I have said this before but I don’t consider myself a solitaire gamer. I really only do solitaire for a few reasons. One, the theme of the game is something that I’m really interested in and I just have to play it to see how it carries out that theme. Two, I can’t seem to find someone else to play with, either Alexander is busy with his kids or my normal group doesn’t like the type of game. Or finally, the game is designed only for solitaire. Usually, with the last reason, I only seek the game out if number one was the case. Once again, I don’t usually like to play solitaire. I enjoy the back and forth communication too much in 2-player games but also tend to struggle with rules and mechanics as there is no one else to offer opinions and interpret what I am reading.
Mound Builders from Victory Point Games is a solitaire States of Siege game that to me has a very intriguing theme that hasn’t been gamed very often and really caught my eye (covers point one from above). In Mound Builders, you represent the two largest pre-Columbian Indian “mound builder” cultures that dominated eastern North America from before the time of Christ until the coming of the European colonists in the 17th century. Your empire represents the earlier Hopewell culture and the later Mississippian culture that derived from it.
The game plays in two distinct sections or modules. The first module deals with the Hopewell culture, which is the earlier of the two cultures in the game. During this phase of the game, your goal is to simply expand the influence of your empire across the land, trading with various chiefdoms and trying to incorporate their dominions into your own in order to increase your economic power through the accumulation of various types of resources. As time passes, your empire will grow and regress due to various factors including warfare, disease and drought, but more often than not, the real threat to your culture is simply that of the existence of other ways of life and beliefs that will ultimately mix with your own culture.
During the second phase of the game, you will be beset on all sides by competing tribes as well as the nasty Spaniards and will watch as the empire that you worked so hard to build during the Hopewell Era simply disappears from history.
I have now played Mound Builders five times and really enjoy the game. I will say that it is a fairly complex game with a lot of moving parts and it tends to get a little murky when dealing with some small situational rules but other than that is a great investment of both time and money. One thing that I really like about the design is that it minimizes the luck factor found in so many other solitaire only games. There still are random cards drawn, that can go poorly for you, and you do rely on dice rolling to defeat your enemies, but really all of those elements can be offset with careful planning and an understanding of what you really should be doing with the game. The game also isn’t really a large time investment as games can take as little as 20 minutes, if things are going very poorly, and will max out at around 60 minutes.
How Does the Game Play?
Your goal is to extend Mound Builder culture and amass as many chiefdoms as possible before rival native powers (and the smallpox-ridden Spanish!) rise up to drive you back to your Mississippi River heartland and extinguish your vast capital city at Cahokia, Illinois near modern day St. Louis.
In the above picture, you can see the extent of my culture at the end of the Hopewell Era and the beginning of the Mississippian Era. At the beginning of the game, your goal is to expand down each of the 5 tracks as you attempt to add to your power and culture and consolidate the various chiefdoms in the land into your empire. The various tracks represent the cultures and peoples of that time including the Cadoo, Natchez, Cherokee, Shawnee and Ho-Chunk. These chiefdoms each create a certain type of resource and your goal is to gain as many different types as you can in order to have the ability to take various actions later in the game.
For example, in the picture, you can see that I have gained access to Feathers, Mica, Obsidian, Chert, Pipestone, Chalcedony, Hides and Copper. In order for these resources to count toward creating Action Points in the Mississippian Era, you must either have control of 2 of each type of good or have built a mound of that type. So back to the picture, I have the ability to create Feathers (I have 2 chiefdoms of each type and have a mound built that creates Feathers), Mica (I have 2 chiefdoms of each type and have a mound built that creates Mica), Chert (I have a mound), Chalcedony (I have a mound), Copper (I have a mound), Obsidian (I have a mound) and Hides (I have a mound) for a total of 7 different goods for my economy. This is something that is good to continue developing even during the Mississippian Era as well as I could potentially build a mound that will create Pipestone (although its cost to do so would be expensive at 4 Action Points).
You will also notice from the first picture above that several of my chiefdoms have been “invaded” by the opposing cultures. This it the crux of the game. Each turn, a card will be drawn that tells you which of the 5 cultures will move into your lands. Sometimes only 1 will move but up to 3 can all move at once, and some can be moved more than once each turn. If you do not attack those cultures when they occupy one of your chiefdoms by the end of your turn and chase them off, your resource will be taken from you and you will no longer be able to produce or trade for that type of good, thereby weakening your economy. Sometimes this isn’t a concern, as you may have that type of good in a mound and you will not lose the ability to use it for Action Points, but sometimes you will be unable to stop the opposing culture and will lose some of your power.
As you look at the cards shown above, you will see that each card drawn will provide you with a set number of Action Points or APs. You will also notice that the card has a list of Hostiles that will be moving this turn as well as a triangle that points either downward (as it does on the Toltec card) or upwards (as it does on the Serpent Mound card). This is referred to as the Warpath Scouting Reports for that culture, and tells you whether they are in decline, which means you will get a value modifier to your dice rolls on that path this turn, or in ascension, which will increase the values needed to defeat armies in battle or to mound certain chiefdoms. The cards also are filled with a lot of historical flavor text that helps you understand the basis and background for the event and also allows you to learn something from playing the game. You can either choose to read the material or skip it. It is your loss though if skip it!
Onto the actions that are available to players. As mentioned earlier, players get a certain number of Action Points (AP) that can be spent on the following actions:
1. Advance: Move your peace pipe down the road to incorporate other chiefdoms. You can only incorporate a chiefdom where your peace pipe marker is located.
2. Incorporating Independent Chiefdom: you will need to roll a diplomacy check to see if you can incorporate them into your empire. You have to roll higher than the value listed on their counter. Remember, to include the decline or ascension values into this check.
3. Build a Mound: Building Mounds is the name of the game. You spend a number of APs equal to its printed value and flip that counter over. This now makes it fully incorporated into your empire and is akin to the noble families marrying into yours, the people have accepted your religion and culture and your economies become synergistic and dependent on one another.
4. Fortify Home Base of Cahokia: Spend APs to increase the defense value of your palisades protecting Cahokia. This involves moving the marker as a dial one click to improve the amount of hits it can take from invaders. This is very important as almost always one of the tracks is going to have the invaders make it to your gate and if they breach your walls, on their next attack of a breached palisade you will automatically lose.
5. Improve Storage Pits: This allows you to save more APs from round to round and is a very good use of your points.
6. Attack Hostile Army: This is akin to proactively attacking so that you can drive invading armies back a space to make it harder for them to reach Cahokia. I feel like this is one of the most important actions during the Mississippian Era and will be used to stave off the ultimate (and sometimes inevitable) breach of your capital.
In the end, you must defend your culture for over 1,000 years from not only the other invading tribes but also from the Spanish who will come at the end of the game to drive you out and take your goods, culture and land from you. You must always be aware of their eventual coming and prepare by improving your palisades that protect your home capital of Cahokia. The greatest threat to the peace, tranquility and success of your culture is the mighty Spanish who are looking to invade your territory and take your wealth and power through destroying your economic power and taking your resources.
The Spanish have a set time that they will invade, as identified in the rules, when you are building the event card deck. You will shuffle in the following card to the deck near the end and it will appear twice over the course of the game.
When The Spanish Card is drawn, you will choose which path the Spanish will use to advance toward Cahokia, and depending on your wealth and power in the game, determined by the number of goods you produce, you will have to randomly draw from a pool of progressively powerful leaders to guide the Spanish to your homeland. This is very thematic, as the greater wealth you have, the more attention you would have drawn from the Spanish and they would send their toughest and most merciless generals to take what you have.
In the picture above, you will notice that I drew Pizzarro who is a very powerful leader. In looking at his card, you will notice that he has an attack value of 3, as well as two black dice symbols noted. This simply means that when they are attacking you, you must defend and roll higher than a 3 two times, once each for each black die noted. As I have played this game, this is the point that it all seems to come crashing. I can’t tell you how many times I have rolled a 6 followed by a paltry 1. This is a very hard part of the game and really feels thematic as the Spanish had guns and cannons and simply were very difficult to defeat.
But, remember I said that The Spanish Card would come up twice! I remember in one of my games, during the 2nd appearance of the Spanish, I drew a weaker General, as I had lost a few of my resources, in De Soto who only had an attack value of 2 but still with 2 black dice symbols. He was able to successfully make it all the way to the gates of Cahokia and lay siege to my capital. Luckily, I had built up my palisades to their highest level over the course of the game and after several rounds of losses, I was finally able to end the threat and win the game. I came out with a moderate victory, which is the only time that I actually won this game. But don’t fret. In my humble opinion, you can judge the worth of a solo game by how difficult it is, and this one is right up there at the top of my list! How fun would it be if the primitive native cultures could easily defeat the mighty Spanish every single time?
In the end, victory is determined fairly simply, you win if Cahokia is still standing. But there are degrees of victory. These degrees of victory are determined by a simple calculation of a few factors and the consulting the Level of Victory or Defeat Table. The calculation includes a number of factors including the final location of the Smallpox marker and the final locations of each of the enemy nations locations on the various tracks. For example, if the Smallpox marker was in the 3 space, and the Spanish and Ho-Chunk Armies are in the 1 Land space, the Natchez are in Land space 6, the Cherokee are in Land space 5, the Caddo are in Land space 2 and the Shawnee are in Land space 3, you simply add those numbers up (3 + 1 +1 + 6 + 5 + 2 + 3 = 21) and consult the table to determine that you have achieved a Major Victory.
If the Spanish crash through your palisades and sack Cahokia, the game is ended and you will lose but you can still have a level of Defeat. You will simply add the Smallpox marker space and subtract the number of cards remaining in the deck to get a final Defeat score. So, if the Smallpox marker is at a 3 and you have 9 cards left, (3 – 9 = -6) you will score a Moderate Defeat.
Final Thoughts and Purchase Recommendation
This game is very enjoyable, and once you know the rules and are comfortable with the mechanics, which can take a few plays, the game can very easily be played in about 60 minutes. I highly recommend Mound Builders to anyone that loves solitaire only games. The game is very engaging and requires you to really focus on what is happening to do well. You must plan, and by planning, I mean really counting your available resources and identifying the ways that you will be able to develop as many as possible to maximize those Action Points during the Mississippian Era. Without a strong economy, and without a good network of mounds having been built on each track to provide resources but also to defend from the Spanish, you will not be able to take enough actions to hold out and will lose the game. I know, as I have lost quite a few times but I can actually tell you where I went wrong in each game, and with that knowledge I have improved, and can now regularly defeat the Spanish.
There are many aspects of the game that I didn’t cover in my review, such as the Black Tortoise, the effects of Smallpox from the Spanish or the Great Sun, but believe me when I say that this game has a lot of replayablity, as things will be different each game depending on your card draws, as well as whether you have added in the various chrome mentioned. A very solid game that will remain in my collection for those times when I am hankering for a good States of Siege experience with a trip back to Ancient North America. The rules are sometimes difficult to follow upon first reading, but if you are willing to put in the time, this game can be learned and with the assistance of the great player aid, played easily enough. Also, if you are interested in getting a closer look at the components, here is a link to our unboxing video.