Espana 1936 – PC Game Review
Passed Inspection: Colorful graphics, fine AI, excellent historical detail, great feel for the period
Failed Basic: Steep learning curve, only two scenarios, no editor.
The Spanish Civil War (1936-39) has always been overshadowed by World War II. Accordingly, computer games about the Spanish Civil War have been confined to HPS’ tactical Spanish Civil War; the controversial Shadows of War: The Spanish Civil War RTS game from Spain’s Legend Studios; scenarios in Panzer General II; and mods for Paradox Interactive’s Hearts of Iron series. Such neglect is regrettable. as the conflict demonstrated the transition from World War I to World War II operational doctrine and the dominance of politics over purely military concerns in the wars of liberation, proxy wars and civil wars of the post-1945 period. Publisher AGEOD and designer Miguel Santacruz seek to correct this oversight with Espańa 1936.
A Colorful Epoch
As with other games using the AGE engine, the multi-faceted graphics are not just eye candy but are intrinsic to the game. The zoomable primary map clearly shows major terrain features like mountains and rivers. Province boundaries can be discerned, as can roads and railroads. Cities, structures and large towns can be spotted, but their names are in small font, a nagging problem throughout the game. Each area of the provinces is marked with either the Republican or Nationalist flag, and tooltips have information regarding the areas’ and cities’ loyalty, military control, supply level and civilization level. Sea areas are delineated for movement purposes and ports are marked by an anchor. This basic view is supplemented by eight filter overlays describing provinces’ ownership, supply and loyalty level relative to the player’s faction. Other overlays provide different colors for provinces and grand regions as well as terrain and weather. Of particular help is the overlay with blinking strategic objectives. With beta patch 1.01c a mini-map shows forces’ locations.
Units are shown with icons depicting commanders or the dominant unit type in un-commanded groups. Again, tooltips provide basic information on name, command points and penalties, supply, size and detection values. Soldiers’ uniforms depict the many factions of combatants such as Falangists, Carlists, workers militias, Moroccan tribesmen and international brigades. Tanks, planes, armored trains, artillery and vessels alone in an area have their specific icons. Icons also show combat posture, fortification level and whether or not the unit is fixed in its position. Commanders have portraits but, unlike other AGEOD games, not every portrait is unique. Finding pictures of every commander in the war seems difficult but the development team continues to work on this element.
Selecting a unit brings up a panel showing more detail. In simple groups, battalions, batteries and squadrons are shown in their own slots. Tooltips provide more information on cohesion, combat strength, unit type, supply, command points required to operate without penalty and region of origin. Battalions are composed of elements seen in a panel to the right. Clicking on an element displays that element’s experience, strength, cost to maintain and 22 combat and movement factors. Commanders’ details include their names, their strategic, offense and defense ratings, seniority, command points and which of the over 90 special attributes they may have. Commanders’ element panels are similar to those of ordinary elements. When more than one force is in an area, tabs for each appear above the unit panel, allowing easy clicking and moving between forces. Some forces will be columns, divisions, corps and armies. When the commanders of divisions are selected, their units appear on the left of the screen. Constituent corps of an army will flash when the army commander is selected if the corps is in the army’s command radius.
Combat animation is a matter of diagrams and tables. When battle occurs during the week-long turns, a circle appears showing the day-by-day ebb and flow of the fighting. However, many battles are so short that this animation merely flashes for a second. The circle is followed by a static summary with winners and losers, casualty figures and some details of percent of forces involved and captured men and equipment. A more detailed round-by-round description can be had through a button on the summary.
Sound effects are helpful, with movement represented by clumping boots, clanking treads and chugging engines. Combat has booms, yells and shrieks.
Other helpful graphics are the seven tabs to access tables. These tables are sortable spreadsheets, graphs and illustrations of military, political and diplomatic options. A larger strategic map is also shown here. Weather and important factors like national morale, victory points, money, available manpower and rail capacity are shown across the top of the main screen.
A War of Passions
The Spanish Civil War was marked by internecine struggles on both sides to the extent that portraying the struggle as two-sided clouds some issues. Both the Nationalists and Republicans were divided into several factions with differing political, regional and ideological goals. The Nationalists were best able to downplay their frictions through Franco’s iron pragmatism. The Republicans could never quite work as a team, a situation contributing greatly to their defeat. Espańa 1936 captures the military aspects of these internal troubles by stretching the AGE engine in clever ways.
The basic mechanics of the game is typical AGEOD: drag-and-drop movement supplemented by special orders for forced marches and rail movement adjusted for weather, terrain and supply. A small special orders panel—one of three—facilitates movement. Units and forces may be rearranged by moving and dropping on the unit panel or on the area where the force is located. The other panels deal with officer promotions, creating and disbanding formations, depots, and bombardments among other activities. Combat depends on the four possible postures and the secondary four “Rules of Engagement.” The range of postures allows everything from immediate retreat to all-out “ignore losses” attacks. Naval units behave in the same manner.
These seemingly complex mechanics are well described in the 200-page manual and three tutorial scenarios. The manual also has a helpful detailed timeline of the war. Players should leave the PDF version of the manual open during play for access via ALT-TAB.
Although Espańa 1936 has two scenarios, the 26-turn “Fall of the North” and the 146-turn “Spanish Civil War 1936-1939,” the game’s soul only appears in the longer scenario. “Fall of the North” begins in 1937 when the Nationalists had things fairly well sorted out. The campaign was centrally planned with the main forces organized in the eastern area with German and Italian support. Their western forces remain locked for half the game, probably for regional political reasons. The scenario plays like a fourth tutorial with the Nationalists almost steamrolling to Bilbao if the player has any sense. Players and the AI can make heroic stands as the Republicans but will likely lose.
The three-year scenario does a much better job of simulating the unique and peculiar nature of a tragic conflict. The war began with an army coup using veteran troops from Spanish Morocco. Regular troops in Spain were divided in loyalties, and the various political paramilitary units were able to limit the Nationalists’ initial surge. The Republicans had even more troubles. Political jealousies kept arms away from select units, and commands were dictated more by ideology than by military thought. This game represents the early confusion by giving the Nationalists many commanders but spreading troops in penny-packets around Spain. The first few turns see Nationalist generals scurrying around to gather enough forces to allow two- and three-star generals to create corps and armies, thus reducing command penalties when creating those formations. Obstacles to forming effective divisions, corps and armies include officer seniority and units being fixed in area. Soon, the army options table allows transportation of more units on German Ju-52s. Rich in money, men and supplies, the Nationalists can start building more troops from the production table and can be placed on green areas via the helmet-shaped military recruitment button. These units will start weak and require time and training by officers before they can become useful. An apparent superiority may tempt players to use the “sudden death” victory option and strike Madrid quickly. Bad idea; partisans can hold the capital and then surround the Nationalist force, stripping supply, reinforcements and exits.
The Republicans had different problems. They started with very few officers and legions of militia units all over the map. In the early turns, proletariat units take over key cities, good for defense but bad for coordination. Eventually, some officers perform well enough to be promoted, and the USSR sends “advisers” who can take command. Poor and shunned by western democracies, the Republic can’t build many native units and must wait for the international brigades to arrive. Effective coordination is furthered hindered by the Republic’s slow acceptance of division, corps and army doctrine.
Combat is more than checking stack sizes. Frontage is a consideration. In narrow terrain, smaller units can act like the Spartans at Thermopylae. Weapon platforms can outweigh numbers, as can commanders’ abilities. Commanders can gain experience by performing well even in defeat. Nearby air bases can pierce the fog of war, allowing players to decide between probes or more aggressive attacks. “Decision Mode” allows players to apply air power, while naval squadrons can bombard. Options in that mode can be used to increase civilian loyalty and persecute enemies. Units can take attrition and cohesion hits while simply moving, not to mention what occurs in battle. These hits can be regained if units are in a supplied and loyal area.
Victory can be had by taking objectives to gain victory points. The side with the most points wins unless the “Sudden Death” option is implemented. Here, one automatically wins with a National Morale of over 175 or loses when morale drops below 50. Morale is affected not only by objectives but battles and events. Diplomatic options can influence morale as well as gaining foreign support.
A good AI provides for hours of play, as does PBEM. The most irritating features of the game are the limited number of scenarios and lack of a scenario editor. Perhaps AGEOD is following policy and will sell add-ons. Although some minor bugs still exist, AGE will fix them soon. The game is eminently playable now and captures the essence of the struggle in grand fashion. Viva Espańa!
Armchair General Rating: 84%
About the Author
Jim Cobb has been playing board wargames since 1961 and computer wargames since 1982. He has been writing incessantly since 1993 to keep his mind off the drivel he dealt with as a bureaucrat. He has published in Wargamers Monthly, Computer Gaming World, Computer Games Magazine, Computer Games Online, CombatSim, Armchair General, Subsim, Strategyzone Online and Gamesquad