Review: Guns and Steel

I encountered Guns and Steel at a convention where I wasn’t looking for it. I had gone there with a list of games I wanted to try, two of which were small civilization-themed card games, 7 Wonders Duel and Chronicler. Coincidentally, I left the convention never desiring to play either of those again, but with a burning desire to play more Guns and Steel. Chronicler felt very much like an overly random solitaire game with no theme, and 7 Wonders Duel just felt like 7 Wonders but smaller… and it fell flat in the face of Guns and Steel. There wasn’t a reason to have both.

Guns and Steel, as implied, is a civilization-themed card game as well, but where 7 Wonders Duel focuses on collecting several categories of civilization features and careful drafting, and Chronicler focuses on… I don’t honestly know what… (pretending Klondike Solitaire is a fun game, maybe?), Guns and Steel is about the development of your “tech tree” hand of cards and the balancing act between economic prosperity and military prowess.

The game is set up initially by placing all of the cards face up on the table in a pyramid layout, with the base being the most basic, ancient of technologies (such as domestication and currency), and the top including modern tech like computers and nuclear subs. And yes, that means there is nothing really hidden in the game; everyone begins with the same hand of cards for resources and actions, and all moves are made in the open. When I first played, this raised a question for me: If every card is always in the game, and everything is visible… will the game always play out the same way?

After several plays, I found this worry to be unfounded. That pyramidal set up is semi-random: each row of cards, representing a technological level, is randomized, and you can’t start buying cards from a higher row until the cards below it have been purchased. So there is variability game to game, and that variability is multiplied by the players and their reactions.

On a players turn, they must use one of the cards in their hand as a resource, and they must use one of the cards in their hand for its action. Actions either threaten your opponents’ progress or help your civilization produce resources to move through the technological ages, but acquiring more, better actions requires resources. Because everyone begins by targeting different tech cards (by necessity), everyone plays different resources, uses different actions, and after the first round, everyone has different strengths and weaknesses. I am always a big fan of games where the cards have different uses, because there is inherent strategy in even the simplest opportunity cost choice. But here, the decision is more difficult, because everyone can see what you are playing, and what your future decisions might be based on that. Do you take a newly acquired card and use it for the more advanced resource? Or do you use it for the powerful new action? But also, if you place it too early, that makes it a target for your opponents’ military raids… and if you place it too late, the cards you want to use it to purchase might be gone. And can you afford to spend any time developing your defenses, snagging cards an opponent wants, or recovering?

The tension and timing of playing the cards is the core of the game, and it is a simple but impressive core. But the game isn’t simply a mechanical “gain and spend” exercise! The theme of building up your civilization and mustering its military forces is well-presented, too. Attack cards allow you to temporarily damage your opponents’ resources or swipe away their point-scoring Great Wonders, and it can be dangerous to simply leave your civilization unprotected. And Tactics cards can improve the efficiency of your attack and defense, but leave you without much of an economy to protect. Without military, you can be very vulnerable, but if you have enough civil tech, you can also rebuild more quickly. Again, every card has multiple uses, and because military confrontation is as much a mind game as it is a counting game (higher strength wins…), you have to maintain flexibility in using the cards whichever way you have planned.

There is one minor issue that I have run into in playing Guns and Steel. When a player depletes their hand, they can take any or all of the cards they have played back (and certainly, you’ll want to take any spent resources back). But before that, there is a chance to see if you qualify to acquire a Great Wonder (the Pyramids, Taj Mahal, Himeji-jo, etc.). These are worth points, although they can be stolen, but players who are able to dump cards from their hands earlier have a better chance to take these cards. And players who are able to dump cards from their hands earlier have a better chance to get their favorite technology cards. In other words, there is a distinct first-player advantage in the game; the rules admit this as well by allowing the later players a half-turn of sorts to gain an extra resource. Does it even things out? Hard to say. Sometimes it feels like it doesn’t, but it’s a little ephemeral. The game has felt solid every time I have played it, but there is this niggling worry in my mind that won’t go away, and I don’t know if there is a hard, mathematical solution or an opening move that would help.

It suffices to say that, although I have had my worries about the game, none of them have become particularly present. Every time I play Guns and Steel, it feels like a tight, difficult, and new procession of cards, and the strategy of planning your route through the tech tree/pyramid is never obvious or easy. For a civilization-themed card game that actually feels like a bit like a civilization game, it plays very quickly, the core mechanism is engaging, and the only times you feel out of options is when you have made a mistake or you know you have been outplayed.

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