It matters not what you fight, but what you fight for”<fn>Petersen, David. Mouse Guard: Fall 1152. Los Angeles, CA: Archaia Studios, 2007. 15. Print.</fn>–David Petersen, Mouse Guard writer and illustrator.
Mouse Guard Background
I first encountered David Petersen’s Mouse Guard work through comics. I found something appealing in the anthropomorphic mice and I’m not sure whether it was that they have a society they defend against outsiders (weasels and snakes and such) or if it was the distinct personalities of each mouse. Saxon, Lieam, Celanawe, Gwendolyn, Kenzie, Nigel, it’s hard to pick a favorite. I got to meet David twice at Heroes Con 2015 and 2016 and he is someone that isn’t just proud of his work, he genuinely loves his story and the characters. It may be that same level of devotion coming through in his characters that I personally find so appealing.
It wasn’t long after reading the Mouse Guard books (I like the hardcovers) that I discovered the roleplaying game—but that’s another post. Today we’ll discuss the abstract strategy game that is Swords & Strongholds. It is simple and elegant and it should be in your collection whether you are a David Petersen fan or not.
Swords & Strongholds comes in a box that is roughly 6½” x 8½” x 1½” and weighs 1 pound. This box is the size of a hardback novel and while it’s dense it isn’t overly heavy for its size. It will fit nicely on a shelf with games like Codenames, Munchkin, and Dragon Farkle. The components are four black mice, four gray mice, and a deck of thirty cards (ten each of sword, stronghold, and diplomacy cards) all tucked nicely into a plastic tray. Under the tray are the instructions and a wooden board. My only complaint on this packaging is that you cannot store the board anywhere else and the fit is so tight that getting the tray in and out is slightly tedious. All right, I admit it. That’s a bit lazy on my part. But, I do wish the board could be stored on top of the tray.
The goal of Swords & Strongholds is simple. All you have to do is build a stronghold in either of your opponent’s objective squares.
Black and gray (black moves first) take turns advancing their pawns along the board’s intersections towards their opponent’s end of the board through a series of moves and cards played. The pawns move in any cardinal direction as long as it doesn’t force you off the board. Players don’t have to play a card on their turn but they must move a pawn no matter what. A player can capture an opponent’s pawn by forcing it off the board (kind of like in Tsuro). Once either player has advanced a single pawn into one of his enemy’s objective squares (one of the corner squares) the game ends and that player gets to rub it in the loser’s face. That last part isn’t written in the rules but doesn’t everyone play that way?
Each of the three cards gives the player a unique ability and the game cannot be won without using the stronghold card at a minimum. Once again, a player doesn’t have to play a card on his or her turn but a move is required. A card grants the player special moves such as moving off a grid intersection and into a square (the only way to build a stronghold and, thus, win the game). The cards are also the only way to capture your opponent’s pawns. By the way, if you capture all four you also win; but every time we played we won via stronghold. Most games lasted 15 minutes or more but a couple were very brief. If you’re not planning a good defense then you can lose the game in 3 moves easily.
Who Will Like Swords & Strongholds?
Despite the box saying it’s for ages 13 and up, I think this game would be fine for younger children. Maybe as young as 7. Often when a game says it’s for 13+ it can really mean that the publisher didn’t test the components for toxicity in each of the components and therefore cannot legally say it’s for children under 13. It may have nothing to do with whether they’ll “get it”. I put 13 on our standard graphic below just because that’s what the box shows. You’ll definitely want to keep it out of reach of a child that may put a pawn in its mouth though. The small mice could get stuck in a toddler’s throat easily.
Otherwise, if you like light abstract strategy then this is a good game for your shelf. It’s quick enough that you could sit and play several games in any given window of time without getting bogged down. Make it a filler game and you’re good to go. Play it between bigger games or while you’re waiting for dinner to finish cooking. I rate it a 4 out of 5 and that’s by picking nits. One issue is the aforementioned board storage. And the other is that one of our games literally went for two moves by black and one by gray and it was over. Gray had a slight mishap that worked to black’s advantage and that was that. Game over.