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Posted on Dec 5, 2017 in Boardgames, Front Page Features

Explore North America’s  Mound Builders’ Culture – Game Review

Explore North America’s Mound Builders’ Culture – Game Review

By Rick Martin

Mound Builders Game Review. Publisher: Victory Point Games Designer: Wes Erni and Ben Madison Price: $38.99

Rick Martin

Passed Inspection: Interesting and unique subject matter, highly educational, engaging game pay, excellent value for the cost, small footprint, excellent graphics and examples of play, perfect solo play for an afternoon

Failed Basic: Some rules confusion, felt a little limiting in terms of player actions, had some trouble with the enemy stand up counters

When I was around 12 years old, I had the chance to visit Serpent Mound Park which was many hours away in Southern Ohio. It was a spiritual experience I will never forget and it fueled my interest in the people who constructed this over 1300 foot long effigy of a snake with an egg clutched in its mouth. Now we can learn about these people through a wonderful game called Mound Builders.

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The solo game Mound Builders is a 2015 release from Victory Point Games but it has just come to our attention here at Armchair General and we are so glad it did! This game is great!

The Mound Builder culture in North America describes the indigenous people who built mounds looking like pyramidal structure as well as animal effigy mounds such as Ohio’s Serpent Mound from around 1000 BC (BCE) until the coming of Spanish explorers in the mid to late 1600s. These people, representing various tribes, had a central fortified city, Cahokia in Illinois which was located directly across the Mississippi River from modern St. Louis, Missouri. The city stretched for over 6 square miles and tribes from all over North America came there to trade.

The sturdy game box is a compact 9” x 6” x 1 ¾” but under its attractive cover artwork is a wealth of gaming goodness. Included is one 11” x 17” full color game map, 49 two sided laser cut counters, a 30 page rule booklet, a play aid showing turn sequences and listing possible player actions, 50 history/event cards and a six sided die.

As the counters are laser cut which means that some ash accumulates on your fingers when you punch them out, Victory Point Games has thoughtfully included an official Victory Point Games’ “Wipes-A-Lot” napkin!

The rule booklet is logically laid out and contains plenty of examples and designer’s notes as well as optional rules. The book is a great help as it is laid out to walk you through the turn sequence and options for play. There are also many humorous comments which help liven up the read through. I did find myself wishing for a complete index though.

The game covers three historic periods – the Hopewell era (200 BC to 500 AD), the Mississippian era (900 to around 1600) and finally the era of Spanish incursions (after 1600). I played from the Hopewell era to the start of the Spanish incursion before hostile tribes wiped out Cahokia. Don’t worry – I’m going to be playing this fine game again and try to get further. Each era has its own unique challenges. The goals while playing the Hopewell era is to expand the control of your territory which is based in Cahokia and establish trade with other tribes but you’d also better fortify Cahokia and build up its defenses. In addition, you must build as many mounds as possible to firmly establish control of your territories and honor the gods. During the Mississippian era, five other tribes begin to take exception to your “empire” and begin a war to free the land from your “oppression”. They begin pushing your territory back towards Cahokia. When the Spanish finally arrive, they begin a war of conquest and pacification plus the germs they bring can begin to kill off your people.

The game features a point to point system with each territory being an area of North America.

A neatly designed dial is used as an overlay to Cahokia. As you build up its walls, the dial is rotated to show the better level of protection. When your capital gets attacked, the opposing armies may degrade your log walls or even breach them. If Cahokia falls, the game is over!

The sequence of play changes slightly depending on the era but, in general, the sequence is as follows:

1) Draw a History Card – these act as events as well as controlling cards for the enemy tribes’ artificial intelligence. Each card includes very interesting information on various aspects of Mound Builder culture and history.

2) Economics Phase – calculate your action points which allow you to “do things” in the context of the game. In addition, you may be required to take stock of the various trade goods that your empire generates. Trade goods include things such as “feathers”, “obsidian”, “chert”, “hides”, etc. – items with great significance and value to the indigenous cultures of the time.

3) Hostile Phase – hostile tribes or the Spanish move up and down the point to point territories and try to conquer the friendly tribes of your empire.

4) Revolts Phase – perhaps some of your “friendly conquered territories” aren’t so happy with your enlightened rule!

5) Action Phase – pay action points to build mounds, incorporate chiefdoms, attack hostile armies, improve your storage pits, repair the walls of Cahokia, etc.

6) End of Turn Housekeeping Phase – adjust trade goods, place the Great Sun marker, check for small pox brought by the Spanish, check on Peace Pipes, etc.

Not all of the History Cards are used at one time. When the eras change, the rules instruct how to build the new deck of cards using a moderately complex system. I did have a little confusion as I was setting up to play the Hopewell era as the rules say to remove two Hopewell History Cards from the deck but it doesn’t say until much later in the rules what to do with these two cards. I think an additional sentence could limit the confusion I had by just saying “Keeps these cards separate as they will be used later in the game.”

The five enemy Native American tribes are the Ho-Chunk, Shawnee, Cherokee, Natchez and Caddo. They are represented by cardboard stand ups which move along the point to point paths. I did find that the stand-ups have a tendency to fall out of the card board bases. I would rather the bases were plastic or something a little more durable than card board.

The Actions the player can perform are interesting and you must think strategically in order to try and win. I did find the Action choices to be a little too limiting but the Optional Rules help elevate the limitations. I think after playing GMT’s more complex games Comancheria and Navajo Wars, I was a little spoiled and wanted a little more diversity but, to be fair, Mound Builders is much more of grand strategy game which covers over a thousand years. Its scope is, therefore, somewhat more long term than the other two games and, as such, more abstraction is appropriate.

Conflict is handled by making an attack on a hostile army. Each enemy has a Combat Value. If your die roll is higher than the enemy’s Combat Value, you move them back one area. Some options such as assigning the “Great Sun”, the leader of your people, to provide strategic guidance allows you to roll 2 dice and take the higher roll while offering a Peace Pipe to powwow with the enemy may hold them off for a time. Later in the game, you can motivate your people to join the “Buzzard Cult” which allows your warriors to fight with a greater religious fervor but this violent cult diminishes your ability to peacefully trade with other tribes and hurts your reputation. In Mound Builders, you can never get rid of an enemy – only hold them off for a time.

While Mound Builders is not as complex as Comancheria and Navajo Wars, it covers a time period not addressed by these two games. For those interested in Native American history, I recommend starting with Mound Builders, then playing Comancheria and then finally advancing to Navajo Wars. These three games give a wonderful overview of the original people of this continent.

The history of the indigenous people of the Americas is a fascinating subject for games to cover. Games such as Mound Builders, Comancheria and Navajo Wars not only expand our knowledge of the past but also help us appreciate the struggles and history of native peoples everywhere. These games deserve to be in the gift shop of all museums as they are not “just games” but wonderful educational insights in to our common history as well as a reminder of tragedies which must never be repeated.

Armchair General Rating: 93 %

Solitaire Rating: 5

About the Author
A college film instructor and small business owner, Richard Martin has also worked in the legal and real estate professions, is involved in video production, film criticism, sports shooting and is an avid World War I and II gamer who can remember war games which came in plastic bags and cost $2.99 (he’s really that old)!

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