Ironbound, by Secret Level SRL, is a competitive digital card game. If you think of something like Hearthstone, then you are on the right track. Each player embodies one of four character classes: Berserker, Crusader, Assassin or Witch. Each of these has different cards, abilities and styles of play. Ironbound sees you battling your opponent with weapons, spells and trinkets to be the last one alive.
I am going to be honest, and clear from the start, I do not like Ironbound. Much like Hearthstone, I feel Ironbound is boring, has few decisions and requires you to spend a lot of money to unlock the best cards. I know a lot of people love Hearthstone, but I don’t. For a good example of this genre, check out Duelyst. Anyway, keep that in mind for the duration of this review. Let’s explore in more detail Ironbound’s failings and how the game works.
Instead of summoning monsters to wage war against other players, Ironbound has you using spells and weapons. Each turn you get an ever increasing number of action points. These start at one and go all the way to ten. On your turn, you can choose to use one of the cards (or tokens as the game calls them) in your hand or activate any equipment on your character. Once you can’t take any more actions, you pass to your opponent. This goes back and forth until one of you is dead.
The decks for each class are varied making each class feel distinct. The crusader, for example, can put a shield to block incoming damage and the assassin can go invisible to avoid hits. Using unique characteristics, cards and weapons is the key to victory in Ironbound.
This is where Ironbound first starts to falter. Whereas in a regular CCG style game, you can build a unique deck full of exciting cards, in Ironbound, you don’t. Instead, you customise your equipment. This might mean spending gold on a powerful new sword or a useful trinket. What this boils down to is four equipment slots – two weapons and two trinkets. That is all the customisation you get in the game. There are plenty of items to choose between, but mostly the expensive ones are best.
When I first saw this, I thought I was mistaken. I felt that undoubtedly there is more to it than what lay before me. There are a few more options, but these only serve to be even more egregious. Firstly, you can level up the characters. This gives them more health but that is all it does. When playing online, if you don’t have max health then you are at a massive disadvantage. If you get to level 5, then you will have doubled your starting health. This system feels like it is only there to make people pay real money for in-game currency so that they can reach a level playing field.
And then you have the perks. Perks are unlocked as you play multiplayer. However, they only unlock if you win. So what you end up with is a system that makes the best players continually grow stronger. This means that you are at a huge disadvantage before you take your first action. This is another system that feels like it only exists to force people to spend real money on the best items so that they have a higher chance of winning.
Now, you might be thinking that you could just play the game and gradually get the money you need to buy new equipment. And you can. The main way the game suggests you do this early on is through the practice mode. This takes you through increasingly tricky AI opponents and rewards you with gold for each victory. You can’t fight the same level twice and get a reward though. However, you don’t play a CCG style game to fight AI enemies, you want to battle real people. The computer opponents are rubbish, especially in the mid to lower difficulties.
I could easily ignore all of this if the card play was fun, but it isn’t. You have a starting hand of four cards and each turn you draw a single card. You always have access to your various bits of equipment, too. The problem with Ironbound, and Hearthstone suffers a similar issue, is that each turn there aren’t any interesting choices. Mostly it boils down to, “how can I do the most damage?”. Some cards have multiple options to give you something to think about; most don’t. You can choose what to activate first, but that typically ends up being a choice between doing two damage or doing three damage. Which is incredibly boring.
At no point in a game did I feel like I did something particularly smart. Instead, Ironbound is merely playing whatever cards you happen to have and then using your weaponry. The game could run itself; you are just there to press a few buttons and feel like maybe you are having an impact on the match. This is made worse by the fact that you have such a minute number of customisation options and that your opponent might have just spent real money on an expensive sword.
There is an arena mode that puts you on a level playing field with other people. This costs 400 gold, and if you lose one game, then you are out. However, even then the game is so heavily weighted towards luck rather than skill, that it isn’t worth your time. You can buy the tickets for real money or spend your hard earned gold. The result is the same.
The game wants your money. It wants you to buy its various account upgrades. It wants you to spend money to level up your characters and buy better gear. And while I understand that is the business model of many games like this, few are so blatantly pay to win. If you wanted to you could slowly build your way to the top of this game without spending a penny, but it would take you a long time, and it would not be a rewarding experience.
Should you bother?
There are some excellent games of this type out there (Duelyst, for example), but this isn’t one of them. It has some good ideas. I like that it is a duel between two characters and doesn’t involve summoning a dragon to do your bidding. However, it has too many faults and flaws. There is entirely no way I can recommend Ironbound.