Playings; 5, (about 16 hours).
Central America is a game that I keep coming back to. Partly because I am fond of long and complex modern games but mainly due to the low prices of 2nd hand games deterring me from getting shot of it. This is game that promises a lot, pretty counters, only 1 map, 16 scenarios plus a generation system, plenty of points on the heft front so why is the game a duffer? Failure to meet up to expectations. A better name for the game would be Nicaragua, the country that covers most of the map and whose actions account for nearly all the scenarios. Only 1 of the scenarios (civil war in El Salvador) involves no Nicaraguan units. The general rational of all the games is that Nicaragua invades one of its neighbours or Nicaragua is invaded or civil war in Nicaragua.
Talking of scenarios, there may be plenty on offer but over half are of the few units, not much map variety. If this game were pushed as a game about Nicaragua and the scenario count reduced to the 6 full games plus the generation system, Central America would have less to live up to. Having read the box, thought about the title and paid my money, Victory have made a sale, which deep down is all they want to do. Knowledge of the American trades’ description acts ought to put the buyer in line for a refund.
Victory have gone to town on the presentation of this game, which could explain why playing it is such a letdown. Clearly the writers put some effort into the rules books, 64 and 38 pages of them and this is problem number one. Having ripped off the cellophane a popular 2nd step is to read the rules, you don't need to read the 2nd book (advanced rules) but 64 pages is still a lot to plough through. If you like long complex rules you too will be disappointed, the rules as such are not complex but are laid out in needless detail, for aircraft we need to slog through air units, air missions and air combat. Much of the detail is the same in all these sections, a good deal of what you really need to play is summarised on the back cover but you will still have to slog through the rules first. Unless you plan to jump right in to the longer scenarios many of these same rules will be used by very few units, as late as scenario 7 (scenarios increase in size and complexity by number) the US allies have only 4 helicopters, units that take up a lot of rule space.
This problem is caused by the division of Central America into conventional and intervention rules books. The intervention book is largely concerned with the appearance and actions of US forces. It is not necessary for any games not involving them but considering the preference of the USA for invading any country not beginning with the letter B, American appearance would be no surprise in a real war here. Naturally the USA have the best units so any scenario involving them also involves a lot more use of the conventional rules. Generally the other nations have a very limited ability to detect air units and lack many planes suitable for air combat. Certain ground attack types can be diverted for this role but they are better saved for combat support in the player's own turn. Frankly the game is at its best with the longer scenarios that make best use of the rules that have to be read no matter how short the scenario. The problem is whether the effort put into playing these longer games is offset by play enjoyment. With so many games around Central America has to compete with the other long hefty modern games on the game shelf.
Off to a good start, Central America is a single maper, even using the 2 air displays the whole set up can be left in a space 3' by 2', an important consideration for many gamers. It seems polite form to make every modern game a multi-maper, Central America's compactness is its chief advantage, the game system its big drawback. The areas covered by the map are home to several long running guerrilla wars but the time scale of Central America is 1 or 2 months per scenario, a guerrilla offensive or major invasion or anti-guerrilla sweep. Naturally we have conventional forces that can fly, air assault, bomb, shell, hide in tanks and all the other deeds compulsory for modern games but the guerrilla angle also needs to be handled. Many of the plane types provided will be unfamiliar, slow ground attack types predominate, handy for bombing and guerrilla dispersal but hopeless when the USA turns up with its front line aircraft.
Apart from all the usual ground units that act like they always do are a selection marked by a wide central stripe (no fashion sense), these are the insurgency units and they get to break most of the rules. Insurgency units can move in the same phase as other ground units or wait until their own phase, moving 4 hexes regardless of terrain, including nipping across short stretches of sea. Other units must stop on entering ZOCs, insurgency units just slip by. Units must attack any units in ZOCs though, except units with no attack strength or out of supply units. A stack that is out of supply will be better off in an enemy ZOC than a very weak stack because it is not forced to attack at low odds. Players start with a pool of insurgency points; a hex is designated to bring on an insurgency unit, 1 point spent and a D8 rolled. The unit will appear like magic, fail, wasting the point or appear at a cost of 1 extra point. Certain factions of units are limited to where they may appear and the hex must be within 2 hexes of an in-supply regular unit or adjacent to an in-supply insurgency unit. Dense terrain and hexes in the unit's home country are the best places to raise troops, otherwise deployment is unlimited. Once all insurgency points are spent no new units can be brought on, also the non-deploying player can use certain air units to disperse newly created insurgency units, bearing in mind that these air units will not be available for bombing or combat support and that their interdiction mission may be intercepted. Except for a few special forces units all removed insurgency units go back to the spare pile and can be brought back into play as long as the points hold out.
Take away all the special ground units and air rules and Central America appears as a push and shove game in the Napoleon at Waterloo mould. Combat is compulsory so we sidle up with strong stacks against the weakest part of the defence. Pile on the air power to flip the odd defender and up to a plus 3 on the combat die and try to pile on as many special units as will fit in to improve the odds and die roll. When the results come in the best that can be achieved is a loss of 3 steps and a retreat of all defenders 2 hexes, a 2 step loss is a more realistic result even for high odds attacks Stacks can be up to 4 two-step ground units so these attacks will not destroy a full strength stack. A row of nearby enemy units can be piled into a single combat to increase the number of units in the retreat but restricting the possible number of step loses inflicted. If the defender is unable to retreat because of enemy ZOCs, another step is lost. Up to 2 attackers may advance into the vacated hex, probably hoping to make the opponent attack at low odds next turn or retreat further. often the next player will pull together his reserves and hit the exposed parts of the advance, pile on the special stuff and have much the same - limited - results as his opponent. Players have a quota of replacement points to re-built lost steps in 1 turn or whole units in 3. This all boils down to a lot of going back and forth along key terrain until 1 side runs out of replacement points or the defender has his airfields overrun or planes shot down (by the USA, who have the technology), lack of air support limiting hopes of good results except at very high odds.
Central America lacks an index of national moral. How many units are destroyed and what territory is captured may decide who has won at the final reckoning but will not influence play up to that point. A hefty stack caught out of supply and surrounded will not give up. It will continue to tie up the enemy until wiped out or until it can slip back into supply at half movement allowance and possibly be re-built. All those insurgency units are fanatically loyal, no matter how many are removed they keep coming back until the very last insurgency point is spent, representing the last point of available manpower. Best raise them behind the lines and let them slip into and behind the front lines, raising insurgency units right where they are needed causes available Points to plummet. This is probably true for a terror based organisation such as the Viet Cong or Contras, less so for the Sandinistas and other popular movements. The regular units act in a similar way, holding out until the points and step losses run out. Various degrees of loss will not put a nation out of business; you have to keep pushing until there are insufficient forces available to hold the front line. Helicopters are only damaged if they support a defence that is forced to retreat and most other air units may freely re-base if their airfield is overrun, all airbases need to be captured to put an airforce out of business. Not having the benefit of hindsight it is hard to say if this approach is correct, fighting could drag on much as the Iran-Iraq War or 1 side could collapse like the Somosa regime after a given amount of pressure.
Central America is likely to appeal to the US redneck that truly believes that Nicaragua is in the USA's backyard and that the Sandinistas are commie hordes ready to take on the world. The game should be seen as set in the mid 80s before the Sandinistas lost overall control of the country rather than a simulation of what may happen tomorrow. of course some expansionist types could gain control of Nicaragua in the near future prompting US intervention and putting the game right on line. The system does not offer enough that is new or clever to satisfy the rules fetishist so should be relegated to the period fan who will put up with the games systems.