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Subject: FORTRESS (1985) short review: Luxury boardgame packs excellent fantasy play rss

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FORTRESS was a boardgame put out by Hal Leggett (Leggett Games), an independent game designer who lived (lives?) north of the Toronto area. He made use of genuine Ral Partha lead miniatures as the game pieces (in Canada I believe the miniatures company operated as RAFM). The heavy game pieces, and the velour finish of the back of the board, made for a luxurious high-quality look. A map of the inside of the "fortress", divided into squares and rectangles resembling floor tiles and pavings, was also well-done. They tried to print two useful tables along each edge of the board, but the print was hard to read against the background design. The 60 cards were plain and uncoated, with dark blue backs, and fronts as brown as wrapping-paper! These should definitely be preserved in card sleeves.

Up to 6 players can play, each with a set of 4 miniatures painted the same single color (you can repaint them a bit to customize them if you want). These pieces were the Fighter (a dwarf with ax), Swordsman (swordswoman, actually), Wizard and Thief.

There are also four Monster pieces, jet-black, who can appear from four "magic pillars" distributed around the map and marked with cheery crossbones. Monsters appear when a player draws a Monster card (he MUST reveal the card and follow the instructions to make a Monster appear next to one of the four pillars.) These are wild-card pieces who can be used by the player whose turn it is. Monsters are tall and lumbering and get only one die's worth of movement in the Movement phase. If a Monster is made to run up against an opponent's player-piece, a single roll comparison determines if the Monster destroys a piece or must back down. Thieves are especially vulnerable to Monsters, with a chance of 5 out of 6 of dying. Wizards are the most resistant to Monsters and even have a 1 in 6 chance of banishing them to the ethereal realm they came from.

Play consists of 4 phases for each player: Movement, Combat, Spellcasting and Collection (of treasure). The player whose turn it is (the active player) must clearly call out these phases, to allow other players to take actions if they have something they can use that phase even when it is not their turn. Players move their pieces to squares on the board where a small golden plastic poker-chip is placed (some difficult-to-reach spots have 2 or even 3 chips). Each chip they collect entitles them to draw a card. Cards consist of treasure, action cards, or special magic items. Certain areas of the card clearly indicate in what phase a card can be used, and whether it can be used only by the active player whose turn it is, or any player.

If a player has collected enough treasure (the exact amount depending on the number of players), he must leave the fortress through the main gate (with any remaining playing-piece) to win the game. Of course, anyone noticing he is leaving will act to block the escape, either by physical fighting or by special magical means. Equally matched players often lead to a frenetic end-game.

The Movement mechanics are simple; on his turn the player rolls 3 dice and can move each of his pieces a number of squares, straight or diagonally, up to the number of the roll. The player does not need to use his full allotment on a piece if he doesn't want to. The squares vary in size to reflect relative ease of movement. For example, the pieces along the outer edge (outside parapet of the fortress) are long and rectangular for speedy movement. You can move diagonally through doorways and around pillars, but not diagonally across the corners of walls. Three rooms have "trapdoor" spaces. These are hidden under-floor passages where a piece may land on and instantly move to another trapdoor space across the map and still continue to move.

Some floors are made of wood which means they may be Trapped (when another player plays a Trap or a Set Trap cards). Pieces which are Trapped are sent to the East Dungeon or the West Dungeon, and can only be freed if another piece moves to an area with a lever. Thieves are more resistant to traps and are normally sent to collect treasure.

The Combat phase does not result in the death of a piece most of the time. When the active player moves his piece next to an opponent's, each piece gets a certain number of dice to roll (sometimes more dice are added from magic items). If the attacker rolls less, he must retreat and the attack ends. If the defender rolls less, he must retreat to a space of his choice. The attacker may choose to pursue by occupying the space retreated, and both players must roll again. If a defender is made to retreat 10 times, or if he is blocked by walls or other pieces and can not find any space to retreat, he dies.

The Spellcasting phase is where certain special cards may be used.

Finally, if the player has endured everything else in his turn and has pieces standing on top of poker chips, during the Collection phase these chips are collected and immediately exchanged for cards which the player draws from the deck. There are a total of 60 chips to collect on the map, and therefore 60 cards.

The fantasy elements are fun without being too comical, and players may adopt either a strategy of collecting treasure and escaping as fast as possible, or gaining powerful magic items and eliminating all the other playing pieces or immobilizing them in the dungeons to be the only player with active pieces and therefore win the game. The "last man standing" win is not easy to do since most combats end in retreats that break off contact, and it's an effort to move in range of an opponent who is determined to avoid you, gallivanting all across the fortress, until they are able to make a dash for the main gate.

Table-talk and negotiations are allowed, but exchange of items can only be made if the active player is involved. Players must therefore balance strategies of efficient movement to get at the treasure squares, gaining power to win more at combats, or moving to control the critical area in front of the main gate and repelling opponents.

I like this game for presenting a competitive dungeon-crawl experience with elegant components (except for the cards!) I rated it a 9/10.
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