Wargamer's Corner

Armoured Commander just added a Desert Rats campaign in its latest update. Dec 1940 to Sept '41.

For iPad games, Twilight Struggle is one of the definitive Cold War strategy games. Card and area control based. Notoriously subtle and the iPad version teaches the basics well, then proceeds to murder you as you develop your strategies.

I recently watched the movie Guernica and it made me think about the game I had purchased last year on Steam called Battles for Spain by Avalon Digital. The game uses the Wars Across the World engine and recreates key battles of the Spanish Civil War. I had long been curious about this game engine because it claims to use the same game engine to recreate any battle in history. I decided it was time to check it out.

Scale and Timeframe: The game is set in 1937-8 in Spain and covers the offensives in Guadalajara, Teruel, Merida and The Ebro. The basic units are battalions for infantry, companies, platoon for tanks, armored cars and cavalry, and batteries and squadrons for artillery and aircraft. There are also individual leader units that are very important to game play. This time frame is important because the war is much more like the first year of World War I than World War II. It is an infantry war, everyone else just helps a little.

Card System: The game uses a card system to vary the game play and add uncertainty to each scenario and battle. Many turn-based cards limit movement for the turn, or add reinforcements to the army. The combat-based cards allow you to favorably impact a specific battle, making their use very strategic, but not game breaking in their impact. The cards allow for each game play through to be unique.

One key card bug I found is that it is easy to "lose" a card when trying to play it. You drag them to a certain spot on the screen to play them, sometimes if you don't get it exact the card flies off the screen never to be seen again! I know it wasn't played because it was a reinforcement card and that unit never appeared. That only happened a couple of times in a dozen hours of play.

Map and Terrain: The map is very well done and is lovely to look at. The game is area movement based, so the map is broken into many territories that the armies can move through.

Most of the maps are mountainous with forests and a few key clear plains areas and villages and cities dotting the map. This terrain plays an important role in limiting movement and stacking (only 6 units allowed in "rough" terrain) and also affect combat with die roll modifiers. Rivers often form the border to territories and are key terrain features for defense and play a critical factor in the Ebro campaign scenario.

Basic Unit Types: There are a number of different unit types. Each unit consists of 1 to 4 manpower steps that allow it to take losses in battle, when all the steps are removed the unit is destroyed.

Infantry - the bulk of the fighting army, can march one area at a time, or two when a road exists.
Tanks and Armored Cars - provide some key firepower help but are limited into what terrain they can enter.
Artillery - provide a combat die roll modifier when present.
Aircraft - Fighters can attack other aircraft and bombers can bomb ground units and work the same as ground units.
Cavalry - essentially infantry with better movement.
Anti-Air - can attack enemy aircraft, but I saw little impact in that role in my play.
Fortifications - cannot move, but can hold out in defense for a very long time.

Combat Mechanics: The combat in Battles for Spain is very simplistic. In order to enter into battle a leader unit must be present with your stack, one stack per zone per battle. Each battle lasts two rounds (cards can effect this). Each unit has a combat value, this number gets modified by leadership, terrain, entrenchments and artillery. Each unit rolls a 10 sided die to see what effect they have in the battle. If they roll equal to their modified combat number they cause one enemy unit to retreat from battle, if they roll below that number they cause one enemy unit to take a step loss. From my experience combat is very low intensity. You usually only have a 10-20% chance to "hit" each attack. Units often battle for many turns before a decisive loss occurs. Most battle results are retreats, which when combined with the fact that retreating units are removed before losses are assigned, means that a retreating unit often escapes without taking any losses when they are attacked.

Positives:
1. The game is very well put together, there are few bugs or problems with the game play.
2. The game is beautiful to look at, the maps and units are very will done.
3. It is faithful to the war being depicted. The flavor of the game is true to the time. No massive armored pushes or waves of aircraft devastating entire battalions.
4. It's truly a game of maneuver and supply, it isn't a static game. The best way to destroy large numbers of enemy units is to surround them and cut them off from their supply.
5. Leaders make the game very dynamic, I wish there was more to this mechanic. Such as personal skills or personalities for each leader, it's a historical game after all. For example, imagine if a leader was high-strung, very powerful when things were going well, but became a liability when things were going bad. Or, allow a leader to use their turn to "recon" an adjacent zone and get a rough idea what the defenses are like. I feel that would add a great layer to the game.
6. The scenario sizes were just right, each game could be played in about 2 hours, and the Ebro mega scenario took 4 hours. The game walks a fine line on being just complex and large scale enough to make the game fun without becoming bogged down with minutia.

Cons:
1. Little hand holding to start, there is no tutorial or explanation for the game. You jump in feet first and figure it out. The Ebro scenario is an example, you can only cross the Ebro river in boats, but there is no explanation on how to use them. Inevitably, your first play through will be marred because you have no idea that they can only be used every other turn.
2. Confusing unit names, you will get a card saying you can do something for a specific division, but can't see it on the map, because the unit names are confusing. This also works in combat where the card will say such and such division gets a bonus, but you have no idea which unit will get to use it until they actually enter combat. So you can't plan in advance.
3. Not much info given when beginning a battle. Pay close attention to your combat factors, because due to terrain and entrenchments you might have 0 combat values in a battle. Meaning you may have no chance to hurt the enemy. You wont know until you are in battle since there are no odds or estimations given in advance. This also makes using the combat cards tough, as you're often not sure if you'll need a card until AFTER you would need to play it. The combat cards are precious and you don't get enough to waste.
4. The game AI is very easy to beat. It is a wily opponent that will maneuver around you and cut off your advancing units, but it will rarely attack you. I never came close to losing to it.
5. Air combat is very simple and not detailed during play. In one game I managed to lose all 5 of my squadrons (3 fighter 2 bomber) of aircraft in one battle. My entire air force in that scenario. The game told me it happened, but gave no details on how or why. It just said "Your planes were intercepted!" Then they were gone. There was no action report, no report on enemy losses, nothing. Confusing.

Conclusion: Battles for Spain is a pretty high quality game. It's downfall is its simplicity. I would have liked the combat to have a more kinetic feel, tanks and bombers should have more impact on a battle than they seem to. There just wasn't enough there to keep an experienced war gamer interested. It's not a bad game by any definition. I just think its more of a game to play when reading a book on the Spanish Civil War than one I will want to play over and over again. I may try some of the other Wars Across the World games to see if any of my complaints are due to this specific game or are because of the engine. I also have Winter War by the same company, Avalon Digital, and it looks like it uses the same engine and is also available on Steam.

Nice write-up TAZ89, thanks for that!

Thanks, yeah! I picked up both a while back, but I'll probably try Winter War over the holiday this week.

I like the approach of Battles For Spain because I think it expresses the extreme difficulty the two sides had in coming to a decisive result. I'm looking forward to testing that hypothesis.

If you're interested in the Spanish Civil War, the changes that the recently made to HOI4 lets you play it out in interesting ways. I enjoyed winning the war as the Republicans.