Friday, July 6, 2012

Fortress America session report

Game end

Back in the day (old guy speak for a loooong time ago) I played SPI's Invasion America, the precursor and inspiration for the Milton Bradley Fortress America game, which I missed playing, mostly because I was in my snooty plastic-men-is-not-a-real-wargame phase (that also had me mostly missing out form Axis & Allies).

Having realized the error of my ways, I was looking forward to the new Fantasy Flight Games edition of the classic wargame of American paranoia. While the premise is a bit stretched, to say the least, it is an interesting strategic topic and there is a story line that is at least self-internally logical. Essentially the USA develops these "lasers" that can destroy just about anything and most especially incoming ICBMs. The world, fearing that an invulnerable USA will lord it over them (where would they get THAT worry) decides to invade and forcibly dismantle the lasers before they become fully operational.

Now, I have my doubts, as a practical matter, whether a continental-sized nation can ever be successfully invaded and subdued via conventional means in the industrial era. The cases where it's been tried (in Russia and China) have been notable failures. The continental United States is enormous, as anyone who has driven it knows, and it's also separated from the rest of the globe by wide oceans and therefore I think it would be at least as tough to crack as China or Russia. Still, it has been tried before and without the idea you don't have a game.

The basic game situation has not changed from the Cold War era version of the game. The East Coast is the target of a European-based coalition that sounds vaguely old school Commie. The Southwest is the target of an alliance of Latin American states while the West Coast is invaded by an alliance of Asian powers,  Each invading power is exactly the same in strength, with 60 units of infantry, mobile, hovertank, helicopter and bombers. Where they do differ is in the geography they face. The Europeans have to contend with a densely populated East where the bulk of the US military is based at game start. The Asians have pretty easy going on the immediate coast, but then need to fight across the sparsely settled and mountainous West. The South Americans likewise have a lot of territory to cover to get to a significant number of cities. Victory is measured in cities controlled, with the invaders winning if they end a turn controlling 18 US cities. The Americans win by holidng on for 10 turns without the invaders winning.

While heavily outnumbered, the Americans have a deck of "partisan" cards which provide numerous reinforcements which often pop up behind enemy lines. As an optional rule, and one we played with, the invaders can give up some reinforcements in order to draw from their own deck of special cards.

My opponent this week was Roy, one of the game shop regulars, who had played the original version of the game before, but was new to the FFG version. He took the invaders. I played the USA. This was my second game.

My basic strategy was to to be Fabian in the West, trying to preserve troops while drawing the Asians deep into the country in hopes of later causing trouble far behind their lines with partisans. In the East I planned to fight doggedly to keep Washington DC while conceding the southeast. Against the South Americans I planned an opportunistic, maneuver-based war that would seek to minimize terriory lost and maximize casualties.

Things pretty much played out as I expected. Roy's invaders made heavy use of the card-draw option. I think there may have been just one turn where he took the full 8 reinforcements instead of the 5+card option. Overall I think this is a mixed blessing. While some of the cards are quite powerful, I wonder if it's not more important for the invaders to press their initial advantage in numbers. Basically every turn there were 15 new invaders instead of 24 and by mid-game the Eastern and South American forces were decimated with casualty rates far exceeding replacements. Indeed, at one point the South American had just 5 pieces on the whole map!

The Eastern invaders were eventually able to fight for and hold Washington DC, as well as Atlanta and Florida, despite heavy losses. The South Americans did not carry their weight and were notably unsuccessful. Roy lost some very key battles around Houston, Dallas and San Antonio that were probably game-changing. As I said, attrition among the South American blues was very, very heavy.  Roy's Western forces were relatively unscathed, but I felt he didn't press his advantage as aggressively as he needed to and, indeed, I think if I'm going to play the Asians at some point I am tempted to skip the cards for them. They need the numbers.

The crisis for the game came late, and actually caught me a little by surprise. Roy was able to play the devastating Washington Burns card which basically wipes out the American ability to play partisan cards and get reinforcements for a turn. By Turn 8 he had gotten up to 22 cities captured! Fortunately I was able to play a bunch of bonus partisan cards from previously recaptured cities take back the five I needed to stave off defeat that turn. Meanwhile the invaders had pretty much shot their wad, especially in the East and South. Even in the West the Asians were being significantly harassed by rear-area partisan units and their hold on some areas was tenuous. For example, Las Vegas was liberated by partisans and the first Asian attempt to retake the city failed, leading to a sticky situation out West that sapped power from the front line drive. The Invaders managed to get up to 18 on turn 9, but the US took back another four cities and on turn 10 the invader high point was 17, so the final US turn was skipped.

A large part of my success was my ability to generate bonus partisan cards by retaking cities. Especially in the last three turns the US was able to rally from some significant deficits in owned cities by playing 6-8 partisan cards. I think Roy's invaders were a little too complacent about holding cities once captured and overextended themselves.

As the map above shows, the Asians did succeed in taking over about half the USA, but the Europeans were down to a foothold in the southeastern corner and the remnants of the South Americans were about done in Texas. The US had a powerful battery of lasers in operation and it's probable that Asian advnaces were about to come to an end.

If I were to write an "alternate history" timeline, I would suggest that on Turn 10 the South Americans would have sued for peace and the Europeans accepted a cease-fire. Suddenly alone, the Asians would likewise have been forced to agree to terms and the USA would emerge victorious. One wonders if the Americans would have emerged in a magnanimous mood, however, and if the foreign bid to forestall American domineering might instead provoke it.

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