Fort, by Leder Games, has to be one of the higher-profile releases of 2020. Leder Games are well known for their success with the widely acclaimed Root. Unsurprisingly, Fort, with Kyle Ferrin's art giving it a very similar look, has sparked much interest and anticipation.
So is the buzz justified and does Fort live up to the hype? Read on...
Building your Fort
Fort is a retheme of a previous release, SPQF, but rather than Romanesque forest critters you are now kids forming gangs and racing to build the best Fort. The theme really pops from every aspect of the design and artwork, giving it a real table presence for such a compact game.
At its core, Fort is a deck-building and hand-management game. You start with a core deck of 10 cards, including 2 buddies who will never leave you. On your go, it is as simple as choosing one of your hand of 5 cards to play. Some of these can be powered up with more cards of the same suit from your hand to increase the magnitude of the effect. On the card is a private action and in most cases a public action too.
You can play one or both, but the latter is open for the other players to ‘follow’ and thus gain additional actions out of turn. However, they will need to discard a card of the corresponding suit to do so. This will deplete their hand until the end of their next turn – not always a bad thing, as we will see.
What do these cards do? Well, they may enable you to produce resources, Toys or Pizza, which themselves are the building blocks for upgrading your Fort. When your Fort hits Level 5, this triggers the end of the game and you’ll win a shedload of VP – often enough to win you the game outright. Growing your Fort delivers other benefits too, like unlocking an additional personal scoring condition (Made Up Rule) and an additional power (Perk).
Some cards allow you to trash cards from your hand or discard pile – a stock deck-building mechanic. Other cards allow you to use or modify your Pack – expanded resource storage which can itself score VP or clone resources via other cards. Or you might be able to use or grow your Lookout – additional storage for cards where they will be accessible for their suit, to power up a played card, but not their action. Finally, some cards also generate VP based on criteria such as the number of card of a particular suit you discard.
Use ‘em or lose ‘em
Once you have played your card (and potentially powered it up) you will recruit a new card to your deck's discard and then discard any cards remaining in your hand to your Yard, in front of your player board. The Yard is the other key mechanic which adds spice to Fort. It is an array that other players can recruit from, alongside a common array, the Park. It stays until the beginning of your next turn, meaning that any unplayed cards are vulnerable to poaching from other players until it is your go again. Finally, you draw back up to 5 and play passes to the next gang leader.
The game ends when someone hits 25 VP, reaches a Level 5 Fort, or the draw deck is empty. Scoring is based on: VP from the track, scored by card play; VP from the Fort; a first-to-Level-5 bonus, and VP from your Made Up Rule.
Style and substance?
Fort is a beautiful game with fab art and great production values. It is also a good game to play. The tension between the vulnerability of the Yard and the fact that you only play one card for its actions in your turn keeps you on your toes. You become acutely aware of other people’s card play and look to minimise the number of cards in your hand at the end of your turn through canny ‘follows’ and effective powering up of your own actions.
The Yard also gives you options for take-that, hate drafting and some vicious use of the trash cards, if you are that way inclined. Perk cards, acquired at Fort Level 2, provide asymmetric powers which are interesting, if of varied utility. And the deck building and Pack/Lookout management provide a range of routes to score.
All that glitters?
But... for all its strengths, Fort isn’t worth the hype, in my opinion. My biggest critique is the iconography. I like iconography – done well it makes a game smooth and accessible, allowing a designer to capture complex effects with simplicity. Fort’s iconography fails to do that – it is visually bland yet fiddly and at worst, oblique, which hinders smooth play. That, combined with patchy rules meant that even by game 4 we were still hunting BGG for clarification.
Now I don’t even mind doing that if the gameplay experience is rich enough, but Fort (while fun and fairly thinky) just wasn’t good enough. I wanted more in my turn – playing one card could be fine (Pax Parmir often has you only play one card) but the range of actions springing from that were quickly over and rather bland too. ‘Following’ was interesting but generally, you do it if you can because of the Yard, even for limited benefit.
The pace was brisk and it was fairly enjoyable but at the end, I just wished it was better and that I had played something like Res Arcana or It's a Wonderful World instead. I know they are drafting rather than deck building but they scratch similar itches for me and they do it better. And Res is a poster child for good use of iconography.
So all in all…
Should you buy Fort? Sure – it’s going to stay in my collection and it will continue to get plays. It’s beautiful and brisk – the theme and art really do add to the play experience. It plays well with 3 or 4 and ok with 2. It has puzzles and thought and a good dose of interaction. Would it be my first choice for a good, recent card game though…? Maybe I am missing something.