Today’s journey starts nearly two years ago when I read an article in the Wall St. Journal about historical board gaming. At the time I owned none of those games. Since then I have made a pair of purchases. After buying 13 Days: The Cuban Missile Crisis based on the discussion, I wrote a bit about it and particularly the derivation from Twilight Struggle‘s design. I dwelt on the similarities and differences between 13 Days and Twilight Struggle from both a gameplay standpoint and a design standpoint. That obvious connection between the two irked some folks on the discussion boards – they felt that 13 Days was a little too derivative and that perhaps there was some impropriety in “borrowing” from the Twilight Struggle theme without due deference to the original designers.
Meanwhile, there was a particular name whose heavy influence these titles I had also been discussing; that of designer Mark Herman. He designed Fire in the Lake as well as having a deeper historical connection to its development. His creation of We The People in 1993 is often cited as the origination of the Card Driven (War)Game (CDG) as a genre. That ties him, at least spiritually, to Twilight Struggle (and, therefore 13 Minutes via 13 Days), Freedom: The Underground Railroad, and 1960: The Making of the President. Throw in my spurious connection between Richards Berg and Borg, and we’ve drawn a line between Herman and Memoire ’44 as well.
You see, it was Mark Herman that took back* the Twilight Struggle baton from 13 Days.
In his “Designer Notes” Herman writes how he had an interest in smaller games in the late 1970s, but various pressures had shifted his focus to the big games. Without mentioning 13 Days by name, he indicates that its use of his own (We The People) mechanics and the Twilight Struggle theme motivated him to get back into small, quick games using the CDG mechanic. He thought of his follow-on to We The People, the Civil War themed For The People, and how it neglected to model the run-up to the firing on Fort Sumter. The result was a 20 minute game, Fort Sumter: The Secession Crisis, 1860-61, intended to the first in a series of smaller games.
Elsewhere, Herman makes a comparison relative to theme with Twilight Struggle. Specifically, he is saying that “games on this period have an advantage” when it comes the inclusion of history in that the players have, themselves, lived through some or all of the events depicted in the game. To me, this seems another reference to 13 Days. Because, you see, the two games are structured very much alike. The both games consist of three hands, where all but one of the cards are played – either for the “event” printed on them or a (usually lesser, but more flexible) number value. The last card of each hand is then saved for an “aftermath.” There are differences between the two games, of course, and some of those differences, while minor in and of themselves, make for a significantly different feel in terms of game play as well as in terms of the theme.
Both 13 Days and Fort Sumter start with each player secretly choosing an objective (from a random 3 in 13 Days and a random 2 in Fort Sumter). The big difference is that in 13 Days, you know which three cards your opponent has and vice versa. In Fort Sumter, you have no idea except to say it is not the same two choices you have (or, in later rounds, those that have already been played). Furthermore, Fort Sumter has more spaces to choose from – four trios of “dimensions” instead of just three. At the same time, you only get four cards (three playable) instead of 13 Days‘ five. The end result for all of this is that in 13 Days, the key element is bluffing. You already have enough information about your opponents choice that you might be able guess what objective the other player has, by watching his play. If you are correct, that could translate to a decisive advantage in scoring. In Fort Sumter, on the other hand, you mostly have to concentrate on your own goals. There is some opportunity to counter the moves of your opponent but, for the most part, you neither have the knowledge nor the opportunity to do so.
Critically, this makes 13 Days much less feasible as a computer game. I talked a little in my previous article about how a 13 Days “AI” might be structured. Most of your decisions revolve around how your opponent is going to perceive your moves and how much you react to (or ignore) your opponent. This has a decidedly psychological angle. Decision-making in Fort Sumter, in contrast, will be much more focuses on the player’s own goals. Automating that decision-making is aided by the relative simplicity of the game. Perhaps its not so surprising then that, approximately a year after the board game was released, a computer version also became available.
Fort Sumter‘s digital version was developed and published by Playdek, the same development house responsible for the well-received Twilight Struggle conversion. Several years later, Playdek and GMT (publisher of the physical Twilight Struggle) announced a partnership for the development of multiple games from the GMT catalogue. Specific projects in the announcement included a computer conversion of Labyrinth: The War on Terror, 2001-?; a yet-to-be-published title, Imperial Struggle; and unnamed games from the COIN series. The first two are reworking of the Twilight Struggle game structure to model the post- 9-11 world and the English-French rivalry leading up to the American Revolution. The COIN games, I have opined, trace their lineage from Twilight Struggle, through Labyrinth, and into that ever-expanding COIN series. You can easily see the appeal of extending the Twilight Struggle (computer game) engine into a portfolio of games. Lots of releases from a core of common code.
At the time of the announcement, the first product of this partnership was going to be Labyrinth, albeit without a target release date. To date, I’ve not seen updates on Labyrinth‘s but, in the interim, we’ve had last year’s release of Fort Sumter. Given the lineage between GMT, Twilight Struggle, through to Fort Sumter, clearly this seems like a positive (if small) step in that “generic engine” direction.
I do not have the Fort Sumter board game and so I have no experience playing the game against any opponent other than the Playdek AI**. Overall, it seems like a simpler game when compared to 13 Days. I’ve gone into some of that simplification above. Another key component, present in both games, is the idea of a escalating crisis. Fort Sumter‘s version of DEFCON is considerably simpler. Rather than actions indirectly or directly increasing tension, the equivalent consists simply of the blocks that have yet to be put in play. The combination of simplified features makes the game feel that much shallower.
The one area where there is a little bit more to the game, relative to 13 Days, is the “Final Crisis,” or what 13 Days calls the Aftermath. Recall how I discussed that the 13 Days Aftermath is a similar mechanic to the Space Race in Twilight Struggle. You can either put cards in the Aftermath to gain points for an end-of-game scoring opportunity (+2 VP to the side with the most points), or you can dump cards into the Aftermath to avoid having them played during the regular game. The problem is, “spacing” opponents cards in this manner adds to their point total in the Aftermath.
Fort Sumter avoids this dilemma by having two separate card functions, depending upon when the card is played. The event, including to which side it belongs, and the play-value of the card are all irrelevant in the Final Crisis resolution. All the matters is its color. Thus, while the “aftermath” is still a good way to get rid of cards from your hand that you don’t want to play – there is just no downside to doing so. This simplification is balanced by the fact that the “Final Crisis” play itself is active. Each player secretly sorts their hand, and then with the order so determined, plays their held cards one at a time. Each play entitles the player to move or remove up to two cubes targeting the “dimension” indicated on the card. If, however, both players target the same dimension in the same round, they both must remove their own tokens. This takes most of the strategy away from cards themselves and makes it (almost) a straight-up cube placement mechanic. Given the number of strategy cards, there is no way to predict what your opponent might have and so the chance of a match is almost entirely random.
So 13 Days is probably the more interesting player-versus-player game while Fort Sumter makes far more sense as a computer game, although definitely a fast-and-easy one. But what about the historical angle? When I originally looked at 13 Days, I made a distinction between that game’s integration with historical theme versus Twilight Struggle. While none of these games is meant to be either a historical or military simulation, to me, Twilight Struggle integrates the historical theme much more than the other two. On a sliding scale, however, Fort Sumter seems the most to consist of a generic mechanic with the historical stuff laid upon the top.
As with the other two, the historical background in the accompanying Playbook is a good read. I agree with Mark Herman’s comment – that part of the Struggle (tee hee) is that we are an extra 100 years removed from the present day when it comes to Fort Sumter. A yet, while enlightening, the historical background doesn’t quite imbue meaning to the game’s mechanics. For example, let’s take a look at the second (above) screenshot. My opponent, playing the rebels, has an advantage in the Fort Sumter space, which I am trying to reverse. Given that have two more cards to gain control and the AI can’t know that I want to control Sumter, it should be a given that I’m able to take it. Meanwhile, my biggest advantage is in the “Border States.” The notes explain how this dimension represents the cascading of southern States leaving the union. The pivotal “border states” rectangle represents, most importantly, Virginia and the uncertainty over which side she would support.
Fine, but what does “winning” the “Victory Point” for this mean? By controlling this space, do I prevent Virginia from seceding? Have I merely prevented Maryland from seceding, matching the historical result? Maybe I delayed Virginia’s secession without preventing it, thereby also delaying the Confederacy’s preparation for war. I think it goes without saying that, had Virginia come in militarily on the side of the Union, that would have decisively altered the course of the war. Is that reflected in game terms? While the historical chrome does make the game more interesting, it is hard to build a “story” from the course of a game in any way that makes sense.
Let’s contrast this with 13 Days.
In my previous post on the subject, I mentioned the mechanic of the “Cuban Missile Crisis” card in Twilight Struggle and how it translates into game terms a world on the brink of nuclear Armageddon. 13 Days is far more abstract, but I can still build a story from it. Let’s take the screenshot above, similarly taken from a game nearing its end. Playing as Kennedy, I can see that Khrushchev is being pushed politically to escalate the nuclear threat. If I am too soft, he’ll win political points (either at home or abroad, I don’t know which one he’s pushing for) that will disadvantage the U.S. in the Cold War for years to come. On the other hand, if I push too hard to counter him, the war could go hot and one of us loses, consumed in fire. Meanwhile, I’m bluffing. I’m signalling that my biggest concern is the politics of protecting Italy, but that’s not true. I’m trying to score political points over Cuba and augment that with a strong military stance using the U.S. fleet in the Atlantic. Since I started this round on the brink of nuclear war, I had to drop support for missiles in Turkey as well as leave Berlin hanging in the wind, militarily, to back the world away from that nuclear button. The game is abstract, yes, but the theme allows you to make it historical if you so desire.
As of that above screenshot, if the game played out as I expected it would, there was no way to know who was going to win. I get to go last, so I aim to pick up a couple of points in my objective after the Soviets can no longer counter me. This might put me up a point or maybe two, but that won’t matter, because ties go to the Soviets. I also had to give up my advantage at the United Nations in order to back away from the edge and that means the “Personal Letter” will be taken by Khrushchev for the game’s end. Who wins will all come down to the aftermath, and I don’t feel confident in that arena. Throughout the crisis, I have been struggling with my supposed ally’s in the free world while the Soviets have been strengthening their own relationships. The result of controlling the “Alliances” block, in game terms, is three more aftermath cards in the kitty than I will have. In story terms, a “stalemate” in terms of the crisis itself will favor the Communists in the long run, as they were all along thinking of the long term effects on their alliances.
Unfortunately for the Soviet Union, and the mass casualties that resulted from the nuclear exchange, Khrushchev miscalculated. Instead of doing what I expected, he used the card “Guns of August” to push the world to the brink of war on the “World Opinion” track. I can’t connect the book Guns of August to my story except to say, as Germany miscalculated the ability to contain the Diplomatic fallout from backing Serbia, so did alt-world Khrushchev miscalculate how much he could use pressure the rest of the world to force Kennedy to back away from the brink.
Obviously, the Soviets had gotten used to their influence over the sympathetic liberal reporters in the Western press and counted on that control to manipulate Kennedy into a position such that if a war started, everything would look like America’s fault. He didn’t count on the fact that, even though many reporters had political differences with the Administration and the military, when it came down to it they were still Americans and still Patriots. Khrushchev found he could not manipulate the press and when he pushed the world into war, he was forced to take the blame for the resulting loss of life among his own people.
As information about the situation in 1962 has become declassified, it lends support to the position of hawks like LeMay; a massive first strike by the U.S. may have crippled the Soviet Union sufficiently that they would be unable to mount a successful retaliation and would therefore be unwilling to retaliate at all. Nuking the Soviet Union, particularly if it was widely deemed that Kennedy had been forced into the decision, might have resulted in a U.S. “win.” At least that’s how I interpret the above result, where the Soviets have clearly won on points but, in doing so, triggered a nuclear war. Such a detailed analysis is more than a little silly – few of my details were really part of the game. My point, however, is that 13 Days lends itself to undertaking such an exercise in ways that I don’t believe Fort Sumter is capable.
I spoke before about this idea that you win, both in Twilight Struggle and in 13 Days, if you can make war look like the other guy’s fault. Fort Sumter lacks even the clarity of this iffy mechanic. What does it mean to end the game with more points? Can war be avoided? Is, with Lincoln having been elected, the Civil War inevitable even as you are trying to influence whom the history books blame it upon? Perhaps there is an implication that a better run-up to Bull Run might have resulted in a Confederate military victory. Could holding Fort Pickens as well as taking Sumter make a military difference? Could a more complete control over the weaponry stored in the southern Federal Arsenals have given the South an early and decisive military advantage? Maybe a few additional victories in the court of public opinion could have meant intervention by England, France, or both?
Its a tenuous historical connection – only there if you really want to make it happen. The elements may be there but I can’t get them to coalesce. Even the concept of Victory Points is deliberately vague. What does it mean to accumulate said points in terms of the outcome of the war? Herman says, in the design notes, that he struggled with this. He suggests that a top contender for what the points represent was “Strategic Will,” a phrase that still doesn’t help me understand much. In the end, he felt that leaning toward the abstract would prevent confusion for players and make it a better game.
How do you win? You get more Victory Points. Anybody can understand that.
Last of all, I’ll say that for whatever its faults, there are reasons Fort Sumter may still be a must buy. Translated to the computer, it becomes a game that can be completed in about 10 minutes. As such, it may fill a gaming need for something quick yet cerebral. It also, if you catch it on sale, can be had for under $2. Even at full price, it is under $5. Hard not to surrender to temptation.
*Some restructuring removed a link I previously had to a Wargamer.com review. So that the link doesn’t disappear, I included a link to the board game and the PC game. Oddly enough, given that the reviews were written by the same author, the board game review seems positive while the PC game review is negative. In particular, the historical theme is credited in the first but deemed a shortfall in the second. I will discuss this aspect further.
**I don’t know if anyone is reading through all my meandering writing seeking a critical review of the game. Just in case you’ve persevered thus far, I’ll throw out this bone. The AI seems weak, even against an fairly new player. I’ve only lost game in the handful or two I’ve played, and that involved a pretty stupid move on my part. On the other hand, in my last game, I saw a really dumb move from the AI. I had played the event that allows an early play of the “Peace Commissioners.” Essentially, this freezes the state of one space on the board through to the “Final Crisis” phase. I played it on Washington, the pivotal space for the political dimension when that had no units from either side on it. It essentially made it very difficult to earn any points from a political objective and all-but-impossible to earn the Washington points. My thinking was that there was a 1-in-4 chance that, at the time of play, the AI had a political objective and therefore I had a 25% shot at denying him that one point. The next round, the AI chose Washington as his objective, knowing that I already had it blocked. Rough-order-of-magnitude thinking, that a 90%+ chance that he will be unable to get that point. It’s just throwing away a point for nothing and, as it turns out, that single point made a difference. Again, that’s a lot of words but, I’m thinking that if the AI can’t see what it a near-certain implication of a card play, I have to wonder if it is really all that sophisticated.