Board Game Review: Zulus on the Ramparts—Tense Solitaire Play
I don’t play a lot of solitaire games. At least, not in physical form. After all, I’ve got an app on my phone that can handle all the shuffling and dealing of Free Cell for me. Plus, if I’m going to go to the trouble of getting out and setting up a board game, I generally want to make it worth it by sharing the experience with friends. So a solitaire game should be something that is worth the hassle. Zulus on the Ramparts meets that test.
The Basics. Zulus is part of the States of Siege line from Victory Point Games, and seeks to recreate the battle of Rorke’s Drift with the player in command of the British. The rules are written in wargame format and the player goes through several phases each turn. A turn starts with a draw of an iMpi marker that represents the event that the player will have to deal with. Most often, one of the four iBhuto armies will march toward the fort. If they get inside, then it is game over for the player. But there are several other events, including infighting among the commanders and overheating rifles.
After that is resolved, the player can generally take one action. Possibilities include building barricades, providing ammo to the soldiers, firing volleys, placing a hero, and fighting fires. After the action is taken, a single hero may be placed. Some heroes have ongoing or recurring special abilities, but all heroes have a powerful volley or ability that can be used at the cost of discarding the hero.
Finally, the player may choose to draw a card. One of the bottom four cards will be the Relief Column that ends the game. If the player makes it to that point, he has won and may score his victory. If an iBhuto gets into the base before that point, then the player loses and the Zulus have taken the fort.
While the basic turn structure is simple, and the game moves quickly, the interaction between the iMpi event and the cards drawn can help each game feel unique. What helps to separate Zulus from other solitaire games is that the player has a separate hand of cards, allowing him to respond more effectively to the changing dynamic of the game.
The Feel. Though the game lasts thirty minutes or less, Zulus feels tense and exciting almost from the first turn. Often, the player is riding a fine line. The temptation will be there to fire a volley every turn, but that means forgoing needed improvements like barricades and ammo provision. Plus, some volleys cannot be fired without first forming a reserve platoon or handing out ammo.
Some solitaire games can feel very static; you have the exact same options each turn and merely an “event deck” tells you what changes from round to round. While certainly sufficient, that kind of gameplay can get old and stilted after repeated plays. With Zulus, though, there is an interesting interaction between the iMpi draw at the beginning of the round, which is most often negative for the player, and the card draw at the end of the round, which is always positive. That constantly shifting hand of cards makes the player feel more in control. When firing a volley (playing a card from hand), you generally have several options and can choose the one more appropriate for the situation.
For history buffs, too, there is a lot to love. All of the heroes are individuals who were present during the battle, and many of the volleys include quotes that were purportedly uttered during the fight.
Of course, as a solitaire experience, the game includes significant luck elements to ensure that it doesn’t become a quickly solved and set aside puzzle. The iMpi draw forces different challenges each game. The card draw provides different options. And each combat is resolved via die roll. Good rolls make things easier while a string of bad luck can doom the British. Players looking for a luckless experience will not find it. That said, the game is not a die rolling luck fest. While bad rolls can be harsh, overall the game gives you a number of options to improve your odds. Heroes provide additional powers and different cards can be good at striking near or far iBhutos. So the luck doesn’t generally feel overwhelming.
The best part is that the game is portable enough to take on business trips (which I have) and has a short enough play time to keep things interesting. With the low time commitment, a doomed play isn’t so bad because its easy to start again, and multiple games back to back remain enjoyable.
Components: 2 of 5. The pieces give you everything you need and are serviceable, but they are strictly utilitarian. Everything is on thin cardboard stock, the board is not backed, and the game only includes the mini-dice associated with Victory Point Games. Plus the iMpi markers continue to shed little bits even after repeated plays. Although nothing is damaged, I worry that eventual damage to the bits is inevitable. That said, you do have everything you need (other than normal sized dice).
Strategy/Luck Balance: 3 of 5. This is a need of solitaire games. If there were no luck element at all, the game would be merely a puzzle to be solved. So you have to be comfortable with luck. And it takes several forms in Zulus. Still, the game gives you plenty of strategic options so the luck element does not feel pervasive.
Mechanics: 4 of 5. Despite the high reliance on chance, the game actually succeeds remarkably well. The large number of options keeps the player engaged. The cards that you draw give you a wide variety of tactics, and heroes have some great “yikes!” buttons to press when things get hairy. Plus, the game is relatively simple to learn and does not outstay its welcome. In fact, I tend to play several (3+) games in a row or until I get a victory.
Replayability: 3 of 5. The high variance in iMpi and card draws helps the replay value of Zulus. That said, like all solitaire or co-op games there is always the danger that at some point it will essentially be solved. Maybe solved isn’t the right word. But if a player always approaches the game in the same way, using the same moves each time, solitaire games can get stale. I think the variety makes that unlikely in this case, but it is something to note.
Spite: 0 of 5. One player. Who is there to spite?
Overall: 3.5 of 5. As a solitaire game, I would never choose this over any title that I could play with friends. However, if I’m playing solo (because I’m on a business trip, for example), then this is my go-to game. It is portable, it is short, and it provides excellent, tense engagement. There are often a number of threats and several goals that need to be prioritized. And the die rolls can cause you to either hunker down or give you some breathing room. As far as Solitaire goes, it’s hard to find something better.