Year Published: 2009
Designer: Joseph Miranda
Publisher: Victory Point Games
Playtime: 25 minutes
One Sentence Synopsis: “60! We dropped 60, wouldn’t you say!?” “That leaves only 3,940.”
I’ll admit I’ve never been much for solitaire board gaming. I much prefer the social interaction afforded by having friends over or attending game days at my Friendly Local Game Store, and if I’m going to play something alone I usually boot up a PC game. I’m normally lucky enough to have my wife around to play board games with me throughout the week in-between longer game days, but work has recently taken her away from home for a month at a time and effectively cut my gaming time in half. I was alright with the reduced exposure for about a week, but then I started feeling the itch for board gaming so I sat down with some of the cooperative titles I’ve got on hand that are playable with one person, and actually found myself rather enjoying the experience; it’s contemplative, and I rather liked being able to have my inner-monologue out loud while I puzzled through games like Freedom: The Underground Railroad, Legendary Encounters: an Alien Deck Building Game, and Darkest Night.
It was during one of my playthroughs of Darkest Night, which I’ve previously reviewed, and thinking I needed to finish fleshing out my collection of expansions for it that I remembered Victory Point Games (VPG) also has a rather robust offering of strictly solitaire games. With that in mind, when I went to place my order for the expansions I also took a look at VPG’s States of Siege(TM) series, which is a line of solo-playable, light wargames that places you in command of desperate situations, often of a historical nature. I’ve already got a copy of the new Kickstarted edition of Dawn of the Zeds on the way, so I ended up settling on Zulus on the Ramparts! mostly because I’ve always been fond of the 1964 epic warm film Zulu starring Michael Caine in one of his first major roles.
As the name suggests, Zulus on the Ramparts! simulates the famous Battle of Rorke’s Drift that followed the massacre at Isandlwana during the Anglo-Zulu War in 1879. You’re given command of the station’s forces of just over 150 British soldiers, and must defend your position against the multiple thousands of Zulu warriors through a full day and night until you’ve either killed or driven back the Zulu forces, or are saved by the arrival of Lord Chelmsford’s relief column. Given that description I would have thought the game was some sprawling wargame with hundreds of cardboard chits and complex rules for morale and wounds…after all, how well could a game do justice to such an epic confrontation with any less?
Apparently quite well, because Zulus on the Ramparts! distills the main elements of the battle into a briskly-paced game of under 30 minutes that fits into a box that’s not much larger than a medium-length novel, and does so while still managing to convey the epic feeling of the event, and giving you the chance of experiencing both hopeless and hopeful moments alike you’ll undoubtedly encounter during each playthrough.
Zulus on the Ramparts! distills the main elements of the battle into a briskly-paced game of under 30 minutes
Now as I said, I’m not historically much of a solo gamer, and I say that so you’ll understand my full meaning when I say I tabled Zulus on the Ramparts! over 10 times within the first two days of owning it. Part of that comes from my sheer enjoyment of Joseph Miranda’s design, but that many plays is really made possible by the ease with which the game is set up, reset, or torn down.
Initial setup takes less than five minutes, consisting of assembling the four-piece board, and placing each of the four Zulu ibutho (regiment) standees and their unit/health tokens at the start of the tracks heading into Rorke’s Drift; each of the Zulu tracks corresponds to one part of the Zulu “fighting bull-buffalo” formation (i.e. horns, chest, loins), which are used to determine their movement during the game. A “Zulu Victory” marker is placed in the middle two “0” spots of the missionary station, indicating the space a Zulu ibutho must inhabit to defeat the player, and the day/night tokens, additional regiment and barrier tokens, and low water/ammunition markers are all also added to their appropriate places or off to one side. Your starting hand of three cards are clearly marked with blue numbers, and the rest are shuffled together to form your draw pile. A card for the onset of night is inserted roughly halfway through the deck, and the game-ending card for Chelmsford’s column is shuffled into the final three cards of the deck so you’re not precisely aware of when relief will arrive. Finally, all the impi (Zulu word for armed group/army) chits are turned face-down near the board, or placed into a bag for blind drawing throughout the game.
Learning the game is just as easy as the setup, and it shouldn’t take you more than ten or fifteen minutes to really get going for your first time. The majority of the rulebook deals with play variants and a history of the game’s development and editions, so its 36-pages of text really isn’t as intimidating as it seems at first glance. You’ll undoubtedly forget a subtlety here or there at first despite the rulebook’s inclusion of examples and in-depth explanations, but I think that’s really all part of playing a game by yourself that makes you solely responsible for keeping yourself honest; the good news is everything is laid out well with lots of reference pictures, so if you do need to look up a clarification it’s very easy to find the right spot.
Zulus on the Ramparts! is a challenging game to play and actually win
Gameplay itself is very straightforward, and your goal is to keep any Zulu ibutho from reaching the “Zulu Victory” marker that starts in-between the Perimeter areas of the missionary station. Zulus on the Ramparts! is a challenging game to play and actually win, and your “historical victory level,” or the degree of your win, varies based on a scoring system you’ll apply at the end of each play; as in many solitaire games, you’ll constantly work to best your previous scores. Most of that challenge and replayability comes from randomization- randomized Zulu movement, random events, random card draws, and dice rolls for determining most outcomes. I’ll evaluate each of those elements as we get to them in the review, and I personally think the random elements fit right in with the theme to add tension and reflect the instability and unpredictability of the situation, but if you don’t like randomization be forewarned Zulus on the Ramparts! relies on it heavily, and does not include ways to mitigate it.
Every turn starts by drawing and resolving a chit (either all face down or placed in an opaque container) that will either dictate movement for the Zulu impi, or require you to resolve a special event. Although you’ll eventually memorize how to implement the various event chits, which could set one of the buildings on fire, retreat and regroup certain Zulu ibutho, or recall some of your leaders from the field for a seniority debate, starting out you’ll need to reference that section of the rules often. That’s really the crux of my only complaint about the rulebook itself- the back page is a very handy reference guide for other information, including turn order, dice roll meanings, and other helpful reminders, but there’s no single-page, condensed guide on the effects of each event. I personally plan on creating my own laminated sheet that’s cut to size, but having it included would have been useful.
The event and movement chits seem well balanced overall, and some of the events will even give you small respites from the Zulus’ ever-mounting pressure under the right circumstances; having buildings set on fire, for example, which you’ll want to try to extinguish before the end of the game for additional points, may keep a Zulu ibutho from advancing, or if a building is alight at night it illuminates the battlefield and negates the normal -1 penalty to all your combat rolls experienced in the darkness. Other events are simply unfortunate, however, making each draw a potential make-or-break moment for your valiant defense. Out of all the chits, in fact, there’s only one that really makes me question its inclusion, and that’s the movement chit that allows a specified ibutho to move three spaces. Each ibutho starts only five spaces out from the victory spot, and having the triple-move means it’s possible to lose the game at the start of your second turn if you’re unlucky enough to also draw a chit that allowed the same ibutho to move two spaces. I’ve only had it happen once, and the chances of it happening are definitely slim, but it’s nevertheless frustrating to see an ibutho that’s not even halfway to the perimeter all of a sudden jump into the middle of the board.
Once the drawn chit is resolved it’s your chance to take one action. Certain cards will allow for free actions, including in-play heroes which are either taken back into your hand or discarded to use their abilities, but in general you’re going to have to make some very tough decisions about whether to play a hero or group, fire a volley, try to extinguish a fire, distribute water/ammo to temporarily get rid of the -1 bonus to rolls you’d have otherwise, move two in-play heroes into the reserve platoon space to put the reserve token on the board, or construct part of a barricade to move the “Zulu Victory” marker farther into the missionary station.
You’ll rarely come across a turn where there isn’t more than one of these options that could be useful to you. Successfully constructing a barricade after performing the action three times will give you an extra spot of breathing room against the Zulu attack, and forming the reserve platoon will let you use some very powerful volley cards even though two of your heroes will be tied up as a result. Getting rid of the low ammo/water marker is a must if you want to actually kill Zulu units by rolling a six, instead of simply pushing them back with a five, and getting heroes into play will give you powerful abilities like being able to take an extra action, sacrificing them for an extra volley, or maybe letting you draw more cards. These decisions all add to the thematic feeling of being overwhelmed, and needing to determine and deal with the most pressing issue(s) while having to push your luck with leaving other situations unmitigated until future turns.
It’s some small consolation that you’ll actually get to add another hero from your hand to the defense after you draw one card, which you’ll do after choosing and resolving your one action. You’ll occasionally run across an event that lets you take a special action, like returning a card from the discard to your hand, but the majority of the deck is composed of volley and hero cards.
At some point you’ll draw the night card which will change the battlefield to night and impose a -1 penalty to your combat rolls unless a building is on fire, and somewhere in the last four cards of the deck lurks the end of the game whether you’re ready for it to happen or not. Both of these game-changing events keep you on your toes and drive home a sense of urgency: whether from Zulu attack or relief, your time to maximize your score while surviving is limited.
Zulus on the Ramparts! is pretty smooth sailing and fast-paced once you’ve got one game under your belt. Depending on how long you actually survive your games will last anywhere from 5-25 minutes, and reseting for another play is as simple as putting markers back in their starting spots, rebuilding the draw deck, and flipping back over all the chits. It’s very easy to sit and bang out game after game, and I normally find myself thinking “well, just one more,” even after I’ve suffered a string of stinging defeats. It’s certainly a game for those of us with a masochistic bent- you’re going to lose, and lose a lot. Not just by a little, either. Sure, you’ll have the occasional game where you have an excellent defense and the rolls are going right, only to lose within a couple of card draws of the relief column arriving, but most of my games have consisted of slowly (or quickly, in some cases) being squeezed of hope as the Zulus close in, dice rolls don’t go my way, and I’m overwhelmed with facing more threats at once than I can mitigate.
In effect, Zulus on the Ramparts! imparts exactly the experience and feelings I’d want out of a game simulating the Battle of Rorke’s Drift. A lot of times you’ll feel your situation is completely hopeless; that you’re hanging off the edge of a roof and just clinging on for dear life as the shingles are falling out from under your hands and you’re desperately grasping for the next one sliding your way. And yet, there are those instances where hope glimmers through the darkness. You’ll breath a sigh of relief when you draw a chit that stops the Zulu advance for a turn and actually retreats some of them back one space. You might clench your fist and give yourself a mental “hell, yes” as you use a close-in volley of four dice that hit sixes on three, wiping out an entire ibutho so you only have to concern yourself with three fronts, rather than four. You’ll think “maybe…just, maybe,” and press on. That’s why I played 10 games of Zulus on the Ramparts! within the first two days of owning it, and that’s what makes it a great game.
That’s why I played 10 games of Zulus on the Ramparts! within the first two days of owning it, and that’s what makes it a great game.
Even the best game can stale after a while, and although Zulus on the Ramparts! contains many randomized elements that contribute well to its theme and challenge, there aren’t that many components to the basic game and I can see the luster eventually wearing off. Towards that end VPG has included not only a way to adjust the difficulty by giving each ibutho an extra unit, but also given you a humongous stack of variant cards that is as big as the normal draw deck. The rulebook explains how to add each card, or set of variant cards, into the main deck, which is normally as easy as shuffling them in and adjusting your final score down by the number indicated in the rules. In many cases it’s simply a negative modifier of one, whereas in others like the Natal Native Contingent you have to take a negative seven if you use their Heroic Sacrifice ability. Mixing and matching the variants available adds a huge level of customizability to the game, and even lets fans of the movie like me reenact memorable moments from the film like singing “Men of Harlech.”
As far as components, you’re looking at standard VPG production quality- decent cards, and cardboard components that are very thick, but not as solid as you might be used to. I found everything punched fine so long as I was careful, though Zulus on the Ramparts! does have a few standees that have multiple attachment points, and I had to use a knife to whittle down the insides of a few of the slots to ensure they’d go together properly without bunching up the top layer in the process; baggies are included for you to store the components once punched. The game also comes with two boards: the puzzle-piece board, which I much prefer, and a folded thick cardstock board that I don’t think I’ll ever actually use. Finally, the graphic design is clean and easy to use and understand on the board, cards, and standees, and the art itself has a very folksy style I think fits exceptionally well with the theme.
COG Takeaway: Zulus on the Ramparts! is my first foray into strictly solitaire gaming, and I have to say I’m glad of my choice. It’s quick to set up, easy to learn, and offers fast-paced, challenging gameplay that beautifully distills the tension and complexity of emotions you’d expect from getting thrust into commanding the desperate defense of the missionary station at Rorke’s Drift. The randomized, but largely balanced mechanics and card variants ensure plenty of replayability, and the scoring system encourages you to keep coming back for more punishment to better your previous scores. If you’re new to solitaire gaming or are looking for something that’s fast to play and easy to reset, then I can’t recommend this enough as something you’ll want to play over and over again. I, for one, am hooked, and have already placed my order for several additional States of Siege(TM) titles, in addition to some of VPG’s other solo games.