Grant Rodiek Presents: Fart
What a difference a change of paint makes. Well, a change of paint plus a number of quality-of-life improvements, careful mechanical adjustments, and a near-total user interface overhaul.
Grant Rodiek’s SPQF was a treat, a Disney’s Robin Hood approach to deck-building and empire-building. Despite some jagged edges, it made a name for itself as one of the best games of 2018. But that’s old news. After some development with the folks at Leder Games, SPQF has been nipped, tucked, and fine-tuned into Fort. Quite the metamorphosis — and an improvement in nearly every regard.
When it comes to board game design, there are different, albeit parallel, forms of talent. Rodiek’s original SPQF intelligently expanded upon the foundations of deck-building games in ways we’ll talk about momentarily. But no less impressive is the cleverness of Nick Brachmann and everyone else at Leder Games, who took Rodiek’s game and gave it a makeover — by dropping the cutesy silvan Romans for something a little different:
Kids building forts in the backyard. Kids playing games and pranks. Kids collecting toys and pizza. Kids organizing their own little cliques. Kids making macaroni sculptures and playing make-believe. Kids who sometimes feel spurned by perceived slights. Kids rebounding and finding new friends to hang out with. Kids being kids.
Perfectly evoked by Kyle Ferrin’s artwork, which challenges Charles Schulz’s monopoly on bobble-headed youngsters, Fort leans hard on its new setting. With good reason. At the absolute least, a game’s setting can be evaluated by its utility. How well does it support everything you’ll do while playing? Does it glue together the game’s actions and iconography, its terms and victory conditions? In this regard, Fort is almost naturalistic in how closely its halves cohere. Not only is it cheerily nostalgic, grateful for its rose-tinted glasses and unconcerned with whatever anxieties might otherwise darken its sunny days. It’s also entirely intuitive in a way that Rodiek’s SPQF was not.
Here’s an example. Like most deck-building games, each turn’s decision space revolves around a hand of five random cards. Unlike most deck-building games, you’ll only play a single card per turn. Okay, that’s a half-truth. In theory, it’s possible to play all of your cards, but only in the rare event that all of their suits match. You see, most cards have actions that can be improved by — you guessed it — playing matching suits. Skateboards, squirt guns, those twisty-necked bottles of liquid glue; these are the everyday childhood items that represent suits in Fort. When you play a card like Sarge, he allows you to gain a toy for every symbol you reveal from the shovel suit. Penny lets you move either a toy or some pizza from your Stuff to your Pack for each glue symbol. And so forth.
Rather nicely, this already makes internal sense. Sarge is the kind of kid who digs around in the sandbox and plays with toy soldiers. As other sandbox kids join him, they bring their own implements of make-believe warfare until your group possesses a veritable army of playthings. Penny is one of those kids who hoards and organizes. “Collections,” she calls her stuff, when really they’re castoff tupperwares filled with chunks of cement and the occasional geode. When she gets together with her friends, their capacities to hoard and organize grow exponentially. Now your gang’s possessions are catalogued by both color and emotional attachment.
But that’s not all. One of the smartest aspects of SPQF was that it allowed other players to “follow” your actions, an idea that’s been preserved in Fort. Each kid offers two actions: one personal, which is reserved for you alone, and another that’s public. In other words, the kids in your deck like you best out of everyone in the neighborhood, but their fondness doesn’t mean they won’t accept a play-date with somebody else. Whenever a kid is played, everyone else at the table is allowed to discard one of their cards with a matching suit. Now they get to use that kid’s public action, too. This is thematically smart, sure, but it’s also a masterstroke of deck construction: specialized decks tend to trigger more powerfully on your own turn, but broader decks will be able to riff on other players’ actions more often.
That’s still not all. Let’s do some math. Remember how you can only play one card on your turn, maybe boosted by another kid or two? And how you can play a kid to follow another player’s action? Five cards drawn at the end of your turn, minus one or two, minus one or two again, equals one or two left over. I think. I was never any good at subtraction. At any rate, while played cards go to your discard pile, any leftover kids are consigned to your yard. And that can be good or bad, depending on the kid.
This is because everyone is compelled to regularly recruit new kids into their group. As every kid knows, the most reliable source of new friends is the park, an ever-replenishing trio of cards at the center of the table. The other source is your fellow players’ yards. Which, yes, means it’s possible to steal kids from other gangs by inviting them into your own.
I have two thoughts on this. The first is that it’s charmingly appropriate. Even the terminology is right. Play. Fail to play with your friends and they might drift away. Fail to play your cards and they might be incorporated into the deck of someone who will. As an unintended commentary on how to maintain relationships, it’s apt. As a game system, it fashions your cards as dual opportunities and liabilities. Drawing two valuable but non-matching kids at the same time would have afforded a swish turn in nearly any other title. Here, such an occurrence forces you to make a hard decision about whose friendship — I mean, whose resources-to-points conversion rate — you value better.
The flipside is that decks tend to be rather fluid. One might even call them chaotic. Between mandatory recruitment and the possibility of shedding your best cards, decks can alter their shape within a few short turns. That isn’t even the half of it. At the outset of the game, each deck only begins with two starter cards. The remaining eight are drawn at random from the deck. From Fort’s very first moments, you could be holding a squad of besties who finish each other’s lunchables or a pack of brats who stalwartly refuse to work together for the betterment of the group.
Shifting decks aren’t the only thing that erodes any sense of strategic grounding. First, though, we need to talk about forts.
A game called Fort wouldn’t be any good without actual fortifications. The good news is that everybody gets their very own. In practice, your fort is an upgrade track: play the proper action, pay the requisite toys and pizza, and now your leveled-up fort is worth some additional points. As a bonus, you can also store more resources in your pack, a special repository apart from the place you usually stash stuff, and host an extra lookout. Lookouts are cards you’ve assigned to defend the fort. Their abilities are covered up, but their suit is added to any action you undertake on your turn. In other words, good lookouts are a must for any serious club to function at peak efficiency.
The other advantage from upgrading your fort is that you’ll gain access to a made-up rule and a perk, both selected when you hit the right level. Made-up rules provide personal scoring opportunities, awarding points for extra resources, particular suits, or wilder fare like getting rid of your starting cards or having a minimalist fort. Perks add little advantages: larger packs, copycatting another kid’s action twice, or bribing someone to be your lookout with extra-cheesy pizza.
Both of these can confer considerable advantages. Not every made-up rule gels with every deck, and not every perk is immediately useful. And because they’re selected at random each game and then doled out on a first-come, first-serve basis, it’s entirely possible to get a slow start from a clumsy deck and then continue floundering when your bonus cards are similarly mismatched.
But here’s the thing about Fort: its mercurial nature does nothing to diminish its joyfulness. If anything, the whimsy is the point. We might call it tactical. In Fort’s parlance, it would be better to call it play. Children don’t often formalize play. They don’t strategize. Their play is fluid: soaring on the swings one moment, deeply concentrated on a passing insect the next, unsure of the lines between fantasy and reality, sometimes precious or morbid, boundlessly curious or listlessly bored.
Fort is much the same. Its play is defiantly stuck in the momentary. Oh, there are plans to be outlined, priorities to be placed, goals to strive for. But even these can prove ephemeral, gone with the luck of the draw or because a neighbor stole away one of your best friends. So it goes. Deck-builders and friendships are messy. Deck-builders about friendships — don’t kid yourself. Instead, Fort encourages an unexpected headspace. Here is a deck of unruly children. Here are bonuses that might not pan out. Here is a random hand. In all cases, the game is about making the mess function, about shaping chaos into order, even if only marginally, even if only by a stroke of magic.
Magic. That’s the word for it. Fort is rare magic, the type that appears in cardboard more often than in any other medium, that bridges the space between adulthood and being little again. And it’s a testament to both the talents of design and development that it exists at all.
A complimentary copy was provided.