Sunday, January 19, 2014

Zulus on the Ramparts Review

Zulus on the Ramparts has been on my wishlist for a long time.  I love the States of Siege series, and Zulus' has gotten great reviews.  But it looked like it strayed quite far from the formula, and I wasn't sure how I felt about that.  I got Zulus for Christmas however, and I've played it nonstop since then.  It's not as easy to get 6 games played in a row, like Soviet Dawn.  But if I play one game, I'm incredibly likely to at least play a second.

Zulus on the Ramparts was released in 2009 by Victory Point Games, and was designed by Joseph Miranda.  It's a single player wargame, based on a battle at a mission station in Africa.  It's 1879, and an enormous hoard of Zulus is descending on the British troops there, who are hopelessly outnumbered, 4000 to 140!  Your goal is to hold out through the night until help gets there.

Rule Summary

Zulus on the Ramparts plays on a board with you in the center, and four paths branching out.  These paths are named after the Zulu attack formation, and are the Loins, the Chest, and the Left and Right Horns.  Different Zulu groups will randomly be assigned to these paths on the 5th space, and they each have a different number of hit markers.  After that, you place the Zulu Victory Marker between the two 0 locations on the board, place the Day marker in it's box, and place the Ammunition/Water Low marker in it's box.

Now you can set up the deck.  First you take out the five special cards numbered 1 through 5.  These include 2 Heroes and 1 Volley which will make up your starting hand.  They also include the card which signals nightfall, and the card which ends the game.  You mix Lord Chelmsford's Relief Column, which ends the game, in with 3 cards.  This forms the bottom of the deck.  Place half the remaining cards on top of it, then the Night Fighting Begins card, followed by the rest of the cards.  Lastly you dump all the round iMpi chits into a bowl, and you are ready to play.

All set up.

Every turn begins by drawing an iMpi chit from the bowl, and performing it's action.  Most of them cause one or more of the Zulu columns to advance closer to your position.  But there are many more unique chits in the bowl as well.  Some of them augment a second chit with a -1 DRM to your Volleys, others cause you the Zulus to retreat.  One especially vicious event, Seniority Debate, causes 5 of your best heroes to return to your hand!

If none of the advancing Zulus made it to their victory marker inside the mission compound, you get a chance at fighting back.  Each turn you get one action, and there are numerous types of actions you can take.  The first action you are likely to take is putting forth a Hero.  This just involves taking them from you hand, and placing them in front of you.  They are now available.  Available heroes are used in many of the other actions, but they also have unique abilities they must be available to perform.  Some abilities require you to return the hero to your hand, or insert them back into the deck.  More powerful abilities require you to discard the hero, usually permanently.

A typical Volley card

The second most common action you'll perform is firing a Volley.  This just involves playing a Volley card from your hand, targeting a Zulu column, and then rolling the dice and determining hits.  Most Volley cards give you a different amount of dice at each range.  You also typically can't fire past the 3rd location along a path of advance.  Every 5 you roll forces the Zulus back one space, and every 6 you roll scores a hit.  Every hit removes a hit marker from the Zulu column, and eventually destroys the column itself.

It's important to point out here, that most Heroes have a Volley as well.  This can be fired without spending an action, but it sends that Hero to the discard pile.  Lastly I want to point out that various DRMs can effect the Volley.  For as many -1 DRMs as you have, you just subtract 1 from the highest die.  So if you have two -1 DRMs, and you rolled a 6, 5 and a 5, the DRMs would lower that to a 5, 5 and a 4.

The other actions you can perform are forming the Reserve Platoon with 2 Heroes of sufficient rank, working on your barricades, putting out fires that are caused by iMpi chits, and distributing Ammo/Water when it is low.  All of these require available heroes, either committed to those task, as in forming the Reserves or building the Barricade, or returning them to you hand as in the case of fighting fires or distributing ammo.

The Barricades actually require some further explanation.  You can build two levels of barricades, each one pushing the Zulu victory marker back a space.  Each barricade takes 3 actions, usually over multiple turns, to complete.  Once it is finished, you return the Hero who was working on it to your hand.

Now you wrap up your turn by drawing a card, and putting forth a hero for free.  You check to see if you've defeated all the Zulu columns, and if you haven't you discard down to five cards.  Then you start another turn.

I've already alluded to it, but you win by either defeating all the Zulu columns, or waiting until the British relief column arrives.  You lose if the Zulus ever reach their victory marker.

A quick timelapse of play.  I lost fast.

How accessible is the game to new players?

I found Zulus on the Ramparts to be very accessible, as most Victory Point Games are.  The rules of the game focus a great deal on playability, and it really feels like a game, as opposed to a simulation you laboriously go through the motions of.  The core rules take up about 15 well laid out pages, with tons of helpful examples.  There is even an incredibly informative extended example, going over the first several turns of a game.  The examples even go a good ways towards illustrating some basic strategy and card combinations.

What could have been done better?

The events from the chit pull system could have better reference material.  The back cover of the manual has a lot of reference material, but it just needs more information about the events.  Especially the Seniority Debate event, where 5 very specific heroes return to your hand.  I actually made small marks on each of those cards with a permanent marker so I don't have to memorize them.  Because otherwise, I must refer back to the manual for which heroes are effected by it, disrupting play rather severely.

These guys get into a pretty headed Seniority Debate.  Seemed prudent to mark them.

What are the feelings the game evokes and why?

Zulus on the Ramparts really captures the feeling of a few survivors banding together, contributing their unique skills for the good of the group.  This is accomplished wonderfully with the cards.  Instead of representing negative events with an action allowance to mitigate them, as they do in other States of Siege games, they represent heroes with various unique abilities.  You can really imagine these guys working together, to pull off various feats.  This is all thanks to the enemy actions having been moved off the cards, into a chit pull system.

Long term strategy, short term tactics, both or neither?

I think Zulus on the Ramparts is one of the more engaging States of Siege games strategically.  Strategy in most of the SoS games amount to card counting, and anticipating that certain extremely destructive events are still on the way.  But in Zulus on the Ramparts, the strategy is more focused on building up your barricades, keeping heroes available, and hand management.  There is just a greater variety of options than flipping a card, and rolling a die a few times.

The tactical pressures are similarly tuned up.  As in most SoS games, you'll find yourself on a turn where every front is breathing down your neck.  But unlike others, there is more you can do besides futilely spend your meager action allowances and hope to get lucky on die rolls.  Your heroes have powerful abilities you can chain together,  Plus in the worst case scenario, you can have them sacrifice themselves to fire off powerful volleys!

Are the dilemmas the player is presented with of sufficient quality?

I found most of the excitement of Zulus to be in chaining your hero abilities.  You'll find yourself in a situation where it's night, and your ammo is low, so that's two -1 DRMs.  You also have a Zulu column right next to your last fallback spot!  How do you drive them back?

Good old reliable Lt. Chard.
Well, you could discard Lieutenant Chard to get +2 actions off his heroic sacrifice.  Then you can use another hero to distribute ammo to your troops.  With 2 actions left you can fire off a series of volleys!  Or maybe you don't think things are getting that bad just yet.  You can return Lieutenant Bromhead to your hand, gaining an extra action off his return ability.  That gets you up to two different actions, which you can still use to distribute ammo, and fire at least one volley.  Although, if the volleys are large enough, you might skip the ammo and take your chances with the -1 DRMs.

These decisions matter a lot, because you'll quickly learn that you don't want to over commit resources, and burn through Heroes.  Discard too many, or return too many to your hand, and you'll find yourself severely under strength, with no one to form the reserve platoon, put out fires, or distribute ammo!

What could have improved the dilemmas?

My only complaint, and this is seriously a nitpick, is that the beginning of the game feels a bit scripted.  You always start with the same three cards, all the Zulus out of range, and nothing to do but put out guys and build your barricades.  It doesn't really provide any room to decide on an alternate strategy up front.  I can imagine a variant where you always start with 2 from a subset of heroes, and 1 from a subset of volleys.  It might make the opening a bit more interesting.  Or perhaps a more significant change might have involved more ways you could build up your defenses, with varied effects.

Physical component design and limitations?

I really love the abundant use of standees in this game.  I especially appreciate how the sandbag markers actually make a sandbag barrier when you stack them.  I like to place them on the map, in front of where my last stand space is.  It's one of the few times I've enjoying whimsically playing with components in a game.

I really love these Barricades

The quality of the playing cards seems to fluctuate with every Victory Point Game I get, but the ones I received in Zulus actually riffle shuffle and bridge relatively well.  They aren't cut perfectly, and the cardstock is a little weak and bendy.  But they suffice better than most cards that come from Victory Point Games.  Since these are all print on demand however, your mileage may vary.

What could have been better?

An unmarked R chit next to an
advance chit that I've marked up.
The event chits drive my color blindness insane.  I found them 100% unreadable.  I had to get a very bright light, and cross reference all the chits with an inventory.  Once I had them sorted out by that, I had to mark them up with a permanent marker, filling in all the inactive Zulu columns with black.  Plus like I already mentioned, I marked up the Heroes effected by the Seniority Debate as well to enhance playability.

Long term prospects?

Zulus on the Ramparts ranks up there right alongside Soviet Dawn for me.  It plays a little slower, and is slightly more complex, but I find the decisions I make far more meaningful.  The dice don't feel like they dominate gameplay as much as other States of Siege games, which is a welcome change.  You will still win or lose by the dice.  In fact, when I was recording the timelapse for this review, I rolled 36 dice, and only rolled a 6 once, and a 5 twice, leading to my death before I even made it to night!  But generally there is more to do than just roll dice, and most of the time you can mitigate awful rolls, at least for a while.

There are also 19 expansion cards included, which add numerous elements to make things interesting.  A lot of them are just additional heroes.  But the more fascinating ones are conditional events, and powerful groups which may or may not show up.  I wouldn't recommend mixing all of them into the deck at once, since that wildly increases the variance of the cards.  But they are really fun to play with when you add 5 or 6 at a time.  It increases the replayability of the game by a great deal.

I'm certainly going to be keeping Zulus on the Ramparts in my collection.  I'm sure it will regularly rotate across my solitaire table for a long time to come.  It's fun, engaging, and the production quality of the components is outstanding, despite a few small hiccups.

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