Saturday, July 16, 2011

My first (and last?) game of España 1936

A long time coming
Regular readers will be well aware that I'm not a negative reviewer as a rule. It's too easy to find negativity on the web, and the first editorial decision I made way back in 2005 was that I wasn't going to contribute to it here at RD/KA!. Also, when I review anything, I've paid for it and therefore have a good reason to want to like it. Every so often though, something comes along which disappoints me sufficiently to prompt a distinct lack of enthusiasm to which I cannot but give vent. Antonio Catalán's game of the Spanish Civil War- España 1936, is a case in point. 

Dust off and dust-up

Waiting in the wings
España 1936 is a game I bought on sight when I saw it in Static Games, an FLGS: the subject of the Spanish Civil War interested me and the box ad-copy showed nice-looking components. It then joined my collection of dust-gatherers, where it stayed for a good three years. Only recently, with Liam's newfound enthusiasm for strategic boardgames, did I begin to think that I might finally get a chance to bring España 1936 to the table. My thinking was this game would serve as a useful bridge between Labyrinth and Twilight Struggle on the one hand, and games like Unhappy King Charles! on the other.

And so, on Wednesday night Liam and I sat down to have a go. Five hours later, I'd won the game, but España 1936 had lost the vote of confidence.

Components: a source of satisfaction
The mapboard
Colourful & functional,
but hardly inspired
Let me be clear right from the start: España 1936 isn't a broken game, nor even a particularly bad game, it's just a disappointing game. None of this disappointment came from the components as such, which lived up to expectations. The mapboard is nice. Sure, comparing España 1936's board to those from Labyrinth and Twilight Struggle doesn't flatter the former, but it's still an example of clean and functional graphic design offering nothing to complain about, visually at least. It's also fully mounted, which is always appreciated.

The cards
History, events &
combat modifiers
The four decks of cards: two each for the Republicans and the Nationalists- 1936-37 and 1938-39, are very nice too. The artwork is slightly cartoony in style, but this is a consistent design aesthetic throughout España 1936 and it contributes to the game's strong visual appeal, which is better than average compared to your typical wargame. Each card has three elements- the historical background, the event, and the combat modifiers; and these are all clearly depicted. The graphics for the combat modifiers are particularly good because they distinguish neatly between the two kinds of modifier: bonus/penalty dice; and bonus/penalty DRMs.

The counters
Well laid out with
some neat touches
The counters too are nice. They're one of the game's best features in fact. Their vivid colours and images are more than just attractive, they're also useful in play, making it easy to recognise each side, and each side's different units. And there is quite a variety of troop units on each side. The Republicans have the Regular and Basque armies, the Anarchist and Communist militias, and the famous International Brigades; the Nationalists, their own Regulars, Carlist and Falangist Militias, Legionnaires, the Army of Africa and Italian troops. Each side also has its generals, tanks, aircraft and ships (for the optional naval game, which Liam and I didn't play, so there will be no comments on it here).

Sizes & shapes: smart
graphic design makes
checking stacks easier
What I like most though is the use of different sizes and shapes for different units. There are three shapes: hexagonal- the generals; square- ships; and round- troops, tanks and aircraft, which come in three sizes:
  • The smallest are the strength 1 and 2 troops.
  • In the middle are the strength 3 and 5 troops.
  • The largest are the tanks and aircraft.
This isn't the first time I've seen this: my original Gibsons Games edition of History of the World does something similar, but it's a definite plus for España 1936 that it uses the same approach, whose effect is to make it easy to scan the board for your opponent's concentrations of strength.

Gameplay: familiar features competently executed
The system in general
A handy player aid
In a mere 8 pages of rules featuring large print and several well-illustrated examples, España 1936 features all the mechanics you'd expect of a point-to-point movement wargame:
FAI (Iberian Anarchist
Federation) poster
  • Controlling/contesting boxes: only one side's troops/both sides' troops in a box. Winning the game is based on controlling objective cities (the yellow boxes): there are several instant victory conditions, the most important of which is probably controlling 7 objective cities. If there is no instant win, the Republican wins if they have combat units in three objective cities at the end of turn 10.
  • Movement, with the limitations imposed by moving into or out of controlled or contested boxes. Only troops and tanks actually move (aircraft and generals are freely placed); movement is essentially unlimited although units must stop moving if they enter/leave an enemy controlled/contested box.
  • Stacking limits: 4 troops units/box (generals, tanks and aircraft don't count towards stacking limits).
  • Supply, with the attendant effects on movement and combat: a box is in supply if there is an adjacent friendly controlled/contested box; troops out of supply can neither move nor attack.
  • Combat, naturally enough.
There is also an events phase, and a replacements phase on every odd-numbered turn. These mechanics are all straightforward and the rules explain their workings clearly enough. The player aids also help players to keep track of the phases each turn: another plus.

Combat in particular
George Orwell in Spain
(the tallest man in shot)
The rules for battles are the longest single section of the rules of España 1936. They use the tactical battleboard approach, in which each individual battle is broken down into one or more rounds. You can only attack if you've got a general with your troops, so you have to plan your battles carefully when it's time to place your generals- which is done after both players' movement is completed. Sometimes you'll want your generals to lead an attack; other times you'll want to commit a good general to help defend a vital objective city. This element of strategic planning meshes nicely with the additional tactical planning to make for battles which can be both interesting and tense.

Setting up a battle

This picture shows how a battle is set up. The attacker must always use their general in the first round; this is optional for the defender. In any event, no unit may attack or support more than once, although the same defending unit may be attacked more than once. Here, the Republican player has decided to throw everything he's got at the Nationalist's weaker unit- the Army of Africa, hoping that 4 dice with three good positive DRMs will be enough to eliminate it in one round- you resolve attacks by rolling 1d6/combat strength, scoring hits on '5's or '6's. The Nationalist decides to use their general and their Me-109, which'll have a good chance of winning a dogfight against the obsolescent B-XIX; the resulting 4d6 with a +1 DRM should ensure that the Republican's International Brigade won't come out of the battle unscathed.

Resolving the first
round of battle
With the Army of Africa unit eliminated and the International Brigade unit reduced to a 1 strength Regular army unit, the Republican player now faces an interesting dilemma: the Legionnaire's +1 combat DRM and the tanks make it a tough target to take on but if it can be eliminated, the Nationalist will also lose his two tank units. In this situation, both players would probably be looking at their cards to see if they had any combat bonuses/penalties which might tilt the balance one way or another.

(NB. There is a small mistake in the above picture: the Me-109 has a combat strength of 2, and would roll 2d6 in the air combat. Ah well.)

FAI/CNT (National
Confederation of
Labour) poster
The battle system has some crucial implications:
  • If you want to win a battle in one round you need both an equal or greater number of units and significantly more combat strength and/or support bonuses.
  • Even then, battles between relatively equal forces- large or small, will commonly end up as indecisive.
This makes sense to me and it means that the combat system, as a whole, is a strong feature of España 1936.

    Caveats: the disappointments
    Minor: the rulebook
    "¡A las Barricadas!"?
    The rulebook for España 1936 is written in the so-called 'conversational style'. As such it suffers from the typical problems of rulebooks of that ilk: illogical organisation, no cross-referencing, and frustrating page-flicking as you search for rules you're sure you've read, somewhere. This last problem is compounded by the lack of either a list of contents or an index. OK, the rulebook is short and the rules are simple, but what is there to lose by making life easier on players? Some examples of poor organisation:
    • The rules for friendly and contested boxes (which are crucial to movement, supply, and winning) appear under 'Components'; ie. before the rules of play as such.
    • The supply rules appear directly under the 'Sequence of Play'; just like the rules for friendly and contested boxes, these would benefit from appearing in a list of definitions of key terms at the top of the rules of play.
    I'll admit that these are minor criticisms, but they highlight the inherent limits of the style of rulebook chosen by Antonio Catalán, a style I simply don't like because problems of this ilk inevitably crop up in my experience.

    Middling: the mapboard and the battles
    Picasso's Guernica
    The mapboard aptly serves its purposes in the game. It's a bit bland though. By this I mean that there is absolutely no terrain differentation at all. It can reasonbly be argued that terrain effects on movement has no place in a game with 4-month turns. But it is hard to deny that Spain itself sort of fades into the background in a game in which ports are the only distinguishing feature of otherwise geographically identical locations.

    And the battles? As interesting as they are, the larger battles can also be relatively time-consuming. It's open to question whether the added fun factor the battles bring can really compensate for the game's other shortcomings.

    Major: the 'meh' factor? It's all in the cards
    Anarchist women soldiers
    The cards in España 1936 do exactly what they're supposed to: deliver reinforcements, generate a few other events, and offer opportunties to manipulate your chances in battles. And that's the problem. The Spanish Civil War was above all a war about the fate of a revolution. That is to say: it was all about politics. Unfortunately politics feature nowhere in the game. Sure, there are events which do more than just bring on new units; some of them even interfere with your opponent's plans. Nonetheless, the function of the cards in España 1936 in no way corresponds to their use in CDGs like Labyrinth or Twilight Struggle. The result is that the events are essentially colourless, and hand management and cardplay generates none of the tension which makes the CDGs so gripping.

    They shall not pass!
    Another issue arising from España 1936's use of the cards is that they're not used to create a quick, alternating-phase turn structure. There are some phases which alternate; eg. placing generals or activating them to attack (or not). The movement phase though is a classic IGO-UGO. This adds a degree of downtime which isn't seen in CDGs. I guess this would decrease with more play experience, but it strikes me as another example of where Catalán's design vision turns round and bites him on the ass.

    Antonio Catalán succeeded in making España 1936 what he wanted it to be: a simple wargame of the Spanish Civil War which isn't shallow, neither in strategy nor tactics. Unfortunately he chose to leave out the politics and so failed to make use of one of the biggest design innovations of the last 20 years, the CDG. The result is a game set in Spain in the years 1936-39 in which Spain, its revolution, and the important international dimensions to the Civil War all feel strangely absent. In short, Catalán kind of missed the boat. As I said above, España 1936 is neither bad nor broken, it's just missing that special something, which it might've enjoyed had it been released ten or twenty years ago. If you're looking for short wargame on the subject, this game could easily fit your bill. If you're looking for a Spanish Civil War CDG, I guess you'll have to wait for Crusade and Revolution: The Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939 to make its way through MMP's preorder system. ;)


    Adelaide Gamer said...

    Interesting review. IgoUgo seems to almost be a negative when used in a game these days, I've noticed. But, no excuse with the way the industry is heading with simple-not-easy mechanics interactions between the players. As you know, I'm interested in the conflict in particular, and think that the game would lose out massively without the politics of it all. Pity that.

    How long did the game take to get through?

    "A bit political on yer ass!" said...

    Two of my favourite games- Up Front and Combat Commander are both Igo-Ugo, so I've nothing against it as such. I think it becomes a problem when players get bored with just sitting around waiting for their turn to do something. And that's not always down to the game in any event.

    I also tend to like more interactive turn-structures in tactical/strategic games because I think they have better simulation value.

    And yes, the lack of any real sense of the politics of the Spanish Civil War must surely be seen as a serious failing in any game on that subject. When I wrote this review I focused more on the contrast between the use of cards in España 1936 and in CDGs, because that was what was important at the table that night. I might've developed the theme of what was lacking as a result if I'd spent more time rewriting the piece; that last section especially, which was the most rushed.

    And the game took 5 hours to play. It was a first go, and Liam was dealing with a lot of new wargame concepts, but it still felt too long for what we were getting. After all, our 5 hour-long first game of Labyrinth just left us both wanting more. ;)

    gnome said...

    Ah, shame for the excellent illustrations then. To be honest, when I was had a look at the post's piccies I was more than excited, but a simple wargame for one of the most important European revolutions? Highly disappointing. Then again, politics are far too complex to successfully integrate in a boardgame.

    Oh, and loved the review.

    "A bit political on yer ass!" said...

    "Then again, politics are far too complex to successfully integrate in a boardgame."

    Not so Gnome, not so. That's the whole reason for my disappointment, and for my references to Card Driven Games (CDGs). These are a kind of game which can bring political and other historical events into boardgames. And if you have a game in which there is a political influence system, the cards can have a direct effect on this.

    This is why I'm so enthused about CDGs. :)

    "A bit political on yer ass!" said...

    I'm pleased to be able to report that this review is going great guns over at BGG. The blogpost is now officially 'hot', with 24 thumbs. I was encouraged to post the article to the España 1936 review forum (where it has received almost as many thumbs). There has been quite a lot of discussion on both threads- including some comments from the designer. This crossposting to BGG is really working out. :-D