Winter Offensive 2018 After Action Report

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After a fortnight of arctic cold along the entire Eastern seaboard of the United States, the sun made a stunning, if temporary, return, punching temperatures up to the sixty degree mark in the middle of January. And what did I, and 149 other dedicated board wargamers do? We huddled inside a large conference room at the Comfort Inn in Bowie, Maryland, for the 2018 edition of Winter Offensive, sheltered away from the brief spell of warmth. Rain and snow and sunny skies will come and go, but a chance to game with friends new and old? That’s worth spurning the sun for a few days.

Winter Offensive 2018

Hosts Multi-Man Publishing put on another well-run show, with their venerable Advanced Squad Leader tournament seeing games of all stripes being played. Attendance of 150 was near the all-time high of 165, spurred no doubt by the release of the long-awaited Korean War module for ASL. The new module adds counters and rules for the North and South Korean armies as well as United Nations and Communist Chinese forces, and copies were flying off the sales table as quickly as, well, as a several pound box could fly.

My first game of the weekend came against Doug Bush, great gaming buddy and designer of Next War: India-Pakistan and the forthcoming Red Storm, both from GMT Games. We sampled a scenario from the recently released Saipan: The Bloody Rock, the first entry in Compass Games’ Company Scale System. This game sits between the tactical and operational (and, indeed, has rules roots from the Grand Tactical Series put out by MMP as well as the earlier Panzer Command), with random chit draws determining which formations are able to act. The key to the game is doing what you can with the chits you get, because they seldom come out of the draw cup in the most efficient order, and you’re not guaranteed to be able to receive every formation’s chit every turn.

Saipan: The Bloody Rock at Winter Offensive 2018

The scenario we played covered the initial US Marine landings on Saipan; Doug had the leathernecks and I took the Japanese forces tasked with keeping the Americans confined to the beaches. The system, through the chit draw mechanic, really tries to simulate the command and control confusion inherent in any military operation. The problem of the omniscient player sitting above the map with perfect knowledge can sometimes be offset by stripping the player of omnipotence, and this game does a nice job of frustrating any plans that the player may have—and that’s before your opponent has a chance to have his or her say.

In the end, my forces were able to inflict sufficient casualties on Doug’s to eke out a very narrow win. Had the Marine landings not been pushed into a confined area due to surf drifts, I think they would have been able to break out of the beachhead much sooner to secure a solid victory. A good match in a very promising system with one of my favorite opponents.

On Saturday, I cracked open the Korean War module for my traditional ASL match against another of my good gaming buddies, Mike Vogt. Always on the lookout for interesting situations with funky, seldom used game pieces, we picked a scenario (215 “Red Devils”) featuring a US Army artillery park, with six self-propelled artillery pieces, being overrun by a swarm of Communist Chinese squads.

215 Red Devils at Winter Offensive 2018

My American Redlegs had only a few squads with which to defend the valuable guns, but they were amply supplied with firepower, and Mike’s Chinese had a lot of open ground to cover. He did his best to balance the scenario’s time limit with the need to keep enough squads in good order to destroy the guns, but between my frighteningly hot dice rolling and all the weapons at my disposal, including a blast from one of the monster guns, he fell just short. Once the Chinese got in close, they couldn’t be stopped, but the getting-there was the problem.

The scenario didn’t offer many interesting tactical puzzles for either of us—I pretty much just fired my weapons and he pretty much just moved to try to cover the space. I think we both would have preferred a more nuanced scenario, with each side having to move and shoot and outthink the other. A fascinating action, and a cool premise, but it didn’t check all the boxes we would have liked. Regardless, I had a blast playing with Mike, as always, and I do appreciate his forbearance over my extra-lucky dice rolling. We’ve got a standing date for another scenario on Saturday next year.

Keen eyes will have noticed that the Communist Chinese (two-tone brown) in the picture have already been counter-corner-rounded. Yes, I did indeed bring an X-Acto knife, self-healing cutting board, and, of course, a handy dandy counter corner rounder with me to Winter Offensive, and I actually wasn’t alone. I probably saw ten of these miracle instruments on tables throughout the course of the weekend. Playing with un-rounded counters strikes me as simply uncivilized…

What the inevitable side gaming lacked in quantity this year, it made up for in quality (not to mention duration). On Friday night, Mike, Doug, long-time buddy John Slotwinski, and I took to the heavens once again in High Frontier, by Sierra Madre Games. Every time this behemoth of a game hits the table (with, yes, a thud), it takes at least an hour of play to get our heads around the rules required to put a functioning spacecraft into orbit around various bodies in the solar system, to say nothing of the requirements to put one on another planet (and possibly even bring it back to Earth). But once it’s all clicking, the satisfaction in actually putting that solar-sail powered exploration probe into Mercury’s magnetosphere (on purpose, that is!) can barely be beat.

Virgin Queen at Winter Offensive 2018

Where, usually, Saturday night features a raucous game of Battlestar Galactica, replete with all the backstabbing and treachery that a group of determined friends can muster, we opted instead for a no-less treacherous game on the politics of the age of religious transformation, Virgin Queen from GMT.

The Final Tally at Winter Offensive 2018A card-driven point-to-point game in the long tradition of We the People, Virgin Queen simulates the struggles surrounding the spread of Protestantism in the era of the game’s titular ruler, Elizabeth I. Joined by Doug’s friend Will, we fought through several years of intrigue that culminated in Spain being at war with the nascent Netherlands, France, and the Ottoman Empire—and doing well at it, too! Mike’s England took advantage of the turmoil and garnered enough points via less militaristic means to take a win when we called the game. It took us a good six hours to get through three turns (with breaks for pizza and such), but given growing familiarity with the rules, we started moving along much more quickly towards the end.

So, though the sun may have shone brightly (and then just as promptly disappeared), I consider myself to have had the better experience indoors over the duration of Winter Offensive 2018. My thanks, as always, to Perry Cocke, Brian Youse, and the rest of the crew at Multi-Man Publishing for yet another wonderful long weekend of gaming, and of course to my good gaming buddies, who, with only the slightest of grumbles, put up with my dice and derring-do every year.

Treacherous Shoals: South China Sea (Compass Games)

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They had me when I saw the counter for the Malaysian frogmen. Add in littoral Chinese combat vessels and Vietnamese Kilo subs and, well, I knew that South China Sea (Compass Games, 2017; designed by John Gorkowski) was a wargame I needed to play.

South China Sea by Compass Games: Mayalsian frogmen

My good gaming buddy Doug Bush acquired a copy, and we recently set it up and took it for a spin. The game posits a near-future conflict focusing on territorial ambitions in the South China Sea, particularly the Spratly Islands, both natural and artificial. China, Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines all have claims there and have forces in the game, with the United States also making its presence felt in several of the game’s six scenarios.

Visually, the team at Compass worked wonders with South China Sea. The large counters shine both aesthetically and functionally, with a wealth of information nicely presented. The map equals the counters in attractiveness, but could stand a bit of differentiation between the rusty red and dull brown hexsides used to denote the disputed islet claims. For a primarily naval game, there’s an awful lot of space devoted to land masses as well, but given that it’s a single map game (well, two partial maps that more-or-less equal a standard wargame map) with large hexes and counters, the space can’t really be seen as wasted.

(As an aside, the counters in the pictures here have been corner-rounded after being punched, as all wargame counters should be; they come square.)

The game supports up to five players, matching the nations with claims and interests in the region; rules exist to play with fewer, and as is typical with wargames, two players will likely be the norm. In practice, though, the smaller nations don’t get to do much when the U.S. and China are both involved, and in our playing, the regional powers found their forces quickly overwhelmed.

A political sub-game starts events, allowing for all factions to get advantages before the shooting starts; indeed, it’s possible for the game to end prior to any military conflict, which is a nice touch for a game that seeks to model the entirety of the military/diplomatic decision space in this volatile region. We didn’t get to do much with this card-driven sub-game, though, as only a single round of political play occurred before a die roll triggered conflict.

In our playing, we found that the underlying military combat sequence worked quite well, forcing difficult decisions on players. Combat is sequential, with each player in turn making one strike. Do you launch that alpha strike against a nearby carrier task force, or do you deal with the submarine that has managed to sneak into your midst? You can’t do both before your opponent gets to act, and careful planning can force him/her to deal with an immediate threat that will, in turn, allow you to launch a strike that might have otherwise been blunted.

South China Sea by Compass Games: Kilo surprise

Too, the game makes clear the relative lethality of modern combat and the need to keep a deterrent in hand. The first player to lose parity in air superiority will likely lose the game, making the commitment of these fragile yet powerful assets fraught with danger, as, indeed, it would be in real life. Stripped of air cover, even the most formidable task force becomes a set of targets — still with teeth, certainly, but vulnerable and expensive in both lives and cost.

Though gifted with a solid and quite serviceable rules chassis, South China Sea lacks a scenario structure to really make it shine. The standard scenario victory point schedules don’t serve bring the sides into conflict. In the scenario we played, once the United States scored a few points through an initial cruise missile salvo at the beginning of the very first turn, they had no reason to actually enter the South China Sea and attempt to evict the Chinese from the disputed islets. Being more concerned with style than victory, we certainly played on and forced the issue, but the game itself doesn’t seem to require it.

South China Sea by Compass Games: The disputed islets

Add in the lack of any penalty for the United States or China preemptively attacking Vietnam, Malaysia, or the Philippines, and the game suggests to players that the best (or at least most efficient) option is to simply knock these smaller countries out of the war, an act that would have massive ramifications in real life. There’s an odd dissonance at work, particularly when overflights of neutral countries are prohibited — an strange scruple in a game with such looseness of engagement rules.

Too, there are tons of counters in the game that are never used. I admire the “future proofing” here, but why have a Malaysian submarine counter in the game if not one scenario uses it? Land occupation of Vietnamese ports and airfields by the Chinese also seems far too simple (and without consequence or benefit), given that the scenarios don’t provide for any border forces (but, again, there are counters that could support such).

It’s far easier to tweak and house rule victory points and scenarios, though, than to fix the underlying game system, and that remains rock solid. The game plays smoothly and the combat system is a model of design elegance. I’m pleased to have had the opportunity to play South China Sea—it provided both an engaging gaming experience and a nice window into the dangers of any military engagement in the area. Here’s to hoping the diplomats don’t roll as poorly on their political phase roll as I did.

WashingCon 2017 After Action Report

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The third time, as they often say, is the charm. WashingCon, Washington, DC’s premier gaming convention, has come and gone again, an agreeable and essential ritual on the local gaming calendar. The convention, started in 2015, no longer takes place in a small church hall playing host to a hundred or so people. And yet, even as it has reached its third year, with nearly a thousand attendees and the space to hold them all comfortably, it retains that personal touch, thanks in no small part to the organizers and volunteers, including the owner and staff of the District’s finest local game store, Labyrinth Games. It is, bar none, the friendliest and most welcoming game convention I’ve ever had the pleasure of attending.

For this, my third WashingCon, I attended with good gaming buddies Doug Bush and Joe Jackson, as well as Joe’s son. We started with a pair of matches of Quartermaster General 1914, a light Euro/wargame mash-up on World War One in Europe from PSC Games. It’s mostly a card management game with a well-integrated theme, using an ever-dwindling supply of cards to both drive the action and as a resource to pay for those actions.

Quartermaster General 1914 at WashingCon 2017

As an engine for understanding history, the game doesn’t quite deliver—one match wound up with an Austro-Hungarian fantasy outcome, the other with the Ottomans rampant across much of the Mediterranean—but accurate historical simulation isn’t promised on the tin. As a quick playing game that came down to the wire in both of our matches, Quartermaster General 1914 provides an agreeable experience that’s easy to learn and with more nuance than the iffy plastic bits portend.

Next up, Doug unveiled one of the prides of his game collection, the third edition of High Frontier, Phil Eklund’s (in)famous game of space exploration. Lavishly produced, this edition stopped many passers-by in their tracks. Those who knew the game tended towards amazement at actually seeing it get played; those unfamiliar with its Hohmann Pivots, Lagrange Points, and solar winds tended towards amazement that anyone could decipher the board.

High Frontier Third Edition at WashingCon 2017

And, in truth, it takes a lot of staring before one can really begin to read the map’s secrets. Though there’s definitely a game here, I tend to see High Frontier as closer to an experience, since just figuring out how to get a rocket off of Earth, let alone giving it enough fuel to traverse the gravity wells of other planets, becomes a triumph in and of itself, regardless of what everyone else at the table is doing. I managed to colonize Mercury and set up a factory on the Moon by the end, but I think Joe’s son took to it the most. By the end of the session, he was flinging a well-constructed space probe around Saturn’s rings and moons with rather some skill. And thanks to WashingCon’s absurdly generous game giveaway this weekend, he even took home a copy for himself.

The evening rounded out in a very odd playthrough of Battlestar Galactica with two of Doug’s acquaintances in attendance. The Cylon raiders left the humans alone for several jumps, leading to the inevitable in-fighting amongst the humans (and non-revealed Cylons). By the time all three Cylons were revealed (thanks to the sympathizer rules for six player games), the humans began to lose hope, but they (we, I should say, since I was no toaster!) came within one jump of winning. I find Battlestar Galactica to be a game that I really enjoy playing, but only every so often. Once or twice a year, with the right group, feels just about sufficient, and this group was great, with precisely the right level of recrimination at the end.

Day two of WashingCon was a short one for us, but Doug and I revisited World War One with the recently released Illusions of Glory from GMT Games. As the name suggests, Illusions of Glory is a card-driven, point-to-point treatment in the vein of the venerable Paths of Glory. This game covers the fighting in the East, with the Russians, Serbs, and Montenegrins fighting the Austro-Hungarians, Germans, and Ottomans.

Illusions of Glory at WashingCon 2017

It’s pretty standard card-driven gaming fare, but that doesn’t make it any less interesting, and there are nice rules wrinkles to add a bit of piquancy. We only played about five turns of the full campaign (so into Spring of 1915), but it was enough for the Germans to take Warsaw, and my plucky Montenegrins held out in their redoubt at Cetinje. This one will definitely hit the table again for the entire campaign game.

My thanks to Doug, Joe, and his son for a really solid weekend of gaming. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t extend my appreciation to the entire staff of WashingCon for their efforts. This fine city of ours had long needed a gaming convention, and when WashingCon came on the scene, they provided more than a place for us to play games for a day or two. They created a community.

Now if only they could open the main gaming room earlier in the day on Sunday for those of us who overnight at the convention site, it would be perfect…

Sino-Vietnamese Showdown: The Battle of South Caobang and Red Dragon Storm (Kuro Neko Design Workshop)

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My wargaming tastes have always tended towards the esoteric and the obscure. The world doesn’t need another game on D-Day or Waterloo. I’m far more interested in conflicts that have seldom been simulated via wargames, to enable me to learn something new and because such games tend to introduce fresh and intriguing approaches to conflict simulation itself, in order to more accurately model the novel situation at hand.

So I was quite pleased when I learned of not one but two recent games on a decidedly overlooked conflict (in the West, at least): the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War, also called the Third Indochina War and, by the Chinese, the Self-Defense Counterattack. These two games, The Battle of South Caobang and Red Dragon Storm, both come from Shanghai-based publisher Kuro Neko Design Workshop (Chinese online forum here; no English website).

Red Dragon Storm and The Battle of South Caobang

After some e-mail back-and-forth with the publisher, I received both games about ten days later, from Shanghai to Washington, DC, with a stop at a transhipper near New York City. They both come with die cut mounted counters, glossy thick stock paper maps, and (perhaps most importantly for me) English rulebooks and charts, produced to the same quality as the Chinese rulebooks. The translations are perhaps a bit rough in places, but wargaming tends towards a universal language, so the intent is almost always clear—and I certainly appreciate the effort, for my Shanghainese is, shall we say, rusty.

The presentation for both games sits on par with that of contemporary American conflict simulation publishers. I would prefer slightly thicker counter stock, but it’s better than that found in most magazine games, and the die cutting itself is razor accurate, which I can’t always say about the major domestic publishers here.

Red Dragon Storm comes in a ziplock bag and seems a fairly straightforward, two countersheet, area movement game covering the entire war for either two or three players, divided between the defending Vietnamese player and two Chinese Military Regions. If playing with two, both players control one of the Chinese forces and half the Vietnamese forces, which feels like a rather elegant system. Thick stock cards (with provided English translations) help drive some of the play, and it seems designed to be completed in one sitting.

The Battle of South Caobang

The real prize is The Battle of South Caobang, the first of five planned grand tactical/operational games on the war, with two glossy hex maps, five countersheets, player aids, a book of pictures from the conflict, English and Chinese rules, and even a rubber-banded pack of ziplock baggies for the counters and two different colored d10s, à la GMT Games.

It’s a handsome boxed package, and the game system itself looks intriguing, taking into account the almost asymmetrical nature of the conflict, with detailed supply rules for the Chinese (who were logistically stretched to the limit from the start of the war) and the Vietnamese ability to create militia units anywhere on the map to block supply lines, representing the difficulty the Chinese had in pinning down Vietnamese units. Ten scenarios are included, one of which supports solitaire play. The English rules have been posted on Boardgamegeek for those interested in taking a look.

Though I haven’t had a chance to get either on the table yet, I’m more than pleased with these two games on a fascinating subject, and they’re staking a claim to the top of the “to play” pile. Red Dragon Storm and The Battle of South Caobang make a welcome addition to my library and serve as a stunning debut from Kuro Neko Design Workshop.

Winter Offensive 2017 After Action Report

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Certain occurrences trigger a realization that another year has passed, making one wonder just where the time has gone. The swallows return to Capistrano, the bulls have their fun in Pamplona, and, for wargamers of a particular bent, the Comfort Inn in Bowie, MD, opens up three conference rooms and hosts Winter Offensive. This year’s running of the gamers has come and gone again, with hosts Multi-Man Publishing putting on yet another sterling Advanced Squad Leader tournament and general purpose gaming cavalcade.

Winter Offensive 2017

Attendance this year seemed slightly down from the 2015 peak of 165 gamers, with no exhortations needed on prime day Saturday to free up table space. A minor weather scare might have dampened attendance somewhat, and with no marquee MMP product being released this year, the crowds that typically attend in conjunction with such releases also failed to materialize. But the room was still nicely packed, and while the fair majority of gamers were there to play ASL, wargamers interested in other MMP product lines, like the Great Campaigns of the American Civil War, the Standard Combat Series, and the Operational Combat Series, as well as other wargames, took up a good third of the table space by my rough estimation. It’s no longer a safe assumption that anyone you speak with at Winter Offensive will be an Advanced Squad Leader player only (if, indeed, at all!).

My gaming weekend started out with an exhaustive playtest of Red Storm: The Air War over Central Germany, 1987, an operational air combat game being designed for GMT Games by Doug Bush, one of my long-time gaming buddies and an all-around good guy. We tested one of the larger scenarios in the game, portraying a large NATO air strike on several Warsaw Pact airfields deep in East Germany.

Red Storm Playtest at Winter Offensive 2017; playtest art/not final art

Defended by a massive belt of anti-air missiles, the airfields were a tough target, one that took the full complement of Doug’s considerable forces some time to pick their way through. The game system features many rules for air-to-ground and ground-to-air combat, including electronic countermeasures and anti-radar missiles, and we used them all in this one. The scenario depicted (all art is playtest and provisional; not final art) falls on the more complex side of what Red Storm has to offer; a full range of scenarios covers actions from small fighter engagements and bombing missions through to night paratrooper insertions. Several people stopped by to ask questions and watch a few minutes of gameplay, and I think this game has quite a bit of appeal—lots of interesting and difficult decision making, cool hardware, and a well-tested game system chassis underneath.

Saturday’s main event fell on the ASL side of the equation, as Mike Vogt and I sampled 159 “White Tigers,” a classic scenario pitting Japanese attackers against Gurkha defenders in the midst of an unrelenting rainstorm near Imphal, India. Mike, another of my very good gaming buddies and another all-around good guy, took the IJA forces with the task of occupying buildings. In my defense, I had some stout Indian soldiers and, as importantly, the services of a very flooded river that served to channel the attack into three main avenues.

159 White Tigers at Winter Offensive 2017

The Japanese made good progress on two of the three fronts, Mike’s progress helped somewhat by a few of my attacks turning his cardboard soldiers into berserkers who could run through the withering fire covering the most critical chokepoint on the map. My dice were quite hot throughout, a situation Mike bore with good grace, and by the end of the ten turn scenario, the Japanese had a foothold on the final two buildings they needed to secure the victory. But time just ran out, with the remaining Gurkhas holding on for a very narrow win.

Truly, one of the best ASL experiences I’ve had in a long time—great opponent, tense scenario, and a visual treat as well. Matches like this one encourage me to try to play more of this unparalleled game, about as close to a resolution as I’ve made so far in this new year.

Of course, it wouldn’t be Winter Offensive without the side gaming, and I managed to fit in two matches of group favorite Battlestar Galactica and three of The Dragon & Flagon, a relatively new fantasy bar fight game that seemed to be a big hit (pun slightly intended) with everyone. Many old friends were in attendance, too, and having the gang back together just makes a good gaming convention even better.

Battlestar Galactica at Winter Offensive 2017

My thanks, as always, to Perry Cocke, Brian Youse, and the rest of the team at MMP for another successful Winter Offensive, and to my gaming compadres for a great weekend of gaming. It might not keep getting bigger, year after year, but it certainly seems to keep getting better.

Game Preview: Red Storm: The Air War Over Central Germany, 1987 (GMT Games)

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Near the end of the Cold War, both NATO and the Warsaw Pact fielded impressively large and varied air forces that, thankfully, never contested the skies over Europe. Where the Warsaw Pact relied on larger numbers of robust but technologically-limited fighters and bombers, NATO offered up qualitatively superior but numerically inferior forces, making any conflict between the two sides one of doctrine as well as ideology.

Forthcoming from GMT Games and designer Doug Bush, Red Storm: The Air War Over Central Germany, 1987, seeks to model this potential conflict by enhancing the time-tested operational system originally designed by Lee Brimmicombe-Wood for his seminal work on the air war in Vietnam, Downtown. I’ve been lucky enough to work with Red Storm from the early playtest phase, and as a long-time admirer of both Downtown and its follow-on game, Elusive Victory, I find that Red Storm neatly brings the system’s strengths to the quite unique situation over Central Germany while addressing the complexities of the modern air battlespace.

Banner for Red Storm via GMT Games

As the playtest counter art shows, players will have at their disposal aircraft from several nations: the United States, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, the German Democratic Republic, the Federal Republic of Germany, Belgium, and Canada. And what a varied assortment of aircraft it is. From the top-of-the-line F-15s and MiG-29s through to the lowly Su-17s and puttering Alpha Jets, nearly every fighter and bomber that could have seen service in the Central German front makes an appearance. Doug has meticulously differentiated the airplanes, so that each flies, and fights, quite differently. Gamers who take the time to dig through the aircraft notes and make use of differences in radar, altitude performance, and weapon loadouts will be rewarded for their efforts.

Of particular note to me, the Su-25 Frogfoot close attack plane earns a few counter slots—it’s my personal mission as a wargamer to play every game that features this delightfully ungainly craft.

Playtest Art for Red Storm via GMT Games

Complicating both players’ plans, the electronic warfare support and anti-air missiles on each side make the mere act of flying hazardous. Going in on the deck might keep one safe from the SAMs, but then there are the copious low-level infra-red missiles and flak batteries to deal with. Successful ingress and egress require quite a few difficult choices. Making the initial flight plans could be a game in itself, and while players are never “on rails,” that initial planning does guide proceedings to a large extent, a hallmark of the system as a whole.

Planned scenarios range from contested bombing missions on both sides through to SAM-busting missions, rear echelon interdiction strikes, and escorting special forces on behind-the-lines infiltrations. One and two map scenarios will be included.

Red Storm promises to be both a worthy addition to the Downtown system and a signal accomplishment in air combat gaming in itself. Discussion of the game as it moves through development is taking place on ConsimWorld, and any gamer with interest in this hypothetical air conflict is welcome to head over there to follow along and participate.

(Playtest images and banner via GMT Games.)

Sailing the Ocean Blue: Conquistador (SPI)

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Getting there, as they say, is half the battle, and few games demonstrate this truism as well as Richard Berg’s Conquistador—The Age of Exploration: 1495-1600 (SPI, 1976), a forty-year old conflict simulation game on the exploration and colonization of the Americas first published in Strategy & Tactics #58.

Spanish Virginia

One of the very first dedicated three-player wargames, Conquistador puts players in the role of the monarchs of Spain, England, and France as they vie to discover various features of the New World and then exploit the hell out of this teeming, already-inhabited land mass. Though nominally a wargame, players more often fight the game system rather than each other. Just sailing to and from the New World takes a heavy toll on ships, colonists, and soldiers; and woe betide the player who does not properly outfit an expedition, a failing that can result in the loss of all hands to the briny deep.

The early game, much as historically, focuses on discovery and the exploitation of gold mines, which provide the best source of income for the first six (of twenty-one) five-year turns. Once the contours of the Americas are well known and several colonies have been established, farming and the unsparing plunder of the Incan, Mayan, and Aztec empires becomes the fastest means of accumulating money and power. The native inhabitants are represented abstractly, as another variable on a table to be reckoned with. Careful management of colony size can lead to peaceful co-existence, but such tolerance is economically inefficient, and the game nudges players to see the brutality inherent in the historical colonial process.

A foothold in South America

Effectively, the game centers on building a strong economic engine—really, Conquistador is an early Euro game in that regard, complete with worker placement—and managing the very wild swings of fortune built into the attrition system (both for units on land and units crossing the oceans) and in the inevitable native unrest caused by the European onslaught, becomes key. Losing colonies outright happens often if they are not garrisoned by soldiers—and paying for those soldiers requires more and more exploitation of the land and the peoples thereon, a vicious cycle indeed.

The three nations receive historical Explorers who can sail where there be dragons—Drake, Columbus, Cabot, Magellan, Verrazzano—but the Spanish uniquely employ Conquistadors who provide benefits in land exploration (and combat with natives). They also must drag Missionaries with them wherever they go, to spread the Gospel by word (and, often, bloody deed). France and England enjoy much less differentiation in the rules, though the English do deploy “Sea Dogs” who can plunder gold from enemy ships towards the end game.

I had the opportunity to take Conquistador out for a spin recently at the District of Columbia’s finest game store, Labyrinth Games and Puzzles, with my regular opponents and all-around good guys Mike Vogt and Doug Bush. We played about half the game, abstaining for the most part from combat with one another’s forces, though as the Spanish I did detour Pizarro from a fruitless search for the Seven Cities of Gold to make an abortive raid on Doug’s English port that had been ferrying booty from Panamanian gold mines. Mike, meanwhile, established a strong French presence in Texas and drained the Sonora Valley of its mineral wealth, though at great cost in colonists, who succumbed frequently to the harsh terrain. When we called it, the English had a commanding lead in victory points due to their ability to move gold back to Europe most effectively, followed by the French who were buoyed by their many discoveries.

Pizzaro visits the Incans

Once we got a handle on the game, it played quickly enough. The planning for expeditions took the most time, though after I bankrupted the Spanish by bankrolling a hideously expensive (and unsuccessful) expedition by Columbus to round the Horn, planning was simple just by dint of having no money to spend. Would have been glorious (and profitable in VP) had it paid off, but I struggled for money for the rest of the game.

The map and counter graphics hold up well after four decades, conveying the needed information with a minimum of fuss in classic Redmond Simonsen style, and the counters rounded nicely with some attention from my handy-dandy counter corner rounder. On the table, the colors together provide a pleasing palette, making effective use of the limited colors available to the printing process of the day. Just a handsome game all around.

Good wargames do more than recreate a conflict; they provide some degree of insight, however fleeting, into the subject matter. Conquistador serves both as a strong three-player wargame with a fair bit of replayability and as an unique, if abstract, look at the nasty bit of business that was the European colonization of the Americas.