25th Jun2018

‘Fort Sumter: The Secession Crisis 1860-61’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail


Considering that it was designed by Mark Herman and published by GMT Games (both of whom are well known for producing relatively heavy war games) I was both surprised and delighted to discover how light and accessible Fort Sumter: The Secession Crisis 1860-61 (Fort Sumter from here on out) actually is. A strictly two player game that uses card driven area control mechanics to determine the winner, Fort Sumter can be played in around twenty to thirty minutes, but incredibly, it never feels as if it is particularly lacking in depth.

One player controls the blue Union pieces, whilst the other controls the grey Secessionists. Whilst it may not be known to all of our UK readers, the real life crisis at Fort Sumter marked the first conflict in the American Civil War, with a dominant Confederate army bombarding an out-of-supply Union garrison for a full day before forcing it to surrender. Fort Sumter the game represents the events leading up to that battle, with each player vying for control of several abstracted crisis dimensions – including Politics, Armaments, Secessionist States and Public Opinion.

The game is usually split into three rounds of play followed by a phase called The Final Crisis – I say usually because on some occasions, The Final Crisis can be triggered early. At the end of each phase, scoring takes place, with an on board track used to measure the success of each player. Scoring in Fort Sumter tends to be quite low, with scores averaging around six or seven and the margin between winning and losing usually just a couple of points. Because the game effectively ends at the outset of war, the objective of the game is really just to set the scene for what comes next – or as the manual puts it “to galvanise your side for war.”

At the beginning of each round, the players are both dealt four strategy cards from a shared deck, as well as two objective cards, one of which they will discard. Each of the strategy cards will display a number against a coloured backdrop in the top left hand corner and it will also describe an event in text on the body of the card. Finally, each card has a ribbon on the top or bottom which is used only when resolving The Final Crisis. Either player can use the value shown on the coloured number of the card to take that number of cubes of their colour from the escalation track (or from their Token Pool) in order to place them on locations on the board.

The aim of each round of play is to ensure majority control of as many locations on the board as possible, with a particular focus on the thickly bordered key locations and the objective card that each player chose to keep. Instead of simply using the numerical value of a card (which is always between one and three) a player whose side matches the colour shown on a card may also resolve the depicted event, which will have a specific benefit that is described in the card text. Often this will still add cubes, but it may also affect her opponent, or target a specific location, for example.

As cubes are moved from the escalation track and placed on the board, the seriousness of the situation escalates through phases called Escalation, then Tension, until finally The Final Crisis is triggered – either because a round ends with both players having moved enough cubes to trigger it, or simply because three rounds have passed. As cubes are placed on the board, players will vie for control of complete sets of dimensions – for example, to score a victory point for Armaments, a player would need to have a majority of cubes on each of the Fort Sumter, Fort Pickens and Federal Arsenal spaces.

Because it is reasonably common for a player to establish majority in one or two spaces, but not necessarily all three, the game allows any player that controls the pivotal space to move or remove two cubes before scoring – allowing them to either redistribute their own cubes or to remove those of opponents – which can really affect the scoring outcome for that dimension. A Peace Commissioner Meeple who arrives either as the result of the escalating conflict or because of certain cards can be placed on any space, effectively preventing either player from further influencing the number of cubes placed there.

During each round, the players take turns to resolve one of the cards dealt to them, until each has played three. The fourth card dealt to them is placed face down under the edge of the board, in reserve for The Final Crisis. When said Crisis kicks off, the players flip the three cards that they reserved (in any order they like) one by one, comparing them and potentially adding or moving their own cubes as a result of the outcome. After this, one final scoring round based on who controls each crisis dimension will take place. I should mention, actually, that scoring a crisis dimension (in any round) requires majority control of all three areas associated with that dimension.

As I mentioned earlier, the whole game takes about half an hour or so, which makes it a very quick game to pick up and play and especially to teach. With that said, Fort Sumter is a bit like chess in that it gets more and more rewarding the more you understand about it, especially if you have the chance to play with the same opponent two or three times in a single evening – perhaps more. There are elements of both planning and misdirection involved in forming a successful strategy and whilst there is a very slight element of luck involved in which cards you draw, it has a minimal impact on game play.


Considering that some people remain daunted by war games or games that are perceived to be heavy or complex, Fort Sumter is a great example of how the genre is flexible enough to offer a deep, rewarding experience without actually being complex at all. Like most Mark Herman games, the historical aspect is also well handled and thought provoking, particular for someone like me who has been exposed to a fair bit of information on the American Civil War itself, but not so much the events leading up to it. As with any good game, Fort Sumter prompted me to go directly to look at the history in more detail, which is something I’ve also enjoyed. All in, this is the lightest war game I own, but easily among the most likely that I’ll play again and again.

**** 4/5

A copy of Fort Sumter: The Secession Crisis 1860-61 was supplied by GMT Games for review.


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