Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Fighting Blind

Wow. Where did THOSE last few weeks go? I'm liking my new job, but I'll tell you, it's really eating into my blogging. Nothing quite like a large writing project right out of the gate to suck the time away.

So, by now you've likely read Mike's account of our Espana 1936 game. Good. True to tradition around these parts, I haven't yet.

Espana 1936 was a game I'd been eying for a while. Seemed to be a good implementation of a “waro” or those Euro/Wargame hybrids that have been popping out all over lately, and the buzz had been generally good. So, it was on my “watch for a deal” list. Sure enough, a copy went for sale for a pretty good price in the Marketplace folder on ConsimWorld, and I jumped on it. Looks like the previous owner had printed out a copy of the rules and that was it – cards were still in shrink, counters unpunched. Score. It was just a matter of time before it hit the table.

For the record, Espana 1936 is a light wargame, bordering on Eurogame, covering the Spanish Civil War. It was originally produced in Spain, along with a naval expansion. When it was translated, the Naval expansion was included in the box as “advanced rules.” The game is “card-assisted” in that you get either 3 or 6 cards in a turn, but they only augment the game, not drive it as in a CDG.

I took this period of transition post WBC-W to get the game on the table. As tends to be our habit when pulling a new game out, Mike had researched the buzz and the strategies a bit, while I pretty much went in cold. I knew what the rules were saying, but wanted to figure it out for myself. Mike had hinted that the Republicans were harder to play than the Nationalists, so since I sprung the game on him I took the Republicans.

There's a good image of the map here . The Republican power base is in the eastern half of the peninsula, while the Nationalists pretty much own the west.

The game is played over 10 turns. Each turn represents something on the order of five months. (Each set of five turns covers 2 years.) You'll see on that map many yellow city spaces. Those are VP spots, and there are 12 of them. First to solely possess 8 of them during the VP check phase (which is not at the end of turn, interestingly) wins. Alternatively, you can win by reducing your opponent to not having a set of contiguously occupied cities greater than 7. (This simulates effectively fragmenting their power base enough to eliminate their ability to continue.) There are a couple other victory states, but I think those two are going to be the big ones.

There are units with strength points from 1 to 5 which you can effectively think of as steps. A 5 flips to a 3, the 3 is removed and replaced by a 2 which flips to a 1 which is then removed. Each side has a number of different factions on their side that sometimes behave differently, so you need to take note of who's fighting for you. This isn't so easy to do as a new player, something I'll get to later.

Each side has a number of leaders and aircraft. These are removed from the map each turn and placed in areas of combat focus the following turn. Leaders allow you to initiate combat, while aircraft provide bonus dice (providing they survive an air combat if your opponent also places air in that space.) There's also tanks that augment combats but can't act on their own. (We are talking about pre-WWII here, so no surprise.)

Cards can be used to augment combats, either as a bonus for your troop, or a penalty for your opponent. Also, you can use up to three of them in a turn as events. These events bring in reinforcements, remove opponents leaders from the map, etc. It is useful to know which of your units and/or leaders might be removed from the game, so it does help a bit to know the deck.

A turn is split into many phases, and in pretty much every phase, the Nationalists go first with most phases then alternating actions. Early on, we thought this would prove a disadvantage to the Nationalists, but the way movement works, it actually allows them significant initiative.

Here's what I mean – a unit can move as far as it wants as long as does not enter an enemy-controlled space. It must stop at that point. (“Control” means solely occupied by one side, or if unoccupied, it's controlled by the side to last occupy the space.) The exception to this is if you are leaving a contested space – one occupied by both sides. In that situation, you can only move one space and only into a friendly or contested space. Oh, and you can't remove your last unit in a contested space. It must stay. The combination of these three rules allows the Nationalists to restrict Republican movement a fair amount as they can frequently move a small unit into a space occupied by a large Republican unit and if it's alone, it must either halt, or you have to move another unit in there to allow it to move the single space it's allowed.

It's harder for the Republicans to return the favor because there's combat after that so putting a small unit in against a large one is more akin to providing cannon fodder than a screening force. Yes, the small Nationalist unit is likely to die in its combat, but it's done the job by either slowing down or stopping the large unit's movement, or dictating where the mismatched combat takes place.

Combat is relatively simple – units fight in sequence and roll a number of dice equal to the strength of the fighting unit (possibly augmented by supporting leaders/aircraft/tanks/cards) and a 5 or better scores a hit. Some units are better/worse and have a +1/-1 DRM. One interesting rule tweak here – a unit can defend multiple times in a combat, but the attacker can only use each unit once. So, if you have one big 5 unit attacking my two 1s, you'll only be able to remove one of them in a turn. This rewards quantity as well as quality.

There's supply rules, but unless you're completely surrounded, you'll be in supply. Hard to do.

The Upkeep phase comes right after combat, and it's here that victory is checked. If the game continues, then you play events, and acquire replacements.

Mike won our game around turn 7 when he reduced me to a contiguous area of 7 spaces. I had been focusing on the VP space count (where he was a 7 IIRC) and hadn't been thinking about that mode of victory, but in the post-mortem we decided that had I moved to block that particular attack, he had a strong one to take an 8th VP space instead. So I likely would have lost either way.

So, where are my thoughts after one play?

I want to tackle human factors first. The counter design, while attractive, hinders play. With one exception, all the differing factions can only be told apart by the illustration, and these are very similar when looking at a counter across the map. They are usually only differentiated by their headgear. Hard to pick out when you're getting used to the game. It would have been nice if they were thicker, too. They actually reminded me of the coins from the first printing of Cave Troll. Not a problem here, just surprised me a bit.

The map is serviceable. I don't recall any issues (good or bad) involving the map. Same with the cards.

There seems to have been a fair amount of criticism regarding the rulebook, but I didn't find it particularly bad. There were a couple obvious omissions that were handled by the FAQ (such has the sequence for playing cards in the Event Phase) but I don't recall any issues that came up where we didn't have an answer.

That said, we didn't play with the naval rules, nor did I read them. There may be dragons there for all I know.

The game play is simple, but there are nuances that hint at deep play. Given the fixed setup, I could certainly see standard opening sequences or approaches developing over time. The theme seemed sort of thin. Not quite pasted on, but I didn't gain any real understanding of the Spanish Civil War from playing it. And I knew next to nothing about it going in, so it wouldn't have taken much to teach me anything.

The game does seem to be slanted towards the Nationalists early in the experience curve. One big issue is that the Republicans are rather severely outnumbered in the Generals department. This limits combat flexibility. The game starts with four Nationalist generals to three Republican – Mike drew events that added a general to his side while I lost one. My reinforcement general was a card I never saw. (There are five cards in the first deck you won't see in any particular game.) So, I was down on generals five to two for a good chunk of the game. I haven't analyzed the deck to see what the odds are of this evening out, but I'm betting they're not good.

Also, the ability of the Nationalists to more effectively pin the Republicans makes mobility a more subtle skill on the Republican side. My thoughts (and they've apparently been backed up by others experiences) is that inexperienced players are going to see this game tilted in a fashion much like Twilight Struggle – one side (in TS' case, the US) is much more difficult to play until you know the game better. Then the balance evens out though things could still go wonky in one sides favor early on.

As a ballpark, I'd give this a 3 out of 5. If you're looking for a 2.5-3 hour “waro” that might take some time to balance out I'd give it a look. It has some interesting challenges, and the movement rules do make you look at point-to-point maps in a different light. I could see my rating increase slightly with more play, but it might just as well decrease if the perceived balance issue doesn't resolve itself.

I'm also curious about those naval rules....


Mike said...

I was wondering if we should rename the blog One Side to the Coin.... :>

Eric said...

I have a feeling the 2nd side will come out with the next set, though...

Iain Cheyne said...

I thought it was a bit better than that. It gets bonus points for covering a rare topic.

Eric said...

Looking back on it I'm thinking I'd give it a 3.5 instead of a 3. There are some good ideas in here that need further play to unveil their subtleties. I've been so focused on big, meaty games lately that it suffered in comparison.

But, that does fall into Mike's comment that it probably won't get that play because there are so many other options available that scratch the same itch.

But I still have no idea if the game actually taught me anything about the Spanish Civil War or not.

Jackson said...

Way too harsh!
I mean you learned about their headgear right!!?
And that Franco was an Average general, and that the Italians were a force to be reckoned with, uh, sort of ....

I did find his use of Tanks and Planes to be inspired. And as you pointed out, the ability of 2 1rated units to stop a 5 rated unit was interesting and creative.

Good game imho
thanks for the review