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Subject: It's Not Just Glorified Risk! rss

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Anthony Simons
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Royal Wootton Bassett
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In 1972 a crack commando squad was sent to prison by a military court for a crime they did not commit. Approximately twenty years later, I salvaged my old copy of Fortress America from the ravages of my kid brothers and sisters. I was one of the lucky ones; thanks to MB Games’ policy of including sufficient extra bits on the sprues to cover the many pieces that had found their way into the vacuum cleaner, the dog and my kid brothers and sisters.

In Vietnam the average age of the combat soldier was just nineteen; but when I got the game I was just eighteen. It had been reduced in the January sales in our local Woolworths and just the look of it blew me away. I bought a copy with my Christmas money and a gift voucher – as I recall it had been reduced to ten pounds from twenty or more; a bargain even back then. My friends came around for a game and they loved it; this was our first exposure to the Gamemaster series and was followed up by one of my friends obtaining both Ikusa and Axis & Allies – but that’s another story.

It’s about twenty-five years since Argentine forces invaded the Falkland Islands and the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, sent a task force to take them back again. Coincidentally, I played my first game of Fortress America in twenty years the Wednesday just gone. I had forgotten just how exciting the game was; but more importantly my two opponents were experiencing an excitement and challenge they hadn’t experienced before.

The background for Fortress America is a dark future scenario (the end of the twentieth century – remember, this game was published in 1986) in which the United States of America has become isolated from the rest of the world, whose eyes have turned upon their free soil (and rich resources). Unfortunately for the Americans, they have been spending a little less on defence recently and their navy has hence been rendered ineffective against the greedy eyes of Europe, Asia and South America. America is attacked on three sides and must hold out long enough for the invaders’ attacks to lose their impetus. The invaders must not only crush the capitalist scum, but also make sure they have the best portion of the USA when the war is over.

At first glance this game (and perhaps all of the games in this classic series of games) looks like a Risk clone; but it is far from it, I can assure you. For a kick-off, your reinforcements are limited; for seconds there is a specific goal on both sides and then of course there is the staple of the Gamemaster series – the differing unit types. In Fortress America all armies are divided into three subtypes – infantry, mechanised and air units. Each has their own advantages of movement, but in addition the unit type dictates which casualties it can inflict in what order and also the order in which they do battle. It is a system I can only describe as simple-but-clever and is elegant enough to maintain the flow, simple enough to avoid constant chart reference (something its sister game, Axis & Allies cannot boast, unfortunately).

The units are made interestingly futuristic but not too futuristic; with infantry, mobile, helicopter and bomber units. The only let-down for me was with respect to the crazy idea of a “hovertank” – a kind of heavily-armoured hovercraft. It’s not so ridiculous really, but I would have thought a simple tank would have sufficed (it’s units like this that get games like this that awful “Ameritrash” label!). The nitpicker in me also questions the ability of helicopters to out-fly bombers (often occurred during our game) but I guess the helicopters here are rather more “Airwolf” than air cav! A heavily-abstracted system such as this needs no excuses, however, and such trivia is meaningless.

But the real cleverness in this design is the method by which the heavily-opposed US of A is balanced against the invaders. First, the USA gets to deploy every one of its army units onto the board, while invaders are presented in waves of reinforcements.
Second, the USA has developed laser weapons which fire from orbit; every turn they get an extra ground station. These are potent weapons which can wipe out any single unit on the map (if they hit their target, of course); not too potent – only one laser can target a particular territory (or rather a unit within that territory) per turn.

Third, the invaders have to fight for every bit of land – even the empty territories must be taken and held, so even though an invader suffers no loss during such an advance they are forced to move slowly from region to region.

Fourth is the logistic restriction on the invader; it’s a pretty standard rule but should a link with their landing zone be lost any separated units are lost – something for both sides to be aware of.

Finally, there is a deck of cards from which the USA player draws two per turn; these introduce partisan units (special units exclusive to the US player), reinforcements and other events which mar the invaders’ progress. Should the US player be fortunate enough to recapture a city fallen into enemy hands, an extra card is drawn!

The result of this interesting design is that as the invaders spread out inland, the advantage they have gradually thins out while the defender gradually improves in effectiveness. Thus as the game progresses, the invading forces need to ensure the defending US player cannot take advantage and build up his strength.

One would think that surely such a balance within a boardgame where three players are set against one would be difficult to achieve; but this game achieves it well. Not only does the level of escalation of the USA meet the spread of the invader halfway, it is done in such a fashion that every decision (whether you are on the offensive or the defensive), strategic or tactical, is meaningful. You can never really be certain which side is strongest until you can smell the victory (or the defeat!), and that for me makes this game one of the best designs of its type. It’s a damn shame this game was never reprinted; but perhaps it will be in the near future. We’ve seen Axis & Allies revamped, we’ve seen Conquest of the Empire rewritten, I think it’s about time this excellent game saw a reprint. And ever interested in change, perhaps with some more interesting and/or realistic units rather than the comic-book ones we were given!
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Neil Palfreyman
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An excellent review of a great game.

As one of the two aforementioned opponents I would agree pretty much with everything written, including the level of excitement generated by the game.

Before playing I had no idea what it would be like, having read little or nothing about it, but seeing the board and all the units waiting to be deployed got me itching to start (but you know I'm a sucker for games with bits!)

One of the biggest surprises for me was the invader team wining! At the start I thought that 18 cities captured would be nigh-on impossible and even though as the game progressed I saw chinks of light it wasn't really until the last three or so rounds that I saw victory as an invader as a real possibility.

But I imagine the USA player (Tony) felt an even more heightened level of desperation seeing wave upon wave of invaders crashing onto his shores.

Certainly not a Risk clone and due for a re-print - I would be at the start of the queue to buy it.
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Read the rulebook, plan for all contingencies, and…read the rulebook again.
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Fortress America is a fantastic game. I think the system itself was ripe for use for other scenarios. For example, since the game situation is almost identical to SPI's Inavasion: America, I was hoping there would someday be another FA equivalent for SPI's Objective: Moscow. For those that have never played FA, AH/Hasbro's new Battle of the Bulge game can deliver a suprisingly similar game experience. (Combat is quite a bit different, however.)
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Bill Eldard
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BradyLS wrote:
Fortress America is a fantastic game. I think the system itself was ripe for use for other scenarios. For example, since the game situation is almost identical to SPI's Inavasion: America, I was hoping there would someday be another FA equivalent for SPI's Objective: Moscow. For those that have never played FA, AH/Hasbro's new Battle of the Bulge game can deliver a suprisingly similar game experience. (Combat is quite a bit different, however.)


Unlike a re-release of Fortress America, I think an FA version of Objective: Moscow wouldn't have nearly enough market appeal these days, since the USSR has been dead for over 15 years.

However, what if the system were modified to accommodate a global map (ala Axis & Allies) and as many as 6 players in a Clash of Civilizations theme? Based on the writings of Samuel Huntington, the players would represent

The West (US, Canada, EU, Australia, NZ)

The East (Russia, the Slavic states sans Poland)

Sino-centric (China, the Koreas, SE Asia)

Islam (the Maghreb, Fertile Crescent, Arabian peninsula and Gulf States, Pakistan, Indonesia, etc.)

The Sub-continent (India)

Japan

There would naturally be asymmetry built into the various powers, taking into consideration their resources, cultures of innovation, etc. For example, the Islam player's tanks and aircraft may be more expensive to build, but cheaper to operate. Countries with large manpower reserves (China, India) can build lots of cheap infantry to offset the tech advantages of the West.

What do you think?
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Sounds great!
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Anthony Simons
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That does sound great; but it doesn't sound like the game will behave much like Fortress America. It seems it might be a bit more like every man for himself rather than three players against one; I haven't read the books to which you refer, though, so I can't really say.

Even though I don't think it would make another Fortress America, it does sound like it would make a great game.
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