I like my Boss. He does me favors. And one big favor just recently was asking me to take a look at a new computer game called Battles for Spain (BFS) by Avalon Digital/Headquarters. Covering four battles of the 1936 thru 39 Spanish Civil War (Guadalajara 1937, Teruel 1937, Merida 1938 and Ebro 1938, all but the first Nationalist victories), BFS sports a very old school – though quite familiar – interface, but don’t let that fool you. For your $29.99 US you’ll not only get an exceptionally accurate rendering of that tragic conflict, but some of the toughest military challenges around.
Tech Specs and Graphics
The best way to describe BFS’s visual style is to think of some of the older AGEOD games. The interface is basic, simple with few options and the color palette for area movement is soft, foreboding and subdued. Each turn represents one actual day, while units are infantry battalions, armor companies or battalions, aircraft squadrons along with supporting artillery batteries, boats, supply trains and a substantial number of all-important leader counters. The symbology used are small pictures, in other words an infantry soldier or a tank or aircraft or the portrait of an officer. All are historically accurate and rendered in exceptional detail along with a background that not only defines side, but faction such as Italian “Volunteers,” Anarchists or International Brigades. Games can be played against the AI, one on one or via Email.
There is also a lot of extra historical details that are really nothing but chrome, but nevertheless does add to the ambiance of this period of history. For example, although the unit pictures of aircraft, tanks and armored cars, each of them is properly attired in the exact camouflage and unit markings for the faction they serve. Likewise, units are not generic such as Republican Infantry, but are actually named historical formations such as the Commune de Paris or 20 de Julio battalions. Artillery is named by caliber and aircraft ID’d by particular model, to include what seems to be every Polykarpov I-16 ever made by the Russians.
If this sounds familiar, it should. Headquarters, the developer, is a Spanish firm that has licensed the design concept from Avalon Digital, the folks who produce the Wars Across the World game series. Headquarters itself got its start by producing mods for AGEODs Revolution Under Siege and their work eventually evolved into Espagne 1936, Thirty Years War and English Civil War as AGEOD commercial products. Thus we have the look and feel, and also imprecise English translation within the must read rule book (a hallmark of many foreign second tier products) of AGEOD.
The game plays very quickly and smoothly with no lag or delay in terms of mouse movement, scrolling or zooming in or out. Without question part of this is due to the low density of units on the map, but also the modest hardware requirements of the game. The recommended specs are OS: Windows 7 or higher, Processor: 2.5 GHz Intel Dual Core, Memory: 4 GB RAM, Graphics: 1024 MB DirectX 11 compatible, DirectX: Version 11, Storage: 2 GB available space and Sound Card: DirectX Compatible.
Not that there aren’t a few quirks here or there. Although there is a switch for it, I could not find a tutorial in the game, and given the card playing portion of each turn, this might have been helpful. Also, while full screen resolution goes up to 1920 x 1080, when playing Windowed the max is 1600 x 900. Odd, but a minor annoyance that did not drop my enjoyment of the game a micrometer.
To be sure, I don’t think I have ever seen a computer game so eager to assist a player throughout his turn, to make it an easier and more informative experience, all in a very transparent manner. Thus, what seems to be a very complex sequence of play becomes quick and simple. What the game does, in effect, is take mandatory decision making out of the players hands completely, or makes optional decisions much easier to administer. The sequence is as follows:
- Card Draw – the player draws events cards for immediate or later play.
- Reinforcements – the AI allocates reinforcements to the player and indicates which regions they may arrive at.
- Supply – the AI displays friendly regions in supply and identifies friendly units out of supply.
- Naval Movement (Ebro scenario only, boats along rivers) – naval movement is conducted.
- Close Air Support – friendly air units either individually or in stacks attack enemy ground units.
- Land Movement – friendly ground units move region to region if allowed.
- Land Combat (Breakthrough Option) – enemy and friendly units in the same region fight with winning units meeting Breakthrough criteria identified to move into another enemy region.
- Combat Air Patrol – friendly air units either individually or in stacks may cover regions with friendly ground units and negate enemy air attacks.
- End of Turn – the game ends when one side or another gains sufficient Victory Points or after the final turn.
By far the most important phase above, and the one most difficult for me to learn, is the Card Draw. In this portion of the turn the player draws cards to a maximum hand of five before moving to the next phase. Cards lettered in black can be retained and played continuously, those in red only once. If a card may be played in a phase, it will glow green, and if it must be played immediately it will glow purple. In the latter case it is possible for a card to be played within the Card Draw phase, and the game will not let you move to the next part of the play sequence until you do so. Some cards naturally benefit the player drawing it, but some impact both sides, like that completely unfair and product of some demented mind “Bad Weather Prevents Flying for 6 Days” card that grounded the large Republican air force in the Guadalajara scenario. Ask me how I know.
But the real beauty of this game is how it wonderfully assists the player in navigating this seemingly extensive and convoluted play roadmap. For starters, if the player has nothing he can do within the phase, such as fly planes because of weather (but seriously, I’m not bitter), the phase is skipped. The phase doesn’t even show up, zilch, nyet, nada. Otherwise, wanna move some land units? When that phase comes any unit eligible to move starts to vibrate on the screen, so you don’t have to search. And when you drag and drop a unit to move it, only to be stopped short of its destination, the game pops up a little box that tells you exactly why you can’t make this particular move. Breakthrough or Reinforcements? The game highlights those regions on the maps available for such festivities. How about playing cards in the Land Combat phase? Before you even check, the game has already popped up and highlighted those cards available to be used.
It takes some getting used to, but before long you trust the electrons such that if there is no air phase, you know nothing is flying (likely because of some stupid bad weather card, thanks for asking). If no cards to support your attack on an entrenched defender begin to glow, you trust no applicable cards are available. In many respects it’s almost like the game AI is functioning like an actual staff supporting the commander.
And you will need all the support you can get. One of the neat things about reviewing a game like this is that it forces me to do a little research into the historical event itself. From what I read it would seem that the regular Spanish army prior to the revolt was not the shining star of European arms. Then rebellion hits and you add in mercenaries – er, I mean volunteers – conscripts, International Brigades, patriots of all sorts and a boat load of brave but inexperienced officers . . . Well, what you get is a struggle defined by vicious battles fought piecemeal by uncoordinated, poorly supplied, amateur led armies using small units across large stretches of poor terrain. Decisive, crushing blows bow before more attrition oriented warfare, and this game seems to portray that exceptionally well, with specifics as follows:
Roads – Spain has crap terrain, just ask Napoleon, even when it is flat and open, which not a lot. Given the very low movement rates of foot infantry, the mainstay of both armies, if you want to go anywhere in any reasonable amount of time, you must use the roads. In most battle games I’ve played, the use of roads is an after-thought for special situations such as that final coup de gras. In this game, however, you are talking about survival, especially since the battle areas are quite expansive.
Troops – On both sides, the troops are very brittle and lack a lot of staying power. This includes even units rated very high in morale and overall combat capability, so stacking multiple units in the same region becomes a lot more important than I have found in other games. Otherwise, regions with a single unit therein become vacant as friendly troops just run away after being hammered. Entrenchments become extraordinarily important, as do event cards that allow a retreat before combat or similar
Leaders – This is the big one IMHO, because of a couple of unique attributes. In the game a friendly unit can move all by its lonesome into another adjacent region and beyond.. IF… said region is either friendly occupied or completely unoccupied. Conversely, moving into enemy occupied turf requires an attached leader with combat as a result. To put this in perspective, at the beginning of the Guadalajara scenario the Republicans have troops deployed in 17 different regions on the board, some with singles and some with stacks. There are only three leaders present to control this gaggle, and two of them are in the same region.
But that’s not all. Each leader counter has one or two green stars emblazoned. One means the leader can adequately control (and add a combat bonus to) five units in a stack. Two stars means the leader can control double the number. If a one star leaders leads a stack of more than five units against the enemy, his presence has a negative impact on friendly troops. Taken with the above, attacks are difficult to launch simultaneously against a common target, while massing formations may actually be counterproductive. You must choose wisely when and where you will hit the enemy, because the entire front lunging forward isn’t happening. Supporting air units don’t need leaders to fly, but they do need good weather. Just sayin’.
Good game, highly recommended, easily playable in four hours. It accurately simulates the gritty, mob style warfare that defines the Spanish Civil War, produces games that are real nail biters and has the best Chief of Staff AI I’ve ever served with. What could be better? Well given the software firms involved how about a mashup between this game and Espagne 1936, allowing battles on the strategic map to be played out in a Headquarters tactical environment?
I’m game when they are.