Iron & Ale is a tabletop drinking card game developed and published by Table Forged. I saw two drinking card games at GenCon this year but the first I don't even remember. I do recall it had a character sheet to keep track of your stats, dice, and cheap-looking cards. It seemed like a bad idea to add record keeping to a drinking game, and I'm glad I didn't pick it up. I passed the Table Forged booth later in the day and took a look at the game that I would eventually pick up, Iron & Ale. What sold me, almost immediately, was the simplicity. There are no character sheets and no record keeping. There's one die, and score is kept right on the cards you take in your round. The rules are simple, draw the cards and do what they say.
Iron & Ale was released in 2014 after a successful Kickstarter campaign that got them ten thousand dollars over their initial goal. The package I bought includes the expansion, as well as the main deck, one six-sided die, and a special samurai dwarf lord card for picking up the set at GenCon. The package is great quality, especially compared to a lot of indie card games out there. Many of them go for smaller, cheaper quality cards and packaging but sell the game at the same price as everyone else. These guys went with high-quality cards, that smelled like a brand new deck of Magic cards when opened. All of it is contained in a durable lift-top box that should stand the test of time. The art is well-done in a style reminiscent of old RPGs and fantasy books. They did a good job picking art that was subtle, not too bright, or whimsical. Too many independent or new games tend to skimp on the art, but not so here.
Picking up Iron & Ale is easy
Like I said before, playing the game is easy. That's key for any drinking game, but even if you aren't drinking and just playing the game for fun, or maybe betting on it, simplicity is nice. It's not a highly competitive game. Even though some of the cards pit you against another 'dwarf lord' in a contest of strength, dexterity or daring, complex strategy isn't an issue. This is a game that a group of friends can sit around and play, learn fast, and just have fun with. At the start each player picks a dwarven lord card, an optional step but one that gives the player special abilities they can use during the game. Then two stacks are made of the cards. One stack being the mountain deck, containing resources like gold and iron, and monsters like orcs and trolls. At the bottom of the mountain deck goes the dragon, the final boss. The second deck is the mead hall deck which contains challenges that usually have you choose an opponent and challenge them to some sort of feat of strength, boasting, or skill. Monsters are fought by rolling the single die to tie or beat the monster's strength rating. On a player's turn they draw two mountain cards, keeping any resources or fighting the mosters. Then the player draws one mead hall card and performs the challenge. Each card is marked with a drinking penalty for losing and honor points for winning. At the end of the game, either determined by the number of rounds, or by defeating the dragon, players add up the honor points they have in front of them and the highest number wins.
The easy nature of the game makes it easy to modify for your group to make sure you can pace yourselves and keep people from going over board. There are duplicate monsters and challenge cards that can be removed for a shorter game. There's also no rule that says how much constitutes a drink, so the players can determine the loss of a challenge is three sips, three drinks, three gulps or whatever you want. We also had a few instances where a challenge just didn't seem fun, or two of the same came up back to back, so we just had the player discard the challenge and draw another. It's definitely a game best played with a light-hearted group that doesn't get too competitive. You want people that are willing to take on challenges, sometimes involving minor pain, like the dwarven arm burn, but you wouldn't want someone so invested that added alcohol turns them from competitive to loud jerk.
The game has a lot of interesting turns
The mead hall deck is where this game shines. Sure, the staple of finding monsters and treasure is there and it can be fun to fight monsters and drink when you lose, but we had so many more laughs when the mead hall cards were drawn. When a card is drawn there's a few choices. If the dwarf who drew it doesn't want to do the challenge they can automatically take the drink penalty. If the dwarf they challenge doesn't want to do it they can also take the penalty and bow out. If the challenge is accepted then the loser drinks, if the drawer wins they get to keep the card and the honor, and if they lose the card goes into the discard pile. Other dwarves at the table are encouraged to wager their iron or gold on the outcome of the challenge, though you could easily turn that into wagering money, real or fake, or wagering drinks. Examples of mead hall cards include the "Dwarven Kiss, choose another dwarven lord to slap you in the face" or the "Dwarven handshake, challenge another dwarven lord to an arm wrestling match." There's also one for left-handed arm wrestling, having someone sit on your back while in the plank position, trading drinks, and so on. I don't want to give away too many because the fun is in discovering the cards as you play and the anticipation of what's coming next. We did find a couple of challenge cards that were too vague and had to be skipped, like a challenge to see who is more flexible. We couldn't decided on the extent one would have to go to in order to prove it, it was just too vague.
You can pick up the game, with the expansion on their site for $29.99. You can also pick it up on sites like Amazon and eBay if you're so inclined. It's a good value for a game with decent replayability and a heafty play-through time. You could easily sit down to a 2+ hour game with friends, and while it may eventually become repetitive, changing up the group, and adding your own house rules (like any good drinking game) could keep the game fresh for quite awhile.