Iron Curtain, by Jolly Roger Games, is a two-player strategy game, set sometime at the height of the Cold War. For a game that has so few components, this really fulfils the adage that “less is more”. A typical game will be completed within 15-20 minutes.
It involves hand management, card placement and territory acquisition, all while trying to predict your opponent’s next move. If you fancy being a “card-carrying” communist or a true American hero, then Iron Curtain might be for you.
Each player takes one side of the ideological divide. During a game each superpower will exert influence over a region or a continent, dominate countries and prevent the opponent from expanding. The ultimate aim is to finish as the more powerful force at the end.
During the game, the relative strength of the superpowers is indicated by a small counter moving along a track between the hammer and sickle at one end and the stars and stripes at the other. This score card is like a superpower tug-of-war that can move with each turn.
This little game contains just a handful of coloured cubes, red for the USSR and blue for the US. There are just 18 strategy cards and a single starter region card. Iron Curtain is best played at a table with room to lay out the cards that represent different world countries.
Each card contains plenty of information. In the middle is a map showing the country and region where it is located. The allegiance of that nation is depicted by the US flag or Soviet hammer and sickle. The country name and continent is also stated. Printed on the side is the number of countries within that continent and the bonus awarded when that continent is completed. The strength of that country (or its influence) is shown by a number of cubes on the left-hand edge of the card. Italy, which might be considered influentially weak, has one cube, whereas East Germany has considerable influence with four cubes. Finally, each card lists an event or action that may be taken when that card is played.
Iron Curtain consists of just three phases. Initially, five strategy cards are dealt to each player. Each player selects one card to set aside. This is placed face-down leaving four cards in the hand. The single cards are played at the very end of the game for the final scoring phase.
Starting with the Soviets, each player selects one card and must lay it adjacent to the starting card or next to another card of that region. This allows continents to expand and grow. The next action is dependent on the allegiance of the country card that was played. When the Soviet player places a card with a Soviet allegiance, they may choose to either take the action printed, or place the number of influence cubes onto existing cards. These cubes indicate where the Soviets have some control, force or influence. The new Soviet cubes may only be played onto cards that already contain red influence or onto cards adjacent to areas with Soviet influence. Thus, control and influence can be exerted across a region.
If the card played by the Soviet player has US allegiance, this allows the US player to take the event action for that card. This occurs before the Soviets have chance to play any influence cubes. Similarly, if the US player selects a card with Soviet ideology, the opponent may choose to take the action before the American places their influence cubes. The aim is to place more influence cubes in key strategy cards to allow a country to be controlled.
Some actions will allow a superpower to infiltrate other countries, far away from their sphere of influence. This is akin to dropping spies behind enemy lines. If by placing a card, a region is completed, the superpowers score points for each strategy card they control. A bonus (dependent on the region size) is also awarded to the player that controls the majority of the countries in that continent. As points are awarded, the counter moves towards one end of the scoring track. Thus, the influence of each superpower waxes or wanes over the course of the game. If the scoring counter should reach one flag then the game will end, even if there are still cards to play. At the end of the first phase each superpower will have played four cards forming the start of a map.
Next, the remaining eight strategy cards are dealt and the game restarts. In the same manner, play continues with the Soviet player initially choosing a country card, completing actions or placing influence cubes. The second phase finishes when all of the 16 strategy cards have been played.
In the final phase, the two hidden cards are revealed. The relative influence of the two cards is determined by their allegiance and strength. For example, if one of the cards selected shows the US flag with three cubes, and the other is Soviet with one cube, then the net influence is two points to the US. The tug-of-war counter is moved two places towards the stars and stripes.
Final scoring is determined by the number of countries controlled within each of the six regions. This provides an ebb and flow of scoring possibilities, leaving one superpower with the greatest influence.
Components and Rulebook
From the outset, Iron Curtain oozes an early 80’s presence. The font is reminiscent of a Tom Clancy Cold War thriller. Images of past US presidents and Soviet leaders are projected over pictures of tanks and the Kremlin. In those days you knew who the enemy was.
There are only a handful of components inside the small box. The 19 cards are of a standard playing card size and feel. The iconography is clear and the font is very readable. All of the information needed is contained on these strategy cards. There is a tiny scoring card with a pea-sized counter and a few dozen coloured cubes. The entire game could easily fit into a deck of cards sized box. Set-up for a game takes a few seconds.
The rulebook is clear to read. It does contain examples of how to play or score in certain game phases. Indeed, the rules are the largest component of the whole game. Despite this, the instructions could be clearer. It took me at least four games to fully understand the subtleties of the cube placement and region scoring. With that in mind I actually had to produce my own aide memoir and appropriately sized scoring card for Iron Curtain games at home.
Room for Thought
Iron Curtain is a game for teenagers and adults. Every card played has a consequence and will certainly affect future cards placed on the table. During a game one superpower will start to dominate continents. This moves the “tug-of-war” counter towards their flag. There may be the temptation to go for the outright win before all the cards are played. This is difficult, but not impossible. However, playing strong strategy cards at the beginning means that in the later phases on the game, cards with a different ideological allegiance are sure to come up. This gives a number of nice checks and balances. Some events will even reward a weaker superpower if played at the appropriate time.
This game provides plenty of thought. With only 18 playing cards in total, one can almost predict what will be played (with the exception of the two hidden cards). Iron Curtain provides some superb dilemmas and choices, whether to chance one’s hand or play it safe. Sometimes a more steady expansion is better in the long term.
Every game of Iron Curtain is different. There is a slight element of luck where choices are determined by the cards that are dealt and the gameplay of the opponent too. In spite of the USSR starting every game, there appears to be no first-player advantage. The US could keep a fantastically strong strategy card until the end turn which could easily tip the balance of power. This is providing the Soviets have not become the runaway leaders earlier in the game.
Although the game is only 20 minutes, there is plenty to consider. The geographical position of the cards will affect the expansion of a superpower. Likewise, choosing to take an event, rather than the influence cubes, may impact other parts of the map. However, there are only ever up to four cards in each player’s hand and two choices for each card. This means that there should not be any analysis paralysis. Games are quick with no down time between turns ensuring freshness to the gameplay.
During games with my teenage son, we have found that it is often better to sit back in the initial moves of each phase. This can even allow the opponent to get the upper hand (a little). Stronger cards played later may have a greater effect. Similarly, it is often better to play cards that are not ideologically aligned to your superpower at the beginning. This might allow your opponent to take an event action, but the effect of that action will be more muted (or even not possible) at the start of a game.
Occasionally a game’s outcome can hinge on the two hidden cards. Unless you are confident that you will be ahead at the end of the second phase, then it is sometimes wise to put a strong card in reserve for the end.
Final Thoughts on Iron Curtain
This little game really packs a punch. Rarely can so much thought and strategy be eked out from so few cards. In the space of 20 minutes the struggles and tensions between the 80’s superpowers can be relived.
My only gripe would be about the components and the relative size of the box. I know a game needs to have a presence to be noticed. Making this box smaller would make it hard to compete with other eye-catching titles. If the cards and components were larger and of thicker card then this would give Iron Curtain more of a premium feel.
However, it is just a few thin cards and a few dozen cubes. This might make it difficult to justify the price. The game needs to decide where it wants to sit and for what price. It is actually relatively cheap compared to most other titles, but at present its components could all fit in a large matchbox. This would make this great game superbly portable.
Alternatively, by increasing the quality of the pieces, this would justify the present box size, but perhaps increase the price. Is that strictly needed for a quick filler game?
That said, a game is not just about the box or cards, but about the gameplay. As a result, for me, it does not matter about the box size or even slightly confusing rules. A game’s success should be about how it feels during and after play. Iron Curtain provides thought, challenge and tension each turn, with a desire to play again after every game. For this reason alone Iron Curtain will definitely stay in the game collection.