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Review: Mound Builders

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Mound Builders is a game in the States of Siege™ line from Victory Point Games – a solitaire game focusing on defending a stronghold from waves of enemy opponents. You will test your mettle against the game’s constant onslaught to see just how well you can defend your territory – if you can defend it at all.

The game represents a historical era of North America, and you control an ancient Native American tribe as you expand their territory, defend what you gain against rival tribes, and eventually fend off the invading Spanish Army.

How It Plays

In Mound Builders, you control the Hopewell tribe based in the eastern part of North America through several eras of history. In the first era, you expand your tribe’s influence by bringing other chiefdoms into your control. In the next era, the Hopewell tribe becomes the Mississippian tribe and must defend their territories from invading tribes. Eventually, the Spanish Army arrives, heralding the 3rd and final era. The powerful Spanish Army will attempt to invade and conquer your home base; if you survive, you have won the game. If not, you have lost, but you also calculate a score each game you play to see how well you performed.

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Defend Cahokia!

Each round of Mound builders has 6 phases.  Most of those phases are automated:

  1. History Phase: Draw the top card of the draw pile
  2. Economic Phase: Calculate your Action Points for the turn; in some cases, it is a set number. Other times it is based on the number of resources you control.
  3. Hostiles Phase: The history card indicates which hostiles advance on your territory.  Each Hostile is on a separate track and simply advances one step forward. In addition, this card may indicate that certain regions are tougher or easier to tackle in the Action phase.
  4. Revolts Phase: A revolt may occur based on the History card.  The actual location of the revolt is determined by a die roll, and simply hurts the power currently in control; it can cause you, the player, to lose control of a territory, or it can cause a hostile tribe to lose a territory (and as a result, the player gains that territory)
  5. Actions phase: The player has a number of actions based on what was calculated in phase 2. Depending on the era, players can spend their actions points to fortify Cahokia (the home city), advance along one of the warpaths by peacefully incorporating chiefdoms or attacking hostile armies, place peace pipe markers, Mound a chiefdom in their control, and make repairs. Advanced options allow some upgrades that improve their abilities.
  6. End of Turn/Housekeeping: status markers are removed, chiefdoms controlled by enemy tribes are removed, and mounded chiefdoms controlled by enemy tribes are degraded.

The primary mechanism of the game involves rolling dice to expand territory. In the Hopewell era, everything is happy and peaceful; your dice rolls represent negotiations with chiefdoms to incorporate them into your massive kingdom. You spend an action to roll a die (or two, if you have a Peace Pipe in play) and if successful, you advance.

In the Mississippi and Spanish eras, you are actually fighting off armies. Peace Pipes are a lot harder to come by, and while a failed dice roll in the Hopewell era means a wasted action, armies will advance and conquer your chiefdoms.  Fortunately, in addition to using your actions to push enemies back, your Mounded chiefdoms have the opportunity to defend themselves and keep an opposing army at bay.

When a war path is in decline, it is easier to push enemies back and defend your holdings
When a war path is in decline, it is easier to push enemies back and defend your holdings

Eventually the Spanish army appears and makes a full-on assault of your home base. You must fight them until you defeat them in some way, either by attacking them or by winning a defensive roll with one of your mounded chiefdoms – however the Spanish army is more difficult to defeat, and can often require rolling multiple dice and taking the worst result.

Key to victory is having enough actions to do what you need to do. You’ll need to control various resources in order to get a lot of actions. Each chiefdom provides a resource, but to actually control that resource you either need to Mound a chiefdom that produces it, or control 2 or more chiefdoms that produce it. Some resources – like hides, for example – are easy to come by, while Obsidian and Seashells are produced by one chiefdom only.

As mentioned above, the game ends either in victory against the Spanish army (twice, technically) or in defeat if, at any point, an enemy advances into your home city of Cahokia.

Don't let them in Cahokia.
Don’t let them in Cahokia.

Mounds of Fun or Pile of Rubble?

Native American history is not a common theme for board games, but Mound Builders tackles it with fervor.  This is definitely a historical game, with cards filled with historical trivia about the culture of the Hopewell / Mississippian tribes.  The overall arc of the game takes some liberties – Cahokia, your defensive stronghold, was a real and (massively) populated city built by the Mound Builders, but its eventual decline was due to lack of sustainable resources (like food) due to overhunting.  This decline occurred before the Spanish ever showed up.  The Spanish did eventually arrive but they didn’t simply come invading, it was more complex than that. But, the overall spirit of the game – the rise and prosperity of the Hopewell culture followed by its decline and competition with other neighboring tribes – and the interaction with the Spanish that led to even further decline thanks to, y’know, Smallpox – represents what is known about these historical periods (thanks internet!).

The inevitability of decline and defeat is a tough thing to handle in a game; games tend to be fun when they are challenging but winnable.  Even if you “win” Mound Builders what you have is the tattered remains of a society.  In a game like that, there needs to be a lot of substance in the way of strategy, tactics, and player choices.  Unfortunately, I think that Mound Builders falls short.

Conquered chiefdoms, they will stack up quickly
Conquered chiefdoms, they will stack up quickly

It’s certainly true that the overarching history is captured in the gameplay, that in each era you will feel a sense of  what happened in reality. The Hopewell era gives you peace and prosperity, and all goes well. The Mississippi era puts you on your heels as you try and keep your territory under control but it inevitably slowly chips away as resources grow thin and other tribes step on your toes, until at last the Spanish Era brings the hurt (and the smallpox) like it’s nobody’s business. If you survive at all, your once glorious tribe will be reduced to ruins.

But instead of a challenging game requiring thought and strategy to last as long as possible, to me it felt more like the game was playing itself while I was simply a facilitator of the dice rolling.

At first glance, it seemed like a tough challenge. Despite the overly-obtuse rulebook I managed to get into the game pretty quickly (the rules are much simpler than the tome would serve to indicate) and enjoyed struggling to expand quickly followed by desperately fighting off my enemies.  It took a second play, and a third, and again, and I soon realized that my choices were very limited, and didn’t seem to matter all that much. Your success depends entirely on good dice rolls, dice rolls that you can do nothing about.

The primary issue, I discovered, is that so much of your success depends on what happens in the Hopewell era. However, everything that happens in Hopewell is pure luck. The Trade Goods that become available depend entirely on what chits you draw from the cup – if you don’t draw the Obsidian or Seashell chiefdoms at all, you are permanently limited for the rest of the game (there is only 1 of each in the cup).  If you roll poorly when trying to expand your influence, you could end up wasting several actions and being unable to expand as far as you otherwise need to, and as a result fail to reveal the resources you need by extending your control to the full length of every war path. In addition, the more you control of a War Path by the end of Hopewell, the better chances you have of staving off opponents since they have to slog through more chiefdoms in order to get to your city – that’s more time to Mound your chiefdoms (adding defenses) and push armies back.

Trade Goods and AP are tracked easily on the board.  But if you don't have all 9 trade goods, you may be in big trouble.
Trade Goods and AP are tracked easily on the board. But if you don’t have all 9 trade goods, you may be in big trouble.

Y’know what else helps? If the rare Trade Goods like the aforementioned Obsidian get placed on the board adjacent to your city, which makes it easier to protect them for a long time. As soon as Obsidian gets conquered, it’s gone, whereas you can spare a few Hides chiefdoms.

Unfortunately you can do nothing to make a difference in any of these factors.  You don’t know when and where Seashells will show up, so you can’t focus on the War Path that has it.  You have nothing to sacrifice in order to boost your dice rolls to make sure you don’t waste too many actions on a tough  Chiefdom. You can only choose which War Path to advance upon.  If for some reason you manage to get all the Trade Goods you want (all 9 of them) with time to spare, you might consider Mounding some Chiefdoms, but that’s a waste of actions when you don’t have all the trade goods.

This sets the stage for the rest of the game.  In the Mississippi era you do have more options – it’s not unreasonable to start Mounding your chiefdoms for defenses.  You also get access to the Great Sun which can give you a bonus die for an important attack (but you don’t add your rolls together, you take the best roll) although there is still no other way to mitigate bad dice. You’ll also need to upgrade Cahokia’s walls, and balance the actions you spend on those upgrades with the actions  you need to spend on pushing back opposing tribes – or sacrificing chiefdoms.  You do feel more like you’re in control of the action here.  You’re still losing, you’re still at the mercy of the dice, but there is at least a game here. Yet it still heavily comes down to rolling well in the Hopewell era, because your actions and defenses depend on success there.

Someone's trying to invade a Mounded chiefdom.
Someone’s trying to invade a Mounded chiefdom.

And yet even if you roll well in Hopewell, you may just end up rolling poorly in later eras and losing just as quickly. It’s the dice that do you in, and they do or don’t with little power in your hands to affect the outcome of your rolls.

This makes other elements of the game feel like negatives instead of simply part of this type of game. Many actions, especially in the Advanced game, seem to cost far more AP than the benefit they provide seems worth. Placing peace pipes uses up the Great Sun and 2 AP, but saves the equivalent of 1 AP (and, admittedly, certainty of defense instead of a die roll). Rebuilding Chiefdoms may restore a Trade Good you previously lost, but chances are you’ll need to spend the AP required to do so on fending off other armies to prevent MORE chiefdoms from falling and trade goods being lost. Improving your Storage Pits can cost up to 5 AP but only grants the ability to save 2 AP from turn to turn, when saving even a single AP at the end of a turn is extremely rare. Going Buzzard costs you an entire turn’s worth of AP at minimum (most likely requiring a saved AP from the previous turn) so you can avoid the penalties of critical failure (rolling a 1), but using an entire turn for that action will almost definitely cost you in lost Chiefdoms and trade goods that Going Buzzard is designed to help prevent in the first place. The last 2 seem so mathematically  worthless I don’t know why they are even options, but maybe it just seems that way due to the mix of heavy luck and fast-dwindling AP.

Cards are nice and detailed with historical information, which is probably the biggest draw of the game
Cards are nice and detailed with historical information, which is probably the biggest draw of the game

Actions that could seem like tense trade-offs – like spending 2 AP to place a peace pipe which will keep an army at bay the next time it advances – instead feel like they are just compounding the luck element. Mounding is the only action aside from fighting armies that makes sense and you will want to do as much as possible – it costs between 2 and 4 AP, but Mounded chiefdoms give you a chance to make a defensive roll when an enemy army encroaches, which if successful could save you a lot of headaches by pushing that army back without using AP. Unfortunately even this is marred by the odd fact that weaker chiefdoms (at least, weaker when it comes to defending) cost more AP to Mound.  You’re still going to do it whenever you can – and sometimes those chiefdoms become stronger once you mound – but it is still perturbing from a player standpoint. Why am I paying so much for such a limited benefit?

Oh yeah, and those Spanish, watch out for them. When they show up they jump on a random War Path and make a beeline for your city. You can’t do much else besides attack them. Well, the strength of the army you face is determined somewhat by how many Trade Goods you control when they show up, so you could try to weaken them by losing your precious resources.  Anyways, all you can do is roll against them, with dice, hoping you roll enough to stop them. Once you do, they stop and go away (and if its the second time, the game ends). Let me emphasize: when the spanish arrive, you can do nothing but attack them, by rolling dice, which you cannot control. You could have been in a great position with plenty of resources and keeping other armies at bay, and then a nice spanish General shows up requiring you to roll 3 dice and win with the LOWEST die rolled, and just watch the army tear through everything and destroy your city in one fell swoop. If you’ve done at least a decent job mounding Chiefdoms and upgrading Cahokia, this is highly unlikely, but it’s all just chance at that point.  At least it happens very quickly.

Okay, okay, despite my frustrations with how the math doesn’t seem to add up, this game system certainly isn’t broken. It has pacing, it keeps moving, it does give you things to do, at least for the first couple of games.

The Great Sun will save you. Or at least it will let you roll 2 dice and take the best result.
The Great Sun will save you. Or at least it will let you roll 2 dice and take the best result.

If you’re interested in the history, you’re the one who will get the most out of this game – reading the historical facts on the cards, putting them in context, and experience the rise and fall of Mississippian tribes. There’s a good chance you’d get a few good plays of this game that feel all right, if not challenging and tense. You’ll feel a sense of victory when you roll high; you’ll feel defeat when you roll low, and then roll low 3 times in a row.

It’s just, the more you play, the more you realize the game plays you. Game to game, the outcome seems unrelated to the choices you made. There are few decisions to think back to and say “wow, I should have made a different choice there and maybe I would have won.”  No, you’ll have been positioned excellently  with 20 good rolls, have control over a complete set of resources and mounded a good number of Chiefdoms, when suddenly you roll 4 bad rolls in a row, find your palisades breached, and lose the game on the next card draw because, simply, luck.

Oh yeah, the Spanish, they're in this game.
Oh yeah, the Spanish, they’re in this game. At least what they do, they do quickly.

Buy this game if you are interested in the history. There’s a lot of detail in the cards.  The components are sound, with sturdy cardboard tokens and decent cards – at least if you know what you’re getting into.  You will need to wipe the dust off of everything when you first open the box, but the game board and tokens all have a clean design that is easy to read and use and remember how to use.  The rulebook is unwieldy for sure but once you slog through the rules aren’t too complex.

The game isn’t broken and it will bring you on a journey through prosperity, conflict, and eventually destruction. It certainly tells a story, but it seems to be only the game’s story, not really your own.  It’s too bad, because I’ve come to expect much higher quality gameplay from Victory Point Games.

iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Victory Point Games for providing a review copy of Mound Builders.

Summary

  • Rating 6.5
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Summary

Pros

  • Creates a tense, losing scenario for at least a couple games
  • Pacing and length of the game is good
  • Lots of history on the cards
  • Rules aren't too complex once you learn them
  • Quality tokens
  • Design and layout of board is easy to read
  • Game system isn't broken

Cons:

  • The significant amount of randomness, especially in the Hopewell era, limit player choices
  • Not a ton of replay value
  • Many 'advanced game' options are too expensive to use and thus don't add anything to the game
  • Rulebook is poorly laid out and far too bloated
6.5 Average

Futurewolfie loves epic games, space, and epic games set in space. You'll find him rolling fistfuls of dice, reveling in thematic goodness, and giving Farmerlenny a hard time for liking boring stuff.

Discussion2 Comments

  1. I appreciate the thoroughness of your review, but it seems to be based on some flawed understandings. All game elements are designed for the player’s perspective. The player always prefers low unit Values, and always wants to roll high. Strong tribes (Value 4 on Plain side) are difficult to assimilate and Mound (and Colonize), but their Mounded side (usually Value 2) is great at successfully making a Defense roll. There are no die roll modifiers (value modifiers instead) to ease player calculations — a negative modifier (good) lowers the cost of Mounding and Colonizing, while also lowering ALL values assisting every form of combat. Weak Chiefdoms (Vale 2 on Plain side) are easy to manipulate, but of little value on defense (Mound Value 4) — they do provide great strategic reserves in the advanced game (looting). “Friendly” (never Revolt) Chiefdoms offer tremendous “bang-per-buck”, becoming a cornerstone defense tool wherever located (if you don’t like their initial location, letting them “fall” and Colonizing them elsewhere is a great option). Of course, “unfriendly” (always revolt) Chiefdoms are the annoying corollary.

    You might have been “thrown” by the unexpected mechanic, because other comments regarding the game math are strangely “out of whack”. The initial design parameters of Mound Builders laid out rich variation (and replayability), to be mated with tension to the end. I personally thought the game might turn out much like you have described it — to the point I was prepared to not like my own game. But by carefully layering on every thematic “rubber band” mechanism I could (thoroughly documented on the BGG site), I found so many subtle layers of strategy could be included to give an interesting gameplay regardless of the Hopewell Era luck. one memorable “demonstration” game (big audience) — I was embarrassed to “roll-up” my worst Hopewell ever (only Discovered 5 additional Chiefdoms). However, I didn’t give up — there still remained several strategies in the MB “toolkit”. A “silver lining” to my horrid start was finding Obsidian — I quickly Mounded and embraced the “Buzzard Cult” (you completely undersold this Advanced option — it can be so mathematically awesome that I constantly fret over it being overpowered despite its cost). Anchoring as many as three Warpath against a massively fortified Cahokia, the enemy tribes spent much of the time simply “bouncing off” the iron core of my position. The game completely swung in my favor, and I looked to be “lock” — the Spanish Leader Heredia had different ideas and I did come perilously close to defeat. Was I lucky — yes, but not ludicrously so — the key element to the game is you have chances (to win and lose) regardless of the Hopewell results, if you appreciate the vast range of options available.

    The game math has been meticulously calculated — I have spent over 40 years breaking games, and Mound Builders got the “full treatment”. A pet peeve of mine is lack of internal balance — I believe EVERY tactical and strategic option should be right SOME of the time, and be a consideration MOST of the time. Your description of the gameplay was counter to everything I have worked toward in my career — tournament player, playtester, and designer.

    For example, the Peace Pipe. I know I maybe overly attached to a “spare” AP set, but there is rich diversity embedded. The bland looking, “Powwow” for 2 AP, has strategically uses that vary from “groveling” at the feet of a marauding tribe to save your overrun Chiefdoms — to “caging” a shattered enemy in their Homeland. The long term Peace Pipe plans might be:

    1. Re-apply the “Band-Aid”, whenever the Peace is broken.
    2. Counter-punch, the moment the peace is broken.
    3. Break the Peace yourself if the omens (favorable modifier, plentiful AP’s) are right.
    4. Break the Peace the very next turn the coast is clear (the unfavorable modifier “passes”).
    5. Undermine a “Black Tortoise”, hoping to maintain the Peace while “surgically” removing the BT — and returning the Great Sun to his rightful place as the one true moral authority of the known world.
    6. The sometimes necessary “ignore completely” — hopefully Cahokia will be a mighty fortress before the unopposed Tribe camps under the Palisades.

    The game math details are considerably different than in your review. You do spend 2 AP to Powwow, and “Use” the Great Sun (.6 AP value), but your baseline defensive value is 2.33 AP (not 1 AP) when resisting a Value 3 enemy tribe (3.5 AP if engaging the Ho-Chunk). It may not be (intentionally) your best “standard” defense, but it better be in your arsenal for critical moments. As far as “Embracing the Buzzard Cult”, the importance of avoided the terrors of the dreaded “1” result are considerable. If you can settle down and “Go Buzzard” early (sometimes quite a trick I know), the hefty cost will be repaid many times over (assuming you avoid an economic breakdown). The simple fact you can now actively defend Cahokia without fear of instant calamity makes your defense much more efficient ( and vastly improves your chances against the Spaniards. Of course you don’t get this “crutch” every game — you have to adapt to each new reality when it develops.

    One proof of the skill based flow to the game is winning percentage. I actually maintained a “winning half the time” rate for the first 50+ games played (the design objective for skilled play). Sadly, a long winning streak did underscore my failure in that department — but I certainly did not fail to provide numerous different tactics and strategies for victory. As much the game design oozed variability, it is inevitable that certain situations will be duplicated. In one notable playtest, my only Pipestone (4/2) source was precariously positioned in Newark (next to the Shawnee Homeland). Despite a sub-par Hopewell Era, I stubbornly fought ferociously to Pipestone as a Commodity (the all to common mistake of “playing for the Cahokia card to drawn next”). Well, I wasn’t lucky — I never did produce a single pipe and critical Lands that could have been defended properly were seized in crippling fashion. The biggest crime was that the rest of the Shawnee warpath contained non-essential Chiefdoms. About 20 playtests later the same strategic situation occurred (with Copper instead of Pipestone). Now I knew to let the Copper go, use the time gained to Mound my Obsidian, establish my key defensive strongpoints and develop a sustainable “medium-size” economy. By the time the Shawnee camped underneath the Palisades of Cahokia, the city was impenetrable (the game was hardly guaranteed, but the comfort level of my resultant win was a clear indictment of my earlier playtest).

    There is so much to the timing of the game — when and where to make stand, when to go “slack”, when to abandon a whole Warpath, when to wreak vengeance. You seem to play without reserves, that is nearly unsustainable given the horrendous card draws out there. Not only saving AP’s is valuable (though spending that last AP to attack is seductively efficient), but Mounding redundant Weak (Value 2) Chiefdoms during good times (-1 modifier), can create considerable reserves for “Looting” when that “rainy day” occurs (of course now you have to wait for another favorable modifier to efficiently “reload”).

    I have refrained from talking deeply about the various strategies the game has to offer (I personally like to find them out on my own) on any public site — this may have been a mistake given the common approach of moving on to the next game, before mastering the current game (I am guilty of this as well). There are several areas that one could poke holes in the design of Mound Builders — I tried to be as thematic as possible, but I can understand being annoyed at the many little elements that help a player when they are downtrodden, but hinder players when they are ascendant. The rules are a bit of a handful, but personally, I don’t see a better way to get the point across (not my specialty). There is a lot of die rolling in MB (which doesn’t bother me at all by itself, since it actually flattens out the luck bias) — but the game does have its BIG die roll moments that sometimes grate on me (many a time I’ve wanted to hurl my die across the room after rolling a 1). But — “the game plays you” — “your decisions mean nothing” — “most options are mathematically absurd” — “there is little replayability” — “it is all about the luck”. These are opinions I do not share about Mound Builders — I know I may be the least objective person on the planet, but I am also the most knowledgable person on the planet concerning this game. And I have vast experience breaking down games and tearing them to shreds — I will cheerfully tear down many a design with my name in the credits to all that will listen — Mound Builders is not vulnerable to that level of derision.

    Of course your views may be completely colored by misunderstanding the rules nuances — which may be partly my fault in choosing a non-standard methodology to handle modifiers.

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