Central America: Bloody March

"Our commitment to a Western hemisphere safe from aggression...began with the Monroe Doctrine in 1823...Some in this Congress may choose to depart from this historic commitment but I will not...Nicaraguan freedom fighters have never asked us to wage their battle, but I will fight any effort to shut off their lifeblood and consign them to death, defeat, or a life without freedom. There must be no Soviet beachhead in Central America." - Ronald Reagan, 1987 State of the Union Address

That quote basically sums up the entire reason for the existence of Victory Games' Central America (1987). This game is a giant exploration of the logic of the Reagan doctrine as seen from the late Cold War period. The first three scenarios in the game are historical scenarios that set the stage for the later hypothetical scenarios that feature large-scale American military interventions and World War III situations.

Before we get to all that stuff though, let's look at the very first scenario in the game, which is based around an historical* battle that took place in late March 1986 between the Contras and Sandinistas with a little bit of the CIA thrown in for good measure.

Here's the background:

March 20, 1986: Cuban General Nestor Lopez launches a daring raid on Contras at a basecamp located in Honduras near the border with Nicaragua.

Nicaraguan Mi-24 Hind


Emboldened by the decision of the Democratic-controlled US Congress to cut off aid to the Contras earlier in the month, the Cuban-led Nicaraguan army sends several divisions of infantry, tanks, and helicopters to try and destroy Contra-held Basecamp "Las Vegas", which has been used as a base to launch attacks into Nicaragua. The CIA, meanwhile, uses planes and helicopters from bases in Honduras to support the defense of "Las Vegas".

CIA-owned and operated aircraft based in Honduras (1980s)

Setup

CIA base w/ helo in the north. Las Vegas in 2410. Honduran infantry out of supply. Commies are red. Contra insurgents are green with white stripe through them in 2612.


The setup of this five-turn scenario is quite simple. The Hondurans have a single step-reduced infantry battalion in Mandasta, which is out of supply until turn 4. At a mere 0-1-4 (0 attack strength, 1 defense, 4 movement points), this unit is basically a couple of angry guys with a baseball bat and a Doberman.

The CIA helo is based in hex 2107 (Silca) with an entrenchment marker. The CIA helicopters are the only units in the game that can be used both as transport and for air support. I suppose this is to reflect the hodgepodge collection of transport and attack aircraft typically used by the agency in these kinds of operations. But I prefer to think of it as the CIA having super-helicopters like Airwolf or something.

The Contras are setup with two regular infantry battalions in Basecamp Las Vegas in 2410. They have an entrenchment marker, which gives them a bonus to defense (actually, it gives the attacker a minus die modifier to attack rolls) and also allows them to ignore retreat results after suffering a such a result on the CRT.  Three Contra insurgent battalions are placed in 2612. They are returning to Honduras from operations inside Nicaragua .

As an aside, insurgents are interesting units in Central America. They can basically ignore terrain movement costs and enemy ZOCs by using insurgent movement. These units can also be disbanded by the owning player and then totally recreated by spending insurgency command points. In this scenario, the Communists get 2 Insurgency Command Points while the Allies get 4. Insurgents are powerful units in the game and I have never seen a game that handles these types of units with such simple but appropriate rules.

The Communists have three regular infantry brigades knocking at the door of Basecamp Las Vegas. They are not allowed to enter towns or cities in Honduras. The Nicaraguans also have three insurgency infantry battalions (Estr, Uman, and Pom). Estr and Pom are set up in 2411 with a Nicaraguan regular infantry brigade while Uman is set up in 2511 with Gen. Lopez' infantry battalion.

A close up of the action around basecamp Las Vegas.


Victory Conditions

Whoever controls Las Vegas at the end of the game gets 4 VPs. For each enemy ground unit that is eliminated, the "eliminator" side gains 1 VP. At the end of 5 turns, Victory Points are tallied up and compared to a Political Effects chart (the likes of which I have never ever seen before in any game) that tells you how the resulting political effect of the battle plays out in terms of US Congressional approval of military and humanitarian aid for the Contras.  Well, there's certainly something to get excited about! If you blow this one, poor Ollie North is gonna have to sell way more TOW missiles to Iran. Daniel Inouye is going to be super pissed, guys!

Flow of Turn - The Phase Track

In case you've never played Central America, I'll give a brief rundown of how each game turn works. Game Turns are split into the two stages - the Communist stage and the Allied stage. The Communists run through a series of phases that basically involve supply checks, regular infantry movement, insurgency movement, and sending out air missions.

Both players have reaction phases in the other players' stage where they can also send out air missions or go on counterinsurgency missions. You'll notice that the phase track has white and colored squares on it. Central America has two rules sets - conventional rules (involving localized conflicts between similar types of forces) and intervention rules (for full-scale superpower intervention in the region). The colored squares are are the phases that are used in the conventional game and the white squares are used in the intervention game along with the phases in the colored squares. Since we're playing with the conventional rules, we are only using the phases denoted by the colored squares.

Central America's Phase Track

Turn 1

The Communist Ground and Air Stage:

Both sides are always in supply during the first turn. We skip over to Regular Ground Unit Movement. I advance the Lopez brigade north over the border into Honduras. I wanted to create a bit of space between my regular infantry and the Contra insurgency battalions to the south. During the Insurgency Movement phase, I decide to keep the insurgents where they are to support the attack on Las Vegas. However, I place Insurgency Reserve markers on them, which allows them to move one or two hexes after ground combat.

The three regular Sandinista ground units will combine their attack strength with two of the insurgent battalions for a total ground unit attack strength of 8. The Contras in Las Vegas have a defense strength of 2 each for a total of 4. So it looks like we'll be attacking at 2-1 odds in rough terrain. At first glance, things don't look good for the forces of freedom.

But wait! The Allied player gets to send out an Air Mission and the CIA attack helicopters fly over to Las Vegas, adding the unit's ground combat value (2) and giving a column shift in favor of the basecamp's defenders. This brings the odds to 1-1 with a single column shift left. The Commies get a +1 to their die roll due to attacking with an insurgent unit and a -2 for attacking units in an entrenchment so we are rolling at a total die modifier of 1.  It looks like we will need either a 5 or a 6 to do any damage to the defenders in Las Vegas. We roll a 6 (modified to a 5) and one of the Contra infantry units is reduced by a step. Basecamp Las Vegas is already in a bit of trouble!

CIA air support swoops in to help out Contras at Basecamp Las Vegas.


The insurgents use their reserve movement now to go south and run interference on the Contras coming north.

Communist insurgency battalions use insurgency reserve movement post-combat.


Allied Ground and Air Stage:

My basic plan was to start to wear down the Communist player's number of insurgents while trying to make myself as much of a pain in the ass as possible for the regular infantry units attacking Las Vegas.  To that end, I send two infantry units around the flank of the Sandinista insurgent battalions and attack the one furthest to the west. Unfortunately, I am out of range for the CIA attack helicopter so I need to do this without air support.

At 3 to 1 odds in rough terrain with a +1 attack modifier, the die roll comes out as a 5. The Communist insurgent battalion takes a step loss and is forced to retreat. I use my insurgent reserve movement to send one of units into the fray near Las Vegas. Because all enemy units adjacent to attacking units must be attacked in the Ground Combat Phase, this means that next turn I may be forced to choose between using Veng regular infantry to turn its attention to the Sag unit to its south or attack it at even odds with the Estr unit in 2512.

FDN insurgents cause Nicaraguan insurgency btn (Pom) a step loss and retreat. Contra unit (Sag) cozies up to Nicaraguan regular infantry brigade (Veng) just south of Basecamp Las Vegas. Two Contra units are stacked together in 2413.


With double the amount of insurgency command points, the Allied player can sort of afford to lose insurgent forces here more than the Communist player. So I'm playing a bit fast and loose with the Contras and hoping they come out on top of things.

Turn 2:

The Communist Ground and Air Stage:

Everyone appears to be in supply so we go straight to regular ground unit movment. I have a bit of a problem here because a single unit of Contras in 2413 will force my Veng infantry brigade to split its attack factors. To make up for this, I could just move the unit one hex east but I want to keep the Contras as far away from Las Vegas as possible so I keep the unit there.

During the insurgency movement phase, I move Uman insurgent battalion northwest to 2511. The Estr brigade is brought north to attack the Sag unit so that Veng can focus its firepower on Basecamp Las Vegas. The Uman unit will join in on this attack so as to provide its +1 die roll modifier on the attack roll for being an insurgent unit.

Communist insurgent battalions move into position.


I have the option of disbanding insurgents now, which I decide to go ahead and do. The Pom battalion in 2313 is at half strength and has no attack factor. So I pull up the charts and roll to see if I can disband the unit (which means I can bring it in later again at full strength). Since the unit is in its home country, we get a +1 modifier on the insurgency disbandment table. Rolling a 3 modified to 4, the disbandment succeeds and we take the Pom insurgency battalion off the map.

A roll of 3 + 1 disbands insurgencies in rough terrain.


During the Air Mission phase, the CIA player opts again to use his helicopters for defensive ground support in Las Vegas. This time, the defenders have a total defensive strength of 7. The three Nicaraguan regular infantry brigades and the Uman insurgency battalion have an attack strength of 6, which brings us again to a 1-1 odds attack with a column shift left due to enemy air support. Total die modifiers are -1 again.  We are rolling HOT again! With another roll of 6 (modified to 5), the enemy defenders in Las Vegas need to take a step loss. I opt to take the loss on the remaining full strength unit in the hex. Now the ground unit defenders have only a combined defense strength of 2. Yikes!


Now for the attack on the FDN Sag insurgency battalion. We have  the Estr insurgency unit versus the Sag's defensive strength of 1. This gives us a 1-1 odds with the die modifiers for defending and attacking insurgency cancelled out. We roll yet another 6 and the Contra unit takes a step loss and retreats two hexes. Happily, they can ignore enemy ZOC during a retreat and we pull them into the border hex between Nicaragua and Honduras. I couldn't find anything specific in the rules about which country the unit is considered to be in for disbandment purposes later on, but it seems to make sense to let the owning player can just choose which side of the border the unit is on (kind of like in VG's Vietnam 1965-1975).

FDN insurgent unit Sag retreats across the border to Honduras.


Allied Ground and Air Stage


I need to start making dents in the communist insurgency so I decide to move both my Contra units to the northeast for an attack on the Uman insurgency group. Before combat, I manage to disband the Pom insurgency group during the disbandment phase. As the enemy unit is within 6 hexes of the CIA airbase, I can use the helicopter support here to rain down hellfire on the Communists. This gives me a 4-1 odds attack with a column shift to the right.

CIA air assets help Contras out with their attack vs Nicaraguan insurgent battalion in 2511. Note reduced regular FDN infantry in Basecamp Las Vegas 2411.


I roll a 5 and the Uman insurgents take two step losses, eliminating them. Since insurgents cannot pursue into vacated hexes on their own, the two insurgent units stay put (they cannot use insurgency reserve movement since they moved more than 2 hexes in the Insurgency Movement Phase).

The turn ends as the CIA helicopter returns to its base in Silca.

Turn 3:

The Communist Ground and Air Stage:

Starting the turn off with a supply check for both sides, we find that the Lopez brigade in 2510 is out of supply. In this game, regular units need to be able to trace a supply line four hexes to a path or trail that is connected to a supply source. Unfortunately, the ZOC projected by the two Contra units in 2611 prevents a successful supply trace and so the Lopez brigade has its defense and movement values halved and cannot attack.

Start of turn 3 - Lopez is out of supply.


I should mention that the two regular FDN units at Las Vegas are always in supply because they are in an entrenchment. The two insurgency FDN units in 2611 are able to trace supply through enemy ZOCs, so they find a supply line by going through 2511 and then into the Las Vegas hex.

I need to get the Lopez brigade back in supply so I pull it back south across the Nicaraguan border. It is now adjacent to the FDN insurgents. During the insurgency placement phase, I decide to try and place an insurgency unit in the same hex to protect the Lopez unit. Spending an Insurgency Command Point (I now have 3 after disbanding a unit earlier in the game), I roll a 3 (modified by 1 due to home country advantage) and cross-reference the terrain and die roll on the Placement chart to find that the insurgent unit is successfully placed.

The Pom insurgency battalion is placed in 2511. 


At this point, I should probably mention that when the Communists place an insurgent unit on the map, the Allied player has a chance to immediately launch Aerial Counterinsurgency missions to try and eliminate it. To do this, the Allied player simply declares an air mission and hits the offending enemy hex with 3 bombardment points and WHAMMO - the insurgent counter is removed from the map. However, my CIA helo only has a bombardment value of 2 for these kinds of missions so I keep it held back for ground support missions instead.

During the Ground Combat phase, I am left with no choice but to attack Las Vegas basecamp with two regular infantry units (50-04 brigade in 2311 and the Veng brigade in 2411) and the Estr insurgent battalion in 2411. This gives me a total attack strength of 5 with a +1 die roll modifier due to attacking with an insurgent unit. The American send their CIA attack helicopter down to Las Vegas. At 5 attack strength to 4 defensive strength, we're dealing with 1 to 1 odds here and the obligatory left column shift for fighting against units with air support. The roll comes out a 5 and one of the FDN regular units in Las Vegas is eliminated. Wow! It looks like the Communists might be able to capture the basecamp if they can keep this up.

Insurgency unit Estr uses its insurgency reserve movement to advance two hexes east in a bid to stop the two FDN insurgency units from reinforcing Las Vegas.

Estr uses insurgency reserve movement to go 2 hexes east and block FDN insurgents from reinforcing Las Vegas.


Allied Ground and Air Stage:

All units are in supply now so Lopez' OOS marker is removed. We need to get some help to basecamp Las Vegas ASAP or it will almost certainly fall before the end of turn 5.

During the Insurgent Movement phase, I move the two Contra units a couple of hexes northeast to hex 2710. I'm trying to hit the Nicaraguans on their flank and hopefully make my way towards Las Vegas to help out as things are getting dire up there.

Contras move 2 hexes to 2710


In the Insurgency Placement phase, I get increasingly angry as I end up having to spend all of my Insurgency Command Points in placing a disbanded Contra unit into Las Vegas. After three rerolls (each costing an Insurgency Command Point), I finally get the Sag unit in the hex and now the defense value of the basecamp is back at 2. Not great but good enough for now, hopefully.

I end up spending ALL of my insurgency command points to get the Sag FDN insurgent unit into hex 2410 to reinforce Las Vegas.


The two FDN Contra units in 2710 declare an attack on the Estr brigade and call in CIA air support to help out. At 4 to 1 and a right column shift, this should be a shoe-in but a roll of 2 (modified to 3) results in a step loss rather than an elimination for the communist insurgency unit. In this game, disbanded units are available again to the enemy player in the next turn while eliminated units are only available after two turns. So that's why I am a bit disappointed with the result.

The FDN units use their insurgent movement to swing back west behind the Nicaraguan enemy units in 2411 and 2511. I'm hoping that this will force the Nicaraguans to split their attacks on Las Vegas and thereby dilute their attack strength. I doubt this will work but it's worth a shot.

Now might be a good time just to chalk up our VPs. The Communists have eliminated one regular infantry unit so they are currently at 1 VP. The Allies still occupy Las Vegas basecamp so they have 4 VPs and they have eliminated one enemy unit for an additional VP to make a total of 5 VPs.

Turn 4:

The Communist Ground and Air Stage:

Everyone starts off in supply, including the Honduran CES battalion over to the west. Things don't look very good for Basecamp Las Vegas. With the Communist regular units where they are now, they'll have to split their attacks in order to deal with both Las Vegas and the Contra insurgency units. During the Regular Ground Movement Phase, I adapt by simply rotating the position of my forces around the basecamp. Now I can focus the firepower on the basecamp.

Regular Nicaraguan infantry move to 2310, 2311, and 2411.

Communist insurgents move into position around Las Vegas.



At 7 attack strength to 4 defense, I'm again rolling at 1 to 1 odds with a column shift left. This time, the Communist luck runs out and we roll a "2". This forces a step loss and all the attackers to retreat two hexes. They return closer to their supply sources in Nicaragua. During the reinforcement phase, the Uman insurgency group, eliminated two turns ago, is made available for a placement attempt in the next turn.

Pom insurgency battalion takes a step loss and everyone retreats.


Allied Ground and Air Stage:



With that bit of luck, I decide to just do what I can to keep the Communists at bay for next turn. I advance the Honduran CES infantry unit east to 2110 and then bring SJac insurgency group into hex 2311 with insurgency movement. Salz insurgency group moves into 2411. I'm basically hoping to put as many defenders and ZOCs in the likely path of incoming Nicaraguan forces next turn.

End of turn 4.


Turn 5:

Well, here we go. Everyone is in supply and now we have a big problem on our hands. Most notably, how in the heck am I going to fulfill the victory conditions for the Communists. The FDN has put enough insurgents around Basecamp Las Vegas that I don't have the MPs to flank them. I need to go for a good old fashioned hail mary and hope for the best. 

I slide 50-02 and Veng into 2311 while Lopez will move to 2312 and go for the Salz insurgents in 2411.  The Communist insurgents just sort of try their best to stay out of the way of things since they have no attack factors left. During the Insurgency Placement phase, I roll a 5 and place the Uman insurgent group stacked in 2311 with Veng and 50-02. 



Regular infantry move up to positions around Las Vegas for a final push.



Uman insurgent infantry battalion is placed in 2311 with Veng and 50-02 regular infantry.



Since all enemy units adjacent to my attackers must be attacked, I end up doing some strategic contortions here to make it all work out. Veng and Uman will attack the SJac insurgent group at 3-1. 50-02 will attack Las Vegas at what will certainly be 1 to 2 odds (and a column shift left). Lopez will attack Salz at 1 to 1 odds.

Sjac insurgent battalion is eliminated and the Communist player gains 1 VP. Veng and Uman advance into the vacated hex in 2310. 50-02 attacks Las Vegas but suffers a step loss and a retreat. Lopez' attack on the Salz insurgent battalion results in a step loss for the Contras. The reduced Estr insurgent unit uses its remaining reserve movement to enter the hex occupied by Lopez' regular infantry to prevent any last minute VP farming by the Allied player.


Positions at end of Communist stage and game end.


Allied Ground and Air Stage:

The Contras have held on to Base Camp Las Vegas so that's worth 4 VPs and a sigh of relief. Having taking two serious losses and out of insurgency placement points, they are too weak to follow up with any harassing attacks on the Nicaraguans.  We finish up the turn and count up our VPs in the game.

VP Tally:

Allies - 
Las Vegas: 4 VPs
Eliminating enemy unit 1 VP
Total: 5 VPs

Communists -
Eliminating 2 enemy units: 2 VPs
Total: 2 VPs

Result:  Allied Marginal Victory

"Congress votes down aid for the Contras but private sources continue to assist them."

Historical note: As the Sandinistas crossed the border, they were caught unawares by Contras returning from engagements in Nicaragua. The communists were forced to withdraw back south without having achieved any of their objectives.The historical result was an Allied decisive victory in game terms.

Conclusion:

What a game! I have played this scenario many times. I think this is actually the closest I have seen the Communist player come to nearly taking out Basecamp Las Vegas. Of course to do this successfully, you need to keep the Allied player from reinforcing the basecamp with his insurgents, which is nearly impossible given how easy it is for insurgents to move, disappear, and suddenly reappear in this game.

I wonder if it would have made more sense to just focus on eliminating enemy Contra units rather than directly attacking the basecamp. This may have been a little better strategy because the Allied player actually ran out of insurgency command points and would have probably had troubles replacing his losses. Instead, I just went for the gold and kept hammering away at the basecamp.

As the Allied player, the trick is to just focus on whittling down the enemy as much as possible. Luring enemy units into positions where you can use the CIA helicopters for offensive ground support is key here. Failing that, try to snuggle your insurgent units up to the attackers just outside of Las Vegas and force them to split their attacks. Even reducing the enemy attacks by a single attack factor can completely change the outcome of a battle.

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* I'm not 100 per cent sure about the accuracy of the scenario OOB - keep in mind that what actually happened in this conflict is still not really understood and much of it remains classified information. You can take the veracity of the scenario details with a grain of salt or as the truth. In any case, it makes for a short fun evening of gaming.

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