Reviewed by Kevin Whitmore
FORGED IN STEEL (Knight Works, LLC, 2 to 4 players, ages 13 and up, 75-120 minutes; $60)
Forged in Steel is a remarkable new game released in 2016. In a day when many players bemoan tired themes, along comes this game which has you take on the role of being a city planner for the up and coming burg of Pueblo, Colorado back at the turn of the 20th century.
The author, Wade Broadhead, resides in Pueblo, and really was the Pueblo City Planner for quite some time. And as it turns out, Pueblo, Colorado is a fascinating subject. Did you know Pueblo was known as “the Pittsburgh of the West”? Mining, steel mills, immigrants, and social unrest are ample subjects for a crackin’ good game. Let me lead you on a tour.
Forged in Steel is published by Knight Works, LLC – an aspiring game company just up the road from Pueblo, in Colorado Springs. It is packaged in an attractive and solid bookcase type box. My edition was the upgraded edition, which meant I got the Companion Guide, along with a nifty metal 4-sided die.
Standard components include a large mounted map of Pueblo, lots of wooden components, a few cardboard tiles, some nice player aids, the rules, and a very interesting deck of cards. Overall, this is an attractive game.
Forged in Steel is a “card-driven game” (CDG). This means the deck of cards drive the action. Basically, each card can be used at least two different ways, as “municipal muscle” (think action points) or for the historic event depicted. Some of the cards have additional functions which I will cover later.
As an armchair historian, I found the deck of cards to be quite fun to review. First of all, the deck is separated into three eras: the 1890’s, the 1900’s, and the 1910’s. As you might expect, you start with the 1890’s deck, and play a full era. After the first era, some of the 1890 cards are retained and the 1900’s cards are shuffled into the deck for the second era, and so forth for the third and final era.
Every card has “municipal muscle” ranging from 3-5 points. Players can always use a card to get various activities achieved from a largish menu of options. But the events are often enticing and players will want to weigh whether they can develop their interests more quickly by using some of the events they are dealt. The author has built many cards that can dovetail together nicely across the eras and, due to the set-up rules, players can bank cards for later use. It is possible for an experienced player to angle for some nice combos in later eras.
Looking over the cards, you will see interesting titles, and nice period illustrations or old black & white photographs, all of which evoke the setting and time period: “Rockefeller Invests”, “Temperance”, “Huddled Masses”, and “Silver Crash” are just a few of the flavorsome titles.
To build out the city of Pueblo, players will take on a “role”. One lucky player will be awarded the office of the Mayor – a very powerful position. I will detail more on this role a bit later. But everyone will have a role and be able to take special advantage of different parts of the game. If you are the Mining Official, you have a chance to maximize VPs from mining; if you are the Immigration Officer, you can reap benefits during the immigration phase and also during the election; if you are the Mob Boss, you can destroy an opponent’s developed real estate; and the City Planner has first crack at getting the best supplemental card (more on that in a bit).
Let’s take a look at the structure of play. Initially, each player receives 7 cards. However, one must be discarded, and two must be banked for later use. So, each player will select which four cards to use for the era. A fifth one will be assigned later, so players will have – and will play – five cards in the era. The events will allow players to open mines, build factories, place residences, or erect civic buildings. Many of the events also have a “Headline”. Headlines introduce new rules into the game but only for a while. Three headlines can be on display at a time. When a fourth headline is played, the first headline will expire. Headlines often bring opportunities to score victory points in ways that are not otherwise available.
As you can imagine, selecting which cards to play and which to bank is a big decision point. A big influence on which cards are most interesting will be what “role” you are assigned during set up. During the later eras, roles will be awarded based on how you fare in the elections. Once everyone has selected the four cards they wish to play with, the play continues with the player assigned the “City Planner” role. The City Planner draws a number of cards equal to the players and takes the one he wishes for his fifth card in hand. Eventually every player gets their fifth card.
The heart of the game is the “City Building” phase. Players select which card they will play, and simultaneously reveal how much MM (“municipal muscle”) it is worth. Playing in ascending order, each player executes his card for MM or for the event. During the five rounds of the era, lots of mines will be established, factories will be built, residences and civic buildings will be erected, and the map begins to fill in. There are a few rules around how the city is allowed to grow but they are easily understood and the player aid included will answer most questions. One ramification of some of the actions is that “unrest” may begin to occur. If enough unrest is charted, there is a chance of rioting and property damage. Wealthy mine owners are often the targets of this ire.
I want to clearly say that Forged in Steel featured direct player interaction. The event cards often allow a player to be directly targeted – floods, fires, mob actions – all of these and more can be used as weapons against your fellow players. Further, if a player has 4 MM’s, he can simply take over another player’s factory, mine or building. Of course, this also causes unrest. Frequently, the target of these negative acts will be the Mayor. This is because the sitting Mayor has several ways of converting city actions into personal victory points. Overall the benefits of being the Mayor are quite good but he/she probably does get more targeted violence too.
After five rounds of city building, a few phases follow. Immigrants are attracted to the city due to the lure of jobs at the factories and commercial buildings erected in town. But they need housing! So, all players will be on the hook to have enough zoned lots for immigrant housing to be built. Should a player be unable to build, they will instead create unrest – potentially causing them to be the target of the next mob.
After dealing with immigration, a scoring round occurs. Each neighborhood will score points for players based on how many buildings they have built there and whether the property value has gone up (due to an event). In addition, the mines, factories and commercial buildings will also score.
Finally, a city election will be conducted. Each district will vote for the most prominent landowner in that part of town. And each district winner will give some number of votes (some districts can be more influential than others). Because holding the office of the mayor is so important, players will want to win the election.
Forged in Steel creates a lot of player angst. Each event card seems quite good on its face. But if you want to be mayor, you may need to use some cards for the MM’s. There are so many worthy things to do with your limited turns. You might want to build civic buildings to make your district of town more important but then is someone vying for control of that district? You probably want to get in on the mine income early in the game. But does that mean someone else will build a position in town and beat you at the election? And just when you might be navigating your way through to what you want, another player might take out four of your buildings with an angry mob!
Despite my obvious enthusiasm for this game, I will offer some criticism. I mentioned earlier that some of the cards have more than the two basic functions. Some cards are “Immigrant” cards. Immigrant cards have a small icon on them which is easy to miss and do nothing on their own. Instead, Immigrant cards are called to be revealed to activate some of the other cards. In addition, there are “reaction cards”, meaning you can reveal them to counter a hostile move from another player. These reaction cards, and the cards that are potentially countered also carry extra icons. These additional functions might be just a little “too much”. We figured them out, and I suspect most gamers will too. But they make the game a little harder to learn. Also, sadly, some of the cards are missing some of these icons. And as much as I love the history, I dearly wish the headlines were easier to read. Many cards refer to which headlines might be on play by title, but those titles are quite hard to read across the game table.
I want to comment on the role of Mayor. Many card actions have players placing “city cubes” on the board, basically zoning the plots for development. Generally, a player can never score a VP from developing his own zoned lots (but will score a VP if another player develops his zoned lot). The mayor however, is able to build on city zoned lots and enjoy garnering the VPs as well. This is classic double-dipping. Very thematic. However, I was worried that the Mayor might be too powerful. I am pleased to report that with aggressive play, we have seen Mayor’s unseated, and have also seen the sitting Mayors lose the game. However, I expect many early plays of this game will be won by the player who was lucky enough to be randomly assigned to be mayor at the start of the game. If you find this to be the case, it is a sign that your group needs to unloose more mobs on your mayor!
Finally, I want to mention that there is a “quick game” option outlined in the Companion Guide. There are also some variants bundled with the enhanced game. I have not played all of the variants, but we did try the quick game. I cannot recommend it, except as a teaching exercise.
Overall, I am very impressed by Forged in Steel. I find the historic period, the setting and the bracing game play all to my taste. I heartily endorse Forged in Steel – go buy a copy today! – – – – – – – – – Kevin Whitmore
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