A Las Barricadas! Review19 Feb 2020 3
A Las Barricadas! Review
Released 30 Jun 2015
One of the better trends I've seen in the cardboard counter world is something I like to call "Outreach." This means that as opposed to only producing new, in-house designs, the firm looks outside and grabs old classics to update with new graphics or acquires already existing foreign-designed games to translate into English. Compass Games has been especially noteworthy in this regard, with the old GDW game Red Star - White Eagle an example of the former, and A Las Barricadas! 2nd Edition ('To the Barricades,' an Anarchist song from the war) an example of the latter.
A Las Barricadas! (ALB) is a tactical level game about the Spanish Civil War, the horrible little pre-World War II spat that allowed the Germans and Russians to hone both doctrine and fighting skill. Designed by a Spanish group under the name of War Storm Series (and evidently in collaboration with Multi Man Publishing of Squad Leader fame), the idea was to produce a common core set of rules that could be used to simulate all World War II tactical combat with little modification. As such, Juan Carlos Cebrián and Nicolás Eskubi ultimately produced nine War Stormers starting with ALB in 2006. Given the lads are Spanish this makes a lot of sense and shows the wisdom of bringing such fare into the Anglo-American world. Non-English speakers often have a distinctly unique outlook on wargame design to begin with, and for esoteric subjects such as the Spanish Civil War, who better than designers recreating their own culture and history?
Compass Games obviously agreed, so picked up most of the War Storm line and released a second edition of ALB in 2016. I got lucky and picked up a brand new, still shrink-wrapped copy for $45 US at a recent convention flea market, some $30 US off original retail price. And given we’ve never looked at this series, over the weekend I scanned the counters on to some heavy cardstock (I do that with all my board games to keep a pristine collector’s copy; weird I know) and put the game through its paces. I was not disappointed.
In the Box and on the Hex
ALB comes in a typical game box, though I must admit its artwork is without question one of the most subdued and ominous I’ve ever seen. Inside are a 24-page full color matte rulebook, two sets of charts on very heavy cardstock, eight additional heavy cardstock pages holding 16 scenarios for you to challenge plus two dice (blue and grey - wrong civil war, but hey). There are four isomorphic hex map sheets included, each about 11 by 15 inches. The hexes are oversized, and the artwork is a very accurate overhead shot of typical Spanish combat real estate, again with a somber coloring scheme that sort of says "misery."
The counters are also oversized. There are two sheets of 5/8-inch counters (176 x 2) that represent leaders, infantry and markers, while a half-sheet of 3/4-inch counters (70 counters) are on hand for weapons squads, vehicles and aircraft. Unlike the maps, however, the counters are quite colorful as well as easy to read. Leader counters have a black and white portrait of an officer from this war, while other combat units display exact, accurate representations of the soldiers and hardware that killed each other from 1936 to 1939. Here we are talking about tanks and aircraft in the proper camouflage schemes and national insignia. Here we are also talking fighting men in their proper uniform with proper flag, whether they be Nationalist, International Brigade, Republican, Anarchist or God knows what. Info markers round out the festivities, to include things like rubble, barbed wire and even Hit Markers based on R. Capa’s famous photo "Death of a Militiaman." Faction background colors are grey for the Nationalists, a more olive hue for the Republicans.
Unit counters approximate platoons, with infantry formations counting around 40 soldiers, weapons sections with three to four pieces of hardware plus 25 crew and vehicle units around 3-5 or wheeled combat buggies. Each hex is 150–200 meters while each turn represents 12–15 minutes of real time. The game also includes a points system (those Ancients guys are everywhere, seriously) so players might design their own scenarios. A game can actually be finished in under an hour for some of the smaller fights, and this is a good thing. Despite a very short and very well-illustrated rulebook, I found ALB to actually be a bit on the complex side.
OK, I will admit the Sequence of Play seems pretty benign. The first phase is Command where players determine which counters are within the command radius of their officer, while the second, Initiative Phase selects which of the two sides gets to activate a formation first that turn. What follows is an Action Phase (the real biggie), then finally a final Marker Removal Phase. In the Action Phase a player may activate a single formation, say, a company of three platoon counters with a leader, and after these counters perform all tasks desired, the enemy does likewise. This process rotates between the two players until all company sized formations have functioned. There is also the possibility the enemy player may interrupt his opponent mid action by conducting Reaction Fire. If the reacting unit has been previously designated with a Reaction Marker, it launches bullets at full effect, if not, then only at half strength. This integrated round-robin style of play is perfect for portraying the chaos of this war and works well.
What makes the game complex is the level of operational detail of leaders and units working when activated. Seriously, I’ve always said when you need a chart to show you how to figure odds for all the other charts, then you are looking at some pretty granular game play. ALB has that chart and it shows. A lot.
For example, most games will include a chart that determines all sorts of nasty results against a unit being fired on by the enemy. The chart really isn’t simulating a single round being loaded and shot down range, but a multitude of things that support pulling the trigger. Players take on faith that the mathematics behind these tables have factored in such things. Not in ALB. If you fire at a target you first have a die-dependent chart to see if it’s even spotted, and if so, you then choose Anti-Personnel, Anti-Tank or Artillery as your weapon of choice. Thus armed, the player figures die roll modifiers; rolls said die and determines the raw number of hits inflicted. Divide this number by the defensive value – based on both terrain and unit type – of the unlucky soul in your gunsights to determine the final number of hits scored. Per range, target class, caliber and type of gun firing you now see if this final number of hits does any damage. A 35 mm SA-18 may well score a single hit on a Schneider CA-1 at five hexes, but since the Schneider’s armor rating is two, your shells basically bounce off.
Other areas boast similar complexity. Aerial bombardment is by specific plane type such as the Italian SM-79, but again, the target must be located via chart. Normally both the size of the unit and the type of real estate it sits in is relevant for such matters. Morale likewise is checked under various circumstances, but sometimes individual platoon counters check morale, but in others the entire company of three platoons plus a machine gun section checks morale in aggregate. Thus, an infantry unit must check morale prior to moving to close assault (starting to sound a lot like miniatures, isn’t it), but the entire company has to check if its officer commanding gets killed or wounded.
And for me it’s the officers – or Commissars and Chaplains; yes, this game is deep – that really makes ALB special. These guys are rated for Command Radius, Rank, Morale, Movement and Coordination values. Each one makes a difference but Leadership or Coordination in particular. Remember this game runs by both players alternating the activation and functioning of company-sized units and a single company of three of four counters plus a captain is not a lot of combat power. However, the Coordination value can, if the Dice Gods smile, allow a player to activate two company formations as a single entity, thus slinging twice a much meanness against your Godless foe. And given the quality, or lack thereof, of the units under your command, sheer numbers become very important. It also shows the unbelievable value of solid, up-close-and-personal leadership in an army of dubious quality lacking even the basics in organization, doctrine and hardware.
In many respects ALB is a typical miniatures game slapped on cardboard, and though complex, works well because of the low density of units in play at any one time. The largest scenario in the game is "The Road to Madrid," with six companies of Republicans tangling with seven companies of Nationalists plus supports. The most complex is probably "Visca la Llibertat" because of the large amount of reinforcement strength points to be managed, but even here the stronger side has but 31 counters.
So, ALB actually plays quite fast, but the problem for me is that with all the detail presented, it did not feel like a quick play. Instead it felt a bit tedious, even though when I timed it that was not the case. Nevertheless, it was nice to have an accurate reminder as to what all those imbedded calculations really represent in other games, and at this level did exude a very dismal, Spanish Civil War type of personality. It represented the confusion and dysfunctional nature of the war quite well, and certainly made a solid point as to why it took three years for this family squabble to finally reach resolution.
Check out a PDF version of the rules on the Compass Games Website to see what ALB offers. It's an excellent game on an obscure part of the Second World War deserving far more attention than it gets, but the complexity and detail likely limits it to Grogs and those who have a particular interest in the period.
But if that’s you, prepare to start singing A las Barricadas, in a revolutionary, anarchist sort of way but of course.