Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Board Game Review - Fortress America

I don't generally refer to the big pile of games in my office as my collection. That seems a little silly to me. It's like if I looked at the shirts hanging in my closet and called them my collection. I don't collect button-down dress shirts. I just own a bunch, because I work in an office. They're not a collection, because I only buy them so I can wear them to work. I don't collect cotton-poly blends, and I don't collect games.

There is one exception, though. I decided to collect all of the old Gamemaster series from the 80s after I scored a copy of Shogun several years ago (my copy is so old, it's from before they renamed it Samurai Swords). They're not exactly rare games, or anything, but they were so damned much fun, and they remind me of all the games I loved when I was in high school and spent hours drinking sodas and playing games with friends when I should have been out at parties drinking beer and sleeping with cheerleaders. Come to think of it, I never did get to sleep with a cheerleader.

My most recent blast-from-the-past game acquisition was Fortress America, a huge game that comes in a box about three times larger than it needs to be. It takes up an absolutely retarded amount of shelf space, but that's fine, because it's exactly the same size as the other games in my grasping-at-my-youth collection of Gamemaster games.

The premise of Fortress America occurs in a future imagined through the eyes of Ronald Reagan and Chuck Norris. The US of A manages to put lasers on satellites so they can shoot down nukes, and man, is the rest of the world pissed. We strut around with our pants down, showing everyone how large we are, and then everybody in the world gets angry and invades. South America teams up with Mexico and they come up through Texas and California, while every nation in Southeast Asia puts in troops to blast the West Coast. All of Europe goes full-on commie and teams up with the USSR (not Russia - remember, this is the 80s, and Russians were still scheming supervillains who rubbed their hands together and said, 'vere is moose and squirrel?'), and these combined forces come in from Florida. For some reason, they don't land in New England. They must be intimidated by Boston baked beans and very flat pizzas.

Fortress America is one of those kinds of games that you don't start playing if you don't have some time. It's a long game when it finishes fast, and it can be a total marathon if the red-blooded Americans manage to survive long enough to outlive their invaders. The bad guys (and clearly, the invaders are the bad guys - everybody knows the USA is composed of 100% God-fearing patriots, and everyone else is pagan commie bastards) win the game if they can take 18 cities. The Americans win if the bad guys give up.

The best way to play Fortress America is with four players, where one beleaguered chump plays America, and the rest each assume one of the invading forces. That way, once the US is defeated, the others can fight among themselves to see who gets the best cut off the US prime rib. And this infighting means that the invaders won't be cooperating, which can make life a lot easier for the defenders.

The US starts off in a bad way. There are 30 cities to defend, and only two troops in each spot. Every turn, though, the enterprising citizens of truth and justice will construct another laser array, and these laser arrays will tear the piss right out of the invaders. At first, the lasers are unimpressive, but after eight or nine turns, if the invaders aren't just about to win, they're probably pretty well screwed.

It doesn't help that every redneck with a pickup truck living in a Kentucky holler joins the American underground. Before long, if the invaders don't sweep in and grab what they need to win, all those patriots start cropping up all over the country, cutting off supply lines and recapturing cities. The US will have reinforcements every turn, but once the invaders run out of people to throw into the fight, they're done. No more Guatemalans will sign up for the draft once their buddies all come home in bags, so all the US has to do is make the invaders decide that they would rather just go ahead and let the evil Americans have their laser satellites.

The result of all this mayhem is a game that's all about momentum. The Soviets and their angry buddies have to make the most of their initially overwhelming forces and cut a swath through the heartland, and the US builds up slowly and gathers speed. At first, the defending forces are going to get slaughtered, but if they can just hold off a couple more turns, they'll have the power to bring a pile of pain back down on the upstart third-worlders and send them back to their poverty-stricken countries and child labor factories.

Of course, as with any game with this much carnage (at least, any of them that are really fun), there are a lot of dice. Different troops use different dice, so you'll need to maximize your odds whenever you can. And even if you stack all the odds in your favor, the dice can still jump up and kick you in the privates like an angry ex-girlfriend. But honestly, that's what makes it fun. No matter how well you plan, nothing ever goes quite as well as you were hoping.

Obviously, there have been lots of very similar games made since Fortress America was introduced, and there was already a metric assload before. It's not original in being a massive combat game, but it is a blast to look back and remember when we all thought we were going to wind up raiding Cuban convoys and painting 'Wolverines' on everything we could find. Of the Gamemaster games, I still prefer Shogun (and haven't played Conquest of the Empire, since I don't have it yet), but Fortress America is a hoot even if you're too young to remember how much we hated the Soviet Union. The gradual momentum swing is fun as hell to play out, and when the US is hanging on by one city and three Dodge Darts full of gun-toting auto mechanics, you'll feel your heart racing every time you roll the dice.

And if you're like me, you'll roll a bunch of garbage and the wrench jockeys will shoot the unholy crap out of your Eurotrash socialists and you'll wind up leaving most of your soldiers to rot in American concentration camps. And that's when you'll know you just played a really fun game.


2-4 players

Really cool mass combat game about shifting momentum
Exciting and reasonably fast-paced, with lots of good American bloodshed
A hilariously fun trip to the paranoia and fear of the 1980s

Pretty darn hard to get

I wish I could tell you where you could find a copy of Fortress America. Sadly, Noble Knight Games is all sold out. But if you can find it, and you like big, epic war games, you should see if eBay has one you can borrow.


Monty said...

Great review Matt, I never saw this game, which I suppose is understandable being British :D it sounds a brilliant laugh! I did play the old Shogun game for days though when based in Cyprus back at the end of the 80's - loved it:)

=+=SuperflyTNT=+= said...

I appreciate you thinking about me in this article. I got that Kentucky Holler bit. :)

You're totally spot-on, this is a hell of a game, albeit very long. Great review.

Conquest of the Empire is hands-down my favorite "Dudes on a Map" game, and the best MB Gamemaster game. People whine that the catapults are absurdly strong and "broken", but I'd argue that in 600 AD if you had a catapult, you were pretty much going to be expected to crush skulls wholesale. So it should be strong.

Matt Drake said...

Actually, the Kentucky holler reference was because when we were playing and our French Liberation Forces were trying to push through the mountains of Kentucky and Tennessee, one band of partisans tied us up for five turns in a row and destroyed every tank we tried to bring through the area. Then the US won. I blame those Kentucky rebels. said...

So, what would a new (shrink-wrapped) copy of this game fetch on the open market?

Matt Drake said...

I have no idea. You might see if there are any on eBay.

Michael Shea said...

The key to this game is the cities. If the attacker cannot hold them, they will lose, for every city the US retakes, they get reinforcements. Since the attackers start outnumbering the US forces 3:1, every reinforcement the US gives is golden. The attackers get zero (0) reinforcements. Matt is spot on. If the attackers have not taken the cities by turn 8, the US has likely won. Also worth mentioning is the different attackers have different experiences. Red slogs though the mountains of Appalachia and the dense urban environment of the Eastern Seaboard. Yellow has few cities to take and long distances to cover and is most vulnerable to counter attack late in the game. Blue has to decide whether to support Red or Yellow. The more the attackers cooperate the worse it goes for the US.

Anonymous said...

New edition from Fantasy Flight Games is available.