Flying the Flag: Fort Sumter's Abstract Take on the ACW

By Matt Thrower 21 Aug 2018 0

Fort Sumter isn't the best-known name of the American Civil War. It can't rank with Gettysburg or Shiloh in the popular imagination, so it's a risky topic for any kind of media, let alone a game. But you can’t escape its importance: This eponymous title is a super-fast take on the card-driven wargame from GMT Games, with all the narrative and history that entails. So as well as a game, it's also has the incredible potential to be a learning experience as well as a gateway into one of the most popular topics in American wargaming.

Skimming the simple rules reveals an engine inspired by Twilight Struggle. Instead of the Cold War, players compete for public support in the escalating events that lead to conflict between Union and Confederacy. Each person gets a hand of four cards and must play three. If the card's colour ties in with your side, you can play it for the text event. Otherwise you get its numerical value. Both result in placing cubes onto board spaces which represent aspects of the crisis, like military forts or political bodies. 

Sumter 1

Your goal is to have more cubes than your opponent in all three spaces of the same aspect, earning you a point. But there are catches to keep the game interesting. Most notably, it penalises players for adding too many cubes too fast. Historically this models the way that taking up extreme positions both attracts and repels aspects of public opinion. But it's also a clever route to game balance, like Twilight Struggle's "Defcon" track.

Shuffling cubes among board spaces doesn't sound like a historical game. And the first time you play, it's unlikely to feel like one. You'll read the cards, match some symbols on the board, and ride out the half-hour play time like a fanciful abstract. But you'll have a good time, because like any good abstract, Fort Sumter is full of fun decisions.

Sumter 2

As well as controlling triptychs of board spaces, you get points for completing objectives. Each player gets to pick one, in secret, each round. And within each set of spaces, one is more important than the other two: control lets you move or remove cubes among the set. With just three cards to play across each of three turns, it's impossible to do everything you need. 

Instead, it's a game of competing priorities. You might not have the cards to get a majority in any set of spaces. Instead, you might manage it by controlling a pivotal space and shuffling cubes. Or focusing on your objective and denying your opponent any set. Or force them into taking too many cubes and triggering an escalation penalty.

And as you learn the cards over repeat sessions, further opportunities present themselves. Like guessing what objective your opponent has chosen, and gunning to control both, for instance. And you'll see repeat plays, because with its simple rules and speedy play, Fort Sumter manages something its bigger cousins can't. It is incredibly addictive.

Sumter 3

Due to limited parameters and fixed decks, it’s easy to see the mistakes in your half hour game. So you want to play again, to learn and do better. And it's so fast that you can repeat that loop again and again, seeing more strategic nuance with every play. Before you know it, hours have passed.

During those hours, some of the cards and spaces that looked so abstract at first will start to seem more meaningful. You might pick out the name Major Anderson, recalled from a history lesson, and noted how his card effect links him to the Fort Sumter space. Or had your curiosity piqued by the ghoulish text of John Brown's Body and how it aids the Unionist cause in the Secessionist states.

My personal epiphany was the Plantation Class card. After slapping it down, it dawned on me what this abstract action represented in real life. It sends tens of thousands to war to defend their hideous ‘right’ to treat people as property. Fort Sumter pulls no punches regarding what it describes as the "national sin" of slavery. But it's one thing to know the history, quite another to understand its impact. Sitting in the Secessionist seat, playing that card, placing the cubes made it terrifyingly real. It made me feel sick.

Sumter 4

Moments like this will send players to the included playbook, far thicker than the slim rules. This details some of the history, the design concepts and what the cards are supposed to represent. It's not all clear and satisfying. There's some obvious hand waving as to what victory in the game represents in the historical sense, for instance. Conversely, take the ‘final crisis’ mechanic, which uses blind play of the cards discard during the game. The playbook posits this represents the chaos of unfolding disaster, but it feels messy and random in practice.

Despite the odd misstep, Fort Sumter packs an astonishing amount of game and history into its tiny play time. It is rewarding and engaging, easy to play yet full of subtly interlocking elements to master. But it's also a cunning stepladder onto bigger, if not better, things. Any unsuspecting gamer might walk into this and get snagged on its brilliant mechanical barbs. By the time they've untangled themselves, they might walk away an amateur historian, too.

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