Review – Zulus on the Ramparts!



Zulus on the Ramparts!
and the Expansion Kit

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Designer: Joseph Miranda (2009)
Publisher(s): Victory Point Games
# of Players: 1
Ages: 12+
Play Time: 25 minutes
Average BGG Rating: 7.52
Category: Gamer’s Game 

At one point in my hobby gaming, most of what I did was solitaire activity.  In theory, all that deckbuilding for CCG’s and adventure planning for RPG’s was in preparation for social play, but the reality was that I spent a lot more time with just me alone in a room writing stuff or shuffling cards than I did playing the games with others. 

Thankfully, I get a lot more chance to actually play games with real other people these days, but there are still some times when I find myself alone and aching for a game.  Since I’m not much on video games (which is a lot of gamers’ first choice for solo activity), I like having a few “go to” solo games at my disposal.

In that vein, I was given Zulus on the Ramparts! last year by my good friend Kenny, and it quickly jumped right to the top of my favorite solo games.  I’ve taken it on trips, played it over lunch at work, and occasionally pulled it out when everyone else was asleep and I had a hankering for something to play. 


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Game Basics (click here for 
part A and part B of the complete game rules)

Just in case you’re not very familiar with Victory Point Games (VPG), they mostly specialize in desktop-published historical and solitaire games.  They certainly work outside that box from time to time, but you’re usually talking about a war-ish sort of game made out of cardstock and packaged in a plastic baggie when you reference a Victory Point game.

Zulus on the Ramparts! is no exception to this rule, and comes with a fold-out cardstock map, some cardboard tokens, and a deck of small, flimsy cards.  The components are adequate overall, but I did feel the need to sleeve the cards (along with old Magic cards) in order to make them shuffle and play better.   And VPG doesn’t really apologize for their component quality; it is what it is.  Their slogan is “The gameplay’s the thing” because their focus is more on providing quality game designs at reasonable prices, and are willing to sacrifice some on component quality to do so.  At least the art and graphic design of this and other VPG games is pretty good, though, and that’s one area that they continue to get even better as a company. 

Zulus on the Ramparts! is the second in VPG’s solitaire 
States of Seige series, which basically all have the player be some group that is trying to fend off attackers coming in from a number of directions.  In other games, the attacking forces may be a little more abstract or figurative, but in ZotR!, which plays out the famous Battle of Rorke’s Drift, you play the 150 British troops at the Rorke’s Drift mission station literally trying to fend off 4,000 Zulu warriors coming in from 4 different directions.  It’s a modern day Battle of Thermopylae, and you definitely feel the pressure… 

Game Play

The game board primarily displays a map of the mission station with four tracks leading into it.  There are four different Zulu iButho markers (regiments) of different strengths (able to take between 2 and 5 hits) which are placed randomly onto the “5” spaces of the four tracks.  The Zulu Victory marker is placed into the Outer Perimeter, meaning that if any Zulu iButho reaches it, the game is lost.  If, however, you can survive until the Relief Column arrives (which is one of the last 4 cards in the deck), you will survive the attack and win the game.


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The four Zulu iButho (regiment) markers


Game Turn

The first thing each turn is drawing one of the round iMpi tokens out of a cup.  Most of these move one or more of the iButho markers further along its track, but there are also some event tokens that do various (and usually bad) things.  Assuming that no iButho has reached the Zulu Victory marker, you then move on the next step.

In the Action Phase, you get to perform one action.  Some of the most common things you do here are:

1) “Put forth” a Hero – Play a hero card from you hand to the table, which makes it then usable on a later turn either for its special powers or to perform another action

Photobucket2) Construct a Barricade – Commit a hero (Leftenant or
Sergeant only) on the table to building a barricade.  This actually takes 3 turns to do, after which the hero is returned to your hand and the Zulu Victory marker is moved backwards one step (first to the “Inner Barricade” and then to the “Final Redoubt”), thus buying you time and space to fight.

3) Fire a Volley (Make an attack) – You play a card from your hand to attack one of the iButho markers within range (usually at space 3 or closer on their track).  All hero cards also have attack values, and you can discard them as well either from your hand or from play to do make an attack.  Based on the range and the card, you’ll roll between 1 and 5 dice, with only 6’s doing damage and 5’s causing them to retreat one space.


 
Sample Volley and Hero cards

I don’t want to get into too much detail here, but there are a few other standard actions you can take any time.  Plus, a lot of heroes will give you more options that I can’t really get into at all, but I don’t want to leave you with the idea that you don’t have many options on your turn, because there are almost always a lot more things you’d like to get done than you have the actions for. 

But anyway, after performing one action, you may then draw one card from the deck.  You then get the chance to “Put Forth” one more hero from your hand, and then have to discard down to 5 cards (which may be why you wouldn’t draw a card).

Fire and Night and Other Stuff
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There are some other cool elements of the game that I’ll touch on.  The two buildings (Hospital and Storehouse) can actually catch on fire through drawing the “Building on Fire” iMpi marker from the cup.  Other than blocking line of sight further down those two tracks, though, it’s really not a bad thing, because shooting at an iButho in a burning building makes a “4” result on attack dice into a retreat.  You can use an action (by pulling a hero back to your hand) to try and put out the fire, but I usually don’t bother.

PhotobucketHalfway through the deck, there is also a card that changes the time marker from day to night.  The only real effect this has is that all volleys have a -1 Dice Roll Modifier (DRM) to their highest roll unless one of the buildings is on fire (even more proof that burning buildings are a good thing).  And speaking of DRM’s, there are a number of other effects that also add positive or negative DRM’s in the game, but once again, I don’t have the time here to get into specifics.

One last thing I’ll mention is that some heroes are seeded at different points in the deck.  And some of the ones in the top half (before nightfall) represent people who were outside of the walls before the battle.  If you draw their card before you fire your first volley, then you get to use it as normal.  But if you’ve already taken your first shot, then you have to discard the card and do not get to draw a replacement, which really sucks.  There’s one of these in the base game, but the expansion pack adds two others (including the garrison’s commander, Major Spalding, who has a really great power). 


What I Think…

As I said in my intro, Zulus on the Ramparts! is definitely one of my favorite solo games.  It’s quick to setup and play, travels easily, and still manages to pack in some really tough choices.  

Theme

I also really like the fact that it’s all about a real, historical event.  I love the idea of wargames most of the time, but don’t have the time, energy, or opportunity to really learn or play them.  Plus, while I get tired of the ambiguous, mundane, and often downright boring themes in a lot of eurogames, my preference is still more for having having strong and streamlined game play rather than historically accurate theming.  

But the theme in Zulus on the Ramparts! is done really well.  Both in things like the flavor text on the cards and in the whole nature of the gameplay itself, I feels really tense and forces you to set priorities, much as I imagine the actual battle did.  It certainly prompted me to do at least a rudimentary Wikipedia search and read about it on the internet.  I also need to see the movie…

Tension, Pressure, and Investment

So, any time you have people working solely against the systems of a game (i.e. solo and coop games), the most important key factor to success is how well that system engages and challenges the players.  And while theme can also help to hook you in initially, it’s got to be the game play experience, the tension and pressure and variability of the system, that’s interesting and engaging enough to keep you coming back for more.

Zulus on the Ramparts! does a pretty good job with all of this.  The whole nature of the States of Seige engine is based on having all these threats pressuring in from all sides, and for most of the game, it feels like the Zulu iMpi (army) is crawling all over your back, giving you wet willies, and whoopin’ your heiney with a rough-cut 2×4!  

Still, though, a little experience with the base game can definitely give you some advantages.  Being familiar with the range of the iMpi markers helps a lot, especially if you can get a good idea of which ones have or have not been played (especially the “all move 2” and the “Loins move 3”).  And after a few plays, I felt like the base game was maybe a little too easy.  But introducing the expansion kit ratcheted back up the difficulty and helped hold my interest.

Randomness

Obviously, a lot of the challenge and replayability of Zulus on the Ramparts! comes from random elements.  Which iButhos will move and how far they go is governed by a random chit pull, but this is actually pretty cool because there’s at least an even distribution between the four different tracks.  The dice rolls for attacking is pretty brutal, though, since only 5’s and 6’s have any real effect.  But of course, skillful play usually involves finding some other mitigating factor from heroes or burning buildings or whatever else to make it a little more  reasonable. 

And while it’s still more or less balanced, the order of the player cards can also make a pretty big difference in how things play out.  I think it was a really nice design choice to seed the player’s initial hand and to do some level of deck stacking to ensure a particular arc for the game while still having a
 variable and challenging card draw. 

But there are certainly times when luck turns completely against you and it feels like nothing you do has any real effect on the game.  Without question, there are some plays of the game that are totally unwinnable, which can be a little frustrating.  Interestingly enough, my favorite game, Pandemic, also has this sort of thing, but it’s just a lot more obvious in Zulus on the Ramparts! when dice rolls that you “should” have won still don’t go your way.  

Therefore, the level of randomness does occasionally make the game feel a little pointless.  But that’s actually pretty rare, and my overall impression about the luck factor is that it’s very appropriate for the theme, style, length, and depth of the game.     


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Zulu Victory…

Strategy and Tactics

And like I said from the very beginning, the biggest thing going for Zulus on the Ramparts! and mitigating all the random factors is the huge range of choices available.  The feeling of having so many things you want to do but only a few actions to spend on them is very simiar to a lot of eurogames, in fact.  

Now, some of the choices do seem a little automatic.  I mean, I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t ever try to build the barricades as quickly as you can.  But at the same time, the way you balance that with playing out heroes and maybe fending off an early attack can be very different depending on what priorities you set.  And of course, there are a lot of times when the threat of an iButho actually invading the compound is so pressing that you drop whatever else you’re doing and throw anything you can at it.  

So a lot of the choices, most of them probably, are very tactical.  But especially with the Expansion Pack, there are also some big picture choices that have to be made more strategically.  Probably the biggest one is how long you hold off on firing your first volley waiting for Major Spalding or one of the other heroes outside the walls to show up.  I mean, it’s pretty obvious that damaging the Zulus as soon as you can is a good idea, but having those really nice heroes turn into a dead draw (on a turn when the Zulus still drew an iMpi marker and continued to advance) is really tough.

PhotobucketAnd another choice that rides the line between strategy and tactics is whether to focus attention more on the weaker iButhos (hoping to take them out early and therefore having dead iMpi marker draws later on) or to concentrate fire on the biggest and most dangerous threats.  I actually go back and forth on this one, and for the most part, I do let the course of the game help make the choice for me. 

Hand Management

Another huge part of the game is the hand-management element.  Most of the standard actions and many of the Hero powers involve returning them back to your hand, so even if the power itself is a “free” action, you have to then use another action to lay them back down or potentially risk running over your hand limit and discarding something that could be useful later.  And this is balanced, obviously, against all the other things you need to do, like playing volley cards to actually knock off or chase away the invading iButho markers.

And really, a lot of the choices made each turn are either dependent or greatly influenced by the powers of the cards and heroes in your hand.  So getting more familiar with what sorts of things they do and how they work together is key to developing some expertise with the game.     

Cost and Components

But what about the component quality?  Well, for the most part, I’m pretty okay with the low-end bits.  I really need to pick up a piece of plexiglas to keep the board flat, but otherwise I think that the VPG model is just fine.  My only real concern is that the games feel just a bit expensive too me.  I know that you’re mostly paying for the quality of the design, which is definitely real solid, but most VPG prices feel maybe $5 or so too high to me.

In fact, just to be honest, I’ve never actually bought one of them myself.  I received this and Nemo’s War as gifts, and VPG just sent me We Must Tell the Emperor and No Retreat! as review copies.  But with all that said, if you catch one of the games on just a little bit of a sale or with the Expansion Kits thrown in (which they really should be, by the way), then most all of my complaints about value evaporate. 


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Luck was on my side (for the moment)

The Verdict!

Zulus on the Ramparts! is, without question, currently my favorite solitaire-only game.  It’s been fun to play at home, is quick enough to set up and play over lunch at work, and takes up so little space that it’s almost stupid not to pack it on a business trip.  Its thematic, full of choices, and almost always challenging and fun. 

Rules: Pretty simple, but I don’t particularly like the old-school wargame format.
Theme: As I said, strong and interesting.
Downtime: None (it’s a freaking solitaire game)
Player Interaction: None (again, FSG)
Length: 30 minutes for the base game, but maybe up to an hour if you play slow and include the Expansion Kit.  Plenty of tension to keep the time moving well, though.
GamerChris’ Rating: 7.5 (on the
BGG 10-point scale)


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2 Comments

  1. Chris Norwood

    And it’s got Pip the Terrier!  (I wonder why Pip doesn’t have his own card in Zulus on the Ramparts?)

    But yeah, you can certainly borrow it.  I’ll try to remember to bring it tonight, since I’ve got a few other games I need to give some solo love to now…

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