If you were one of those people who were intrigued by the epic two-player card driven game Twilight Struggle but found it all a bit too complex and longwinded, then Playdek’s latest release may be more to your liking. Fort Sumter shifts the action from the Cold War to the American secession crisis of 1860. The bombardment of Fort Sumter and the ensuing surrender of US army forces was a key event in the nation’s history and led to the outbreak of the American Civil War. Somehow, the designer has managed to condense these dramatic events into a fifteen-minute game, in which each player only ever gets the opportunity to play a grand total of twelve cards.
Do not, however, entertain the idea that the quick playing time means that Fort Sumter is just another in a long line of microgames in the mould of Love Letter. There is definitely a lot more going on here, with one player taking control of the Unionists and the other playing as the Secessionists. Players compete to exert political influence in an attempt to manoeuvre their way into the strongest position in preparation for the inevitable outbreak of war. The action is played out on a small map that shows four spheres of influence, namely, political, secession, public opinion and armaments. Each sphere is made up of three spaces, the most influential of which will be denoted as pivotal. For instance, in the sphere of public opinion, the pivotal spot is newspapers. Throughout the game, players will use cards to place political influence cubes in the various spaces in an attempt to wrestle overall control of as many spheres as possible.
Players begin each of the three rounds with a hand of six cards. Two of these cards will depict a secret objective, which usually means having the most influence cubes in a particular area. Each player then elects to keep one objective and to discard the other. Next, players take it in turns to play their remaining cards, whilst setting one aside until the final round. These cards represent a notable person or historical event and are colour coded to denote which of the two sides they are aligned to, although there are also some neutral cards. Players are not limited to only using the cards that match their side.
Each card has a number in the top corner that shows how many influence cubes that it allows you to place. This isn’t usually as strong a move as the special action but it is more flexible since it allows you to exert influence anywhere on the board instead of being tied to particular spaces. If the Secessionists side plays the ‘Plantation Class’ card for example, then they will either be able to use the card’s basic action to place one cube on any space or use the special action to place two cubes on any of the three secession spaces. If the unionist player plays the same card then their only option is to place a single cube by using the basic action.
It is pretty obvious to explain this thematically, as rich plantation owners with their invested interest in slave labour and their political influence, were the driving force behind the secessionist movement. However, unless you are a real American history buff you are not going to know the background behind many of the cards, and without latching on to this context, the game can become a very abstract exercise in cube pushing. There is a card gallery that provides the necessary historical relevance of the various cards, but this cannot be accessed without returning to the main menu. On the subject of abstract design, the map of the USA is also just window-dressing. Indeed there is an option to use an alternative map that completely does away with the whole pretence and so just groups the locations by type. This actually makes it easier to assess the current state of affairs.
Fort Sumter has a few more nuances up its sleeve; there is a peacekeeper who prevents cubes from being added or removed from a particular space. He can be brought into play by playing the appropriate card or by escalating the crisis. As players bring more influence into effect, tensions mount and the crisis level increases. The first player to trigger the highest crisis level will earn a larger political influence bonus, however, they are also perceived as the chief aggressor, costing them a victory point and possibly bringing about a premature ending to the game.
At the end of the first three stages, players that control the vital pivotal spaces will be able to add or remove cubes in that particular sphere. If a player has managed to secure a majority of cubes in all three of a sphere’s spaces, they earn a victory point. Extra points are awarded for completing that turn’s secret objectives. To add a tense climax to proceedings, the fourth and final round plays out a little differently. Both players secretly select the order in which they want to play the three cards that they have kept aside. The effects will then be determined by simultaneously revealing both players cards one at a time to determine if they have matching influence spheres.
The first thing that is likely to impress is an extremely comprehensive tutorial, which guides you through an entire game. This not only teaches the rules but also gives some useful strategic insights. It also introduces the player to the faultless interface, which creates an authentic representation of the board game in which all of the essential information can be taken in at a glance. The graphics are a mix of old photographs and illustrations and give proceedings a strong historical flavour, as does the patriotic piano tunes and spoken quotes. Unfortunately, the range of play options is a little limited, you can play online or offline but there is only one level of AI, which will not take many games to overcome. He is not the smartest; in one game he placed the peace commissioner on a space that actually served to protect my control of an area.
This game is easy to learn and contains plenty of interesting decisions. It manages to create some very tight pressure points, often feeling like a game of chicken as you try to force your opponent’s hand. The trailing player has the considerable advantage of having the final say at the end of each round, which means that it can be prudent to hang back until you are ready to strike. My main concern is that the luck of the draw can leave one player with a bunch of cards tailored for the opposing side. Also, in spite of the rich background, with a cast of strong characters and notable events, players are essentially just pushing cubes, which means that the historical significance of what they are doing can struggle to make an impression.
Fort Sumter may sound like a war game but it actually turns out to be more of a euro style board game. The slimming down of the mechanics hasn’t been without sacrifice and some may feel that the abstraction has gone a little too far. Yet, it still manages to be a fine, quick-playing political simulation that can give you a Twilight Struggle style fix in a fraction of the time.
Fort Sumter will be releasing on iOS & Android tomorrow. Because our review is early, we don’t have the store links yet but will update this review when we do.