Click this link to read the original Danish review on our site Joypad.dk
This review is the first in our new series where we review tabletop wargames.
Usually we are a videogame site, but all of us working there are quite fond of board games, so for a long time it has been a goal for us to begin doing board game reviews as well.
However, we didn’t want to just review the games that anyone else is reviewing, instead we wanted to focus on wargames. First, these tie in nicely with our pc strategy game reviews and articles, and on top of that we think the wonderful world of wargames needs more attention from our readers.
And on top of that we hope the more experienced wargamers will enjoy reading a different take on their genre.
Without further a do this is our review of Fort Sumter: The Secession Crisis, 1860-61.
Here on Joypad.dk we are quite fond of board games, but so far we have only focused on videogames. Well folks! That changes now!
In stead of reviewing the more main stream board games, we want to open your eyes for a very different genre of games: Conflict Simulations or in other words Wargames.
These games often simulate or let you partake in different significant historical conflicts.
It is a very fascinating genre, especially if you enjoy games like Europa Universalis, Ultimate General, Total War etc. on the PC.
Often these games are huge and sprawling epics, but sometimes a title comes along that tries to boil everything down to a lunchbreak size.
This is the case for Fort Sumter: The Secession Crisis, 1860-61 (henceforth referred to as Fort Sumter), which we will look at in this review.
Fort Sumter is designed by Mark Herman and published by GMT Games.
The theme of the game is based around the Secession Crisis, which occurred in the US after Lincoln had won the election and a few states, with South Carolina as the first, wanted to cut themselves off from the Union.
Mostly the crisis was born from disagreement about whether having slaves should remain legal or not. Lincoln wanted to put and end to the slave business, but the Secessionists wanted to keep the act of having slave workers legal.
This is obviously an oversimplification of the conflict and its occurrence, but luckily with the game comes a Playbook, that has a section dedicated to a short but concise explanation of said crisis.
A very nice little detail that is pure joy for the inner history nerd in us.
That isn’t all though. For each card in the game, the booklet contains a summary of the portrayed person, occurrence or place and their part in the conflict.
This was never needed for the game to work but adds spice and flavor to it.
Speaking of components, everything is of the highest quality. The board is thick and sturdy. The cards are of great quality and even the cubes in the game a big and sturdy.
I often have the issue with cube heavy games, that the cubes are small and fiddly and seem of low quality, well the opposite is thankfully the case here.
To learn the game, you have two small booklets. The Play book, which apart from the history facts also contains and playthrough game. Following along this playthrough makes it very easy to understand how the game functions mechanically.
Not that this is needed though, since the rulebook is excellent.
Its well written and every rule is clearly explained and laid out in a manor that makes understanding easy.
There was no time where I needed to consult the internet for rules clarifications, everything was clearly formulated and the edge cases that might have brought confusion where described in further detail with the use of parentheses.
Now components can only get you so far, the most important part of any game is the gameplay.
Let’s look at that now.
As I mentioned earlier Fort Sumter is a smaller game and is playable in less then 30 minutes.
The designer Mark Herman has explained in a few interviews that he got the idea for Fort Sumter, by playing the game 13 Days. 13 Days is a game that tries to reduce the game Twilight Struggle down to 30 minutes.
Twilight Struggle itself can easily take 3+ hours to get through, so reducing it by so much was quiet a task.
I have to say, though, that the game largely succeeds in giving a similar feel in less time, however I always had the issue with 13 days that it just made me want to play Twilight Struggle, instead of 13 days.
Something was severely missing in the experience for me and I never felt 13 days was its own thing.
Thankfully I do not feel the same about Fort Sumter.
Let us walk through the different phases of the game and I will illustrate why I feel this way.
The overall goal of Fort Sumter is to get the most victory points. The way to get these, differ between the different phases, but mostly they come from holding different Crisis Dimensions (three spaces that share color and iconography).
As the above picture shows the amount of spaces is limited and the point difference at the end of the game is usually 1 to 2 points at most.
The way to gain control over a space is through playing strategy cards from your hand.
These cards allow you to take your cubes, either from the crisis track (track at the left side of the board) or from your own cube bank.
Each round follows the following pattern:
Each player is handed 4 strategy cards and 2 objective cards.
Now the players secretly choose one of these objective cards for the round.
Once the round is over this objective card, if you succeed in completing the objective, allow you certain benefits, such as victory points or being able to move around cubes in each Crisis Dimension.
Once the players have chosen objective cards and placed these fac e down it is time to play your strategy cards.
As mentioned these cards allow you to move cubes onto the board.
At the beginning of the game your cube pool or bank is empty and thus you are forced to take them from the crisis track.
This is interesting and important because of the effect the crisis track has on the game.
The crisis track itself has several colored spaces. If you have emptied one of the spaces and are forced to take cubes from the next space different effects will occur.
When you enter the first two spaces you will get a small number of extra cubes for your pool, however your opponent will get to place the Piece Commissioner meeple.
The Piece Commissioner puts the space it is placed in on lockdown, and until it is removed via events or due to the final crisis beginning it is impossible to add or remove cubes from the given space.
Obviously, this is a incredible power that you really do not want to give the opponent. Not only can you lock down a space and secure control with it, but you could also lock down a large group of cubes that the other player might have placed in space and thus forcing him to further escalate the crisis track.
If you escalate into the final crisis space you will gain a higher number of cubes for your pool, but at the same time you lose a victory point, and in a game where the win is usually down to 1 or 2 points that is a huge loss.
But during the final scoring you gain a point for having 3 or more cubes more than your opponent, so maybe you believe losing the point now is worth it due to getting more pressure on the board and having a larger pool.
Once each player has plaid 3 of their 4 strategy cards the last one is placed face down and reserved for the Final Crisis part of the game.
This final part of the game is activated, either after playing 3 rounds or if a player escalates into the third space on the Crisis track, however we will return to this phase of the game later.
Before we get to that we need to talk about the phase that occurs after each round of card play. The Pivotal Space Bonus phase.
Within each Crisis Dimension there is one space that is a Pivotal Space.
If you control this area once you reach the Pivotal Space Bonus phase you will get to move or remove up to two cubes within that Crisis Dimension. The key part here being that you get to choose between your own or your opponent’s cubes.
Again, a huge advantage and something that cannot be ignored if you wish to do well int the game.
Maybe you get to remove a few of your opponents’ cubes, suddenly giving you control over the entire crisis dimension and thus scoring a point in the scoring phase, or maybe you get to move a cube or two of your own and with that making sure your opponent will have a much harder time gaining control in a later round.
However, this power is not possible to use in a space where the Piece Commissioner has been placed, so again we see how the different parts of the game all come together.
After the Pivotal Space Bonus phase, we get to a scoring phase where we score a point for each crisis dimension we have control over.
Once three rounds have been plaid or a player has breached the Final Crisis part of the Crisis Track, we get to the aforementioned Final Crisis phase.
Now the strategy cards we reserved in each round come into play.
At the bottom of every strategy card one of the crisis dimensions is depicted.
Now each player puts the cards in the order he wants, and we flip one at a time.
When flipped we compare the crisis dimension on each players card. If they match the players must either remove one of his tokens from a space of that location or remove two of his tokens from any space or spaces.
If the locations don’t match the players get to move up to two of their tokens from any space and/or their token pool into one or two spaces that match the played crisis dimension type.
The first time I played the game this part of the game and what cards to reserve earlier in the game felt very random and I feared this part was tacked on without really being a crucial part of the rest of the game.
But after multiple plays I began to see the overarching pattern between all the phases.
I realized how crucial this Final Crisis was to the victory. Would I try to avoid the crisis dimensions I was going for to ensure I didn’t have to remove a cube from one of them?
Would I play offensively and try to match with my opponent, maybe forcing them to remove cubes from a specific dimension.
Or would I dump some cubes in a dimension that I didn’t care about and then trying to put my final crisis towards that to ensure I didn’t loose cubes from my focus locations? Or something completely different.
The amount of ways to utilize the Final Crisis began to open for me and I saw the brilliance in it.
Suddenly every single round in a game was an intense nail biter, where on the edge of my seat I was forced into difficult decisions on which cards to play and which to reserve.
What in the first few games seemed like straight forward choices, now where much more involved. I could see ways to force myself into spaces later or trapping my opponent if I tried to bluff or play the long game. And now from being a completely tactical game, it evolved into a mix of tactics and strategy.
At this point Fort Sumter evolved from a series of interesting color splats into a gorgeous motif.
Every phase in the game feel like a crucial part of the overarching design. Nothing feels redundant or like filler or tacked on.
On every round I was forced into deep interesting choices, not allowed to only focus on my own plan, but forced into interaction with my opponent in the best possible way.
Despite a playtime under 30 minutes we where in countless infights on the board and even the slightest mistake could or even would cost you the game.
Like I mentioned earlier one of my main qualms with shorter filler type games, is that I don’t feel fulfilled by them. They often feel lacking and just make me wish I was playing a more complete game.
This is far from the case with Fort Sumter. When I have finished a game of Fort Sumter I want to play Fort Sumter again, and again, and again.
But where Fort Sumter truly shines is being able to contain the feeling of intense pressure and a brutal escalation into a so mechanically simple game.
The feeling of rise in tension and escalation towards the end is a nice abstract simulation of the historical theme it covers.
And the game is truly simple to play. It doesn’t take more than two minutes to explain the game to new players, but mastering the game is a long journey.
I tried to play the game with my wife as well, just to test the waters with someone who normally has no interest in wargames, or games that have a historical theme, and she fell in love with it.
After our first play together, she immediately wanted to play again and to quote her directly: “This is fantastic, I haven’t had this much fun in a board game in a long time.”
In other words, this is a game that should belong in any gaming household. It is simply one of the best two player games every created. And especially when we look at games of this length it stands at the very top.
This is a masterclass in how to design a game of short length but with great depth, and every designer who wants to create a fast playing game with a big feel to it should take notes from Fort Sumter.
At Joypad.dk we are happy to welcome Fort Sumter into our very small and exclusive group of games that receive a perfect score.