Fortress America – Boardgame Review
Fortress America. Boardgame review. Publisher, Fantasy Flight Games. Design: original 1985 design Michael Gray; FFG Edition, Kevin Wilson. $69.95
Passed Inspection: Faithful to the original classic, new rules enhance the game
Failed Basic: Symbols instead of numbers on the dice, rules a little too lawyerly
Though little noticed at the time, the year 1985 was a quantum leap for the gaming hobby. That was the year Milton Bradley (now part of Hasbro) released their GameMaster line of wargames; pricey, big-box games with hundreds of detailed miniatures in place of cardboard counters; big, mounted mapboards; and rules that were more complex than Risk but less convoluted than Advanced Squad Leader. Axis And Allies, Conquest Of The Empire, Broadsides And Boarding Parties, and Shogun (later re-titled Samurai Swords) were about 15 years ahead of their time and helped usher in the modern era of the wargame hobby.
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The fifth of the GameMaster line was Fortress America, an instant classic that took its basis from Cold War fears: the U.S. is invaded on three sides by communist armies. From the west come the Chinese, from the south we get attacked by the Sandinistas and Cubans, and our old foes the Soviets hit the eastern seaboard. Unable to use nuclear weapons on our own soil, America must fall back on backs-to-the-wall fighting and guerilla warfare to grind the invaders down. Remember, this was 1985; Rambo II was king of the box office, and the previous year we had watched teenagers in Red Dawn defeat just such an invasion!
Well, Fortress America is back in circulation. For some reason, Hasbro has outsourced the re-issue to Fantasy Flight Games, who takes the ball and runs it in for a touchdown. Fantasy Flight has left most of the game alone, adding in a few elements that for the most part serve to enhance and improve an already quality game.
The storyline is basically the same as the original. The United States, about to complete a missile defense system that will also allow them to destroy military targets anywhere in the world, is attacked by the nations of the European Union and China, who decide to strike before America becomes the pre-eminent superpower again. They talk several Central and South American governments into helping with the invasion. So we’re still hit on three fronts, west, east, and south; thankfully the Canadians remain on our side.
Inside the Fortress America Box
This two- to four-player game comes with a full-color rulesbook, four player aid cards, a graveyard display, 31 Partisan cards, and eight cards for each invader. There are 60 military units for each invader army and for the U.S., plastic miniatures representing near-future infantry, hovertanks, APCs, helicopter gunships, and B2-style bombers. The U.S. player also has access to 11 laser stations. Two dozen partisan figures represent everday Americans who rise up to battle the foreign attackers. There are 90 control markers for the invaders to mark conquered territories; 11 laser targeting markers; and one big game-turn marker. Special battle dice—four each of d6, d8, and d10—are included, along with a regular d10 for laser fires. These are virtually the same components as the original game, left alone because it worked so well the first time around.
The 33 x 22.5 inch mapboard is a representation of the United States broken into spaces (territories) for area-to-area movement, with 30 major cities indicated. These are the objectives that are fought over, for if the invaders ever conquer 19 or more cities between them, the U.S. player loses (and if there are several invader players, they spend one more turn fighting each other to grab more territories and cities to determine the winner). Players of the original game will notice the cities are nearly the same. Buffalo and Cincinatti have been removed (sorry, Bills and Bengals fans), while Las Vegas and Colorado Springs have been added. The map is broken up into five regions (East Coast, South, Plains, Rocky Mountains, and Western), which determine where Partisan cards take effect. Mountains comprise about a third of the map, which benefits the defender in combat. Again, other than the small changes in cities represented and the colors looking a little washed out, the map is the same as the one first printed in 1985 .
Setup and Movement
The U.S. player sets up first, two units per city. The lasers and partisans are not set up at the start of the game. Then the invaders set up 20 units each in their invasion zones. Each invader controls six invasion zones. For the Western and Eastern invaders, these are territories off-shore, simulating amphibious invasion; the Southern invader has four zones, equivalent to units crossing from Mexico, and two amphibious invasion zones. Invasion zones function like regular map territories, except U.S. units cannot enter them (though U.S. units can attack into invasion zones).
The Western invader goes first, followed by the Southern invader and then the Eastern invader, after which the beleaguered U.S. player acts. Game turns begin with a reinforcements phase; the invaders don’t get reinforcements on the first turn, but the U.S. does. Reinforcements for the invaders are eight units chosen from their reserves (units that are not destroyed in combat or through supply attrition; each invader starts with 40 units in reserve). The U.S. player gets one laser unit in a city each turn and draws at least two Partisan cards (more if he liberated any cities in the previous turn), which provide partisans and other units that are placed in specific regions or territories.
There are two movement phases that bookend the combat phase. Bombers are the quickest at four spaces per movement phase, while the slowest, infantry, cannot move before combat and can only move one space in the second movement phase. (A rule new to this edition allows mobile units to transport infantry so that infantry can move in the first movement phase when carried by an APC.) No more than five units can occupy a territory; lasers do not count as a unit. You cannot move into a territory containing an enemy unit, although bombers have a special bombing run ability that allows them to share a territory with enemy units for combat.
Units attack declared adjacent territories in the combat phase. Roll attack dice based on the unit(s) involved: infantry and mobile units roll d6, hovertanks and helicopters roll d8, and bombers roll d10. Partisans roll d8 if attacking or defending alone; when working with other units (including other partisans) they roll d6, a great simulation of the problems of command and control in guerilla forces. Defenders fire first, rolling their dice for all units involved. Rolls of 1 cause an attacking unit to be disengaged (will not participate in combat), while 5 or higher eliminates an attacking unit. The defender chooses which attacking unit gets disengaged or destroyed based on what defending units can "hit," i.e., air units can destroy anything, while partisans and infantry have to kill infantry units first before moving on to armored (hovertank and mobile) units. Another nice element of tactical combat that doesn’t require ten sections of rules.
After the defender fires, the attacker rolls for his remaining units. A 1 causes a defender to retreat, 5 or more is a kill. When attacking cities or mountains, only 6 or higher hits unless the attacker has combined arms (he is attacking with air, armored, and infantry units). Again, the attacker chooses retreats and casualties based on which units attacking units hit. Combat is one round only. After combat, second movement can be used to move into territories emptied by battle to conquer the territory. (The U.S. player liberates, not conquers!).
The invader has a supply phase after his second movement. Any invader units that cannot trace a supply line of friendly territories back to an invasion zone are destroyed. Invader units destroyed in combat or in the supply phase are placed on a graveyard card to keep them separate from the invader units that have not been placed into play yet (his reserves), since only reserves can be placed during the reinforcements phase. Thus, the invaders’ strength diminishes with each turn.
The U.S. player enjoys several advantages. He is always in supply, and he begins his combat turn by firing lasers at enemy units, one target per laser; a 5 or higher on a d10 destroys the enemy unit. The Partisan cards not only provide the U.S. player constant reinforcements—he has no reserves and can replenish his forces from destroyed units—but give him a chance to slice into invader supply lines and threaten their rear areas, forcing the invaders to re-trench. Several times in each game it seems you get the classic guerilla warfare scene, a heavy attack force of bombers or tanks going up against a lone partisan—and losing, suffering a casualty while recording no hits (especially in mountain or city territories). Partisan cards are the same as in the original game—NRA sets up four partisans and a tank in one Rocky Mountains territory, Desert Scorpions ambush a supply convoy and destroy all armored units in one Western territory, etc.—and one new card is added, an extra laser unit to be set up in Colorado Springs. When the U.S. player liberates a city, he gains one bonus Partisan card on the next turn. Once the invaders begin losing control, it’s hard for them to get back on track.
A new rule allows the invaders to have cards, too. An invader player can choose to take only five reinforcements and draw a card from his eight-card deck (each invader has their own set of cards). Invader cards can give one-turn benefits to combat or movement, and they can allow the invader to move units from his destroyed pile on the graveyard card back into his reserves. Each invader has one card that allows him to turn a city (Seattle, San Antonio, or Atlanta, depending on the invader) into an invasion zone which allows faster reinforcing of his front lines and improves his supply lines. The invader cards are an optional rule, but one that is good to play with.
The Big Change in Fortress America
The major league change in this edition comes with the turn record track. In the original game, you played until the U.S. lost or the invader player(s) gave up, which generally meant long games. Now, the invaders have until game turn 10 to win by capturing and holding 19 or more cities. If they don’t achieve that, the U.S. wins (the political and economic blowback of the war causes the invaders to retreat). Placing a time limit on the game means that the invaders have to be a little more aggressive than before, which is both a big and welcome change. At 10 turns, the game generally takes about three to four hours to complete.
Fantasy Flight is very faithful to the original game, and the small changes they make for the most part improve game play. Where they fall short is in trying too hard to modernize this old girl. The rules are a little too, well, rulesy and over-worded. Instead of First Movement and Second Movement, which are self-explanatory, we get Maneuvers Movement and Invasion Movement. Instead of big pictures of units on the Partisan cards, we get small unit icons and lots of empty space. And do the Partisan cards all have to say, "Discard after use"? We get that from the rules.
The biggest turn-off is the dice. Instead of regular d6, d8, and d10, we get "special battle dice" with symbols and blank faces. So the d6 has an arrow for retreat / disengage, a blast marker for 5 (combined arms hit symbol according to the rules), and a blast marker in a circle for a 6. The d10 have the same symbols, except they have five blast markers in a circle. Geez, it’s just like rolling 6 or higher … I’m not sure why Fantasy Flight decided to forgo Arabic numerals since everyone I know uses them. Probably so they could sell sets of "special battle dice."
The new sculpts on the unit miniatures are well done (love the mobile artillery–styled lasers), and the game is both faithful to the original and has enough new flavor (the mobile unit transport rules, invader cards, time limit) to make it worth revisiting. The price is not at all bad, considering you get over 300 miniatures. A bit overworded in the rules and I hated the symbol dice, but those are nits to be picked, not reasons to avoid this game. Here’s hoping FFG will get a chance to re-do Samurai Swords and Broadsides & Boarding Parties (Conquest Of The Empire has already been re-done by Eagle Games), because they got Fortress America just right.
Armchair General rating: 95%
Solitaire Suitability (1 is low, 5 high): 4 out of 5
About the Author
Sean Stevenson lives in Pittsburgh and has been gaming since the days of SPI. He is currently working on an online comic book series titled FANTASEA.