Rumble in the Jungle: MMP’s Angola

After years of development, Multi-Man Publishing‘s re-make of the Ragnar BrothersAngola has finally arrived, and in fine form.

A meeting of monster columns

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).

The siege of Lobito

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.

Game Preview: Angola

Which is rarer? A wargame on the Angolan Civil War, or a serious wargame that plays very well with three or four players? Well, the former, probably, but rarer still is a multi-player wargame on the Angolan Civil War. And that’s where Angola comes in.

Originally published by the Ragnar Brothers in 1988, Angola, an area-move game with card-driven unit activation, covers the opening portions of the Angolan Civil War in 1975-76, with the four major factions (MPLA, FNLA, UNITA, and FAPLA) represented.

Angola Prototype Counters from MMP

Multi-Man Publishing is re-releasing Angola as part of their International Game Series line, with updated graphics courtesy of Lee Brimmicombe-Wood, a noted game designer in his own right whose graphics always strike a balance between functionality and style. MMP’s Angola is currently available for pre-order:

The game is finely balanced, and all players frequently feel as if they are simultaneously on the verge of victory or defeat thanks to an ingenious victory point system that rewards good play for both sides and allows players to absorb reversals and strike back with the right countermove.

Reports from people who have played the original indicate that Angola provides an unique experience, with lots of deception and posturing possible, making it great for multi-player (or at least for the guys I usually play against). The rules scale to accomodate between two to four players, so it’s not strictly multi-player. And given that this is a MMP game, a VASSAL module is almost certain to be released as well, providing an excellent method for conducting multi-player sessions.

Angola has been sitting on MMP’s pre-order page for a while now, so if you have any interest, get over there and pony up a pledge. This game looks to be a hidden gem.

(Image from MMP)