Review of Zulus on the Ramparts!
Review by David Lent
Zulus on the Ramparts is a solitaire game by Victory Point Games. It is a simulation of the Battle at Rorke’s Drift where 140 British troops and auxiliaries defended a small compound in South Africa against 4000+ crack Zulu troops and not only survived, but won! The author Joseph Miranda wrote 2 other solitaire games that I like: Khe Sanh ’68 and Suez ’56 so when I heard he wrote this, I immediately jumped online and ordered a copy.
This game originally came in a ziplock bag, but was later released in a boxed version. I opted to get the boxed version and I’m pleased with the component quality. This game includes one game board, 10 plastic stands, 50 action cards, 82 game pieces, 5 D6 dice and a rules book.
The game board is solid cardboard and depicts the mission station at Rorke’s Drift. It has four tracks on it called the left horn, right horn, chest and loins. In real life the Zulus had a military formation with these four elements. The chest was in the middle; the wings were called the horns and in back was a reserve known as the loins. Typically, they would try to pin an enemy formation with the chest and envelope it with the horns. The loins were then used as a reserve to either decisively exploit a breakthrough or plug a gap. Inside the perimeter is an inner barricade and final redoubt. A Zulu victory marker begin the game in the outer perimeter, but the British may build barricades in order to first move the victory marker into the inner barricade and then the final redoubt. The purpose behind this is to make the Zulus have to travel further to reach it. If the Zulus reach the victory marker, the game is over.
Cards are an important part of this game and consist of two main types. They are volleys and heroes. The volley cards tell you how many dice to roll when shooting at a certain range. Volleys are played as an action in the action phase. Once a hero card is in play, it may be used to create barricades or form a reserve platoon as an action. Heroes also contain free actions that can only occur in certain phases. One of those free actions is a sacrifice that discards the hero in order for it to fire a volley in the main phase.
This game uses D6 dice and is supposed to include 5 of them. However, my brand new copy only included 4. I have plenty of D6’s at home, so it’s not that big of a deal but it would have been better if I got all the dice I paid for.
The other pieces included in this game are a bunch of markers, iMpi chits, event chits and standees. The standees are the actual Zulu regiments called iButhos. They consist of a stand up marker with one or more “hit” markers beneath it. One iButho is placed on each track (left horn, right horn, chest and loins). iMpi chits are drawn from a cup and tell you which track to use and how far to advance the iButho.
Event chits are drawn from the same cup as the iMpi chits and the possible events are building ablaze, iNdluyengwe Forward, Prince Dabulamanzi, rifles overheat, seniority debate, washing of the spears and Zulu snipers. Building ablaze causes you to roll on the building ablaze table to see if the hospital or storehouse has started on fire or if the fire has been put out. iNdluyengwe forward causes you to move his iButho forward 2 spaces. Prince Dabulamanzi causes you to roll a dice and return that number of discarded iMpi chits randomly back to the cup. Rifles overheat gives you a -1 die roll modifier until end of turn and also causes you to draw another iMpi chit. Seniority debate is silly. It has you return most of your leadership cards back to your hand so they can have a debate in the middle of a battle. Washing of the spears causes the iButhos that are on the lowest number space to retreat one space. Zulu snipers cause you to draw another iMpi chit and gives the British a -1 die roll modifier until the end of the turn. Some of the event chits get discarded after use and some are put in the cup. There is a reference sheet on the back of the rules, but it does not include a chart for the event chits. During the game, you are constantly going back to the rulebook to see what an event does or to see whether or not you have to discard the event or put it back in the cup. This game should have included a separate sheet with all the event information on it.
The sequence of play for this game is pretty straightforward. The sequence is iMpi phase, iButho phase, action phase, card draw phase, hero phase and housekeeping phase. During the iMpi phase you draw a chit and if it’s an event chit you resolve the event. During the iButho phase you move one or more iButhos if an iMpi chit was drawn in the previous phase. In the action phase you get one action that you can use to put forth a hero, form a reserve platoon or fire a volley. During the card draw phase you draw one card. Some heroes have free actions that can be used in this phase to draw additional cards. The hero phase allows you to put forth one hero from your hand. During housekeeping, you discard down to 5 cards unless Color Sergeant Bourne is on the board. If there are no iButhos left on the board you win.
Game setup has several steps. First, you put all the chits in a cup and then place the ammunition/water low marker on the board. Next, you place the iButhos on the board in the “5” spaces on the tracks. After that, you put Lieutenant Bromhead and Lieutenant Chard along with the volley that gives you a free non-volley action into your hand. Next, you shuffle the deck and draw 3 cards and shuffle the relief column into it and place them on the bottom of the deck. Last, you put the “Night Fighting Begins” card into the middle of the deck. When that card is drawn, British volleys get a -1 die roll modifier unless one or more buildings is on fire. This is the only game I have ever played where you want you own buildings to be on fire.
Here’s how the first few turns work. You start the game with 3 cards in your hand. Two are the hero’s Lieutenant Bromhead and Lieutenant Chard and the other is a volley that gives you a free non-volley action. In addition, you are low on ammo/water. The first few turns you are trying to get heroes out so you can distribute ammo and build barricades. The barricades take a total of 3 actions to build. In the meantime, the Zulus are creeping closer and closer to your camp. You can speed the process by returning Bromhead to your hand to give you a free action. If the Zulus get too close you can fire the special volley that gives you a free action so you can also get a little barricade building done that turn. Don’t delay the barricades, because the Zulus move fast and can get to the victory marker in a little as four turns (provided they have great iMpi chit draws) if you don’t build barricades.
Zulus On The Ramparts is a game of decisions. Enemy movement is controlled by the game, but you decide how to deal with the threat. You have to decide what actions and free actions to use. Do you return Bromhead back to your hand to get another action or do you use him to help form a reserve platoon? Do you fire Volley Fire by Ranks (your most powerful volley) and go low on ammo or do you fire a less powerful volley and stay in good supply? Do you sacrifice Chard to get 2 additional actions or do you return him to your hand so you can draw 2 cards? Do you sacrifice Hook to keep an iButho from entering the storehouse or do you leave him on guard at the hospital? Do you fire at the enemy now with only 1 dice or do you wait for him to get closer so you can use 3 dice. Do you use the optional cards that give you more options, but reduce victory points? This game relies less on luck and more on good decision making than most solitaire games and that is why it’s a winner.
Let me reiterate, this game is a winner. However, there are six areas that could use improvement. First, the iButhos sit precariously on top of their hit markers and fall over constantly during the game. After this happened a few dozen times, it started to get really annoying. Second, the victory conditions don’t seem right. If you survive until relief arrives, you should automatically have a victory. However, if you didn’t accumulate enough victory points during the game it can be a defeat. My personal opinion is any time 140 troops survive a battle with 4000+ troops it should be a major victory. Third, the FAQ on the Victory Point Games website is completely wrong about hero’s volleys. It says they are not a free action. The rules CLEARLY state that a hero’s volley is a free action that can be used in the action phase. When I say CLEARLY, I mean CLEARLY enough that any rules lawyer can understand it. See section 6.1 of the rules. Fourth, the ammunition/water low marker is the same color as the board and is hard to see. I’ve had to redo turns on several occasions when I realized I had fired a volley while ammo was low and didn’t use the -1 die roll modifier. Fifth, If you use the optional rule for iButhos with more hit points you are not given additional victory points. Lastly, you get 10 extra victory points if you survive until reinforcements arrive. However, if the game ends early because you killed all the Zulus before reinforcements arrived you don’t get the victory points. That just doesn’t make sense.
Now that I’ve finished with the bad, it’s time for the good. First, this game is fun as heck to play. I’ve played around 20 games with both basic and optional rules in the past 5 days. Enjoying a game enough to play it four times a day is a real sign of a superb game. Second, the Zulus win around half the time. This isn’t one of those games where you figure it out and then you always win. Each game is different and you better make good decisions. Third, there is real strategy in this game. You don’t win with just good die rolls; you need to know how to use your heroes correctly. Fourth, this game has the major elements from the actual battle and also some optional cards that depict events which were only in the movie. I like how you can either play the historical or Hollywood version of the game. Last, this game has a ton of re-playability. Sometimes, games focused on a specific historical battle get boring after a few games because each game you play feels just like all the others. The optional rules and random events make each play of this game unique.
Buy your own copy here.