Victory Games' Central America: A Review

Victory Games' Central America
Central America, a wargame based on modern conflict in Nicaragua and surrounding countries, is very much a product of its time.  Designed by James H. McQuaid and developed by Mark Herman (Gulf Strike, Pacific War, and many others), Central America was published in 1987.


Historical Background

The communist overthrow of Nicaraguan President Anastasio Somoza in 1979 was a dire warning to many American policymakers that the United States was losing the Cold War in Central America.  The Reagan administration rode to power in 1980 in part due to its tough stance on foreign policy in relation to communism.  Reagan vowed to "roll back" the global spread of communism that had characterized the 1970s.  In what was later dubbed "the Reagan doctrine", covert support was given to anti-communist insurgents in places like Afghanistan and Nicaragua.  For neo-conservatives, a fixation on this doctrine and an attitude of "the end justifies the means" would end up causing scandal and embarrassment for the Reagan administration as the decade wore on.


Despite the insistence of administration officials that Nicaragua was a dangerous Soviet client state with ambitions of regional domination, the American public was not convinced and polls showed that the majority of citizens were against US involvement in a small regional conflict  that few Americans understood and which echoed some similarities to early American involvement in Vietnam in the '60's.   News reports of human rights violations committed by the US-backed insurgent group, known as "the Contras", didn't help matters and Congress decided to cut military aid to the group.  Undeterred, the administration pursued a kind of shadow war against Nicaragua, using the CIA to destabilize the government and the Iran funds to keep the money flowing to the Contras.  The CIA was later found to have engaged in a lot of dirty tricks, including mining the Nicaraguan harbors and destroying infrastructure. So outrageous were these abuses that the Nicaraguan government successfully sued the United States government in the International Court of Justice.


At the time of the game being published, the Iran-Contra scandal was breaking news and Americans were getting used to prime time programming being pre-empted for Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North's testimony to Congress.  The American sale of arms to Iran in order to continue funding the anti-communist insurgent groups known as the Contras shocked the nation and was quickly becoming the biggest political scandal since Watergate.  Despite the outrage that the revelations generated, most of the major players in the scandal, especially President Reagan, were left with their reputation and legacy largely intact.

Central America and Cold War Perspectives

So "Central America" comes with baggage.  A lot of it.

Designer James H. McQuaid makes clear in his essay at the back of the rulebook that he views Nicaragua under the FSLN as a dangerous Soviet client state with its eye on dominating the region and a key player in the Soviet Union's bid for global supremacy.

Consequently, the Nicaraguans take on the role of regional bad guys in many of the scenarios.  In some scenarios, they harbor Soviet missiles or invade Honduras.  Other scenarios, however, are based on historical short-term conflicts like "The Soccer War" between El Salvador and Honduras in 1969.  Another scenario depicts the small border raids in March of 1986 when Sandanistas attempted to destroy a Contra base near the Honduran-Nicaraguan border. Of course, there is the hypothetical US-invasion scenario where the US declares war and invades Nicaragua. There are even some scenarios that feature full-scale war between the Americans and Soviets during WW3.

Overall, Central America has 16 scenarios consisting of 4 introductory scenarios, 5 intermediate scenarios, and 7 campaign scenarios. Probably due to their relative simplicity, most people today who recall this game tend to refer to the introductory scenarios.

I know some posters on game forums have belittled Central America because of the designer's theories at the time but for me, it's just part of the game's overall charm and it makes things much more interesting.  Thinking about the region as a part of a larger superpower conflict that determines the battle for ideology is much more immersive than seeing Nicaragua as an isolated and poor country that was merely attempting to modernize after suffering under a repressive regime that favored rich land owners for most of the 20th century.  That view might be more realistic but it definitely isn't fun.

Components

The components are quite decent.  There are 260 counters with the game with standard old-school silhouettes of units with lots of information on them.  A large colorful paper map is included with the game, showing El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and the very northern edge of Costa Rica.  It provides tables and charts with combat results and other useful information.  However, there are also two reference books (one for each player) that include pages of extra charts and information for each player.  A large scenario book is included, as mentioned before.  There are two rulebooks, one for the conventional game and the other with advanced rules (the "Intervention" game).  The basic rulebook is a whopping 64 pages while the advanced rules clock in at 40 pages.

The rules themselves are actually quite well-written and organized quite nicely.  During my first several plays, I had to consult the rulebook many many times and I never once failed to find an answer to my questions.  One issue is that whoever wrote the rulebook decided to write little footnotes after each section.  Most people would instinctively skip over the footnotes but, upon further inspection, the footnotes have vital information that every player needs to know.  A very odd choice.


Gameplay


Central America does not forgive casual players.  If you are unable to retain and remember lots of detailed information then you will probably not enjoy the game.   Likewise, if the theme of modern warfare in a relatively obscure region of the world does not especially interest you, the game will fall flat as a pancake. Lastly, as I mentioned before, many of the scenarios are written from a particular ideological slant that many people might find to be too much of a stretch.  I believe that these are among the reasons that Central America's sales were disappointing for VG.  It did, however, win a Charles S. Roberts Award for Best Modern Era Wargame in 1987.


What Central America does well is model short, high intensity conflicts. Game turns represent two days of real time and units represent about 1200 - 1500 men.  There are special rules for creating insurgent units and moving them around the map.  Regular ground units can fight and help create insurgents to help fight alongside them.  Special units like US Army Rangers, Special Forces, and the CIA broaden out the roster and give the game a real atmosphere of a shadow war being fought by proxy and elite military units deep in the jungles and forests.

The movement, combat system and phase-based turn system seems outdated now but it actually works okay for this type of game and it manages to keep players on the right track.  The CRT based combat which is based around wargame staples such as step-losses, ZOCs, etc. date the game considerably but work smoothly enough, I suppose.


Conclusion

I would recommend Central America to wargamers with a lot of time and for people who enjoy complex games with lots of rules.  As a solo game to study and think about over my holidays, I found Central America to be quite enjoyable.  I sat back and watched some footage of the Iran-Contra hearings and leafed through my battered copy of Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA by Bob Woodward.  I found myself drawn into the game and remembering vividly what it was like to live through that period of history just before the Berlin Wall fell.  I also learned a lot more than I thought I would ever know about politics in Central America. It is a very good game -  not necessarily great - but it has its own unique charm and inhabits its own niche in the hobby.  As a game that took a lot of risks, I think it's important for gamers to know about it.

My first AAR of Central America can be found here if you'd like a further example of play.


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