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Subject: Review After 2 Plays rss

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Michael D'Amico
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I spent some time considering whether or not I should get a few more plays in before posting a review. There were two main factors that ultimately guided my decision:

1. There are only 2 other reviews present as of this posting (which I'm a little surprised about, as I had thought there would be more buzz around this re-release).

2. I have been following the boards for the re-release and I know there is a lot of discussion about the changes FFG made. I've never played the original, so I wanted to offer an opinion unencumbered by any experience of the original version.

So here goes...

What initially drew my attention to Fortress America:

Back in the old days (10 to 20 years ago) I was part of a group of friends who would gather 3 to 4 times a year and have marathon play sessions of Risk. Hours were spent around the board moving plastic and rolling dice until either one color remained or one of the two final combatants mercifully laid his dice to rest and conceded victory to save time.

For me the combined issues of player elimination and an extended play time were the biggest drawbacks to playing Risk. It was not unheard of for one player to be out of the game within the first half hour of play and then be relegated to sitting out the rest of the 3 to 4 hours it would take for the game to finish. We had diversions for the early eliminated (video games) but it wasn’t the same as being at the table and being involved.

But some of my best gaming moments to date have come from Risk. Pushing your chair away from the table and standing up for that all important roll that could make or break you is a visceral moment you just don’t get in a worker placement game (at least not that I’ve found). I wouldn’t be surprised if I played more of Risk standing up then sitting down because the tension would become so palpable I couldn’t face it in something as relaxed as a seated position.

Those days of Risk are long gone, but not forgotten. As I have sunk deeper into the board gaming hobby over the past few years, I have been looking for a viable Risk alternative--something to bring us all back together but without the shortcomings that Risk comes with. It would need to be something fairly quick to learn, with plenty of plastic to push, and lots of dice to roll. Dust has worked, but I’m always looking for more.

I don’t remember exactly how Fortress America hit my radar, but it did a couple of years back. On paper (or in my case the computer monitor) the game sounded perfect. Lots of plastic, lots of dice, and straight on head-to-head conflict. Plus who doesn’t like to gang up on one player? In our games of Risk alliances were made--and often broken--long before the game was even taken out of the box. With FA the alliances are written into the rules: everyone against the US. But the game was no longer in print. I kept my eyes open for ebay auctions, placed some bids, but never ended up with a copy.

Then came the announcement for the Fantasy Flight reprint. I knew as soon as I read it that I would snag a copy once it was available.

What’s in the box

After I cracked the shrinkwrap and pulled out the board and paperwork, a big smile came across my face as I saw...

Lots of plastic and a bunch of dice.

There’s also a nice big board, a manageably-sized rulebook, some cards (not a lot), and player aids.

The figures look nice, with the bombers, hovertanks, and lasers especially standing out with cool looking molds. Putting together the helicopters was a little bit of a pain, and they seem flimsy in comparison to the rest of the pieces (my brother, when first picking up a helicopter, thought it was "cool" that the blades moved, not realizing they weren't supposed to as he accidentally pulled them off). I’ve also noticed that if you’ve got beefy fingers it can be tough to pick them up and manipulate them around the board. There are also pieces for general infantry, mobile units, and partisans, which each look fine to me. The dice are multi-colored and they have symbols instead of numbers to make determining combat results quick and easy.

I like the style of the board. The map is designed with images meant to imply you are in the heat of battle commanding your forces. It has bullet shells, a compass, and stains scattered around the edges of a giant image of the US. It reminds me of the board for Twilight Struggle (which as of now is still my all-time favorite game) Personally, I enjoy the “realistic” aesthetic both games aim for with their maps. The action can get crowded, especially in the eastern section of the map, where the territories are smaller than out in the western part of the country. Since there is a lot of plastic to move it can get messy quick and you have to constantly audit your opponent to make sure you know what piece is where. I don’t know how much bigger they could have made it before size became unwieldy. I would certainly take the crowding issue over a paper map.

The player aids are fine and for us were unnecessary after the first half hour of the game.

The cards are are printed on a good card stock with a linen finish (also something I personally prefer). Unless you play with the Invader Variant (I have not) you only use the Partisan Deck.

Learning/Teaching the game

The game is not that difficult to learn. I set up a solo game to play a few turns to review the rules and get a feel for the flow of the game. I found movement to be the most confusing aspect of the game and I needed to reference the rules a few times to make sure I was doing it correctly. The rulebook itself is okay, but I didn’t feel like it was laid out in the best way to learn the game. There is no index or table of contents; it’s laid out by sequence of play, with lots of sidebars to further clarify or highlight specific rules. While learning the game there were a few instances when I felt like I had to do some excessive searching for answers to questions that popped up. Most were about movement. Because there are two separate movement phases in a turn there are different rules for each, which can cause some confusion as you need to make sure you are properly keeping track of all your plastic and how/when they can move. The battles are pretty straightforward and I didn’t have any issue understanding how they resolve. In all I’ve read the rules completely about 5 times (twice before, once during, and twice after the solo play). I referenced them a lot during the solo play. During the two actual games I’ve played, I only needed to reference the rules a couple of times, and then just to confirm questions that came up from specific situations.

I’ve taught the game twice. As simple as the game feels once you know how to play, there is a lot to take in when you sit down in front of it for the first time. I spend the most time on movement, setting up examples and making sure to cover how adjacency works, how territories are controlled, and how pieces need to be in combat position. In both games once we were into play for about half an hour everything seemed to click and there would just be sporadic clarification questions or corrections.

Setup and Breakdown

There’s a lot of plastic.

The US player has to place all his pieces on the board (60 total). Then the Invader places 20 pieces, in turn, to each of his Invasion zones. So there is some thought involved, especially if you are new to the game (I’m sure after repeated plays certain strategies will start to fall into place to shorten set up time).

Breakdown is much simpler. Just put everything back in their respective bags.

The important part...playing the game

There’s a lot of plastic. For me that’s awesome. Both games I’ve played as the US, since the popular tenet seems to be that the Invaders have a distinct advantage, which I wanted to pass onto my opponents. In both games (against different players) the Invader tried a different strategy. In both games it looked pretty evident the US was going to lose yet in each I was able to hold off the Invader end game trigger (controlling 18 cities at the end of a full game round). Both games were stopped early because of playtime (each went about 4 hours and were stopped because there was still a good hour left and it was well after midnight), with the first being conceded by the Invader and the second ending in an agreed upon stalemate (though I think I would have won if we finished it out).

There were some tight moments where it all came down to a single roll. The game feels a lot more strategic than Risk as each player has a lot of factors to balance. The Invaders have to really pay attention to troop placement and movement as time is not on their side. Push too fast and you might thin yourself out. Take too long and the citizens of the US will rise in greater numbers to defend their homeland. Plus there is the ramped up production of lasers that will rain down destruction from the skies. As the US player you have to consolidate your forces that start scattered throughout the land. You will take a beating at first and you have to mentally be prepared to give up those cities sitting on the outlays of your border.

The US also gets the Partisan Deck, which determines how he receives reinforcements. I found that not only did they add a nice story element to the game (citizens take up arms in the east!) but the Invader player really has to consider what troops he leaves behind during his advance, as pockets of partisans can pop up in unoccupied territories behind enemy lines.

The game is long. I have to assume with repeated play it will speed up, but I can’t imagine ever saying, “hey, let’s play a quick game of Fortress America.” This I don’t mind. I am trying to build a collection of games to meet every situation, and FA fits into that collection nicely as a meaty game to dive into when time permits.


Final Thoughts

Here is the most telling indicator of my final thoughts on Fortress America: I stood up while playing.

It’s not perfect. I felt--especially my last game--the weight of the downtime as my opponent moved his troops into position. As mentioned earlier, there are two movement phases in a turn, and there is a lot of plastic to move, so later in the game when the Invader had all his pieces in play, I had a fair amount of waiting before it was my turn. The good news is that combat has both players rolling. If this were like Memoir 44 (another of my favorites) where the defender sits and waits through the attacker’s turn, then I don’t think I would like FA as much as I do and why I don’t think I would like it with more than 2 players (though I’m willing to try). It seems the Invader players would have too much downtime on their hands. I also like that it is a simplified system. No movement cards to draw and play, no long list of terrain restrictions, no scenarios to set up--just moving plastic and rolling dice.

So for me Fortress America scratches an old itch I’ve had for decades. It’s an opportunity to get that “Risk-feeling” with only two, and without actually having to play Risk. It’s more of a marathon than a sprint (like the quicker, out-of-the-box Memoir 44 or even Space Hulk) and I like those long games where you get the chance to step away from the table and regroup mentally and physically before diving back in for the race to the finish line. I’m also a fan of dice, and whereas I find non-dice combat interesting (think Civilization or Horus Heresy), it’s a completely different dynamic than the rattle of the bones in your hand and the misguided thought that somehow the way you toss the dice to the table will affect the outcome. Those few seconds when the dice hit and spin before resolving are gameplay magic to me and Fortress America has that in abundance.

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Trent Garner
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Nice review, thanks! With only minor modification to the original game, I think FFG has done a fantastic job with the FA reprint. I actually like this version much better than the original. Better plastic and plenty of it, fixes for the city locations and rules clarifications really help to make this new version stand out.
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Carter H
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This was a good and helpful review. I wonder how your playgroup would like the new Risk: Legacy.
 
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Michael D'Amico
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bigcpwnzj00 wrote:
This was a good and helpful review. I wonder how your playgroup would like the new Risk: Legacy.
I've been considering it. We don't get together with enough regularity for me to feel like we'd get the best experience from the customization features.
 
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Barry Kendall
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Good review. I especially like the dash of whimsy with your "standing up" imagery. I had to chuckle at the notion of standing due to the unbearable excitement of placing a worker; though some w-p games are interesting to me, I wouldn't stand up (or even get butterflies in the belly) over them, whereas in a game featuring combat, a desperate attack or defense has that grab-something-and-hold-on-tight reeling to it.

Do you think you'll try a game using the new invader cards? I'm curious about them, as an owner of the original edition, and wonder what sort of differences they make in play (and whether they freshen the game sufficiently to justify buying a copy of the new edition).

I'll be hoping for another review from you one of these days, comparing and contrasting the new version without the invader cards and with them. Maybe you'll be doing more standing up.

In the meantime, you've given me a whole new way to describe a game: "The Stand-up Factor." Love it.
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Michael D'Amico
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Barry Kendall wrote:

Do you think you'll try a game using the new invader cards? I'm curious about them, as an owner of the original edition, and wonder what sort of differences they make in play (and whether they freshen the game sufficiently to justify buying a copy of the new edition).

I think so. After we've got some more plays in and are really comfortable with the rules and flow of the game. At first glance I wonder how it will work in a 2 player game, where the Invader player will need to manage 3 decks. It seems like it could add unnecessary complexity since many of the cards have prerequisites.
 
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Dave Maynor
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I definitely get the 'stand-up' factor. I never really thought about it, but even in Roleplaying or Video Games... it happens and it is fantastic when it does!
 
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Greg
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Nice review.

I played for the first time last night and it was a 4 player game where the game owning player hadn't played it before but had the rules down for teaching, and one other player had played the older version many years ago. We made him be the U.S. because he at least had experience

It looked ugly early but at the end the U.S. player came back after his extra turn upon us capturing enough cities allowed him to basically take back a lot of lost cities because of a couple cards, and the fact that we didn't know enough to keep an infantry solider in each conquered city space. Thus it made it easy for him to re-capture them on invasion phase.

At that point, like turn 7, we had to wrap it up as it was already 4+ hours into the game including the initial explaining. I had figured for 2 hours considering the 90 minute play time listed on BGG and allowed an extra half hour for new players. Perhaps the 90 minute rating was for 2 players?

There was a lot of down time for sure, and the overall length of the game was kind of a downer for us, but it was fun when we got to do stuff.
 
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