Fortress America

Playing the new Cold War board game is a trip back to the 1980s. So why is the theme of an America being invaded still so popular?

Hagen Hopkins/GettyImages
Hagen Hopkins/GettyImages

Chinese marines storm San Diego. Russian tanks clank through the streets of New York, while Mexican helicopters hover over Houston. The news grows grimmer with each passing day: From east, west, and south, America has been invaded. The defense of the nation now rests with bands of freedom fighters gathering in woods and mountains, from Maine to Montana, to wage guerrilla warfare to the death.

It’s not the script for a new Rambo movie or the fevered delusion of a Montana militiaman squatting in his bunker, scanning the skies for black helicopters; it’s a new (retro) board game called Fortress America — where the classic game of Risk meets classic American paranoia, seasoned with a touch of poetic justice. Now it’s America’s turn to experience foreign military intervention. The bombers roar overhead and the checkpoints block the roads, but in Boston, not Baghdad, and Kansas City rather than Kabul. This seems to be a current theme in American entertainment; last year’s Homefront video game had North Korea invading the West Coast.

Fortress America is a spawn of the Cold War. The game was first published by Milton Bradley in 1986, just two years after the memorably over-the-top movie Red Dawn, where the late Patrick Swayze led the Wolverines, a band of Colorado high school kids who shot, blew up, and all around terrorized Cuban and Soviet occupation troops. The plot holes could have swallowed a B-52 (crack Soviet paratroopers who couldn’t defeat the 12th-grade remedial math class?), but the timing was exquisite. Red Dawn arrived at the height of Ronald Reagan’s anti-communist crusade, as defense spending swelled, arms flowed to Nicaraguan Contras, and films such as The Day After warned us that the unthinkable — nuclear war — was not just thinkable, but imminent. For all its clichés, the film succeeded because it appealed to classic American individualism: rugged, rural, and armed to the teeth. Not to mention that Red Dawn was the wet dream of post-Vietnam adolescent boys who could dream of ditching school and running around in the woods, dodging Soviet gunships and blowing up tanks with rocket launchers.

That Cold War spirit lives on in the 2012 remake of Fortress America, by Minnesota-based publisher Fantasy Flight Games. In fact, the game is so 1980s that it should come with a Rubik’s Cube and a Devo cassette. The rules booklet offers a brief, nano-thin prologue: In the 21st century, America has developed a laser-based missile defense system (not unlike Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative) and then refuses a demand by the rest of the world to dismantle it. So, naturally, the world decides that the best way to disarm a nuclear superpower is to invade it with conventional armies.

The invaders are straight out of a Chuck Norris movie. They include the Asian People’s Alliance (whose pieces are an un-politically correct yellow) and the Central American Federation (in blue, just like the Nicaraguan flag), while the Soviets — I mean the Euro-Socialist Pact — have red pieces and an emblem with a white star on a red background (I half-expected to see Obama’s portrait). Of course, the notion that America will be invaded by European socialists is ridiculous. Everyone knows the real invaders will be the United Nations, the Illuminati, and Hollow-Earth Nazis.

As a game, Fortress America plays like a more complicated version of Risk. The three invader players, plus the U.S. player, each command a force of 60 plastic figures comprising hovertanks, mechanized and leg infantry, and helicopters and bombers, plus partisan units for the Americans. They fight over a 32-by-22-inch map of the United States divided into about 50 territories, with 30 major cities. The invaders must capture 18 cities by Turn 10 to win.

At first glance, all seems lost for the plucky Wolverines. The Americans are outnumbered 3-to-1. They are being attacked from east, west, and south (the Canadians presumably have declared neutrality). Is Patrick Swayze doomed to speak Spanish while eating borscht with chopsticks? Will he wait in line for socialized health care? Fear not, my good Americans. You have some significant advantages. The enemy outnumbers you, but shipping capacity means that they can only bring in eight of their 60 pieces each turn, so their buildup consumes precious time. An additional need for speed is the laser beams frying invader backsides; each turn, the Americans get to place a new laser tower in a city, with each laser having a 50-50 chance of destroying an enemy unit.

But the real American ace in the hole is the event cards. Every turn, the U.S. player randomly draws two cards, with text such as "NRA organizes rebel training camp in the Rocky Mountains: Place four partisans and a hovertank." The cards either destroy invader forces or bestow American reinforcements. So the Americans constantly replenish their forces during the game while the invaders never know what’s going to pop up their rear. The invaders must also divert forces to garrison cities and protect supply lines, in the classic occupier’s dilemma of balancing offensive strength at the front with security in the rear. If all else fails, there is still the inspiration of Patrick Swayze’s father crying out from behind the wire of the Cuban death camp, "Boys! Avenge me! Avenge me!" In some parts of America, that’s worth an entire army.

For all its campiness, Fortress America is fun, indeed one of the more enjoyable war games I’ve played. There is something inherently compelling about the strategic situation, a kung-fu movie kind of war where the hero must fight three enemies simultaneously. The game essentially breaks down into three conflicts. The East is where the bulk of the American cities are, and they are close to the Euro-Socialist Pact invasion beaches. The result is a brutal slugfest in which the bulk of the American army must stand and die. The West is the opposite. Once the ChiComs — I mean the Asian People’s Alliance– capture California’s coastal cities, there’s nothing worth defending until Salt Lake City and then Denver. So the best bet is to adopt a Fabian strategy of abandoning the flyover states and screening the Asian advance until it reaches Detroit. The Central American Federation will easily take the coastal Texan cities and can then try to advance northwest and try to beat the Asians to Denver, though they’ll probably thrust northeast toward the Rust Belt urban areas. Proving there’s no honor among conquerors, if America surrenders, the game continues for an extra turn while the invaders battle over each other over the spoils.

The best American strategy is Napoleonic: Take advantage of the central position and concentrate forces on a single opponent at a time, most likely by first attacking the Euro-Socialized Medicine Pact. Fortress America often goes down to the wire, with the Americans clinging to a last-ditch enclave around the Great Lakes. If America doesn’t surrender by Turn 10, it wins, though with three foreign armies on its soil it would appear to be a Pyrrhic victory at best.

The lesson of Fortress America? Obviously, never get involved in a land war in North America. But the most interesting takeaway from the game is that it is American history reversed. Americans are huge consumers of military history; just look at the lineup on the History channel. Yet the wars on U.S. soil — the American Revolution, the War of 1812, and the Civil War — were fought by pre-mechanized armies over a small fraction of the country from Texas to New Hampshire. Modern U.S. military history is all about conflicts in other lands, from France and Germany to Vietnam and Iraq. How different it is to contemplate Kansas and Oregon not as suppliers of wheat and wood, or as red and blue states, but as strategic positions to be defended or abandoned.

Metaphor is an overused word, but here it’s both intriguing and tragic. Fortress America is American fear stripped down to cardboard form. When the game first appeared in 1986, the country was still gripped by Cold War paranoia. Some 26 years later, things haven’t changed as much as we might imagine. The rise of China, fears of an undeclared invasion by illegal immigrants, a sense that America’s might is declining — all these political narratives are very much at play. America was assaulted on 9/11, and since then Americans have been bombarded with messages that enemies — be they al Qaeda or China — wish to do them harm. Fortress America may be a game, but one need only to see the TSA airport checkpoints to be reminded that the real America has become a fortress.

Fortress America is built on the classic theme of America the Embattled, always threatened by Germans, or Soviets, or illegal immigrants. Fear of invasion is the byproduct of American exceptionalism: If you inhabit a shining city on a hill, somebody will want to take it from you.

Meanwhile, the remake of Red Dawn is scheduled to hit the big screen in November. The invaders were originally supposed to be Chinese, but have been changed to North Koreans to protect the film’s prospects in the Chinese market. Ah, the times we live in. Happy July Fourth, everybody.

Michael Peck is a defense writer. Twitter: @Mipeck1