Review: Fort Sumter

By Matt Thrower 20 May 2019 0

Review: Fort Sumter

Released 21 May 2019

Developer: Playdek
Genre: Boardgame
Available from:
Steam

The holy grail of historical game design is to combine simulation and strategy into a short package. With top titles often taking several hours to play, even a small trim is appealing. Fort Sumter, however, attempts the impossible, packing as much of the run-up to the American Civil War as it can into a half hour or so on the tabletop.

Alongside discrete player turns, that brevity makes it a great candidate to play on PC. It's a card-driven game where each card represents historical events. The best known of this genre, the excellent Twilight Struggle, was already digitised by Playdek. And they're the minds behind this adaptation too.

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Games last a maximum of a mere three rounds. At the start of each, you'll choose one of two board spaces as your objective for the round. Some of these, such as Texas or the titular Fort Sumter, are geographical but most are not. Rather, they're abstract depictions of factors that caused the war: abolitionism, newspapers and so on. To control a space, you need more influence cubes there than your opponent.

Players, who represent the Unionist of Secessionist sides, then take turns playing three from a hand of four cards. These represent pivotal people or events like Louisiana Seceding or John Brown's body. Each card 'belongs' to one side or the other and, if you're lucky enough to get dealt your own cards, you can use it either for its value or its event text. Otherwise, you only get the numeric value.

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Board and cards together generate a little bit of magic. Abstract concepts like cube pushing begin to resemble a sequence of history. Early Southern troops, for example, seized their weapons from federal armouries. The card for this allows the player to move cubes from military spaces into more politically-aligned ones. 

It is only a little bit of magic, however. Shuffling cubes to gain an area majority is a classic board game mechanic. But the structure is too simple to make it a convincing simulation. There's enough here to engage players looking for a believable theme and to learn a little history. Anyone expecting a rich facsimile, based on other card-driven games and the work of the designer, Mark Herman, may feel disappointed.

Cube-pushing does offer plenty of strategy and excitement, though. As well as your objective, you gain points for controlling sets of three spaces, with one in each set being of particular importance. Since you only have three cards each turn, there's never enough to fight for everything you need. Instead, it's about gauging those battles you want most, and those that you can win. The need to spread yourself thin means a constant threat of upsets. Plenty of pivots can happen on the last card of every turn.

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As you might expect, there are various complexities which add both strategy and history to the mix. Your cubes, for instance, come off a 'crisis' track which punishes whichever player adds them to the board faster. This represents the gradual political snowball of events that pushed moderate voters to support one side or the other. Given its short play time, Fort Sumter is not a simple game. But the excellent tutorial should enable any player to get into the swing of things with ease.

Another extra layer is the 'final crisis', which utilises the fourth card left over at the end of each round. Players match them against each other in a blind contest and, depending on what type of cards it is, get further chances to shuffle cubes. Given the limited scoring opportunities in earlier rounds, this can sometimes decide the winner. But as you might imagine from a blind contest, it can be frustratingly capricious.

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Whether that's an issue in such a fast game is a moot point. Without the overhead of physical components, you can play solo against the AI in 10-15 minutes. It's a great, quickfire way to learn the ropes. There's only one AI opponent to play against, though, and it's not very good. Most players will learn to beat it with ease, which is disappointing given the medium depth of decision making.

So the big draw here is the chance to play online against other humans. All the functionality to manage this is in the app, from lobby chat to ranked games. Unfortunately, we only had a very limited chance to test this in the pre-release version, but it all seemed smooth. And given this is an area where Playdek has always excelled, Fort Sumter is unlikely to prove different.

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Presentation is fine. There's not an excess of information to track in the game so it all fits neatly on the screen. An option to re-arrange the jumbled board into more logically coherent areas is welcome. As is an undo option before committing to decisions. The soundtrack of era-appropriate military folk tunes works well. But the same can't be said of the irritating twing-twang sound effects when you click on things, which are best muted.

Just as Fort Sumter tempts players to spread themselves thin, it itself is in danger of doing the same thing. In trying hard to be an accessible historical strategy game, it doesn't fully satisfy in any one area. It does, however, succeed in partly checking every box. This smooth adaptation is a great and convenient way to experience it. If you're willing to accept it on its own terms, all three aspects add up to an engaging, exciting and, above all, innovative whole.

A clever jack-of-all games that tries to give players history and strategy in an accessible package and mostly succeeds.

Review: Fort Sumter

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