Ironclad Tactics tries to mix things up, and that makes it a bit of an oddball. While it's partly a tower defence game, developer Zachtronics has also taken the liberty to throw in some card elements. The end result of this weird mash up is unforgettable, but not without its problems.
Set during the American Civil War, the game's story follows two Union engineers who have designed and created a new line of robots, called ironclads. After the Battle of Fort Sumter, they learn that the Confederacy has its own version of these machines, which soon after march up to the White House, causing all hell to break loose. Silly as it may sound, there's a surprising amount of effort put into the narrative; it's more than loose strings tying missions together, and the cutscenes' comic book presentation packs plenty of charm.
Gameplay is split into two parts: building card decks, and then using those decks to win matches. Doing so unlocks even more cards, so your arsenal is expanding with each victory. Every map has its own side challenges, but the main goal is almost always the same: move ironclads down the grid and into enemy territory, all the while defending your own base from the same fate.
Everything from buffs and weapons to the ironclads themselves are put on the battlefield by laying down cards. Learning to recognise which work best in different situations is the key to success.
Cards are the game's bread and butter, but the system that they go by isn't perfect. Once you've built a deck of 20 and started a mission, five cards from that deck will be randomly chosen. There's no sort of filter or option to guarantee that you'll start off with a particular card, so nothing is stopping the game from giving you three weapons and two buffs, with no ironclads to equip them to. This doesn't happen very often, but it's always frustrating to have the perfect plan, only to be held back by a bad shuffle.
Speaking of things that purists won't like, Ironclad Tactics is neither turn-based nor real-time. Instead, the game opts for this strange, fast-paced approach, where both players make ten-second decisions simultaneously. As hectic and downright stressful as it can be, this method does a good job of keeping the pace up. It's only a shame that there isn't an option to slow things down for those who are interested.
Really, though, one has to wonder if this game is even meant for purists. Not quite a full out tower defense game, and not entirely a card game either, Zachtronics has paved its own path here. Even with the odd mish-mash that comes out of these two worlds colliding, it's continued to throw more ideas on top. That's not to say that it's a bad game – it has a lot of good stuff going on; the feeling of getting new cards is always immensely satisfying, the presentation has more creativity put into it than a lot of AAA titles these days, and there's loads of content to keep you occupied.
Aside from the main campaign, the $15 package crams in a fair bit of DLC, as well as online skirmishes and 1v1 matches. While the online community isn't exactly what we'd call bustling, finding someone to play with is well worth the effort. Some of the game's best moments are spent with real human competition.
When pitted against other people, a lot of the pressure is taken off. Not only does their deck occasionally work against them, but many will struggle to get their moves done in time – just like us. The tough-as-nails artificial intelligence doesn't always mix well with the game's rules in the campaign, but other humans have to deal with the same problems.
Ironclad Tactics brings together a plethora of gameplay styles, and in the process, picks up some of their best and worst features, all the while throwing in a few of its own. Its card-based system is too random to call it a full out strategy game, but it would be degrading to say that tactical thinking plays no part here. As long as you don't try to label it, we think that you'll find a fun experience.