Saturday, May 21, 2016

Wargame review — The Halls of Montezuma

Welcome to Mexico. Now Get the Hell Out!

(Originally published on June 9, 2009)

Designers: David A. Fox, Michael Welker
Player count: 2
Publisher: GMT Games

For Mexico, the 1845 annexation of Texas by the United States of America meant war. Both nations exchanged acts of defiance for a few months before Mexico, though politically unstable as it was, came down on a U.S. patrol of 63 men (led by Thornton, hence the Thornton Affair) in the contested territory north of the Rio Grande with a cavalry force no less than 2,000 strong.
This led President Polk to declare war on Mexico, a struggle that was to last until 1848.

In The Halls of Montezuma, players reenact this conflict starting before the declaration of war, when diplomacy was still supposed to serve its purpose. The war might run its course and end “historically” in the spring of 1848, but it may very well come to an abrupt conclusion before that if either side achieves its victory conditions.

Montezuma is a Card-Driven Game—often called a CDG—inspired by a few predecessors, most notably Wilderness War (from which the raid mechanics were borrowed). Traditionally, the cards in a CDG are referred to as strategy cards and can be played, one per turn, to perform a variety of functions. One way to play a strategy card is to implement the event described on it; you can do this only if the event pertains to your nation. In other words, the Mexican player can only play Mexican or dual-nation events, never American ones.
The other way to play a strategy card is to use the number in its upper left corner, called the Operations (OPS) Value. Depending on its OPS Value, a strategy card used in this manner allows the player to activate a leader (and, most probably, a force attached to him), receive replacements, build fortifications, perform a naval operation (such as an amphibious landing or seizing a port), place control markers (essential to maintaining supply lines and reaching victory conditions) or execute raids against strategic locations.
Players alternate playing strategy cards until both have run out (or kept one), at which point play moves on to the next turn.

The game unfolds on a map of Mexico and the southern portion of Texas, where units move from space to space along connecting lines. Some terrain is more difficult to enter, while some spaces are inherently easier to defend, such as the Vera Cruz and Mejico fortresses.
When two opposing forces find themselves in the same space, combat occurs. A variety of familiar modifiers are computed, and each side then cross-references its firepower together with a die roll. The result indicates losses inflicted upon the other side, which in turn regulate the necessity of a retreat for the losing side.
One set of modifiers that are not of the familiar variety is the requirement for each side to designate a lead unit, and the option to commit one or two units (depending on the leader involved and the quality of said units). When calculating total firepower, the leading unit is counted at its full FP and each committed unit at twice its FP, while each of the other units is counted as adding one to the sum. Battle events—found on strategy cards—can also be played to alter the outcome.

Both sides can achieve “sudden death” victory through the control of key locations in enemy territory. Otherwise, the game ends at the conclusion of a turn on the successful roll of a die, starting with turn 6 (summer of 1847) and where the odds of the game coming to a close rise with each passing turn—culminating in an automatic end on turn 10. In that case, Mexico wins unless the victory marker currently stands in the US zone.

NEW IN TOWN

In Montezuma, strategy cards offer two additional twists.
Firstly, the pool of strategy cards is split in two halves: Crisis cards, which are used from the beginning, and War cards, shuffled into the deck when the US declares war on its neighbor (which can happen in a few different manners). Crisis and War cards offer different options at different moments while altering the overall taste of the game, a subtlety players of Twilight Struggle will be familiar with.

Secondly, some strategy cards (too many of them—or at least that’s the way it feels when your supply line is stretched to the limit…) sport a supply icon. When one of those cards is played, a die is rolled, and a result equal to or less than the card’s OPS Value triggers a supply check, with all that bad stuff for out-of-supply units: movement attrition, firepower penalties, and inability to build fortifications or receive replacements.

But wait! There’s another stack of cards begging for some attention: the Action Deck, which dispenses four random events—two for each side—at the start of every turn. You may get reinforcements, a heat wave may hit the battlefield, Santa Anna may unexpectedly return from exile, or better/worse (depending on which side you’re playing, of course).
In addition, each card in the Action Deck serves as a movement enabler. Whenever a unit (or group of units) attempts to move, the top card of the Action Deck is flipped and the leader’s strategy rating looked up on the little movement table that’s printed—with different values every time—at the bottom of each strategy card. This yields a movement allowance that the active unit or group must conform to. An underlined MA indicates movement attrition (and yes, all types of attrition are cumulative…).

As someone else might say, reinforcements in Montezuma are like a box of chocolates: you never know what you’re gonna get. Units allotted for reinforcements are drawn blindly from a cup. Keep drawing until you get your fill, and make do with what Chance handed you.

WAR PRODUCTION

Some of the recent GMT game boxes have been quite something to glance at, but The Halls of Montezuma looks spectacularly good on the wargame shelf. The game map is also one of the most beautiful to grace my table in recent memory. I was worried that the monochromatic approach might turn the map into a visual quagmire, but the board remains highly readable throughout the game.

The unit tokens are standard wargame fare and do a good job. The other markers are also adequate, although the Civic State and State Control markers are somewhat perplexing. Several colors are used for those, and while the setup instructions make no mention of this, we are led to assume that Civic/Control markers are supposed to go in State Status boxes of more or less the same colors. Except that those colors don’t quite match up between the counters and the map. Might have been easier to simply go with one color for all the Civic/Control markers, especially since the different hues have no effect on gameplay.

Both card decks are printed on good cardstock with a fine layout and a pleasing design, but confusing nomenclature. The deck that contains the strategy cards is referred to as Strategy Deck in the rules; yet each card therein says “Event Deck” on its back. On the other side of the fence, the Action Deck generates random events at the beginning of each game turn… although strategy cards are played during each action phase of a turn to, well, implement an action of one type or another. Not a big problem once you’re up and running, but this is something that could have been ironed out.
The card backs of both decks were also printed in three different shades. Three slightly different shades of blue for the Strategy/Event Deck, and three slightly different shades of gold for the Action Deck. Again, not a deal breaker—unless your regular opponent is an obsessive card-counting colorist—but a glitch that I’ve rarely encountered.
Lastly, arm yourself with a sharpie: the faces of two of the strategy cards are missing their blue Response labels at the top.

RULES OF ENGAGEMENT

While certain concepts require some deeper study (Battle in a Zone comes to mind), for the most part the rules are relatively easy to grasp and flow logically. The full-page index at the back of the rulebook—although incomplete—is quite welcome, as is the very detailed player aid (in two copies in the box). A Quick Start Sheet is also provided, which makes for easy reference while learning the game.
For some reason, GMT decided to print a “Set Up Card” on the back of the Quick Start Sheet. This features all the setup information, information that is not repeated in the rulebook proper. The problem is that one crucial sentence is missing at the bottom of the first paragraph on the Set Up Card:
“Blindly and randomly place one Political Will marker in each PW city and Alta California.”
The missing information is readily available online—and many a gamer will eventually come to the conclusion that they have to setup the PW markers in just that manner—but as a result of this little omission, the game is unfortunately unplayable right out of the box.
A sprinkling of typos throughout the rules and some mistakes in the example of play further confuse matters. Which is not to say that Montezuma is impossible to decipher; far from it. But it will take a couple of games as well as a good look at the FAQ for everything to connect into your (and your opponent’s) brain.
Once that light bulb goes on, though, hang on: you’re in for one exciting ride.

One final note on the rulebook: it contains one of my favorite features—card histories! Each strategy card’s event is described in one concise paragraph. Instant education for those who knew little on the game’s topic to begin with. (“Guilty, your Honor!”)

FUN FACTOR

I was never a big fan of Wilderness War, one of the godfathers of Montezuma. It felt too static to me, and a bit scripted at times. Not true here.

Thanks to the Action Deck, movement is a LOT of fun (who would have guessed?), with just the right amount of uncertainty thrown in to keep players double-guessing their mobilization plans.
Start-of-turn events provide more controlled chaos: since the number of different such events is limited, players soon learn to anticipate what may befall their forces.

I love the combat system, both very effective and quite simple. The little battle diagram on the board may look like nothing, but it really helps newcomers learn the system, and makes sure old hands keep everything straight.

The designers did a great job of making a Mexican win possible. It’s a question of holding out long enough for the American player not to achieve his victory conditions until time runs out. Of course, invading Texas might also help the Mexicans earn a victory, not to mention revel in the pure pleasure derived from the looks of anxiety the American players generally casts about in such a situation.

Still, in a period rife with scenario-based wargames, where we’re getting used to each new game being necessarily different from its predecessor, how would Montezuma’s one and only scenario hold up? Very well, I’d say. All of the cogs found in the box combine to create a dynamic machine that feels fresh every time it’s fired up.



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