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Subject: Fortress America--a review in which I try to avoid the "W" word. rss

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Fortress America‘s massive 33″ x 22″ board ready to play.


What It’s About

In the 21st century, the United States develops a perfect missile defense system and weapons capable of wiping out any military unit in the world with the push of a button. Much of the world panics at this balance-of-power shift and decides to pool their military might together and take out the U.S. before the weapons are fully online. Three different armies attack the U.S. homeland from three sides: The Asian People’s Alliance attacks the West coast, the Central American Federation attacks from Mexico, and the Euro-Socialist Pact attacks the East coast. If they can capture enough cities, the nation will fall. The caveat is that the invaders have put all their efforts and resources into this invasion and must win quickly because no reinforcements are coming. Meanwhile, the United States population starts to rise and becomes more powerful as time goes on.

Sounds like Red Dawn: The Board Game, doesn’t it? It is for all intents and purposes. This game was originally released in 1986 as part of Milton Bradely’s Gamemaster Series of which only Axis & Allies survived to make a lasting impression. Made for a primarily American audience in 1986, Fortress America ratcheted up the threat of Communist invasion for all it was worth and wove a backstory closely resembling real events such as the Soviets provoked by the USA’s Strategic Defense Initiative. The Gamemaster series for the most part vanished from the scene around the same time as the Soviet Union and Fortress America was not heard of again until 2012 when Fantasy Flight Games re-released it with a new board, new miniatures, new dice, tweaks to the rules, and a more neutral backstory explanation of global fear of the United States that allows for various interpretations of who are the good guys and bad guys depending on one’s preference. The speculative scenario of an invasion of the U.S. in a board game is not original to Fortress America–it was predated by Invasion America, a game in the classic hex-and-chit wargame tradition with more complex rules. Here I must offer a geek survival tip: Whenever discussing Fortress America, always mention Invasion America with approving tones so as to avoid an unsolicited earful from contemptuous die-hard gamers.

What the Players Actually Do

One player controls the U.S. Forces. 1-3 players pick the invaders. The U.S. player has a total of 60 units and distributes two units of his choice in each of the 30 cities on the map. These units consist of infantry, mobile units (a kind of armored personnel carrier), hovertanks, helicopters and bombers.

The units from left to right: Bomber, partisan, infantry, hovertank, mobile unit, helicopter.


Each invader also has a total of 60 units, but only initially places 20 from each color into the invasion zones against the USA’s borders on the West Coast, South, and East Coast. At the beginning of subsequent turns each invader brings in eight more units from his reserves and places them in the border invasion zones (not in any captured territory unlike Risk). The twist is that the invaders do not get to replace units lost in battle whereas the USA does through Partisan Cards, which he draws two or more of every turn. Players invade territories with units and resolve combat with dice rolling. The invaders win the game if they can capture and hold (the USA always goes last in a turn and has a chance to recapture at least one city) eighteen cities. The USA wins if ten turns elapse and the invaders have not captured and held eighteen cities.

Features & (very) broad overview

Area Movement–The map of the USA is carved into 5 sectors encompassing almost a hundred territories with 30 major cities spread about in those territories. The only geographic feature is mountain territories which affect the attacker’s dice results in certain situations. Also spread about the map are three resources: Agriculture, Mineral and Oil. The main function of these sectors, mountains and resources is to direct the US player on where to place his reinforcing units as dictated by the Partisan Cards. For example, a card with flavor text that reads, “The N.R.A. organizes a rebel training camp in the Rocky Mountains” is directing placement of new units in, you guessed it, the Rocky Mountain Sector.

Dice Rolling–Combat is resolved via dice rolling and favors the defender in two ways: 1). The defender not only fires first, but any successful hits on his roll destroys or disengages attacking units before they get a chance to return fire. 2). The defender in a city or mountain territory automatically hits whenever a combined arms symbol is rolled on the die, but an attacker in the same circumstances only hits if he has at least one infantry, one mechanized, and one air unit in the attacking force. What this means for gameplay is that an attacker must not only bring overwhelming force from multiple territories to a battle, that force must also be diversified to give him the best chance to prevail.

The dice arranged by facing left to right: miss, retreat/disengage, combined-arms hit, standard hit. The black d10 is for laser cannon.


Praises and Criticisms

Component Quality–Fantasy Flight Games as usual provides excellent quality in the materials used. Thick cardboard counters, cards with durable finish, a thick box to carry it in, and a well-mounted gameboard that, with proper care, should survive the test of time.

Art/Presentation–FFG radically changed the look of the board game from the original. Instead of mountain regions drawn in a topographical style and various territories in different color shades to set them off from each other, the map is rendered in the manner of a strategic map that a general would have rolled out on a table in his tent, complete with dirt stains and everything. Whereas the old map was a gaudy eye-sore, the new map seems bland and washed out.

The plastic units however are much improved. The bomber is in a B-2 style as opposed to the the original that looked like a Concorde SST. The hovertanks were redesigned and now look less like the armored assault tanks the droids used in Star Wars. The only redesigns I question are the helicopters which look too science fiction. The partisan units look great with their fist held in the air in defiance, but he wears a baseball cap backwards and I always do a double take because I mistake it for excess flash from the molding process. Finally, the USA’s laser canons now look like fearsome weapons rather than something you use to watch ESPN3 on channel 6.023 x 10^23.

What IS that smell?–If there is an award for Most Malodorous Board Game, Fortress America would clinch a nomination. When you first free the plastic miniatures from their bags you are greeted with a smell that I would describe as dead skunk dipped in hot asphalt. Thankfully, this smell dissipates after a few plays and now I only smell it if I bury my nose in a handful of miniatures. (What? You guys don’t do that?)

The Rulebook–Even though I had not played Fortress America in twenty-odd years, I recalled enough of it that I was able to reacquaint myself with the rules quickly. Even then, I found myself going to BoardGameGeek forums for clarifications. I imagine that a newcomer would flounder quite a bit with this rulebook and how it is organized. It’s hard to pin down the problem because all the information is there somewhere, but my spirit sags at the thought whenever I have to find it. The upside is that once one has a firm grasp of the rules, teaching others to play is easy.

Setup Time and Space–The setup time for Fortress America is substantial which will make it a little harder to get to the table over other games. Count on about 15 minutes to go from opening the box to getting it all laid out and distributed. After that, more time is required to dole out the troops on the initial placement before turn one begins. The 33×22 map will eat up too much real estate on most coffee tables, but the upside is that if it does fit then players don’t need much extra room to operate.

Age Appropriateness–The box recommends ages 14 and up, but my 10-year old plays this with no problem. As far as the subject matter and content it is no more objectionable than when kids play “army men” and shoot each other’s plastic toys with rubber bands.

Player Interaction–Player interaction intrinsic to the gameplay is minimal. With a few minor exceptions, there is no need for the invaders (who are technically allied with one another) to confer on strategy. The West coast invader does his thing, the South his and East coast his and never the twain (thrain? what’s the archaism for "three"?) shall meet. However, because the game is relatively simple, there is plenty of fertile ground for extracurricular banter, trash-talking, etc. Good friends and a few of your preferred libations and you can have a good time.

The L-word–Ain’t no way around it, you stand or fall on your dice rolling. The invaders basically have one strategy: Forward march! Grab as many cities as you can as quickly as you can and hang on to them like grim death. Meanwhile the U.S. player hopes to draw some partisan cards that will allow him unit placement on or near a city on the front to help him hold out; or near an enemy occupied city that is poorly guarded so he can (briefly) go on offense. In spite of all the luck, the drama is often compelling. Will Philadelphia hold out? If they don’t the entire front in the Northeast will collapse and be overrun! And so on.

Plastic pushing, crowding, and border disputes
–Even with the large board and the five-units-per-territory limit, things can feel claustrophobic in those smaller territories, and recalling which units you have already moved can prove challenging. I often find myself having to clear out all the units to make sure I’m in the right place. One bad bump against the table and the plastic scatters and good luck trying to piece together where every unit was before the earthquake. Determining which territory ends and another begins is usually not difficult, but there are a few places that cause debates. Designer Michael Gray was kind enough to comment on BoardGameGeek forums in an effort to clear up the issues (see http://www.boardgamegeek.com/article/9745506#9745506)

The Verdict

If you wear a belt buckle that says “God, guns and guts made America great” and you live in a compound somewhere in the hills of Montana, run out and buy this game, paint the invader’s helicopters black and you are ready to go. The setting is the draw–The U.S. versus the World. Unfortunately, if you took this setting away and put the mechanics in another game you would have a lukewarm experience. Even with the updates, Fortress America shows its age. This game will stay in my collection and even hit the table now and again, but mostly when I have a yen for a nostalgic return to my youth when the Red Menace could be outmatched by a few well-armed teenagers.
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Bill Eldard
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Scottgun wrote:
Here I must offer a geek survival tip: Whenever discussing Fortress America, always mention Invasion America with approving tones so as to avoid an unsolicited earful from contemptuous die-hard gamers.


Actually, I've owned both Invasion: America and the MB Gamemasters edition of Fortress America since they were published, and I consider Fortress America to be the better game.
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Murray Fish
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They explained everything in detail and at great length. After they finished I sat, despondent, contemplating a bleak and empty future. "I’m glad you’re depressed" said one. "It means you’ve understood the situation.”
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Interesting review - thanks for posting.
 
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Daniel Blumentritt
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Do you remember the original enough to comment on how the balance was affected by the new edition? I found the original very balanced (further corroborated by about an equal number of people claiming it was unfair for the US as claimed it was unfair for the Invaders), but it seems like almost all the changes favored the Invaders.
 
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Bill Eldard
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Statalyzer wrote:
Do you remember the original enough to comment on how the balance was affected by the new edition? I found the original very balanced (further corroborated by about an equal number of people claiming it was unfair for the US as claimed it was unfair for the Invaders), but it seems like almost all the changes favored the Invaders.


I don't know if that question is directed at me, but in any event, I have yet to play this latest edition, so I can't make the comparison.

I do feel that the Gamemasters edition was rather balanced. It always seemed to be a very close run regardless the outcome. The US player may have a bit of an edge against 3 invading opponents if they are not cooperating strategically.
 
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Statalyzer wrote:
Do you remember the original enough to comment on how the balance was affected by the new edition? I found the original very balanced (further corroborated by about an equal number of people claiming it was unfair for the US as claimed it was unfair for the Invaders), but it seems like almost all the changes favored the Invaders.


I limited any comparisons to the original to the aesthetics in large part because I really couldn't recall the balance from way back when. Then ten-turn limit on paper seems to favor the U.S, but I think most would agree that if the invaders have not won by turn ten, they aren't going to win in 11, 12 or 20. They added Las Vegas and Colorado Springs and removed Kansas City and something else I think, making a more westward shift. I would have to play it some more but I don't think it shifts the balance to the invaders so much as gives the West Coast/South invader something to do and forces the U.S. out of the Turtle-in-the-North-East strategy.

I should have mentioned the new cards that give the invaders extra powers, but these are officially variant features. I would say these most decidedly favor the invaders. For instance, throw the reinforcement card and BAM! Suddenly an invader has over half his bomber force back from the grave.
 
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Jason Meyers
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The new Invader variant cards are a mixed bag. Some are quite good, others so-so. The main thing is that most of them require obtaining or controlling 1-4 objectives. A few of those are more difficult than it seems - I'm thinking the Western Invader, in particular. So they're cool, but come with stipulations.

As for overall balance...I always felt the US won the majority of the time in the classic version and feel the same way after a few plays of this newer version. With an experienced US player, it's really difficult for the Invaders. The combination of defense-fires-first AND removes casualties before they can fire back, coupled the invaders inability to replaces losses is harsh on them. But, black fatigue wearing Montana isolationists aside -- to follow along the theme...that's probably how it would be, anyway, for anyone dumb enough to attack North America - kind of like trying to win land wars in Asia.
 
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Darrell Hanning
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Eldard wrote:
Scottgun wrote:
Here I must offer a geek survival tip: Whenever discussing Fortress America, always mention Invasion America with approving tones so as to avoid an unsolicited earful from contemptuous die-hard gamers.


Actually, I've owned both Invasion: America and the MB Gamemasters edition of Fortress America since they were published, and I consider Fortress America to be the better game.


I think FA is a better "boardgame" for the majority of gamers, because it is easier to learn and quicker to play, but IA is hands-down a superior "wargame", because of the elements found in it that are completely missing from FA. Of course, more detail and more complexity in IA means heavier rules (although pretty darn light for a wargame), and a longer playing time.

To the OP, congratulations on avoiding an unsolicited earful from this die-hard gamer.

BTW, the original, MB version of FA had no noxious odor.
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Dan The Man
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Scottgun wrote:
The L-word–Ain’t no way around it, you stand or fall on your dice rolling. The invaders basically have one strategy: Forward march! Grab as many cities as you can as quickly as you can and hang on to them like grim death.

I can confidently state that the above strategy will result in a US win way more than 80% of the time (and the 20% losses ARE due to dice)!

The US wins (MB) by retaking poorly-held cities and acquiring cards for additional reinforcements, not by turtling anywhere. This both costs the invader and gains reinforcements, a double win for the US.

Maybe with a 10-turn limit there might be more emphasis on invader pacing, but only for territory (and always aiming at removing laser installations).

Each city invasion should be a decision of:
1. Can I take it?
2. Can I gain a good trade of units (take it or not)?
3. Can I hold it?
4. What price can I expect to extract for its loss?

4 is rarely a viable option, because of the reinforcement cards, though it does happen to the best-laid plan. One can hope the reinforcements come in somewhere innocuous, of course.

Cities are best surrounded or at least isolated before taking. Territory needs to be taken, US units need to be removed, but cities should be taken in bunches, hopefully in coordination with the other invaders, thoughtfully, with a plan, not "as quickly as possible." Do take the "...hang on to them like grim death." statement as gospel!
 
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That's a fair point Dan. I think I alluded to what you point out when I talked about the die rolling and the need to attack from multiple territories to overcome the defender-fires-first/combined arms advantage. A better way I could have put it was that invaders do have enough time, but no time to waste.
 
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Daniel Blumentritt
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Quote:
Then ten-turn limit on paper seems to favor the U.S, but I think most would agree that if the invaders have not won by turn ten, they aren't going to win in 11, 12 or 20.


One great thing about the original was it didn't need a time limit, but still basically had one. At some point, if the Invader hadn't won they would just give up as they would keep getting weaker and weaker and eventually run out of steam and don't have a chance.

Normally the Invaders don't want to take cities they can't hold, but often near the very end they have to because it's their last hope, e.g. "if we don't win this turn we won't win regardless, so let's try and get every last city we can and hope they can't recapture enough". But if you switch to that mode too early, you're giving the USA lots of extra reinforcements.

I remember one game where the bad guys got to 18+ cities in FOUR consecutive turns (once getting as high as 21 I believe) and each time the US would knock them down to 16 or 17, and finally the Invaders just had nothing left. It was close every time, because despite all the benefits from those extra cards, having to so manically counterattack multiple cities a turn was grinding up the American forces faster than they were getting new ones, but eventually the Invaders not getting any new ones at all did them in.
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Wim Goezinnen
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Thanks for the great info about this great game.cool
 
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