The band Three Dog Night wrote and performed a song called One is the Loneliest Number. There has never been a more wrong song in the world. I thought of this when I was asked to review a solitary game. You mean, I don’t have to coordinate schedules and then I might play a game that I don’t want for the sake of someone else. I can instead play a game of my choice, where, and when I want. I might be alone when playing Mound Builders but I’m not lonely.
With this in mind, we look at the historical civilization game, Mound Builders, by Victory Point Games. The player takes on the role of expanding and defending a pre-Columbian Indian “mound builder” empire. You’re also trying to survive against the Spanish and outlast their invasion and small-pox. Can this solitaire civilization game keep your interest or will you give up and clamor back to your friends for company? Read on!
Mound Builders is a historical civilization game for 1 player that plays in about 40 minutes. Mound Builders is a solitaire game.
In Mound Builders, your goal is to build an empire, defend it, and then outlast the conquering Spanish army. The game is separated into three different eras: Hopewell, Mississippian, and Spanish. You begin in the Hopewell Era and you attempt to create and expand your Indian “mound builder” culture by adding chiefdoms to your empire. This is generally a peaceful era of expansion and economic growth of your empire. Next you move to the Mississippian Era where you defend your empire against rival tribes who are on the warpath (figuratively and literally per the game board). This era is a constant fire-drill to put out hot spots of civil war and repel external invaders while trying to maintain your territory, economic stability, and fortify your capital, Cahokia. The final era, Spanish, brings the seemingly unstoppable Spanish invasion – in truth 2 invasions. Ideally, your armies can slow their advance and that your palisades will hold. If you outlast the Spanish, then you win!
Mound Builders come with decent components. The markers are on scale with the classic Avalon Hill game punch outs. (Panzer Blitz anyone?!) These are functional, detailed, and made of a thick card stock so replay is not an issue. The only thing to be careful of when punching out the counters is to be very careful with the hostile tribe markers and stands. One marker did not punch out clean for me and I had difficulty inserting into the stand.
The map included has excellent detail and is well organized. There’s allot to it but it’s not overwhelming. The game I received came with a thick card stock puzzle map which is my preferred map because it lays flat and is bump resistance (pieces don’t slide all over when bumped by my sausage hands). I would recommend getting the deluxe set that includes this map and not settling for the paper map that is also included. If you’ve ever fought the creases and ridges of a folded paper map while using card stock counters then you know what I’m talking about.
The home- run component with me was the history cards. These are functional, sturdy, 4 color illustrated cards that give you actual mound locations, historical facts, and gate-way information to the game’s theme. I found myself reading through the cards wanting to learn more about this period even before I cracked the rule book.
Oh, the rule book. Be warned it’s dense (two columns of text per page) and it is text heavy early on. Later in the advanced rules, you get more illustrations but I think more diagrams or examples earlier would have helped explain the game play better in the base game sections for me. I think I understand why VPG did this to keep the price point low but more visual aids would have helped me grasp the rules a bit quicker. I found myself having to repeatedly re-read rules and walk through a few sessions to understand certain aspects of the game. Again, this is a solitaire game so it’s not like you have others at the table to discuss this with. VPG did include a player aid that is an excellent reference piece but in my opinion only works well when you have a better command of the rules.
How to Play:
Mound Builders set-up is rather quick and painless. You can do the following in any order prior to starting a game. You place the palisades token on your capital, Cahokia, and turn it to your starting palisade strength. You then place the Hopewell Era marker in its designated place on the map. The Mississippian Era is actually printed on the board while the Spanish Era is on the back of the Hopewell Era marker. You must place the Action Points marker on the zero of the Storage Pits track. The Status and the five Peace Pipe markers go on the Conquered Chiefdoms box. You then randomly choose and place five of the Chiefdom markers on each of the five Warpaths with the Plain side up. These will also have a Battle Value and Trade Good type printed on them. You then take the twelve green history cards (denoting the Hopewell Era), randomly discard two, and make a draw deck out of the remaining ten.
After set-up is complete, you can begin the game by playing through six phases during each Era:
History Phase – Turn over the top card of the draw deck you made above. This is the history card you must resolve during the following phases.
Economic Phase –The cards you drew will have either a white or black circle. The white AP number is the number of APs you can spend this turn. Black AP number depends on the economic situation and Trade Goods. There are a total of nine Trade Goods. Your economy size is determined by counting the number of Trade Goods but you can only count the Trade Goods if you have two or more Incorporated Plain Chiefdoms with the same type or a Mounded Chiefdom. See below for in Action Phase for Mounding.
Hostiles Phase – The History Card will show you the Warpath Status with a colored arrow. The color will denote which tribe is in Decline or Ascension (now the tribe Status Marker comes into play). Once you’ve determined the Warpath and Status of the tribe you roll the die for their modifier. The hostile army will try to advance towards Cahokia to conquer your lands. If they or later the Spanish breach Cahokia palisades you lose. You can defend against the hostile tribe (and Spanish) and attempt to push them back towards their homeland (or where the Spanish originated)
Revolt Phase – If the History card lists a tribe name in revolt you need to roll a die and determine where, and if it’s moving up or down on the war path.
Action Phase – This is the time to spend your Action Points.
You may perform the following actions:
Hopewell Era only:
• Move Piece Pipe: The cost is 1 AP and you can only advance if you are unopposed and towards the tribe’s homelands. This is the only way to discover new chiefdoms.
• Incorporate Chiefdom: The cost is 1 AP and you can roll a die and if it’s greater than the Chiefdom’s Value, then you move your peace pipe into that chiefdom and they are now welcomed into your empire and economy.
• Mounding: The cost equals AP equal to Incorporated Chiefdom Value. When you spend the APs, you flip the Chiefdom over to show the Mounded side. As noted above, Mounded Chiefdoms really help your economy = APs.
• Fortify Cahokia: The cost is 2 AP and you improve the Palisades by 1 click clockwise.
Mississippian and Spanish Era:
• Attack Hostile Army: The cost is 1 AP and you roll a die and if it’s greater than the Army’s Value, then you retreat it back one to its home or originating land. You now control that Chiefdom, Wilderness, or Unorganized land. If the roll is equal or less than, then the Army wins and remains in place. If you roll a “1”, you’re routed and you lose an additional +1 AP.
• Repair Breached Palisades: The cost is AP equal to the current Palisades value and after you spend those APs, you fill the Palisades Marker to the unbreached side.
• Powwow: (Mississippian only): The cost is 2 AP to Powwow and use the Great Sun Marker. This creates a Peace Pipe Marker on the Warpath of your choice that does not currently have a Peace Pipe. You place it adjacent to a Hostile Army.
End of Turn Phase – This phase is basically housekeeping and cleanup.
If at the end of the Spanish era you have survived, you win!
I have to two things to admit before I start. The first is that I was not familiar with the States of Siege™ games and don’t worry, you don’t need to be either. The rules refer to this Victory Point Games system but it’s not vital to know it to play Mound Builders. If you are, then I think you will be familiar with the game board and the warpaths to Cahokia. From what I can tell, this is a similar design mechanic of that system.
The second is that I have yet to win this game and again don’t worry, this does not take away from the enjoyment. The game is challenging but fun, especially if you like historical games. I always find it fun to re-create history. Unfortunately I have been unable to do that yet with Mound Builders. But I have not given up!
I have played this one 4 times and I have tried different strategies and approaches but so far I have not found one where I outlast the Spanish. I’m not going to go into detail about what I did for fear of ridicule and I also do not want to give too much way for new comers to spoil their experience. The game has a nice flow as you watch the era deck dwindle down to the last card and you know that there are some actions you cannot perform in the next era.
That is basically the Hopewell Era for me. I want more cards and want to expand more but that is the most limited era deck. I know this is by design but I’m convinced one or two more cards would help me out. Because let’s face it, being 0 for 4 I could use the help. I did start to fan out the decks to see exactly how many turns I had. The other two era decks give you the opposite feeling. You want these decks to run out as fast as possible and in the case of the Spanish Era deck, that is victory! I’m not sure if this is “cheaty” but it obviously did not help me win. You also set your own pace with this game and play phases and actions as long as you want. I see this as a pro and con for some of my friends if they want to keep play under 40 minutes.
Be aware that there is an element of chance with the draw of the History Cards and the roll of the die but I think this adds to the enjoyment and replay. The History Card Era desks are divided and color-coded into Eras and some are smaller than others. I think as you replay cards and effects will become familiar but not the timing of them. I was undone more by the die rolls when rolling a 1 when I would attack, consequently being routed and losing an additional AP. That is not as fun but it again brings randomness and variety into the game.
The one aspect of Mound Builders that I found to enjoy the most is that it is a solo game and that I can walk away and come back to at my convenience. There are no other players to confirm schedules with if you stop. Also, I have a family and with them come many distractions, so when I started to play Mound Builders and was pulled away I was able to step right back in the action without much delay. As I mentioned above, the History Cards are color-coded to Era so you can easily see where you left off. I also finding myself stepping away from the table to consider how best to spent APs now and on future turns.
My only complaint, and I’m not sure how best to fix this, is that the Spanish originate on three specific Warpaths (one is a 50% chance) out of the six that are available. The reason I say I’m not sure how best to fix this is because it’s historically accurate. The problem is as a player I tended to put more emphasis on those three warpaths (especially the one) than others. Maybe I should be more impartial and unknowing like the original Mound Builder Empire but to be honest, even knowing where the Spanish are likely to start still has not helped me win.
Mound Builders is a challenging but fun historical civilization solitaire game. The designers did an excellent job giving you information on this time period and, in my opinion, just giving enough to understand the basics but also get your feet wet to make you want to learn more about it. The rules might be dense but once you read through a few times and get started I think you will enjoy trying to expand, defend, and outlast the Spanish. Where the Spanish will originate from might not be a mystery but stopping them will be (at least it is for me).
I will let you on a secret. I’m going to keep playing this game until I win and then I’m going to start using the advanced rules and I’m going to play until I win. Mound Builders has made it to my game shelf and when none of my friends or wife can board game it up. I will likely take this one down and try a new strategy soon. I have also started looking for more solitaire games and as luck would have it, Victory Point Games makes more (such as Zulus on the Ramparts! – The Battle of Rorke’s Drift 2nd Ed). This game has opened up a game type for me that I thought I would not have normally tried and now am a fan of. Give Mound Builders a look, it’s a challenging and fun experience.
If you are interested in getting a copy for yourself, you can get it for $32 for the deluxe version.
Final Score: 4.5 Stars – A well-developed historical civilization game set in the Victory Point Games States of Siege™ game. It keeps you guessing on your current and next move for the length of the game.
• Text heavy rule book
• Origin of the Spanish is predictable