The classic film starring Michael Cane was one of my dad’s favourites, so I’ve naturally watched it a fair few times. I always loved that film, it’s both stirring, but also very melancholy. On one hand there’s the bravery of the British Regiment and their valiant fight for survival against staggering numbers. But the number of Zulus that were killed in that battle leaves you feeling tragic, that so many of their brave warriors – trying to defend their own country – perished on the battle field due to significantly inferior technology. The cinematography is striking in the film, and the acting is great, but the history really leaves a lot to be mulled over. British imperialism for good or bad shaped much of the world as it is today, and so much of the topic is captured in the Battle of Rorke’s Drift, a microcosm of an unbelievably complicated topic.
I’ve had my eye on this game for a while now for a few reasons; largely for the theme, but also because it’s solitaire only and I’m always interested in solo games/game systems. I enjoy solitaire because I can play at my own pace in my own time. It’s also fascinating to explore the engines and AIs that designers create and how those mimic the particular enemy and their tactics. To me a good AI is a feat, because those aren’t easy to create and balance so I really appreciate a good solo enemy AI.
Publisher: Victory Point Games
Designer: Joseph Miranda
Time: 25-45 mins.
Zulu’s on the Ramparts is a part of the solitaire States of Siege series put out by Victory Point Games, and as you can imagine much of this game is just trying to survive. You command the ~140 defenders of Rorke’s Drift, a tiny compound with a few buildings that is being charged on all sides by a force of over 4,000 Zulu warriors fresh off a crushing defeat of the British at Isandlwana and out for more blood. Through timely defensive preparations and heroism of the officers you try to fire volleys into the oncoming ranks to stem their charge. You have to last through the night until the relief column arrives, will you make it through?
The Game consists of you drawing chits to determine the movement of one (or more) of the stacks of Zulus. The Zulu stacks are on four tracks that lead towards the inner compound and if they make it there it represents the British forces being overwhelmed, swarmed, and slaughtered. Some of the chits are special events too that can really throw a spanner in the works, but the biggest challenge in this game are the ‘2’ space chits that launch the Zulus forward at an alarming rate, often at the worst possible times.
As the player, you have a starting hand including a couple of officers and a volley card. On your turn you have 1 action. One. A single, solitary action. That doesn’t make the game 1 dimensional, far from it, it makes the decision making absolutely crucial. Will you try to build a barricade whilst the enemy are far off? Or will you distribute ammunition and water before the fighting begins to remove the negative DRM? These are just a few of the many options to chose from, and every decision you make feels meaningful and important.
Playing down a timely hero, and being able to use his abilities to expand what you can do can turn the tide of battle. Sometimes you are faced with the regrettable scenario of having to sacrifice an officer in battle in order to trigger their heroic last stand, and do some damage at a steep cost. All the while you’ll be trying to commit to forming the ‘reserve platoon’ who when ready fire the most devastating volleys in the game and can provide you a little breathing room in desperate times.
Honestly, this is a mixed bag for me. The artwork is unbelievable across the board, and the cards are the excellent quality I’ve come to expect from VPG. The new mounted jigsaw board is much more stable than a card, which I also appreciate. My issues are with the counter sheet. You can watch the unboxing here and you’ll see that the counters themselves are very high quality with regards to printing, but I found the cutting was less than precise. Now let me say that I’ve not had this problem with any other Victory Point Games, the counters popped out nicely with no problems. In Zulus, however, the sprue was tearing at the seams trying to punch the counters out of it, they were still attached by relatively large bits, making it a real hassle to assemble them. Furthermore, in the video you can see me struggle to put together one of the standees, and kind of butcher it. All of the standees were similar, they are very hard to put together with the slots being too small in my opinion. It’s nothing a hobby knife can’t solve, but it took me a good half hour just to trim them up and get them together nicely. But once I got them all together you can see they look really great on the table, and I love an eye popping solo game.
This game took me under an hour to play. I read the rule book back to front previously and then sat down to just do it. In my first solo runs, I like to take my time to get everything right, because a good solo experience can be ruined by a misread rule. Normally this game would take about 25-30 mins play time, and set up is no more than 5 mins. For this reason alone there’s a good amount of replay value – because it’s easy and quick to play. This will hit the table more often than something like RAF: The Battle of Britain 1940 (my all time favourite solitaire) simply because it’s quick and more playable. The deck you play through is mostly random, so you’ll have new hands and new choices every time. Because it’s not a massive brain burner I also want to play it again often. That might however be a turn off for some.
Mechanisms in this game are tight. Nothing revolutionary, but simple and extremely well implemented. The combat is rolling a number of dice based on the range and the volley card you play; 6 is a hit, 5 is a retreat, and everything else is a miss. You’ll need to avoid negative DRMs if you hope to actually kill the enemy so deciding to let the building fires continue to burn and light the night sky for extra visibility might not be a bad thing! You draw 1 card each turn and that can feel very tough, as it forces you to make really hard decisions at times. When you have a hand of heroes but no volleys you’ll be deciding which hero to sacrifice forever so you can have a hope of survival! The enemy advance is constant and unrelenting, so be prepared to take a beating in this game.
There’s a lot of strategy in the choices that you as a player make in this game, but at the same time those decisions are determined by your hand, which is never larger than around 5 cards, and is more often than not only 3. The combat is also dice rolling, and it’s really tough at that. Maybe I’m just bad at rolling dice but I got almost all the way through the game and only killed 4 strength worth of Zulus. Sometimes the dice just aren’t kind and there’s no strategy to fight the dice gods. At it’s heart, Zulus on the Ramparts! is mechanically very simple, and it provides you with important choices but it’s also not some deep strategy game where each turn lasts an hour. It’s a 25 minute card draw, chit pull, best action possible kind of game, and that’s perfectly fine.
Final Thoughts: 17/20
I really, really like this game. The theme is great, and this little package encapsulates it well. You’ll be on the edge of your seat as you draw that next chit with the Zulus bearing down on you, and believe me they will. This game is also very hard. It’s very easy to lose, but it’s only 25 mins so I don’t feel like I wasted my whole day doing it. In fact, I wanted to play immediately again to try and do better! That’s what I loved about this game, it’s a huge challenge, but a rewarding one. Pushing back the enemy just one square feels like a massive win at times. If you like hard solitaire games, this is definitely one of them, and it is also a bonus of being not very complex. The historical text on the cards are a great reference and help you to get immersed in the game and characters [something that is in almost all VPG games and is extremely well received on my part]. I’m now looking at other games in the series because this one was such a blast and VPG covers some other great topics in this particular line.
Thanks for reading,