Iron and Oak – Boardgame Review
Passed Inspection: Easy to learn. Fun to play. Unique game design that captures the feel of ship-to-ship combat. High solitaire and replay ability.
Failed Basic: Needs a more complete index. Damage chart confusing. Background on each ship would have been nice.
James M. Day—prolific designer of 88, Main Battle Tank, Armor and the list goes on—and GMT Games have followed up their new update of Day’s classic Panzer wargame by traveling back to the 1860s and the American Civil War for their new release, Iron and Oak.
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Iron and Oak is a tactical game of ship-to-ship combat and while there have been a few previous games looking at the subject matter (Yaquinto’s Ironclads immediately springs to mind), most have tended to get bogged down in tedious record keeping. Not so with Iron and Oak. Day focuses his game on delivering the fun and consigns the record keeping to Davy Jones’ Locker (no, not the late singer from The Monkees).
The box art is extremely attractive with a painting of the famous duel between the Monitor and the Merrimack against an attractive, wood-grained background. (Actually, Merrimack had been renamed CSS Virginia after it was captured by the Confederates and converted to an ironclad, but the battle is better known by the more euphonious Monitor versus Merrimack.) Upon opening the box you find data cards for all the ships and fortifications, Action and Navy Yard cards, Ship Order cards, a multitude of colored dice (6-sided, 8-sided and 10-sided), a rule book, scenario book, full-color map, rules sheet and full-color counters.
The sequence of play is very straightforward. The Status Phase involves the repair of damaged ship systems, allocating repair parties from the ship’s crew and the change of status of smoke and onboard fires. In the Orders Phase players determine what their ships will do for the turn. In the Action Phase, ships move and fire at each other or at fortifications. Finally, in the Replace Card phase Action Cards can be discarded and replaced.
The rules eloquently address what has been convoluted in other games—maneuvering the ships without having to mess with pre-plotting the moves in advance. Players put a Ship’s Order card face down and reveal it at the appropriate time. Orders include drop anchor or weigh anchor, drift or re-float, maneuver at speeds 0, 1 or 2, opposing enemy maneuvers at close range, unfoul a ship, ram attack, spar attack and cross the enemy ship’s “T.” Each ship has an Order Deck, so the designer has thoughtfully provided 16 decks—some of the scenarios involve a large number of ships on both sides.
Action Cards provide nice surprises during the game that can either help you or hurt your opponent. Some Action Cards may slow down your opponent’s speed or allow you to arm your guns with grapeshot in order to blast the crew of the enemy ship. In solitaire play, the Action Cards can be drawn face down and then played (one for you and one for the other side) one time each turn to add some nice randomness to the battle.
The Ship Yard Cards are used during the incredibly immersive campaign game in order to provide random “between campaign events” such as ammunition shortages, fires at the enemy naval yard that may hamper ship repairs and even the quality of replacement crews.
In order to accomplish an order, Day has gone with a system of opposed die rolls so that both players are always engaged in the action. If, for example, I am in control of the Union armored steamship Cincinnati and my ship is undamaged, I have to roll both an 8-sided and a 6-sided die in order to get closer to the Confederate ship I’ve just spotted before blasting it with my cannons. I roll a 5 and an 8. The 8 is my highest roll. Now my friend is commanding the Confederate torpedo boat Wasp. We are at a range of 2 on the map. The Wasp is also undamaged. My friend rolls a 10-sided die and a 6-sided die. He rolls a 9 and a 2. His highest roll is 9. He has beaten my roll and successfully maneuvers his ship to keep me from closing with him. I stay at a range of 2 and don’t close.
These opposed die rolls are the key system in the game. During combat, I decide that the Cincinnati will shoot at the Wasp. My guns’ rating gives me an 8-sided die for combat. I shoot at the Wasp and roll a 7. I’m shooting at long range so I deduct 2 from the roll, for a final attack roll of 5. I roll to see what part of the Wasp my gunners were targeting. I roll a 3 on an 8-sided die. According to the Wasp‘s data card, a 3 shows a possible hit on the bow of the ship, which the card also shows is wooden and not armored; this may work out for my Union ship. The Wasp has to roll a 4-sided die for defense and rolls a 1. I refer to the damage chart and see that on a wooden, non-armored target I have done 2 hits to the bow of the Wasp and scored a critical hit. For the crit hit, I roll two 6-sided dice, resulting in a 9, which hits the Wasp‘s gun and damages its cannon. The Wasp is a smaller boat—it now only has 1 hull point left and will have trouble shooting at me. If the Wasp‘s crew wants to press the fight, all they can really do is try and ram me with their spar-mounted torpedo. They decide to fight again another day and try to escape. The Cincinnati pursues and lands another good hit on the fleeing ship. The Wasp begins to sink. Good for the Cincinnati. We won the fight!
Not only are there over 70 different ships, which are all rated for guns, armor, crew, draft, etc., but there are also fortifications ranging from shore batteries to full, well-armed and solidly constructed forts such as the formidable Fort Morgan at the entrance to Mobile Bay, with its four batteries of deadly cannons.
While the 1860s were defined by the new ironclad style of warship, there are still plenty of two- and three-masted, wooden sailing ships. Some of these ships were being converted to steam power, but for long distance travel sails were still the best method, as the coal needed to make the steam was very bulky and in short supply.
As I stated before, each ship is rated for its “draft.” The ship’s draft is critical to the game, as most ship-to-ship combat during the Civil War were battles on the rivers of North America. If the ship gets too close to the shore or a sand bar in the river, it could run aground unless its draft is high enough that it can slip over. If the ship runs aground, then the player had better try to issue a “Re-Float” order or the ship will be a sitting duck.
Fires pose another danger. In one game, two wooden ships were fighting each other—the Union ship Seminole and the Confederate ship Florida. The Florida caught fire owing to a critical hit. Part of the crew was pulled off their other duties to fight the fire, but they weren’t fast enough and the flames reached the powder magazine. The Florida exploded with most hands lost.
The Play Book contains 11 scenarios, from single ship-to-ship duels to massive battles with over a dozen ships and multiple fortifications. Rules are included to create your own scenarios and for a full campaign game as well. Additional rules include night combats, “torpedoes” (mines), and other challenges that can make life difficult for even the most experienced captain.
A brief history of naval battles during the Civil War is also included, as is a fully detailed example of play.
There is enough variety in the game to make each session a unique experience. Iron and Oak has a very high replay value. With the full campaign rules, you can chart the experience of your crew and their fleet of ships as they try to survive the war. The campaign is perfect for solitaire play and, with some tweaking, the tactical rules work well for single player.
But, there are a few barnacles on the hull of Iron and Oak. The rules need a more complete index. Some very important rules are not listed, leading to much page flipping during games. The damage chart is overly confusing and needs to be re-written to be just as clear as the damage rules are in the rule book. Crew hits are very confusing and during play I and another player had to read the rules multiple times to figure them out. An extra book with a short write up of each ship would have been a nice addition to the game.
Nonetheless, Iron and Oak is a great game with a short learning curve. It will provide hours of fun for fans of the ship duels of the mid-1800s.
Armchair General Rating: 90 %
Solitaire Rating (1 is low, 5 is high): 4
About the Author
A college film instructor and small business owner, Richard Martin has also worked in the legal and real estate professions, is involved in video production, film criticism, sports shooting and is an avid World War I and II gamer who can remember war games that came in plastic bags and cost $2.99 (he’s really that old)!