Thematic Solitaires for the Spare Time Challenged

A blog about solitaire games and how to design them. I'm your host, Morten, co-designer of solo modes for games such as Scythe, Gaia Project and Viticulture.
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Morten’s guide to the States of Siege series – part 1: The boring introduction

Morten Monrad Pedersen
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To me the most interesting series of solo board games in existence is the States of Siege series published by Victory Point Games. This is not caused by their quality as games (they’re good), instead it’s because they’re a series of 16 games that all share the same engine with each adding its own new mechanisms and tweaks to existing mechanisms.

This means that the series represents a unique chance to study the effects of a specific mechanism, since you can compare it to very similar games that don’t have that specific mechanism. For this reason, I’ve used the States of Siege games numerous times in my posts on game design - it also doesn’t hurt that I enjoy playing them .

The Stages of Siege series not only shows off different mechanisms it also shows of a huge span of complexity from a 2-page 5-minute game up to a game that can run 3 hours and has multiple large rulebooks. This allows us to look both at the core engine laid bare, how it works when wrapped in many extra layers, how differences in design philosophy of multiple designers affect the play experience, etc.

From the next post onwards, I’ll dive into the design and mechanisms of the games and trace how they evolved over the 11 years the series has been on the market.

After that deep dive into the core mechanisms and evolution, I’ll go through all 16 games in the order I rank them starting with the one I like the least and ending with my favorite.

Family: Series: States of Siege

The almost full series of States of Siege including the various editions. Missing are Empires in America 2nd edition and Dawn of the Zeds 3rd edition (represented by a playtest version instead). Note that this photo only includes one boxed game. More of them are available in boxes, but I prefer the zip-lock bags.
Image credit: Me .

Declaration of bias

Disclosure: Before getting started it’s important for me to state that I received a copy of the 2nd edition of Empires in America for free from the publisher of the series, Victory Point Games (VPG), because I wrote that the 1st edition was one of my least favorite in the series, so out of the blue the 2nd edition showed up in my mailbox, because VPG founder, Alan Emrich, felt that the 2nd edition had improved the game a lot.

That was awesome and completely unexpected. But why do I tell you that? Well, it’s to let you know that I’ve gotten a gift from the maker of the games I’m writing about here. I’ve also received a playtester prototype of Dawn of the Zeds 3rd edition. Both of which could bias me.

Furthermore, I’ve also corresponded with the aforementioned Alan Emrich sporadically over the past few years and the designers of a few of the games. In addition, Alan Emrich has provided factual information for this post.

So, keep in mind, when reading this series that I might be biased. I’m of course do my best to avoid bias and VPG has in no way, shape, or form asked me to write this series of posts (or any other post for that matter).

About this blog series

I’ve been writing this series of blog posts in brief bursts spread out over about 4-5 years (initially planning only to do a ranking of the games) and I played the games over a period of seven years and so it’ll vary a lot how much I remember about each game and there’ve been games that I for whatever reason have analyzed and others that I’ve just played, some I’ve played a lot and some not so much. Also, we’re talking 16 games, some in multiple editions and with expansions added. This means that the amount of discussion of each game varies a lot and it also affect the quality of what I write about them.

The above facts also mean that there’s a lot of stuff I don’t quire remember and so I have probably made some mistakes (please let me know in the comments, if you spot any). It’s also likely that my impressions have been colored by the order in which I played the games, since there are a lot of similarities and so a mechanism that felt fresh in one game might feel old hat in the third game that has a variation of that mechanism. Such a feeling might have been completely reversed if I had played the games in the opposite order.

Apart from all these things, I also need to note that much of what I write is my subjective opinion, not statements of fact, but I’m not always going to wrap my statements in qualifications and notes about subjectivity every single time, so please keep that in mind, when reading.

For years I’ve been hoping that someone would write an analysis and history of the States of Siege series, but that never happened and let’s face it, the group of people who have played all 16 games in the series and are willing to write a 30,000 word essay on them is rather small. So far it looks like that group is countable on 1 finger .

So, I took on the task myself. Well, to be honest I haven’t taken on the full task, because I have limited behind the scenes knowledge of the series and so can’t write a its history, which bugs me. If you have that knowledge and would like to write about it, then please please please write it. I’d be more than happy to host it here on my blog.

Below is a list of the posts I expect in this series, but it’s subject to change. I’ll update with links and any changes that might arise as I continue writing.

1) The boring introduction
2) Event deck structures
Interlude: Sad news about VPG
3) Designer control, storytelling, and pivotal events
4) Tension vs. variation
5) Dice, event resolution, and combat
6) Track systems
7) Embedded minigames
8) The Currency of the States of Siege
9) Math attacks
10) Are the States of Siege games luck fests?
11) The three production processes
+ an unknown number of posts with my ranking and mini-reviews of the games.

You can also find the post in this blog category (note that BGG shows them in chronological order, which is the opposite of reading order): States of Siege category.

I have tried to write the posts so that you can jump in where you want without significant issues in case there are topics that don’t look interesting to you – you might for example find post 2 a bit dry.

The basics of the States of Siege series

Before moving on the meat of this series of blog posts, I’ll give a brief overview of what the States of Siege series is.

The series consists of 14 games, but 2 other games (Israeli Independence, the game that spawned the series and A Blood-Red Banner) clearly also belong so I’ll treat them as members (they also show up in the States of Siege category in VPG’s webshop). The reason they’re not labelled as part of the series on their packaging is that they’re instead labelled as members of another earlier series of introductory wargames. Also, when the first game was released, there wasn’t any plans of creating a series. That didn’t happen until the second game, Soviet Dawn, was published.

There are also two other games from VPG, Swing States and 30 A.D., that have States of Siege DNA in them as well as some fan-made games (e.g. Constantinople), but I won’t cover them in this series of blog posts.

Mechanically, States of Siege is a series of lane-based tower defense games. They share a common core engine that has you defending a central location from enemies marching down a set of linear tracks (one enemy army per track). If an army enters the center location, you lose the game.

Board Game: Israeli Independence: The First Arab-Israeli War

The first game in the series: Israeli Independence. Image credit: Alan Emrich.

The games are controlled by one or more decks of event cards from which you draw one (more in a few cases) per turn. That card specifies enemy movement, special events, and number of action points available to you during the turn.

You spend those action points on the various actions at your disposal such as attacking an enemy army, building fortifications, producing resources, etc. Almost all actions are resolved by rolling a six-sided die and compare it to a target number to determine success or failure (e.g. 5+ is a success and 1-4 is a failure). During some turns determined by the event deck there’ll be die roll modifiers (DRMs) applied to specific die rolls, e.g. +1 when you attack Rommel’s North African Army.

All the games have various additions to this basic formula such as:

• Fortifications that hold back enemy advances on a die roll at or below the strength of the defense
• Non-combat side-tracks that represent resources available, political power, etc. These can give die roll modifiers (positive or negative), rerolls, and other effects.
• Minigames that are played in addition to the main game.

The SoS engine is intended to simulate situations where one faction in a conflict is being attacked on multiple fronts by enemies who do not coordinate their attacks this can be because they’re different countries without a tight alliance as in the second Israeli-Arab war (the topic of the first game in the series) or because they’re a bunch of mindless zombies as in Dawn of the Zeds. The latter is a thematic exception, though, since all but two games in the series deal with real world historical scenarios.

Some of the games, though, do deal with enemies that were coordinating their efforts, e.g. the Allies in the WW2 game We Must Tell the Emperor.

The roots of the series are in wargaming, which means that we’re talking simulation style mechanisms (though highly simplified) where exception rules that simulate specific real-world details are par for the course contrary to Eurogames where such simulation exceptions are streamlined away.

An example of exceptions caused by simulation is Malta Besieged where the player has three different fortresses, all of which have the same basic mechanism, but also their own special exception rule that simulates a real world aspect of the specific fortress.

As we shall see, the games in the series are a varied bunch even though they use the same engine and I’ll spend the first several posts on describing the various mechanisms added to the core engine by each game, what the consequences of those differences are, what the similarities are, how the series evolved, etc.

After that I’ll rank all 16 games according to my subjective opinion and give minireviews, which is of course influenced by the order I played them in.

Board Game: Dawn of the Zeds (Third Edition)

Obligatory cat photo. Dawn of the Zeds 3rd edition, the most recent game in the series. Image credit: zanti_misfit.

Publication order

If you’re interested in the publishing order for the series you can find that below, if not you can simply skip it, since I’ll try to include chronological information when it’s relevant.

The list is not perfect. I know which year everything came out, but for expansions and new editions, I’m often not sure about the exact order, so, I’m just placing those within the relevant years.

Israeli Independence (Darin A. Leviloff)
Israeli Independence expansion (Darin A. Leviloff)
Soviet Dawn (Darin A. Leviloff)
Soviet Dawn expansion (Darin A. Leviloff)
Zulus of the Ramparts (1st edition) (Joseph Miranda)
Zulus on the Ramparts expansion (Joseph Miranda)
Empires in America (1st edition) (Joseph Miranda)
Empires in America expansion (Joseph Miranda)
The Lost Cause (Hans von Stockhausen)
The Lost Cause: Expansion (Hans von Stockhausen)
Levée en Masse (John Welch)
Levée en Masse expansion (John Welch)
Ottoman Sunset (1st edition, same BGG entry as the 2nd edition) (Darin A. Leviloff)
We Must Tell the Emperor (Steve Carey)
We Must Tell the Emperor expansion (Steve Carey)
A Blood-Red Banner: The Alamo (Richard Trevino)
Legions of Darkness (Chris Taylor)
Legions of Darkness: Expansion (Chris Taylor)
Dawn of the Zeds (1st edition) (Hermann Luttmann)
Keep Up the Fire! (John Welch)
Malta Besieged (Steve Carey)
Zulus on the Ramparts (2nd edition, same BGG entry as the 2nd edition) (Joseph Miranda[/person])
Ottoman Sunset (2nd edition) (Darin A. Leviloff)
Cruel Necessity (John Welch)
Dawn of the Zeds (2nd edition) (Hermann Luttmann)
Dawn of the Zeds: Director’s cut (Hermann Luttmann)
Hapsburg Eclipse (Darin A. Leviloff)
Mound Builders (Wes Erni and Robert Madison)
Dawn of the Zeds (3rd edition) (Hermann Luttmann)
Empires in America (2nd edition) (Joseph Miranda)
Dawn of the Zeds Expansion Pack #1 (Hermann Luttmann)
Dawn of the Zeds Expansion Pack #2 (Hermann Luttmann)
Dawn of the Zeds Expansion Pack #3 (Hermann Luttmann)

Before going on, I think that it’s fair to give Alan Emrich design credit for the 2nd edition of Dawn of the Zeds and Petra Schlunk credit for the 3rd edition. Those editions made major changes to the game without the involvement of the original designer, Hermann Luttmann.

On to the real content of this blog series

If you’ve persevered through my long and rambling introduction , I suggest that you go on to the second part of this blog series (posted in a couple of days), where there’s some actual content.
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