M. Kirin's Iron Valley: An Informal Review

Iron Valley is a solo tabletop game based on the Ironsworn system, but drawing from farming and village life simulation games as its inspiration (especially Harvest Moon / Story of Seasons, Animal Crossing, and Stardew Valley). My friend Lino from PinkSpace brought it up, and I asked if we could play in parallel because I wanted to hang out, and also because I so desperately want a pencil-and-paper farming game that I can zone out playing.

Here's my short-form verdict by way of Discord message:

i think lino should also give a verdict, but mine is: it’s conceptually very sweet but you kinda need to bring your own game (“fuck you design”, as per alex), and it also infantilizes the reader and—by making the game overly cozy—swings in the opposite direction because you can’t help but think about how perfect everything is.

one example is that, like harvest moon and similar games, it quantifies friendship points via gifts you give them, but it treats it as wholesome and contrary to impersonal economic relationships (capitalism bad). meanwhile, number go up! does something similar when it talks about how the world is basically vegan, and predator animals eat bugs instead of typical prey. everything that should be difficult, everything that should be downright traumatic, is gestured towards by being conspicuously and overtly absent.

think about jay dragon’s post about starving mechanics in a cafe game, but instead the book says something like “don’t worry about getting insane gas from drinking coffee, or starving to death! your stomach procures energy from microscopic organisms :)” like, huh?!

so the cognitive dissonance from reading the text is like overwhelmingly fucky and the mechanics don’t really hold your hand and give you stuff to work with (also very wishy washy, and does everything it can to prevent friction towards your goals). but i did hack a time/action economy that felt more compelling while just chitchatting w lino about it!

But I want to think some more about why this text feels so off-putting, to the extent that we could not stop thinking and talking about it while trying to play.

"Pronouns & Gender Presentation"

This is the first thing that stuck out to me, if only because it was towards the start of the book while we were making our characters. We are asked to pick our pronouns and gender presentation, and then directed to page 171 for an explanation of these terms:

This book does not use the traditional idea of gender—that is, a person's biological sex—because sometimes a person's biological sex may differ from the gender they present. And this is okay!

This struck me as trying very hard to signal allyship, but also being somewhat confused and even somewhat essentialist (those who know me know that I'm employing litotes here to avoid speaking too harshly). To rephrase, the author says there are two mutually exclusive understandings of gender: biological sex or gender presentation; then, they seemingly define trans people as individuals whose gender presentation differs from their biological sex (or what is expected of that biological sex).

Far from displacing "biological sex" as the basis of gender (not just one's assigned sex at birth!), it reasserts the primacy of biological sex as the point of comparison or contrast with an individual's presentation. In doing so, it reduces transness to an apparent contradiction between superficial presentation and biological reality. It elides the existence of an internal gender "identity", or at least confuses it with gender presentation, and implies that biological sex is a static thing that can only change in appearance but not in itself.

I wouldn't expect a farming game to have a complete or nuanced view of sex, gender, and presentation—but by extension, I wouldn't expect any farming game to take a goddamn position on it! It would have sufficed to say that you can pick your character's pronouns and appearance, without sticking its proverbial foot in its proverbial mouth by locating transness in the realm of pure appearances. It feels off-putting and besides the point of the game.

I made a female character with feminine pronouns. I don't know what genitals she has. I don't want to think about it.

I've had similar complaints about PBTA and BOB games in the past.

Please God Not Value Theory Please

Farming games are obviously petit bourgeois homestead fantasies. They don't pretend that they're not. We shouldn't.

What makes Iron Valley really peculiar is that it has all the same capitalist mechanics as those farming life simulators, but it postures as if it were representing an alternative. "Money is no object in the Valley", but value does—which is strictly quantified in order to facilitate exchange. It's even extended to representing your relationships with townies, where by giving a townie an item of some value you gain favor in proportion. This is not at all unusual for farming games! But it is unusual and peculiar for it to be elevated as an ideal situation. In contrast to what?

Resources and items are abstract. Everything in the Valley is measured by its value.

All resources and items have a value contained inside parenthesis [sic], such as milk (3). We will talk about what this number means in the following section, **The Favor Economy, but know that this number does not represent the object’s monetary value. Value is more abstract than that. Value isn’t a measure of wealth, it is a representation of the favor that can be earned for it.

Marx and Graeber are quaking in their boots. Like with the gender shit, I don't expect a farming game to understand what (economic) value is or how it is socially determined. But I don't expect it to take a position on it either! The more it tries to both rationalize and moralize the generic dynamics of the farming game, the more out of its league it becomes, and the more uncanny its atmosphere is. "Everything has quantifiable value, including human relationships, and this is great. :)"

The numbers themselves also feel kinda busted, so I outline an alternative system in the below section.

The Game Part of the Game

I've never played Ironsworn or anything like it before, so Lino graciously explained to me the gist. The player sets goals for their character that require time and effort (let's say, 10 progress pips). At the same time, their character has limited time in a day (let's say, 4 "ticks"). They roll dice to see if their character progresses towards a goal, with there being three potential outcomes: strong success, weak or partial success, and failure. One of the consequences of a weak success or of failure is that time passes, and the player marks a tick on that day. It's a compelling framework!

The problem is that the text wants to avoid imposing any difficulties on the player, because it thinks that coziness is best represented by a lack of friction (which, by the way, is not at all how farming games actually play!). This is exemplified by the section on growing crops, pages 54-7:

As for what crops you can plant and when, the soil of the Valley is gentle enough for any crop to grow year-round, though it is strongly recommended that you grow what’s naturally in season, as you will get a little extra (value) from those crops.

As for the topic of seeds, because of the cozy nature of this game it is assumed that you have access to seeds at any time (or at least someone who can give you seeds for free).

Please keep in mind that you don’t have to envision long, drawn out scenes for moments of work like these. You can take a second to envision what you did, anything exciting that might’ve happened (if any), and move on with the rest of your day.

Although not a hard rule by far, it is recommended that you only Try Your Best!! [described above] for each crop once per day. Not because of game balance or anything. Really, it’s because life can’t all be work. Even if it’s work you enjoy. Don’t forget to spend time with your friends and loved ones!

Now this one is a rule for sure: you don’t need to water your crops every day. Your plants won’t wither away if you forget about them, nor will they die when the season changes. You are free to grow that patch of lettuce as slow as you want.

It's not like a farming game needs to be stressful. However, the lack of consequences totally undermines any choices the player makes. We can even say that it disempowers the player from making interesting decisions because there are none to make. Compare this to Story of Seasons and other farming games, where it's certainly very relaxing to farm crops and meander around town, but part of the challenge is figuring out everything you want to do in a day before you go to sleep (and the day passes quickly, at 1 hour of game-time per 1 minute of real-time!).

Incidentally, one of the reasons I prefer Rune Factory to Story of Seasons is that I prefer not having to compete with non-player characters to romance other non-player characters. So I totally get that sometimes difficulties can be too imposing, annoying, or distracting from other parts of the game. What bothers me is the lack of difficulty altogether. It's basically an overwhelming degree of freedom which paralyzes me from making decisions or feeling like they count for anything.

Something that's kind of funny, though, is that the game would be easier to explain and navigate if it put any restrictions on the player at all. Let's say, without being wishy-washy, that you can only water your crop once per day (and crops can only skip being watered once), and crops can only grow in their particular season. This motivates the player to manage their time and farm carefully, not biting off more than they can chew, and makes their decisions on how they spend their time more meaningful.

Hacking on the Fly

I hacked together a more pressing version of the game just to make it more interesting for me to play.

  • Days have two ticks, represented by a box with two diagonal slashes.
  • Progress boxes for tasks also have two ticks.
  • Crops must be handled once per day, and this can only be skipped once.
  • Partial success is on a dice total from 5-9, and full success is 10+. (Just quicker to me than rolling and comparing three dice.)
  • Goal failure means 1 progress tick but 1 time tick; partial success means you can pick between +1 progress tick or –1 time tick; full success means you can pick both.
  • Crafting failure means +1 value but 1 time tick; partial success means you can pick between +1 value or  –1 time tick; full success means you can pick both.
  • Crops produce more value the longer they take to grow, relative to growing sequences of less time-consuming plants within the same amount of time.

Below is my table of seeds costs and crop sale-prices:

Crop Rank Seed Cost Progress Boxes Crop Price
2 coins 2 progress 3 coins (+1)
★★ 3 coins 3 progress 5 coins (+2)
★★★ 4 coins 4 progress 8 coins (+4)
★★★★ 5 coins 5 progress 10 coins (+5)
★★★★★ 6 coins 6 progress 12 coins (+6)

Kinda Sorta Playing the Game

I started the game with 10 coins, and so I bought two seed packs: one 2-star seed and one 3-star seed, for a total of 5 coins spent and 5 coins leftover. I spent the start of each day tending to my crops, usually getting partial successes on the task rolls. Typically, I would choose the extra progress pip on one crop but act quickly on the other crop, because I wanted at least one time tick leftover for other tasks.

One of my favorite activities after farming was to socialize with a townie named Clementine, whom I decided was my bestie even though I technically just met her. I think that the best way to approach this game is to generate all the townies ahead of time and assign them to specific roles in the town so that it feels like you know who you can go visit and on what occasion.

On the second day, I happened to have both time ticks leftover after farming, so I spent one shopping for groceries (didn't roll for this one, though maybe I should have rolled just to socialize with the shopkeeper) and I spent the other mining. Below is kind of how that went, as it extended into the third day:

  • Day 2: Already spent 1 time tick shopping for groceries.
  • I rolled a partial success mining, so I chose to spend 1 time tick to gain 1 unit each of iron and coal (my other option was spending no time, but getting to pick just one).
  • Day 3: Already spent 1 time tick farming.
  • I rolled a full success forging steel out of iron and coal, so I considered the total value of the steel to be that of the iron (1) plus that of the coal (1) plus that of my effort (2), for a total of 4 value. If I had rolled only a partial success, I would have had to decide between less value or spending more time.
  • I rolled a failure lumbering, but I only needed 1 unit of wood anyway.
  • Day 4: Already spent 1 time tick baking a cake.
  • I rolled a partial success crafting a sword, whose total value was that of the steel (4) plus that of the wood (1) plus that of my effort (1), for a total of 6 value. I wanted to be quick about it so I could bring it with me into the scary caves and spend time there before the day ended. I decided that the value of my sword equals how many uses it has, and that I could spend a use to improve the result of a roll.

I actually got really into the rhythm of things, with how quickly-moving the game was since I made time matter. It felt like playing Story of Seasons or Rune Factory on paper! I was so elated. But the game doesn't really come that way.

Heart Events

I also loved socializing with Clementine and imagining how we were spending time together. Lino had a wonderful idea that heart events should reveal something specific about a character, such as a hobby or a hangout spot or a favorite gift. The oracle table for heart events felt kinda ehh.

I also felt that heart events should be more distributed and difficult to get as your relationship improves. Maybe like:

  • To increase your relationship level, you need a number of progress boxes equal to the next level. This means if you start from 0, you need to complete 1 progress box (two ticks) to really begin a relationship.
  • You can socialize with townies while shopping around town, or just hanging out if you go out of your way to spend time with one.
  • Your current relationship level is how many favor points you have (which you can use to ask someone to help you to do something); you cannot mark progress ticks before restoring favor points.

Just riffing!


There's a lot to learn from Iron Valley, but I don't think it's quite the tabletop Harvest Moon that I was really hoping for. Certainly better than Cozy Town, but it has all the same problems—it's just more verbose and complicated for little gain. It's still fine food for thought, and a good inspiration for something better!

It's also a great case study in seeing how fantasy operates, here at the intersection of economic structures and personal relationships. The world of Iron Valley is, so to speak, all the good stuff without the bad stuff. But can that be? To what extent is the "bad stuff" not intrinsic to the subject matter of the game? What does it mean for that to be obscured? What is the fantasy in operation?


  1. I was elated when I heard about Iron Valley; I really wanted to like it. But the game goes so out of its way to explain there are no hardships and negative consequences, it all becomes meaningless and, as you put it, infantilising.

    At this point, I feel like I need to build my own pen-and-paper farming sim. Your reverting back to a PbtA-esque dice mechanism is probably the way to go, although I like keeping the 7–9 range for partial success so that even a +3 modifier (possibly from item upgrades or skill specialisations) has some chance of rolling a failure.

    I'm a little torn about whether to go all in on the minutiae as it certainly contributes to my overall enjoyment of video games like Stardew Valley, My Time at Portia, or Graveyard Keeper, but pen-and-paper board games in my experience benefit greatly from snappy gameplay that only occasionally halts as you evaluate your options and pick things off a big list.

    1. using typical PBTA math would probably be really intuitive and beneficial to streamline the math! i only kept the one d6 bc i wanted to sorta kinda stick to the book 😂

      using, basically, half-days felt like the most intuitive for me in that sense because more than likely i get to do like 3-4 activities per day, enough to feel like there's variety but not enough to become overwhelming time-wise. it moves quickly but not too quickly!


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