The nineteenth century was the incubator for modern naval warfare. Steam, rifled cannon, iron armor, advanced communication – all these essential components of modern ships were developed then and yet only Totem Games publishes serious games on this topic. Clad in Iron: Gulf of Mexico 1864 is their latest plunge in to alternate history based on serious possibilities.

Game of Slots

Totem has advanced from its earlier single real time battles to adding a strategic turn-based play level with the Ironclads II series. With the solitaire Clad in Iron, the action posits that the European powers holding positions in the Caribbean – Great Britain, France and Spain – joined forces with the Confederacy to break the Union grip on the Gulf coast. Their key to victory is to take Union-held ports with forces from allied possessions, aided by interrupting American trade and protecting their own trade routes. Of course, the Union goes for allied ports and ships. Essential to this are the various harbors.

The Caribbean is a warren of islands, routes and harbors.

Eleven harbors ring the map from New Orleans to Nassau with the greatest allied port at Havana and the largest Union station at New Orleans. Trade routes, marked by white lines and container boxes, crisscross the area with directions to New York, Europe and the major nearby ports. The larger harbors are composed of five major bands with having slots for both sides, the Union in blue and allied in beige. These bands allow each side to blockade or defend against blockading ships, to attack or defend the harbor with naval forces and to have opposing infantry garrisons struggle for control of the port. The other two bands represent harbor defenses such as shore batteries and display the port’s name, initial owner and amount of supply brought into the port if it’s still open. The bands can be identifies by faint grey symbols but players should leave the PDF manual open for reference via ALT-TAB. Other port facilities can include shipyards, repair facilities, hospitals, training camps, fortifications, mines, torpedo boats and supply ship slots. Trade route boxes have on slot for each side’s ship.

Filled ship slots contain top-down images of the sleek, narrow ocean-going ships and the stumpy ironclad silhouettes of coastal vessels. Moving the mouse over any vessel or facility creates a pop-up – green for the player’s side, red for the AI – with scads of information on the topic. The feature helps only sharp-eyes players as the font is very small. Unlike the map and harbor boxes, the font can’t be zoomed. Applications such as Virtual Magnifying Glass can work in the windowed mode but the windowed map won’t center on the screen and refuses to be dragged to where all map edges can be seen. This flaw makes play more difficult than it should be.

Harbors contain a myriad of features.

The sixteen-page manual does a fairly good job of explaining the game with a trove of ship details but could be slightly better organized. What the game needs is a good tutorial. The three YouTube videos seem to cover everything but are not narrated, leaving the viewer to follow the bouncing cursor, trying to figure out the purpose of the clicks. The fact that the developers are Russian is no excuse because many YouTube videos have Russian narrators speaking excellent English.

Slipping In; Slipping Out

The staging point for the game is the one-month long strategic turn. Clicking on a warship slot gives players two options: drag it to an appropriate empty slot for blockade defense or move it to a blockade slot of an enemy harbor; either band can hold up to eight craft in two lines of four. Early in the game, blockading a major port like New Orleans or Havana is chancy but bringing ships down to blockade defense is a good idea. Selecting a ship and an accessible slot is signified by a green check along with a hiss of steam and chugging of pistons. Some Union ports have no blockade defense so the allies can attack the harbor directly. Care should be taken to assign only ocean-going ships to the longer trade routes while assigning coastal vessels to slots within the Gulf. Contesting trade routes could prevent the AI from building more ships. Moving troops between friendly harbors is done the same way to the accompaniment of fife and drum; only marines can land in enemy harbors. “End Turn” allows the AI to make similar moves and then action begins.

Resolution of battle presents players with a difficult choice. Battles can be fought in auto or manual mode. Auto mode stays on the strategic map with vessels in opposing slots hammering each other as shown by the white smoke of broadsides. Shore batteries can chime in against the attackers. Heavily damaged ships turn from the horizontal to the diagonal and sinking ships disappear from the slot. Infantry trade volleys. Using auto mode makes for a quick but understandable turn.

Two French ironclads gang up on an American steamer.

Manual mode is for tactical naval tactics lovers only. The ship modeling and interface is pretty much the same as it was eight years ago. The problem is that the battles are so long. Going to real time, finding the foe even with the ships at full speed and with time compression takes a while. When the engagement finally begins, the ships are so evenly matched that battles take the better part of an hour to finish. All this time, players are thinking “I have at least five more of these to fight.” Fortunately, an auto mode button is there to quickly resolve the battle after players have admired the beautiful modeling and exciting but prolonged graphics and sounds.

The following turns allow damaged ships to be brought into repair slots at a price and a stay for a few months. New ships can be built if enough money from trade is accumulated. Blockade and harbor defensed can be whittled down so that marines can be brought in to overwhelm the garrison and control the port. Victory after twenty-four turns is decided by the amount of points accumulated by control of harbors.

Clad in Iron: Gulf of Mexico 1864 could have been an excellent game packed as it is with interesting detail but the lack of a tutorial and small font will put off any but the most dedicated naval enthusiasts. Play in the strategic mode can be interesting when players get into the rhythm of the mechanics and grasp a strategy but the real time battles drag the game out too long. In ship-to-ship mode, units can start closer together and another level of toggleable time compression would be welcome. The manual battles should be sped up to better incorporate the concept into the larger scale game. At $9.95 USD, serious gamers should try the challenge. Casual gamers should wait for a narrated YouTube video or an update to make the manual battles reasonable.