“Mound Builders?” my friends ask, picking up the half-sized box. “What’s this?”
“It’s a solitaire game from Victory Point, the folks who published Nemo’s War, Dawn of the Zeds, and Ottoman Sunset,” I start to explain.
“What do you do in it? Build mounds?” My friends assume a mock heroic voice. “Hey, what should we build? A cathedral? A castle? No, I’ve got it! Let’s build a mound!”
They think that’s pretty funny. I guess it is, especially if the phrase “mound builders” doesn’t have any historical connotation for you. Mound builders were basically the native Americans more native than the Native Americans; the Indians before the Indians; the equivalent of the Precursors in a dopey sci-fi story. They made huge earthenwork structures in North America a thousand years before any pharaoh in Egypt had the bright idea to tell his slaves to stack a bunch of stones in the shape of a d4. When Europeans swept across North America, conquering tribes with now familiar names, they asked them, “So who built these enormous mounds? Was it you?”
The tribes with now familiar names just shrugged. “They were already here when we got here,” they said. Some of the Europeans concluded they must have been made by the giants briefly mentioned in the Bible. Other Europeans did some archaeology and eventually gave the earlier tribes the name Mound Builders. Great. Nice work, archaeologists. That’s the best you could come up with? My friends wouldn’t think it was so funny if you’d given them a cooler name. People of the Earthenwork Edifices? Tumulists? Was Barrow Lords taken?
“Is the game any good?” my friends ask after they’ve stopped laughing about mounds.
After the jump, I have some bad news.
The concept behind Mound Builders is sound. Actually, it’s better than sound. It’s intriguing. It’s a three-act play. The first act is exploring a blank map to reveal resources and build a defensive empire as far out as you dare. You’ll still benefit from whatever you can’t claim through trade, but when the second act kicks in, you have to fight off hostile tribes. They move in from all sides, pushing you back, interrupting your economy. Act two is a siege. Then act three happens with the arrival of Spanish conquistadors. The stronger your economy, the more renowned your reputation, and therefore the tougher the conquistadors. The third act is a slaughter. When it ends, you score yourself based on how well you held up. The narrative arc charts a doomed people, much like Joel Toppen’s brilliant Navajo Wars, published by GMT Games.
But unlike Navajo Wars, another game from a first-time designer, Mound Builders is shot through with problems. The journey from design document to tabletop is a precipitous fall. The most significant problems are interface problems. For instance, you put resources on track spaces and can then upgrade them, which flips a chit and changes that space’s properties. But what’s on the other side of the chit after the upgrade isn’t consistent, so you have to constantly look at the backs of chits all around the board. You can even bust chits back down as an optional rule, so the back of every chit is always relevant. In a good boardgame interface, when the back of a chit is relevant, it should be visible, or at least a known constant.
The number of actions you get each turn is sometimes a function of how many goods of various types are on the board. Yet there’s no easy way to track your goods, so you’re constantly recounting the chits. How many furs do I have? Did the enemy take my last feathers? A good interface would include some provision to track the economy. I shouldn’t have to recount chits for ten different resources every time I want to decide where to best spend an action point.
Another interface no-no is the way the map is laid out. This is another in Victory Point Games’ state of siege series, so the board consists of several tracks leading to a central hub. Each track has spaces with numbers on them, which are important. Here, have a look:
When you either develop a space or move a unit on it, you obscure the number. In other state of siege games, the board is generous enough that the number is never covered (Dawn of the Zeds), or there is only ever one marker on the track, so you can tell the number of a space by what’s on either side. That’s a four between the three and five. But as Mound Builders progresses, many of the spaces are covered so you can’t see the numbers. You furthermore can’t even see the names on the spaces, which is an important bit of historical flavor. In Ottoman Sunset, one of my favorite state of siege games, you can easily cheat a chit up just a tad so you can always see the name of a space. I know that the Russian army is at Erzurum, the British are currently in Gaza, and the Gallipoli landing has pushed up to ANZAC Cove. But you can’t do that in the tiny cramped map for Mound Builders, where you might as well get used to just counting the spaces yourself. Never mind what they’re called. It isn’t important to the designers, so why should it be important to you? Alternatively, you can peek at the name when you invariably have to check the other side of that tile.
The poor theming goes beyond obscuring the names on the tracks. No track is different from any other track in any meaningful way. The distribution of icons for each track varies among the cards, so if you want to take apart the game systems, you’ll see that some tracks are slightly more aggressive than others because their icons will come up more often. Furthermore, the Spanish are most likely to arrive along the Cherokee track, which gives it a tentative grasp at having flavor. But otherwise, the tracks are barren of any sense of identity or personality. One of the things I like about Dawn of the Zeds and Ottoman Sunset/Hapsberg Eclipse games is how each track plays differently, and therefore breathes life and personality into the map. There’s none of that in the Mound Builders map. The design intends that the economy will make each track unique — this track has my obsidian, so I better protect it — but then you get into the issue of the bad interface and the mess of tracking your economy. It’s telling that Mound Builders wasn’t originally a state of siege game. Like Cruel Necessity, another sad failing of the state of siege engine, I get the sense that some game designs shouldn’t be shoehorned into unrelated proprietary concepts.
The theming is at its worst precisely where it should be strongest: in the cards. The cards make no effort to relate the flavor text and artwork to what they do mechanically. For instance, you get a text entry for amethysts with a picture of an amethyst on a card where one tribe advances one space up a track. What does that have to do with amethysts? Nothing. Almost all the cards are like that. Every turn provides a miniature encyclopedia entry, unrelated to anything happening, entirely superfluous, an educational tidbit dripped into the proceedings like a gameplay condiment you didn’t order. Compare this to other card-driven games that connect what the card does mechanically to some sort of event, or person, or asset. Even Cruel Necessity, brimming with all its pointless detail, tries to tie each card’s actions to something historical.
The difficulty curve is really weird with the third act onslaught of a Spanish conquistador driving at the central hub. Can you hold out? It’s like a city builder where you have to randomly drop a disaster onto the city right before the game ends. Consider how Mound Builders implements the arrival of smallpox with the Spanish. You drop a marker on your action point track to cap the number of action points you get. There. Smallpox.
In theory, I like the overall structure as it relates to a narrative about Native American culture. Again, the brilliant Navajo Wars comes to mind as a chronicle of inevitable defeat. But Navajo Wars has a powerful poignant human element, where the units are families, and where your pieces interact more directly with the map, and where the enemy is an inscrutable intelligence represented by a column of shifting action chits. But Mound Builders is a poorly themed, poorly implemented, and — worst of all — dry exercise in setting up bits with numbers and watching them get knocked down by bigger numbers. Its biggest failing is that it does nothing to evoke any sort of opinion about or perspective on or meaningful concept of its subject matter.
“Not really,” I tell my friends.
UPDATE: Thanks to designer Wes Erni for correcting me on two points. 1) Mound Builders was always part of the state of siege series. 2) The designers are not first-time designers. Wes Erni and Ben Madison have been designing boardgames for at least ten years.
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.