Full disclosure: A review copy of Fort was provided by Leder Games.
I’ve been waiting for this game for a long time. Heard rumors on the wind that maybe, just possibly, SPQF was going to see new life. But what company would want to pick up what is likely my favorite standalone deckbuilder? Oh, Leder would. Yeah, that scans. It’s a great fit for them, though I’ll admit it’s a bit outside their Root and Vast pedigree, until you consider the asymmetry of possible playstyles available to you in Fort, then I think it makes more sense with their brand overall. We’ll have to see, though, what they do next; will this lead to more smaller-box titles? I’m not sure. Either way, let’s be real here: this is an update and upgrade to a game that I just referred to as my “favorite standalone deckbuilder”; if you’re looking for a harshly negative review, I’ll freely admit in the opening paragraph (a rarity!) that I really loved getting to play Fort. What I’d read the rest of this review for is the normal setup and gameplay, but also some thoughts about what makes it different from SPQF, and why I think those changes are by and large for the better. Shall we?
In Fort, you play as kids trying to build the best fort in town. As kids do. You’ve got your best friends, of course, but you’ve also recruited local kids to your cause with two things that are irresistible to up-and-coming builder children: toys and pizza. Naturally, you’re competing against your rivals to build up these forts, so you may need to recruit even more kids to your cause. But be careful! Your best friends will always stand by you, but these neighborhood kids are fickle; if you forget to play with them because you’re focused on this fort of yours, they may well find their way to another person who is willing to treat them with respect. And wouldn’t you know? Your opponents are all too happy to oblige…
Setup is pretty easy. Everyone gets a player board:
And a Fort Token:
Set the score board nearby with the score tokens at 0:
Give each player two Best Friends: one wild (with the coin symbol) and one in their player board’s color:
Set the Toys near the score board:
And I usually place the Pizza on the other side:
Shuffle and place X Perks face-up above the score board, where X is the number of players, plus 1:
And shuffle and place X Made-Up Rules face-down in a stack nearby, where X is still the number of players, plus 1:
Almost done! You’re going to choose a player to go first and give them the First Player card, setting the Macaroni Sculpture card nearby:
And now you can shuffle the Kid Cards!
Deal each player 8. You may want to give them an icon reference sheet, as well:
If you want, you can play with a drafting variant where players draft those 8 cards. If you do, setup looks like this:
Otherwise, you can just shuffle your Best Friends in with those cards to make your starting deck! Reveal three Kid Cards below the score board to be the Park. Either way, each player shuffles their deck and draws 5 cards:
Fort, for all its intricacy, isn’t too complex in terms of its gameplay loop. Your goal, as kids, is to build up the best fort in town. Do that, and you just might win! It’s still a fair bit of deckbuilding, but with some interesting odds and ends that we should dig into. Let’s find out what’s happening under the hood.
At the start of your turn, if you have any friends in your Yard, you should add those to your discard pile. You won’t have any on your first turn.
On your turn, it’s pretty simple: you may play one card. You don’t have to play a card, but, generally, you want to kind of play the game. All cards have a Public Action (top box) and / or a Private Action (bottom box). You can use both in either order, if present, but you must completely finish one before starting the other. Certain actions have an x on them with a card suit; you may play more cards of that suit to improve that card’s effect (known as adding cards). Those cards don’t get to use their actions; they’re simply discarded. You may not add cards if they would not do anything (why you’d want to do that will be explained later). Cards in your Lookout may be added to your played card as though you had added them by discarding them from your hand; the bonus is that the cards in your Lookout stay in your Lookout for the entire game.
Note that you must use at least one action on your cards completely; the other action may be used partially or not at all.
When you use an action, other players may follow it by playing a card of the same suit. Only the Public Action may be followed, and only one card may be discarded. Note that if that card has two matching suits, though, you may perform the action twice. If the leader discards a coin card, they declare the suit that must be played in order to follow, and if the leader had a choice between collecting toys or pizza, you must follow that choice. You may follow each player on their turn, if you have the cards to do so. Do not draw cards to replace cards you used to follow.
Certain actions may lead to you building up your Fort. This is done by discarding the toys and pizza indicated to the right of your current Fort level. As you do, you’ll gain a Made-Up Rule (an end game bonus scoring condition) and a Perk (a single- or multiple-use ability). If you hit Fort Level 5 and no player has hit it before now, take the Macaroni Sculpture! The game will end at the end of this round.
Once you’ve completed your action, you may Recruit. You may take a single card from the Park, the Park Deck, or any player’s Yard. Add the card you took to your discard pile.
Towards the end of your turn, after recruiting, you discard any Best Friends (cards with stars) in your hand and the cards you played and added. Any cards remaining are added to your Yard; if you don’t play with your friends, they might just leave!
Finish your turn by drawing 5 cards from your deck. If your deck is empty, draw as many cards as you can, then shuffle your discard pile to become your new deck. Note that this specific moment is the only time in the game that you draw cards!
End of Game
The game can end in one of three ways:
- A round ends and a player has the Macaroni Sculpture (they reached Fort Level 5);
- Any player has 25+ Victory Points on the score board (not counting bonus points from Fort Level);
- The Park Deck is empty.
At the end of the round (all players have taken the same number of turns), the game is over. Calculate your final score, taking into account your Fort Level Bonus Points, your current Victory Points, your Made-Up Rule, and the Macaroni Sculpture, if you have it. The player with the most points wins!
Player Count Differences
Not a ton, generally, but there is one critical difference, and that’s that other players can inadvertently screw you over by giving your opponents access to critical path actions that you keep denying them. You will inevitably play Fort with a player who doesn’t notice that another player has enough resources to up their Fort level to the maximum, which is a huge danger. They’ll lead with a Fort action, and then that player will follow and the game’s over. That risk obviously increases as player count increases, as there’s no real way to plan for that. There’s something to the argument that you should diversify your deck more as player count increases to compensate for that, so that you have access to more follow actions, but I’m not sure that’s the best bet, since it dilutes the strength of actions on your turn when you’d want to be able to get a lot of something. That said, I think the increase in potential follow actions keeps the game moving at a good clip and keeps it fresh, which I really appreciate. I don’t have a strong preference for this game, player-count-wise, but I do love the two-player game. It’s very strategic, trying to take as much as you can without giving your opponent an inch. I like that kind of game a lot, and Fort certainly delivers in that department.
- Unless one of your opponents is going for a VP rush, it generally pays to try and build up your Fort as much as you can. It’s free points and it improves the size of your Pack and your Lookout. The bigger those are, typically, the better your draw for certain cards will be. You can leverage a pack to get more VP or to build more Fort levels faster, or you can turn a larger Lookout into more powerful actions on your turn. Both are great! Plus, again, you get increasing numbers of bonus points, which is good.
- If you’re trying to VP rush, you’ll generally want to thin your deck down to cards that grant you a lot of VP very quickly and the cards that work for them. Everything else is a distraction, largely; you want to convert your deck into a very lean VP machine. You just need the extra cards so that you can augment that action to get yourself more victory points. Make sure your VP engine doesn’t depend too much on trashing cards, though; that will run out your engine pretty quickly.
- Follow other players where you can; it’ll help you conserve some of your better cards. Provided you’re not planning to play them, at least. If you want to play them, hold on to them, but if you just need them gone so that you don’t lose them, use them to follow your opponents.
- Going after wilds may seem unhelpful, but it can really help you increase your options as the game progresses. They’re great if you can have a bunch in your hand; they let you always follow your opponent and you can use them to augment any of your actions. That’s great! It would be almost too good to be true if they had anything else going for them…
- Adding wilds to your Lookout is always a good move. Yeah, you can do this too, and it rules. Basically a free boost for every card you’re going to play on your turn for the rest of the game? I can get behind that.
- You also are going to need some strategy for getting resources. You particularly don’t want to have a thing where you only know how to get one type of resource and not the other. Toys alone won’t make the perfect Fort, you know?
- Try to get your first Fort Level advancement quickly, so you can lock in your Made-Up Rule. The quicker you do, the more options available to you. I generally stay away from the ones that benefit you having more resources because, in my opinion, it’s hard to make that work with my general strategy, which is just building up my Fort as quickly as possible.
- Be careful when advancing your Fort Level, though; a lot of players will piggyback off of it and follow you. You should be careful when you decide to advance; check to see if other players are just going to follow behind you. If they are, you can always throw a wrench in their gears and do something else; unlike SPQF, you don’t get a bonus point each time you’re the first to the next level. Early-game, though, it pays to go first, as I mentioned just above.
- I am loosely convinced that Dot is one of the best cards in the game, just like I thought it was in SPQF. Being able to build a Fort for one fewer resource is good, but having that AND a normal Fort action on the same card is incredible! If you can play your cards right, you can use that to surge two Fort levels in one turn, which makes you quite the threat. Even without that, saving a resource is a huge advantage.
- If you can figure out what cards other players want, taking them from their Yard may be a good way to deny them some points. This mostly works for the two extra suits, since those are the cards that players can benefit from having more of, but it generally can be helpful to try and mess up your opponents’ flow however you can.
- Don’t forget that you can Recruit from the top of the deck. Are the three card options you see trash? Are your opponents’ yards empty? Take the top card of the deck and forget about it! It might even be a card you need! I did that once and drew a crown, which gave me a free end game bonus point! I loved that. My opponent did not.
- If you’ve got a good card for advancing your Fort Level, feel free to trash your starter Best Friend. It’s cruel, but efficient, and that’s all we can really ask of ourselves.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- The card quality is amazing. It’s a good weight, a good thickness, and strong cards. I think they’ll hold up for a while.
- They did a good job simplifying the graphic design, relative to SPQF. I think there were places where it didn’t quite match in SPQF because there were dark colors on light backgrounds, light colors on dark backgrounds. It’s a bit disjointed, and that made some aspects of the game hard to follow (certain actions looked different depending on which cards you were looking at). They’ve aggressively standardized this for Fort, to its benefit. It’s much easier to read the cards and figure out the actions that they do since the language is always consistent across cards. They also got rid of a few things that were specifically confusing, like the ? symbol cards (most of the laurel cards from the previous game, honestly).
- I actually really like this theme a lot? I think they did a great job tying it back to the gameplay by making it kids going to someone else’s house to play and building up a fort with toys and pizza. Plus, everyone likes building forts. Or at least I do; it was a pivotal part of my childhood.
- The kids having names was a real master stroke. It lets me pick favorites, which I have (Dot, Ace, Doodles, and a few others). I understand that my slightly irony-poisoned brain sees it as a minor guerrilla marketing technique where players are more inclined to share photos of the game because it’s easier to identify with specific characters, but also, consider this: I don’t care that much about that, because I think it genuinely makes the game more fun to play. Sometimes things can just be nice.
- I’m a massive sucker for double-layered player boards. Everything fits so well! It sits so well! I love it. I love the laser-cut SPQF boards, but these are bigger and just feel great to use.
- It’s still pretty portable. It’s a smaller box (about half a Root in terms of length and width; maybe 2/3s on height?), and I think that works out really well for it. Either way I’m going to be taking it with me a lot. I may have to leave the player boards behind, unfortunately.
- It still has a lot of what I loved about SPQF. It has the core of the game; you can still follow actions and you can still boost your own actions and you still get every card for free. I think Grant made a hell of a deckbuilder and I’m super excited more people get to enjoy it.
- Still a lot of different ways to win! I haven’t spent a lot of time trying to make the VP cycle cards work for me in lieu of going for a big Fort strategy, but I imagine if I could get a bunch of those cards in the draft, I could probably make it work? I’m interested. I do remember it working pretty well in SPQF. Generally I tend to go for Big Fort, but that always runs the risk of other players just getting a bunch of resources and mooching off of your Fort action. It’s a complex path to winning, but the game is a lot of fun!
- The turns are pretty short, which makes the game easier to learn. You can play a card and then recruit a card. The iconography makes the game hard to learn, but the short turns lessen that burden somewhat, which I think is good.
- I like the addition of Perks; they change the game up a fair bit and allow for new strategies to form. I specifically like that some of them are one-shots; they present a really interesting spin on what I call the Megalixir Problem. Players have an item of awesome power that can only be used once. But when do you use it? That’s a big dilemma, and I love it when players have to figure that out. I think the game does a great job presenting that as a challenge for you to have to overcome, and those single-use Perks do a great job!
- It’s a consequence of the box size, but I do wish the score tracker / scorekeeping pieces were larger. The tokens in general are a bit small; I would love if they were larger. I’m not sure what it is with me and small game pieces lately; I normally don’t care, but the games I’ve been playing lately have VERY SMALL pieces.
- It’s hard to add cards to your Lookout. You kind of have to tuck them under the existing cards and that hasn’t always worked for me? I might just be bad at it. Anyways, it’s a very gentle nitpick.
- Still don’t think this should be your first deckbuilder, by any stretch of the imagination. The iconography is clearer, but with this many unique icons this remains a tough game to learn. Especially if the player is unfamiliar with deckbuilding, this is not going to be a simple game to just learn for them, since there’s also strategy around augmenting their actions, following other players, trashing cards, and keeping track of what you have available for formulating a long-term strategy. I think that’s a lot for folks just getting into the genre, and you’d be best served starting with something else. I usually recommend Abandon All Artichokes, to be honest.
- It is still a ton of icons. I still have trouble remembering them all, and I’ve played this game in two different forms at least a dozen times. It’ll get easier, but man, I almost wish there were just text instead. It makes the cards look worse, but it makes the game easier to play.
Overall: 9 / 10
Overall, I think of Fort much the same way I think of SPQF: as a triumph. It does a great job taking the things I liked about SPQF and contextualizing them against a new backdrop. I did like the animal theme maybe slightly more, but, eh, such is the price of progress. I’m okay giving that up for what I think are generally graphic design and quality-of-life improvements galore from a company that really gets how to make that happen. It elevates SPQF, in my mind; it takes something that really was a one-off labor of love and makes it largely more accessible to a wider audience while still preserving the things that made it unique. That said, it’s difficult for any game to be perfect; I do think the game would have benefitted from having larger tokens and an easier way to put cards into your Lookout beyond just kinda lifting the whole thing up. I assume the former was a consequence of the desire to make the box length / width be approximately half of Root for consistency’s sake; smaller player boards leads to smaller tokens. Not my favorite thing, but I understand. Similarly, though I complain about the sheer complexity of the game and the amount of iconography hampering accessibility for newer players, I do think that the game was not intended to be anyone’s first deckbuilder (and better candidates for that exist, in my opinion). It’s something worth noting as a drawback of the game, but it’s also important to note that those folks are not in the game’s target audience, as far as I’m aware. Same with SPQF, frankly. The things I’m most excited about are the new features, like Perks and Made-Up Rules; I think those keep the game fresh through multiple plays and encourage thinking about different lines of strategy, which I think is awesome. As I said in the beginning, I’m pretty over the moon about Fort, so this shouldn’t exactly come as a surprise. If you’re looking for an intricate deckbuilder to sink your teeth into or you just want to see the latest from Leder, I’d definitely recommend checking out Fort! I’ve had a blast playing it.