Gringo!19 Apr 2004 0
There are shining moments in a wargamer's career where a title sparks an obsession for a period of history unexplored. Sure, we're an obsessive lot to begin with, but suffice it to say that sometimes our interests slide into well-worn furrows of habit. It takes a striking piece of work to knock us out of our Ukrainian panzer-ruts or charges across Manassas fields. Gringo! from GMT Games offers a grand reward to gamers willing to trade in their Mausers for muskets or Lee for Santa Ana, if only for a little while, as it casts long-overdue light onto the politically-charged and damnably bloody Mexican War of 1846-48.
The pretext for the war sits like a wart on the back of a lily-white hand. Both sides can find fault or justification heaped at their feet, yet suffice it to say that the short version of events finds hawkish actions on the part of American President Polk complicated by Mexico's political instability and willingness to oblige conflict. At the center of it all was the proposed annexation of Texas, which the U.S. Congress jointly resolved to admit into the Union on March 1, 1845. Given the strains, claims, and overall haze of ill will lingering over the territory, diplomatic relations with Mexico broke off even before Texas accepted the offer of annexation on July 4. Sensing the winds of change, President Polk safeguarded against any aggressive moves from Mexico by ordering Brevet Brigadier General Zachary Taylor to the region in mid-June. His "U.S. Army of Observation" of some 2200 men eventually made camp near Corpus Christi, yet many months of political machinations passed before the first skirmish broke out along the Rio Grande on April 25, 1846 - and it was not until May 13th that the United States actually declared war. Thus, the gringos eventually committed the overwhelming bulk of their regular army to the protection of Texas even as a war against the English over the Oregon Territory still remained a possibility. (Say it with me now, "Fifty-four Forty or Fight!") The West didn't think much of America's chances, but events certainly turned out differently with U.S. forces eventually entering Mexico City in September 1847.
Gringo! models five vastly different battles within this conflict on a regimental level, and captures their flavor and color through scenario-specific rules applied atop GMT's long-standing Great Battles of the American Civil War ruleset. The result is a solid appreciation of the men, the leaders, and the tactics applied by both sides during the Mexican War.
There's a whiff of powder and burning wads when the lid comes off the box for the first time. It's destination Mexico 1846, kids, and the components leave little doubt. For starters, the counter art has soldiers donning the period garb of their unit from the Tennessee Volunteers to the cadets of Colegio Militar, which strikes a feel for the hodge-podge of units that both armies paraded onto the dusty fields and streets of Mexico. These troops simply pop right off the map. The added kicker is a stripe of colored banding that help players readily identify the parentage of most any regiment on the field. It's quite the rare blend of color and functionality and I'll say these are the most eye-catching counters I've seen since Planes in Flames. Dead sexy! (For those of us degenerate enough to think wargame counters sexy.)
From there, the brilliant artwork continues on the five battle-specific maps included with the game, which are printed on two heavy-stock sheets (both 22"x34"). Each battle map evokes a genuine sense of place through earthy landscape features and the demarcation of important landmarks such as the National Highway or Santa Ana's camps around Cerro Gordo. To do otherwise would be to sell this entire package short given that this title covers everything from urban warfare in Monterey to the cliffside assault of Chapultepec. Each battle is its own entity, and the maps do not disappoint. Historical accuracy gets a big, fat pip via the copious designer's notes, which speak to the consultation of numerous military and topographical sources (including a map of El Molino surveyed by a Lt. Robert E. Lee). These maps are something to behold, both from an artistic and historical perspective.
Sadly, some printing gaffes have crept into the final product. A number of the maps are marred by instances of misprinted hex numbers where the fourth and final digit is missing. Likewise, a few counters contain erroneous information or have been duplicated in a confusing way. While these things do not derail gameplay, such errors chip the paint in an otherwise outstanding showing. Taken as a lot, it's like knocking a 40-foot eagle putt within two inches of the hole. A birdie to beat par is still just a tap away, but the missed shot still chafes. I got over it, primarily because of the overall brushwork by Art Director Rodger MacGowan. It's too masterful to let a couple dings take it down. Ultimately, any questions I had regarding these errors were cleared up with a moment of thought or a quick check on the Gringo! discussion forum at ConsimWorld.
The ruleset indicates a tried and true gaming system that's blossomed with age. While I've no prior experience with GMT's Great Battles of the American Civil War games (River of Death, The Three Days of Gettysburg, and Red Badge of Courage), the GBACW 4.4 rules that came with Gringo! seemed to flow right off the page. The 32-page manual read effortlessly and needful information was easy to locate during my first sessions. Drizzled throughout are designer's notes and play clarifications that speak to years of refinement based on comments and questions from the field. That's not to say gamers will walk away without a question or two, but a quick peek at the aforementioned Gringo! forum at Consimworld will likely have answers posted to the more common queries; and, as of this writing, designer Richard Berg has been replying to posts and meting out minor errata with great dispatch.
Most of the Gringo! scenarios are playable in a single sitting, with the monster urban assault of Monterey easily cracking the ten-hour mark. The setups and specialized rules to model them are presented in an additional "Battle Book," yet to think of this as a scenario pamphlet is a mistake. Seven of its 44 pages serve up an engrossing historical background and present the players with a step-by-step review of how Taylor's battles in the north shook out, right down to how his troops employed 10" mortars in Monterrey. Without question, even players whose knowledge of the Mexican War is a touch on the verde side will come away with a sound appreciation for the subject matter, right to the point of providing some ideas when it comes time to push the counters around.