This is a review we originally posted back in January.  In recognition of Iron Tyrant’s new availability on DriveThruRpg, we have re-posted for those who might not have seen it the first time.  Iron Tyrants is a hoot-and-a-half.  Go get it.  Now.

After getting to play test Iron Tyrants with Luke Meyer at Fear the Con, I was itching to get my hands on the book and to try out the game for myself.  So when I got the chance, I jumped on it.

The book itself is impressive.  Since its release there have been a lot of jokes going around The Podge Cast about how surprised people are that it is “like a real book.”  While no one should have expected less, it is still refreshing to see a couple of guys who are basically just following their passion go to such lengths to make sure it is professionally done.  The production value of the Iron Tyrants book is at least as good as anything that has come out from most small press companies and greatly exceeds the offerings of many of those companies.  For that matter, it is on par with many of the works of larger gaming companies (and since I haven’t heard of the clear coat on the cover of Iron Tyrants peeling off anyone’s book yet, it’s clearly superior to most of what Palladium puts out.)

Iron Tyrants’ quality doesn’t end with the physical book, however.  The flavor text is interesting and evocative and the layout is both functional and visually appealing.  Perhaps the worst thing about the Iron Tyrants book is the art and even it is better than what you get in most books by smaller game companies.

But none of that matters if the game itself is unplayable or boring.  Fortunately, Iron Tyrants uses a simple, solid combat system augmented by just enough situational rules to make the game exciting and diverse without getting too complex and intricate.

Everything in Iron Tyrants is based on d10’s from initiative to attack rolls.  For attacks, the target numbers for each of a Tyrant’s weapons to-hit are displayed on its data sheet and these numbers do not change based on what the Tyrant is shooting at.  The attack roll, however, can be modified by a number of factors including cover, range and special abilities.  While the difference between only modifying the attack roll and modifying the attack roll and target number might seem like splitting hairs, it is much easier to apply all the modifiers to the attack roll than it is to apply some of the modifiers to the attack roll and some of them to the target’s defense.

The game play is extremely fast.  Though it took a couple of rounds in the game that we played for everyone to get within range of each other, once they did it didn’t take long before the carnage began in earnest.  First blood had been spilled by the third round, the first casualty occurred by the fifth and only one person’s Tyrants were left standing by the eighth.  The quickness of the game is a factor of the way armor works in Iron Tyrants.  After each successful attack, a second roll is made to penetrate the target’s armor.  This roll must beat the value of target’s current armor.  If it does so, then the damage is applied to a randomly chosen portion of the Tyrant, and seven out of the ten random locations possible are armor.  Most early hits, if they successfully penetrate, remove armor, making it easier to penetrate the armor later.  It doesn’t take long before even the toughest of Tyrants have no armor left and almost every attack penetrates.

This was, perhaps, the trickiest part of the game for me.  Remembering the hit, penetrate, location sequence became somewhat confusing at times, though I suspect that with a little more practice it will become second nature.  However, though you might expect it too, it never became annoying when a shot would hit but then would not penetrate.  It just added another level of uncertainty and excitement to the sequence.

But Iron Tyrants is not just about shooting and maneuvering to get good shots.  One of the things that makes the game exciting is Overload.  Overload represents pushing tyrants beyond their limits.  Perhaps the most common use of Overload is firing multiple weapons in a turn.  Each tyrant can use one weapon system per turn, but each point of Overload spent allows the tyrant to activate another weapon. No weapon can be used twice in the same round, but each weapon can be used once if sufficient Overload is spent.  Some of the other uses for Overload are re-rolling missed attacks, getting extra movement and utilizing the special abilities of tyrants.  These special abilities can be anything from getting extra shots with a weapon to making those shots more accurate or dangerous.

Using Overload does not come without a price, however.  Each tyrant dissipates a certain amount of Overload each turn.  If all the Overload is not dissipated, the player must roll a number of dice equal to the amount of Overload left over after this dissipation, add the results together and compare this to a chart.  Higher numbers on the chart correlate with increasing levels of malfunction and damage to the tyrant.  In fact, in our game, the final point of damage that left one tyrant destroyed resulted not because of being shot but because of Overload.

But even Overload and its usage and effects is not all that make this game more than just shooting at giant robots.  In addition, each player starts a game with ten tactics dice.  These dice are used both to modify initiative each round and to utilize Commander abilities.  Each player chooses a Faction and a Commander within that Faction at the beginning of the game and gains usage of that Faction’s and Commander’s abilities.  Some of these abilities can be used without spending tactics dice but others require that one or more die be sacrificed to activate the ability.  Thus, beyond managing the Overload for each tyrant, a player also has to manage his usage of his tactics dice to gain advantages in combat.

There are fully 20 different tyrants provided in the game and though many of them serve the same role on the battlefield and are worth approximately the same amount of points, their loadouts of weapons, special abilities and structures make each one unique.  There are noticeable mechanical differences between each tyrant, not simply the same handful again and again with different skins but the same mechanics under them.  My only complaint about the tyrants is not with the rules of flavor text but that some of the designs look a little cartoony.  Many of them have rounded lines that make them look more like men in high tech armor than giant robots and many have heads that are slightly too large.

The basic game itself is entertaining enough, but the Campaign Play rules are nothing short of brilliant.  Anyone who has listened to the actual play recaps of Luke’s campaigns on the Podgecast knows that he creates rich worlds full of characters with deep motivations.  This has come through in the Commanders of Iron Tyrants and the Campaign background.  Each Commander has a reason to love or hate or simply compete with at least one and often two or three Commanders from other (and sometimes their own) Factions.  And each Faction has a deep seated need to claim victory in the Campaign setting.

The basic concept of the Campaign is that the players are fighting over an artificial world divided up into 9 regions.  The basic campaign is set up for three players (though there are rules for more or fewer players) and each player is given a set of three adjacent regions.  The goal is to conquer every region on the world or to complete the research necessary to enact the end game and win the battle that produces.

Each player chooses a faction and a roster of Tyrants that will serve them throughout the campaign.  This roster is built on enough points to equal about three standard missions.  Each Tyrant in this roster can only be used once per round but can be used in every round of the Campaign.

Like the regular game, each Campaign round, a grand initiative is rolled.  Players get to add strategy dice to these rolls and the winner gets to declare an attack against one region belonging to each other player.  The person who rolled second highest gets to declare an attack on a region possessed by the player with the lowest initiative and the lowest rolling player only gets to defend against the attacks declared against him.

Strategy dice can also be traded in for Resource Points.  Each strategy dice is worth 3 resource points and these points can be used to purchase a number of things, including repairs for damaged tyrants, assets for regions or equipment that tyrants can use in the next battle.  After each battle, players gain a number of strategy dice dependent on whether they won or lost the battle or if they gained any achievements.

The achievements are rather ingenious as well.  As anyone who has played Xbox knows, achievements are special goals that you can accomplish in game to earn points.  The difference is, on the Xbox, those points buy you only bragging rights, in Iron Tyrants, achievements buy you resources you can use in the game.  The achievements are cleverly named and include both goals players can actively try to achieve and a few that come down to dumb luck.  My only complaint about the achievements is that some of them require a specific tyrant be used in their accomplishment.  While this would not be an issue if all the tyrants had their own achievements, it is currently limited to only a handful of tyrants.  This leads, obviously to players choosing those tyrants more often, which may be exactly what Luke intended, but seems needless.

Some of the assets that can be bought for different regions assist in performing the research necessary to trigger the end game.  The dice mechanic surrounding this research is fairly novel.  Each round, all players roll five dice and try to get various combinations like pairs, straights or full houses, much like playing dice poker.  The first player to get all the required combinations, gets to set the final battle and gains an advantage during that battle.

Given how quickly a game of Iron Tyrants can be played, a group could easily play two rounds of a Campaign in a normal gaming session.  Further, given the way the Campaign system works, a campaign could be ended in a month or two if a group played every week.

The Campaign system is entertaining by itself, but it is even more interesting in that it is tied so closely with the color text that is presented.  Nonetheless, with only a little bit of manipulation, the Campaign system could easily be used for a larger campaign or one set in a different environment.  I can easily see it being used for a larger world or even galaxy domination game if people had the inclination to perform a few small tweaks.

Iron Tyrants has certainly lived up to the promise that it displayed during play testing.  Luke’s stated goal was to make every roll in an Iron Tyrants game exciting and he has succeeded, without a doubt.  Even more promising is the fact that the game can be easily expanded.  I look forward to more books with new tyrants, factions, commanders, and achievements.

Here’s hoping the Spooky Outhouse guys won’t leave us waiting too long.

Iron Tyrants from Gary Layton on Vimeo.

Photography courtesy of Rodger Dewberry. Video courtesy of Gary Layton.