As a general rule I tend to not like solitaire games, in no small part because the “AI” or “bot” or whatever is running the “other side” in the game is often represented using very procedural rules. It is that very “procedural” part of a solitaire game design that makes me feel like I don’t have agency in the game. In this respect, Don’t Tread on Me (DToM) by R. Ben Madison at White Dog Games is not that different from the many other (often vanilla-playing) solitaire games out there.
Except it isn’t vanilla, but a fine wine.
Maybe it’s the perspective. In DToM you the player take on the role of the British side. Your job is to defeat those “Damn Yankees” (whoops, wrong war!) and keep the colonies in the Empire. You face the challenge of putting down the insurgency in the colonies, much like the United States would have to deal with the Viet Cong in Vietnam two centuries later.
(Colonies) of Siege
Don’t Tread on Me is built around a game system that is commonly called States of Siege. Truth be told, States of Siege is probably better thought of as a genre of games rather than a set of rules since each game in the “series” has its own variation of the rules.
This is where DToM is very procedural. The various steps in a turn should must be executed in a very procedural manner to avoid “breaking” the AI. This is usually where I chafe at a solitaire game; the game system often makes me feel like a human component manipulator and not a gaming player given agency in decisions. Solitaire games also tend to be “predicable” in that the set procedures often force one to adhere to a well-known (or easily recognizable) historical/game flow.
This is where DToM shines; for within the seemingly rigid procedures there are plenty of decision points to give the player agency. Lest one become too comfortable with the flow of a turn, there is a chance some random event or a major/minor campaign will break out. As a player you can plan for such eventualities, but you never really control the emerging, often chaotic, situation. This is where one must have a plan that is flexible and adaptable to an ever-changing situation—albeit one rigidly played out. Although DToM tends to follow a “known” historical flow of events, the actual arrival of the event or how much of a change it makes to the game state (i.e. history) is driven by player decisions.
DToM also reminds the players that they are the British Empire and those “rabble rousers” are beneath them. Designer R. Ben Madison never misses a chance to tear down the Founding Fathers; George Washington is an inept General, Thomas Jefferson is a fleeing coward, and Sam Adams is a “spin doctor.”
Which is why playing DToM and winning—or losing—is so satisfying. To win is to overcome history when it was stacked against you. To lose is to be defeated by those colonist so beneath your station.
In more than one place R. Ben Madison draws a comparison in Don’t Tread on Me between the U.S involvement in Vietnam with the British counter-insurgency in North America. Maybe that is a good comparison, though I personally feel it simplifies (dare I say, “white washes”) much of the history of the later conflict. By framing Don’t Tread on Me in terms of a very unpopular and divisive war a player starts play with a real sense that this is different.
Like most solitaire games to win is actually a challenge. Sometimes the loss can be blamed on a game system that is so rigid and procedural that one glitch in execution radically alters the game and makes victory a mechanical impossibility. Yes, that can happen in Don’t Tread on Me but the procedures are rather straight-forward and it immediately becomes obvious in play that victory or defeat will depend on the player decision, not the bot.
I played two games of Don’t Tread on Me for my June lead-up to American Independence Day. Both times I lost, the second game by a narrow margin. If nothing else Don’t Tread on Me shows just how much the American Revolution was a “near-run thing.”
Photos and Feature image by self