Publisher: Victory Point Games
Designer: John Welch
Artist: Tim Allen
Players: Solitaire (although noted two or more players as well)
Playing Time: 55 Minutes at Peking (oh, those VPG guys are such kidders!)
Category: Solitaire States of Siege wargame
It’s been a while since we tackled a Victory Point Game release and I’m happy to say the latest title to hit the table is from our friend John Welch. Not to jump too far off topic, but one of the reasons we enjoy playing games from VPG isn’t only because we think the vast majority of their titles are great but also because of the really good people behind the scenes at “The Little Company that Could.” There are a lot of lousy games produced by really great people and there are plenty of excellent games designed by folks who wouldn’t pee on you if you were on fire.
I’m happy to say that Victory Point Games is one of those companies out where really great people are making really good games. This isn’t to say that they are alone in this fact – we deal with a lot of companies who are wonderful – yet there are producers we will not deal with nor mention their games any longer because they aren’t very nice or run you around at conventions promising interviews and continue to blow you off. But that’s a story for another day as I’m talking about cool people, and John Welch is defiantly one of the good guys in the hobby.
This isn’t to say I won’t be taking a critical eye to his latest design, Keep Up the Fire!
VPG likes to bring us, from time to time, games that focus on some of the more obscure moments in history. Granted, the Boxer Rebellion certainly isn’t as obscure a topic as the Aaron Burr conspiracy (as dealt with in Hero of Weehawken) but it isn’t on the top of many people’s minds either. For those unfamiliar with the Boxer Uprising, as it is also known, suffice to say that in the waning years of the 19th century and the very beginning of the 20th many Chinese weren’t all too happy with the influx of foreigners making an impression on their way of life.
The Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists was a nationalist movement of those who wanted to drive the “foreign devils” out of China. Otherwise known as The Boxers, these people felt that too much influence was being meted out by these outsiders and they did not want to see a Westernization of their homeland nor be a victim of imperialist aims. Add in the fact The Boxers hated missionaries spreading Christianity throughout the land and it’s plain to see that things were going to boil over at some point.
In June 1900 in Peking (modern day Beijing), Boxer fighters threatened all foreigners and forced them to seek refuge in the Legation Quarter. In response, the initially hesitant Empress Dowager Cixi, urged by the conservatives of the Imperial Court, supported the Boxers and declared war on foreign powers. With this, all hell broke loose across China as foreigners and Christians (especially Chinese Christians) were massacred. Diplomats, foreign civilians and soldiers, and Chinese Christians moved into the Legation Quarter of the city. The legations – United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Austria-Hungary, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, the US, Russia and Japan – were ordered to leave the Chinese mainland but following the murder of German envoy Klemens Freiherr von Ketteler, in an open street, the legations decided to defy the Empress’s order. At that point, the Imperial Army of China and the Boxers laid siege.
The only hope in breaking the siege, and saving the legations, was more than a hundred miles away – a relief force known as the Eight-Nation Alliance under the command of British Lieutenant-General Alfred Gaselee.
Keep Up the Fire! uses the VPG States of Siege system and puts you not only in command of the multi-national force surrounded in Peking but also the relief column of the Eight-Nation Alliance fighting its way to lift the siege. All in all, your back is to the wall as we’ve come to expect from a SoS title.
As usual, the components are fairly typical of recent Victory Point releases. As I’ve mentioned previously, it looks like VPG has raised their game a bit in the sharpness of the graphics as of late and Tim Allen has once again done a fine job. Keep Up the Fire! is small enough to take with you on the go as well, so you can pop it out and game just about anywhere you find yourself.
Of no surprise should be the set of cards which drives all the game action as this is one of the main components of a SoS title. Not only do the cards provide the actions available to the player but also provide additional historical info to provide for a narrative flow. Once again I will provide my two cents and recommend sleeving the cards for ease of play.
You recall I mentioned you’re in charge of not only the legations in Peking but also the rescue force making its way to the city. With this you’ll find that the action cards provide what commands can be used for the forces inside Peking followed by what’s available to the relief column.
In the Legation Phase you’ll randomly place Chinese forces in the outskirts of Peking. At this point the player will attempt to destroy these forces (no easy feat) as the Chinese Army and Boxers advance on the Legation Quarter. All the while you’ll see the strength of your defenders whittled away while the attackers just keep coming. It’s best to do all you can to knock out the enemy from long range as hand to hand fighting is just as devastating for the defender as it is the attacker.
In the Relief Column Phase you’ll look to build up the column and face assaults from the natives as you try to make your way to Peking. It’s important to note that logistics come into play as you can’t just make a mad dash for the city but need to prepare and bolster your force.
As in all States of Siege titles, there’s always a lot more that needs to be done than you’ll have actions available to you. The luck of a single die roll can be crucial and can turn what is shaping up to be a victory into a devastating defeat. There are more ways to lose the game than to win as holding out until the relief force arrives is your only path to victory while allowing the Chinese to reach Fort Hallady (inside the Legation Quarter), having your forces in Peking eliminated, or not getting the column to Peking are all instant losses.
Players may feel that the odds are stacked against them and, since this is a SoS title, they pretty much are. As with any solitaire game, much of the enjoyment is in the tension of make or break rolls to see if your defenders can hold out just long enough for Lieutenant-General Gaselee to arrive. The reliance of so many die rolls effectively meaning a win or a loss might be a turn off for some gamers, but Keep Up the Fire! plays quickly enough where you can just brush yourself off and have another go.
I do like Keep Up the Fire! but there are a couple of minor issues I have with the game:
First, and this is very minor, is the fact that it’s mentioned the game can be played by more than one person. In this scenario one player commands the defense inside Peking while the other commands the relief column. I have to be honest and say that I can’t imagine playing with any of my friends simply because there just isn’t enough to make controlling one of the two forces interesting. In other words, as a solo venture the game works but I think it would be a snorefest for two or more players.
Second, the difficulty of getting the relief column to Peking is pretty skewed. As in it isn’t very historically accurate. Obviously this is a game and it would be much less of a challenge if Gaselee’s troops were able to reach Peking with ease. Yet, historically that was the case as the Chinese Army and Boxers put up very little resistance that wasn’t easily pushed aside. The term “a hot knife through butter” comes to mind.
I understand the relief column aspect of the design brings a new wrinkle, as opposed to just having the Peking defenders hold out for “X number of turns, but there’s just something about it that doesn’t quite ring true. This isn’t a huge issue since I believe the playability of the design is bolstered by the mechanic – it’s a better play even if the history suffers a little.
In the end, I like Keep Up the Fire! and feel it’s a very worthy addition to the States of Siege line. I can’t say it’s the best in the series (that’s a tight race between Dawn of the Zeds and We Must Tell the Emperor) but it certainly is worth picking up. The theme is interesting, it plays well, and it has loads of tension to keep you coming back for more.
John Welch’s mom should be proud!