(Review and rules clarifications)

Published by in the book Rules of Play (MIT Press) 2004, designed by Frank Lantz.

Ironclad is a simple two-player abstract board-game played on a 6x8 grid of squares. To make the board, you could use a chess board with two rows of squares covered over.

Each player has “robots” and “stones”. The robots are represented by stacks of 1, 2 and 3 discs (you could use draughts). These move like kings in chess, and can either move or shoot. If they shoot, their combined firepower can destroy enemy robots. If one robots makes it all the way across the board into the opponent’s first row of squares, then this wins the game.

The players also place and then perhaps move the stones, which are small markers placed at the corners of the squares on the board. If a player forms an unbroken string of stones all the way across the board, he wins.

There are, therefore, two different ways of winning the game, and a player has to be vigilant lest his opponent sneak a win in the apparently less-contested “sub-game”.

The two sub-games are described in the rules in dramatic prose. The robots are apparently ancient battle machines that blast away with lasers and so forth, and the strings of stones apparently represent the sequences of logic put together by debating philosophers. I don’t think that this theme helps the game at all. The game is clearly not a simulation of a real form of conflict.

The two sub-games are not completely independent of each other. The robots affect the placing of stones in that a stone cannot be placed next to a robot. The stones meanwhile offer ‘cover’ to the robots when they shoot at each other. Here a die is introduced to the game to determine the effect of the cover. This introduces the game’s only element of luck, and I feel that this spoils the chess-like luck-free purity of the game. Luck does not come close to dominating, however, and this is a minor quibble.

My major criticism of the game is not in the design of the game itself, but in the explanation of it given in the rules. I have written games myself, and find that the task of designing a game has two distinct elements, each of which can as challenging as the other. One is to create a game that works, and the other is to create a set of rules that explain the game clearly to a newcomer.

One very unusual aspect of the game is that half of the moves made are by one player moving the pieces of his opponent, to his opponent’s disadvantage, rather than the far more common situation in which players move only their own pieces, to their own advantage. The crucial rule that says this is however very ambiguously phrased, and when I played the game for the first time, I interpreted the rule incorrectly.

I know that I interpreted the rule incorrectly, because I corresponded with the game’s designer, and he very kindly put me right. Here follow the clarifications to the rules that arose from that correspondence:

  • Stones are considered to be connected, for the purpose of forming a winning ‘string’ across the board, only when they are on corners of the same side of a square, and not when they are on opposite corners of a square. Another way of putting this would be to say “no diagonals”.

  • The game can be won not only by a string of stones from one long edge of the board to the opposite long edge, but also it can be won by forming a string of stones from one short end of the board to the opposite short end.

  • The turn sequence is as follows: Player A (chosen at random) takes the first turn, and starts this by choosing either to move a robot or place a stone (he chooses to play one move in either of the sub-games). Player B then reacts to this by making one move in the other sub-game using one of Player A’s pieces. Each turn therefore consists of two moves, one by each player, and one in each sub-game. For example, if Player A moves a robot, then Player B must then move or place one of Player A’s stones. After these two moves, it would then be Player B’s turn to choose a sub-game in which to play and make one move, and the Player A would react to this with a move of one of Player B’s pieces in the other sub-game. If Player B in this example were to choose to play a move in the stones sub-game, then this would mean that a stone move would be followed by another stone move.
  • With these clarifications, the rules are I think clear enough, and pleasantly simple once you have trained your eye to skip over all the guff about laser beams and philosophers.

    Since this is not a familiar turn sequence, and both players will have to give some thought to each move, it is possible to lose track of where on is in the turn sequence. It may help to have some token, and pass this back and forth at an agreed moment, such as when a second (reactive, of an opponent’s piece) move has just been made.

    When first trying the game out, I misinterpreted the designer’s intentions, and played with a different turn sequence. I played that Player A played a move in one sub-game, then Player B played a move in the other sub-game using one of B’s own pieces. However, I am reporting here that the game played perfectly well this way, and so players of this game might like to try both ways of playing the game, and may enjoy both. In my games, playing it the intended way meant that the stones were the more likely way of winning the game, and the main use of robots was to hinder the placement of enemy stones. Playing in my mistaken way, the game involved rather more aggressive robots.

    I would recommend this game. To play it, all you need apart from the rules is a flat 6x8 grid of squares, and 24 (12 in each colour) stackable pieces for the robots, and 64 (32 of each colour) little markers for the stones. There are not many rules, and the game is one of skill, and each turn a player has a few tricky decisions to make, with quite a few options presenting themselves as tempting.


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