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Subject: Fortress America--Best of the Gamemaster series? rss

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Overview

In the mid 80's, Milton Bradley entered the wargaming arena at the height of the hobby's popularity. Their offerings were designed to bridge a gap between the simple Risk and the traditionally complex SPI and Avalon Hill fare. The games were colorful, with little plastic miniatures rather than counters. The most enduring of the series was Axis and Allies which now has 1096 variants at last count. This review covers one of the less popular of the group.

Fortress America posits a near future in which George W. Bush has alienated the world to such a degree that EVERYONE decides to revolt and invade the United States. Or something like that. Actually, the storyling is strongly reminiscent of the movie, Red Dawn, and the late 70's SPI game, Invasion America.

The game plays 2-4 players though 3 is rather awkward and solitaire play is quite doable. The first game might take as much as 6 hours with a green crew and a full roster, but most should be decided in 3 or 4.

The Bits:

The map is standard size of high quality, mounted on heavy cardboard. Depicted is a somewhat stylized map of the United States divided into a series of mountainous and flat areas with 30 cities spread from coast to coast. There are also "resource areas", of the mineral, agricultural, and petroleum persuasions which are worth victory points but otherwise do not affect gameplay much. Canada is not represented. Each of the three invaders has a series of invasion zones which border the United States spaces: The Yellow Asiatics set up in the Pacific Ocean, the Blue Hispanics in Mexico and the Gulf, and the Red Eurosocialists in the Atlantic.

The pieces are color coded for each nationality and include cute miniature bombers, helicopters, hover tanks, roligons (mechanized infantry), soldiers, and partisans. The game also comes with a great many d6s, d8s, and d10s--a feature which made this an attractive purchase for roleplayers of the time.

Gameplay:

Initially, the invaders and Americans get 60 units apiece of varying kinds, with the attackers splitting the force three ways. Thus, the game starts out pretty even. The American player sets up first. After the first turn, each enemy gets 8 more reinforcements per turn for the next five turns. American reinforcements are more variable. Each turn, the American player draws two "Partisan" cards which generate new troops or restore old ones. In addition, the American places a new Tesla Coil-esque Laser facility in any unoccupied city.

There are two movement phases which bracket a combat phase. Infantry can only move on second movement while the roligons and tanks can move twice (though never into an enemy controlled space on their first movement). Helicopters move two per phase, and have the special ability of taking unoccupied enemy controlled spaces--a great way to secure territory. Bombers move four and can fly over enemy occuped spaces to aid in attack. There is a stacking limit of five units per space which can result in quite a traffic jam where infantry are involved.

Combat is done by the "bucket of dice" method made popular by this series. Defenders fire first with each unit rolling its own die. Infantry, Partisans (working with a group), and Roligons roll on a d6. Hovertanks and Helicopters roll on a d8. Bombers roll a mighty d10. Defenders need a 5+ to eliminate an attacker. Infantry must eliminate infatry first, mobile units can choose between mobile and infantry casualties, and air units can eliminate any units they want.

Attackers combatting a city or mountainous space have to roll a 6 or higher unless they have at least one of each type of unit (infantry, mobile, and air) in the attack. This is called "combined arms". If the initial defender roll destroys all of the units of a type, combined arms is lost. Attackers may attack from any number of adjacent hexsides. However, different players can never aid each other. Despite the common goal of the invaders, they are, in fact, enemies.

The United States gets some special combatants. Lone partisans defend with a d8. Also, American lasers attack on the American turn before combat with a d10 anywhere on the map, but only one laser per space. By the end of the game, the 6-7 lasers striking deep into the enemy each turn becomes quite effective.

If a player has units in an enemy controlled but unoccupied space at the end of the game, control is transferred. Invaders must then make sure each unit has a chain of controlled territories leading back to their landing zone of origin (invaders cannot share each other's suppy lines!). Isolated units are destroyed.

The Americans draw an extra partisan card for each city they retake on their turn...

The Americans lose the game when the Invaders have 18 cities by the end of a turn. The Invaders then get an extra turn to fight amongst themselves for the most victory points (cities, destroyed lasers, and resource spaces).

Review

This is definitely the game in the series I have played the most. Perhaps it's the fun theme or the familiar landscape but I find it more appealing than the bland Conquest of the Empire, or the somehow unsastisfying Shogun, or the unbalanced Axis and Allies. Balance in this game is excellent, often with the game going into the seventh turn (the first without any invader reinforcements and the last turn the invaders really have a chance) without either size knowing who the winner will be.

There's enough strategy here to make it a real wargame yet the lack of complexity and the attractive components could attract persons to the hobby who might otherwise avoid it. The lack of a foregone conclusion in determining the winner until the very end means one never feels that foreboding disillusionment that comes when one realizes early on that all is lost. There is a lot of randomness to this game, but one never feels as if they don't have control of their destiny--rather that they are taking part in an exciting, highly variable narrative.

8 out of 10
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RJD
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Nice review!

This is my personal "Gamemaster" favorite too. And like you mention, it's always felt the most well balanced of the series; America or the Invaders, I've seen both sides regularly eke out vicories. And it's nearly always very close.

The best part being how the handling of reinforcements in the game (massive at first but ever dwindling for the Invaders and sparse at first but ever growing for the American player) has always given it a strong countdown feeling; it works wonderfully at building the tension higher and higher as the game progresses, just like you would hope for in a game of this sort.

I love this game.
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Les Marshall
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Horsepucky!!!

I have all of the gamemaster series and have played them. Fortress America is very thematic and diverting but, Axis & Allies is by far the most rewarding in terms of play depth.

First, the board is the only one (Conqest of Empire slight exception) with naval component being a key part of strategic planning.

Second, economics is far more difficult to manage in A&A with greater range of unit choices, theatres of conflict and technology advances.

AS far as A&A being unbalanced, I have found no difficulty winning as either the Axis or the Allies despite many replays. This game only suffers in the category of multiplayer utility. It really should be a two player game as playing the US alone is fairly dull.

Shogun and Conquest are really more multi player in their approach. Fortress America nods to multi player status but, if the Americans pick on you enough, you cannot win as one of the invaders.
 
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Barry Kendall
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FA is fun to play and reasonably well-balanced for two. In a multiplayer, the American can indeed play spoiler for one or more Invader players, but besides this, the Eastern Invader (the red guy) has a tough time of it with the defensible Appalachians and the concentration of defenders he'll face.

The game would have been more interesting if the three invading entities had some organizational and weapons system differences to distinguish them instead of making them identical.

From a physical presentation standpoint, I wish MB had used prototypical minis rather than imaginary (they would have made tasty morsels for a homemade "modern A&A" variant).

The biggest problem is that after a couple of games, even with the variability of the reinforcement cards, things go in a rather predictable manner.

Original A&A had a great deal more variety to it, the economic/build factors as well as unit interactions kept things interesting and, as was mentioned, there's a naval game as well (much improved in the newer games in the series, Europe, Pacific and A&A II).

"Broadsides & Boarding Parties" was the real near-miss of the series. The original map-and-counters version was much better (six guns per side rather than five, "musketeers" (Marines) as well as sailors in the crew). B&BP would have benefitted from a American Revolution/Napoleonic/War of 1812 approach rather than the earlier galleon style--ships would have actually fit in the box after assembly, crew would not have slid down sloping decks, and the space and plastic saved would have allowed a large and a small ship per side in the box--or even the option of one-large-vs-two-small (Constitution vs HMS Cyane and HMS Levant, for instance) scenarios.

"Conquest of the Empire" was fun, although the catapults rule was fouled up compared to Larry Harris' original "VI Caesars" design.

The best overall as a game, in my view, was Shogun/Samurai Swords. Although Feudal Japan is not high in my list of interests, the game is very well balanced, replayable, and tense. Periodwise I prefer the topic of A&A, but I think both A&A and Shogun were superior to FA if for no other reason than the variability of strategies from game to game.

I will concede that FA is a good relaxed shoot-things-up-and-take-ground game, and I wouldn't cull any of the series from my collection until I'm too old and feeble to pick up the bits.
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Robert Wesley
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Well...to begin with, there's NO 'mention' about the "Lasers" for ONE of the 'bits' included-and fortunately, nothing about 'mounting' such upon "frikkin SHARKS", nor does this state upon the "City" ones either. HOW does anyone 'figure' that THIS has "bucket-'O'-dice"? Perhaps a "handful" at the MOST, since EACH of the '3' types of "Units" will "FIRE" separately, then you don't wield very many for it all. Also, having a "Unit" occupying an "enemy Controlled territory" at the END of their current "Turn" and NOT the "end of the GAME", will transfer 'ownership', just as long as that 'place' had been "targetted" for THIS beforehand. You couldn't JUST "move into" somewheres even if it were 'empty', as you HAVE to indicate your intentions by having a "BATTLE" marker denote this. While where you have 'Units' that could possibly "Attack" into several locales from the SAME "Area" that they are within, then you MUST show where any, or several, are GOING for. And just what IS so 'cute' about these 'bits'? They ought to have HAD them "rigs" from that "Damnation Alley" movie for the 'Mobile Units' in this, and THOSE would have been "swe-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-eet!"
"the MORE you KNOW...you LESS you HAVE to LEARN!..."

surprise
 
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Brad Miller
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Yep, Shogun is the best of the bunch. It's pretty simple to house rule Conquest of the Empire's catapults enough to make then non-overpowering, then it's a pretty net game as well.
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Jason Jullie
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Well, for the longest time I swore up and down that Shogun/Samurai Swords was the best of this bunch. This opinion changed in recent years due to my exposure to new games and veiwing these older titles in a new light.

Within the past 4 months or so, I have played A&A, Shogun, and Fortress America a couple of times. While I enjoyed playing all of them a great deal, I found myself enjoying Fortress America the most. A&A might simply be "overplayed" for me. Back in high school we played this one to death and things seem very scripted for me in that game. Shogun is great for it's multiplayer chaos, but the last game we played suffered from an extremely long end game.

Fortress America seemed the most fun for a couple of reasons. 1. The theme is great. 2. There is a built in time clock for the game. 3. Despite my intial impressions, there are several viable strategies for all parties. Though, these viable strategies might boil down after time much like A&A has for me.

Anyway, they are all great games. Also, anyone who enjoys any of these 3 (esp. Shogun), owes it to themselves to pick up Blood Feud in New York before it's too late. Right now it's one of my favorite games to play. Simply a blast with the A&A crowd.
 
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Nathan Baumbach
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Axis and Allies also has a very programmed series of opening moves, to me. If you don't do this as the Nazis, Russia and England will come and do THIS to you, most likely causing you to fail by turn ##.

Everytime I play FA, the opening moves are not so critical, as wins/loses by the Invaders can change everything in a heartbeat. The US has to fight a defensive and protracted war against the Invaders, knowing where and when to fight or abandon cities for better defense. What do you use your lasers on this turn? Where do you dispatch those partisan units to when you get them?

The partisan cards also add some chaos to the order of play.

Maybe I'm like the dude above me and I overplayed Axis and Allies, but my A&A game has stayed on the bottom of the closet pile for the last ten years, and I've actually played both Shogun and FA in the last year. So I have to argue that Axis and Allies is a better game with more "depth." Sea battles do not a better game make.

 
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Robert Stetler
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Dignan wrote:
Well, for the longest time I swore up and down that Shogun/Samurai Swords was the best of this bunch.


I was in the same boat for a while, until it finally dawned on me that the game usually boiling down to the two players who managed to secure the opposite ends of the board early wasn't necessarily a good thing.

Most of the games I've played and won were a result of quickly securing the southern island or (slightly more often) the northern section of the main island. The games I've lost have almost always been after failing one of the above pre-objectives, and having failed to secure a defensible area ended up quickly being gobbled up on multiple flanks. I've won games, or seen them won by others, by managing to secure a power base around Kii - but very rarely, as the end result is usually just being nibbled to death on both ends (its tough to pull out of the way to let the two other players kill each other and still have any real income to take advantage of the results). Most of the time failure to quickly secure one end of the board meant losing the game. While new players might not recognize being stuck in the middle of the board usually relegates them to the role of spoiler at best and Daimyo target practice at worst, I'm no longer willing to spend 6 hours playing a game where the two potential winners are usually decided in 1-2 hours.

My opinion of the game now puts it below FA (my favorite of the series) and A&A (with the usual tournament balancing rules added). Its got definite merits, and can be a real blast with the right crowd, but the luck of the cards initial placement can go a long way to deciding the game's eventual outcome. The nasty jockeying for positions and power bases early in the game is very reflective of the game's historical background, though.
 
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Vern Ryan
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I'd still have to go with Shogun being the best game of the series.

The experience point system for the general and his armies made such a huge difference in the games I played. Once you are able to march and fight multiple battles, allowing you to bring three seperate armies to bear down on one the game becomes incredibly exciting with huge tactical decisions made on where you leave your armies.

I only played Fortress America a few times but it felt very bland in comparions to either Shogun or A&A. Less important decisions to be made on where to attack or who to fight.
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John Hurtt

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An excellent review (though I have to agree with Wesley that "bucket of dice" was a bit exaggerated.) I only have two nitpicks:

Turn 7?! Well, maybe if the USA player has had a great game and the Invaders have all been tripping over their toes. In the majority of the games I've played, the invaders build up through turn 6, then proceed forward on momentum as the USA player desperately tries to hold onto his remaining 13 cities over the next several turns. The shortest game I've played was 9 turns (the invaders had horrible luck) and the longest was 16 with the USA player just managing to capture back that 13th city 5 turns in a row before the invaders finally gave up.

"Play Balance" is a bit of a misnomer here I think. "Self-Destruct" might be a better tag. People who play FA mistake the fact that, one way or the other, a game of FA WILL be over in a dozen or so turns with it being "balanced". Don't let me mislead you here. I happen to think Fortress America IS balanced -but not because it's guaranteed to end within a certain time-frame of turns. That's just a clever "self-destruct" game mechanism in my opinion. I think that FA is balanced in that the "capture and hold 18 cities until the end of a USA turn" victory condition is just about spot on. Best of all, if one side or the other is winning too consistently, just raise (or lower) the amount of cities that need to be captured.

In my opinion, of the five major MB Gamemaster series: A&A gives you the best strategic/tactical challenge. Shogun (or Samurai Swords) is the best "balanced" game. And Fortress America is the most "fun" game of the bunch. Others have waxed far more wisdom about the blandness of Conquest of the Empire and the pointlessness of Broadsides and Boarding Parties than I could possibly do. So I will just leave well enough alone.
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Scott Randolph
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No, absolutely no. While Fortress America is indeed an enjoyable, fun, reasonably well-balanced, original, and very well produced game, it does not hold even a tiny candle to the premiere game in the MB Gamemaster series: Shogun, aka Samurai Swords. Shogun, or Samurai Swords as it was later named, elegantly demonstrates, without the "telephone-book sized," voluminous, fussy, tendentious rule books of old AH games, the nine principles of war:
1. Draw Swords (bid for) = Offensive (aka "Initiative")
2. Experienced generals = Maneuver
3. Mass = moving to gather and concentrate units is as important as having the koku/coin to buy them; a logistics principle ("Amateurs talk Tactics, Professionals Talk Logistics")
4. Surprise = hidden Ronin mercenaries or Ninja Strike
5. Economy of Force = Castles and Fortresses, especially along coastal regions, demonstrate how a small number of defenders carefully emplaced, allow a commander to maneuver a larger assault force elsewhere
6. Unity of Command = [1] Shogun (you), + [3] Daimyo's (generals), + minor unit leaders (Provincial Forces, of 5 units or less)
7. Objective = you must know your goal: 32 provinces, or General/Army elimination, or Monetary/Superior Koku Attrition over time
8. Security = have you consolidated a defensible perimeter, could one of your Armies be eliminated by a sudden surge of mercenary Ronin unable to maneuver due to also being disabled by a Ninja strike, do others see your plans when committing koku in the planning phase
9. Simplicity = does your koku investment, your unit moves, your defensive structures purchased or declined, your chosen attacks, your one turn units purchased (Ronin or Ninja, or both) support a rational, simple, consistent purpose
 
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Robert Wesley
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While YOU can 'make' of this in whatever context you wish to 'take' it as, but there hasn't BEEN anything 'done' in regards to updating "Shogun/Samurai Swords", other than for the NAME change! Except for "Broadsides & Boarding Parties", then the others have undergone either completely NEW versions, or have had yet some other "devised" and implemented or contrived editions concerning these. That alone speaks volumes in HOW this is better received than no matter what anyone else declares!
 
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Jason Jullie
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kevinx wrote:
Turn 16? That's just crazy.

A game is usually decided by turn 6, sometimes 7.


Well, owning this game and playing it several times, I can say that I've never seen a game decided by turn 6. I'm not sure how the balance of the game can be determined before the invaders are able to bring their entire force to bear on the last few US cities. Turn 6 represents the last invader troops arriving on the coast. It usually takes at least a turn or two before they are brought to the final battles in the interior.

I guess the outcome could be determined by this time if one side has had extremely poor dice rolls, but that would be a rarity (in my experience).

 
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Kent B
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I have played A&A, FA, and Shogun, many times each and my favorite is FA. As to the strategies being the same every game...no, they aren't. Sometimes Dallas is harder to take than New Orleans. Sometimes, West cant seem to be able to hold onto Salt lake City. Sometimes, East tries to drive north towards new York....sometimes they are crushed in their tracks.
There are so many things that can happen that it is never played the same way twice.
I really enjoy it, as it can be easily learned in two games (great for introducing newcomers to military boardgaming) yet it is very deep in strategy. Do you divide your forces with a chance to take more cities quickly, or do you work from one objective to the next?

All in all, Fortress America is my favorite of the Game Master series followed by Shogun and Axis and Allies. (tie for second place)

P.S. Usually when we play, the game is decided by turn 8.
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Stephen Stewart
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emceekhan wrote:
Axis and Allies also has a very programmed series of opening moves, to me. If you don't do this as the Nazis, Russia and England will come and do THIS to you, most likely causing you to fail by turn ##.


Absolutely, this is why I will never play this game again. TOO SCRIPTED.


I love the mechanism in FA where the defender fires and inflicts damage FIRST!!!! Plus each unit uses its specific "attack" die. More powerful units have a better chance at a kill. Everyone needs a 5, but when units are uses d6,d8, and d10 it changes it up a bit.

Game is designed well and gives a feeling of foreboding when your last wave of reinforcements come on.
 
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