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Posted on Nov 23, 2004 in Boardgames

Gringo! – Boardgame Review

By Michael Eckenfels

Introduction

Having a game like Gringo! (GMT Games) cross your desk is a nice kick in the pants to remind one that there are other periods of history that can be simulated, and simulated very well, besides traipsing across the steppes of Russia or raiding peasant villages in medieval Europe. Few games, I think, have dealt with the topic of the Mexican-American War of 1846, which upon examination almost makes one feel dirty and in need of a good bathing. The War itself was a result of President Polk’s machinations on the then-independent territory of Texas, as well as Mexico’s inability to ‘let go’ of the territory. A great deal of ill will existed between Mexico and the United States already over Texas in the middle. With the government of Texas accepting a US bid for annexation on July 4, 1845, Polk decided it would be prudent to sent a sizeable force of 2200 men – the "US Army of Observation," as it was sheepishly called – which parked near modern-day Corpus Christi. It wasn’t until April of 1846 that the first battle was fought, and another month before the US officially declared war. Given that the United States was facing the challenge of perhaps fighting with Britain over the Northwest Territories, committing to a war against Mexico seemed to many a folly.

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The Counters

Gameplay

It is against that backdrop that Gringo! hits, and I do mean hit – the components will take the breath out of you. With five different scenarios, the game contains five exquisitely rendered maps, one for each battle. Being used to fighting one scenario over a map, then another over the same map, leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to immersiveness; instead, each unique setting is drawn to great detail by the venerable Mark Simonitch (whose revision of the maps in the third edition of Three Days of Gettysburg more than make that game worth a purchase). Both Mark and Rodger MacGowan worked on the colorful counters, which come on sturdy stock. Initially it looks as if you’d need bifocals to read the counters, but there is sufficient color to make dusty free-for all battles in the streets of Mexico City or on desert plains easy to keep track of.

Using the Great Battles of the American Civil Wars rules set, which is on its fourth iteration for the game Gringo!, the detail comes to life from the rules. By applying a rules set to several different games (including Three Days of Gettysburg and Red Badge of Courage), the rules have seen a unique maturation over the years that has allowed unprecedented tweaking and editing to provide a product that has learned from past errors or omissions. While long, the rules for Gringo! are easy to digest – similar to eating a huge helping of one’s favorite steak dinner, for example. That’s fortunate, as they may seem daunting at first, but they read smoothly and plenty of examples are given. Nice historical notes are inserted throughout as well, giving the player slight ‘breaks’ in the reading and adding to the immersiveness overall.

The heart of the Great Battles of the American Civil War system is, in my opinion, the orders. The player takes the role of the commanding general, issuing orders and telling his subordinates how the battle should be fought – but what can happen on occasion is seeing subordinates move on their own initiative, or change stance, or perhaps even attack without orders. It beautifully captures the unknown of commanding troops on the battlefield of the 19th century.

Each unit can be given three types of orders – Attack, Advance, and March. Each gives the units so ordered certain roles to play out and restrictions to limit themselves to. These orders are given early on in a turn, which begs the well-known military precept: "Plans rarely survive first contact with the enemy." An order to attack may end up turning into a possible slaughter, or a move may cause a sudden hole to appear in the line that the enemy may exploit. To counter this, there is an Activation Segment where units start moving and orders can be changed – if rolls are made. Sometimes, the results are less than hilarious and more epitaphs may be shouted at the cardboard troops than the historical generals themselves yelled. I guarantee the results will be exactly the same, as the player’s cardboard troops ignore a change of orders and march to their destruction, for example, as the commanding general sits on a hilltop not a half mile away and pulls his hair out in frustration. So to does the player, feeling what his historical counterpart may have felt.

Instead of one player moving followed by the other player and repeated ad nauseum, players draw Activation Chits that determine which units may conduct their orders. This randomness injects a beautiful amount of uncertainty in the mix, as a nice wide opening in an enemy’s defense that is ripe for the taking by your well-placed division may not get exploited because of bad luck at chit draws, thereby giving the enemy a chance to plug the hole. Indeed, the randomness is quite enjoyable and makes no two battles, even from the same scenario, alike. Joy will melt to frustration and blossom again into joy; this game is a roller coaster of emotions.


Sample of the mapboard

Given the supreme level of detail in the game, covering everything from reaction facing to routs, as well as historical events and optional rules, players will find there’s a breathtaking amount of detail to absorb here. I felt like a diabetic at a donut convention during my first few games, and I must admit it took me a while to get used to the system and implement it correctly (with the sometimes help of the dice, which seemed to have it in for me despite my best intentions).

Finally, for those of you that like what you’re reading and want to give Gringo! a test drive without committing to a purchase, I recommend you visit this site and try it out. Of course, these counters won’t do the actual components justice when printed, but you can get a good look at them at least. Also, this test drive (provided by GMT Games) gives you the rare chance to dissect the feeling of the game nicely and allow the examination of its components.

Conclusion

Gringo! is a breath of fresh air to those Grognards used to blitzkrieg attacks or bombing enemy cities into ruin. For those that are students of history and open to learning about new arenas, picking up a copy of this game will not disappoint.

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