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Review: Forged in Steel

3

Hard terrain attracts hard workers. You’ll need a lot of hard workers in order to transform this barren landscape into something to be proud of. The locals call it Pueblo and you have visions of what this place can become. It isn’t arts and culture that creates a thriving city. It’s toil and determination. A real city is Forged in Steel.

How it Plays

Forged in Steel plays out over three distinct eras corresponding to three decades of the real world history of the city of Pueblo, CO, starting in 1890. Over these 30 years you will be using your influence as a prominent citizen to grow the city’s infrastructure and industry in order to create a prosperous city. Though it might seem that you and your opponents are on the same team, what with trying to ensure the success of the city and all, the reality is that things couldn’t be more contentious. While riches are enviable, legacy is eternal. What you’re fighting for is to be remembered as the one who put Pueblo on the map.

Victory is accomplished by having the most Victory Points at the end of the game. You earn points by building various structures of the city, increasing its industrial capacity, and through various events that occur throughout the game.

The three eras are played out in a similar manner. Each era has an associated deck of cards which are dealt to each player to start. From these cards, you will put some of them in reserve to be used in the future and discard the rest until you have four left in hand and begin the City Building phase.

You and all other players simultaneously and secretly select a card from your hands. Each card has both a Municipal Muscle (MM) value and an event. Whoever played the card with the lowest MM value goes first and plays their selected card. When playing a card, you can use it for either its MM or to carry out its event. If played for the event, you simple carry out the instructions on the card which might include things such as moving houses on the board to different neighborhoods or scoring victory points for every commercial building you own.

If you opt to use your card for its MM you have a couple of choices ahead of you depending on the amount of MM you have to spend. You can buy empty lots and mines or build houses, commercial buildings and factories. You can even use MM to seize other players’ property and take control of it. Each action has an associated MM cost and you can do any combination of them as long as you have enough MM to do it.

Every era entails playing four cards for either their MM or event.

Play continues with the next lowest MM card and then the cycle repeats until everyone’s cards have been played after which a few end of era phases begin. There’s the immigration phase where houses need to be erected in order to house the incoming population. If there is no room to build houses, unrest occurs. Too much unrest at any time during the game will cause a riot. Riots are bad, but not necessarily for you.

Next comes the County Assessment where the majority of victory points will be doled out. Every player will gain victory points for the buildings they’ve built in the city with bonuses awarded for certain adjacencies. A house on its own, for example, will award you one victory point, but if it’s adjacent to a hospital, you’ll get an additional point.

Finally, there are Elections. The board is divided into five neighborhoods and each neighborhood awards votes to the player with the most houses, mansions (mansions count extra in this phase) and commercial buildings in that neighborhood. Votes will determine turn order and the order in which roles are chosen. The first player is automatically given the Mayor role while the other players are free to choose from the remaining ones. These roles will give you certain benefits in the following round.

After three rounds, whoever has the most victory points is the winner.

The board is seeded with a few initial buildings and will quickly grow over the course of the game.

Small Pueblo, Big Pueblo

One of my absolute joys in board gaming is building. Whether it’s creating a farm in Agricola, stacking terrain in Java, or laying a railway network in Steam I can’t seem to get enough of it. There’s a moment that comes at the end of these types of games where I just sit back and enjoy whatever’s been created. I take in the sprawl of wood and cardboard before me and recognize it as a manifestation of all the work that’s just transpired. It’s a physical representation of every player’s mental decisions. It might seem strange to enjoy something that happens after the game is over, but it’s an insight into the games that I typically enjoy. If Forged in Steel was to be judged solely on its final presentation of a city, it would rank up amongst the best.

Each game of Forged in Steel begins with a nearly blank canvas. The five neighborhoods are represented by grids and if winning the game isn’t enough incentive to build up the city, the bland board artwork will certainly make you want to cover it up. And cover it up you will. Round after round, era after era, the neighborhoods of Pueblo will slowly grow and expand. Before you know it, you’ll have yourself a bustling city filled with houses, mansions, factories, commercial buildings and even a few parks and hospitals. It’s an impressive transformation that tells the story of the actual city it’s based on and the game that was just played between fierce opponents. Even more impressive is the fact that every building placed on the board and thus the very character of the crafted city is a direct result of the players’ actions.

The city of Pueblo becomes a bustling center of activity by game’s end.

The end result of a game can bring me great satisfaction, but it’s proportionate with how much fun it was to get to that point. The backbone of Forged in Steel is its card driven system. It’s not an unfamiliar one and has been most often seen in war games. You might have run across it in games like Twilight Struggle, 13 Days, or Wir Sind Das Volk! I won’t pretend to be an expert in the these types of games, but as the card driven system has bled over to the more familiar Euro game world, I’ve slowly been introduced to it. On the surface, I’m fan of the card driven system as an idea. It’s not too different from multi-use cards seen elsewhere. By allowing cards to be played for MM or its event, it allows every card to be versatile. That versatility leads to options. Options mean decisions and every game’s quality is decided by the quality of the decisions to be made. So let’s take a closer look at a few of them.

At the start of every era, when you are dealt actions cards to play for the round, you have to decide which cards will work best together to execute your strategy. Ideally, you should also be taking into consideration each card’s MM value in order to take advantage of the turn order and basic actions. The thing is, I rarely considered it. I was too busy reading and considering the possibilities of the events to really care about their MM values. The events are so varied and enticing that whenever it came time to play a card there was a slight pang of disappointment whenever I used it for the MM.

There are over 100 era cards and every one of them offers a unique event. Whenever a game allows you to break or work outside the standard, established rules you’d better believe I’m going to try and take advantage of it at every opportunity. Board games are usually orderly, by-the-book affairs so when there’s a chance to break out of the margins it’s a thrill. Every card played in Forged in Steel is an opportunity to do something no one else can. Using the MM always felt like sort of a let down even if it might have been the smarter play. Take the “Bicycle Craze” card. It has an MM value of three which would let you buy a lot and a mine, or build a house and a factory. Or you could play it for the event which allows you to move two of your existing houses to a different neighborhood while still retaining ownership of the lots and you score three victory points immediately. That’s just cool! And every card lets you do cool things like this which makes choosing between MM and the event pretty easy. Even if the MM is the smarter play, it often felt like the less fun one.

You can build mines in addition to the buildings on the city grid.

Luckily, this isn’t the only decision in the game. When using your cards to buy or build, you still have to decide where and to what end. This is where Forged in Steel is at its strongest. I enjoy a good area control game particularly when violence is kept to a minimum. I’m more interested in jockeying for position than simply kicking you out of it. Forged in Steel mostly plays out this way. You might work hard to make a neighborhood award more points, but it will attract the other players’ attentions. Now they’ll buy up all the land and plop down houses before you can surround your own mansion for some massive points. You might transform a neighborhood into a industrial powerhouse, simultaneously increasing your lead while driving down the value of your opponents’ houses who happen to be adjacent to these newly erected smokestacks. There’s some meaty, consequential decisions to be made as you build the city.

But let’s talk about the violence. There’s no battle system in Forged in Steel, but there’s plenty of violence.

Some of the era cards allow you to simply remove other player’s buildings from the board. With a simple play of a card, your hard work can be wiped out and it really rubs me the wrong way. I can’t give an exact ratio of cards that “attack” others but it happens regularly enough to be noticeable. It’s not that I don’t like a little violence in my games, it’s that I don’t like it in this particular incarnation. What I don’t like is that it comes out of nowhere. There’s no way to anticipate it other than to always be on edge and looking over your shoulder. It’s like walking down a dark alley and danger can come at any time. Not a pleasant feeling. The attacks are never devastating, but they’re noticeable and often. It’s death by a thousand paper cuts. While I enjoy card drafting from time to time, it can add a lot of downtime to a game. I’m no game designer, but I can’t help but feel that a draft would help me anticipate what types of attacks will be in play.

What’s even more frustrating is that there are other examples of violence in the game that I can totally embrace. Seizing buildings and certain events will cause you to add markers to the unrest track. If this track ever reaches 8, game play immediately pauses and a riot breaks out. Whoever contributed least to the unrest targets the player who contributed the most to it and burns down their houses. It introduces a new currency to the game which needs careful management. How far do you push unrest and are you able to handle the consequences? Most pointedly, it’s an act of violence that’s out in the open for everyone to see and to anticipate. It’s a knife laying on the table between bitter rivals. It’s danger is ever present, but you can plan accordingly. You can work around it. And when it strikes, it hurts, but you saw it coming and hopefully you had a contingency plan. These observations apply to the Mob Boss role as well. Whoever takes that role can, once per era, decimate an entire city block. This ability, again, is out in the open and you plan accordingly. With this in mind, you avoid clumping your structures in order to dodge the Mob Boss’ wrath.

The Unrest track is a constant threat to the peace of the city.

Conclusion

And so I come to a crossroads. Do the things I enjoy outweigh the things that I don’t? I love building games and Forged in Steel nails that end. It’s a tight battle for real estate and manipulation. The era cards offer interesting and plentiful events. With so many of them, it means each game will play out differently, but I never felt betrayed by the randomness of the card draw. Sure I was jealous of other peoples’ cards, but I always had plenty of options on my own turns. And yet, I still can’t get over the random acts of violence. It puts me on edge and in a state of mind I don’t like to be in. I’m sure there are some people that wouldn’t mind or even enjoy these “gotcha” moments. I’m just not one of those people. For all of Forged in Steel’s good qualities, I’m afraid its particular brand of mean streak is a deal breaker for this reviewer. And that’s fine. Not all things are for all people. I will continue to explore the gaming landscape in order to find that special game that feels like it was designed just for me. Forged in Steel isn’t that game.

Review copy provided by Knight Works Games.

  • Not To My Taste 6.0
  • User Ratings (1 Votes) 9
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Summary

Pros
An excellent sense of scale and building
Tense jockeying for position
Ambitions implementation of a card driven system into a city builder

Cons
Constant unexpected violence doesn't appeal to my taste in gaming

6.0 Not To My Taste

I love board games. The more esoteric, the better.

Discussion3 Comments

  1. Thanks for the review Alex.

    Despite generally not loving take-that, my group love this game. The take-that rarely feels punitive, it’s just the business of growing a city, and the frequency means everyone is getting a health dose throughout the game. Like many card driven strategy games, learning the decks and mitigating the worst of the cards which allow a player to seize or destroy other players buildings is what really makes the game shine. Response cards, which allow you to cancel the effects of many cards, start to become essential priorities when choosing which cards to retain for that round, bank for later or discard entirely. The fact that discarded cards come back in future round also adds an interesting decision space. I do agree with you regarding a drafting variant. We’ve tried it once and it allowed a greater level of planning, but, the downtime between rounds extended the game a good 30 minutes.

    We particularly love the headline cards, which completely change the dynamic of each game. Sometimes you get a few heavily focused on a single building type, pushing players to invest heavily. I think this is where MM becomes more important, as it allows the flexibility to respond to the board state more so than the events you have in hand. The speed at which the headlines fall off is also important. Some games have had the same 3 for most of the game causing that area to be the major focus of the game, where others barely have a chance to go round the table before the fall off meaning you have to spread your focus across all areas.

    It’s a pity this game doesn’t work for you. But, I think all of your critique is entirely valid and readers should be aware of what they are getting into. For me, it combines the best parts of city building with the tension of a card driven system.

    • Appreciate the insight, James. I got a similar comment on BGG about learning the deck over multiple plays, I’ll copy my response here:

      I did consider writing about this very thing in my review and since you bring it up I think I probably should have touched on it. Your point is absolutely true. After the first play, I was aware of what types of cards were in the deck. After a few more posts I even started to recognize some of them. But with over 100 unique era cards, I couldn’t keep a bead on them or what era they would show up in. I just knew that the were cards in the deck that would do me harm. I never got to the point where I could anticipate a specific card. Contrast that to a game like Inis (very different games, I know) which has less than 20 action cards, I could anticipate the possibilities very easily.

      Ultimately I decided, trying to learn or remember cards isn’t for me. I prefer exploring systems rather than individual parts. And it really is a matter of preference. Magic: The Gathering is hugely popular and people obsess over card knowledge and can recite them by name. It’s kind admirable that there are gamers that can get into a game to that degree and on some level I’m even a little jealous. But I think it’s better to admit my biases and speak from that perspective than to ignore them.

      I think that fact there are so many cards is a double edged sword. It adds lots of cool events which is empowering, but it also makes it difficult to keep track of all the possibilities. Not to say that you should ever completely know all the cards in play, but I never got close to that point. I’m sure some, like yourself, will dive into and relish the breadth of cards available, it was just overwhelming to me. I think it’s a pity that I didn’t like it more as well because there is a LOT to like.

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