Sunday, June 7, 2009

Some Spanish game

With the exception of Guadalajara (the SCS title, and that's the only reason I own it), I own no games on the Spanish Civil War, and there's a reason for that: I have exactly zero interest in that period. I know some of the vague history of it, but, to paraphrase, quite frankly, I don't give a damn. So, when Eric wanted to try EspaƱa 1936, a game on the Spanish Civil War, as an interlude between TME and completing OCS Sicily, I wasn't enthused but was willing to give it a go. I could have put out a veto, but I could tell he was quite keen to try it.

A point-to-point, card assisted, Euro-style wargame, it looked fairly simple from a brief reading of the rules. There is also an advanced naval expansion, but we were going to play the base game. I was, however, somewhat concerned to find that of the 11 pages of forum threads on BGG, 6 were related to rules questions, and the FAQ appeared to be longer than the original rules. Turns out that most of this is due to the naval rules, which have enough holes to sink a battleship. (Ha ha, geddit? Naval, holes, battleship? Oh, never mind.)

The structure is pretty simple. The Nationalist player moves ground units and allocates air units to areas, then the Republican player does the same. This sequence is important, because units in a contested area can only move to an adjacent area, and that area has to be friendly controlled, so the Nationalist player can force the action somewhat. After that both players allocate leader units to areas, alternating placements, with the Nationalist player going first. Now combat is fought, area by area, again alternating with the Nationalist player choosing the first area. (I don't think this is a big deal, as areas don't impact other areas. There could be some supply impact, but as you can trace through a contested area even that's not a big deal.) After that comes the events phase where the players alternate playing cards for events, and finally area control is determined, and, on alternate turns, replacements are added to the map.

The cards are used in two ways. First, is for events, which are mostly for adding more ground, support, or air units to your army. A couple of cards for each player add a leader or remove an opposing leader, or add extra replacements.

The second way they can be used in the combat phase. Here they can be used as a bonus for yourself, or as a penalty for your opponent, either by adding/subtracting dice or applying positive/negative modifiers. Of course, the best event cards have the best combat modifiers, just to make the decisions that more

Talking of combat, it's pretty simple. The active player selects one of his generals to activate. This general can either go inactive, or start a combat, in which case the units in the area are moved to the battle display. Each combat round the attacking player selects one attacking and one defending ground unit, and then players may assign support units, attacking player selecting first, and the activated general has to be declared as a support unit in the first round of combat.

Each ground unit allows you to roll a number of dice in a combat round depending on its step strength (1, 2, 3 or 5), air units adding more dice, and armor and leader units (support units) also add die modifiers. Some ground units have modifiers built in (militia have a -1 and elite units +1). Combat is simultaneous, hits are scored on a 5 or 6, only affect the ground units committed to that round of combat, and each hit is a step loss. If the there are multiple ground units defending, then multiple rounds of combat will be required to clear the area.

Units (either ground or support) may only be used once, so you must have multiple ground units in an area to have multiple rounds of combat in an area. There is some cat and mouse on when to apply support units where there could be multiple rounds of combat.

All fairly simple, but with a fair amount of flexibility. For some reason it took me a while to get my head around that you could have multiple combat rounds without a leader for each round. (In fact you may only assign one leader per area.)

Winning the game is done in one of 3 ways. A sudden death win ends the game, either by one side controlling more than 7 Objective Cities (the ones with a yellow background) or by forcing the other side down to an area of fewer than 8 contiguous controlled or contest areas. If none of this has happened by the end of the 10th turn, then the Republican player wins if he has 3 or more Objective Cities. (Or is that 4? Whatever, you get the point.)

Enough on the mechanisms, how did our game pan out? Eric took the Republicans, and I opened by contesting Oviedo and Bilbao, and moving around the southern coast, aiming to get to Murcia. The former didn't go too well, but the latter succeeded. Eric pushed at Toledo, and managed to get a result. However, in the event card phase I removed one of his leaders, being fortunate to draw that in the first deal. This would leaver Eric with only two leaders to my five for most of the game, as I transferred two leaders from Africa, and played a card in turn 2 to add a leader to my pool. Here's the situation at the end of turn 1 (except that we missed the movement from Africa until after the pic was taken):

Turn 2 saw me sweep around the coast, contesting Murcia, as planned, and continuing to press Oviedo. My attack at Murcia didn't go too well, but Eric managed to grab Bilbao, so swapping cities for the same result in cities controlled/contested. End of turn 2:

Turn 3 saw my recently arrived Italians sweep up to Toledo, but despite lots of dice and modifiers I was unable to take the city. However, I was able to clear Murcia and Salamanca for a swing of 2 cities in my favor, although I did lose Zaragoza. This also allowed me to use 5 replacement points, adding several new units. I was starting to see my plan forming. End of turn 3:

Turn 4 saw Eric come storming back to Murcia, driving me out in one turn, while I switched focus to the north coast, finally clearing Oviedo, and capturing Bilbao. End of turn 4:

Turn 5, and I continued my push along the north coast, contesting Zaragoza, as well as diving back in Murcia. I managed to win back Toledo to give me 7 cities, and by playing an event card for replacements, I added 10 steps to my forces.

Turn 6, and I completed my plan, capturing Huerca and Guadalajara. This divided him into two distinct groups of areas, and with neither being greater than 7 contiguous areas I'd achieved the win. It came down to almost the final roll in Huerca, but if I didn't get it in turn 6, I was sure to do so in turn 7, as I had cards that gave me extra armies, and with the first move I would have been able to grab control on the extra areas required and pin him down so he couldn't take them back. We didn't bother doing the final few combats, as they were moot at that point.

From the first few turns played I realized that it was quite hard to capture 8 cities, as the other player just needs to get a unit in there to contest it. So I was planning on splitting his areas down the middle, whilst still contesting cities and appearing to be attempting to control them. In the end, his attempts to capture back Murcia was just what I wanted to see, as it really was unimportant, occupying the majority of his forces and generals. In the end game I sacrificed a couple of units just to make his areas contested, so he couldn't move out, so ensuring that I would retain control of the vital areas, especially Albacete which I see as a very critical area.

I had been browsing the BGG entry before Eric arrived, and there was a fair bit of discussion there about how hard it was to play the Republicans, with several players indicating Nationalist winds around turn 5/6. And so it was in our game. It looks like the Republicans are really up against it. Even the designer was saying that the Republican player has to play well, and it will take several games to learn how to do it best. The problem is a familiar one (and is similar to Twilight Struggle) - will the game get enough outings to allow for that experience? Ultimately, my answer has to be 'No'.

Whilst it's not a bad game, it suffers from being at too high a level. Almost everything is abstracted out, and, in the end, it felt almost like a pasted on theme of a typical Euro, and didn't feel especially like Spain in 1936. Change some of the icons and it could have been War of the Ring. This is a common issue with Euro-style games. (However, I suppose you could say that of a lot of games.) Sure, there was some challenge in the initial few turns, trying to figure it out, but after about turn 2-3 I felt I was getting further and further ahead, and Eric was in a downward spiral. I think the initial card deal was strongly in my favor, and with 5 leaders to 2 I was always able to force the action where I wanted. (Perhaps it's unfair to judge the game on our skewed experience.)

That said, those first few turns were pretty entertaining, although with the luck of the dice and the draw of the cards, I'm not entirely sure that what the player does has a huge bearing on the game. Contesting areas is pretty easy, so getting 8 Objective Cities is a challenge. Being able to plan where to attack, knowing the cards/events in hand you can do a certain amount of planning.

Overall, not one I'll be adding to my game shelf, and I'm not sure it will even see more play. Yes, it's a decent length for an evening game (we finished in 3 hours, easy), but unless you're playing regularly and figure out how to play the Republicans, you know you're in for a tick in the 'L' column. I think it needs some sort of bidding mechanism to balance it out, or playing two games back to back, to make it worthwhile. If Eric were to propose this again in 6 months time, I'd probably ask for something else (Storm Over Stalingrad and Iwo Jima: Rage Against the Marines are likely candidates), unless we had the time to play two games, in which case we'd probably be playing something else in the first place.

Talk about damning with faint praise.


Jackson said...

Too bad you didn't enjoy the game. We played this game and I thought it had a lot of Spanish Civil War flavor.
I thought the combat system was a brilliant blend of design for effect and simplicity. I love the way the tanks and planes get worked in.

Oh well.
I do agree that the Nationals are VERY much favored, maybe the VCs need to be adjusted.

Anyway, I still love the Blog, keep up the great work.

Mike said...

It wasn't that I didn't enjoy it, I did, at least for the first couple of turns. From that point on it seemed like the spiral had started for Eric, and he was going down. However, it felt a little like puzzle, in that it was there to be solved rather than played, and once solved, it lost interest.

However, it suffers from the common new game problem - it pretty much needs to be _great_ to fight its way to the table again, against all the existing great games, and all the new games coming out. E1936 isn't a bad game. But at this time, that isn't good enough.