Devir's Homage to Catalonia: España 1936

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BARBASTRO, though a long way from the front line, looked bleak and chipped. Swarms of militiamen in shabby uniforms wandered up and down the streets, trying to keep warm. On a ruinous wall I came upon a poster dating from the previous year and announcing that 'six handsome bulls' would be killed in the arena on such and such a date. How forlorn its faded colours looked! Where were the handsome bulls and the handsome bull-fighters now? It appeared that even in Barcelona there were hardly any bullfights nowadays; for some reason all the best matadors were Fascists. —George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia

Much like the Russian Revolution, the Spanish Civil War is one of those moments in history with a fascinating backstory yet has received scant attention (in English anyway) from game designers. Though I can only speculate as to the reasons why, some obvious points pop to mind immediately:
  • There are comparatively few high quality, comprehensive chronicles of the war published in English
  • English-speaking gamers know little and care less about the topic and/or treat it as little more than the warmup act for WWII
  • The scores of factions involved on both sides of the conflict and the brutal internecine feuds in particular are nearly impossible to capture and simulate without an enormous [and possibly unplayable] amount of ruleset chrome [e.g., Triumph of Chaos]
  • The Republican ("Red") forces were fighting a losing battle almost from the first shot, which makes it difficult to develop a "fun" game.
That said, there are a handful titles, some far more recent than others, striving to fill this niche, with particular attention paid to the critical battles for Madrid and Guadalajara, as well as the obligatory 3rd party ASL expansion set. One of the newest, and certainly one of the most interesting, is Devir's España 1936

Published first in Spain in autumn 2007, the game earned enough critical attention (as well as internet "buzz") to merit an expanded release in English release in early summer 2008. Since my Spanish-language proficiency is precisely nil, this review focuses on the recent English-language release.

What it is.

España 1936 is a fairly light, low counter-density operational-level point-to-point wargame covering events in Spain between 1936 and 1939. While not a "card-driven wargame" in current common definition—cards are not used to activate units a la Paths of Glory—it is certainly a "card-influenced" game. Players each receive their own early- and late-war decks that provide a host of interesting historical and ahistorical "what-if?" events as well as a pair of combat modifiers [more on this in a bit].

What you get.

A 16-page full-color rulebook with 2 static-start scenarios (simulating the start of the war in 1936 and a somewhat ahistorical but potentially more fun “all units on the map” mid-war 1938 start); 2 player mats; 1 "battle aid" chart; a full-color mounted mapboard; 110 cards split into 4 decks [2/player]; and 166 counters of varying shapes, sizes, and colors. The component quality is, generally speaking, high but not out of this world. The counters, in particular, are a touch on the thin side and, though the die cuts aren't bad, they have a propensity to tear on the back when punching if you're not careful. Consider yourself forewarned.The cards are a reasonable weight with clear, generally readable design elements and the rounded corners that inveterate Euro-card game players seem to go crazy for. Personally, I immediately sleeve all my cards in heavyweight sleeves, so I don't give a damn about this particular issue, but I know it's critical for some.

The map is very clean and uncluttered. With its light colors and widely-spaced points, I found it a bit bland. That said, I'll take slightly dull but totally readable and easy to maneuver across [lots of room between points] over vibrant and crammed any time. And, although I have no problem throwing a sheet of plexiglass over a map [or, better, sticking it into a cheap poster frame], it's nice to get a mounted mapboard in a wargame these days. And, for the linguistically-challenged, it also features, as a friend's wife noted, "less Spanish on it than the international English edition of Railroad Tycoon."
The rules, while nicely designed and short and to-the-point, are perhaps the weakest component in the set. Let me be perfectly clear: the game is 100% playable right out of the box. At least in the basic ruleset, there are no show-stopping rule nightmares. You will not be “Berg’d” [or even “Bomba’d] by this game in any fashion [see either of the Japanese entries in GMT’s Great Battles of History series for good examples of how one can be overwhelmed by rules that add flavor but, in fact, seem utterly impossible to play at first—or ninth—blush]. That said, every player that I’ve talked to has had at least 4 out of every 5 “huh?” moments in common. Further, a recently posted FAQ has answered every question I’ve heard raised around my game table even though none of us ever posted those questions in a public forum. This is a clear indication that something is awry in certain sections of the rules. To give one example, in the section dealing with Generals, players are presented with limitations on a general’s actions when he is “out of supply.” This is the first time we’re confronted with the issue of supply and there’s no major heading [nor any sort of index] to be found in the rules anywhere covering the topic. A line-by-line re-reading is required to uncover the definition of in/out of supply, which is provided under the “Game Sequence” major heading. Every gamer, war or otherwise, is familiar with the “Sequence of Play” section of a rulebook, and not one of us expects to find a key rule definition in that spot. We see a numbered list, commit its location (or its content) to memory, and move on into “the rules.” Whoops. Because the rules are both brief and generally clear overall, chances are good that if you’re confused on an issue, someone else had that same problem ahead of you and asked the designer a question about it. I recommend pulling down the latest edition of the FAQ and keeping it handy. That said, it’s hard to see what could be asked beyond the items already covered  in the current version. The rules and cards really are that straight-forward.

How it plays: The Caveat

I find España 1936 to be a refreshingly easy to grasp game that is potentially a solid entry-point into the point-to-point (P2P)/card-driven genre for those unfamiliar with or reluctant to dive into this particular end of the pool. However, I have to note that, until around mid-2007, my last new game purchase was a fresh off the presses copy of Avalon Hill’s Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage. What does this mean for the purposes of this review? Well, it means that, though I’ve got a long history dating back to the early ‘80s of pushing bits of cardboard around hex- [Squad Leader; Panzerblitz] and grid-maps [think Car Wars], as well as being present for the rise of the Card Driven War Game (CDWG) with We the People and its kin—an innovation that, as far as I’m concerned, puts that game on par with Settlers of Catan for its utter importance to its particular gaming niche—I’ve basically missed out on the entire evolution of CDWGs from Hannibal to Twilight Struggle to Paths of Glory and everything ‘tween that lot. Thanks to a lack of children, an understanding soon-to-be-wife, and a well-paying day job, I’ve been playing catch-up at a hellacious pace, but I still lack the fundamental background to make any authoritative statements about what within this game might be novel/innovative for the genre; instead, I can only state what I spot as innovative to me [to phrase this a little differently: if you hadn’t spent most of the 1980s and 1990s listening to the Buzzcocks’ entire catalog until your ears bled, you’d probably have thought Green Day was something fresh and new in the punk-pop genre when Dookie hit the shelves. I loved that they were one of the few new bands to bring back that sound, and they captured it extremely well—but make no mistake, Billie Joe Armstrong owes just about his whole damned career to Pete Shelley and Steve Diggle. I can’t really say to what Espana might owe some respect...]. I will rely on a few others in the F:AT crowd to make some of the more salient connections between this game and others in the genre [so read the comments below this, you lazy bastards].

How it plays: The Experience

We were near the front line now, near enough to smell the characteristic smell of war—in my experience a smell of excrement and decaying food. Alcubierre had never been shelled and was in a better state than most of the villages immediately behind the line. Yet I believe that even in peacetime you could not travel in that part of Spain without being struck by the peculiar squalid misery of the Aragonese villages. They are built like fortresses, a mass of mean little houses of mud and stone huddling round the church, and even in spring you see hardly a flower anywhere; the houses have no gardens, only back-yards where ragged fowls skate over the beds of mule-dung. —George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia

The Spanish Civil War was a messy affair predicated on a coup by a significant portion of the senior military and fought by ad hoc militias, regular army troops [on both sides], and international volunteer brigades of varying military experience/quality. In addition, major world powers either used the conflict as a weapons proving-ground and live-fire exercise [Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and the Soviet Union in particular] or as a political proxy war [the Soviets]. The war itself was a grinding affair with a few decisive battles (Guadalajara; Madrid) and a whole hell of a lot of general misery delivered by high explosive all over the country.

España 1936, managed to capture all of that and project that experience upon the players in a way that takes no more than an hour to learn and around three hours to play. It does this through a combination of a somewhat counter-intuitive combat system, a standard approach to P2P movement, an escalating reinforcement system, which is perhaps the most “gamey” aspect of the game; multiple auto-win conditions; and an effective “chrome-via-card effect” approach.

To start at the end of the game, the multiple immediate-win conditions allow players to both adopt a multitude of strategies, which both players must be cognizant of at all times, as well as to change strategies as the game progresses. The insta-win conditions include either side controlling 8 of the 12 clearly highlighted “objective cities” on the map at the end of a turn; the Loyalists taking Madrid by the start of Turn 4 [tough but not impossible]; either side controlling the 3 major cities of Seville, Barcelona, and Madrid [1 of each is held deep in a player’s “home turf” while Madrid starts the game heavily contested and easily fortified]; and finally, the Reds holding out with a meager 3 cities at the end of Turn 10 [the last possible turn], which simulates the Republicans managing to keep their candle lit in gale-force winds until WWII breaks out and the Axis forces pull all support to the Loyalists in order to go beat the hell out of Poland.

By providing a variety of ways to end the game, both players must keep on their toes and avoid the sort of tunnel-vision that some wargames can engender in players. You must pay attention across the map at almost all times or your game can become problematic.
If one starts with the 1936 scenario [the historical outbreak of the war], the Republican [red] and Loyalist [blue] forces start with equal footing on the map. With a wide-open map, high force mobility, and a small number of highly contested spaces, as well as a seeming surfeit of reinforcements and support available to both sides through Events and the Replacement phase, any one of those conditions strikes the first-time player as potentially overly easy to meet. This sentiment rapidly proves illusory by the end of Turn 1.

The heart and strength of this game is found in its combat system and the way in which cards are handled. Because the Loyalist player can instantly win if he takes and holds Madrid before the end of Turn 3, that city will generally become the focus of the most intense fighting in the early rounds. Both forces are relatively equal to start, with the Republicans initially having an easier time reinforcing Madrid, while the Loyalists have more combat support available to them in the early rounds, though it’s a bit harder for them to mobilize it quickly.
España 1936’s combat system is, to me, a bit of a strange duck that, ultimately, proves to be one of the more effective low-headache-quotient means for simulating a grinding war of attrition. While any unit can move and defend, attacks can only be initiated in cities in which one has placed a General. This means that, though you may have a broad line of troops and many contested Objective and non-Objective cities across the map, your number of and location for attacks is severely limited by the number of available Generals. This becomes critical in the game as (1) certain generals on each side can be assassinated (thus removed from play) and (2) the Loyalist forces usually have more generals available to them.

Other than Event card play, however, Generals, cannot be killed and, in fact, are removed from the map at the conclusion of each turn and then re-placed (in alternating moves by each player) ANYWHERE on the map where you have troops. This means combat can occur in any location in any given round and, because of the alternating placement and differing number of available generals, one side [usually the Republicans] is often faced with an attack that can’t be countered.
Generals, of course, must have something to command. In España, the basic Troop unit strength is represented by 1 number on the counter, ranging from 1-3 and 5, which represents the number of dice it must roll in combat and its overall number of strength “steps” available. Certain troop types, usually militia units of some stripe, have either positive or negative modifiers (DRM) that are applied to 1 [and only 1] of the up to 5 dice they roll in combat. In addition, players may add air [adds dice] or armor [adds positive DRM] to support their units in combat. Players may stack up to 4 Troops and an unlimited number of Support units in a given city.

However, unlike many other games of this ilk combat is handled on a single unit vs. unit basis with the attacker selecting the unit to attack; however, once a unit attacks, regardless of outcome, it cannot attack again. What this means is, your 5-step unit can select my lone 1-step unit holding out in an Objective City and dice are heaved. Rolls of 5 or 6 are “hits” that inflict 1 step-loss per hit. If, as my opponents did on several occasions, roll a Yahtzee of 1s against my single 5 or 6, my lousy 1-step Troop survives the assault while your 5-strength unit steps down to a 3 AND must withdraw from combat [but not the city]. The attacked unit, however, can be attacked again if the attacker has multiple units in the city. Lucky dice and/or the right combination of support/DRM can allow weaker defenders to step-down and even eliminate stronger attacking units. I found this make every attack exciting both because the attacker must make extremely difficult choices if the dice aren’t going his way and because low-strength troops can serve as more than “speed-bumps” and can actually hold an objective in the face of stronger forces.
Of course, when heaving large numbers of dice against a single die, the odds against the weaker unit surviving are, naturally, slim. 

And here the second truly exceptional element of España 1936’s system comes into play: the card system. Instead of playing cards for events [which happens AFTER movement and combat], players may choose to play cards for the combat phase Bonuses [positive DRMs or additional dice] or penalties [negative DRMs or removal of dice]. For example, in each attack, I can choose to take a card from my hand and announce that I will be playing it for the bonus or penalty. If I chose a card with a penalty of “-2 DICE”, an unsupported 2-strength attacking unit would have no dice to throw in that combat phase, while I would roll my defense dice normally.
It may sound like this has huge potential to throw balance out the window, but it’s clear that a fair amount of thought went into the development of this element of the system. Each player starts with a fairly small hand of cards [6 in Turn 1; 3 drawn at the start of each subsequent turn, with a max hand of 8—which I doubt one will EVER reach]. On each card is a touch of historical or “what-if” flavor, an Event, and the pair of DRMs.

Almost every Event available in your hand has potential to alter the landscape significantly—assassination of Generals; addition of high-strength Troops or Support units, particularly in the early turns; severe limitations on your opponent’s movement or combat availability in the late turns; etc. Yet, the better the event might be for your side, the stronger the pair of DRMs available to play. So, for each combat [up to 4 per city], each player must  decide if he will play that potentially ass-saving Bonus or Penalty or proceed only with a prayer to the dice gods that he lives long enough to play that card as an Event to, say, get those 2 spanking new ME-109s at the end of the turn. Trust me when I say that each and every choice will be truly agonizing because the combat mechanic doesn’t guarantee victory even for the most overwhelming numbers. In the two games I played, I twice had 4 1-step units hold out in a city against a combination of 3 well-supported 3- and 5-step attackers, thus denying my opponent that city [and, in this case, denying him an insta-win on that turn].

My Take

In Barcelona, during all those last weeks I spent there, there was a peculiar evil feeling in the air--an atmosphere of suspicion, fear, uncertainty, and veiled hatred. The May fighting had left ineradicable after-effects behind it. With the fall of the Caballero Government the Communists had come definitely into power, the charge of internal order had been handed over to Communist ministers, and no one doubted that they would smash their political rivals as soon as they got a quarter of a chance Nothing was happening as yet, I myself had not even any mental picture of what was going to happen; and yet there was a perpetual vague sense of danger, a consciousness of some evil thing that was impending.—George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia

The combination of the combat and card system presents a series of extremely interesting and usually extremely difficult choices for each player every round. Combine this with the multiple win conditions and a replacement/reinforcement system that escalates as the war progresses and you get an excellent “war of attrition” gaming experience that is anything but static. In addition, this game includes just enough optional chrome to make things interesting; I’d go so far as to claim some of the chrome should be mandatory, such as the rule that forces certain Republican generals provide negative DRMs if they aren’t paired with troops of their own political bent (represented by icons on each counter).

But not all Chrome is a good thing—the “historical game” will almost certainly this into a
“game on rails.” The Republican forces will receive fewer reinforcements early and likely suffer the same fate as their historical counterparts—a crushing defeat at the hands of Franco’s Fascists.
In addition, the replacement/reinforcement point (RP) system, which I didn’t detail in any meaningful way above, is one of the most “gamey” elements of the system. On odd-numbered turns, each player is allotted a certain number of “replacement points” based on the number of cities they control and contest that can either be used to step-up a unit or bring in a new unit. There are, however, a few significant twists and catches. First, you can only play an RP in one CITY, so either you can step-up 1 unit or bring in 1 new unit to that city, but never both, and once you’ve done that, nothing else can be done there. Furthermore, as the game progresses, the value of troops you can bring in or step-up increase—so in the early war, you can step-up a 1 to a 2 or bring in a 1-step unit; in the mid-war this changes to 2s and in the late war, it’s 3s and 5s. In addition, both sides are limited to spending RPs on only certain types of troops [with the Republicans having a much broader selection]. This is interesting approach, designed, I believe, to simulate combat hardening of units and increased troop recruitment.

However, when combined with the limited number of cards available and the likelihood that both players have burned through their cards in combat, it can lead directly to only really “playing” every other round regardless of the situation on the map because the reinforcements allow one to consolidate gains and/or reinforce shaky spots. If you attack in an even-numbered round, and the dice go against you, you have to suffer through yet another round of combat before you can do anything about it. Further, and this can be a particular problem for the Republican player, low numbers or low quality troops make it difficult to want to do *anything* in the even-numbered turns. After a couple of plays, my initial thought is that that the card system needs to be tweaked a bit to allow for a greater number of cards in-hand with a limit on the number that can be played in combat [both in total during a round and in individual combats]. I’m not at all sure, however, if this would solve or exacerbate the problem.
I’ve yet to play with the Naval rules [which were a bonus added to the English edition of the game; they’ll be available as an expansion to the Spanish edition soon], but I’m not sure what they add beyond giving the Republican player a chance to close down certain “free reinforcement” points on the map. I’m not sure if this is a valuable enough tradeoff for the additional layer of complexity and force management.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this game is incredibly asymmetric. I use this term with careful consideration as too many people equate asymmetry with “unbalanced.” This is, in my opinion, the last refuge of a coward. That said, the Republican forces have inferior troops and support units, fewer generals, and generally a much harder road ahead of them to a win. Note that the one Republican-only instant victory condition is to hang on by the skin of their collective teeth by having 1 combat unit in any 3 Objective Cities at the end of the game. This means that, they must first weather the storm in Madrid through the first 3 turns and then make judicious use of cards and replacements for the next 6 turns to maintain a minor presence across the entire Iberian peninsula for 7 more turns. Can it be done, yes, I’m sure it can, but it will take a very disciplined player to do so. The Loyalist player will usually have a much easier time of it.
Ultimately, however, I stand by my earlier statement that España 1936 is, without question, an easy to grasp, well-designed game that gives players an excellent taste of a complicated conflict and sufficient “realism” to keep the interest of folks that put the emphasis on “sim” in “consim.” It’s fun and it's certainly worth the money.

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