Sunday, November 16, 2014

Duels For the Iron Staff, by DeQuan Watson and Galen Ihlenfeldt

Duels For the Iron Staff is a 2-4 player card game that pits wizards against each other in a magic-fueled fight. Each player uses spells, actions, and magical components to do damage to opponents, heal themselves, and gain every inch of advantage possible. If you're a fan of light strategic play and light screw-your-neighbor elements, then I've got a hunch Iron Staff will fit in your collection.

Full disclosure: I wasn't compensated for this review, nor have I received a copy of Iron Staff. That said, DeQuan and Galen are dear friends of mine, and I've done my best not to let that influence my opinion of this game.

For a more detailed consideration, read on!

In Duels For the Iron Staff players collect components that fuel spells, and use action cards to accelerate plans and stymie their opponents. Each player selects a character to play, which grants a special ability that increases in strength as the game progresses, and also sets the player's life total for the game. Each player is eliminated when their life total reaches zero. The last player remaining is the winner!

Each player starts the game with five cards, dealt from a combined deck of spells and actions. Each turn, the active player may put any number of spell cards face-up on the table in front of them, provided that the total number of face-up spell cards never exceeds three. When cast, spell cards typically do damage to opponents, though often they heal and have additional special effects.

The symbols in the top left of the spell cards represent the components needed to cast them.
The active player may play up to two action cards as well (or more, if granted additional actions by other cards). Action cards usually grant bonuses to the casting player, like bonus damage, extra cards, more components, or other cool ways to cheat in the game.

As the game begins, six components are dealt face-up from a separate deck of component cards into a center row between the players.  These components are required for each spell players cast, and are replenished each time a card is removed. In this way, there will always be six components available for selection. If there are ever four of the same type of component (Fire, Water, Earth, Air, Aether) the entire row of components is replaced.

Components by type and sub-type. Aether components grant bonuses or impose penalties.
The active player may take up to two components each turn and "commit" them to a single face-up spell in in their tableau. Each spell requires a specific number of components of certain types, and may require sub-types as well. Once a player has committed the requisite number of components to a spell, the spell can be cast and its effects and damage can be resolved.

At the end of each turn the active player draws or discards until they have five cards in hand, then
ends their turn. With the exception of "defensive" action cards, play is entirely restricted to the active player, though turns tend to progress quickly enough that there's not a real down-time issue (at least in a two-player game, which is all I've played). Play progresses, turn-by-turn, until one mage has reduced the other's life total to zero.

Action cards!
I spend a fair amount of time around game designers. I think games are fascinating, not just as entertaining diversions, but as constructed puzzles and combinations of clever mechanics. I tend to think deeply about what aspects are "fun" and what aspects are "interesting". I try to let these considerations inform my reviews. I also look for things that are new - aspects of design, theme, player interaction, etc. Duels For the Iron Staff is fun, and interesting, and does something new.

Fun:

  • Casting spells! I'm a sucker for wizards, magicians, and warlocks. It's really fun to snap up that last Air component and blast my friend in the face with a cone of flame! 
  • At least in a two-player game, it really does feel like I'm a tricky wizard digging through my cloak for items while trying my best to dodge fireballs and acid spray. Most of the time I felt the pressure of holding off my opponent's advances while trying to protect my own spells. 
  • I love drawing cards in games, especially when the cards I draw let me draw even more cards. Iron Staff comes with a giant deck of action cards and spell cards, so there's a ton of stuff to do, and most of the cards are unique. It's pretty neat to dig for an answer to an opponent's spell and find cards that can help! 
  • There are all sorts of bonuses you can gain from action cards, spell cards, and Aether components. Angling for these while also trying to do plenty of damage to the other caster is a lot of fun. 


Interesting:

  • Like most interesting card games, there's a point in each game (or many) when you've got choices to make and a few different ways to advance your plans. In Iron Staff it's often a choice of which spells to work towards and which action cards to play each turn. I really enjoyed the light puzzle the Iron Staff presented in the games I played. 
  • The two-action and two-component limit each turn leads to interesting choices about how and what cards to play each turn. Many spells provide additional benefits (like taking extra components) that, if done in the correct order, can combine for awesome turns. It's enough to reward players for thinking deeply about what's happening without requiring that they do so to have a chance to win.  
  • Defensive cards are just common enough in Iron Staff that they have to be accounted for. Most of them simply cancel spells as they're cast or reduce their damage, but some can turn a spell around on the caster, or copy powerful actions that I've taken during my turn. The balance of defensive cards felt just right - it was always a bit of a surprise to have one played against me, and I never felt like I had too many defensive cards and not enough aggressive choices during my turns. The threat was just great enough that I had to think about possible defenses and have a plan B, just in case. 


New:

  • Set collection is a popular mechanic in many, many games, but Duels For the Iron Staff presents a new twist in the tableau of spell cards that each have different requirements. It's really not mechanically different from, say, Phase 10 - where players are racing to make different sets from the same cards - but the abilities of the Aether components plus the various bonuses from action cards add enough variability to make building and casting spells exciting. 


I said in the opening paragraph that there's a light screw-your-neighbor (SYN) aspect in Iron Staff. In a two-player game, every card that has a deleterious on your opponent presents a tactical advantage for you, as slowing them necessarily helps you. In a multi-player game, impacting a single player is less beneficial, especially if it comes at the opportunity cost of not advancing your own tableau and building your own spells.

I'm generally not a fan of SYN for the sake of SYN (ala Munchkin), so I chose to play Iron Staff stritcly two-player. If you want the experience of crushing your friends' dreams just as they bring a powerful spell to fruition, then a three- or four-player game might be just your speed!

DeQuan joins in the age-old tradition of game designers who frequently lose at their games.
Duels For the Iron Staff won't replace Magic or Summoner Wars in my list of favorite card games, but it has a place on my shelf and I'm happy to back it for $29. It's light enough to make it easy to teach to anybody with a basic experience in card games, and the actions and spell effects are really fun. I made some suggestions to DeQuan for play variants, including some ways to reduce some of the variance in the game and make it a little deeper and more strategic. If the campaign funds, I'd be happy to share them with you!

View the Kickstarter campaign for Duels For the Iron Staff here

Watch a rules walkthrough by co-designer and artist Galen Ihlenfeldt

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JR Honeycutt is a full-time husband and game-player, and co-host of The Nerd Nighters. You can find him on Twitter at @JayAhre or at a Friendly Local Game Store in Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas.