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Ironclads II

Back when the US decided to fight itself, and up the ante.
August 29, 2015 by Ken Bach

Ironclads II, by Totem Games, is a naval warfare simulation set in the American Civil War. The game simulates a campaign for dominance of the Gulf of Mexico and is playable from either the Union or Confederate side. The only game mode is single-player campaign. Victory is achieved by acquiring victory points for controlling as many ports as possible at the end of the campaign--the larger the port, the more points awarded to the side controlling it.

Gameplay in Ironclads II is divided between two layers, a strategic layer and a tactical layer. The strategic layer is used to set up battles in the tactical layer, and resembles a board game. The tactical layer is where you take command of your warships in battle. The game uses warships classes representative of what was in use at the time, including small coastal gunboats, ocean-going steamers, and of course, early ironclads.

Strategic Layer
That this even exists is one of my favorite things about this game. Many sims on the market simply send you out on individual missions, or have a campaign consisting of a set series of missions. Totem Games avoided this pitfall by designing a strategic layer to the game from which the tactical battles are generated. This feature adds replayability and puts weight behind the battles you fight.

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The strategic layer is comprised of a map centered on the Gulf of Mexico, which has a number of strategically important ports, shipping routes, and slots associated with these points to which forces may be allocated. Gameplay at this level is turn based, with the player going first and the enemy going last. Each turn represents a month of actual time, and the campaign lasts 48 turns. During each turn, the player is making two basic kinds of choices: how to spend money, and where to place forces.

Income is earned by merchant ship fleets that are based at the ports--every turn they automatically attempt a trade voyage, and if they are not captured by the enemy, the completed voyage adds income to the player's treasury at the end of the turn. The player can spend money by building or repairing ships, building harbor defenses (batteries, mines, torpedo boats), and/or building more merchant fleets. A quick note on harbor defenses--my gameplay suffered a glitch that caused ships' damage to reset to 0% at the beginning of battles occurring in harbor stations, which defeats the purpose of the shore batteries. [Update: Described bug was found and fixed. Update for customers posted on Totem Games website. -- Ed.]

Warships are assigned to missions by placing the warship into a slot at one of the various stations on the map. All travel is instantaneous, so you can instantly place any ship in any station that it is eligible to enter. The types of stations that are available are: trade route, blockade, harbor, and drydock. and each side has their own slots (and cannot use the other side's slots). Trade route stations are used to try to capture merchants, while blockade stations offer a chance to capture merchants as well as prevent warships from entering/leaving harbor stations. The harbor stations used to capture the ports, which is how you take victory points from the enemy, and drydocks, obviously, are used to build and repair ships.

If warships from opposing sides end the turn in a slots in the same station, then the player has the option of automatically resolving the battle, or launching the tactical layer to fight a bit more hands-on. "Auto Battle" essentially assumes the fleets line up in columns and fire broadsides at the enemy ship across from it. In my experience, this was a very useful mode if your victory was not in doubt, so you could skip the fight and get on with the game. Unfortunately, within Auto Battle something that could happen is a ship sinking and nothing taking its spot--then end up with ships not contributing their firepower to the cause. Also disappointing is the lack of an option to retreat instead of fight. You can retreat from the tactical layer, but that can be very time-consuming.

As much as I like the strategic layer, I also have the admit that the depth of the strategy is rather limited. The campaign essentially has three phases: the early game, where the Union has superior firepower in the Gulf and can have its way with the rebels; the middle game, beginning when the Confederates complete their first two ironclads, turning the tables on the Union; and the late game, where the Union gets its own ironclads and can stage a comeback. I feel like this setup gives the Confederates only one winning strategy: hold out until their ironclads are built, then do as much damage as possible in the middle game while aggressively building a merchant fleet that can sustain a dominant navy in the late game.

On the Union side, there is a choice to be made between forcing a decisive battle to capture a major harbor in the early game--preventing construction of the rebel ironclads--or playing the long game by preserving their warships while blockading the rebels to the point that they cannot build up their merchant fleet enough to support a navy that can beat yours in the late game. So, a bit more choice for the Yanks.

Even though the depth is limited, the strategic layer gives Ironclads II plenty of replayability. Even within the strategies outlined above, there are questions about what to build (ships/defenses/merchants) and when. For example, when I played as the Confederates I built mostly ironclads in the late game, but I'm interested in seeing if swarms of rebel gunboats (with AP ammo) might be an effective counter to Union monitors.

Tactical Layer
The tactical layer is the "core game" where you take control of your forces to destroy the enemy. And as the core game, the tactical layer is where Ironclads II both shines and has its biggest shortcomings.

The graphics are surprisingly high-end for a small studio. The ship models are very good quality and have re-skins at different levels of damage, showing pockmarks and scorch marks from cannon hits. Fires, when they occur, look very nice, and the smoke from fires and the powerplants is very well done. Ships list when taking on water. The quality of the water is near immaculate.


Now for the bad news: control in the tactical layer is very limited. Although you only control one ship at a time, your command options are very limited: You can order the engine to fast, medium or slow speed (but not stop or reverse), you can order the rudder right, left, or amidships (but not to different degrees), you can give a standing order to the crew to fire any gun once loaded or to hold fire, what type of ammo to load next, and you can allow the crew to engage any valid target or designate a specific target to wait for. That's it. No stations, no taking manual control of the guns, etc. Also, although you can have up to eight ships in the engagement, you can only directly control two of them--the column leaders. The rest of the ships simply follow the leader of their column.

Tactical maneuvering how battles are won or lost. It often takes a lot of hits to take out an enemy ship, so success requires that you maneuver to maximize the number of salvoes you can fire (and at maximum hit percentage) relative to what your enemy can fire. Ammunition management is also important: you can load either solid, explosive, and (for some ships) armor-piercing rounds--and it takes a long time to load the next round, so you have to think ahead. All reloading is automatic after firing and you cannot change what is loaded (or being loaded) once the reload begins.

The damage modeling is done fairly well. The ships have what is essentially a hit point system divided into two sides, which is nice because it forces you to manage which side of your ship is taking hits. There is also the possibility of fire, flooding, disabled guns, and reduced propulsion. Damage is variable by ammo type, gun size, range, and armor penetration, and the crew will automatically make hull repairs, fight fires, and pump water. While I think its great to have these features, I didn't feel like they lived up to their potential. Ships approaching 100% damage to a side often suddenly develop damage resistance that allows repairs to outpace damage taken when taking full broadsides. In two campaign playthroughs, fire has progressed so slowly that I've never seen a ship lost to fire. Flooding occurs so rarely that it feels like you've won/lost the lottery when it happens. No damage results from collisions.

Straight up, the combat is fun. There are several different ship classes, each with different characteristics, and different optimal tactics. Although the AI does a rather good job playing to their own strengths, once you learn a ship well enough, you can exploit the enemy's weaknesses. It's very satisfying to use a little gunboat to sink a larger ship because it can't shake you off its tail, or maneuver a column of powerful sloops to "cross the T" against a smaller opponent, pounding it with multiple hits in just a few seconds.

Ironclads II is a fun, replayable naval sim. However, it lacks the depth, at both the strategic and tactical layer, to be a true diamond in the rough. That said, Civil War buffs will appreciate being able to take control of historical ships, and fans of more modernity-based naval games will enjoy the process of learning and mastering the tactics of ships of the past.

Developer: Totem Games
See also: Ironclads 2 Installation Tutorial

Disclosure: This review was contracted by Subsim Review. Totem Games provided a review copy of the game to the author.

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See also:

Crash Dive for PC released
Navy Field 2
Naval Battles Simulator preview
Crash Dive Review
What kind of subsim skipper are you? Sub skipper Quiz


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