This area-move wargame on the Angolan Civil War in the mid-1970s is designed for four players, split into alliances of two players each (one side controlling the FNLA and UNITA forces, the other the FAPLA and MPLA forces that waged war through the Angolan countryside). The game can conceivably be played with fewer than four, but the game strives to model the command-control failures of the various forces and the difficulty they had in coordinating their actions, a difficulty the game emulates in part by prohibiting secret planning. You either tell your partner (and your opponents) that you’re moving to particular town or you don’t say a thing and hope he/she figures it out by the time your forces have arrived. Fewer players means fewer opportunities to mess up a grand sweeping plan, and grand sweeping failures were part of this conflict and an important aspect of the game.
I had the pleasure of playing a four-player session of Angola recently at that finest of local game stores, Labyrinth, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Michael Vogt (UNITA) and I (FNLA) squared off against Pablo Garcia-Silva (MPLA) and Doug Bush (FAPLA) in Labyrinth’s gaming area for a stolen Friday afternoon of fun.
None of us had played this game, originally released in 1988, before, but we’re all grizzled wargaming vets, so we forged ahead full speed. Much of the game is familiar wargame stuff, though the enforced fog-of-war rules and a nifty odds determination system meant that attacks often went in at 1:2 ratios, an almost unheard of occurrence in most games. The game system really wants each player to push, and push hard, even at low odds. The card-driven movement system (with only limited opportunities to move units each turns) forces one to use units whenever possible, and a limited countermix and the subsequent loss of reinforcements if you don’t sufficient counters in your pool helps encourage an attacking mindset. Smoke ’em if you’ve got ’em, if you will.
Pablo and Doug’s Cuban-backed forces made good gains early on, and the game design self-balances by giving the side that loses territory the opportunity to gain extra forces from their foreign backers (Zaire and South Africa, for UNITA and FNLA).
After a few bad turns, you’ve got a force to be reckoned with, and Michael and I had a few bad turns, enabling us to push back in style. The UNITA stacks coming out of South Africa were monstrous and inflicted some real damage.
By the time we called the game, both sides were tied and looking quite equally matched, force-wise (though Doug did have a giant air force that dwarfed the rest of us). But because of the early losses, the UNITA/FNLA alliance was in a precarious position—another bad turn could have seen the foreign powers remove all aid. The risk/reward balance in the game is quite finely crafted in that respect: you can’t play rope-a-dope until you have a giant army, because you’ll risk losing your sponsors and will probably be too far behind on points (representing accumulated political victories caused by territorial gains).
Combining ease of play (though with much tactical depth) and a wild random set-up feature, Angola is going to be making the rounds at game conventions for years to come. I foresee quite a few late night four-player sessions of this one at Winter Offensive.
My thanks to the crew at Labyrinth for their gracious hosting and to Pablo, Doug, and Michael for a great afternoon of gaming.