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Posted on Jul 26, 2018 in Boardgames, Front Page Features

“The Troubles That Now Disturb and Endanger the Country”. GMT Games ‘Fort Sumter’ Board Game Review.

“The Troubles That Now Disturb and Endanger the Country”. GMT Games ‘Fort Sumter’ Board Game Review.

By Ray Garbee

Fort Sumter: The Secession Crisis – 1860-1861. Publisher: GMT Games. Game Designer: Mark Herman Price $ 42.00

Ray Garbee

Passed inspection: Quick game play to maximize your gaming time, minimal rules you can absorb in a short time, detailed playbook to resolve most questions, deck of cards depicting the events and persons key to the narrative, mounted color map board.

Failed basic: Victory and defeat are defined in abstract terms that don’t translate to concrete examples. You know you won the game, but you are not sure what that exactly means for your cause.

The American Civil War has been a very popular topic for board games over the years. A quick search of Board Game Geek’s listings returned 67 *pages* of games set in some aspect of the conflict. But few of the games explore the events leading up to the secession of the Southern States and the outbreak of armed conflict. Now you can experience these turbulent times through Mark Herman’s game ‘Fort Sumter: The Secession Crisis – 1860-1861’, published by GMT Games.

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Fort Sumter is a card-driven game that covers the period from Abraham Lincoln’s election through the inaugurations of Lincoln and Davis as President. Players must navigate the political landscape of the United States in an effort to secure advantage for either the Unionists or the Secessionists in the events leading up to the final crisis that could lead to war.

Fort Sumter comes in an attractive, sturdy box that is more than large enough to contain all the pieces. The game consists of a mounted, color map board, 50 wooden tokens, a ‘Meeple’, 40 strategy cards, 12 objective cards, 1 Rule Book and a Playbook with examples of play as well as designer’s notes.

The map board has a background map depicting the United States circa 1860. The design team uses this background more to help set the mood of the historical period than as a space in which to maneuver armies. Super-imposed over this background are areas representing physical or social ‘spaces’ representing the issues and institutions within the United States. These spaces are grouped into ‘dimensions’ of similar themes. For example – the issue over control of armaments from the nations arsenals was one of the key topics facing politicians during this crisis. The game represents this through three spaces – Fort Pickens, Federal Arsenals and Fort Sumter. During the game the players may work to align their political influence to control (or ‘own’) the issues and actions defined by the spaces.

The tokens are the stock wooden cubes found in many of GMT Games products. They come in two colors – Union blue and Confederate – I mean Secessionist – gray. Other game pieces include a white Meeple used to represent the ‘Peace Commission’ and a couple of pieces to mark the game phase and victory point values.

The heart of the game are the cards. This is after all a card–driven game. The cards come in two flavors – strategy cards depicting events, persons and groups that influenced the crisis and objective cards which provide bonuses towards victory if the requirement listed on the card is achieved.
The rules are concise and clearly worded, clocking in at 6.5 pages of an 8-page booklet measuring 7.5” by 9”. Accompanying the rules is the traditional GMT playbook. The playbook offers detailed examples of gameplay, a short summary of the crisis, an explanation of the cards and a short section of designer’s notes and game strategy. This last was most welcome as the players in our early matches were flummoxed in how to best approach the game’s final crisis.

Mechanically, game play is a straightforward affair. The game consists of no more than three crisis rounds culminating in a final crisis round. At the start of each regular round, each player chooses a secret objective, from one of two cards dealt from the objective card deck. In a crisis round, players alternate playing strategy cards in an effort to gain control of the various aspects of the crisis. These aspects define political features related to government, the secession movement, the court of public opinion as represented by the newspapers and the military aspect focused on the arsenals and Fort Pickens and Fort Sumter. After card play, players can leverage control of key areas to mobilize their influence in an attempt to control that aspect of the crisis. Lastly, victory points are awarded based on the level of control imposed or if the objective card requirements were met.

Fort Sumter captures the feel of the crisis. Across the crisis rounds, both players struggle to gain control of the situation as events spiral out of control towards war. The random nature of the card draws for both strategy cards and objectives limit your ability to plan for the future. Each round sees you reacting to at first your own card draws and then reacting yet again across the alternating play of the strategy cards.

While it often feels like players are stuck in a cycle of reacting to events, Mark Herman models some of the historical aspects of the crisis by weighting the frequency of cards impacting the secession aspect to the Secessionists and the public opinion spaces towards the Unionists. The effect is to drive a mostly ‘historical’ model of play that sees the Secession spaces tilt towards the South whiles the Public Opinion spaces – dominated by the New York newspapers – gravitate towards the Union.

On the surface, the initial opinion of the players felt that their response to the final crisis was practically random – in fact one player announced that he felt he would have done as well if he had just randomly ordered the cards. However, the strategy guide lays out the importance of planning for the final crisis. It’s like a sleight of hand card trick in the sense a player can get so engaged in maximizing value from each card in the prior crisis rounds, that the choice of card for the final crisis can become an afterthought. Doing so will leave you a march behind your opponent as you attempt to solidify your position for the end game.

The various crisis dimensions stand-alone as isolated constructs within the game. While that generally serves the narrative the game constructs, it would have been interesting to see a bit of interaction and synergy across the dimensions. For example, controlling public opinion might allow a player to influence the political dimension and vice versa. It’s not a failing with the game, just an observation that the dimensions stand in isolation and control of each dimension comes across as ‘merely’ a victory point as opposed to a tool to gain greater leverage across the elements that compose the United States.

There were a few things that confounded us during play. The total randomness of the deal from the strategy deck and the objective deck created multiple instances in which the strategy cards did not support either of the objective cards available from which to choose. Each time this mis-match occurred was a lost opportunity to gain a victory point. On the plus side, this mechanic conveyed the sense of powerlessness in which the players were confronted by obstacles that challenged their abilities to manage with the tools (strategy cards) on hand at the time. The obvious solution here is to expend the strategy cards for their point values in an effort to achieve your objective. The downside of this approach risks telegraphing your objective as it can become evident what you are trying to achieve.

Fort Sumter plays fast. With three rounds leading up to the final crisis, it felt like a single bad hand that didn’t support your goals would throw off your entire game. Regardless of when it happened, the bad hand left you trailing in VP – and it often felt very difficult to come back from that deficit to win. But if you are behind, take heart! The game does have a feedback mechanism – the trailing player goes last and has that opportunity to deny – or gain – control of a pivotal area and leverage that into control of a crisis dimension.

The corollary to the short length of the game is that every card counts. You need to carefully evaluate into which area you direct resources to either secure control of an area or deny it to your opponent. Every victory point matters in Fort Sumter and often you’ll find that your victory or defeat hangs on having earned that single additional victory point.

I’ve read some folks argue that Fort Sumter is just a retread of the game play from 13 Days: The Cuban Missile Crisis. Personally, I don’t see it. Especially if compared to classic Avalon Hill games like 1776 and Cesar’s Legions, my answer has to be no, it’s not a derivative work. While Fort Sumter and 13 Days do share some similar style of play, they are far less similar than if your compare the mechanically similar Avalon Hill games with their shared combat results tables and tactics decks. That being said, I think that if you like 13 Days, you likely also enjoy Fort Sumter, especially if you have an interest in the American Civil War.

A casual glance may leave you with the perception that Fort Sumter is a simple game that does not have a lot of depth. Play it more than a couple of times and the layers of strategy begin the peel back like the bark on a birch tree. You’ll need to peel back the text of the cards to see how sometimes not playing the event is best path forward towards victory. Mark Herman writes in the designer’s notes that Fort Sumter was subject to extensive playtesting using Monte Carlo computer simulation modeling. Don’t rely on your first couple of games when making your judgement regarding Fort Sumter.

The suitability of a game for solitaire play is an important consideration for many gamers. The lack of opponents and busy schedules conspire to force many of us to play games by ourselves, if we are to play at all. Unfortunately, it’s tough to see how Fort Sumter could be effectively played as a solitaire game. The fog of war resulting from the hidden strategy and objective cards coupled with the decisions resulting from the interaction of card play do not make Fort Sumter a candidate for solitaire play.

Fort Sumter plays quickly, making it ideal for gamers with limited gaming time, or who want to play the game and have a rematch in the space of an hour. This short playing time was a key design feature in a trend that GMT’s Gene Billingsley refers to as ‘lunch hour games’. It’s a refreshing break from the usual fare that requires devoting an afternoon – or longer – to play to completion.

Fort Sumter will definitely appeal to those with an interest in the American Civil War. Fort Sumter is also a timely topic in the modern era of increasingly polarized politics. You can use the game as a lens through which you can project the challenges of today onto the events of the past. It’s unique focus on what Secretary of War Edwin Stanton called ‘The troubles that now disturb and endanger the country’ should interest gamers no matter how many times they’ve charged across the tabletop grassy fields towards Cemetery Ridge.

Armchair General Score: 95%

Solitaire suitability (1–5 scale, with 1 being virtually unplayable as a solitaire game and 5 being completely suitable for solitaire play): 1

Ray Garbee has been a gamer for the past four decades, Ray’s interests include the Anglo-Sikh Wars through the conflicts of the 20th Century and beyond but his passion remains ACW naval gaming. Currently, Ray works as a business analyst in the IT field while continuing to design tabletop games. His past works include Iron Thunder, Anaconda, Anaconda: Capital Navies and articles in a number of defunct hobby magazines. When not busy gaming, Ray enjoys working on his model railroad, hiking and sport shooting at the local range.

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