Tracy Baker
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Disclaimer: The fine folks over at Victory Point Games sent me a copy of the second edition of Zulus On The Ramparts for this review.

Victory Point Games’ States Of Siege series is tailor-made for last stand scenarios, and there are few of those more dramatic than the one that took place at Rourke’s Drift in Africa in 1879. A drift is a ford in a river, and the river in this case was the Buffalo that served as a border between the British colony of Natal and Zululand.

Quote:
“March slowly, attack at dawn, and eat up the red soldiers.” -Cetshwayo kaMpande, Zulu King


Rorke’s Drift was a former trading post that was converted into a mission, and also served the British army as a supply depot and hospital. In January of 1879 it was left with a relatively small garrison as the British invaded Zululand with the bulk of their forces. On January 22 part of the well-armed invasion column was ambushed by nearly 20,000 Zulus at a hill where they were camped called Isandlwana, suffering a terrible defeat. A few survivors made their way to Rorke’s Drift to warn the garrison of an impending Zulu attack.

The senior officers at the outpost, Lt. John Chard, Lt. Gonville Bromhead, and Acting Assistant Commissary James Dalton met to discuss whether they should flee or fight. They decided to stay, and the rest is history: Between 3,000 and 4,000 Zulus attacked, the 150 or so defenders (some of them walking wounded from the hospital) held fast, and eleven Victoria Crosses (Britain’s highest military award) were ultimately handed out.

What You Get
I have the first edition of this game, sold in a ziplock bag with tiny cards, thin chits, and a paper map with serviceable but unlovely graphics. Suffering from States Of Siege fatigue, I never bothered to play it, but this second edition is done so well that it fairly begs you to try it out.



VPG recently upgraded its equipment, buying a better printer and investing in a laser cutter for its cardboard pieces, and Zulus On The Ramparts benefits immensely from the components overhaul. The cards are luxurious. The redesigned map looks great and is available on paper or on thicker cardboard where it is assembled like a jigsaw puzzle. The chits are the thickest you’ll find anywhere, and they’ve even made standees for the Zulu forces and few of the British units so they are easy to manipulate and stand out nicely on the map.

The downside is that the laser cutter leaves soot on the edges of pieces it cuts, and VPG even included a napkin to help wipe it off. It takes a lot of time to polish each piece, and a lot of hand-washing to prevent transferring soot from your fingers to the front of the chits, but the reward is a game with top-notch components that serve what turns out to be a top-notch design.



Playing The Game
The basic premise of the States Of Siege engine is defending a central area from several tracks that dangerous and overwhelming forces steadily march down. Here there are four tracks representing the Zulu forces, who divided their troops into formations called the Chest, Loins, Right Horn, and Left Horn. At the start of the game you randomly place stacks of units with varying strengths in the start spaces of their tracks (marked with the number 5), and if any of them get to the 0 spot on their track the game ends immediately in a British loss.

Movement is dictated at the beginning of each turn by randomly and blindly drawing a chit. Most of them have a number in the middle telling you how many spaces a Zulu unit moves, and a red mark telling you what unit moves (sometimes multiple units or all units move at once). Some chits represent Events, which I’ll discuss later.

After the Zulus move or an Event is triggered the British get to take one Action. This is mainly driven by a deck of Action Cards representing various Heroes and Groups who participated in the battle, Volley Cards for firing at the Zulus, and special one-time Events like day turning into night. During the Action Phase you get to choose among:

1. Playing a Hero or Group card out of your hand onto the table (making it Available)

2. Forming a Reserve Platoon (a prerequisite for firing some powerful Volleys, this requires committing two Available Heroes)

3. Constructing Barricades (these move the goal line so the Zulus have to move farther to win, but require committing an Available Hero and using up precious Actions)

4. Firing a Volley (potentially causing a Zulu unit to lose strength or retreat)

5. Putting out building fires (sometimes caused by chit pulls)
Distributing Ammo/Water (some powerful Volleys cause supplies to run low, or require that units have full ammo and water before they can be fired)


After you take your Action you get to draw one card from the Action Deck before proceeding to the Hero Phase, where you can play one Hero or Group from your hand to the table (making it Available). Then the round wraps up with the Houskeeping Phase, where you check for a Zulu defeat and cull your hand down to 5 cards.

Chits Happen
Those are the basics, but the Event Chits and especially the Action Cards mix things up. 23 of the chits in the game cause the Zulus to advance, but 11 trigger an Event. Some cause the Zulus to regain strength or regroup by backing up a space. One represents British rifles overheating and makes it harder to fire effective volleys during the round. Zulu Snipers appear to make the Brits keep their heads down, British leaders argue about who is in command, and buildings are set ablaze, among other things. (Burning buildings are both a curse and a blessing, as they prevent you from shooting any Zulus beyond them, but remove a penalty for shooting things at night).

The real meat of the game is served up by managing Action Cards. It’s easy to exceed your hand limit, forcing some agonizing discard decisions. You also must strike the right balance between hoarding Volley cards and getting rid of them to make room for Heroes and Groups.



Volleys are interesting in that they have variable effectiveness when shooting at Zulus in boxes 1, 2, and 3. They let you roll between 1 and 5 dice depending on which box the target is in when you fire, and normally you reduce the unit by 1 strength for each 6 you roll and force it to retreat one space for each 5 you roll. At the beginning of the game ammo and water have not been distributed, and whenever that’s the case you must subtract 1 from the highest die you roll, making it nearly impossible to hit anything. Other factors also add to or subtract from the dice, and keeping the modifier at zero or higher is imperative.

Hero and Group cards are even more interesting thanks to their abilities. A few Heroes and Groups have an ability that is always active when they are played on the table (made Available). Color Sergeant Frank Bourne, for example, lets you skip the discard phase so you can maintain an unlimited hand size, which is handy for keeping a lot of Volley cards at the ready. Private Alfred Henry Hook stands guard at the Hospital (as he did during the real battle while others hacked a hole in the wall to drag patients through), forcing the Zulus to roll to enter that space. He can mean the difference between the Zulus breaching the perimeter for an instant win or being stopped cold and positioned to absorb a devastating Volley.

Most Hero and Group cards have Return, Discard, and Volley abilities that give them all kinds of flexibility. Return abilities are activated by returning their card from the tableau to your hand, making them Unavailable and threatening to boost your hand size over the limit. Discard abilities are powerful but require sacrificing the card by tossing it in the discard pile, where there is no guarantee of getting it back. The Volley ability works just like a Volley card, with a different number of dice tossed depending on the range of the target, and they can be played without using a precious Action. The downside is that if you use a Hero or Group for a Volley you must discard them, meaning it’s a move used only in the most desperate of circumstances.

From the very beginning, the game is a juggling act. You always start with the same opening hand, consisting of a Volley card that works best at long range, Lieutenant Bromhead, and Lieutenant Chard. Bromhead has a Return ability that lets you take an extra action when you return him to his hand, making him a valuable workhorse. Chard has a Return ability that lets you draw an extra card if you start the Draw Phase with 3 or fewer in your hand, making him valuable for keeping your options open. If you draw a lot of Volley cards at the start you can keep the Zulus at bay, but must commit these amazing Lieutenants to tasks like building the barricades or forming the reserve platoon. If you draw a lot of Hero or Group cards at the start you end up with a lot of extra hands to get the menial labor done, at the expense of watching the Zulus quickly advance. As with any great game, there are always at least three things you need to do but only one or two you can do.

At the beginning of the game a Relief Column card is seeded somewhere in the last four cards of the deck, and if you manage to survive until it is drawn or defeat all the Zulus you win the game. I’ve managed it once in about a dozen attempts using the basic game components, and there are 19 additional cards you can mix into the base deck to create all kinds of variants. Some extra strength tokens are also included for the Zulus so you can toughen them up if the game gets too easy. There’s just a lot of gameplay here.

Is it Worth Your Time?
I look for three main things from my games:

Are the Decisions Interesting?
Between the random cards, random chit draws, and random dice rolls you are at the mercy of a lot of luck. Several of my games have ended after a handful of Zulu advance chits let them breach the compound before I could get any useful cards into the fray. The good news is that the game only takes a few minutes to set up again after one of these blowouts, and most of the time you can get a card engine going that makes things incredibly interesting. At its best, Zulus On The Ramparts is a tense pressure cooker that leaves you both making and questioning important decisions. Should I put Bromhead to work on the barricades, or is his extra action simply too important to give up? Should I fire the Volley now, or hope that unit only advances one space next turn so I can fling some extra dice at it? Who can I spare to distribute ammo and water? Can I commit two units to the Reserve Platoon to use its devastating Volley card, or should I keep them Available and dump the Volley? Do I want to use Chard’s special ability as much as possible, drawing extra cards to burn through the deck faster, or am I better off leaving him Available?

The best decisions come from the Volley abilities on Heroes and Groups. Sometimes you have no choice but to sacrifice an amazing soldier like Bromhead to try to bat some Zulu’s away from the wall after a failed regular Volley, and it really stings to see him tossed into the discard pile. But then a turn later you might get lucky and draw the surgeon, who lets you fish cards back out of the discard stack. You never know, and never knowing is what makes this game such a fresh experience each time you man the ramparts and watch the Zulus rush towards you like a quartet of seething tsunamis.

Is There a Clear Sense of Accomplishment or Failure?
As mentioned, it sometimes doesn’t feel like you had anything to do with a failure due to all the random elements. On the other hand, it always feels like you were instrumental after a victory, however shallow. This game is as much about hand and resource management as it is about managing bad luck, and poor decisions are punished mercilessly. Better still, at the end of the game you can count up Victory Points and read a little blurb corresponding to your total that tells you how you fared versus the historical outcome. VPG usually incorporates little flourishes like this into its games, and they are appreciated by a history buff like me.

If There is a Theme, is it Tightly Integrated with the Design?
It’s kind of amazing how well the States Of Siege engine fits with the Battle Of Rourke’s Drift. The map incorporates the hospital and supply building, and lets you build the same biscuit-box-barricades the British put up for their last stand when the Zulus inevitably overran the perimeter. The cards do a fantastic job of translating the individual heroism of the soldiers into game mechanisms that all mesh together thematically. The chits add chrome like Zulu snipers, a debate over who is in command, and the traditional Zulu washing of the spears after a kill that maximize flavor while imposing a minimum of rules. Play several games of this and then read about the actual battle, and you’ll see a startling number of parallels despite the elegance of this design.

The Verdict
This one really took me by surprise. On the surface it looked simple to the point of being simplistic, and I anticipated a luckfest similar to Levee En Masse, a VPG game about the French Revolution I can’t stand that uses the same basic engine. There is much more game here, however, and one highly evocative of its theme. The interplay among the cards works brilliantly, and its nice to see so many variants included in the package without being nickel-and-dimed for them in an expansion.

Zulus On The Ramparts provides further evidence that you can have a game that’s low in complexity but rich in theme and deep in gameplay. I’m so glad it got the component upgrade it so richly deserved, and can’t wait to see some of VPG’s other terrific designs benefit from a similar facelift. An iOS version is also available, and I’ll review that as soon as possible.
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Mayor Jim
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Great review...even though I already have the game . Thanks...
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Mike Stevens
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Very good review. Have you played the IOS version yet? How do you like it? Do you like the 2nd Edition or IOS version better?
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Steven McBride
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I want VPG to give this kind of upgrade to Nemo's War so bad!
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Tom Williamson
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Brilliant work as always, Tracy.

I agree with you completely re: Levee on Masse. I was extremely excited to try it and just found that there were no interesting decisions to make at all. Also, any decisions that were made simply left you at the mercy of the dice. I was very glad that I only bought it on iOS and it has long since been deleted.

Zulus sounds a far more interesting kettle of fish and I look forward to reading your review of the app.
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Tracy Baker
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stemcider wrote:
I want VPG to give this kind of upgrade to Nemo's War so bad!


Me too. The Gold Banner version of Dawn of the Zeds is out, and it's one of the best States of Siege games I've played (it's one of the best solitaire games I've played, period).
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Tracy Baker
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Omahavice wrote:
Very good review. Have you played the IOS version yet? How do you like it? Do you like the 2nd Edition or IOS version better?


I've heard some bad things about the iOS version, and don't like how they've split it into separate iPhone and iPad versions instead of going universal. Apparently it's simplified relative to the cardboard version, but I can't figure out exactly how because there's no information at their website or in the few reviews I've read.

I'd like to take a look for myself but don't want to dump $8 only to find out I'm getting a crippled version of a game I enjoy.
 
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frank gallagher
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Nice review, very detailed. When the State of Siege games work, they're a great solitaire experience. I was very disappointed in Lost Cause, for the same reasons you've cited. Seemed like the game played itself and I was just there to watch. But I love the new version of Dawn of the Zeds. Meaningful decisions, lots of variety both in events the game throws at you and in the actions you can take, and oozing theme from every zombie bite. Looks like I'll have to get Zulus too.
 
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Tracy Baker
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Rompa wrote:
Brilliant work as always, Tracy.

I agree with you completely re: Levee on Masse. I was extremely excited to try it and just found that there were no interesting decisions to make at all. Also, any decisions that were made simply left you at the mercy of the dice. I was very glad that I only bought it on iOS and it has long since been deleted.

Zulus sounds a far more interesting kettle of fish and I look forward to reading your review of the app.


Many thanks, Tom.

Levee en Masse was a big disappointment because all the other States of Siege games I played before it were great, and I was expecting a lot from a game in that line covering such an historically popular topic as the French Revolution. I can see it working as a teaching tool, but as a game it fell flat. Your actions are dictated almost 100% by card draws, and you are also at the mercy of dice rolls, so in the end it's more a game that plays you. Interesting for a few plays for history buffs, but it has no legs whatsoever and the iOS version has poor production values.
 
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Tracy Baker
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frankgallagher wrote:
Nice review, very detailed. When the State of Siege games work, they're a great solitaire experience. I was very disappointed in Lost Cause, for the same reasons you've cited. Seemed like the game played itself and I was just there to watch. But I love the new version of Dawn of the Zeds. Meaningful decisions, lots of variety both in events the game throws at you and in the actions you can take, and oozing theme from every zombie bite. Looks like I'll have to get Zulus too.


Thanks, Frank!

I recently traded for Lost Cause and haven't had a chance to try it yet. I've heard similar complaints to yours, but also the opposite from some other people, so I'm eager to try it for myself.

Glad to hear you like the new Zeds. I really, really want to try it but will stick with the 1st edition (which I love) for the time being as I've blown my gaming budget for the next few months (and have a giant pile of solitaire games to review). I looked at the site to see what the new components are like and wasn't too impressed with the new map, which was incredibly busy. Does it work better in practice than it looks on paper?
 
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frank gallagher
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Well, since you ask . . . the map was the most controversial component with my playtest group. And it was a final redesign after the last playtest kit was sent out, so it's the one component that I haven't played with. We were assured it was extensively tested in house, but I can't testify one way or the other. However, the other new components are extremely sharp. The new laser cut counters are great, very creative cuts. New card artwork, very very nice player mat and aid, even the rule book looks and reads better. So of the stuff I've actually played with, high marks.
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tim kelly
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Just finished a playing of DotZ, and, there wasn't much for the National Guard left of Farmingdale. It was an epic butt whooping.
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Wes Erni
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I do agree that Levee en Masse (and Lost Cause) are imperfect games, but their flaws are the exact opposite of those usually printed. There is such room for player decision making to dictate the play, that eventually player skill overwhelms the AI, and these games become less about winning and losing — and more about how much of a super-decisive win is achieved.

Of course it takes time to develop the strategies to "turn the tables" on the game system, and most people (me included) don't bother to take the time to master games. I have written extensively on both games elsewhere, but the gist is player's are given great latitude to throw "history under the bus" and create imaginative (some might think perverted) approaches to winning the game. Much of the work I did on Zulu was designed to eliminate all (I hope) the "gamey" ways the original game allowed for easy wins — while retaining the tense decision making. Player skill is still very important, but the Zulu is more about survival now, rather than racking up huge VP totals.

If you treat Levee en Masse and Lost Cause as history lesson only on your first game, and then treat them as intriguing puzzles to cracked on subsequent plays — there is a lot of very enjoyable game-play to be had. I have hopes the 2nd Edition of Lost Cause will combine rich history, with tense decision making that will never be completely "cracked" — the paradigm I hope Zulu 2ndEdition has achieved.
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Joshua Gottesman
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One thing about Levee en Masse, which I enjoy, although I agree to some extent with your comments, is that it was a relatively early iteration of the States of Siege system. At the time, adding in the political tracks and the disorder and similar concepts was a big divergence from the 1st 2 strategic games in the series (Israeli Independence and Soviet Dawn). Zulus, as a tactical situation, required a very different way of thinking. I actually never played the 1st edition of Zulus (and much to my shame, my 2nd edition sits punched, ready to play, and hasn't been yet). Newer States of Siege games keep adding innovations and quirks on the system, however in all of them, you will sometimes be at the mercy of the dice. As Wes says, part of the challenge becomes to improve your play. Once you have a good feel for the cards, its a matter of planning your actions so that you are in the best position to exploit what's coming.
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