Sumter’s Going On Here
After spending six, seven, and eight hours respectively on the full campaigns of Churchill , Fire in the Lake, and Pericles, a bracing twenty-minute tug of war was the last thing I expected from Mark Herman. Yet here it is: Fort Sumter, a wargame more in the vein of 13 Days than Herman’s usual wheelhouse. But as an experiment in capturing the stresses of the U.S. Secession Crisis in as few minutes and moves as possible, it’s largely successful.
For those who’ve played Pedersen and Granerud’s 13 Days: The Cuban Missile Crisis — or Twilight Struggle, the classic it compressed — nearly everything Fort Sumter does will feel familiar. On the surface it’s about hand management and area control and hidden wagers. You know, the mechanical buzzwords we hide behind when we’re too sleepy to be more creative with our verbiage. Underneath, however, is a game about making smart plays, outguessing your rival’s intentions, and dipping your toe into a surging river while hoping you don’t plunge headfirst into the current.
Here, that current is propelled by a terrible inevitability. As either the Unionist or Secessionist faction of the United States, civil war is coming and there isn’t a single thing you or anybody else can do about it. Moderation has failed, compromise has collapsed, and the prospect of concession makes your stomach quiver. All that remains is to swing the conflict into your favor before spark is put to powder.
And to do that — to alter the course of the cannon that’s come clattering down the side of the mountain — you only get nine cards. Nine. And not one extra.
This isn’t to say you’ll only employ nine moves, but we’ll return to that. For now, let’s focus on those cards.
Fort Sumter takes place over three escalating rounds, each of which revolves around two secret objectives and control of four “dimensions” of U.S. period politics: the local governing apparatuses, the attitude of wavering states, the sympathies of the public, and the federal arsenals that both sides are hoping to command when the question of slavery comes to blows.
Right away, it’s noticeable that these dimensions are largely abstracted. Each is represented as a shape and color rather than being endowed with any unique flavor of its own. This leveled playing field is both necessary to Fort Sumter’s briskness and one of its principal weaknesses. This isn’t to say there aren’t glimmers of thematic sense. For one thing, the solemn conversations of politicians wane as the bite of federal gunpowder grows more tempting, and the Secessionist faction will find themselves more entrenched in the Deep South than in the ink of the nation’s newspapers. But for most of the game’s duration, you might as well talk about circles and yellows and pentagons as public opinion and politics and military strength.
In the heat of the moment, though, these dimensions are the brass ring. Controlling one at the end of a round — and in particular controlling its pivotal locale — means you’ll be able to manipulate it. This includes precious additional actions, a nudge here, an opponent’s influence bumped over there. Establish yourself as master of a dimension’s three locations and you’ll earn a point.
The cards are the engine that will hopefully bear you to that destination. Each offers both a number value and a historical figure or event, both of which are used to add cubes, sometimes remove cubes, and very rarely lock down a region entirely. Not that this is as straightforward as it sounds. A card’s event tends to be its more powerful option, but these are often limited by faction and historical necessity. Sam Houston, for instance, will always attempt to jaw Texas into staying in the Union. Deployed anywhere other than to Texas, he’ll only let you place one cube rather than three. If I were Texan, I would share, in my soberest voice, a joke about what happens when you take the Texan out of Texas.
It’s this devil’s traffic — tactical flexibility vs. mass deployment — that informs every single move in the game, especially once both sides are invested across the map. All at once, you’re locking down desirable regions while defending previous gains while securing your objective locale while hunting your opponent’s objective… and, well, it’s a tall order when you’re only holding a few cards at any given time.
If deploying as many cubes as possible were your only concern, Fort Sumter would fall short. But over-investing might actually cost you the game. As more of your cubes arrive on the board, your faction edges closer to war on the crisis tack, nabbing additional cubes but threatening to alienate some of your supporters in the process. Place too many pieces too quickly and you’ll watch your opponent pick up a bonus or two. At first this manifests as a peace commissioner, a meeple who wandered in from another game to lock any region of your opponent’s choice. Later, charging headfirst into the final crisis will forfeit a point.
This generates a pressing need to meter your influence. It pays to identify which regions matter to you, and then to control them with as small an investment as possible. Or better yet, to press into contested territory and extract an over-investment from your rival.
Where the game’s locations were woefully dry, this system captures the brinkmanship of its standoff. The Unionists and Secessionists are equally aware that divorce is inevitable, but can’t be seen as too eager for bloodshed lest they alienate their base. The result is a useful shorthand for the pressures facing both sides. More than that, it’s thematically appropriate. This is, after all, the conflict that came to a head when President Lincoln maneuvered Jefferson Davis into firing the first shot at Fort Sumter, which provided the pretext for the Union’s first 75,000 volunteers. There’s no defeat quite as sweet as the one that paves the way for final victory.
Speaking of finality, Fort Sumter always concludes with a bang. Once the final crisis has been triggered, both sides pick up the cards they’ve saved from previous rounds and deploy their color-coded bottoms in one last struggle for supremacy. At first this seems capricious. Over multiple plays, however, certain subtleties are revealed, letting players make a few final nudges to their strategy. It’s a fitting conclusion, shifting the action away from the usual turn-by-turn process in favor of a simultaneous clash of priorities. And by letting it represent a culmination of the cards you’ve reserved over the past three rounds, Herman adds yet another facet to every decision. You aren’t merely fighting today’s battle, but preparing for the one you’ll wage tomorrow.
In fact, that’s easily the best thing about Fort Sumter. By whittling your options down to nine regular cards, three final crisis cards, and whatever objective or dimension actions you’ve managed to finagle along the way, Herman forces every cube, card, and action to crack like Preston Brooks’s cane across Charles Sumner’s forehead. Burdened by the weight of excess flab, the blow wouldn’t land so solidly.
There’s something to be said for flab, especially when it comes to a wargame, that most ponderous of genres. Beneath Mark Herman’s ministrations, every last ounce of fat has been amputated to the bone. In one sense the result is as mixed as any act of self-surgery. Fort Sumter is often remote from its subject matter, and demands a keen eye before it relinquishes any historical insight.
But for everything lopped off, it gains speed, usability, and decisions loaded with import both immediate and far-reaching. More than merely fast, it’s a design that has benefited from a veteran’s awareness of the lessons of modern game design. It may be stumpier than many of Herman’s previous offerings, but Fort Sumter also provides a mighty tug of war — and a deeply promising start to his series of brisker, more streamlined wargames.
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