Author: markbglife

Founding Fathers: Review

A Preliminary Review of Founding Fathers

by Mark D.

Founding Fathers - Board Game Review


Overview

You’re John Adams, President of the United States and Conservative Party leader in the fledgling American republic. George Washington has retired from public life, leaving massive shoes for you to fill. The nation is growing in leaps and bounds and the issues you must contend with grow more complicated and inflammatory each day. Are you up to the task?
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Raid on Iran: Mission Briefing

Strategy, Success and Failure in ‘Raid on Iran’

by Mark D. & Tony Stroppa

Raid on Iran Board Game Replay Title Graphic


Overview

RAID ON IRAN, published by Steve Jackson Games back in 1980, has become one of my favorites over the last 30+ years. I don’t consider it a brilliant design or a showpiece of conflict simulation, but I do find it enjoyable, challenging and possessed of a depth that allows for virtually unlimited replay without getting stale. And that’s good enough for me.
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Blocks in the East: Review

Back to the “Big War” with Blocks in the East

by Mark D.

Blocks in the East Board Game


Overview

Sometime in the early 1990’s, after completing a grueling campaign game of Advanced Third Reich I said to myself, “OK, I’m done with World War II European Theater games”. Not that they weren’t a lot of fun to play, but between The Russian CampaignBattle of the Bulge and the various incarnations of Third Reich, I had burnt myself out on the period. So when I was given the opportunity to play Blocks in the East (BITE), designed by Emanuele Santandrea and published by Vento Nuovo Games, it had been quite a while since I had parked myself in front of a grand operational scale “Big War” (WWII) type of game. And I was actually looking forward to it.
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Duel of Eagles: Mars-la-Tour 1870 Board Game Review


duelofeagles_rv2_title


Overview

For the last two weeks, I’ve been spending quite a bit of time with Hermann Luttmann’s latest design, Duel of Eagles, which features an August 1870 battle between the French and Prussians during Franco-Prussian War in the vicinity of the town of Mars-La-Tour, France. Two Prussian Corps went up against the entire French Army of the Rhine, commanded by Marshall Francois Bazaine. The Prussians were victorious.
Continue reading “Duel of Eagles: Mars-la-Tour 1870 Board Game Review”

Slouch Hats & Eggshells: First Look (Review)

Review of Vance Von Borries’s Slouch Hats and Egg Shells

Slouch Hats & Eggshells Board Game


Overview

Slouch Hats and Eggshells, designed by Vance von Borries and published by Legion Wargames, is a war board game that addresses the World War II Allied (Free French, British, and Australian) campaign to reclaim Syria and Lebanon from the Axis forces (Vichy French, French Colonial, and German). It is a standard hex and counter game designed for two players. The unit counters represent battalion and regimental sized formations. The map scale is 10 miles per hex, and the time scale is 10 days per game turn. The historical campaign lasted from early June to mid-July 1941 which translates into approximately 5 game turns, although game play can extend into August (max of 8 game turns).

The historical setting, amply described on the back of the game box as well as in the rule book, describes the campaign as being launched on the insistence of Free French leader General Charles de Gaulle, who demanded the seizure of Syria from the clutches of the hated Vichy French. The Allies believed that the Vichy French in Syria would offer minimal resistance, their defense collapsing like an “eggshell”. They deluded themselves into thinking that the mere sight of the Australian “slouch hat” would be sufficient to evoke surrender from the enemy. This proved to be a false assumption.

If you’re not familiar with this campaign, join the crowd. Slouch Hats and Egg Shells immediately attracted my attention because it covered a little known (by me, anyway) World War II campaign that also appeared to be an interesting situation. I find the interactive learning experience provided by war games to be the perfect educational tool, so I was looking forward to getting Slouch Hats & Eggshells on my gaming table.


Setting Up

Unfortunately, Slouch Hats and I got off to a rocky start, as I found the rules to be confusing and the setup instructions less than perfect. If there’s one thing I find frustrating, it’s ambiguous or incorrect setup instructions. I just want to get started playing the game! If I have to spend two minutes trying to figure out what the setup instructions are telling me, I get aggravated. There are two setup sheets; one for the Allies and one for the Axis. If you just focus on the setup sheets and forget about the setup hexes on the actual counters, you’ll be much better off. Most Axis units have setup hexes printed directly on the counter, but a few do not. And one has an incorrect setup hex number. Also the setup cards, in a few places, direct you to place units in the “Available Box”. There is no such thing as an “Available Box”! Minor points, but irritating nonetheless.

So I went to the ConSimWorld Forum for this game and posted my questions there. The publisher, Legion Wargames, did their best to address my questions. The designer…. eehhhh, not so much.

I don’t mean to imply that the setup or rules problems presented an insurmountable intellectual challenge; I’m just saying they were annoying.

Armed with CSW Forum responses and my own best guesses, I completed the setup and was ready to actually play the game. At this point, I have to say that I was really not enthusiastic about playing. After a quick perusal of the rules (and more questions for the CSW forum), it seemed to me to be a rather dull and dated game system (think Avalon Hill’s 1960s title, Afrika Korps). The combat charts show your basic Defender Eliminated (DE), Attacker Eliminated (AE), etc., combat result possibilities. However the detail level of the supply rules seemed way out of place with the rest of the game. This leads me to the next section: the Rules.


The Rulebook

I’m hopeful that someday an official errata list will be published. I think it would benefit anyone who wants to play the game. While the rules (other than the Supply rules) appear simple and straightforward, there are a number of mistakes, inconsistencies and omissions (again, see my CSW posts for more detail). The Designer Notes do explain that some of the rules were included merely to remain consistent with Rommel’s War, another game that apparently pioneered the game system used in Slouch Hats & Eggshells, and are of “limited utility” in this game. However, the problems I found have nothing to do with the inapplicable “Rommel’s War” rules.

I don’t want to beat the subject to death, but suffice it to say that I found some of the rules (particularly the Supply rules) difficult to follow. During a game turn’s Supply Status Phase, you must demonstrate General Supply which requires your units to be able to trace a Supply Route to a friendly Supply Source. This simply demonstrates an ability to reach units with various supplies. Next, you must expend Supply Points to provide Movement Supply to all motorized and air units. This represents fuel deliveries to units that require it. Finally, you must expend Supply Points to provide Combat Supply to all units that will engage in Combat in the upcoming Combat Phase, which I assume represents ammo deliveries.

Slouch Hats & Eggshells Board Game

The actual components of your supply net are Supply Dumps, represented by physical unit counters, and Supply Points, which are abstract. You need to marry up the two in order to have any real logistical capability. Supply Dumps are the physical containers for the Supply Points. There are also Mobile Supply Units (MSU) that perform the same function as Supply Dumps with the additional capability of being mobile. Supply Dumps can be broken down or combined into different denominations (i.e. two 1-point Dumps can be combined into a single 2-point Dump) and are there are many situations where you must “make change” for a Supply Dump.

Slouch Hats & Eggshells Board Game

For example, the Allies start off with a 4-point Dump on the map, containing 4 supply points, and two 2-point Dumps in the “Available” section of the “Supply Unit Storage Box”, that could potentially house 2 supply points each. At that moment, they have 8 points of actual or potential capacity. Let’s assume that they use 2 Supply Points for movement/combat. They now have to remove the 4-point Dump counter (because it only has 3- and 4-point sides) from the map and replace it with one of the available 2-point Dump counters (which has 1- and 2-point sides). The 4-point Dump counter goes into the “Used This Segment” section of the “Supply Unit Storage Box”, and is unavailable until the following turn Segment. The 2-point “change” Dump is taken from the “Available” section and placed on the map in the hex where the 4-point Dump was located.

Slouch Hats & Eggshells Board Game

One of the challenges of the game is management of Supply Dumps to ensure that potential capacity is not wasted by making sure you always have the “correct change” available as your Supply Dumps are depleted of Supply Points. In the example above, if the Allied player expended 2 Supply Points from a 4-point Dump, and there was no available 2-point Dump to “make change”, the 4-point Dump would still be removed and the remaining 2 Supply Points lost. This is all by design, as a quick perusal of the rules, designer notes, and designer’s posts on ConSimWorld will confirm.

To compound the problem, next turn they can re-create a 3-point Dump, using Supply Point replacements, but new Allied Supply Dumps have to be created in the Middle East or Iraq Holding Boxes (although there is some confusion about this rule; see the CSW posts). Now you’re faced with the problem of how to transport the Supply Dumps back on to the map, where they can actually be used! The Allies do not (and will not during the course of the game) have transport capability to move anything larger than a 2-point Dump in one operation. So, you have to break down the 3-point Dump into 1- and/or 2-point Dumps and transport the smaller denomination Dumps. It’s a lot of fiddly change-making that doesn’t make a lot sense. It seems like a pointless logistics exercise. But, in all fairness, I’ve never been Quartermaster of an army in the desert…

The Air and Naval TransportMovementCombat, and Air Power sections of the rules are mostly coherent and easily followed (after a few plays). I thought the Replacements section drifted a bit toward the “fiddly” again, but I was able to get the gist and it did not impede play. But it still troubles me that the Supply rules are so out of step in their fiddliness and complexity. I may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer, but I play many other games with hefty rule sets (Vietnam, Gulf Strike, Pacific War, Central America, etc.), and normally don’t have this much trouble deciphering the processes. Again, see my ConSimWorld forum posts and make up your own mind.

So, as I said earlier, it was an unhappy introduction to Slouch Hats & Eggshells. But I resolved to give the game a few play-throughs before passing judgment.

During my second play-through, the imaginary light bulb over my head finally started glowing, and my patience was rewarded…


Playing the Game

Overview

The Allied player begins the game with most units off-board, in the “Middle East Holding Box”. He is the invader/aggressor in this game, so it’s up to him to come up with a plan to overwhelm the enemy defenses. The Axis starting positions are predetermined and static, so he does not have a lot of opportunity for varying his initial defensive configuration. But once the game begins, both players are free to maneuver as they see fit. The initial British invasion comes from the south, out of Palestine or Trans-Jordan, but subsequent reinforcements will open a new front emanating from Iraq in the east. So, although the Axis player is basically locked into a defensive role and the Allies an offensive one, both players have lots of options as to how to conduct operations. The tactical situation quickly becomes very fluid and interesting.

Each Game Turn is divided into the following Segments:

  • Strategic Segment – Special Events are executed; Reinforcements are placed; Supply Status is checked for all combat units.
  • First Axis Operations Segment – Transport, Movement, Combat, Exploitation Movement, and Administrative Phases.
  • First Allied Operations Segment – Transport, Movement, Combat, Exploitation Movement, and Administrative Phases.
  • Inter-Operational Segment – Both players can convert Supply Dumps to Mobile Supply Units and vice-versa.
  • Second Axis Operations Segment – (Same as the first)
  • Second Allied Operations Segment – (Same as the first)
  • Recovery Segment – Engineering phase, and Victory Determination Phases.

So both players get to Transport, Move and engage in Combat with all of their units twice per Game Turn (supply situation permitting).

The Logistical Balance

As mentioned previously, the Supply rules are onerous, and my concern was that the Allies with their marginally superior logistics situation would simply walk right over the defenders, leading to a game without much replay value. The Allies begin the game with more available supply. They also receive more supply reinforcements during the rest of the game (a 3-1 supply point advantage for turns 2 through 5, and a 4-2 advantage for turns 6, 7 and 8).

Unlike the Allies, whose reinforcements (both combat units and supply) can march or be transported directly from the Middle Eastern Holding Box and Iraq Holding Box onto the game map, the Axis reinforcements in the Greece Holding Box must find air or naval transport to get them into the action on the map. The Axis have air transport capacity to get one single combat unit or Supply Dump from Greece to the main map and naval capacity to transport two combat units and/or Supply Dumps each Operations Segment. Air Transport cannot be interdicted in this game, but Naval Transport most certainly can. The Axis player must roll successfully on the Naval Transport Table for each counter attempting Naval Transport. The Naval Transport Table is structured in such a way that, should the British choose to interdict the Axis naval units with the full might of their fleet, not a single unit or Supply Dump will ever make it into Syria or Lebanon. Meanwhile Allied units are free to fly, march or motor their way across the Lebanese or Syrian borders from bases in Palestine or Iraq. If the Vichy French or Germans want to stop them, they must put boots on the ground directly along the Allied lines of advance.

Sounds pretty grim for the Axis, right? I thought so too, at first. But in addition to the tactical genius of their commander (i.e. you), they have another ace up their sleeve: the Axis Special Events.

Special Events

Slouch Hats & Eggshells Board Game

Unlike many games that have “special events” or “random event chits”, I consider the Special Events in Slouch Hats & Eggshells to be an integral part of the game design, not just ancillary occurrences to provide “flavor” or random-ness(?). The Axis and Allies have 18 possible Special Events each. Some give reinforcements, some provide intelligence, and others add combat bonuses. They illustrate events that did occur, or could have occurred, during the conflict. The variability furnished by 36 total events, and the uncertainty of which ones will occur when, does add a lot of replay value to the board game.

Each Special Event chit contains an Axis Event and an Allied Event. The Axis player can only play the Axis Event and the Allied Player can only play the Allied Event. Each Event has restrictions on when, exactly, it may be played and what happens when it is played.

At the start of the game, both players randomly select Special Event chits; the Allies pick 4 and the Axis pick 3. Starting with Game Turn 2, both players select one each for the duration of the game. After a Special Event is “played”, it is returned to the pool of events and may possibly be selected again. Each player has an insert that describes each of their events in detail. Some Events have a different effect on plays subsequent to the initial play, and that information is listed here as well.

Here are some Axis Special Events that are particularly beneficial to the Axis player:

Slouch Hats & Eggshells Board Game

  • Event “M”: Vichy Destroyers – Removes one Allied naval unit after it has been assigned a mission. Gives Axis a chance to sneak a unit through via Naval Transport.
  • Event “N”: Vichy Battleship Convoy – Gives Axis an excellent chance of getting two Supply Points and one infantry replacement point through to the map. Also prevents Allied commando amphibious raids for the turn.
  • Event “C”: German Commandos – Place German combat unit directly in Aleppo or Beirut.
  • Event “E”: Transit through Turkey – This is the big one! This event provides a “land connection” from the Greece Holding Box to Turkey (hex 1200 or 1302). It eliminates the biggest Axis headache: how to get units safely (and quickly!) from the Greece Holding Box to where the action is on the map. It gives the Axis a huge advantage and is, in my opinion, the most powerful Event in the game. However, no game designer worth his/her salt would ever allow such an advantage, risk-free! So there is, of course, an Allied Event, named Diplomats Active, that will undo “Transit Through Turkey”. This introduces another strategic angle in the game: knowing when to play your special events and when to hold them. Neither player is forced to play any Event. They are free to hold them indefinitely. So, needless to say, if the Axis player finds himself in possession of “Diplomats Active”, he should hold it for the rest of the game.
  • Event “P”: German Air Force – Allows the Axis player to nullify certain Allied Naval support points that turn, thus again allowing a Naval Transport to sneak through.

Now you can see a glimmer of hope in the Axis situation. They start off the game in a fairly strong defensive situation that will be difficult for the Allies to penetrate. Defense, in this game, does not require the expenditure of Supply Points that offensive operations do. That’s an advantage for the Axis who need only to maintain control of the victory point cities in order to win (more about victory conditions later). So, if they can remain minimally supplied (at least enough to allow full movement for their mechanized units), they can react to changing situations and hold the line against the British, Australians and Free French.


The Tactical Situation

There are two scenarios: a historical scenario, which lasts for 5 Game Turns, and a hypothetical scenario which postulates a much more aggressive German intervention and lasts for 8 Game Turns. In either scenario, the burden of attack is on the Allied player right from the start. Five Game Turns (or eight in the “Axis Intervene” scenario), with two operational phases in each, may seem like a lot of time to break through the Axis defenses and secure the victory points necessary to assure a successful outcome on the Vichy Surrender Table (more about this later), but I assure you it is not. If, as the Allies, you play it safe and schedule your attacks such that your casualties are minimized, you’ll be hard-pressed to bring the conflict to a successful conclusion.

Slouch Hats & Eggshells Board Game

At game start, Axis forces occupy excellent defensive terrain south of Damascus and Beirut. The river lines, combined with the hills and mountains in that region form a natural protective barrier against overland assaults. The graphic, above, shows the Axis defensive line in the southern part of the map at the start of the game. Initial Allied armies enter the map from the south, charging out of the Middle East Entry Area. There is a limited amphibious capability, designed more for flanking enemy formations or grabbing the occasional unprotected coastal victory point city than for opening a second front.

If the Axis player manages his troops correctly, the Allies could easily find themselves at a standstill along a static front in the south. In Game Turn 3 the Allies open a second front, invading from Iraq in some strength. (Note: If Allied Special Event E, “Early Iraq Conclusion” is played, Allied units are free to begin the invasion from Iraq one turn earlier). As we all know, there is no such thing as a free lunch. Axis strength south of Damascus and Beirut will come at the expense of weakness in the eastern approaches. Some units will likely have to be shifted east to counter the new menace from that direction.

Slouch Hats & Eggshells Board Game

Relatively short interior lines of supply in the south give the Axis their biggest advantage, but the eastern desert is wide open to the Allies and is difficult to defend. The Axis player, with his thin line of defenders in the east (note the smattering of defending Axis units in the graphic, above, and the variety of axes of advance for the Allies denoted by the red arrows), must have the patience to confirm the main Allied lines of attack coming westward out of Iraq, before shifting his Vichy defenders to counter the threat.

The British navy affords the Allies total domination in the naval contest, and the same becomes true of the airpower contest as the game progresses. I think the Air and Naval units could have been abstracted out without diminishing the game in any way. But I suppose the few extra pages of rules to accommodate a physical navy and air force are not a major burden.

It’s really quite an interesting situation and presents both players with an enjoyable challenge. It does have an “old school” feel to it, as I mentioned earlier, but that’s not necessarily a negative. Some of my favorite games fall into that category.

Although the mechanics may be a bit old school, there’s nothing archaic about the game components. Slouch Hats & Eggshells sports a modern interface, with first rate map and counter graphics.

Victory Conditions

So what’s the path to victory? There are two paths for each player. For the Axis, path #1 is just a matter of sitting tight and weathering the storm. If they don’t lose, they win. For the Allies, path #1 is a heap of “blood, toil, tears and sweat”, as they must occupy Victory Point hexes (mostly cities) and use the accumulated Victory Points to force the enemy to surrender. Path #2 is the same for both players: eliminate every enemy combat unit on the map. Quite a tall order for either player, so I would imagine that most games are won via path #1.

I really like the way the victory conditions are designed in Slouch Hats & Eggshells. To force an Axis surrender, the Allies may make a successful six-sided die roll on the Vichy Surrender Table once each turn. The roll may be modified +/- by either player by expending accumulated Victory Points. Victory Points are earned either by control of Victory Point hexes, or by Special Actions. First the Allied player may spend as many Victory Points as he has, receiving a +1 die roll modifier (DRM) for each two Victory Points spent. Then, the Axis player may do the same. After netting out all the +/- modifiers, the Allied die roll must be 8 or more to force the surrender of the Vichy French and win the game.

Slouch Hats & Eggshells Board Game

“Special Actions” include the following:

  • Each turn “Surrender” does not occur.
  • Arrival of 2nd German unit.
  • Axis recapture of certain Victory Point Cities.
  • Resolve Vichy Surrender table (the Allies actually have to “spend” a Victory Point in order to roll on the Vichy Surrender Table).
  • Play of Special Events (either player may gain or lose Victory Points, depending on the event played).

This means the Axis gain a Victory Point each turn they survive without surrendering. They also deny the Allies as many as 6 Victory Points per turn just for retaining control of Beirut (3VP), Damascus (2VP) and Aleppo (1VP)! It should become readily apparent to the Allied player that he must move aggressively to secure those victory points as the clock is ticking. If the Allies should happen to get off to a good start, then the Vichy, et al, will be jolted from their complacent defense and be forced to counterattack in order to claw back a few precious Victory Points. So, the victory point/surrender process has an interesting and unpredictable influence on the tactical behavior of both players. Good entertainment, indeed.


Summary

I don’t feel that I have enough experience with Slouch Hats & Eggshells to comment with any conviction on play balance, but it seems to me that the Allies have an advantage. Fortuitous appearance of certain Special Events beneficial to the Axis player can turn that around in a second, but the basic situation favors the Allies (supply advantage, troop strength, naval/air superiority). It’s possible that the contest could become rote once both players are familiar with all the rules and possible strategies, but it’s my (inexpert) opinion that the game “has legs”. The number of different offensive approaches available to the Allies, coupled with the variety of Special Events will create replay value that is so important to gamers.

After a somewhat inauspicious start, I found myself really enjoying the game. I still find the rules awkward and unclear at times, but once I learned to just make a judgment call and move on with the game, the “war gamer happiness factor” moved up a few notches. I would definitely recommend to the designer that he take the time to support the game more actively and consistently because I think there’s an audience for this game that may not have discovered it yet. I know it’s difficult to have to answer the same questions over and over, while remaining positively charged and optimistic about a product. But that’s one of the keys to success in the war gaming industry. I know of designers who will take the time to answer questions about games that were published 30 years ago, because they understand there is no expiration date on their product, and no time limit for acquiring new customers.

All things considered, I’m going to give this game a positive recommendation. One “thumb up”, I suppose. If you’re a fan of older games like Blitzkrieg, Battle of the Bulge, Afrika Korps, etc., than I think you’ll definitely enjoy Slouch Hats & Eggshells. If you’re not familiar with any of that pedigree, then let Slouch Hats be your introduction. It has a “retro” feel, but with modern twists (i.e. Special Events) to keep it fresh, and top notch graphics that enhance the game experience. Give it a try, and let us know what you think.

Duel of Eagles: The Battle of Mars-la-Tour – Board Game Preview

Game Preview

“What is certain beyond argument is that the war – and with it the future of Europe – was decided at Mars-la-Tour on 16 August 1870.”

– Otto von Bismarck, Versailles, 18 January 1871

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The Battle of Mars-la-Tour was a critical turning point of not only the Franco-Prussian War, but arguably of European history. The French loss at this battle essentially led to the end of the Second Empire of Napoleon III and helped give birth to the Second Reich of the new German Empire. Why then has it received such scant treatment in the wargaming community? Other than Charles Vasey’s excellent Deathride for ATO and scenario treatments in various miniature gaming systems, this highly important battle has been ignored. Why is that?

For one thing, Mars-la-Tour has a reputation as being “just” a cavalry battle. This is thanks to von Bredow’s famous (and amazingly successful) “Deathride” cavalry charge, along with the huge cavalry battle fought outside the village of Yron at the end of the battle (and which was the last large pure cavalry engagement fought in western Europe). But more importantly, the military situation on the morning of 16 August, 1870 was quite an unusual one.

duelofeagles_rv1_bazaine

The entire French Army of the Rhine, almost 130,000 men and under the command of the newly-appointed Marshal Francois Bazaine, was moving ponderously out of the Metz fortifications toward Verdun. The goal was to escape the swiftly advancing Prussian pincers and join up with French Emperor Napoleon III (who had earlier escaped Metz) and a new army near Chalons. However, Bazaine carried out his task in an inexplicably lethargic manner. He seemed to have been paralyzed by the heft of his new command responsibilities and/or by the looming threat of two pursuing German armies. These burdens were just too much for him to bear and his resulting plan of action was no plan at all – Bazaine simply dawdled and ached for the protection of the fortress walls around Metz. In fact, the Prussian armies had become strung out and, while advancing quickly, were somewhat blindly searching for the location of the French army.

The Prussian command assumed that the French were much farther along, well on their way to Verdun. When Rheinbaben’s 5th Cavalry Division first spotted the French tents early that August morning outside of Vionville, the troopers assumed at first that they had encountered the rearguard of the escaping French army. To their shock, they soon realized that they were instead staring at the van of the entire French force. So what happened next? Well, in typical Teutonic fashion, the Prussians launched an attack! The horse artillerists aimed at the brilliant white French table cloths and polished breakfast china and began firing. Thus began the Battle of Mars-la-Tour and the audacity of the assault intimidated the French into near inactivity. It also highlighted a key advantage the Prussians possessed over their French adversaries throughout the campaign – offensive flexibility and initiative.

This boldness flustered an already desultory Bazaine, who needed to press west to Verdun, but who also refused to become separated from his protective burrow at Metz. The Prussian strategy and superior artillery pummeled the French into indecision and after a bitter and vicious day-long fight (inflicting a total of more than 30,000 casualties to both armies), Bazaine finally ordered a retirement during the evening to better defensive positions nearer Metz. This retreat and redeployment was pursued by the Prussians and resulted in the even bloodier Battle of Gravelotte-St. Privat two days later.

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So there existed a situation at Mars-la-Tour that makes, on its face, a difficult battle to simulate properly and a tough subject matter from which to make a challenging game – an intact French army facing the scattered elements of an unsuspecting Prussian advanced guard. The French outnumbered the Prussians 4 to 1 during the opening phases of the battle and should have, by all rights, crushed the Prussians as they force-marched piecemeal onto the field. Any competent French game player would easily destroy the Prussians in this situation. Having full knowledge of their size and deployment and then knowing the reinforcement schedule, the French would simply advance as needed and rout the Prussian forces as they entered the field. Perhaps this is the biggest reason Mars-la-Tour has not been simulated in game form very often: it is not an easy task to create a balanced, entertaining game on this battle.

Nonetheless, while Michael Kennedy of White Dog Games and I were discussing the play testing of his new WWI game, At Neuve Chapelle, the subject of the Franco-Prussian War came up. He asked me if I would be interested in designing a game for WDG on the Battle of Mars-la-Tour and, having a strong interest in this period of history I said that I would be excited to do so. My game design resume to this point includes four rather unconventional designs for Victory Point Games (Gettysburg: The Wheatfield, Dawn of the Zeds, High & Tight and In Magnificent Style) but no traditional hex-and-counter games. I thought that this would be a fun challenge for me to design my first hex-and-counter war game about an unconventional and under-represented, yet important battle.

The resulting game design, Duel of Eagles, is a game of moderate complexity and size. The game board is 22 by 17 inches and there are 176 counters, markers and chits. Each hex represents an area about 500 yards across, each turn is equal to approximately one hour, infantry and cavalry units represent brigades while artillery units are organizational groupings of batteries by weight of gun. As far as hard numbers and military abilities are concerned, the game accounts for unit sizes, equipment and morale in a rather straightforward manner.

The Prussian’s combat factors are inflated a bit to account for their high morale due to their recent victories in the war, their infantry training was second to none and the artillery was equipped with the superior breech-loading Krupp cannons. Prussian leaders also have an advantage in that they are more aggressive and can thus attack much more efficiently than the French. The French, on the other hand, have the edge in small arms firepower, as the Chassepot rifle allows the infantry to fire further and with greater affect. In addition, some French artillery units have Mitrailleuse batteries (a Gatling gun-like weapon) which are deadly at close range. And, finally, there are just a lot more Frenchmen on the field of battle than Prussians.

Obviously a major design problem to overcome was Marshal Bazaine’s bizarre performance as the French commander. The French Army was a well-equipped, brave and otherwise capable force. However, its training regimen had become sub-par and the men were generally demoralized by the spate of early Prussian victories. But they also knew that with proper leadership, direction and inspiration, they could be victorious. Unfortunately for the French, Bazaine was not that leader.

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So, how to reflect the lack of French command and control without making the game feel forced and predictable (and thus not very much fun for the French player)? I didn’t want to just install “idiot rules” for the French player, so my solution was to utilize a chit-pull mechanic – but with a twist. Chits are used in Duel of Eagles to mirror chaos, fog-of-war, the friction of combat, and to activate corps. This latter function of the chit-pull system recreates the slow French reaction at the beginning of the battle by starting the game with one French corps chit and then adding a new French corps chit each turn to the draw pool, gradually increasing the number of French corps that are activated in a turn, and thus simulating a giant slowly awakening from deep slumber.

In addition to corps activation, players draw “event” chits that either side plays immediately or, in some cases, can hold to apply in a future situation. Events are era-specific and model the advantages and disadvantages of each side’s historic weaponry, tactics and leadership. For example, there is a “Beaten Zone” chit that allows the French player to issue immediate fire from an infantry unit (whether activated or not) or hold the chit for a future opportunity fire at a moving Prussian unit. The Prussians have a “Krupp Guns” chit that allows the same abilities but for Prussian artillery units. There are also “fog of war” chits that players can inflict against one another. The Prussian player has a powerful chit named “Bazaine’s Malaise” that allows the Prussian player to possibly force a French corps to skip its activation for a turn. The French have a “Prussian Aggressive Tactics” chit where the French player can move a Prussian infantry unit one half its movement allowance and require it to assault whatever French unit is adjacent. Events like these can frustrate player tactical plan-making but reflect actual events that occurred at this and other Franco-Prussian War battles. The chit system weaves player tactical opportunities with each army’s particular martial character. It attempts to give the game a realistic feel for warfare of this period while creating decision-making challenges for the players that their historical counterparts had to confront.

Both the French and the Prussian player have certain problems that they must overcome in order to win the game. It will not be an easy task for either player to gain a decisive victory. The French player is handicapped by sluggish command and control and poor overall morale but he has the strength to achieve victory if he handles his forces well and takes advantage of his opportunities as they arise. The Prussian player has an edge in the efficiency of his artillery and the morale of his infantry but he is heavily outnumbered and his forces come on in piecemeal fashion. If he has any bad luck or misses an opportunity to strike hard and fast at a surprised and initially vulnerable French army, he may find himself in deep trouble

In summary, Duel of Eagles is hopefully filled with challenging decisions for players to make while also accurately simulating a very important battle in military history and one which certainly deserves to be represented on more gaming tables.

Hermann Luttmann


Got some feedback for us? Email your opinions and comments to Hermann.

Flash Point: Fire Rescue – Review

First Foray into Cooperative Gaming

Flashpoint: Fire Rescue


Overview

Flash Point: Fire Rescue, designed by Kevin Lanzing and published by Indie Boards & Cards in 2011, is a board game for 2 to 6 players, advertised as suitable for ages 10 and older (which I agree is the appropriate minimum age). It’s a family game of low complexity which is usually playable within 45 minutes. Many games claim to be “family” games while really only appealing to a certain age range/gender/mindset. But Flash Point: Fire Rescue truly is a family game. My first game involved four players ranging in age from 16 to 79, with both genders represented. Doesn’t get any more family than that!

Flash Point: Fire Rescue falls under the broad category of “Euro Game”, and the narrower sub-category of “Cooperative Game”. A Cooperative Game generally pits all the players against a “system” of some type. In this case, the players represent firefighters working together to battle the fire (the “system”, in this case) and rescue the people inside. Simple enough, right? We’ll see…


Setting Up

There are two versions of the game: the Family version and the Experienced version. Both versions are relatively simple to play (relative to the kind of games I normally play, that is), but the Experienced version has more options and “chrome” that will appeal to older children and even experienced gamers. The Experienced game adds additional help for the firefighters in the form of Vehicles (Ambulance and Fire Truck) and special abilities for the players (ex: Paramedic, Rescue Specialist, etc.). But it also adds more dangers like hazardous materials (HazMat) and Hot Spots, which make the fire more volatile and uncontrollable.

In keeping with the “family game” theme, Flash Point: Fire Rescue Basic game can be set up and ready to go within minutes. The map board shows a bird’s eye view of a house, as if you’re looking down from above with the roof removed. It is a two-sided map, with one side designed to be more challenging as it has fewer entrances to the house (only 2 external doors vs. 4 on the other map).

Flashpoint: Fire Rescue

A clever “grid” system is used to uniquely identify any square on the map. The rows of the grid all have a red 6-sided die identifier (i.e. 1 through 6) and each column of the grid has a black 8-sided die identifier (1 through 8). When a random space needs to be selected, a player rolls a red 6-sided die and a black 8-sided die and looks at both numbers, tracing along the row (red die) and column (black die) to arrive at the space that meets at the intersection. To make things even easier, each space contains the red/black die number combination that uniquely identifies that space.

Flashpoint: Fire Rescue Board Game

Initially there are “Threat” markers placed in set locations within the house. One side of the Threat marker displays “Smoke” and the other side shows “Fire”. The initial 10 Threat markers are placed with the “Fire” side face up, to indicate a fire already raging within the house.

Flashpoint: Fire Rescue Board Game

Next, three potential “victims” are placed in different locations in the house. These markers are call “Point of Interest (POI)” markers and are placed face down so no one knows if it’s a real “victim” (person or animal) or a decoy. These victims are the key to victory in Flash Point: Fire Rescue. If 4 or more victims are lost to the fire, your cooperative team will lose the game instantly.

Flashpoint: Fire Rescue Board Game

Door markers are placed next, “Closed” side showing, on each of the 8 interior “doorways” in the house. Doors offer limited protection again spreading fire and explosions so it’s best to keep them in the “Closed” position as much as possible. An “Open” door is the same as “no door at all” when it comes to containing the inferno.

Finally, each player assumes the role of a firefighter, takes one of the colored pieces and sets up in the street outside the building.

Flashpoint: Fire Rescue Board Game

There was a sales promotion in effect when I bought my copy of this game. They were offering free“Meeples” with purchase. For those, like me, who do not know a Meeple from a steeple, “Meeple” is a generic term for little wooden figures used in board gaming. So instead of colored bowling-pin-shaped units, I get to play with colored firefighter-shaped units. I wouldn’t go out of my way to buy Meeples, but I’m glad I have them as it adds another touch of flavor to the game. And the kids like them.

Feel free to chat, coordinate your starting locations, and plan strategies. It’s a “cooperative” game, remember? So you all either sink or swim together.

That’s it! You’re ready to play.


Playing the Game

Starting with the youngest firefighter, each player goes through the following “phases”, in the specified order:

  • Take Action – Spend Action Points, moving, putting out fires, chopping down walls and door when necessary and, of course, rescuing victims. What else would a firefighter be doing?
  • Advance Fire – Roll dice to see if the fire spreads. Results can range anywhere from a new “Smoke” marker appearing, to a dangerous explosion and possibly a “ShockWave” and “Flashover”. Trying to keep control of the blaze is how the firefighters earn their pay.
  • Replenish POI Markers – There must be at least 3 POI markers on the board at the beginning of each player’s turn. So, as victims are rescued, identified as decoys, or (gulp) killed, new markers must take their place. Dice are rolled to select random placement spaces for new POI markers.

Each player, in turn, will continue to perform these three steps indefinitely, until the game is either won or lost.

The sequence of events is designed to create suspense and tension in the game, and it succeeds remarkably well. The firefighters move towards the victims, putting out fires along the way, only to have new fires pop up again. The firefighters must perform the right mix of actions to:

  • Prevent the fire from raging out of control.
  • Prevent the collapse of the building.
  • Rescue the victims.

The victory conditions state that the players must successfully rescue 7 victims to score a win.

If more than 3 victims are lost to the fire, they lose.

If the building collapses, they lose.

Success or failure rides on the shoulders of the firefighters and their ability to work as a team, and react to rapdily changing environments.

Firefighters in Action!

Each firefighter is given 4 Action Points to spend on their turn. If they don’t spend them all, they may be retained (up to a maximum of 4 retained AP). Each action the firefighter takes costs X number of AP:

  • Move to a space without Fire: 1 AP
  • Move to a space with Fire: 2 AP
  • Carry a victim to an open space or a space with Smoke: 2 AP
  • Open/Close a Door: 1 AP
  • Extinguish a Fire marker: 2 AP
  • Downgrade Fire marker to Smoke marker: 1 AP
  • Chop with Axe: Place a damage marker on a wall (2 damage markers destroys a wall)

Firefighters can perform their actions in any order they like, up to the maximum amount of AP they have available. Their primary objective is to save the lives of the victims, but how they go about doing that is up to them. It was interesting to watch how different players approached similar problems in a different way. For instance, one of the players just refused to waste any time walking; he just charged straight towards the victims, chopping through any walls that got in his way. His theory was that the time he’d save on the way back (through the chopped walls) while saddled with having to carry a victim would more than make up for the time spent chopping. After all, it was the shortest distance between the victim and the fresh open air. This worked pretty well until a few consecutive explosions finished the job he started, weakening the walls to the point where the building collapsed on top of us. Lesson learned…

Example of Firefighter Actions

In this brief Basic Version example, we have two firefighters (Yellow and Red) at work in the building. Initially firefighter Yellow is located in space Red:4/Black:8, located in the game room. Firefighter Red appears to be trapped in a bedroom with a victim in space Red:6/Black:6.

Firefighter Yellow is planning to reach the potential victim in the kitchen, while firefighter Red has already secured a victim and is hoping to carry her back through the family room (with the piano) and outside to safety. The problem for Red is that, after he entered the bedroom to find the victim and closed the door behind him, a nasty fire broke out in the family room! Because a victim can never enter a hex containing a Fire marker, Red will have to battle his way out. Yellow’s plan is to dash into the kitchen, rescue the victim there, then dash back out the same way she came in.

Flashpoint: Fire Rescue Board Game

But it’s Yellow’s turn first and, although she’d love to be able to assist Red, there’s just no way she can get near him. She decides to proceed with her original plan to save the kitchen victim, and spends her 4 AP as follows:

  • Move forward towards the kitchen – 1 AP
  • Spray the fire to her right and downgrade it to Smoke – 1 AP
  • Open the kitchen door – 1 AP
  • Move forward into the kitchen – 1 AP

The fire in the game room is diminished down to Smoke status, which lessens the danger of explosion a bit. It would have been better to extinguish the Fire entirely, but that would have taken an additional AP which she thought was better spent getting closer to the victim. The door to the kitchen remains open so she’ll be able to make a quick getaway after checking the POI marker (potential victim).

Flashpoint: Fire Rescue Board Game

Now that Yellow has spent all her APs, she will move on to the “Advance Fire” phase of her turn, which will be discussed below.

The “System” Fights Back!

After the player completes all desired actions, the next step is to see how the fire spreads. The black and red die are rolled to select a space on the board. A “Smoke” marker is placed on that space. If the space is empty and not adjacent to a Fire marker, nothing else happens. If that’s not the case then things could get ugly.

For example, if the new Smoke marker is placed on top of an existing Fire marker an Explosion is triggered. Explosions spread fires very quickly and can destroy walls, doors and (gulp, again) victims. An explosion radiates out in all four directions and, if any adjacent space is already on fire, causes a Shockwave that sends fire tearing through the building (and any human beings in its path).

Players must keep in mind that not only the victims, but the building itself is in danger. Small black wooden blocks are used to mark damage to the building’s walls. Most wall-damaging events, like Explosions and firefighters “Chop with Axe” action, cause 1 block to be placed on the wall. When 2 blocks are accumulated, the wall is considered “destroyed”. From that point on, it’s as if the wall is not there. However, there are only 24 blocks. When all 24 are placed on the board, the building is considered to have collapsed, killing everyone inside.

Finally, when all the Explosions and Shockwaves are resolved, any Smoke marker that’s adjacent to a Fire marker is changed to a Fire marker. This operates with a “domino” effect; a string of adjacent Smoke markers will all burst into flames.

Any victim marker that finds itself in a hex with a Fire marker (for any reason) is considered lost and counts against the players’ victory conditions. Firefighters are never killed, but they may be injured and sent back to the Ambulance, essentially putting them out of action until they can get back into the building. When the team is so dependent on every member to stay one step ahead of the blaze, such delays can cost them the game.

We found it a challenge to get the fires under control while simultaneously trying to rescue the victims. But that’s the whole point of the game, isn’t it?

Example of Advance Fire Phase

Continuing with our example from above, it’s now time for Yellow to roll the dice and see how the Fire advances.

Yellow rolls the red and black dice and the result is Red:6/Black:5, which places the target space just outside the bedroom door behind which Green is standing with victim slung over his shoulder! The rules indicate that if the target space already contains a Fire marker, that an Explosion has occurred and must be resolved. We have an Explosion!

An explosion radiates outward in all four directions (never diagonal), spreading Fire until it hits one of the following:

  • An Open or Smoke-Filled Space
  • A Wall
  • A Closed Door

Flashpoint: Fire Rescue Board Game

So the fire spreads east (from our perspective) into space Red:6/Black:4 where a Fire marker is placed, and stops there. It spreads south, where it encounters an existing Fire marker, thus causing a Shockwave. The Fire will continue through the existing Fire space and slams into the south wall, doing one point of damage. One black block is placed on the wall to signify the damage. If another such hit occurs on that same wall section, it will be considered destroyed.

Most significantly for our example, the Explosion travels west where it runs into the bedroom door. When an Explosion (or resulting Shockwave) hits a closed door, the door is considered completely destroyed and the door marker is removed. However, if Red had not had the foresight to close the door upon entering the bedroom, the blast would have traveled right through the open door, knocking him down and killing the victim he’s carrying. This is a perfect example of how anticipating the worst case scenario can pay big dividends later on.

Next Victim!

There must be 3 POI markers on the game map at the start of any player’s turn. So, as the last step in the player turn sequence, if there are not 3 POI markers on the map, the active player must roll the red/black dice to select a space for placement of a new POI marker with “?” side facing up so that no one knows if it’s a real victim or a decoy.

Sometimes you get lucky and the new POI will be placed in close proximity to one or more of the firefighters, but just as often you’ll find the new POI marker being placed far away from all firefighters. And, if the dice are against you (and they always are), the new POI may land in the midst of a block of Fire markers.

Example of Red’s Turn

We skipped Yellow’s “Replenish POI phase, as we’re just assuming that there are 3 POI markers currently on the board. We can move on to Red’s Action Phase.

Firefighter Red has to make an important decision here:

  • Head for the closest door, which is in the family room (just past the piano; not pictured), fighting fires every step of the way and hoping he does not have to face another explosion.
  • Chop his way through the external wall.
  • Head south, putting out the fire there and moving away from the open door.

Flashpoint: Fire Rescue Board Game

Each of these options have positive and negative aspects. Heading into the inferno in the family room, with a helpless victim over his shoulder just doesn’t sound prudent. If there was another firefighter on the other side, maybe it would be workable. But there isn’t. On the other hand, that direction leads to the closest external door and safety…

Chopping through the external wall to the north sounds like a really good option at first. Except that he’d have to use all 4 of his APs to chop through the wall, and would have to wait until next turn to actually move out of his current space. Considering what just happened during Yellow’s Advance Fire phase, I can’t imagine he’s want to stay put and take his chances with the fire raging to his east and south.

So firefighter Red chooses the third option. He snuffs the fire to his south using 2 AP, and then carries the victim into that space with his remaining 2 AP. Now at least he is not directly adjacent to any Fire markers. And, more importantly, he’s now just on the other side of a wall from firefighter Yellow. Yellow can use her APs to chop down the wall, and Red can simply carry the victim through to safety on his turn.

Wrapping up this example, on Red’s “Advance Fire” phase he rolls Red:6/Black:4 and attempts to place a Smoke marker there. But, lo and behold, there is already a Fire marker in that space, so another Explosion occurs! Amazingly, the selected space is right next to the space that Yellow rolled on her turn (although not too amazing since I’m the one creating the example and I’m trying to make a point).

Flashpoint: Fire Rescue Board Game

This time, when the Shockwave expands to the west, there is no bedroom door to hold it in check, so the flames leap right into the bedroom and into the space where firefighter Red and his victim would have been standing had he chosen to try to chop through the exterior wall. Another disaster averted due to Red’s good judgment!

I hope this brief graphical example has given you an idea of how the game is played, as well as some sense of the decisions that you’ll be faced with when playing Flash Point: Fire Rescue.


The Experienced Game

The Experienced Game takes just a bit longer to set up because there’s a lot more going on. It has three levels of play: RecruitVeteran, and Heroic, with Recruit being similar in difficulty to the Family Game, and “Heroic” being (as you might imagine) very difficult. I played at the Veteran level just to get a good sense of how much more difficult the game becomes.

Flashpoint: Fire Rescue Board Game

Things become noticeably more difficult right from the setup. You have to randomly place, and then resolve, 3 Explosions. So, the center of my building was already an inferno, with three points of Wall Damage to boot! Add in the placement of 4 Hazardous Materials markers and 6 Hot Spots and you have all the ingredients for a bad day.

With the introduction of HazMat and Hot Spot markers, the “Advance Fire” phase of each player turn now has the potential to create a genuine conflagration!

Flashpoint: Fire Rescue Board Game

But, on the positive side, the firefighters have enhanced capabilities as well. There is a Fire Engine which is capable of putting out fires in multiple spaces simultaneously. And each firefighter is assigned a “specialty”, by choosing a Specialist Card. The following specialties are available:

  • Paramedic – Can resuscitate a victim.
  • Fire Captain – Can “delegate” 2 AP each turn to another firefighter, essentially commanding that firefighter to move or Open/Close Doors during the Captain’s turn.
  • Imaging Technician – Reveal a POI marker anywhere on the board (detects “dummy” counters).
  • CAFS Firefighter – Gets 3 AP + 3 free Extinguish AP per turn.
  • Hazmat Technician – More efficient at removing HazMat markers (i.e. does not have to carry it like a victim)
  • Generalist – No special abilities but has 5 AP per turn.
  • Rescue Specialist – Get 4 AP + 3 free Movement AP per turn.
  • Driver/Operator – Can drive the fire engine and fire the “Deck Gun” (i.e. water cannon).

More than anything else, the introduction of special abilities puts additional burden on the players to cooperate and utilize their enhanced proficiencies to maximum advantage. The “system” grows exponentially more efficient in the Experienced Game. So too must the players if they hope to win. Having these advanced firefighting capabilities is great but only if used properly.

I would definitely recommend the Experienced version for older kids (13+), adults, or experienced gamers.


Summary

Flashpoint: Fire Rescue Board Game

There’s a lot of random luck (both good and bad) in this game, but performing actions efficiently requires thought and care on the part of the players. Sometimes there’s just a right and a wrong way to do things, and you’ve got to be right more often than you’re wrong. Coordination with your fellow firefighters is critical to the success of the team.

Do you focus initially on putting out the fires, letting the victims wait until the fire is more contained?

Remember that after every player turn, the fire will spread by an unknown amount. It could be just another Smoke space, or it could be an inferno that kills one or more of your helpless victims. So you must strike a balance between containing the fire and getting victims moved to safety.

Do you walk all the way from the game room, through the kitchen, dining room and play room to get to the victim in the small bathroom? Or do you just chop down the shared wall between the game room and the small bathroom?

Every wall you chop and every wall that is damaged by the fire has a cumulative effect on the stability of the building. A building collapse is the worst way to lose because it’s usually the result of bad decisions made earlier in the game.

With each game you play, proper techniques start becoming more apparent. For example, there’s definitely a right way to manage a large block of “Fire” spaces to minimize the repercussions of an Explosion/Shockwave. There are also times when it’s smarter to just move a victim to a safer location, put the victim down, and then return to fighting the fire, rather than charging into a perilous situation in a mad rush for the exit. But we’ll reserve those discussions for a future strategy article.

Bottom Line: The game got mixed reviews from the participants.

The younger ones felt that it could have been more exciting although it appeared to me that they were getting mini-adrenaline rushes here and there, while waiting to see if an Explosion was going to take them, and the hapless victim they carried, off to the afterlife. But I can understand that. Competing with the sensory stimulation of XBox, Playstation or mobile gaming devices is a tall order for a board game designer.

The experienced gamers and adult players found the Family Game a bit too simplistic, but thought the Experienced game was more fun.

Our 79 year old firefighter loved the game, but thought it went on too long (the Experienced game lasted just about 50 minutes). I think he would have considered a 30 minute session to be perfect.

My own opinion is that any game I can share with everyone from my youngest son to my father-in-law deserves high praise indeed. It really grew on me. The very first (Family/Basic) game I played was a bit of a dud as everyone was learning the rules and just kind of sleepwalking through the motions. But, with each subsequent game, I enjoyed it more and more. The firefighters “cooperative” won about half the time, which puts game balance right in the sweet spot. Each game progresses differently. Sometimes, things go so smoothly you just can’t imagine how you could possibly lose. Other times you see just how horribly wrong things can go if the “Advance Fire” rolls go against you. So there’s a sense of urgency in every game that most of us found enjoyable.

This was really my first experience with a “Euro” type game. I’m generally a hard-core hex map wargamer. But I have to say that I enjoyed Flash Point: Fire Rescue enough that I’ll probably try other Indie Boards & Cards games in the future. Congratulations to the designer and publisher on a job well done.

Now if I can get all my nephews to give it the thumbs up, I’ll be really impressed. I’ll write a follow up after they have a chance to play…

Central America: Review

A Close Look at a Neglected Gem

Central America


Overview

Central America, designed by James H. McQuaid and published by Victory Games in 1987, is an operational level war board game simulating historical and hypothetical conflicts in Central America in the 1970s and 1980s. The country of Nicaragua is at the center of the conflict in most scenarios, but the game also includes scenarios depicting internal conflicts in El Salvador and secondary conflicts between Honduras and El Salvador. And, of course, potential outside intervention by the United States, Cuba and (to a lesser degree) the Soviet Union, comprises the foundation of this board game.

There are aircraft, helicopter and ground units represented in the game. Since the US has such naval dominance in that part of the world, actual naval units are not used in the game and “carrier groups” are simply map boxes used to hold aircraft. The military units of Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, Cost Rica, Cuba, United States and the Soviet Union are included, as well as all the various guerilla, insurgency and political factions in the region (FDN, ARDE, FMLN, etc.). There are even special scenario units for Israeli Mossad, Communist International, Libya and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), so we’re talking about a well researched project, not simply a “red units” vs. “blue units” kind of game.

Although designed as a two player game, it expands well to accommodate two additional players (one per side) and is even marginally enjoyable solitaire. The publisher assigns it a complexity level of between 7 and 10 (i.e. “High” to “Very High” complexity), although I disagree with the high end of those ratings. It’s a big game in the sense that there are a lot of units and a lot of rules, but I don’t believe it should be viewed as an extremely complex game, as we’ll discuss in more detail shortly (I find games like Gulf StrikeFlat Top, and Pacific War to be much more complex). The 22″ x 32″ map and other game components are par for the 1980’s. The map is legible, succinct and functional (but could have been made a bit larger).

This article will take a fresh look at Central America, evaluating the major facets of the game and highlighting what I consider to be some of the more salient and interesting features.


The Rules

OK, let’s get this issue out of the way right now. I remember, back when this board game was first published, the initial reactions of a lot of gamers to the magnitude of TRP (Total Rules Pages). Let’s examine this.

Central America Board Game

The rules are broken up into two major categories: Conventional Game Rules and Intervention Game Rules. There are also 16 Scenarios, or predefined game situations, included. Each scenario is designed to be played as either a “Conventional Game Scenario” or an “Intervention Game Scenario”. The Conventional rules contain all standard movement, combat and supply rules and just about half of the 16 scenarios can be played using these rules alone. The rest of the scenarios require the usage of the Intervention Game rules which address the special abilities of American military, the enhanced capabilities of certain units (“Guerrilla Attacks”), and Political rules and restrictions. Finally, there are a set of Optional Rules that enhance the realism of the simulation.

The various documents/booklets are as follows:

  • Conventional Game Rules of Play – 64 pages of rules just for the Conventional (or basic) game.
  • Intervention Game Rules of Play – 40 pages of rules for the Intervention game.
  • We don’t need to mention the 63 page Scenarios Booklet, because that does not need to be read, just referred to prior to setting up a scenario, and afterwards to evaluate the victory conditions.

Now I know this doesn’t exactly sound like anyone’s idea of “light reading”, but once you’ve actually looked at the various books, things seem more manageable.

Central America Board Game
First of all, they are some of the most unambiguous rules I’ve ever read. While they’re intimidating at first glance, you’ll find that the heft is due mainly to the focus on clarity. They probably used twice as many words as were absolutely necessary, just to make sure there were no misunderstandings. While that can be annoying at times, I prefer it to the alternative: too few words and prodigious ambiguity. But you learn to skim over the various sections, drilling down to the small details when something doesn’t click at first glance. There are nearly 6 pages, in the Conventional rule book, containing graphics and descriptions of the unit counters, a glossary, and an abbreviation list. Did we have to know that “PCS” is the abbreviation for the “Salvadoran Communist Party”? No. But it’s in line the with high quality of the product… and, by the way, I do want to know the definition of every abbreviation on the counters.

Secondly, not only is each rule explained in great detail, but almost every rule section contains a companion graphical example. It’s a bit hard to quantify exactly, but I’d say that the Conventional Rules book contains approximately 12 pages of pictures and explanatory text, 1 full page index, and 1 full page Game Information Summary on the back cover. The Intervention Rules have about 8 pages of pictures and explanatory text, 6 pages of historical background text, a 4 page detailed Sequence of Play, and a 1 page Intervention Game Information Summary on the back cover.

Central America Board Game

Scratch the two booklet cover pages and the Conventional Rules table of contents… and you eliminate about 42 pages of rules. So, now you’re left with about 62 pages of rules remaining. Still not “waiting room reading”, but more in line with other games like “Gulf Strike”, “Vietnam: 1965-1975”, “Sixth Fleet”, etc. And, as I mentioned earlier, the rules are quite verbose, using twice as many words as you need to absorb the content. So, if we now divide the remaining 62 pages of hard rules in half… we end up with the equivalent of 31 pages of rules!

OK, so I may have used-car-salesman’d this argument to the degree that I’m losing readers already, but my point is this: the rules are not as difficult as the thickness of the booklets would indicate. I was able to skim the sections, drill down a bit here and there, refer back as necesary while playing the smaller scenarios, and I mastered them in no time. There’s no need to found a university dedicated to the study of Central America rules. Don’t be put off by them. ‘Nuff said.


Game Features

The Combatants

Central America was designed as a two-player game, although it is well suited for team-play. The two top-level combatants are referred to broadly as the Communist player and the Allied player.

Central America Board Game

The bulk of the Communist player’s forces are made up of Nicaraguan national forces, also known as FSLN (Sandinista National Liberation Front), with strong air support from the Soviet and Cuban air forces. The Communist unconventional warfare capability is formidable, and is composed of the several guerilla groups (most notably the FMLN) operating in neighboring El Salvador and Honduras, with the intention of destabilizing the U.S.-allied governments there.

There are several game scenarios that don’t involve significant American forces (other than the omnipresent CIA), but the most interesting scenarios allow for a wide array of U.S. ground forces (mostly rapid reaction types like 82nd Airborne and Marines), Air Forces and Naval Air power. They pack quite a punch, but are also a vulnerability as the victory point penalties in most scenarios are quite stiff for U.S. air and ground units lost in combat.

Central America Board Game

While Nicaraguan ground units are pretty sturdy, only Cuban and Soviet air units can give the American pilots a run for their money. There are no Soviet ground units in the game, but Cuban ground forces are quite powerful. Nicaragua also boasts a decent anti-air and EW capability.

Until American military units intervene, the Allied player is dependent on Honduran and El Salvadoran national armies to contain the sometimes aggressive Nicaraguans. The allied unconventional capability is provided largely by the notorious FDN and ARDE (aka “The Contras”) crossing into Nicaragua from bases in Honduras and Costa Rica to create trouble for the Soviet-inspired government there.

Central America

The various conflicts in Central America since the 1960s have generally been murky affairs, suggesting oversized interference by various world intelligence agencies, with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) preeminent among them. To reflect the CIA’s substantial (and covert) budget for the conduct of operations in the region, the CIA is accorded a powerful set of units including Engineer (ground combat), Entrenchment, Transport/Attack Helicopter, Electronic Warfare (EW) and Anti-Aircraft units. (The CIA probably never had so much firepower on tap again until after September 11, 2001).

Insurgency Units

Central America

One feature of Central America that differs from other “modern” warfare games I’ve played is the emphasis on Insurgency units. There are special placement, movement, disbanding and counterinsurgency rules that make Insurgency units potent, yet fragile, assets. They are weak relative to conventional ground combat units, yet they move fluidly through enemy Zones of Control, can disappear (Disband) and reappear elsewhere shortly afterwards, in a manner that is most frustrating to the conventional forces trying to hunt them down. There is even a specific Air Mission called Aerial Counterinsurgency, dedicated to the destruction of newly placed Insurgency units. You’ve got to learn to manage these units to best effect in order to win this game.

However, I found it a bit surprising when I discovered that, although they occupy a good chunk of the rules, Insurgency units’ only impact on combat is a +1/-1 (attacker/defender) modifier to the combat die roll. I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting from Insurgency units. After all, they probably represent poorly trained recruits with the ability to blend in with the general population. I just thought they’d have a greater impact in combat. But the game design directs that Insurgency units are most effective when doing what they do best: (1) slipping past Zones of Control to help encircle an enemy or penetrate deep into enemy territory, and (2) appearing magically (via the Insurgency Placement procedure) where and when they’re needed most.

Central America

Also, if using the Intervention Ground Rules, Insurgency units may make special Guerilla Attacks against installations or a terrain feature (road, bridge, port, etc.).

So now that I’ve enumerated their capabilities, I guess Insurgency units are effective enough in their own way. They just don’t mean much in a “stand-up” conventional battle. Which is probably what the designer intended. OK, Mr. McQuaid, I think we’re on the same page now regarding Insurgency units…

Helicopters

Due to the generally low intensity nature of the conflict simulated in this game (excepting the horrendously destructive air battles between U.S. and Cuban/Soviet air forces), much emphasis is placed on Helicopter units. Helicopters have their own rules section separate and distinct from the rules for fixed wing aircraft. They are versatile units that provide the players with Bombardment StrikeClose Air SupportGround Combat Support (an operation permitted only to helicopters), Aerial CounterinsurgencyTransfer (Ferry), Transport Strike (Paradrops and Helicopter Assaults) and Escortmissions.

Central America

The Ground Combat Support mission is unique in that a Helicopter can be assigned to the defense of a particular ground unit, and then remain in the hex to support a subsequent counterattack by the same ground unit. Conversely, they can be assigned to offensive Ground Combat Support, and then stick around to defend against a potential enemy counterattack. This attack/defense or defense/attack combination is considered a single mission.

As has been the case since the Vietnam War, Helicopters provide the mobility required of a modern army in the type of inhospitable terrain that exists in the jungles and mountains of Central America. In the larger scenarios, both players are granted a considerable helicopter transport capability.

Fixed Wing Aircraft

Fixed wing air combat units are heavily represented, and the air battles can get quite intense as U.S., Nicaraguan, Soviet and Cuban air units battle to control the skies over Managua, the Carribean Sea, and the Pacific Ocean. Aircraft basing, movement and combat rules are straight-forward and don’t bog the game down as can happen in other “modern” warfare games. When compared to the air rules for one of my other favorite board games, Gulf Strike, at least 3 things immediately come to mind as improvements in Central America:

  • Detection – Rather than making the inactive player roll a die to see if an approaching enemy unit has been detected, Central America rules assume that if the enemy unit has entered friendly detection range, it’s automatically detected. Probably dampens the realism a bit, but it sure makes the game turns move along faster.
  • Air Combat Ratings – This rating applies to the general capabilities of the aircraft (“D” = Defensive, “S” = Slow, “J” = Jet) and determines the ability of air units to engage each other. For example, “S” air units cannot even attempt to intercept “J” units. This adds realism, in my opinion.
  • Movement to Combat – After detecting an enemy air unit in Gulf Strike, interceptors move two hexes, then the “interceptee” moves two hexes, then the interceptors move two more hexes, etc. This can sometimes lead to bizarre chase patterns as attacking air units travel in circles and arcs, attempting to outlast a pursuing aircraft that may have a lower movement allowance. In Central America, if the enemy air unit is in detection range, is within the movement radius of the potential interceptor, and the interceptor has sufficient Air Combat Rating to catch the invader (e.g. an “S” rated intecepter vs a “D” rated attacker), then the interceptor is moved directly to the hex with the attacker and combat ensues. This simulates combat air patrolling and is, in my opinion, superior to the Gulf Strike system (although a subsequent Gulf Strike variant did somewhat address this issue).

Fixed wing Air units are afforded the same wide range of missions as Helicopters, minus the “Ground Combat Support” missions (which simulate a helicopters ability to linger over the battlefield and more effectively influence the battle).

Combat

Both Ground and Air combat are very basic affairs, and the respective combat tables are not particularly bloody. This may be a conscious design decision due to the nature of the combat (I mean, we’re not blitzkrieg’ing here). But it surprised me a bit as I felt it was kind of a dull spot in a typically exciting game system. Most air and ground units can absorb 1 or 2 “Steps” of losses before being eliminated. Since the combat results tables generally dole out hits in “onesies and twosies”, don’t expect to be blowing away stacks of enemy units in your mad assault across the tapering isthmus.

Central America

In ground combat, basic combat odds are calculated in a standard fashion (1-to-1, 2-to-1, 3-to-1, etc.) and then the “Initial Combat Ratio” marker is placed on the proper odds column of the Ground Combat Table, in the row that matches the terrain where the defender is located. Terrain effects are built right into the table. For example, the Initial Combat Ratio marker would be placed in column 11 for a 2-to-1 attack in Clear terrain, but would be placed in column 8 for an attack upon a defender in Jungle terrain. The higher numbered columns yield better results for the attacker, thus demonstrating that a defender’s odds are better in Jungle terrain than Clear.

Once the “Initial Combat Ratio” marker is placed, other factors are checked to see if there will be any column shifts, either to the right (favoring the attacker) or to the left (favoring the defender). Column shifts are granted for various reasons, such as the presence of artillery, engineers, special forces, attack helicopters on Ground Support missions, etc. Combined arms attacks are well rewarded by the column shifts. After all column shifts are determined for both players, the “Current Combat Ratio” marker is placed in the resulting column.

From that point on, Combat resolution is simple. A die is rolled and possibly modified (+ or -) for other factors, such as defenders in fortifications or attackers assaulting across a river, etc. The modified die roll is cross-referenced with the combat ratio column to arrive at the combat result. The number on the left is the number of hits applied to the attacker; the number on the right, hits applied to the defender. If the background is shaded red, the attacker will have to retreat (yes, the attacker retreats in this game) or, if shaded blue, the defender must retreat.

That’s ground combat in a nutshell.

As I said before, there’s no sweeping armor operations happening in this game but, once U.S. ground and air units are fully engaged, you can expect the enemy bodycount to increase dramatically. So, while I may find the combat results tables a tad boring, they’re probably based on realistic assessments of casualty levels that would be expected in a low intensity conflict.

The Air Combat Table is a bit bloodier than the Ground Combat, depending on the Intensity Level. The Intensity Level is determined by the total number of aircraft engaged. The total includes all aircraft, even those without combat capability such as Transports and EW units. This determines the table (Low, Medium or High Intensity) on which the dogfight will be resolved.

Air Combat, in Central America, places great importance on Tactical Air Initiative, which is determined by:

  • Presence of EW/AWACS air units
  • Proximity to EW ground units (or Masaya, which is a huge EW/Radar center for the Communist Player. Kind of like a ground based AWACS.)
  • Proximity to Air Facilities
  • Air Combat Rating (if all “D” units are being attacked, the other player will always have Initiative, for example)

Central America

The player with Tactical Air Initiative gets to choose to be either the Attacker or the Defender in the coming combat. Why, you may ask, would an attacker with total Air Combat Value of 16 prefer to be the Defender against an opponent with total Air Combat Value of 6? Well, as the Attacker, 16 to 6 yields a 2-to-1 combat ratio. But as a defender in a 6 to 16 situation, your opponent would have to attack at 1-to-3 odds. Not an inconsiderable difference.

In Central America, an attacking player who is intercepted may designate, at the moment of interception, aircraft as Escorts to engage interceptors. I find this adds a bit more excitement to the air combat engagements as opposed to the Gulf Strike system where you have to designate your Escorts at mission inception.

Granted, the Gulf Strike system is probably more realistic since aircraft are armed differently depending on the mission assigned to them (e.g. Strike vs Escort). But it’s not unreasonable to expect that an F-18, armed for a strike mission, would have some type of anti-air capability. (Military pilots: please let me know if I’m totally wrong!)

And it sure makes for more interesting air combats, as a player can “re-purpose” aircraft as the situation changes. Keep in mind, however, that once an aircraft is used in combat as an Escort, it can no longer use its Bombardment values for the remainder of the mission.

Air Combat is similar to gound combat in that (1) an odds ratio is calculated, (2) die roll modifiers are applied, (3) losses are apportioned to either attacker or defender (or both). Most die roll modifiers are linked to the presence or proximity of EW units (ground or air) or air facilities.

It’s quick, it’s fun, and it’s a reasonable simulation of the type of air combat that would occur over Nicaragua. That said, it’s also very difficult for the Communist player to make a dent in the U.S. air armada, even with Soviet and Cuban help. That’s the price you pay for a “reasonable simulation”. Suffice it to say that the Communist player must be extremely judicious in his application of air power.

As I mentioned earlier, the rule books are just chock full of helpful examples, both text-based and graphical. Normally I spend a considerable amount of time designing and creating the graphics for game examples. In the case of Central America the examples are so well done that I can use the layout and text descriptions exactly as they appear in the rule book:


Central America Board Game - Ground Combat Example #1

Example of Ground Combat: The Communist player has two Nicaraguan 3-3-4 infantry brigades in hex 3308, two 3-3-4 brigades in hex 3407, and two 3-4-4 brigades in hex 3406. The Allied player has one Honduran 1-2-4 infantry battalion in hex 3207, two 1-2-4 battalions in hex 3307, and one reduced 0-1-4 battalion in hex 3405.

The Communist player could have his two 3-3-4 units in 3308 attack the 1-2-4 battalion in 3207 (6 vs. 2, which is simplified to a ratio of 3 to 1), his two 3-3-4 units in 3407 attack the two 1-2-4 battalions in 3307 (6 vs. 4, simplified in favor of the defender to a ratio of 1 to 1), and the two 3-4-4 units in 3406 attack the 0-1-4 battalion in 3405 (6 vs. 1, or 6 to 1). However, he wants to concentrate his strength against the two 1-2-4 units in 3307.

He decides to attack the 1-2-4 unit in 3207 with one 3-3-4 unit in 3208 (3 vs. 2, simplified to the ratio of 1 to 1) and to attack the 0-1-4 unit in 3405 with one 3-4-4 unit (3 vs. 1, or 3 to 1). He will have one 3-3-4 unit in 3308, the two 3-3-4 units in 3407, and one 3-4-4 unit in 3406 attack the two 1-2-4 battalions in 3307 (12 vs. 4, or 3 to 1). This attack is legal because all adjacent enemy units are being attacked by some Communist unit. The main reason the Communist player chose to attack in this manner was to negate the die roll modifier for river defense against the 1-2-4 units (the FSLN 3-4-4 unit in 3406 is already across the river).


Central America Board Game - Ground Combat example #2 (with Insurgency Units)

Example of Insurgency Units and Combat: A FSLN 1-1-4 insurgency battalion and the FSLN 2-2-4 Simon Bolivar (SB) special forces battalion use insurgency movement to move from hex 2509 to hex 2308, and an Insurgency Reserve marker has been placed on the stack. A Nicaraguan 2-3-4 infantry brigade in hex 2310 is attacking an FDN 1-2-4 infantry battalion in hex 2309; there is an FDN 1-1-4 insurgency battalion in hex 2307.

During the Ground Combat Phase, the Communist player decides to attack the FDN battalion in 2309 with the Nicaraguan brigade and the special forces unit. The combined Attack Value is 4 (2 + 2 = 4), which results in a 2-to-1 combat odds against the FDN unit. The Communist player receives a one-column shift for the special forces unit and a +1 die roll modifier because it is an insurgency unit. The combat results in the FDN being eliminated, and the Nicaraguan brigade pursues into the vacated hex.

The FSLN 1-1-4 insurgency unit must now attack the FDN insurgency battalion in 2307 (all adjacent enemy units must be attacked). The initial combat ratio is 1-to-1. Because both are insurgency units, the Allied player receives a -1 die roll modifier and the Communist player a +1 modifier, which cancel each other out. However, the FSLN unit is attacking across an unbridged river hexside, so a -2 die roll modifier is applied to the combat. The Communist player rolls the die to resolve the combat. In this case, the FSLN unit takes a step loss and is forced to retreat. The Insurgency Reserve marker remains on the special forces battalion because it was not affected negatively by its combat, and it can move one or two hexes during the Reserve Movement Phase.

The Map

The various Terrain Types and Features on the single 22″ x 32″ game map are clearly delineated and/or color-coded. A simple movement cost per terrain type, distinct for Armored units and Infantry units, makes learning the basics of ground unit movement a breeze. If I could make one improvement, it would be to increase the map size by about 20%-25%. Many important pieces of information (objective cities, airfields, national boundaries, Nicaraguan Border Mines, etc.) are printed directly on the map and players will find themselves constantly shifting pieces around to see what’s underneath.

Central America Board Game - Terrain Key

The map already contains 3/4″ hexes, and the units are 1/2″, so obviously someone at Victory Games saw the need for roomy hexes. But I would have gone a step further and made full 1″ hexes.

Some unique and notable map features:

  • Masaya Detection Range Indicators – Rather than having to count hexes to determine if your aircraft are within range of Masaya (the massive Nicaraguan EW/Radar facility), the radar’s range is marked on the map by small triangles. Thanks, Victory Games, I hate counting hexes…
  • Tiger Island – A CIA occupied island right in the middle of the Gulf of Fonseca, which abuts on El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua, complete with air strip. Communist units using Boat Transport within 3 hexes of Tiger Island are likely to take a hit if a CIA EW/Engineers unit is present on the island. And one is always present…
  • Nicaraguan Border Mines – Small mine indicators on the map provide a visual cue if the optional Border Mines rule is being used. A real nuisance for Allied units attempting to cross into Nicaragua.
  • Supply Source Hexes – Outlined with a thick green border for easy identification.

Central America Board Game - Detection Ranges

All the combat tables and combat modifiers are shown right on the map, along with the Game Turn TrackVictory Point TrackPhase Track (so players can easily track which Game Turn Phase they’re in), and World Tension Track. All well organized and convenient.

Supply

Supply rules are sufficient to enforce some logistics discipline on both players but are not at all onerous. As expected, it’s the U.S. player that’s most affected by the Supply rules, since they’re the ones operating far from home, but most other units are in their home country and thus don’t really have to go far to draw the day’s rations. Once you become comfortable with the locations of all Supply Source hexes, and nail down the special rules for FSLN Logistics Supply Units (LSU)Supply Depots“Southern Airways Supply” and Hidden Supply Depots, the Supply rules are not much of a burden.


The Scenarios

One of the strongest features of this game is the variety of predefined scenarios, in general, and the Scenario Generation System, in particular.

Granted, the first few scenarios are quite uninspiring. But they are intended to be training scenarios; much like the “Programmed Instruction” method that I prefer. I like learning a new game by actually playing the game!. So the first four Central America scenarios, appropriately labeled “Introductory Scenarios“, ease you into the game system quite nicely. They address the core ground, helicopter and air rules. The most interesting of these is a single game turn scenario called “The SS-20 Incident” that enables the Allied player to unleash the full power of two carrier groups in an attempt to locate and seize an SS-20 nuclear missile the Soviets are attempting to place in Nicaragua.

The next five scenarios are identified as “Intermediate Scenarios“. They address a range of hypothetical conflicts from an all out civil war in El Salvador to an expansionist Nicaragua moving against its neighbors (and the inevitable US counter-invasion). While these scenarios utilize the full set of Conventional and Intervention rules, they are relatively short at 8 to 12 turns. Only one, “Civil War in El Salvador“, is longer, requiring 18 turns. The Intermediates also give us the first taste of the “Diplomacy” aspects of the game. For example, the Communist player is allowed to attempt to have FMLN/ERP (Salvadoran guerillas) insurgency units break their treaty with El Salvador, spends Insurgency Command Points to make the attempt, and then rolls on a “Diplomatic” table to see the results of his effort.

By the time you’ve played through these five scenarios, you’re more than prepared to take on the last, and largest, scenario group: the “Campaign Scenarios“.

The seven “Campaign Scenarios” are what this game is all about. The group starts off with the lone historical situation: “The 1979 Revolution” and then proceeds to the “what might have been” scenarios that suppose a major attack against the Sandinistas by the local insurgent groups (“Christmas War”), and an invasion of Honduras and El Salvador by Nicaragua ostensibly encouraged by the doves in the US government enforcing a strict “hands-off” policy (“The Contadora Intervention”). The final four campaign scenarios are designed for the hard-core gamer. “Operation Big Pine”, “Paper Tiger”, “Missiles of Red October”, and “World War III”. The names of these scenarios alone give you an idea that you’ll be engaging in a long term (20 to 45 game turns) contest for supremacy of either Capitalism or Communism in Central America. Toss in the complete set of optional rules that include Standoff Air AttacksCluster BombsChemical Weapons, and Nicaraguan Torpedo Boats and you’re in war-gaming-hog-heaven, my friends.

But wait. There’s more. Let’s say you spend two years or so, playing the hell out of these great Campaign Scenarios. First of all how many things (that only cost $30, at the time) can you derive two years of continuous enjoyment from? But, to help me make my point, let’s say that it’s been two years and now you’re just starting to get bored with the constraints of the scenarios. Enter the “Scenario Generation System”.

The Scenario Generation System

The Scenario Generation System, designed by Mark Herman and Michael E. Moore, is really the icing on the cake, as far as I’m concerned. It is what makes the political and military aspects of the game mesh to create a unique and engaging gaming experience.

Players can use the Random System, in which die rolls determine forces available and the general intensity of the conflict, or the Player Selection System, which allows the players to select these values. Either of these “generated” systems brings all of the following elements into play:

  • U.S. Doctrine – Non-Intervention, Monroe Doctrine, or Aggressive Support. This “doctrine” can either be chosen by the U.S. player or can be assigned randomly, depending on the System being used (see above).
  • Communist Doctrine – Non-Intervention, Brezhnev Doctrine, or Adventurism. (I know… why are we “Aggressive”, a perfectly acceptable behavior, but they were “Adventurists”, demonstrating a reckless disregard for all humanity?)
  • Preparedness Levels – For the Communist player, the mobilization and general preparedness of his Nicaraguan, Cuban and Soviet forces. For the Allied player, it refers to the preparedness of Honduran, Salvadoran, Costa Rican and FDN/Contra forces (does NOT include Americans).
  • U.S. Intervention Level – A measure of how committed and prepared U.S. forces are for the coming conflict, and how relaxed the rules of engagement will be. This level can be increased and/or decreased during the course of the game.
  • World Tension and World War III – Certain player actions and events can increase World Tension, possibly leading to World War III. For example, the conquest by Communist forces of Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital, or the first time U.S. and Soviet aircraft engage in combat.
  • The War Powers Act and the Temperament of the U.S. Congress – This critical measure can result in a range of events from Forced U.S. Withdrawal to a U.S. Declaration of War, and thus can have an enormous impact on U.S. operations in the conflict.

Central America Board Game - Scenario Generator

These options create a real-world flow to the game. Imagine an aggressive US player, loaded for bear, attacking a half-mobilized Nicaragua. Not a very competitive situation at first glance. But what if, due to a sitting US Congress determined to enforce the 30-day provision of the War Powers Act, the US player now only has 15 game turns, representing 30 days, from the first appearance of US forces until the time they must withdraw completely?

The game becomes a completely different contest… a much more interesting and balanced one.

It’s impossible to convey all the nuances and interactions of the Scenario Generation system in the small amount of space available for this review. Besides, that’s what the rulebook is for. Click on the image to the left to see a larger view of some of the charts, tables and record-keeping dedicated to Scenario Generation. It will give you a better sense of the type of information that’s being tracked how it interacts (sorry, it’s not a great scan).


Summary

Central America was not very well received when it was released. I can’t quote the sales figures; I’m just talking about the general concensus among my gaming friends at the time. I’m not sure why it didn’t make a better showing, exactly, and I’ve never heard a convincing explanation from an authoritative source. The whole Iran/Contra affair was a really nasty business and the game was released at the tail end of it, yet while it was still fresh in everyone’s mind. This may have soured a lot of gamers on the whole premise. It’s also possible that the word of mouth about the massive rule books put people off (I remember hearing such talk at the time), but there are other successful games with daunting rules. It’s also plausible that I’m in the minority in my belief that it’s an interesting game, and maybe most folks just didn’t enjoy it. In any event, I played this game quite a bit back in the early 1990’s and, while I never enjoyed it as much as some other Victory Games titles from the 1980’s, I do recall being totally engaged by Central America and being disappointed at my inability to entice a larger number of opponents (only had two opponents, one of whom was my father – and we did play the hell out of it over one summer).

No matter how much time has passed, I’ve gotten the “bug” again and will be playing Central America at every opportunity. One of the most wonderful aspects of the board gaming hobby is that there’s no expiration date on the games. A board game that was enjoyable and challenging in 1987 can still be just as enjoyable and challenging today (July 2012, as I write this). In fact many of the nascent games of our pastime depicted battles from decades past, as in the case of the slew of WWII games that appeared in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Central America, in my opinion, earns an additional lease on life due to the fact that the dreaded “Central American conflagration” never actually happened, leaving us free to try different strategies, unencumbered by historical biases. I’ll be prodding all my gaming buddies to give Central America a try and hope to gain enough renewed experience and expertise to write up some helpful strategy articles. If anyone has some experience with this game, and would like to share, we’d enjoy hearing from you.

Long neglected by the war gaming community, Central America deserves another look, and some evaluation time on every war gamer’s table.

The Trouble with Kuwait: Gulf Strike (Strategy)

Strategies for Scenario #1 in Victory Games’ Gulf Strike Board Game

Gulf Strike Board Game

Overview

Long before Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi army brought the horrors of war to the kingdom of Kuwait, there was a company called Victory Games and a designer named Mark Herman who postulated that it would likely be Iran who would incite a major war in the Persian Gulf region. Work was begun on a simulation that culminated in Gulf Strike, a board game that addressed a series of potential conflict scenarios in the Persian Gulf, from an Iranian invasion of the Gulf States (US siding with the Gulf States) to a Soviet invasion of Iran (US assisting the Iranian defense).
Continue reading “The Trouble with Kuwait: Gulf Strike (Strategy)”

NATO: The Next War in Europe – Air Point Variability (Variant)

Air Point Variability – Variant for NATO: The Next War in Europe

By James Elkins

NATO: The Next War in Europe Board Game

Overview

A common criticism of NATO: The Next War in Europe (VG) is the need for more color or variation in its undeniably bland simulation of the air war in WW3 Europe. If there’s a way to fix this without overly complicating a game whose greatest strength is simplicity, it eludes me. However, until someone finds a real solution to the problem, here’s a variant that spices up the air war a little without slowing down the game…too much, I hope. The idea comes from the air system used in Mark Herman’s FLASHPOINT: GOLAN (VG).
Continue reading “NATO: The Next War in Europe – Air Point Variability (Variant)”