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Review: Zulus on the Ramparts

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Things are looking grim for the small band of British soldiers at the fort at Rorke’s Drift. Zulu forces have surrounded the fort and will soon overtake it. You are in command of the soldiers and the small stock of supplies available to them. Can you hold out until morning, when Lord Chelmsford’s relief column should arrive with reinforcements?

Find out in Zulus on the Ramparts!

How It Works

Zulus on the Ramparts is a solitaire siege game in which the player is trying to hold off a Zulu attack on the fort at Rorke’s Drift until reinforcements arrive. The player wins if the reinforcements arrive.

At the start of the game, the player randomly places the Zulu iButhos (each with different hit points) around the fort. The reinforcements card is mixed randomly with three other cards, and these cards are placed on the bottom of the deck. The “Night Falls” card is placed in the middle of the deck, and the player begins the game with a preset hand of three cards.

The four Zulu iButhos with their hit points. The hit point with a gold band may be used to make the game more difficult.

Each iButho starts on the 5 space on its track, and each track corresponds to a part of the bull: left horn, right horn, loins, and chest. The player loses the game if any of the iButhos makes it to the “Zulu Victory” token (which starts on space 0).

A round follows several phases. First, a chit is drawn from the cup that causes something to happen outside the player’s control. (This usually involves one or more iButhos moving toward the “Zulu Victory” token.) Then, the player may take one action. Actions include putting forth heroes (which have special abilities, including heroic sacrifices, powerful one-time effects that kill the hero), firing volleys to stave off the iButho advances, building barricades (to bury the “Zulu Victory” token farther back in the fort), fighting fires, and forming the reserve platoon. The player draws a card, and then may put forth one hero for free. Finally, the player evaluates win/loss conditions and discards down to five cards, and a new round begins.

The game set up. The board is very clear.

The player loses if any Zulu iButho reaches the “Zulu Victory” token. If the player draws the “Lord Chelmsford’s Relief Column” card, the game ends in victory, and the player tallies points to see how great (or moderate) the victory was.

Last Stand or Standing Last?

Zulus on the Ramparts is a solitaire war game, which isn’t what I usually review and can admittedly seem to appeal to a very narrow subset of gamers. I still prefer multiplayer games, but recent events have made life busier and consistent gaming time with others more difficult, so I’ve come to appreciate solitaire games. And Zulus on the Ramparts is a really good solitaire gaming experience.

Zulus on the Ramparts has received Victory Point Games’ Gold Banner treatment, which means that the game comes in a box and has upgraded components. And the components are a huge step up from the polybagged Victory Point Games I’ve seen before. The components are on thick cardboard. The included laser-cut puzzle board looks nice and is especially useful, as most of the information in the game is easily tracked there. The art in the game is good, the design is consistent and looks great, and the components work well. There is a bit of assembly required, especially with the standees. Punching out the pieces was a bit of a pain, as was putting them together (and getting the slot cardboard out), but even though this process annoyed me while I did it, I hardly remember it now. The game’s components come with the customary soot from the laser-cutting process. My copy of the game did not include the “soot removal tool” (i.e., napkin) usually packaged with Victory Point games, but no worries: I supplied my own. All told, the components here are not good enough to go toe to toe with the big European publishers (they’re not intended to), but they work well, and the gameplay is immersive enough that the components disappear. I wish the game had come with a fabric bag to serve as the iMpi cup and another die or two, but those are minor wishes and don’t really hinder the game.

The game includes several standees, representing fires, Zulu iButhos, and heroes.

The gameplay in Zulus on the Ramparts is fairly straightforward: a random event chit is drawn, the event takes place, and the player is given a chance to react to it through actions, card draw, and putting forth heroes. Despite this, the game feels more difficult to grasp because of the rulebook. The rulebook is very dense, and while not all forty pages are full of necessary rules and game information, the rulebook is hard to navigate. In the main text of the basic rules, many of the exceptions introduced by expansion module material are included. I had to read and reread the rules to ensure I hadn’t missed something. That said, after reading the rules a few times, I felt comfortable enough to play. Yet even after nearly ten games, I still find it necessary to refer to the rulebook on occasion (though much less often, thanks to the reference sheet on the back cover). Of course, the upside of this is that the rules leave little doubt about what happens in special cases.

The rulebook isn’t the best for learning how to play, but it is one of the most thorough rulebooks in providing historical background. I knew very little about Rorke’s Drift before playing this game, and I know much more now. The whole game drips with the theme rising from historical events. In fact, the game feels almost like a simulation (in the best sense that a war game is meant to provide) because of all the information provided. In addition to the rulebook, each card has explanatory text on it, describing how the event or hero impacted the stand at Rorke’s Drift. (This has the unfortunate effect of making the cards look cluttered, but game-important information is still accessible.) In addition to the base game, the second edition also includes several expansion options, several of which represent historical what ifs–like, what if the Natal Native Contingent hadn’t fled when the Zulus arrived? The historical theme may not excite some players, butI suspect war gamers in particular will love it. For me, it was another enjoyable layer to the game.

The reference sheet is on the back of the rulebook. Handy!

Beyond the specific historical simulation, the theme of a siege works particularly well for a solitaire game, in my opinion. The game encapsulates the feeling of an army hunkered down behind a fort wall while the faceless mass of enemies approaches. This is a siege, and every effort will be required in order to survive until morning. The game feels hopeless, which is how a good solitaire game should feel. The player is under the gun from the get-go, and while the Zulu iButhos start five spaces away from victory–a seemingly huge amount at the start of the game–they close that ground quickly. Most turns have the player wanting to do too many things, another sign of a good game: it is simply not possible to do everything. (However, there do come times later in the game, especially during the nighttime and when -1 dice roll modifiers are drawn from the iMpi cup, when there are no good actions to take during the action phase. I suppose this is thematic, too: the simple waiting of the prepared besieged.)

The Zulu Victory token starts on the outer perimeter, but building barricades moves the victory token back.

The gameplay in Zulus on the Ramparts is quite good and is immersive for what it is. The game plays in 20-25 minutes, so this isn’t intended to be an epic game with a long story arc. It is a desperate attempt to survive, and it feels like it. The Zulu iButhos march unswervingly–and quickly–toward the fort while the player frantically builds barricades, forms platoons, and prays for high dice rolls. And oh, the dice rolls. Usually I don’t care for dice rolling in games that are to determine successes or failures. In this game the dice don’t bother me too much because they simulate the desperation of a siege. In order to make any dent in the advancing forces, the player must roll a 5 or 6–a one in three chance. However, when it becomes dark, the only way to make headway is to roll a 6, and doing so doesn’t remove iButho hit points but only forces it to retreat one space. The task of waiting for Lord Chelmsford’s relief column can feel impossible.

The starting hand and the two cards to be inserted in the deck. Cards with special instructions for including in the deck have numbers highlighted in blue.

But the player is not without resources. Most heroes have a “return” ability, which allows the player to perform some action at the cost of taking the hero back into hand to be put forth again later. All heroes have a heroic sacrifice ability: a powerful one-time effect that results in that hero being discarded, but which may turn the tide in the siege. Similarly, some heroes have discard for volley abilities, which allow the player to shoot at the incoming forces. The game involves lots of tense choices in hand and resource management, deciding how best to use each hero and volley (as some volleys provide better results from different distances).

Nighttime is brutal: all die rolls are -1.

Of course, as in any game where the players play against a pre-programmed system, your experience may vary from game to game. My first few games were tense, but I won them handily. I was ready to write the game off as too easy, but I decided to give it another try before upping the difficulty–and lost the next three games. It turns out I had rolled well my first few games or had gotten a less punishing string of iMpi chits. Since those early games, all of my games have been close. I would say the game system is similar to Pandemic or Sentinels of the Multiverse: you may have some outlier experiences that are either too easy or too difficult, but most of the time, the game feels within your grasp. If you lose, it’s by a little, and you can point to a few should-have-dones. If you win, it’s by the skin of your teeth, and you can point to a few if-these-had-been-differents. The game falls within a respectable range for an automated game system.

These are the expansion components. Lots more cards and a few standees.

One of the nicest things about Zulus on the Ramparts (at least the second edition) is the options it gives players to customize. The box includes a number of cards that can be added to the game. Some of these cards are additional heroes, some are additional volleys or events, but all of them provide more replayability. And each card, while potentially making the game easier, also makes the game more difficult: the player wins if the reinforcements card is drawn, but this card always appears among the last four cards in the deck. By adding more cards, the game is lengthened, making it harder to win. (And each card added is worth -1 VP when determining score at the end of the game.)

The iMpi chits. The icons here are mostly clear, though you may need
to reference the rulebook for some of the rules.

Other options make the game harder as well. Each Zulu iButho comes with a gold-striped hit point token that can be added to increase the difficulty. This may not seem like much, but trust me: it is. iButhos only lose hit points on rolls of 6, so beefing up each iButho by one almost completely removes the possibility of total combat victories. Again, the good part about both the hit points and the additional cards is that the game has legs. If you get tired of the basic rules, you can customize it however you wish for added difficulty or experience. (The box even includes two cards that tie in to the movie Zulu, if that strikes your fancy.)

Lots of stuff in this small box.

Zulus on the Ramparts is very good for what it is: a solitaire war game. It won’t be for every gamer, but it does what it sets out to do very well. It recreates the intensity and impossible feeling of a battle siege, yet gives the player resources to ensure that his or her decisions matter. The game is full of immersive historical information, and the gameplay, while hard to glean from the rulebook, is straightforward once learned. The components are serviceable and sturdy. And all of this fits into a small box, which makes it perfect for gamers who have to travel (and leave their gaming groups) often. Zulus on the Ramparts doesn’t supplant multiplayer gaming experiences for me, but it is a good option if I don’t have company and still want the challenge of a game.

iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Victory Point Games for providing us with a review copy of Zulus on the Ramparts.

Summary

  • Rating 7.5
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Summary

Pros

  • Immersive experience recreates feelings of a battle siege
  • Customizable to a player's taste in difficulty
  • Small box allows for easy travel, a must for a solitaire game

Cons:

  • Components, while a step up from earlier edition, are lower quality than most hobby games
  • Rulebook is thick and daunting and could be organized better
7.5 Good

I'll try anything once, but my favorite games are generally middleweight Euros.

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