Sailing the Ocean Blue: Conquistador (SPI)

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.

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