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Bloody Indians – The Thematic Solitarist reviews Mound Builders

Morten Monrad Pedersen
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I’ve been trashed, beaten up, smashed to a pulp – over and over again for the past week. Bloody, Indians.

21 times, I’ve tried to establish and maintain and empire in North America, and 20 times five Indian tribes have committed genocide on my people.

Bloody Indians.

Not only have they wiped out my people again and again they’ve also wiped out any shred of dignity I had as a gamer. The repeated beatings put my win rate in the game Mound Builders at less than 5% and one of the game’s designers, Wes Erni, assures me that a win rate of close to 50% is achievable.

Bloody f*#¤ing, merciless Indians.

I do excuse myself however by blaming my dice - and it was the dice you sent me zombie homer :emoticon-looking-very-accusingly: – I don’t think I’ve ever had so rotten luck in a game before. Losing a session by rolling 9 1s or 2s in a row seemed to be a common occurrence.

I can’t solely blame luck though, since after writing the above I spent time thinking harder about the game and changing my strategy, which have led to me winning the 4 of the last 10 games I played after adopting a new strategy, so it unfortunately seems that I was simply being stupid.

Disclaimer

Before getting started with this review of Mound Builders I want to note that during the past few months I’ve exchanged a lot of friendly emails with one of the game’s designers, the above mentioned Wes Erni, he has written a couple of guest posts for me, and I’ve been badgering him to write more. Therefore, I want to state upfront that while I’ve tried to avoid it this review might very well subconsciously be biased.

Executive summary

If you don’t like long reviews (and this review is rather long) you can simply read the executive summary section and perhaps the verdict section at the end.

Spoiler (click to reveal)

Mound Builders
is a solitaire tower defense game (from the States of Siege series).
is about a couple of millennia of American Indian history centered on the so-called Mound Builder cultures.
can be set up and played within half an hour.
has mechanics that supports the theme well and creates a narrative arc.
features lots of interesting decisions.
is damn fun and initially hard if you suck as much as me – though that difficulty makes it all the more sweet when you finally grok the game and start winning more often.


Introduction

Mound Builders is a game in the States of Siege series from Victory Point Games, which means that it’s a tower defense game. The game takes place in North America and lets you control an empire centered around the city of Cahokia, which was the largest city of the so-called Mound Builders – American Indian cultures with a penchant for building – well, you can probably guess what they built.

Not much is known about the mound builders and the game also takes at least one major liberty with what we do know in order to make a more interesting game. The designers are upfront about these things and I think that they made the right choices.

Gameplay

Mound Builders is the 14th game in the series (or 15th or 16th depending on how you count) and its roots are easy to spot. It has a board with central location, which you control, a set (five in this case) of linear tracks leading towards the central location, along each track an enemy army is marching, and if one of them breaches the central location, you lose. Each turn an event card is drawn detailing movement of enemy armies and the number of actions you get to perform, such as attempting to drive an army away.

Board Game: Mound Builders


These things are at the core of the States of Siege series and has been present since the first game Israeli Independence. The next game in the series, Soviet Dawn introduced a division of the event card deck into three acts each with their own distinct flavor. We Must Tell the Emperor took this partitioning further by making the three acts fully distinct (Soviet Dawn let them melt together somewhat) and added in a couple of rules that changed from one act to the next.

Mound Builders go even further and changes the rules much more between the acts, particularly between acts 1 and 2. In act 1 there are no enemy armies on the tracks and you’ll be cruising along, building a burgeoning empire consisting of multiple chiefdoms. These chiefdoms are distributed randomly along the tracks and revealed as you expand. Each produces one of nine trade goods, has a cost to “Mound” (i.e. turn the chiefdom into a close ally with defensive capabilities), and a defense value if mounded.

The more different trade goods your empire produces (it requires one mounded or two plain chiefdoms to produce a good) the more action points you’ll be getting so it’s worth considering how and where to expand your empire.

After the short first act an enemy army appears on each track just outside the borders of your empire, the event cards get tougher and the enemies start encroaching on your territory. You can sometimes do small expansions during the second act, but you’ll mostly be to trying to consolidate and slow down the enemies’ inevitable conquest as much as possible.

Should you survive long enough the Spanish will arrive in America, and the more rich your empire is at this point the more prominent (= better) the conquistadors they send will be. The Spanish are both good and bad news. Bad news because they’re tough and move relentlessly towards you, and good news because they signal that you don’t have to hang on much longer to win (the win condition is surviving two Spanish conquest turns).

Game modes

The game comes with a basic mode, an advanced mode that adds a batch of extra rules, and some optional variant rules. I haven’t tried the optional rules, but the advanced rules add variation and more interesting options to your arsenal and I strongly recommend playing with them, but not until you’ve learned the basic game well.

What’s in the box/bag?

Board Game: Mound Builders

The contents of the game (polybag version). Image credit Chris Hansen.

As most other recent games from Victory Point Games Mound Builders comes in two versions. One in a box and one in a polybag. The boxed version has a mounted board in jig-saw puzzle style in addition to the cardstock board included in both version, other than that the box has real dice and a napkin for wiping the soot of the counters that the laser cutting process leaves.

The amount of soot has decreased quite a lot during the couple of years that VPG has been using the process, and the upside of the process is that you get some really nice, thick, and almost wooden counters, some of which are put together from two parts to form a standee. The fit of these standees were a bit problematic though, so that I couldn’t get two of them all the way into the base. It’s no real problem since, after more than thirty plays they never came apart and they felt completely sturdy, but the standees in The South Shall Rise Again (also from VPG) worked much better.

There are 37 counters, 6 two part standees, 50 cards (somewhat flimsy, but they shuffle fine and has stood up fine after heavy use), a 32 page rulebook (there are 20 pages of rules for the basic game), a player’s aid, and VPG’s customary gift of a mini d6 that has become their signature.

The rulebook includes a couple of pages of designer’s notes, which is something I appreciate and each card comes with a short historical text about the Mound Builders.

Overall the components function well for their job, the board is slightly boring to look at but it makes the counters stand out instead of hiding like sometimes happens on busy game boards. The only problem in relation to game function is that the double-sided chiefdom counters don’t tell you the number on the backside, which is important information. In most cases, the values on the two sides add up to 6, but there are exceptions, and so you have to pay attention to both sides of each counter when putting them down, or turn them over when needed to check.

The rulebook

The rulebook is well written with the writer’s voice showing through in a nice way. On the other hand, its structure can make the game harder to learn. This is caused by the fact that the game’s rules change from one act to the next, and in each rule all three acts are more or less explained as one. This means that it ends up seeming that there are many cases and exceptions while the reality is that within each act the rules are quite simple.

A structure of the rulebook where one act was explained at a time would have been much less confusing to understand, but perhaps that would have made the rulebook unfeasibly long. No matter what I suggest not panicking by the fact that reading the rulebook makes the game seem complex and somewhat confusing. Instead, I’d recommend reading the rulebook once and then trying out the game. I think that you’ll fairly quickly find that once you consider the rules one act at a time, it’s actually a simple and streamlined game.

Setup, tear down and playtime

After becoming proficient with the game I measured the setup time to 2 minutes and 52 seconds, restarting the game took 2:22, and packing it away took 2:13. I measured two plays and they took 22:54 and 14:05, so this game can be setup, played, and packed away within half an hour, which makes it a good fit for spare time challenged solitarists.

Board Game: Mound Builders

Some of the event cards in the game. Image credit: Wm Seabrook.

Discussion

The fact that I’ve played this game 31 times in 8 days is a testimony to my opinion of the game: I think it’s great and I haven’t been so caught up in a game since Dawn of the Zeds. I’ve found myself trying to sneak away to have another go at it every time I’ve had the chance this past week.

I’ve seen States of Siege games accused of being about luck and learning the deck of event cards by heart, but Mound Builders is a clear counter example to this. I won 1 out of my first 21 games, then changed my strategy and won 4 of the 10 next games. This is not caused by me learning the deck by heart, since I purposefully try to avoid that, so while I think that luck definitely was part of the explanation of my lousy results in the first 21 games, it seems exceedingly unlikely that it’s the main cause.

One thing I really liked about the game compared to the other States of Siege games and tower defense games I’ve tried is that you get to build up the empire you’re afterwards supposed to defend instead of just being thrown directly into a prebuilt scenario. Doing it this way gives the game two advantages:

1 You get a new setup each time, and you could say that the designers have actually turned a long setup step into being a fun part of the game, which is rather crafty.

2 By being the one who builds the empire you get much more passionate about defending it and it draws you in quite effectively. The only game I can think of where I’ve cared more about what happened is the above mentioned Dawn of the Zeds. The downside is that some players could probably get frustrated by seeing what they’ve built get torn down time and again.

On the negative side there are two ergonomic issues: The above mentioned issue of having to refer to the backsides of counters and that keeping track of how many different trade goods you produce is a bit of work and you can easily make mistakes.

Interesting decisions?

For me one of the hallmarks of a good game is that it features many interesting decisions, those agonizing choices where you want to do five things at once, but don’t have enough actions to do them all. Mound Builders succeeds in this regard. You need to decide which tracks to expand on, what trade goods you go for, what chiefdoms to build mounds in, whether to turtle or explore, build defenses or storage, etc. All of these choices are interesting because they affect the result and it wasn’t clear to me, which ones are best.

Learning curve

The game seems confusing initially with tons of cases and exceptions, but it turns out that this is caused by the way the game changes between acts, and the way the three acts are lumped together in the rulebook. However once you’ve seen through this confusion and actually played the game you’ll find a streamlined and fairly simple game.

Replayability

With their fixed linear tracks and using nearly the same deck of event cards each time Mound Builders can seem like games that could become samey quickly, but I must say that Mound Builders manages to offer a lot of variation. Quite a lot of this variation stems from the chiefdoms counters that are distributed randomly on the board as you explore during act 1. This process results in varied shapes of your empire and the difference in number of each type and a special ability of two of the chiefdoms can make a big difference to how the game plays out.

There are also various different strategies available for you to try out such as turtling vs. expansion, or which of the extra options to use such as holding pow-wows, embracing the religion called the “Buzzard Cult”, which will help your military, but limits your economy, and whether to use the games three different options relate “storing” actions.

So for me the game has a lot of variability, which the fact that I’ve played it 31 times bears witness to, and I’d like to play it more, since I think my strategy still has room for improvement.

Difficulty

As mentioned at the beginning of this review I initially got trashed by the game with a win ratio of just below 5%, which I think might be too low for the liking of many players. On the other hand I prefer that solitaires are hard, it keeps the replayability up, makes me more motivated to think about strategy, and makes victory much sweeter.

I also think that my win rate was lower than it ought to have been because of really rotten luck to an extent I don’t think I’ve seen before in my time as a solitarist. Furthermore as my last ten games have shown a win rate of 40%. Personally, I really like a game that starts out with a low win rate, which can be improved as you get good at the game, so to me the difficulty of Mound Builders have been nice if a tad too hard.

Theme and sense of adventure

The three act structure works well and creates a narrative through the game, and for someone who plays the game as badly as I apparently did there’s a lot of tenseness and strong sense of achievement. I've never been in a situation where I felt certain to win: Your empire is fragile, and the Spanish are always looming just over the horizon. The fact that you know that they're coming and that they're rubberbanded to your success level means that you're always scared.

Overall the tenseness and narrative arc works together the give the game a good sense of adventure.

Many of the mechanics such as incorporating other chiefdoms and “mounding” them support the theme well so in some ways the game is highly thematic. On the other hand, the game is high level and fairly simple, which will generally push a game towards abstractness, and you could change the game to take place in another time or place without too much trouble.

The verdict

As mentioned I don’t think I’ve been so obsessed with a game since Dawn of the Zeds, and I’d currently place the game in my top 3 solitaires, just below Dawn of the Zeds and Lord of the Rings: LCG, both of which are much more complex games.

Number of plays this review is based on: 31

Theme and sense of adventure: 7/10 – “Good”

Rating: 9/10 – “Excellent”
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