“It was but a small affair", remarked General Santa Anna as the smoke cleared over the Alamo on the morning of March 6, 1836. In terms of numbers engaged, he was absolutely correct. The battle involved only 183 Texians and some 1,800 Mexican soldiers and it was all over in about an hour. We now know that it was more than a “small affair” because it has become a part of our national consciousness. It began when Santa Anna was later defeated at San Jacinto by blood-crazed Texians shouting, “Remember the Alamo!” Today, the Alamo chapel is an iconic symbol and one of the most visually recognizable structures in America.
Time and history sometimes have a way of turning these “small affairs” into legends. The Battle of the Little Big Horn is good example. Then the problem can become one of separating the fact from the legend. As the journalist said at the end of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
I grew up during the Disney “Crockett Craze” and I was also in a front row seat in the theater to see John Wayne’s The Alamo in 1960. It was a simpler time; all the defenders were portrayed as heroes. Walt Disney and John Wayne wouldn’t have had it any other way. Things are a bit different today. You can now read histories saying that many of the defenders were fugitives from the law in the States, adventurers and greedy land-grabbing opportunists, among other things. Also, that many were not heroes fighting to the last man, that when the battle began, they were jumping over the walls in large numbers to avoid their fate. That Davy Crockett didn’t die while swinging ‘Ole Betsy’ and taking down Mexicans left and right, but instead surrendered, tried to save his life and was executed. Even the long accepted number of 183 defenders has been raised to upwards of 250 by some historians. The more you read, and there is much to read, increases the controversies. In short, the Alamo is the stuff of legends.
Fortunately, I’m only writing a game review here so I don’t even have to attempt to provide answers to any of the above controversies. That job belongs to the game designer.
The Alamo was one of the last games produced by SPI in 1981 before they went bankrupt and were taken over by TSR. It was the last new SPI game I bought. Designed by a Texan, Eric Lee Smith, it became one of my favorite SPI games and I owned a lot of SPI games. But as I mentioned above, I was an Alamo buff from an early age. It delivered everything that I had always wanted in a game on the subject.
At first glance, I wasn’t fond of the game map. It doesn’t exactly evoke a feeling for what is being simulated. But once I actually played the game I realized why Redmond Simonsen did the graphics the way that he did. The line of sight is one of the most potentially complex things about the game. Simonsen did the map in a three-dimensional style that virtually eliminates all line of sight problems. It is a classic example of Simonsen’s “form must follow function” style. Those gamers who have problems deciphering line of sight rules have little to fear from this game.
All the information needed to play the game is printed on the full size map; another Simonsen trademark. The Combat Results Table, Sequence of Play, Terrain Effects Chart and Damage Check Dice Roll Modifiers are all in front of you. Also displayed is a portion of the map showing units set-up with various line of sight solutions and the Terrain And Line Of Sight rules straight from the rulebook are right there on the map. In addition, there is also a Blocked Line Of Sight Matrix, which should answer all LOS questions. Bravo, Redmond!
The game scale is tactical; each hex represents 10 yards and the twelve game turns represent five minutes each. There are 100 back-printed counters. The 21 Texan combat units represent 7-10 men and Travis, Bowie, Crockett, Bonham and Dickerson (usually spelled Dickinson) are also represented with five counters. The counters are identified by their state and even country. There are both Irish and English counters (one wonders if they were fighting amongst themselves). The 34 Mexican combat units are groups of 45-55 men and they also have five leaders. The Mexicans are color-coded and divided into their four historical attack columns and a reserve. There are also 17 cannon counters that vary in size and firepower.
Each Texan combat counter has three numerical ratings for morale, fire strength and melee strength. The Mexican combat units have only one number for all three. The leaders for both sides have a leadership rating. All units have a movement allowance of 8. The Texan counters are flipped to their reduced backside when they suffer damage and can take two hits before being eliminated. Texan leaders are eliminated with only one hit.
Mexican units that are ‘eliminated’ are returned to play. They are placed on the Mexican Replacement Track that is printed on the map. Depending on how many steps they lost when hit, they come back into play in 1-3 turns. Mexican losses are taken in increments of 10 men and are recorded on the Mexican Loss Track also printed on the map. All Mexican leaders that are hit have a replacement on their backside.
Most wargames have Zone of Control rules and ZOC’s are one of the trickier aspects of this game due to its tactical nature. ZOC’s do not extend across most terrain hexsides (stone, wooden, outer and church walls and gunslits). Units may not cross over walled hexsides if by doing so they would then be in an opposing ZOC unless it is an advance after combat. Texan units must always stop in a Mexican ZOC but Mexican units may leave or move through a Texan ZOC as long as one Mexican is in the Texan ZOC. Also, a ZOC does not exist if adjacent units are on a different terrain level.
To set up the game the Texan player first places his cannon units on any hex that contains a cannon symbol on the map. The Mexican player than secretly plots which of the six areas his four attack columns will come in. The Reserve Column may come in any area but only after the Mexican player has one unrouted/undisordered combat unit inside the Alamo walls during the Mexican Reserve Commitment Phase. Texan units are then placed anywhere within the compound. The Bowie counter is placed in the chapel as he was sick during the attack. Current scholarship would now place him in the barracks in hex 1321. Combat units may not stack but leaders may be placed atop units.
Attacks are resolved separately and a unit may be attacked more than once. Results on the Combat Results Table are “C”, # 1-5, “H” or No Effect. A “C” allows the defending unit to make an immediate counterattack. An “H” is a hit and the defending unit makes a Damage Check. A “#” result is a hit plus a Damage Check dice roll modifier. The number on the CRT is added to the dice roll when making the Damage Check.
When making a Damage Check, if the dice roll total number is less or equal to the unit’s morale, there is no effect. If it exceeds the unit’s morale by one, the unit is disordered. If the unit’s morale is exceeded by two it takes a step loss and is disordered. Finally, if it exceeds the unit’s morale by three or more, the unit is eliminated.
A disordered unit’s fire and melee strength are halved and movement is reduced to 4. A disordered unit that receives a second disorder is immediately routed and retreats three hexes. Until a routed unit is rallied, there is really little that it can do, including move.
Victory points are accrued by the Texans. They receive one point for every turn they survive and one point for every 100 Mexican casualties.
The Sequence of Play Phases are:
Mexican Replacement Phase
Mexican Reserve Unit Placement Phase
Texan Movement Phase
Texan Combat Phase
Texan Rally Phase
Mexican Movement Phase
Mexican Combat Phase
Mexican Rally Phase
Mexican Withdrawal Check Phase
Game-Turn Indication Phase
There are also two optional rules. Range Effects On Fire Combat reduces a unit’s fire strength by one for each hex over 7 hexes. Artillery units are unaffected by range and Texan units from Tennessee and Kentucky are assumed to be using the famed long rifle and are also unaffected. The second rule is Texan Ferocious Counterattack. If a Texan unit stacked with a leader receives a counterattack result on the CRT, the player rolls a die and if the number is equal to or less than the leader’s rating they qualify. They may make a number of attacks equal to the leader’s rating.
When the game begins, the Mexicans must move quickly to the Alamo walls. They cannot afford to tarry. Texan units must be stacked on cannons in order to fire them and they may also perform rifle fire or melee. Once the Mexicans are under the walls and adjacent to the cannons, Texan artillery may not fire at them. The Mexican player will probably suffer heavily before he reaches a position to begin the actual assault. Some of his units will be disordered and others may have routed. It is those units the Texan player will try to hit again as he can cause much more damage. If the Mexican player is on the walls at the end of the first turn, he will probably be the victor. Even on the end of the second turn will make it tough for the Texans. But if the Mexicans suffer too many casualties from turns 1-5, they will be forced to withdraw and the Texan player will have an automatic victory. This is achieved if there are 350 Mexican casualties on the first turn. The number is increased by 50 on each subsequent turn until it reaches 550 on turn 5. After turn 5 an automatic withdrawal is no longer possible.
Once the Mexicans are on the walls their morale is raised by one and the Texan morale is reduced by one. This is when it gets tricky for the Texan player. Knowing when he can no longer force the Mexicans off the walls and to abandon the walls and start heading for the rooms in the barracks where the Mexicans are forced to root them out. The Texans do not want to be caught in the open. Their firepower is deadly but in a melee, they are no match for the Mexicans. If possible, the Mexican player must try and kill Texan leaders before they hole up. A highly rated leader like Travis or Crockett, stacked with a Kentucky or Tennessee unit with a high morale, can be tough to kill in a room. The Mexican player must use the abandoned cannons to blast the Texans out.
The game can drag a bit towards the end when the remaining Texans are holed up and the Mexican player must blast them out. But it is what happened during the actual battle and I would imagine that for the defenders, they found the experience to be anything but ‘draggy’. For them it must have been the most terrifying part of the short-lived battle.
So, is this game for you? If you’re an Alamo buff, I would say the answer is “probably yes”. If you’re a wargamer but not an Alamo buff, I would say, “probably not”. I would give that answer about any Alamo game. To an Alamo buff I would say, only play any Alamo game with another Alamo buff or play solo. There is a replayability in this game. The various possible setups for the Texan player’s units and cannon and the different area choices for the Mexican player can make for many different and interesting games. But a non-Alamo buff probably won’t see that. They tend to see it only as, “They all die in the end”. It is not so much the game, as the game’s situation that they have trouble with.
I’ve played the game with Alamo buffs, including my wife, and they enjoyed it. I also made the mistake of playing with two non-Alamo buffs. In one game I was the Mexicans and ran into trouble. I eventually killed all the Texans but my losses were heavy. I informed my opponent that he had won. “But all my guys are dead!” he cried. “Yeah,” I replied, “and you won.” In the second game, the roles were reversed. My Texans all died but I killed a lot of Mexicans. When I told the second guy that he had lost, he didn’t believe me. “But I killed every single Texan!” he said. “Yeah,” I replied, “and you lost.” They simply couldn’t get their heads around the concept. They seem to approach the game thinking that if the Texans win, there must be some way for the Texans to actually survive. If you should mistakenly play with a non-Alamo buff, explain to them that the game’s subtitle is “Victory in Death” with the emphasis on “Death”.
The fact is there was very little chance of the Texans surviving. Santa Anna was determined to make an example of these Yankee upstarts who dared to defy him. Even if the first assault had somehow failed, he would have made another that would surely have succeeded. From the moment Travis and his men decided to stay in that sprawling, broken-down fort, their death was inevitable. They were waiting for relief from Fannin at Goliad but there was little hope of that happening.
What about other Alamo games? There are some out there. I looked for a copy of Remember the Alamo by TSR in 1980. But I got the SPI game a year later so I dropped the search. I have heard some good things about it though. I did own Dark Victory by XTR. I understood what the designer was trying to do but I didn’t care for the game. The word I would associate with it would be “turgid”. In 2006 Worthington came out with Blood of Noble Men: The Alamo. It is a block game and since I play solo so much I wasn’t tempted. In 1995 Decision reissued this game. Other than some graphic changes I believe everything else was the same. There have also been at least two games dealing with the entire Texas Revolution but they are outside of the scope of this review.
Most wargamers have their favorite wars, campaigns and battles. If they are lucky, they find a grail game that suits them perfectly. Either I am lucky or I’m just easy to please in my old age for I have several. For the Alamo, this game was it back in 1981 and it still is today. I’m not in the market for another Alamo game.
Lastly, how did the designer, Eric Lee Smith, answer some of the controversies I mentioned at the beginning? Well, the Texan units are not allowed to move outside the compound so there will be no mass exodus from the fort. Neither are there any special rules that allow Crockett or any other defender to surrender. The Texans fight and die to the last man. The game follows the more traditional storyline but it would be difficult to do it any other way. Walt Disney and John Wayne would approve.
If you have never visited the Alamo and you get the chance, do so. I did in 1996 and it was an experience. If possible, stay at the historic Menger Hotel, which is across the street from the Alamo and ask for a room that faces the Alamo. It is beautifully lit at night. It was also in the bar of the Menger where Teddy Roosevelt raised the Rough Riders. And be sure to see the IMAX Alamo movie The Price of Freedom. I also visited Brackettville where John Wayne’s Alamo still stands. The owners have since died though and I don’t know what the current status is on that place. The last I heard, it was now closed to the public. Hey, how many game reviews also offer free travel advice?
- Last edited Wed Jan 11, 2012 10:23 pm (Total Number of Edits: 1)
- Posted Wed Nov 10, 2010 9:44 pm
Never play block wargames with a dentist, they have those little mirrors to peek behind the block.
Re: Should we "Remember the Alamo"?
I grew up during the Disney “Crockett Craz
I did too, and had many of the items. I live about 45 minutes from David Crockett State Park where they have a replica cabin he was born in. His actual birthplace in closer to Rogersville. It was a SPI game I had to have. I still wish I had purchased the Marx 50th Anniversary Davy Crockett playset. Nice review and I beleieve you are correct in saying only Alamo fans will like it. One of our two county high schools is named after him, the other is Daniel Boone.
- Last edited Wed Nov 10, 2010 11:24 pm (Total Number of Edits: 1)
- Posted Wed Nov 10, 2010 11:22 pm
Re: Should we "Remember the Alamo"?
Very nice article and analysis of an iconic game. I am also a Texian at heart and grew up an admirer of the heroes of the Texas Rebellion. Davy was a boyhood hero and I enjoyed both Fess Parker and the "Duke".
I am especially proud to have helped film Alamo, Price of Freedom.
We worked long hours and had to portray soldiers of both sides of the conflict, but the experience was one of a lifetime. We camped on the Bracketville set as well, and my tent was a short sprint from the North Wall cannon position where Travis falls.
I have also been honored to have been invited to attend the rememberance ceremony inside the chapel on Alamo weekend where the honor roll is read and the descendants present are recognized. Some of the cast & crew of the movie were in San Antonio for the 10th anniversary of the film's initial release and we recieved the invite as an expression of thanks for making the film. That was a real enjoyable night and will remain a favored memory.
I agree about any Alamo game, if the bug hans't bit you, then any of the games is NOT going to be your cup of tea. I was given Blood of Noble Men: The Alamo as a gift, but have yet been able to find an opponent to play it.
Dash Ptolemy Dog
Re: Should we "Remember the Alamo"?
This is a great game. As a transplanted Texan, it still gives me chills to think of the defenders at the moment that the Mexican assault columns reached the wall. They were all great heros.
Davy Crocket was a smart guy as well. Maybe he tried to live to fight another day. In the end, it didn't matter. I am sure that he took down many charging infantryman and paid for it with his life.
Re: Should we "Remember the Alamo"?
"As a transplanted Texan, it still gives me chills to think of the defenders at the moment that the Mexican assault columns reached the wall."
That's appropriate as many of the Heroes you're referring to were 'transplanted Texans' themselves.
Re: Should we "Remember the Alamo"?
One of the best reviews I have read on BBG. I like the way you combine actual history both in terms of the events of the Alamo, our culture and the gaming world. To respond to your appraisal at the end I would say, as a gamer I probably won't buy this game. As a military historian, I think I might look into it.
Congrats on a great review. I have spent good money on game magazines and received much less.
Menin Gate at Midnight, Will Longstaff, 1927.
"At the landing, and here ever since" - Anzac Book, p. 35.
Re: Should we "Remember the Alamo"?
No Expectations wrote:
That Davy Crockett didn’t die while swinging ‘Ole Betsy’ and taking down Mexicans left and right, but instead surrendered, tried to save his life and was executed
I thought this was actually one of the myths? That is, he died during the battle, but 'propagandists' at the time promoted the belief that he was captured and executed, in the hope of stirring up anti-Santa Anna sentiment?