Friday, 3 November 2017

The Impregnable Fortress

Plays: 2Px1.

The Game

The Impregnable Fortress is a game about the Japanese invasion of Singapore during World War 2, designed by a Singaporean. It is a 2-player game, with one side playing the Japanese and the other the British. Singapore was under British rule then. The core game mechanism is modeled on Stratego. It is an abstract wargame. The identities of the game pieces are initially hidden from your opponent. They are revealed only during battle. To win the game you must find and capture your opponent's HQ.

You can see the British HQ at the lower left. During game setup, you arrange your 30 pieces in your deploy zone in any way you like. The strengths of your pieces vary from 1 to 9. During a fight, the weaker piece is eliminated. If the strengths are the same, both pieces are eliminated. During the game, the two sides take turn making moves, like in Chess. All pieces may move one step in any direction, except for the HQ's and the mines which may not move.

The game board shows Singapore and part of Johor, the southernmost state of peninsular Malaysia. The Japanese army starts in the north, and the Commonwealth army in the south. The hexes marked with crosses are impassable. The game setup is not historical. You can set up your army any way you like as long as you stay within your deploy zone. The army composition is certainly not historical. I am quite sure the Japanese army did not plant mine fields in Johor.

There are many details on the board. Some do affect game play. If you use the advanced rules, the Jurong Line hexes can increase the strength of Commonwealth units. The major road - Woodlands Road - allows units to move two steps instead of one. It is easier to reinforce units in this area, but it is also easier for your opponent to advance to attacking positions.

The front and back covers of the rulebook list the army composition of both armies. The two sides are the same. This list is quite important. During a game you need to keep track of which enemy units have been killed, and which still remain on the board. Some units are vulnerable to specific units, so it is important to know the current composition of your opponent's army.

The two maps show suggested setups. HQ's are tucked away in corners, and protected by mines. Mines are also set up elsewhere as diversions.

Many units have special interactions. Some are in the basic rules, some only apply if you use the advanced rules. When I played, I used all the advanced interaction rules. Let's look at the group at the top left. The mine (X) kills anything that attacks it. The only exception is the combat engineer (3) which can eliminate the mine. The conscript platoon (6) can be used to clear a mine, but it dies together with the mine.

At the top right, the recon troopers (4) can force all adjacent enemy units to reveal themselves.

At the bottom left, the bomber (2) may attempt to bomb any unit on the board. If the target unit has a strength of 4 or less, it may be destroyed. You play a mini-game with those square tokens to determine whether it is destroyed. Other units won't be destroyed, but they will be exposed. The bomber is effectively also a recon plane. The anti-air gun (5) may shoot down a bomber after its bombing run.

At the bottom right, the tank troop (9) is the strongest unit in the game. However it loses to the humble anti-tank team (1). The elephant fears the mouse.

Notice that some of the units are in a darker shade. These units are only used if you play the advanced rule which allows customisation of your army. You add 10 dark units to your pool of 30 units, and from this pool of 40 you select 30 to be your army. I didn't play with this because it was my first game and I had no idea how to do customisation.

The cards are an advanced variant too. Each side has its own deck of cards. Whenever you attack, you earn a political point (the star token), regardless of whether you win that battle. You may spend two political points to draw a card. You may spend political points to play a card. The cost is specified on the card. These two cards came into play during my game. The Water Shortages card was devastating to me (the Commonwealth). Heng played it when I had 7 political points. I lost all of them and had to painstakingly collect political points all over again. The British Tanks card allowed me to resurrect my tank troop, the mightiest unit in the game. This is a very powerful card, thus the high cost.

The Play

I taught Heng to play. He played the Japanese and I played the Commonwealth. We were both new to the game. I had heard of Stratego and the general idea behind it, but had not actually played it. The setup took a while. You can think of it as part of playing the game. I protected my HQ with mines, and put it at the back, as far from danger as possible. Units with situational uses were placed away from the front too. E.g. combat engineers had better stayed away from danger until I found the mines, the weak anti-tank teams were kept safe until the enemy tank troop was revealed. I put my own tank troop at the back too, worried that it might be caught by enemy anti-tank teams easily if I used it too early. As a result, my front liners were mostly the tier 2 units, the 6's to 8's. This was my thinking when I deployed my units.

The Impregnable Fortress is a game of attrition. Initially the board looks crowded, but very soon the crowd thins. When one unit defeats another, it becomes vulnerable too because its identity is now known. Your opponent will try to kill it with a stronger unit or a unit which specialises in killing it. This reminds me of Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation, which also has a Stratego-like mechanism. As the units dwindle, there are fewer and fewer pieces to protect your HQ. It is a race to find and destroy the enemy HQ. No matter how bleak things look overall, if you manage to capture the enemy HQ, you win immediately. Normally you still need to take care of the big picture. You want to maintain a front. You want to score more kills than your opponent. Both qualitative and quantitative advantages will help you in the end game of hunting down the opponent HQ.

Heng was the Japanese. In the southwest corner he had one commando which managed to break through my flank and wreaked havoc behind my front lines. It was a 6, which was one of the stronger units. I had nothing in the area which could stop it. It also cleverly avoided two mines. Thankfully my HQ was protected by a mine. This brave Japanese unit eventually died on a minefield.

There was much fighting at the centre of the board. The major road was very useful in both offense and defense. You can use the road to attack an enemy two steps away. On defense, you can also use it to stay out of range of enemy units. Every time you attack, you get a political point, so players are encouraged to be aggressive. This is good design.

My artillery battery (2) helped me tremendously. It supported friendly units within two spaces, increasing their strengths by up to 2. My infantry company (7) was almost invincible with the support of the artillery battery.

The strong units are the stars. In the basic game, you have one 9, one 8 and two 7's. These strong units can go on a rampage. It is important to keep track of which units have been killed and which are still on the board. During my game I kept tabs on Heng's strong units. I knew if his 9 was dead, my 8 would be close to invincible. I only needed to be careful of artillery support and mines. Heng managed to break through my left flank. I pushed through on the right flank. I had more units advancing, so the progress was slow. Moreover I was wary of mines and advanced cautiously, using my recon unit as much as possible.

I gained an upper hand in the centre, managing to kill all his strong units eventually. After both our #9's (tank troop) died, I revived mine by card play. I knew then the centre would be mine. Heng could not stop my advancement in the east, because I had a #8 supporting that offensive. Eventually my eastern expedition force found and captured the Japanese HQ, saving Singapore and rewriting history.

The Thoughts

When I first read the rules of The Impregnable Fortress, I was a little disappointed, because I realised this isn't a historical wargame. It is an abstract wargame which uses the Battle for Singapore as a backdrop. It doesn't try to model the actual war. Some historical details are added, giving the game flavour. The cards contain many historical details, and I like that. This is certainly not a hex and counter wargame. It is at the other end of the wargame spectrum. This is a light strategy game. You do have to put some thought into the tactics. This is closer to a mass market game than a niche market game. Non-gamers can certainly handle the basic rules. Seasoned gamers will want to start using the advanced rules straight-away. The game is supported by the Singapore National Heritage Board. I imagine it being sold at museums and tourist centres.

Singapore is an immediate neighbour of Malaysia. We share many similarities, and we used to be one country for about two years. A game about the Battle for Singapore has special meaning to me, because the historical event was close to where I live.

Here the link to The Impregnable Fortress on Boardgamegeek: https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/237289/impregnable-fortress.

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