Munk picked up a new copy of an old title this week. The stickers were fresh on the goods tokens for Iron Dragon, a railroad building game with the whole megillah of fantasy themed elements: elves, dwarves, dragons, potions and wands. Each player slowly builds a rail system across — and potentially under — the continent, delivering goods to generate more cash, with which to extend their rail system and so until someone has connected seven of the world’s eight major cities and accumulated $250 gold pieces, whimsically expressed in the form of bank notes backed by the wizards guild. We joked more than a bit about just how the wizards guaranteed the currency: “So this bill is worth one tenth of a wizard?” We also talked about not playing the game the whole night, as the game plays out over four hours according to the box, but that didn’t quite pan out.
I first encountered Iron Dragon long, long ago in the early days of Quarterstaff Games’ renaissance. It was one of a motley assortment of games for playing in the store’s then-cramped back room. I don’t know if it had ever been played, though. I remember opening it once and, in addition to being put off by the dizzying array of mileposts and geometrical graphic design, that the crayons were still sharp and fresh, much as those that came with Munk’s copy of the game.
This was my first experience with a heavy duty rail-building game. Before Tuesday, I’d only played significantly lighter railroad games, like TransAmerica and the many iterations of Ticket to Ride. To me, the biggest difference with Iron Dragon is players don’t just create a network across the board, but also carry goods from production sites to buyers. The demand for various goods comes from a deck of cards, each of which has three destinations, the particular item they require and the potential payoff. Sprinkled amongst the demand cards are events, which usually wreak havoc with some area of the board through floods, sandstorms and more.
Players start the game with three demand cards and 60 gold pieces. As Alex and I eventually found, the key elements to beginning Iron Dragon are knowing where you’re going, how much it’s going to cost to get there and keeping some money kept back in case of freak sandstorms. Okay, I was the one who worked through that experience, but I think everyone at the table picked up on the importance.
In the first couple turns, I lucked out. I picked a destination and cargo that seemed near enough to build a rail line with my starting cash. Fortunately, that guess — I didn’t bother to count mileposts — proved correct. My downfall proved to be a combination of skirting the desert through the orcish wastes and spending too freely. Reasoning that it was best to maximize the miles of railroad I built in a turn, which is limited to twenty segments, I spent pretty freely of the money I accumulated delivering arms to the interior of the continent from the coast. This, unfortunately, set me up for a huge setback.
When that sandstorm hit, it only erased four segments of track, but with three bucks in my pocket, I didn’t have enough cash to link my tracks back up. So I spent the next five or seven turns throwing out hands of demand cards, hoping to eventually pull a destination and cargo load that could be fulfilled within my limited set of options. Next to me, Alex found himself in a similar situation, having not completely determined how much it would cost to get from one place to another, he wound up stuck in a far off corner of the main continent without a way to generate enough cash to link in any more destinations.
We both spent enough time cycling through sets of demand cards that Alex and I got in a game of Fluxx on the side. It probably wasn’t the politest thing to do, but it’s hard to stay engaged with what other players do when your only action is to ask for some more cards, check them for feasible deliveries and set them down.
This went on long enough that when I pulled yet another almost, but not quite feasible delivery, Munk flipped me a buck to re-establish the railroad through the desert. After four turns making that precious delivery, I had enough cash in my pocket to start building out again. By that time, the clock was close to 10:00 PM and I’d watched enough people around us playing through and packing up multiple games that I was pretty antsy.
I didn’t fall in love with Iron Dragon, at least in part due to working through learning the geography and legend of the map and the retro, super-basic graphic design. Having a lousy series of turns of not really playing the game iced the cake. I’ll play it again, but I’ll definitely need a shorter play time with a less demanding win condition. One of the things I like about Tuesdays is getting at least two games, unless it’s a drop down awesome title. I need a little variety, like cleansing the palate between wines.