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Steam and Iron PC Game Review

By Jim Zabek, 3/9/12

Grumpy Grog Says: If you can’t stand the wargames, get off the battlefield! This game reminds me of when we had to use our brains to imagine sticks were bazookas. Of course, that was before bazookas were invented. Or gunpowder. Or sticks. In my day we had to play games in the snow. Uphill! Both ways! Bah! Just buy the game. You might learn something!

Welcome Aboard, Admiral

Within hours of its release Steam and Iron was getting positive feedback in wargaming circles. So good was the press that it was only a matter of a few days before I found I could no longer resist the siren’s call. But what exactly is Steam and Iron, and what makes it so great?

Steam and Iron is the latest release from Naval Warfare Simulations, an independent game developer and publisher. Created by Fredrik Wallin it is a flag-level naval simulation set around the years of the First World War. At its heart it is a classic wargame – little attention has been paid to the visuals. The overwhelming focus of development was under the hood, with intense work placed into the AI and database. The conundrum is there has been so much work placed on getting the data for ships, firing, and maneuverthere are few actions available to the player. The story gets better: all this is encapsulated in a game that is under 4 MB is size. Impressive.

This doesn’t mean the game isn’t fun, but it does mean that players seeking splashy graphics and a continuous stream of over stimulation may be left unsated. But for wargamers whose sense of play lies in patience and nuanced timing…Steam and Iron can be enormously satisfying.

The Default Color Scheme Ought to be Changed

Just as an admiral gives orders to his squadrons, so it is that the player in Steam and Iron gives orders and watches the game carry them out. Orders include issuing speed and direction, assigning lead positions, and specifying formations to take like line abreast, screen, etc..

Players have no control over which weapons to employ and only limited control over targeting. Just as an admiral must trust his subordinates to do their jobs , so it is in Steam and Iron that the player has to trust the AI to shoot. In many scenarios several friendly formations will be out of the player’s control for the entire game. As consolation, it can be entertaining watching a screening force conduct its ballet of maneuver as ships dart forward then double back on themselves. The AI is superbly convincing in its role as a subordinate commander, and I often marvel at how disciplined it behaves. Gradually I learned from the AI to twist and turn while under fire. Sometimes ordering a straight path for a turn or two, which often resulted in stabilizing our ship just long enough to score a hit on an enemy ship. Much of the fun of the game is in deciding when to turn, change speed, and when to risk a straight line in order to improve the chances of hitting a target.

Nevertheless, it is in the uppermost levels of direction that the player is placed. While the guns rage and reports come in, the player must maintains a sense of zen-like calm, issuing course changes, speed changes, and sometimes a formation change.

Plenty of Options to Tweak

In one scenario I was playing in fog and light rain where visibility was intermittent and sightings of enemy ships questionable. In that game (where I lost decisively) the challenge was to decide whether to play cat and mouse on the defensive, or attempt to bring a fight to the enemy. It was fun befuddling the enemy AI as I split my small force, sending it to appear here, then there. In the end, I was overmatched – having only light cruisers to counter a raiding force of battle cruisers. Still, I found it a delight to play as I coordinated the movement of my formations to disperse and reform. For a long time I was able to pound away at the battle cruisers and managed to inflict serious damage, but I was ultimately crushed under their superior firepower.

The mechanics of the game are turn-based, but there is a continuous play button that essentially lets the game unfold as if it were real-time. There is time acceleration as well as a pause button and another option to play the game for five minutes of game time before pausing automatically.

A battle unfolds. I control two formations with square flags - the others are run by the AI

-Click image to enlarge-

A battle generator allows the player to cook up a scenario on the fly. Options in the game are myriad. Players can change the color of the map which I recommended – the defaults are almost an eyesore.I found a soothing dark blue for the water and medium gray for the land to be best. Pausing, difficulty level, and sound effects are also adjustable, and the sound is great on a sound system with a decent sub-woofer. There are 32 scenarios included with the game, many historical, some alternative history, and a few with more or fewer ships than historical to allow players to learn or increase the complexity.

Hardcore naval wargamers are going to love Steam and Iron. Recommending the game to casual gamers requires some caveats. Steam and Iron is not non-stop action. It is a naval simulation at the flag officer level. Similar to another great game series known for stellar AI, Panther Games’ Battles from the Bulge, players will find the experience akin to an interactive movie where, from time to time, they are required to make a decision and then wait patiently to see the results unfold. Time acceleration can speed up the experience for the impatient, but I have found the game’s default setting of “normal” to be entertaining. On the left hand side of the screen a dialog box announces as ships are identified fire, and take fire as well as the results.

Stats can be reviewed after the battle

-Click image to enlarge-

That isn’t to say the game isn’t fun. Steam and Iron is a blast to play. But it won’t scratch every gamer’s itch. Its old school cool, with a minimum of glamor and a maximum of data crunching under the hood. Twitch gamers should be waived off. The patient gamer, however, will find much to love. A new patch is expected soon which will continue to tweak and improve performance. If there is one thing I’d like to see it would be see the ability to save and revisit the log of the battle. Much of the drama unfolds there and reading through it would add to the experience as players could revisit what happened at their leisure.


If/Then Analysis: Though Steam and Iron offers fewer things to do on the screen, its gameplay experience is similar to Battles from the Bulge, Highway to the Reich and other Panther Games. If you enjoyed those games, it’s definitely worth checking out the naval counterpart from NWS.

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