GrogHeads Reviews A Blood Red Banner: The Alamo

By: Michael Eckenfels, 27 September 2014

 

The siege of the Alamo, a thirteen-day struggle from February 23 to March 6 of 1836, is probably one of the more well-known battles from history. Anglo, Hispanic, or a combination thereof, it’s difficult to have grown up near the shadow of the Alamo in San Antonio and not have heard of it, or imagine how the battle was fought. Originally constructed in the 18th century by the Spanish, the Alamo mission was very much a centerpiece of the budding town in central Texas, which eventually became San Antonio. While among Tejanos and Texians, the Alamo was a symbol of healing and faith, it soon became the focal point of Mexican military might and Texian independence, in more ways than one.

 

A Blood-Red Banner: The Alamo is a solitaire game from Victory Point Games that, in a very simple and straightforward manner, simulates this focal battle of Texas independence.

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COMPONENTS

I purchased the bagged edition of this game, and honestly, I thought I was getting the boxed set. That’s my own fault for not paying attention to the sale through Amazon. Since it is not a boxed version, the components will differ a bit in this bagged version.

 

The Box. No, you mean ‘The Ziplock Bag.’ It’s a bit smaller than a comic book baggie and has a zip seal to it, like a sandwich bag. Needless to say, it is what it is. The advantages of this are that it takes up next to no room. The disadvantage is, it doesn’t display very nicely on a shelf if you’re wanting to show off your collection of games (and who doesn’t like to do that).

 

The Map. This piece is full color and 8.5” x 11” in size…so, the size of a normal piece of paper. A very small footprint in that regard, which is kind of cool actually, as there are few places that this game will not fit. On it, the Alamo fortress is pictured at center, which is comprised of six spaces – five ‘Wall’ spaces and one ‘The Alamo’ space at the very heart of the board. Each Wall space has a branch of spaces going off from it, and if you’re familiar with Victory Point’s ‘State of Siege’ system (including games like Zulu on the Ramparts or Cruel Necessity, to name but two, Ed note: we reviewed another of these – Empires in America – here), you’ll be very familiar with how this looks. More on how it works later.

 

The Components. There’s twelve – count ‘em – counters in the game. There’s seven Mexican Army counters, three Texian Hero counters, and two Attack counters…and that’s it.

 

The Die. HA. I don’t mean that as a cruel joke, though the d6 die itself is something like that. Check the picture out…it might be something suitable for one of my old G.I. Joe 3” figures (or perhaps Gus) to use as a die, but not a full-sized human, as I am. This is something that the bagged editions of Victory Point Games’ products are known for, possibly notoriously so. But, it’s not that big a deal; after all, what self-respecting gamer does not have a single spare or a dozen spare d6’s somewhere? The only thing about this miniature die is that it could be lost easily. For travel purposes, though, it is I suppose a perfect size. Just don’t sneeze near it.

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Documentation. There is a one-page (front and back) rules sheet, a sheet with an article entitled “The Wargame Designer as History Teacher,” a half-sheet with optional rules, another half-sheet with instructions on how to read the rules (as most VP Games’ rules do state), and the usual other product advertisements and other tidbits. The rules are very short, as is obvious, and very easy to absorb.

 

24 Event Cards. Each of these cards quantifies the actions that the Mexican Army takes, and indicates how many attacks the Texians can make, in each turn. When the game ends, the number of these cards left in the draw pile will indicate the level of victory.

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GAMEPLAY

Setup is a breeze with only 12 counters to choose from. As mentioned, there are seven Mexican Army counters, though five are the ‘real’ ones – the other two are ‘Disrupted’ versions of two of the markers. The ‘real’ markers indicate the columns led by Colonel Francisco Duque (whom I refer to as Ducky when I play this game), Colonel Jose Romero, General Perfecto de Cos, Colonel Juan Morales, and ‘the big guy’ himself, General Santa Anna. Each marker has a ‘3’ on it, except for Santa Anna’s marker, which has a ‘4’ on it. These are important, as you will see in a moment.

 

These Mexican Army markers do not begin the game on the map. You see, the State of Siege system is essentially built on a map with different tracks; this game has five tracks, each numbered four through 1, with 4 being the furthest and 1 being a ‘Wall’ space on the Alamo itself. The zero space is the heart of the Alamo, and the end goal of all five of the Mexican Army markers. If any of them reach this zero space, it’s game over for the Texians.

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The Texians aren’t completely helpless, as they have three Hero units. These are named Jim Bowie, William Travis, and Davy Crockett. The game begins without Jim Bowie, though, as he is sick and unable to lead; however, an optional rule allows him to enter the game if a Mexican Army unit occupies a ‘Wall’ space in the Alamo. These Hero units can help fight off the Mexican units assaulting the Alamo and get a bit of a bonus in the right situation.

 

The game is played in turns. Each turn, the player takes the top Event card from the draw deck and activates Mexican units according to its instructions. Sometimes, the card will call for two activations of certain units. An activation is one of three things: the Mexican unit indicated enters the board, it advances one space, or it recovers from a disrupted result. Only two of the five Mexican units can suffer a disrupted result, and only if an event card calls for it, and even then only if certain circumstances are met – so don’t get too excited about that.

 

At the start of a game, when you activate Mexican units, they enter one of the five tracks, determined by a die roll. Their placement in the ‘4’ space of the indicated track counts as their one activation, but if the card calls for two, then they get to advance to the ‘3’ space. If they get to the ‘2’ space and are activated again, they have to try to storm the ‘Wall’ space (which is the ‘1’ space of their track). To do that, the player rolls a die, and and if the result is equal to or less than the number on the counter, it gets to move. If it is not, it stays in place. If there is a Texian Hero unit in the ‘Wall’ space, a +1 is added to the die roll. As mentioned before, each Mexican unit has a number on it – a ‘3’ for all of them except for Santa Anna, whom has a ‘4.’ Santa Anna, as you can see, is a badass at advancing and is darn near impossible to push back.

 

This number on the Mexican units is also used during the Texian turn to try to push back their attacker’s units. The Texian player gets either one or two attacks, as indicated by the event card draw, and gets to ‘shoot’ at a Mexican unit to try to get them to go back one space. If the player rolls greater than the Mexican unit’s number, success, the unit is pushed back. If it is equal to or lower, no luck – they stay where they are. Since there are only one or two attacks each turn, the Texian defenders are very limited in their options, especially when surrounded by all five Mexican unit columns. (By the way, each track can have up to two Mexican unit markers on it, which can make life hell for that particular track’s defense.) Each Texian Hero unit can fire at a Mexican unit marker too, but only if the Texian Hero is in a ‘Wall’ space, and only if a Mexican unit is in an adjacent space (some ‘Wall’ spaces can fire on adjacent tracks, as the map clearly shows).

 

This means that the event card draw deck drives the entire game and can often be punishing. The luck factor is very, very high in this game, usually ranging between ‘bad’ and ‘bloody awful,’ depending on the game. Drawing a deck that is loaded against you (and whom can you blame but yourself for not shuffling it well enough), then dealing with bad die rolls, are all out of your control more or less. Where to place your Texian Hero units is a function that is far more stressful than it has any right to be, as it doesn’t add much to the defense, though that +1 die roll modifier can be a good straw to grasp for when Mexican units are occupying ‘Wall’ spaces or are darn near close to breaching them.

 

You’ll be shuffling your Hero markers from one part of the Alamo to another early on, but as the game settles in and all Mexican units are committed, you’ll get a feel for which ones are advancing the quickest and post your Hero units where you think they’ll do the most good. If one is in a ‘Wall’ space when a Mexican unit successfully storms it, the Hero unit is lost. Playing the game with the optional rule granting Bowie when this happens (not ‘if,’ but ‘when’) is nice, if somewhat even more tragic as more often than not that Hero counter dies in much the same way as the defenders of the Alamo did.

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As the Mexican units press home and start to gain access to the Alamo’s walls, as your Hero units are pretty much rooted to one spot as you desperately try to push back that double-stack of Mexican units facing them, and as the die rolls continue to fail you and often mock your leadership by failing by one measly pip – then you realize how much fun you’re having playing this game.

 

Getting slaughtered by a solitaire game system might not seem all that enjoyable, but in all honesty, this game is a blast to play. If I had to name but one reason for that, it’s because it lets you think you might be able to win the next game. And then you might get a card or two closer to victory, and think that you have it in your sights, that lost victory that the Alamo defenders never had historically…and then it kicks your butt again. I kept going back to it not because I was fooling myself, but because this game was playing so engrossingly fast and furiously. Some games might only last you ten minutes if things go truly south quickly; sometimes a whole 15 minutes if you’re lucky.

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I mentioned victory briefly, earlier in this review; it is measured by the remaining number of undrawn event cards. If there’s nine or more cards, it’s considered a ‘Mexican Crushing Victory,’ where Santa Anna essentially ends the Texian Revolution and turns Texas back into a province of Mexico in one swift stroke. (This is the best I’ve done so far.) Six to eight cards left is a Mexican Major Victory, three to five is a Mexican Pyrrhic Victory (and the historical result), and zero to two is a Texian Moral Victory. That ‘zero cards left’ bit is actually two-fold. If you draw the last event card and then lose the game on that turn, that falls into the Texian Moral Victory camp. If you draw that last card, though, and then manage to hold on one more turn, it turns into a Texian Major Victory instead – and is probably one of the more impossible goals to reach in the history of wargaming.

 

Nevertheless, that’s not stopping me from going back and trying again.

 

CONCLUSIONS

A Blood-Red Banner is a highly enjoyable game to play, as it is easy to set up, fast to play, and murderously difficult to get through to a winning conclusion. The level of challenge hints just enough that a victory is possible, until everything comes crashing down by some lousy die rolls and even worse event card draws. Despite the incredible level of luck that this game hangs its hat on, it’s still enjoyable enough as one knows that if that die would only roll the ‘right’ number this time, perhaps Santa Anna won’t mow down William Travis and take the heart of the Alamo. Last moment turning away of Mexican units that are on the cusp of victory are the little victories that you get to enjoy during some of the more memorable and nail-biting moments that this game provides (and it does that in spades). Designer Richard Trevino, I think, really hit one out of the park with this little gem.

 


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