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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)”

Vietnam: 1965-1975 – SVN Politics (How-To)

Discussion of South Vietnamese Politics in Victory Games

Vietnam: 1965-1975

Vietnam Board Game Review


Overview

Besides providing a thoroughly engaging operational and grand operational war game experience, Victory Games’ definitive Vietnam War board game, Vietnam: 1965-1975, also exposes a political dimension. In addition to having responsibility for all tactical and operational decisions, the US/ARVN player must make decisions that I believe would be considered above a theater commander’s pay grade.
Continue reading “Vietnam: 1965-1975 – SVN Politics (How-To)”

Cold War: Strategy – Event Card Advantages

Trying to Capitalize on Built-In Event Deck Biases in “Cold War”

Cold War Board Game


Overview

Victory Games’ Cold War board game has a lot of moving parts and allows a considerable amount of latitude in development of strategies. It’s one of those “if it’s not prohibited by the rules, then it’s allowed” kind of games. It provides card play, diplomacy between the players, and rewards for Vegas-type players who have a knack for card-counting. It’s a light game, in the sense that the rules are not complicated and can be learned in about 15 minutes, but it has enough depth to appeal to veteran war gamers. It has everything except dice. And I dont’ miss the dice at all.

This strategy article will focus on the “card-counting” aspect of the game and will demonstrate how knowledge of the Event Cards can give you an edge in this very competitive game.


Statistics

The basis of any successful card tracking system requires some statistics first. You must know what is available in the deck before you can manipulate that knowledge to your advantage. With that in mind, I present the following statistics below and provide some suggestions as to how this knowledge can be best put to use.

Most Event Cards have three sections of information on them:

  • Action Card – This top section tells us who will be able to draw new Action Cards.
  • Instant Income, No Income, Vital Region SP Increase – This middle section will either list Regions that provide “Instant Income” this turn, Regions that provide “No Income” this turn, or a Region that has it’s SP value permanently Increased from 4 to 6.
  • Power Vacuum – This bottom section lists a Region and one or more turn numbers. If the current turn matches any of those turn numbers, then a “Power Vacuum” occurs in the listed Region.

There are a total of 50 Event Cards, and we will be discussing 46 of them in this article (13 “Instant Income”, 13 “No Income” and 20 “Vital Region SP Increase”). The other four Event Cards are the Game Ends Cards, which we will not be discussing in this article.


Action Card

Some Event Cards contain only one Home Country name under “Action Card” and some contain two Home Country names. In total, each Home Country will appear 7 times solo, and 9 times in conjunction with other Home Countries. Each Home Country will be awarded an Action Card draw exactly 16 times.

The only advantages are those you create during the Action Phases when you can expel opposing Diplomats from your Home Country, and assassinate their Agents, thus limiting their ability to draw Action Cards. But there are no advantages inherent in the Event Cards.

Advantaged Player: None


Vital Region SP Increase

Cold War board game

When a Region appears under “Vital Region SP Increase” on one of the Game Turns specified, and currently contains a Vital Region marker, it is upgraded from its “4” side to its “6” side, making it worth 6 SPs to the associated Home Country player each turn. Each Card that contains a “Vital Region SP Increase” will list one Region and two Game Turns. If the current Game Turn matches one of the Turns on the card, the increase will take place. The following table lists every possible Vital Region along with the turns on which it could potentially be increased.

Vital Region Turn Turn
Afghanistan 5 6
Argentina 3 8
Australia 4 6
Congo 4 7
East Africa 3 5
Egypt 2 6
Horn of Africa 2 7
India 1 5
Indonesia 4 9
Israel 3 6
Japan 4 7
Korea 4 6
Scandanavia 7 8
Southeast Asia 2 5
Southwest Asia 4 7
Taiwan 6 7
Turkey 4 5
West Africa 5 6
West Indies 3 6
Yugoslavia 6 8
There is no Region appearing more than once, so there’s no advantage for any player there. On any given turn, no one card is more likely to be chosen than any other card. So, we can’t find an edge there either.

However, this table does tells us that Game Turn 6 is the most likely Turn for a Vital Region SP Increase to occur. And, of the 9 Regions that may experience a Vital Region SP Increase on turn 6, four of them are North American vital regions (two are Chinese, two are Western European, and only one is a Soviet vital region).

So the North American player can possibly gain some advantage by being prepared with properly placed Factories or, better yet, Economic Control markers in his vital regions.

Vital Region SP Increases only occur on Turns 1 through 9, so after turn 9 you no longer need to consider them.

Advantaged Player: North America

Instant Income

Cold War Board Game

Event Cards that show “Instant Income” in the middle section will list two Regions that deliver immediate income exactly as in the Joint Economic Growth Turn. Every Region, except the Middle East appears at least once for Instant Income.

There are two Regions that appear twice: East Africa and Turkey.

East Africa is a potential Vital Region for the Soviet Union and Turkey is a potential Vital Region for Western Europe, so acquiring Economic Control in these Regions can be quite lucrative for those players, if they happen to be selected as Vital Regions (and even more so if selected for Vital Region SP Increase).

If neither Turkey nor East Africa are selected as Vital Regions, then the double Instant Income advantage passes to whichever player has a Factory or Economic Control there, although they will not benefit nearly as much as if it was a Vital Region.

Advantaged Player(s): Soviet Union, Western Europe


No Income

Cold War Board Game

Event Cards that show “No Income” in the middle section will list two Regions that have income suspended for the current Game Turn. Every Region, except the Middle East, East Africa and Turkey appears at least once for No Income.

When looked at in conjunction with the “Instant Income” analysis, above, East Africa and Turkey become very interesting Regions indeed!

As stated above, East Africa and Turkey are potential Vital Regions for the Soviet Union and Western Europe, respectively. Should they be selected as Vital Regions, the Soviet or European players must insure that Economic Control is established as quickly as possible in those Regions. They have double the chance of producing “Instant Income” and no chance at all of suffering “No Income”!

Looked at from the other players’ point of view, a legitimate strategy for them would be to make sure that East Africa and Turkey are NOT selected as Vital Regions (recall that, at the start of the game, each of the players get to select the other players’ Vital Regions).

Advantaged Player(s): Soviet Union, Western Europe

Power Vacuum

Cold War Board Game

Depending on circumstances in the affected Region, the Power Vacuum can be a cost effective means of assuming Political Control of the Region. Every Event Card draw (with the exception of the four Game Turn Ends cards) brings with it the possibility of a Power Vacuum occurring. Power Vacuums can occur throughout the game, from Game Turns 2 to 12 so it’s an “all game long” concern. The table below lists every Region along with the number of Event Cards which show a Power Vacuum for that Region, and the range of Game Turns for which the Power Vacuum could be in effect.

For example, an Afghanistan Power Vacuum appears on 2 of the 46 Event Cards, and covers Turns 2 – 4 and 7 – 12 (i.e. in this case, one card shows “Turn 2, 3, 4” and the other card shows “Turn 7 or later”)

Region # of Cards Effective Turns
Middle East 6 2 – 12
Korea 4 2, 4 – 12
Afghanistan 2 2 – 4, 7 – 12
East Africa 2 2, 4, 6, 7 – 12
India 2 2, 4, 7 – 12
Taiwan 2 3 – 5, 8 – 12
West Indies 2 4, 5, 7 – 12
Brazil 2 3, 5, 8 – 12
Israel 2 4, 7, 8 – 12
Central America 2 4, 7, 9 – 12
Congo 2 5, 6, 9 – 12
Scandanavia 2 4, 5, 9 – 12
South Africa 2 3, 4, 7, 8
Yugoslavia 2 3 – 5, 7
Southeast Asia 1 6 – 12
Turkey 1 6 – 12
Andean Nations 1 2, 4, 6
Argentina 1 4 – 6
Australia 1 3, 5, 7
Egypt 1 3 – 5
Horn of Africa 1 3, 5, 8
Indonesia 1 5 – 7
Japan 1 2, 5, 8
Southwest Asia 1 3, 6, 8
West Africa 1 4 – 6
Philippines 1 5, 6
Venezuela 0

I don’t think anyone will be surprised to find that Cold War considers the Middle East Region most susceptible to Power Vacuums…by a wide margin.

But it is surprising to find that Venezuela is so stable, there’s no opportunity for Power Vacuums! I’m guessing that this was a production oversight. I mean, even Japan is susceptible to Power Vacuums on turns 3, 5 and 8. But it’s not on the Event Cards so we play as if Venezuela is Power Vacuum-Proof.

The next most likely Region for Power Vacuums is Korea, which could potentially be designated as a Vital Region for the North American players. Knowing that it is so susceptible to Power Vacuums, the other players can insure that Korea is designated a “Vital Region” at the start of the game, and then keep Korea packed with as many of their control markers as possible in anticipation of the likely Power Vacuum.

After Korea, the next three most likely Regions for Power Vacuums (Afghanistan, East Africa, and India), are all potential Vital Regions for the Soviet Union. Sounds like a disadvantage for the Soviet Union.

China’s first concern for a likely Power Vacuum in one of it’s possible Vital Regions is Taiwan, which appears 6th on the list, and Western Europe does not have to worry until Scandanavia, which is 12th on the list.

I would have to say that the Soviet Union is the most DIS-advantaged player for Power Vacuums, but Western Europe is probably the most advantaged.

Advantaged Player(s): Western Europe, China


Summary

Being aware of all the statistics presented in this article, and keeping track (to the best of your ability) of Event Cards which have already been played or, more importantly, have not yet been played, can give a Cold War board game player a real advantage. Based on the (very loose) analysis of the “Advantaged Players” listed in each category above, I will go on the record to predicting that the Western European player has a slim advantage overall. Although if the North American player can capitalize fully on the “Vital Region SP Increase” advantage, or the Soviet can score big with the “Instant Income/No Income” combo advantage, the game could drift in their favor. All things considered, I see the China player as having the roughest time. These are my predictions and I’m sticking to them until such time as someone’s else’s statistics prove me wrong.

Oh, I forgot to mention that the Event Card Deck may be subject to reshuffling at various points throughout the game… which kind of makes the card-counting a bit more difficult, but not impossible :-). On the other hand, the reshuffling can actually amplify some of the advantages (imagine “Instant Income” for East Africa appearing four times instead of only two?)

Card-counting and nebulous player advantages aside, Cold War is a really fun game to play, and most gamers that I’ve played it with have enjoyed it as well. It’s definitely worth a trip to eBay to find a copy for yourself.

Cold War: Errata

Unofficial Errata for “Cold War” by Victory Games


Rules Booklet

Vital Region SP Increase
Correction: Page 3 – Right-hand column – “(page 6, Joint Economic Growth Turn)” should read “(page 5, Joint Economic Growth Turn)”.


Summary Sheet

Destabilization – “Number in Deck: 4” should say “Number in Deck: 6”.

Mole – “Number in Deck: 12 (4 affecting each player)” should say “Number in Deck: 12 (3 affecting each player)”.

Master Spy – “Opposed By: Mole” should say “Opposed By: N/A (Cannot be opposed)“.
Note: There’s an errata list on Grognard.com that says it’s from the “Victory Insider” and claims that a Mole Card should be able to defeat a Master Spy, refuting the last paragraph at the bottom of page 1 of the Summary Sheet. I don’t think that’s correct. The Master Spy costs 10 SP to play, thus making it the single most expensive item in the entire game (“a superlative intelligence effort”). There’s no way that should be made null and void by a measly “Mole”.


Event Cards

Vital Region SP Increases – The cards specifying Vital Region SP Increase for Venezuela and Central America should be changed to Korea and West Africa, respectively. (Venezuela and Central are not on the list of potential Vital Regions)


Other

Q: Can you establish Alliance, gain Economic Control, then degrade the Alliance and still retain Economic Control?

A: Yes. An Alliance is a prerequisite for establishing Economic Control, but there is no requirement that you must maintain the Alliance. Note that the same applies to Military Presence units except that if there is no “supporting” marker (Faction, Alliance, Political Control, or Military Control) in the Region, you must pay a maintenance cost of 5 SP each turn it is “unsupported”.

Cold War: House Rules

House Rules for Victory Games Cold War

  • Degrading Political Alliance – The rules are unclear about this, so the question arose as to whether or not you may, after establishing an Alliance and gaining Economic Control, then degrade the Alliance and still retain Economic Control. This is an important issue since the number of political markers (Faction, Alliance and Political Control) are limited by design. Using this technique would free up an Alliance marker for use elsewhere while still maintaining Economic Control. Our house rule allows this, because the game rules state that you must have an Alliance (or better) to establish Economic Control, but it does not say anywhere that you must maintain that Alliance in order to keep the Economic Control intact.
  • Continue reading “Cold War: House Rules”

Vietnam: 1965-1975 Record Sheets (Player Aids)

Player Aids for Victory Games “Vietnam: 1965-1975” Board Game


NLF, US and ARVN Record Sheets

These record sheets provide a more organized bookkeeping space than the one that originally shipped with the game. They’re not perfect, but they are considerably better at helping you track the sometimes complex bookkeeping tasks. These sheets do not hold as much information as the old sheets (the old sheets can hold 3 years worth of U.S. and ARVN records, whereas the new sheets can only fit a single year’s data, and have separate sheets for U.S. and ARVN), but they are much better organized and will save a lot of time and aggravation.


U.S. Record Sheet

Get the U.S. Record Sheet in PDF format.

  • More Detail – Has a place for everything and everything in its place. Has detailed slots for tracking modifications during the Politics Phase (i.e. Coups, Inherent Airmobile Losses, Every 3rd Capital Captured, etc.) rather than just a single slot for “Politics Phase” modifications.
  • Item Costs – The U.S. Commitment point cost for all items is built right into the chart, so no more going back and forth between the Unit Cost Chart and the Record Sheet.

SVN (ARVN) Record Sheet

Get the SVN Record Sheet in PDF format.

  • Detailed Morale Adjustment Modifiers – Itemizes morale adjustments, such as “Bombing of the North” and “Current Population Controlled” rather than just a single slot for “Politics Phase” modifications.
  • Draft Level and Supply Pool Tracking – Much better tracking of the Draft Level and Supply Pool, allowing you to more easily see when your Draft Level is approaching the “Controlled Population” level.
  • Supply/Personnel Costs – Provides slots for both Supply and Personnel costs for new ARVN unit purchases. The old sheet simply had a single slot for “Supply Used” and a separate slot for “SVN Population Used”, which made it very difficult to validate the two totals. The new layout provides a much better audit trail for validation purposes.

NLF Record Sheet

Get the NLF Record Sheet in PDF format.

  • Detailed Trail Supply/Sea Supply Tracking – Totally itemizes the commitment, loss, allocation and expenditure of both Trail and Sea Supply.
  • Viet Cong Recruitment Management – Probably the biggest benefit of any of the new Record sheets, is the ability to itemize the Supply and Personnel recruitment expenditures in an organized fashion. The VC Recruitment process is probably the most complicated bookkeeping task in the game and this new sheet helps streamline the process.
  • Supply/Personnel Costs – Provides slots for both Supply and Personnel costs for new ARVN unit purchases. The old sheet simply had a single slot for “Supply Used” and a separate slot for “SVN Population Used”, which made it very difficult to validate the two totals. The new layout provides a much better audit trail for validation purposes.

Aegean Strike: Player Aid

Player Aid for Victory Games Aegean Strike

Player Aid – Game Info Tracking Sheets

By Mark D.

The Aegean Strike Player Aid sheets provide a convenient location for tracking of the following important Aegean Strike information:

  • Special Forces – Warsaw Pact – There are 30 Spetsnaz detachments to keep track of (for 30 full game turns), which is a considerable part of the force management the Soviet Player must perform. There are two sheets used to manage these detachments. Both are identical except that the first sheet tracks game turns 1 through 15 and the second sheet tracks turns 16 through 30. Space is provide to record the mission and, if required, the location of each detachment for each turn. For example, to indicate that 3 detachments are on a “Raid” mission in hex 1316, starting with turn 6, simply enter “A-1316” in the boxes next to the “1”, “2”, and “3” rows under the “GT6” column.
  • Special Forces – NATO – Space is provided for up to 30 Game Turns of missions for all 9 Detachments of the U.S. 2/75 Special Forces Group unit. The coding is the same as for the Soviet Spetsnaz detachments.
  • Missile Depletion and Replenishment – For the U.S. CV-69 Carrier and Battleship, this sheet allows you to “X” off ASM fires as they are used. Same for the Soviet CGH and CVH units. Boxes are also provided for tracking the maximum ASM missile replenishments allowed to Naples for the U.S., and Odessa, Sevastopol, and Fedosiya for the USSR.
  • Naval Movement Determination – Each Action Stage (i.e. 3 times per Game Turn) the U.S. and Soviet players must roll dice to determine how many naval units may be activated that Action Stage. This section allows users to record the number of allowable moves each Turn/Action Stage.

Click here to download the Player Aid sheet in PDF format.

Vietnam: 1965-1975 – Anatomy of a Search & Destroy Operation (How To)

Vietnam: 1965-1975 Search & Destroy

Search & Destroy Operations in Vietnam: 1965-1975

Based on conversations with fellow gamers, I think that Victory Games 1980s title Vietnam: 1965-1975 has gotten miscategorized as an ultra-complex war game. Whenever I would suggest it to the group, I’d get the same eye-rolling reaction, “Uhhhhhhh-ohhhhhhhh…. not that game.”. While it’s true that the game has many, many moving parts, the heart and soul of the operational component, the Search & Destroy operation, is not terribly complex.

This “How-To” article will take you on a guided tour of a typical American Search & Destroy operation.
Continue reading “Vietnam: 1965-1975 – Anatomy of a Search & Destroy Operation (How To)”

Vietnam: 1965-1975 (Review)

Vietnam: 1965-1975 Review

A Long Overdue Review

Vietnam: 1965-1975 is a board game based simulation of the entire American conventional military intervention in Vietnam from 1965, when the first regular ground formations were committed, to the ultimate victory of the North Vietnamese Army at the fall of South Vietnamese capital city of Saigon in 1975.
Continue reading “Vietnam: 1965-1975 (Review)”