Zulus on the Ramparts starts out with a lot of credit in the bank for its theme alone — developers ought to be encouraged to explore thematic territory outside of the picked-over realms of 1940s Europe and contemporary fights against generic terrorists. The game takes place during the Zulu War, one of the last gasps of Britain’s declining empire. You take command of the defense of Rorke’s Drift — Britain’s Alamo — a battle where one-hundred-odd British Army regulars heroically held their position against a long sustained assault by 4,000 Zulu fighters.
It’s a hell of a good story, and one that the British recorded in meticulous detail after the fact. Victory Point puts all of that history to great use: the officers and men at your disposal are all real, and the narrow focus of the battle allows it to be a tale of heroism by individual privates and lieutenants, not of generals moving regiments from far in the rear.
As a light interactive history lesson, Zulus at the Ramparts is excellent. But as an iPad game, Zulus is slightly less accomplished.
The Zulus are approaching your position at Rorke’s Drift making their customary four-pronged attack (in which the Zulus refer to the avenues as the right horn, left horn, chest and loins of a buffalo — the game is full of wonderful details like this) and if any one of the Zulu companies overruns your position, it’s game over. But if you can hold them off overnight until the arrival of a British relief column (as they did historically), you win.
Each turn consists of a number of phases: you pull a token to determine what the Zulus do (advance along one of the flanks, pull back, or a handful of other less likely choices), draw cards that allow you to employ your officers and men in various roles: directing rifle volleys at the enemy, building barricades, putting out fires, etc. The results of each action are determined by dice rolls, and each officer has a special ability that can be unleashed at the cost of putting him back into the deck, or discarding him from play entirely for a really powerful one-shot game-changer.
It’s a system that provides a lot of interesting decisions and enough randomness to make replaying worthwhile — it’s mechanically similar to Victory Point’s 2012 release Levée en Masse. Successfully repelling a Zulu charge is exhilarating, and surviving all the way though the night feels like a victory well-earned.
Learning the system is a bit of a bear, though. The devs don’t expect you to learn everything right away — a smiling, pith-helmeted British officer pops up periodically to explain a rule, but once he’s gone, you’re on your own.
Playdek and Coding Monkeys games set a high bar for making complex games simple to follow, and Zulus doesn’t quite hit it. There’s quite a few moments where the game demands that you make a decision, but the interface is hiding the particular bit of information you need to make a good decision.
The game also doesn’t do a brilliant job of signposting what you need to be doing in any given phase. Even now that I have the game more or less down, I waste a lot of time rooting around for actions in menus where there aren’t any — in fact, many phases involve you doing nothing more than hitting “next phase” while the game shuffles cards. With certain particular card draws, you might have nothing to do for several turns in a row — something unthinkable in Elder Sign or Ascension.
When you know what you want to do there’s often one click too many to make that happen — and when you don’t know what to do you the game confuses you when it tries to be helpful. For example, on a turn where there aren’t any possible actions for you, the game will still ask if you really want to end your turn. In case you want to admire the lovely art, I suppose. I don’t need to have my hand held all the time, but a nudge in the ribs when there’s only one obvious choice wouldn’t go amiss.
The game also leaves you wanting from a technical standpoint. There are some menus where touch inputs don’t seem to register reliably. Loading screens are surprisingly frequent and ponderous, even on later-generation hardware. There’s also no autosave, so if you leave the app to respond to an email and download something from Dropbox, your progress will be lost if you didn’t make a manual save. Not ideal for a tablet game.
A lot of these complaints could have been made about Levée en Masse when it shipped — Victory Point seems to follow a “ship early, fix often” philosophy. Levee en Masse’s teething problems were sorted out in short order, so it’s not unreasonable to hope that Zulus will get the same treatment.
The game at the core of Zulus on the Ramparts is strategic and enjoyably unpredictable, and the art is absolutely top-notch. If Victory Point gives the UI the post-release buff-out it deserves, Zulus could hold the ramparts against some of the best board game conversions on iOS.