Monday, August 10, 2009

Stalled on the Road to Madrid

After Mike and I completed Sicily, we were looking for something smaller before our next big venture. Mike had a few ideas, and we eventually settled on Guadalajara, the recent SCS game from MMP/Gamers that covers one of the major battles of the Spanish Civil War.

As Mike and I both mentioned a few weeks ago, neither of us know very much about this conflict, and after playing Espana 1936, I'm still not convinced I know anything. So, it was time to take the scale down a notch and play a specific battle.

This battle involves a combined Italian/Nationalist army attempting to break through the area around Brihuega on the road to Madrid.

This battle is one of those situations where the attacking side needs to make progress before the defenders are able to reinforce and effectively fight back. I took the Italian/Nationalist Side and off we went.

The actual session report here is going to be shockingly brief. It took us two nights to play, probably 5.5 or 6 hours total, including setup. The gist of our game was this: I pushed towards the edge of the map, Mike slowed me down, reinforced, then stalled my advance.

One final battle on the last turn put him in the Major Victory category. (It was a Major victory if he won the battle, Minor if he lost.)

The session isn't really where the story is, though. Instead it's in the rules.

First warning: do NOT, under any circumstances, attempt to play this game without a thorough study of the errata and frequently asked questions, both available at The Gamers Archive. In fact, I'd recommend marking up a printout of the electronic rules you'll find at that site with the errata. It's that extensive, and that important.

These are, by far, the worst rules ever published by The Gamers. In my experience, at least. Now, many of you probably know that SCS – at its core – is a VERY simple system. Move, fight, exploit, switch sides, repeat. The Guadalajara rules as written manage to convert this into a convoluted mess. There's loads of exceptions in the first turn, the Truck rules are simply strange (even more so once you incorporate the errata), and you're never sure you've caught everything. It might take three playings to really get the rules down, and this is an SCS game.

If there was EVER a game that exemplifies the argument against separate series and game rules, this is it.

Now, that said, if they can update the electronic rules to incorporate the errata and clarify things to handle the FAQ issues, there's a good little game here. It just takes some work to find it.

There are some interesting tweaks. The biggest is the separation line. The Italians must stay south of the River Badiel (and a line extending it east) while the Nationalists must stay to the north. You can't even fire artillery across the river. (It's unclear if ZOCs extend across the separation line, however.)

Another odd tweak is the restriction on the Italians moving too far west before they take Brihuega. The Italians are forbidden from moving west of the 16.xx column (about four hexes west of Brihuega) before taking the city. The justification for this is that it's a major communication/logistics hub and the Italians were not interested in moving further west before taking the city. This rule has the intended effect, but there's some odd side effects.

The primary Italian goal involves exiting a number of units along the main highway that runs north of Brihuega towards Madrid (point B on the above image). Until Brihuega falls, there may as well be a large gulf across the road – you just can't go any further than the 16.xx column (illustrated on the above image). So, it's possible to see a number of units just sit there on the road waiting for the city to fall. It didn't happen in our game, but it's been talked about in online forums as an odd side effect. This forces the Italians to focus on something other than their victory conditions in order to fulfill their victory conditions. Odd, but I can see what the designer was trying to impart.

The supply rules didn't seem especially onerous, and the Italian Volunteer Morale rules never came close to being in play for us. Probably because, as typical for me, I was insufficiently aggressive as the attacker even with an Attacker-friendly CRT. (at 1:2 odds, a 7 or higher has no negative effect on the attacker.)

There are tank rules reminiscent of the WWI games in the series, which is understandable as tanks didn't really progress until after WWII got into full swing. As in Espana 1936, tanks augment a combat instead of being full-fledged participants, and the tanks fight each other if both sides are represented.

Net result? I heartily do NOT recommend Guadalajara as a first SCS game. However, if you do your homework and make sure you've got the rules down, it seems to be a decent game. It's not in the top five SCS games, but it's notable for covering an under-represented conflict. And, it's in print for an eminently reasonable $32 retail.

I know I'd like to give it another go after some study. It's easy to go into an SCS game thinking “I don't need to learn much to play” and I think that's what Mike and I both did. Do yourself a favor - prepare yourself before playing.

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