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Posted on Jul 8, 2019 in Boardgames, Front Page Features

The Fate of Mexico in the Balance. GMT Games’ ”Halls of Montezuma”. Board game Review.

The Fate of Mexico in the Balance. GMT Games’ ”Halls of Montezuma”. Board game Review.

Ray Garbee

Halls of Montezuma:  Publisher: GMT Games.  Designers: Michael Welker & David Fox. Price $55.00 (On sale for $35.00)

Passed inspection: Does a good job of teaching Mexican geography through the map. Highlights the key events of the war through the event and action cards.

Failed basic: Set up instructions are unclear. Original rulebook is a muddle that makes learning to play the game very difficult.  

Card driven games have become a staple of the board game hobby. Be it “Twilight Struggle”, “For the People”, or any of the growing number of COIN series games, the card driven game seems here to stay. And rightly so as the mechanism of the card driven game allows a great blend of history lesson, special rule delivery vehicle and an agent for conveying the fog of war.


The Mexican American War is a great topic for a card driven game. With a rich history of events that span political and military affairs, the period offers the opportunity to convey a lot of information to the players. You likely know the very rough outline of the war – in 1835 the Texians revolted against Mexico, the legendary stand at the Alamo rallied people to the cause, and the decisive battle of San Jacinto resulted in the independent Texas Republic in 1836. Over the next 10 years, Texas drifted towards joining the United States. In the United States the admission of Texas was a controversial topic that generated fiery debate and vitriol amongst politicians such as Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun. The reasons were complex, but it was bound up in the knotty question of expanding slavery and maintaining the balance of power between North and South. Annexation was proposed and rejected by the Senate in 1844, but taken up and passed in 1845. Annexation was a red line for Mexico that they were not prepared to accept. The U.S. president James Polk tried a diplomatic solution, while also sending troops into the disputed area. When conflict broke out between the Americans and Mexico, Polk used this as pretext to ask Congress for a declaration of war on Mexico.

This summary glosses over a LOT of stuff including the California Bear Republic, the Native American situation in the southwest and the complex role of the abolitionist movement in the annexation process. If you want more on the events leading to war, read John Bicknell’s ‘America 1844: Religious Fervor, Westward Expansion, and the Presidential Election That Transformed the Nation’ for a snapshot of what was going on around the country.

The Halls of Montezuma kicks off in that period after Texas has been admitted to the Union, but before a formal declaration of war has been made by Congress. The game models this by using the two event card decks (crisis and war) to show the events leading to war.

The Halls of Montezuma consists of all the standard features of a board game. There’s the game board (aka, ‘the map’), Cardboard counters representing units and leaders, player aid cards, and the action and strategy card decks. The game’s physical components are first rate.

The map board depicts Mexico from the southern jungle to the dry expanses of Nuevo Mexico and Alta California. Texas is also depicted as are representations of New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico and Pacific Ocean. The map is a point to point system with points connected by lines representing the roads, trails and cities and ports of the landscape. In addition to the map, the game board contains a number of holding boxes and information tracks used during play.

The various military units and leaders and depicted with cardboard counters. These are also up to the usual standards of GMT. Die cut and printed in color these depicts units with a name and combat value or a named leader with movement and tactical ratings. The unit counters are quite attractive and engaging. Each side has a variety of units covering the standards of infantry, cavalry and artillery, plus a handful of Marine units.

The leader counters represent specific leaders and their staffs that can command units and armies. Each leader is rated for the ability in strategy, tactics and command (which is sort of an abstract representation of logistics and span of control ability). The counters include a small portrait of the leader, but it’s so small that I don’t feel that it adds much to the counter. The rest of the data on the counter is well formatted and easy to read.

Rounding out the counter mix are information markers to indicate if units are dug in or to denote the control of the cities and regions on the game board.  

There are also the charts. There are four unique charts – a set up chart, a turn record chart, an action and strategy card chart and two (2) copies of the player aid card. Most of these are self-explanatory and convey information related to their title. I want to expand for a moment on the player aid card. This is a 11” x 17” double sided card. You will use this a fair amount as it has all the charts and tables related to combat resolution as well as tables for almost all the other activities in the game.

The event and action card decks are standard fare for one of GMT’s card driven games. It’s the standard format where the card has an operations point value (Ops point) and a special event. If you’ve played ‘Twilight Struggle’ or ‘For the People’ you’ll be very familiar with the format and usage of these cards.

Okay, so those are the parts, but how does it play? Well, each game turn consists of the following phases – Random events, Deal Cards, Action Cards, Government status/end phase. 

In the random events phase, the players alternate drawing and implementing four action cards. Some of the events are not random. There are events specific to each game turn which are listed on the turn record chart. (For example, on turn 1, the US may NOT declare war at the start of the turn).

Next up, the players deal out the strategy cards to build a hand for the action phase. We’re getting to the heart of the game turn here.

Boom – we’re here! It’s the action phase. Here the players alternate playing Strategy cards with the Initiative player going first. You can use the card to play the listed event (if you are eligible).  Failing that, the player can use the OPS value on the card to perform various actions (move. fight, dig in, perform naval movement, etc). Some of the cards have mandatory events such as the Supply event.

The action phase is the meat of the game. It’s pretty standard stuff for anyone familiar with card driven game (CDG) mechanics in games such as “Twilight Struggle” or “Paths of Glory”.

The turn wraps up with the Governmental status phase in which you adjust control of areas and check to see if either player has satisfied their victory conditions. There are sudden death conditions based on control of territory and deployment of forces, or there is victory based on the status of the political will of the Mexican people and government.  

Halls of Montezuma is a card driven game. Part of that means it’s dynamic while also often being frustrating. Being dynamic means that it is rarely the same experience twice.

The game does a great job of presenting an overview of the conflict as well as the geography of Mexico and Texas. The colorful map captures the period and conveys a sense of the regions and routes that form the landscape of Mexico.  The game captures the feel of the period through the events depicted on the cards as well as the leader and army formation rules.  It certainly does a good job of presenting the challenge faced by the United States often facing a superior force while also being at the end of an extended supply line.

Given all that, I’d like to say that I really liked playing The Halls of Montezuma. Unfortunately, I can’t. I’ll share why. You know that feeling when you pick up the wrong glass and take a drink expecting a sweet sugary soda, but instead get the cold bitter taste of lukewarm iced tea? That was the impression I got from the first play through of GMT’s Halls of Montezuma. I was excited to see this rarely covered conflict getting the ‘card driven game’ treatment. I thoroughly enjoy a game of Mark Herman’s ”For the People” and on the surface, this seemed a great topic for a card driven game.

But from the start I felt like I was fighting the game more than my opponent. It started right out of box, with set up instructions that were so vague my frustration level ramped up. Just setting up the game should not be a chore – and the players should not have to guess where to set up pieces!  A specific example of this was there being no reference to the President track being on the game turn card, just ‘set the presidente token to Ampudia’. I spent 20 minutes combing the map trying to find a matching location. One more sentence on the set-up card instructions would have solved this.

The control flags and status counters come in an assortment of colorful choices with no guidance as to if the colors are specific to a province and city or not. Do you have to match the control flag and status counter color to the province? I struggled with the political will markers. There is no reference to setting up the political will markers, I had to deduce it from reading other rule sections.

This frustration spilled over into the turn sequence chart. Would a clearly labeled turn sequence have killed them? I feel like the turn record track is trying to convey information but lacks a crucial column that would label the rows in the table. At first, I had to guess which was the random event. I eventually decoded all this, but again – why frustrate your players with a confusing document when a little more work would solve the issue.

All this was frustrating, but these were minor compared to the real problem – the rulebook. The rules – as provided – are a confusing morass. We were constantly reading through the rules…and re-reading the rules. I’m actually surprised that GMT does not have an updated clarified set of rules/charts on their website for this game.

Fortunately, links to updated, revised and clarified rules are available through a reference I found on Board Game Geek. I’m surprised I had to go this route. It’s 2019 – I expect a company to support its product within its own selling and marketing channel and its own website.

Putting aside the set-up frustrations and the opaque rule book, the frustration didn’t lessen. But this time I suspect that this is an intentional feature of the game’s design.

The Halls of Montezuma has a very dense ‘fog of war’ feature when offering combat. This means that victory in combat is a total crap shoot. Beyond the basics of calculating firepower, each side has the opportunity to play strategy cards that can influence the battle. Watching Taylor’s already precarious assault across the Rio Grande get hit with both Malaria and Low Ammo turned a mediocre attack into a debacle.

Even discounting the event cards, the range of die roll outcomes between opposed D10 allows for some really dramatic outcomes that are impossible to predict. The effect is similar to what can happen in a charge combat in “Fire and Fury”, though scaling the result up from a single skirmish result to the outcome of the entire battle is going to result in some very lopsided battle results. Personally, I have to wonder if instead of the single d10 used in the rules as written that maybe using 2d6 would have smoothed out the frequency with which huge swings in the combat differentials would occur. The combat mechanism comes across as a more chaotic process than other CDG like “For The People”, which offers a higher degree of predictability.

Frustrations abound for the US player. General Scott’s appearance is tied to an event card. If the US don’t draw the event card, they won’t get General Scott, nor his invasion. Without Scott’s amphibious assault – and the beachhead – the US war becomes problematic.  Without Scott, it is difficult to see the US player reaching the Halls of Montezuma.

Solo players may want to give this a pass. Aside from all the frustrations already noted, the game does not have any solitaire support. There are no ‘bots’ of flow charts to help automate the play of either side. A player can certainly hot-seat and play both sides, but the nature of the card driven game means you lose some of the fun you gain with a second player.  The limited intelligence imposed by the card decks means that while you can play both sides, you’ll lose a lot of the uncertainty that drives the tension in the game.

Halls of Montezuma will appeal to fans of the period. That level in interest is needed because the game requires someone who is engaged by the period to wade through the rules and make sense of them. While not necessarily as complicated and detailed as a game like “Gallipoli 1915”, the muddle that is the rulebook and the frustration generated by its combat mechanism means that you’ll feel like you are fighting the rules more than you are fighting your opponent.

Unfortunately, that experience is not my shaker of salt. It’s a shame as you can see the core of a fun, educational game here, but it’s hamstrung by vague rules and a game system that seems to think that if some friction is good, more friction is better. If you are willing to invest your time to sort out the rules and maybe build an additional play aid or two, you’ll find some enjoyment with this game.

Armchair General Score: 83%

Solitaire suitability (1–5 scale, with 1 being virtually unplayable as a solitaire game and 5 being completely suitable for solitaire play):  2

Ray Garbee has been a gamer for the past four decades, Ray’s interests include the Anglo-Sikh Wars through the conflicts of the 20th Century and beyond but his passion remains ACW naval gaming. Currently, Ray works as a Product Owner in the IT field while continuing to design tabletop games. His past works include Iron Thunder, Anaconda, Anaconda: Capital Navies, Battleline: 2250 as well as articles in a number of defunct hobby magazines. When not busy gaming, Ray enjoys working on his model railroad, hiking and sport shooting at the local range.

event deck
Santa Ana
Marines in the desert
Map section


  1. Your negative point of view came from the incomplete rules. Did you play with the clarified and revised rules? With them, do you believe this game is good and playable?

  2. Hi Remi! It’s true that the original rules did stoke my discontent with the game and shaped my initial perceptions. As noted, we did have a revised rule book that helped clarify much of the muddle from the original rules that shipped with the game.

    The consensus of the players was that we’d be willing to put ‘The Halls of Montezuma’ on the table again. I don’t think the revised rules address the uncertainty I noted in fighting battles. There’s a lot of unpredictability with even a lopsided odds ratio that makes it very difficult for a player to predict the outcome of a battle with any confidence.

    It may not have come through in the review, but I did enjoy trying to push Mexico into revolt. It was the one area in which I had some success. It was far more effective than my efforts on the battlefield!