects, providing coins and victory points that vary according to the type of building. The game rewards good decisions in the choices players make among the available buildings and workers, finding efficiencies and synergies between the cards, or doing the best one can with sub-optimal card combinations. 

Dad vs. Daughter – The Builders: Middle Ages how to play video

The front of a building card depicts a building under construction and shows the number and type of resources (stone, wood, knowledge, and tile) needed to complete the building, as well as the victory points and number of coins you will gain by completing it. The back of a building card depicts the completed building and its victory points. 

The worker cards depict apprentices, laborers, craftsmen, and masters, each of which provides a different combination of resources to be applied to buildings. Apprentices, the cheapest type of worker, cost two coins to send to a construction site and supply two resources. At the other end of the scale, master workers cost five coins to put to work and supply five resources. 

How to play

Each turn, a player can take up to three free actions to do any combination of the following: start construction by selecting a building from a line of five available building cards, recruit a worker from a line of five available worker cards, send a worker to work on a building they have previously selected, or take coins (one coin for one action, three coins for two actions, and six coins for three actions). After taking three free actions, players can pay five coins for each additional action they’d like to take during that same turn.

A few of the building cards depict machines that you can build just like any other building, but which offer the player ongoing resources after they are constructed. For example, a tile oven that provides tile resources, or a crane that provides stone. A player won’t earn any coins when completing the construction of a machine but completed machines can be sent to a construction site for no cost in coins. So, there’s a tradeoff. 

Game design

The design of the cards is very pleasing, as the building cards show the necessary resources on the right side, while the worker cards show the provided resources on the left side, so that they line up when laid side-by-side. And the art on the cards is done in a light-hearted aesthetic. The only downside is that all the workers appear to be white males. For a game published just a few years ago, one would expect more diversity here. The worker cards are two-sided, so having each card have the same image on both sides of the card seems like a wasted opportunity. 

A lot in a small package

For a small game (only 42 building cards and 42 worker cards), The Builders has more variety and depth of strategy than you might expect. Do you go for several small buildings that you can quickly build for 2-3 victory points and a modest number of coins each, or one large building that will take several turns (and more coins) to build but earns you 6-8 victory points and more coins? Do you pay five extra coins to take an extra action this turn or wait until the next turn to take that action? Do you build a machine, which will cost you coins now but save you coins later? Since the game is so short and so replayable, you can try out different strategies each time you play.

From the Game Room: Splendor

Splendor set up for four players.

Splendor is a modern classic board game for 2-4 players, who assume the role of Renaissance gem merchants, building up their wealth in gemstones, gem mines, hiring artisans, and building shops, seeking to attract the notice of the nobility. Players acquire single-use gemstone tokens, then trade sets of those tokens for cards that represent gem mines, artisans, and shops, which are used as permanent gems. The higher cost cards also confer “prestige” (victory) points. Collecting sets of the same color cards enable one to purchase the higher cost cards and attract the attention of nobles, which also provide prestige points. The goal of the game is to gain at least 15 prestige points. 

How to Play Splendor by Watch It Played

This is a lightweight, fun family game that has broad appeal. There is little to no conflict between players as one player’s actions do not directly affect the other players, other than the availability of specific gemstone tokens, cards, or nobles. This also enables you to play the game asynchronously, a turn at a time, rather than at a single sitting. All you need is something, such as a token or index card, to indicate whose turn it is. 

There is an expansion, Cities of Splendor, which offers additional cards and twists on the rules, and a retheming of the game, Splendor Marvel, which also adds some new rules. There’s also an excellent Splendor app for phones and tablets, that can be played solo against a selection of AI opponents, pass-and-play, and online (if you have an account). The app contains a nice tutorial and challenges to help you improve your game. For more info, see this iOS app review or Android/Chromebook app review.

Any way you play it, Splendor is a worthy addition to your game library.