Iron Harvest finds drama and beauty in alternative World War I

Iron Harvest is a real-time strategy game that attempts the same clever trick as the movie 1917, which is to disinter the drama of WWI era trenches, and to find entertainment in a muddy world of machine guns, barbed wire, and sandbags.

Based on the fictional world of 1920+, created by Polish artist Jakub Rozalski. It’s the same quasi-central European agrarian-industrial universe that serves as the foundation for the well-loved board game Scythe.

King Art Games’ overhead-view combat game is very much in the mode of the Company of Heroes series, which was set in the ostensibly more kinetic arenas of World War II. But Iron Harvest’s use of movement, unit-variety, and light fantasy elements elevates the experience beyond static trench warfare. It’s a squad-based mission game in which I must make use of cover, approach, feint, and subterfuge in order to overwhelm my enemies.

Rozalski’s WWI-style central Europe includes hulking, diesel-punk mechs. These wheezing brutes are expensive units that give the historical setting enough of a punch to overcome WWI’s inherent gaming limitations. The mechs brings movement to a conflict that is generally remembered as being mired in stasis.

Warring Nations

Iron Harvest embraces the grim, doughty reality of attrition warfare with a variety of human squads, who fulfill appropriate class functions, such as engineer, bombardiers, and riflers.

Hero units are also available, which serve as vehicles for a narrative campaign that covers a trio of warring nations, based largely on Germany, Poland, and Russia.

In one campaign mission, I play as a Polania freedom fighter who leads an attack on a Rusviet railway depot. Success can only be achieved through the classic RTS route of building bases; securing resources (in this case, iron, and oil); producing squads; expanding terrain; and finally overwhelming a diminished enemy.

The mission, which I played several times, has that busy feel of battlefield management, in which I’m constantly putting out fires. My squads are thinly stretched as I attempt to create a cordon around my core resource depots and my home base. I scavenge resource dumps and downed enemy units to boost production, so that I can defend my gains while probing deeper into enemy territory.

Squads are usefully pliant to my particular needs. Engineers can become bombardiers, simply by picking up the abandoned weapons of enemies. Units can also be upgraded during each mission. Heroes make use of special attack moves that deal devastating damage.

All the while, my bases are cranking out more recruits who plug gaps and secure depots. As often as not, I find myself throwing squads into crisis points, and this is where the game is won or lost.

Units will take severe damage while out in the open, but can survive for long periods under the protection of cover. As is often the case in RTS games, a smart mixture of unit types, supporting one another appropriately, is the key that unlocks victory. Even a phalanx of mechs can be scythed down, if they haven’t got the suppressing support they need, or if they lack a general who knows when to order soldiers to switch to emergency melee mode.

Cover is often dismembered by enemy artillery fire, or by mech-attack. This means I need to either find a different approach or rebuild defenses. Barbed wire, sandbags, bunkers, and mines can be built, and often turn out to be more useful than a fresh squadron of soldiers.

Like any good RTS, Iron Harvest takes a formula and uses it to create opportunities for variety. The maps are mazed with pathways, cover, and buildings that offer multiple routes to victory. Iron Harvest will be launched on PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One on Sept. 1. Meanwhile, here’s a gallery of Rozalski’s lovely art, which inspired the game.