Most board gamers are familiar with the games Axis and Allies and (to a lesser extent, perhaps) Shogun. Both are deservedly well-known, being excellent strategy board games. But one game in the same general category and released at about the same time gets much less attention than it deserves–Fortress America (pictures). It’s a bit trickier to learn than either A&A or Shogun, but that didn’t prevent me from spending a large chunk of my youth playing it solitaire or with friends.
The FA setup is a pretty straightforward Cold War nightmare: the United States is being invaded! Three enemy armies (played by three separate players, or controlled as a group by a single player) are attacking the U.S. from three sides: west, south, and east (our Canadian brothers are watching our northern flank, apparently–go Canada!). The invading players win by capturing a certain number of major U.S. cities; the U.S. player wins by preventing this from happening. The game works best, in my experience, if the invaders are controlled by three different players, as this introduces a bit of fun competition between invaders; but it can be played just as well with just one invader and one U.S. player.
Fortress America plays somewhat differently than its sister strategy games, and introduces several interesting strategic challenges that aren’t present in A&A or Shogun. Among the strategic issues that really set the game apart:
- Winning battles is trickier than in FA‘s sister games. In particular, it’s relatively difficult to capture a territory. To do so, you must destroy or rout every defending unit–but because of the way that the combat rules work, that’s tough to do. (Among other things, the defending side gets an advantage in combat. There’s also only one “round” in combat, so you only get one round to take out every defender.) If you want to be sure of a battlefield victory in FA, you pretty much need massive numerical superiority or incredible luck.
- The three invaders start with overwhelming numerical superiority, with large armies in excellent attack positions. In addition, the invaders receive very heavy reinforcements every turn–but only for the first few turns of the game. In other words, the invaders are primed to make very rapid progress in the opening turns of the game… but when those reinforcements stop, they’re stuck with whatever they’ve got for the rest of the game.
- On the other hand, the U.S. starts out in a comparatively awful strategic position–its meager starting forces are spread equally thin across the entire country. It receives comparatively light reinforcements each turn, but (critically) those reinforcements do not stop after the first few turns of the game. Its position is the strategic opposite of the invaders; the U.S. is positioned to lose heavily during the opening rounds of the game, but can count on a slow-but-steady buildup of reinforcements throughout most of the game.
- The effect of this oddly-balanced strategic/logistical situation is that the invaders must “break” the U.S. before its reinforcements reach a critical mass and the initiative starts shifting in America’s favor. Well-planned initial attacks are crucial for the invaders; any major setbacks for them in the opening turns of the game will cost them heavily once their reinforcements dry up and the U.S. finally starts going on the offensive.
- The opening turns are crucial for the U.S. as well; in the face of the invaders’ numerical superiority, the U.S. inevitably loses a great deal of territory early on. The challenge facing the U.S. player is to determine which areas can be sacrificed to the invading hordes, and which areas must be held at all costs. The U.S. player does a lot of retreating during the first few turns–but it must retreat in such a way that a) the invaders are slowed as much as possible, and b) the U.S. will be in a good position to counterattack once its reinforcements build up.
- The eastern invader is the biggest immediate threat to the U.S., because so many U.S. cities are located near or along the East Coast within striking distance of the invaders. Any strategic mistakes by the U.S. in the east/northeast can easily be fatal.
- On the other hand, the western invader poses the least immediate threat to the U.S. The entire west coast usually falls within the first two turns, but after that, the western invaders must laboriously travel across the entire midwest to threaten the important cluster of U.S. cities in the east. This process takes many turns and gives the U.S. time to prepare.
- The game does a good job of simulating an ancient invaders’ dilemma: the homefield advantage. The width of the battlefront only widens the further the invaders advance, and America is big enough that U.S. forces can almost always retreat a bit further out of range. The invaders must progress along a fairly predictable invasion path, whereas the U.S. can often pick and choose where to hit the enemy. American air power based in Omaha (distant from the front lines) can strike at almost any point along any of the invading fronts.
The way the game often plays out, in my experience, is about like this: the invaders come within inches of breaking the U.S. and winning, but run out of gas a mere turn or two from victory. If the U.S. can survive the first six or seven turns, it has a very good chance of winning the game; at that point, the invaders can no longer replace battlefield losses and start to lose the war of attrition. If the invaders haven’t “checkmated” the U.S. by the tenth turn or thereabouts, it’s very tough for them to win the game. That said, it takes a lot of skill for the U.S. to survive through throse hellish first few turns, when it seems that the invaders are simply unstoppable.
In summary, Fortress America is a very fun, but slightly odd, strategy game that merits more attention than it received back in the heyday of such games. If you’re in the area and looking for a good challenge, I’d happily challenge you to a Cold War duel of the superpowers!by