Classic Reviews: Cactus Throne
An early game from Against The Odds Magazine that looks at what was going on while we were recovering from the US Civil War / War Between The States / War of Northern Aggression / “The Wahr” ~
Brant Guillory, 5 October 2016
Cactus Throne is an operational/strategic-level game that covers the war in Mexico between the Republican Mexican government forces, and the Imperial forces of France, Britain, Spain, Austria, and their Mexican allies. The war was originally fought between 1862-1867.
Although there were significant political machinations that affected the campaign, especially in Europe, the game focuses on the allocation of forces within Mexico, and control of the important areas of country.
Some of the political events are included as random events. Additionally, there are events that could have happened, but did not, such as the appearance of both Union and Confederate forces from the American Civil War. Cactus Throne does include some elements of seapower, but only to the extent that it affected the land battles. Ship-to-ship combat is not simulated.
PLOT & PRESENTATION
Cactus Throne is a straight-ahead, no-frills, no-gimmicks board wargame. In this day and age of flashy components, photo-realistic maps, card-game mechanics, and dice with sides that can go up to 100, it’s almost downright nostalgic to punch out counters and chase each other around an unfolded map.
320 counters, one large map, and the rules (but no dice) inside the magazine make this a compact, yet robust, package. Against The Odds magazines (link: http://www.atomagazine.com/) come in two different kinds of packaging. The review copy provided to The Wargamer was a boxed one, with a clear plastic cover over a black divided tray, counters, map, and magazine tucked inside – shades of the old SPI flat-packs, but magazine-sized. My opponent on this day happened to be an Against The Odds subscriber, and he had his ziplock bag copy with him, for comparison.
The game components were identical, and while the tray seems like a useful touch, the walls of the individual sections do not fully extend to the walls of the tray itself, creating gaps through which counters can easily slip. Nevertheless, the counter trays are nice, and the sections are big enough to push counters around in while looking for specific units without pushing them into neighboring bins (again, shades of SPI).
Cactus Throne offers three scenarios. The first is the full campaign scenario that covers the entire war. The second and third are sub-games that cover only later turns from the larger campaign scenario (one starts on turn 5 and runs to turn 21; the other only covers the final two turns). Not only are there numerous historical notes throughout the rules, but the magazine includes several articles about the war, giving the players ample background material in which to immerse themselves.
SET-UP, GRAPHICS, AND DOCUMENTATION
The map was simply illustrated, with a large map of Mexico divided into regions (not hexes). Each region may contain up to two different types of terrain – desert, swamp, rough, etc – and a city and/or port. Around the edges of the play area on the map are a variety of useful game-tracking tools. A turn track is divided into chronological increments by years and months. A replacement track tallies earned replacement points, though both players use the same track. Two pools hold dead units awaiting reconstitution, and captured enemy leaders. Several boxes allow groups of units to move as an “army” (with special rules) using one counter to hold the place of (potentially) 20-30 counters. These are especially handy in the small, congested regions around Mexico City. Finally, there is a list of all of the regions, with space for control counters, indicating which side owns the region (relevant for victory conditions, as well as replacements).
The counters are not graphically intense, but they are an almost welcome relief from the many intricately-detailed and full-color counters currently on the loose. Unit counters have one of four icons: infantry, cavalry, artillery, or leader (bugle). The army counters (placeholders) have flags. That’s it. No facial portraits of commanders; no art-gallery-quality detail on the unit uniforms. Everyone’s icon is black on either pale green (Republican) or blue (Imperial) counters. Beneath the units’ numerical values one finds the designation of the unit, and the unit size, which varies from company all the way up to division.
There are color distinctions on the counters that distinguish nationality for the Imperial forces (French, Mexican, British, etc.) and unit types for the Republicans (guerillas, regulars, etc). Each units has (at most) three values: a combat value, a proficiency rating, and a movement factor; some have an “R” indicating a raid capability. The combat values are color coded based on unit nationality. Most of the counters are printed with a skull and crossbones on the back, indicating that they have one step in their value, and are then dead; some units have a reduced-strength side on the back. Again, these counters won’t win any graphics awards, but they are attractive and functional.
The rulebook is clear black-and-white text, with some small illustrations at the back for the map terrain. Though the map is in full-color, the terrain types are simple enough that grayscale illustrations completely convey the terrain types with no confusion.
What the rulebook lacks, however, are clear and simple examples of play. While there are numerous notes of clarification that easy to identify with their indentations and italics, nowhere is there a paragraph with an example of a rule being applied to a game situation, such as: “Two cavalry units and a raid-capable artillery unit attempt to move on a raid from Guanajuata through enemy-occupied Jalisco to Nayarit. Upon entering Guanajuata, the first cavalry unit must roll…”
The rules are presented in a numerical sequence familiar to any grognard, and easy to follow for new players. The rules cover (in order) components, game terms, sequence of play, movement, armies, combat, and end-of-turn effects. The scenario information follows with winning the game, special rules, random events, game setup, the short scenario, the really short scenario, and the designer’s notes.
We aimed to start with the short, introductory scenario covering the game’s final two turns, figuring it would give us a decent flavor of the rules, before setting up the big game and campaigning across Mexico. That was the plan, anyway.
The introductory scenario specifies that the Republican player has large numbers of combat factors in certain provinces. It does not specify which units, however, which is a boon to the Republican player. The Imperial player has a more daunting task. He only owns 5 provinces, and three of those are garrisoned with single battalions. The other two provinces have specific units present, such as the Empress Dragoons or the Guard Hussars.
Unfortunately, many of the units identified in this setup are not readily apparent (or non-existent) in the countermix. The rules specify that Infantry Battalions 3 thru 12 and 18 are to be set up in Queretaro; battalions 13 thru 17 in Mexico (City). However, we could not find enough infantry battalions with correct designations. In the end, we substituted instead the infantry battalions designated “IMP” for Imperial, as they were not needed elsewhere. Another infantry unit is identified in the rules as “Guard Company”; after several minutes of searching, we finally decided that the authors meant the infantry company whose counter designates it as “PAL GD”. A similar problem was found with the “Conservative Cavalry”.
It is worth noting that we were working with two sets of the counters. One was punched and used to play the game. The other (my buddy’s ziplocked version of the game) was unpunched and was used as a reference as we searched for units we never could find. There were artillery units designated in the rules that could never be found; again, we found substitutes, but were never sure if they were the right ones or not.
The confusion about the counters cut into almost an hour of gametime, however. In the end, we spent so much time looking for the units to set up that we only had the time to bang out the short scenario. We were also concerned that some of our ‘substitute’ units would be needed to ‘be themselves’ in the longer scenarios, which would’ve made set-up even more difficult.
Each game turn, players place their reinforcements, move, raid, fight, and conduct their housekeeping. The interplay of movement and raiding is a nifty little mechanic that bears greater explanation.
Each player moves, Imperials first, then Republicans, before any combat takes place. This can be a great benefit for the Republican player, since he has the opportunity to react to French moves. However, between movement and combat is a phase for raiding. Units that did not move during the movement phase may raid, if they are able.
Units with a raid capability have the ability to slip through enemy lines and attack deep into enemy territory. These raids are made after movement, and are therefore more difficult to react to. When a unit moves through an enemy-occupied territory, a die roll determines whether or not movement continues. Thus it is possible to sally forth with a force of five cavalry units and five artillery units on a raid, and end up with one cavalry unit and three artillery units arriving at their destination, with the balance stopped en route.
Since the map is divided into regions, rather than hexes, it is quite justifiable that there should be gaps in the enemy lines through which fast-moving units could slip to wreak havoc in the enemy rear areas. The raid mechanic certainly adds some interesting tactical depth an essentially operational-level game. The designer’s notes indicate that this was the exact effect he was after, and it succeeds.
Combat is based around a combat results table (CRT) divided into columns based on the odds ratio between combat factors in the battle. The column can be shifted by the presence of an army in the battle, and die rolls may be modified above 6 or below 1. The CRT ranges in columns from 1-6 odds to 6-1 odds, and in die roll values from -5 to +11.
For territories with more than one type of terrain, only one type will be used for determining the results of combat. Interestingly, this rule only applies if, for example, both rough and desert terrain are present. There is no note about the permissibility of choosing between rough and clear terrain, for instance.
At the beginning of each round of combat, players roll a die and modify it based on the presence and/or actions of leaders and armies. The high roll has initiative and chooses whether to attack or defend for that round. We found that this mechanic was a bit gimmicky and could be exploited for game purposes. In several cases, the attacking side – whose units moved into an uncontested territory in what could only be termed an ‘attack’ – won the initiative roll, and chose to defend in rough terrain, which doubles the combat values of units in the defense.
It is understood that a turn in the game is actually several months, and the regions on the map are quite large. Nevertheless, it seemed counterintuitive that the Imperials could invade a province, win a die roll, and say to the Republicans, “Alright, come and get me while I dig into the rough terrain.” There was no option for the unit previously minding its own business, all alone in the province, to simply ignore a superior force that chooses to dig in instead of being forced to charge into the teeth of the guns under downright stupid conditions.
Combat is resolved by a die roll by the attacker, modified by proficiency ratings, leaders, and terrain. The results on the CRT specify step-losses and retreats, as appropriate.
The proficiency ratings (PR) are another interesting twist on traditional wargame mechanics. Units have a proficiency rating as well as a combat value. The proficiency rating is explained in the design notes as a combination of the quality of the soldiers and their esprit-de-corps, allowing a small, but elite, unit to stand toe-to-toe with a larger unit of questionable quality. PRs are used on raids to determine the success of slipping through enemy lines.
They are also used in combat for initiative, and again in the actual die roll. Each side designates a lead unit in the fight. The PRs of these lead units are compared, and die roll modified up or down by the difference between the attacker’s and defender’s lead unit PR. (Read that sentence again, and it’s easy to see where an example in the rules text would be helpful.) However, the mechanic isn’t that difficult to grok, and once it’s used the first time, becomes second nature.
High-PR units tend to be the higher-quality units, and there’s the rub. If the CRT indicates that one side suffers casualties, the first step-loss must come from the lead unit. Putting your best foot forward can occasionally get your toes chopped off.
For smaller skirmishes, this combat system works smoothly and elegantly. However, when expanded into a larger battle with multiple armies, it bogs down into a cross between Risk and Yatzee. The problem with large battles is that the CRT that is so well-balanced for small fights becomes cumbersome for a large battle. Short of outright elimination of the opponent – which itself requires an adjusted die roll of 8 or better at 6:1 odds – the maximum number of steps of damage that can be inflicted on the enemy is 6. When the enemy army has, oh, 19 units in it (which tends to keeps the odds well under 6:1) it can take 10-12 single die rolls to resolve one battle, inflicting 2 and 3 steps at a time. And there’s no practical house rule for speeding up the rolls with multiple dice, since the odds could potentially change after each roll, shifting the CRT one column either left or right.
Replacements are drawn from the “dead pool”. Random events may increase or decrease the replacements available. Additionally, control of provinces determines how many additional units are available, as well as specifying where they deploy upon their arrival.
The random events vary from year-to-year, with some potentially recurring events, such as yellow fever striking the Imperials. Others are loosely based on historical possibilities, such as American invaders. Most tend to affect replacements one way or another, such as more or less money being made available to outfit new units.
One administrative note: we did have a printout of the official game errata that had been downloaded from the website. While there was a reference to one unit that was included twice in the counter-mix (13th Infantry) there were no other clarifications to unit designations. Similarly, all game mechanics are described as including the errata rules.
As noted above, setup cut into a significant portion of our playing time, but once the counters were on the board, we found the sequence and mechanisms to be quite smooth. The raid movement phase was an interesting twist that allowed a few strategic gambles. The Republican layer needs to mass forces to obtain overwhelming odds to really do some damage to the Imperials. Doing so, of course, leaves the hinterlands exposed to some heavy raiding.
The Imperials can’t venture too far afield, though. Their power center is Mexico City and without holding the capital, they don’t reap the maximum benefits of their replacements. If the Imperials lose Mexico City and Maximilian, they’re out of business. Similarly, if the Republicans can occupy Mexico City with Juarez and hold it, the Imperials lose.
The smaller battles were rather quick affairs, and the combat system really works well for allowing a smaller elite unit to hold its ground. The artillery units bring some devastating firepower into these smaller fights, especially the raid-capable ones.
The large two-army battle quickly devolved into an arthritis-inducing die-roll-fest. There is no mechanism for capping the number of units in an army, and thus a few overloaded banners can get ugly in a hurry.
In a short scenario, we didn’t have much time for the random events to significantly affect the gameplay. The only one of consequence was the reduction in Imperial replacements, ensuring the already-tenuous Imperial position was almost un-winnable.
As we prepared for the final turn, we glanced back at the victory conditions to ensure each side was positioning themselves for the best advantage.
“Republican victory: Control Queretaro and Mexico City, or capturing or killing Maximilian while not losing control of any provinces that started under Republican control.”
An Imperial victory was anything else.
Control of two provinces was simple enough, though those were also the two provinces where Imperial forces were concentrated during setup, and a pitched battle at either would come down to die-rolling luck more than any tactical or strategic skill on the part of the players.
The latter part of the victory conditions were more problematic, though. If the Imperial player snatches, say, three provinces with raids, is that sufficient to prevent a Republican victory? Or is the provincial control rule only relevant if (a) the Imperials retain Queretaro and Mexico City and (b) Maximilian is dead? There was enough ambiguity in the victory conditions that each side was fighting a different war for the first part of the game. The Imperials staged several deep raids on a land-grab to try and divert Republican attention from the central provinces. The Republican player continued to mass forces, based on a reading of the victory conditions that all he had to do was control Queretaro and Mexico City.
REPLAY VALUE & SOLITAIRE PLAY
There are no explicit rules for solitaire play, but a veteran grognard could probably fashion an acceptable set of solitaire rules governing enemy movement and actions. The rules explicitly state that enemy counter stacks may be freely examined by the opponent, so there are no real fog of war [http://www.wargamer.com/articles/battle_lab_3/] issues.
Replay value as presented is limited. Although the random events do change some actions from turn-to-turn, there are no real strategic changes to the game. You’re still road-tripping to the coast; you’re just changing the gas stops.
An enterprising set of home-brewed scenarios could be cooked up with a more robust US intervention, or a multi-party European presence for a multiplayer variant. One potential stumbling block to this is that most of the units in game have combat factors of 3-10 and are battalion-sized formations. The Americans are division-sized formations with combat factors of 90, minimizing their maneuver options and turning them into a pale-green steamroller.
Cactus Throne is a nifty game covering a subject virtually unknown to Americans, and probably not well-known to many others around the world. Put it another way – any idea why Cinco de Mayo is a holiday? If the answer is “no” then this game will educate as well as entertain.
The use of both proficiency ratings and combat factors distinguishes units for both their firepower and their tactical skills. The raid mechanism does a very good job of recreating deep cavalry strikes and surprise attacks in the enemy’s rear areas.
For smaller battles, the combat system shines. It allows proficient units to fight effectively. The wacky mechanism that allows an invading unit to play defense in rough terrain can easily be house-ruled, smoothing out the battles.
However, there are still big problems in the game. First, unit designations in the rules don’t match those printed on the counters, leaving players flailing through setup to find the correct units. The combat system that functions so elegantly at small battles becomes absolutely unbearable in large army-to-army clashes. Finally, the victory conditions are just ambiguous enough as written that they require a bit of pre-game negotiation between the players to agree on their meaning.
Overall, for a magazine game, Cactus Throne is a decent bit of fun. But the hard-tray packaging runs $34.95, and that seems a bit steep for a game that still needs fixing. The ziplock version saves $5, but still seems high, especially since the tray packaging itself would be worth the extra $5 if the game were a bit more polished.
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