The Shot Heard Round Charleston Harbor…Fort Sumter Design Notes and AAR (Part 1)

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On July 1st, I did something that I have never done before. I sat outside and I played a solo game of Fort Sumter while taking a picture of each move, then tweeted it out to my approximately 1300+ followers. It got a very good response, so with the aid of a very technically savvy millennial (thank you Rachel B.), I am commenting on what occurred so that you can see and learn how to play Fort Sumter.


Fort Sumter uses my CDG mechanic in a small, fast format. I am sure some folks will see this small short design as a historically themed game. One playtester even said it felt like a Knizia game. I should be so lucky. What I have found is your ability to see a game as having a strong historical theme is often based on your level of knowledge about the event, so I want to spend a few words to describe how I see this as a historical game on the Secession crisis of 1860-61. Toward that end I would like to relate a short synopsis of the historical events covered in this game for those who are unfamiliar with this period of American history.

The crisis and the timeframe of this game started with Lincoln’s election and concluded with the bombardment of Fort Sumter. (For my foreign friends, Fort Sumter still sits in Charleston harbor, South Carolina. I have visited the fort twice; it is a must see if you ever end up in that part of the world.) The 1860 election was on November 6; Lincoln was inaugurated as the 16th President of the United States on March 4, 1861. Between those two dates, President Buchanan (15th President) tried to hold the country together as the crisis spun out of control. The first event of the crisis began on December 20when South Carolina formally seceded from the U.S. Constitution. Between January 9 (Mississippi) and February 1 (Texas) 1860, the original seven states that became known as the Confederacy followed suit. These activities culminated with the inauguration of Jefferson Davis as the first and only President of the Confederacy on February 18, 1861. To put a finer point on this last fact, Jefferson Davis was inaugurated President of the Confederacy before Lincoln became President of the United States.

Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis.

As the various states seceded from the Union, they seized Federal arsenals and property. The two most notable exceptions were Fort Pickens and the game’s titled space, Fort Sumter. In fact, it was Major Anderson’s decision to secretly shift the Federal garrison from Fort Moultrie to Fort Sumter that almost spun the crisis out of control around New Year’s eve. In retaliation, Governor Pickens of South Carolina seized the remaining Federal harbor defenses and subsequently fired on a relief ship (Star of the West). That action hardened the opposing views in the crisis. Another major Southern failure was the aborted assault on Fort Pickens. All of these actions accelerated and intensified the situation that came to a head with the bombardment of Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861 at 4:30 am. A little over a day later, the fort surrendered.

This overt act of aggression, although as noted not the first (Star of the West, card 11), forced President Lincoln to call on the States to raise 75,000 men to put down the rebellion. He wrote:

“…combinations too powerful to be suppressed” by ordinary law courts and marshalls had taken charge of affairs in the seven secessionist states, it announced that the several states of the Union were called on to contribute 75,000 militia “…to suppress said combinations and to cause the laws to be duly executed.” … “And I hereby command the persons composing the combinations aforesaid to disperse, and retire peacefully to their respective abodes within twenty days from this date.”

Lincoln’s calling out the militia caused the Border States of Arkansas, Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee to follow the Deep South into Rebellion. The American Civil War had begun.

Design Focus

Fort Sumter Playtest Map

Having recently seen a derivative design of Twilight Struggle in a small format, I was immediately struck that I should do a derivative of my For the People design in a similar small footprint, akin to what I had done with Stonewall back in my SPI days.

I had four design goals for this game. First and foremost, I wanted Fort Sumter to be mechanically simple with an average playing time of under, yes I said under, 30 minutes. My wife and I play a game of Fort Sumter in 20 minutes, give or take a minute. By the way, I love her, but she is not a gracious winner.

Second, I wanted this design and the series I hope it spawns to represent my view on how I have seen real world crises develop.  From personal experience, especially in non-combatant evacuations what happens is something destabilizes the current order. In this case, South Carolina secedes from the Union. Then the opposing sides in the crisis deploy political capital and resources into the crisis that accelerate as the situation develops (bonus political capital, see crisis track). The crisis comes to a head (final crisis) and either it resorts to a new stability or it evolves into conflict as it did with the bombardment of Fort Sumter.

Third, I wanted to capture this signature event in a straightforward manner, given the short playing time, but I wanted it to be an historical strategy game. I have over twenty books on this crisis, and yes, I have read them all. I even have a model of Fort Sumter in my library. My point is that while the game is short, I still wanted it to reflect at a high level what occurred back in 1860.

The four types of Objective cards in Fort Sumter.

Last, while I want Fort Sumter to be a strategy game, I also intend it to be very user friendly. My wife of almost 40 years played all of the early prototypes, and she kept saying, “it’s too hard for normal people.” By inference, I am not a normal person, a wife’s prerogative. So the version you see here has the Carole Herman ‘normal person’ seal of approval.

To achieve these goals, I broke the historical context into four crisis dimensions. Each of these dimensions had an element upon which it pivoted as the crisis evolved.

  1. There is the overarching Political dimension, represented by the spaces Washington, Northern State Houses, and Montgomery (the Confederate capital during this crisis).
  2. Public Opinion drove how I look at victory. The New York newspapers were the pivot point, as it impacted the clergy (Abolitionist space) and the various Secession State Conventions (State Assemblies space) whose local papers picked up the fledgling AP stories.
  3. The secession itself had in my opinion three basic axes as represented by the Deep South, the Border States, and Texas, that Sam Houston (card 4) fought to keep in the Union.
  4. Last, but not least, it was the Secessionist need for weapons that pivoted on seizing Federal Arsenals and the two Forts (Pickens and Sumter) that rankled the new nation.

The winner is the side that has the most victory points at the end of the game. Victory represents weathering the crisis better than your opponent, resulting in a galvanized electorate. It was Lincoln’s ability to cause Jefferson Davis to fire the first shot that roused the North to fight to preserve the Union. Fort Sumter is played out in three rounds, where the side that dominates a crisis dimension advances their cause (1 VP per crisis dimension per round).

To advance your position in this game, you will play a card driven game (hereafter CDG) where you can use the value of the card or its event (if its yours) to place political capital tokens (hereafter tokens or T) onto the spaces on the map. At the end of the round, if you control a pivotal space, you have some limited options to modify the board position before points are assigned.

A few Fort Sumter strategy cards.

In addition, during each round of the crisis, each player will have a secret objective space that simulates accommodating factions within your coalition or a theory on how to gain leverage. Whichever side controls one or both of the active objective spaces each round gains advantage (1VP per objective space) and a special event.

Each round, you will be dealt four strategy cards from the forty-card deck. This means that during each game you will draw 24 of the 40 cards, ensuring plenty of replayability.  You will play three of the four cards each round, for a total of nine cards across an entire game, with the fourth card each round saved for the final crisis conclusion.

At the end of the third round, you play out a short, but important three-card final crisis hand to conclude the game. At the end of the final crisis, you do one more scoring and determine the winner. That’s the game in a nutshell.

I hope you’ve enjoyed a look inside my design philosophy for Fort Sumter. In the future installments of this article, we’ll take you play by play through my Twitter game of July 1with photos and my original short dialog to frame the action, so you can easily follow while learning the game.

Mark Herman

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3 thoughts on “The Shot Heard Round Charleston Harbor…Fort Sumter Design Notes and AAR (Part 1)

  1. This is great, Mark. I’ve always loved your CDGs anyway; having a short one on a topic near and dear to my heart also is better than toast (I love toast)! Really looking forward to this one…and to the next article with your Twitter AAR.

  2. Pre-ordered the game, which sounds superb. One thing, though. Lincoln wasn’t “forced to raise 75,000 men to put down the rebellion” and plunge the nation into war. He gleefully tricked the South into firing the first shot…. A real leader would’ve found another way.