Ironclad Tactics takes a bit of explaining. It's a card-based strategy game that runs in realtime, where armies of retro robots march across a grid-based map as players spend action points on the cards that arm them, move them, repair them, and introduce new units to the fray.
At the most basic level, you've got the titular ironclads – portly automata that earn you victory points if they're able to push all the way to the other side of the map. Then you have infantry units, which can capture areas of the map but earn no victory points and are liable to be bloodily squished if they cross paths with a metal war machine.
Different cards have different abilities – such as the Native American scout that can be upgraded to swap mobility for firepower – and belong to different factions, which limit the umber of types that you can include in a given deck. There's a lot to learn.
In story mode, each stage presents you with a different strategy from the AI. You'll usually be facing units that you've never seen before, and from time to time the game will throw in an extra challenge – a boss unit, for example, or a swooping airship that targets sections of the grid at random.
You'll almost certainly fail each mission first time, so building a new deck to meet the challenge is a necessity. If the campaign is intended to give you a thorough grounding in the game's mechanics, then it succeeds – but it's a harsh teacher, one that relies heavily on trial-anderror and will sometimes slap victory out of your hands regardless.
Let me be clear: difficulty alone isn't the issue. It's the element of luck that'll prove divisive, particularly for people who enjoyed Zachtronics' previous game, the superb SpaceChem. Where the latter always gave you ownership of your mistakes, Ironclad Tactics is a game that only grants you a certain hand of cards to play at a given time. Deck construction has a say in the probability of certain cards appearing, but chance is always a factor. It's probable, therefore, that you'll build a deck that you feel should work and then simply not receive the cards you need to win. This can be crippling, and makes it hard to derive a clear lesson from what victories you do achieve: did I win that because I was lucky, or because my deck was well-constructed?
Ironclad Tactics works better as a competitive multiplayer game, and a range of inventive modes – such as Nemesis, where one player controls a powerful 'boss deck' in place of the singleplayer AI – add longevity. There's full co-op, too, and facing the campaign's escalating difficulty curve as a pair takes the edge off some of the inevitable frustration. That makes frustration no less inevitable, however, and sometimes Ironclad Tactics can feel more interesting to explain than it is enjoyable to play.