Full disclosure: A preview copy of Iron Forest was provided by Brain Games Publishing. Some art, gameplay, or other aspects of the game may change between this preview and the fulfillment of the Kickstarter, should it fund, as this is a preview of a currently unreleased game.
One thing I really noticed about the pandemic was just how few things I remembered from 2019 or earlier. Like, I certainly forgot that there was development happening on a spiritual sequel to the ICECOOL games I love. I forgot that I got to see it at Gen Con a few years back. And I ultimately forgot that they were sending me a preview. But when it arrived, you bet I jumped on it. And then had to wait a bit again because they sent me a new launcher but I was out of town and then it was the holidays and it’s still hard to organize game groups and, well, you know how it is. Time. Inexorably passing. But we’re here now, on the other side of it! I figured out how to get the photos done (I hope; that’s a Tomorrow Eric Problem, as of writing), and I’ve gotten everything ready. Want to know more about Iron Forest? Me too! Let’s find out what’s going on.
In Iron Forest, the various animal clans of Neemus are under attack by the Iron Forces of the eponymous wood. Is it their fault for stealing tech from the Iron Forest? Hard to say. I don’t really want to get into the blame game in this review. But here, only mecha combat can solve things. So pick a side, choose your mechas, and fight across the land and sky in various heavy-duty machines. Will you be able to protect your homeland? Or will you just lay someone else’s lands to waste?
First thing to do is build the board. It takes longer, this time, since there’s a top and bottom component to it. Finished product looks like this:
Each player gets a set of mechas in their team’s color. Red is the IRON FORCE, and Green is the Animal Clans.
There are also dice for each player color:
Objective Markers (and some Neutral ones):
Power Up Cards:
And some various other markers and tokens:
If playing with three players, give two players Turn Order Counters 1 and 3, and the other player Turn Order Counters 2 and 4. Otherwise, give each player one. You can use them to randomize teams, if you want.
Shuffle the Power Up Cards, dealing out a few to each player based on player count:
- 2 players: Both players get two cards.
- 3 players: Deal two Power Up Cards to each Turn Order Counter. The lone player can only use the Power Up Cards assigned to that Turn Order Counter on that turn.
- 4 players: All players get two cards.
Shuffle the Activation Cards, place the mechas on their indicated depots (red on the upper level, green on the lower level), and you should be about ready to start. Last thing: choose a Scenario, and follow any scenario-specific setup instructions.
You’re good to go! The scenario dictates which team starts.
Humorously (for me, I suppose), Iron Forest is largely scenario-based, with different tasks and challenges for players depending on which scenario you choose. I’ll give you a quick overview of play and briefly describe some scenarios you can look forward to, however.
On your turn, you essentially do two things: Activate a Mecha and Take Actions. You do each twice.
To Activate a Mecha, you draw the top card of your Activation Deck. This determines which of your mechas will be activating this turn, unlike ICECOOL, where you only have one penguin you control. If your Activation Deck is empty, shuffle the discard pile and draw a new card.
If your mecha is currently out of play (due to being KO’ed, usually; more on that later), place it back on its depot before starting your actions.
After you’ve determined which mecha you’re activating, you’ll take actions with it.
There are a variety of actions you can take. Ignoring scenario-specific actions, either before or after your mandatory action, you can play a Power Up Card, which will generally bend a few of the game’s rules for you.
Your Mandatory Action is the crux of this game, and it’s either flicking your mecha or launching it. To flick your mecha, use a finger to just kind of … flick it. This is a written review; figure it out. You can flick it forward, flick it on the sides to curve it a bit, or if you flick the mecha specifically forward, you can occasionally jump it over walls. Fun to test it out! I sometimes settle for the less-gracious slap, which is why we refer to ICECOOL as “that penguin-slapping game”.
Launching a mecha, however, is another matter entirely. To launch a mecha, it must be on the bottom level of the board and in one of the outer rooms. Remove it from the room and place it in the launcher such that the launcher is touching the outer edge of the box. Pull back, hope for the best.
While moving a mecha, if you hit another player’s mecha, that mecha becomes damaged; flip their Mecha Card over to the Damaged side. If it’s already damaged, the mecha is KO’ed, and you gain a Power Up Card. It’s technically possible to KO your own mecha on your turn, in a convoluted way; in that case, your opponent gains a Power Up Card, so don’t do that.
After taking actions with one mecha, draw another Activation Card and take actions with your second mecha, and then it’s your opponent’s turn!
There are a few different scenarios included in my copy of the game; here’s an overview of what they are and what you can expect!
- Establishing a Network: Basically ICECOOL; here, you place Objective Markers above certain openings, and you have to get your mechas through those openings to claim the markers. Once you’ve claimed enough, your opponent gets to place more markers on any openings they choose. Collect them all to win!
- Shutdown: The Iron Force wants to KO all the Animal Clan mechas twice, and the Animal Clan wants to reroll dice in their color and then launch to the upper level successfully from boxes that match the rerolled dice values.
- Supply Run: This one is pick-up-and-deliver. Iron Force gains dice by rerolling dice of their value until they don’t match their box number, Animal Clan gains dice by KO’ing Iron Force mechas. Once you’ve gained a die, you need to deliver it to the corresponding box. Deliver four to win!
- Awakening: Iron Force wants to get back up to the sky without the Animal Clan following them (launching from rooms without Animal Clan mechas or their dice), and the Animal Clan wants to be alone in boxes without Iron Force mechas.
- Seismic Activity: Similar to Supply Run, Iron Force wants to pick up dice with a certain value and pass through openings of the same value, and Animal Clans want to pick up dice and then bump into other Animal Clans mechas to remove them from the game. Whoever gets rid of their dice (and markers) first wins!
- Taking Ground: This is all-out war. Iron Force wants to remove all their markers (which they can only do when they’re in a room where they outnumber Animal Clans mechas by at least two), and Animal Clans want to KO four Iron Force mechas.
- Data Mine: This is one of the dice-centric ones. The Iron Force wants to hit dice of their color out of the rooms the dice start in, and the Animal Clans want to go through the openings matching the number of the dice that they roll and place on their mecha cards at the game’s outset.
Lots to do!
End of Game
Play until one team completes their scenario objective; that team wins!
Player Count Differences
This one’s pretty explicitly in the two-player camp, for me. I could probably deal with three players, if I were the odd player, but I’m the impatient sort. It’s sort of the issue I ran into with eight-player ICECOOL2; it’s cool to get so many people involved, but you really want the action to be fast-paced, and that’s just not happening if it’s rarely your turn. Here, with only four players, it’s not too bad, but six flicks between your turns is a lot, over time. Not bad, just a lot. I think if you’re trying to play strategically or get a few more folks involved, that might be the route to take, but personally, I’d rather play something a bit more 1-on-1 interactive, and so that drives me to the two-player route. Three is just odd, since you have a team of two versus a team of one. It mostly works, but it really is functionally a four-player game where one team is just a player playing two-handed.
- Critically, don’t let yourself get mentally locked to only using one side of the board when you play. Stand up! Move around! Get better vantage points and angles on your moves. There’s a real temptation to always stay on “your side” of the board since, typically, board games (and the gamers who play them) aren’t exactly jazzed when you walk around to look at things on their side. Here, there’s almost no private information, and plus, being on the other side of the table may help you get your hand exactly where you need it to make a game-winning (or losing!) flick. So get up and move around! It’s a dexterity game; no need to take it so seriously.
- Sometimes getting KO’ed is worth it to get back to your starting spot quickly. Especially for the Iron Force, getting back to the Upper Level can be a painful (and risky) endeavor. If you just let someone bust your mecha, sure, they get a Power Up, but you get a free ride back up to the Upper Level. That might be worth it! Especially if your aim with the launcher isn’t totally meeting your needs.
- Check to see which Power Up Cards can help you based on your needs. There are a bunch of generally-useful ones (take a bonus action, take a free launch action, choose which mecha you want to activate this turn), but there are others that can really help you on your scenario-specific tasks, like cards that will move you between boxes or to the edge of boxes. Getting a few of those can help make up for mediocre flicking skill, which, is all of us in a dexterity game from time to time.
- You don’t always need to be destroying opponent mechas, and focusing on that can actually be a distraction. Sometimes you need to just get through the doorway, not flip around and smack every one of your opponent’s mechas. Focusing on your goal is a great way to avoid getting distracted by the temptation to do a violence that will just immediately be undone on a subsequent turn.
- That said, sometimes destroying a mecha can be a very helpful (and strategic) move, so it pays to know the difference. Getting the right Power Up Cards can be critical (as mentioned), so if you’re not sure what to do on your turn or you just want to do a bit of mecha violence, do it! It can also be useful as a means to push the Animal Clans off the Upper Level, since they go back to their depots when their mechas are destroyed. If your Animal Clan player struggles with the launcher, this may be a useful way to keep them at bay and get Power Up Cards for yourself.
- Learn the different types of flicks and use them to your advantage. Being able to curve or jump pieces is huge, especially as you play more complicated scenarios. It also makes you harder to tail, which can sometimes get you out of a bind if your opponent is trying to destroy your mecha. Honestly, mastering the straight shot is also harder than it sounds; I’ve still not gotten it 100% down and I’ve been playing ICECOOL for years.
- Keep your mechas in the box. They take damage when they leave the box, which isn’t what you want to do.
- You can see what Activation Cards have been played; that should tell you which of your mechas (and your opponent’s!) is most likely to activate on subsequent turns. Probability is your friend; if you can set up your most likely mecha to go second with a good shot or a good turn option, you might be able to pull off a big combo (or an upset) on your turn. Naturally, just because a mecha has more activation cards in the deck doesn’t necessarily mean that it’ll be the next mecha to activate, but playing the odds can occasionally work in your favor.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- If your major issue with ICECOOL was that it wasn’t complex enough, do I have the game for you. This is extremely more complex! It has scenarios! Power ups! An entire additional level! This adds a lot of elements of planning and strategy to the ICECOOL format, so, there’s a lot more to like, here, in that regard. There are even pick-up-and-deliver elements! Wild times.
- Lots of different scenarios, so, it’s not difficult to find something that appeals to various players. You can still play something that is approximately the same as ICECOOL (the “Establishing a Network” scenario)
- Using dice as additional markers is pretty clever. I particularly like that they’re interactive markers that can specifically be hit to activate various effects, depending on your scenario. It gives you something else to shoot for beyond your opponent’s mechas, and there are so many cool, different uses for them.
- I was conflicted about the Activation Card deck at first, but I’m slowly coming around on it. I originally thought it was a bit silly that you couldn’t just choose which mecha you want to play as, but forcing players to mix it up adds a bit of ebb-and-flow (and some luck) to the game that does make things more interesting. Otherwise, you might as well only have one mecha. Adding more lets you divide-and-conquer certain aspects of scenarios, granted, but it also challenges players to not just put all their eggs in one basket.
- The fixed launcher works pretty well, which is very fun. They sent me an updated launcher because the first one was … … well, the new launcher works great. We’re able to hit the top level pretty consistently (~75%+), which keeps things entertaining when we miss and fun when we don’t. My friend managed to perfectly drain a mecha, which was incredible. Launched it and it went immediately through one of the holes in the top level without touching the sides. As with any good shot in ICECOOL, he could not have done that if he was trying to do it, which makes it much funnier.
- Honestly, the multi-level nature of the game is pretty incredible as well. I’ll admit it; the second story is pretty awesome. The way the game handles it is pretty neat, as well, and the launcher is a super-cool way to get mechas up there. I can’t wait to see if there are additional scenarios down the pipe (or additional constructions). Honestly, I may still try to see if there are ways I can incorporate it with my ICECOOL set, once I get a full copy in.
- You can set up a few really interesting combos with the Power Up Cards, if you have the right mechas in the right places. The combos are a lot of fun! You can string together multiple actions, move yourself where you need to be, or even just wipe out your opponent’s team, should you have the right cards at the right time. It’s exciting.
- Good shots still feel incredible, and even bad shots can be unintentionally hilarious. That’s the core of this dexterity game, right? A great shot should feel amazing. I can confirm, I managed to spin my mecha in a near-complete circle around the top floor, getting two objectives in one shot. I felt like a god. Bad shots are equally amazing, but in a “wow, that was impressively terrible” way, which is also worth something, I think.
- The combat / KO elements of the game don’t do much for me, personally, since they add a fair bit of complexity, but I can see how they help the game along mechanically. I’m not really a combat guy, in games, but I think it makes sense, here. You can essentially push your opponents back to their starting spaces, but sloppy use of that might actually do more harm than good. Balancing a desire to do damage versus a desire to complete your objective (unless your objective is violence) is interesting, even if I’m not a combat guy.
- Can’t wait to see how much of a pain this is / was to photograph. It was okay, but I got lucky on a bunch of the shots. Transparent elements are just always a bear.
- Just an enormous box. It’s about a Gloomhaven / Edge of Darkness -sized box, and that’s huge. Hope you have shelf space! It’s also approximately three ICECOOLs tall, if you measure things that way.
- I’m not as emotionally attached to mechas as I am to goofy penguins, and that saddens me, somewhat. This is a hard right turn, thematically, and I’m hoping we eventually come back around to the penguin in a wizard costume that is my favorite character to play as in any board game ever. I think, given the subject matter and the construction, that the theme makes sense, but I’m definitely 0% attached to it (as opposed to the furious all-in that I was [and am] for ICECOOL’s theme).
- Setup is kind of a pain, but I’m optimistic once the final game is manufactured most of those problems will be solved. I think the major points of concern for me are the transparent poles (makes photography … challenging), the wobblyness of the top level, and just kind of the lack of overall rigidity to the structure. It’s very easy to mix up some boxes and get things mislabeled. ICECOOL had numbers on the boxes; I’m surprised Iron Forest doesn’t. The poles that hook in the top level are currently very insecure, and it’s hard to get the top level sitting such that there’s not a dip in the middle. Like I said, I think a lot of these problems are going to get fixed during the Actual Manufacturing Process, but it’s worth noting that I’m seeing them in the preview to see if y’all are seeing them in the full product.
- Weirdly, it’s harder to find your pieces between turns. Visibility is reduced because you can no longer do a top-down view of the board, and you have more places that pieces can be hiding. This is just an odd thing that I noticed after playing the original ICECOOL; if I lost a piece, I can do a top-down view and see basically the entire board. You just can’t do that with Iron Forest, so you have to look around, and the landscape is much busier than ICECOOL was (and lower contrast with the pieces). This leads to a bunch of turns where you can’t quite find the piece that you’re looking for. The blue and green mechas for the Iron Force are also fairly similar in color (currently), which doesn’t help with the confusion.
- The increase in complexity worries me, mostly because I start wondering exactly who is in the target market for this product. I think, at some level, part of this is that even though I’m getting into heavier games, I’m noticing my game groups largely retreating back to lighter games, since a lot of our game nights are just folks sitting around and talking with a game in the background. This is not the game for that kind of scenario, and ICECOOL was, which worries me, a bit. I think that this will definitely appeal to folks who are looking for more from the ICECOOL series, but I wonder who those people are and what they’re like. Guess we’ll see!
Overall: 8 / 10
Overall, I think Iron Forest is a very fun, solid title. I’ll freely admit that I’m being a bit of a grump about ICECOOL, and there are, I feel, good reasons for that. As you can likely tell from the box construction and gameplay style, Iron Forest has the same mechanical DNA as ICECOOL, but it eschews a goofy and fun and colorful theme for something that’s gritty and mechanical and desaturated. That makes me a bit sad. The last two years have been fairly desaturated for me, so I kind of miss the simple straightforward penguin-slapping of one of my favorite games. Naturally, there have been gameplay improvements to the series; having team vs. team is a cool idea, and I love the upper level and the launcher as gameplay concepts. I do, from a product standpoint, wonder how the price and the complexity are going to sit with the target audience. I’m going to watch the Kickstarter with interest, to see if they manage to get ICECOOL fans to convert to Iron Forest and pick it up. I’m not sure what the price is, currently, but I imagine that will be a factor. And will this appeal to folks who bought ICECOOL because it won the Kinderspiel des Jahres? Like, if you’re looking for ICECOOL3, this is not that. That’s probably my biggest disappointment? It’s something else. Something that inherits from the ICECOOL series, but is doing its own, more complex thing. There’s strategy involved. There’s an entire pick-up-and-deliver scenario. That mixture of (healthy, in my opinion) skepticism about complicated dexterity games and grumpiness about this not being exactly the game I made up in my head is almost certainly driving my enthusiasm about Iron Forest down a bit, but my enthusiasm is still pretty high. We had a great time playing, the scenarios are thoughtfully designed and pretty cool, and even though I’m not a big combat person, I think the damage and KO mechanics make sense and are worth engaging with during the game. This is a strong entry in the ICECOOL system, this Iron Forest, and if you’re looking for a more complex dexterity game, you want to take your ICECOOL to another level (literally), or you just really like mecha combat, this might be right up your alley! I’m hoping they include a variant that does allow for multi-level ICECOOL, though.
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