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Halls of Montezuma is a card-driven wargame covering the Mexican-American war and was designed by the team of Fox & Welker, who also did Thirty Years War, also by GMT.
Among the components are many unique counters, a non-mounted map, two player aids with many resolution tables, and a turn track card that has a the turn adjustment summaries and some off-map counter boxes.
Mike: I admit to being a GMT fan, and I was not disappointed when I received my p500 copy a couple years ago and greedily went through the contents. I must say that I love the map. It is one of my favorite maps. It is unfortunate that the colors don’t always match so well with the counters, but the overlay on the period map was a superb idea. The portraits of the generals involved also gave it some extra flair.
James: Both artistically and functionally it is one of my favorite game maps. It has the balance just right to give good strategic and tactical decisions. It has good range of terrain possibilities including jungle, rivers, ports, and some off-map movement.
Mike:For the most part, I like the counters as well. There are a whole set, however, that I don’t get. Like, why do I need a counter for the Bear Flag event when it is a one-off play? There are a whole mess of these things we never have used. Also, the counter stating ‘No replacements’/’Replacements taken’ was not well thought out... when I see No replacements, my first thought is that I cannot take replacements, when it actually means I have not yet taken replacements. Yipes.
James: It's those wording problems and some typos that caused me some confusion. That doesn't take much though, Mike will tell you that.
Mike: The rules as written had quite a few ambiguities and some tough wording. They never kept us from playing, but the living rules sure cleared up a lot for us, to the point that we think we are doing everything correctly, anyway.
James: The living rules were superb, still some naming issues for me, but still a big improvement. I really liked how the clarifications were highlighted in red. This made it much easier. When you get into it you see how rules light this game actually is. It's pretty easy to get into.
This is a game about breaking or maintaining the Mexican will to continue the fight, similar to the mechanism in For the People from AH/GMT.
James: I've not played For the People, but I've really enjoyed most of the card based GMT games I've played so far. It's probably my favorite despite preferring the shorter time length and simplicity of Washington's War. I really love how this game changes and evolves. It feels like a campaign game, with each turn being like a fresh game, with new challenges and new considerations.
Mike: This political will (PW) seems to me a lot more volatile than For the People, however: a couple bad battles and an extra revolting region or two and you are balancing the fine edge of chaos. The game has a nice mechanism to entice the US to declare war to get better troops and mobility, but it must manage how much PW it’s willing to give. The Americans need to be aggressive, because they don’t have so many turns to complete their goal, and the game can end quite early with a high ‘game end’ roll. The Mexicans are really strapped for good leaders, and I’ve perhaps relied on Santa Anna a bit too much at times, but he’s saved my bacon on numerous occasions.
James: Like any good game there are multiple ways to score points, but my favorite is just building up a big army or two and smacking some ass. No wait, it's the spreading of revolts bringing about the collapse of the Mexican government.
Mike: The raids are also a good way to grab some PW points; I think I first saw these in Wilderness War (also GMT). It certainly gives the Mexicans something to do if they are stuck with low cards, have used their replacements, and are otherwise at a loss for what to do.
There are some unique movement mechanics in this game.
Mike: I actually like it quite a bit. You need to activate a general with the play of a card of high enough number, and then draw an action card to determine the number of movement points. This leads to some real variety and uncertainty, as even a two-space march can be thwarted by heat or too many enticing señoritas.
James: I really enjoy this movement mechanic, it really highlights the chaotic and harsh nature of the natural environment as well as the ad hoc nature of the forces on both sides. A good card, or a bad one can leave you re-thinking your movement. That battle is suddenly out of reach, or suddenly within your range without a horrific penalty. Somehow, because this is a GMT game and you are tuning over cards it seems more classy than roll-and-move.
Mike: The heat really adds some complexity to the move though, and is a killer in this game. Attrition strikes often, and with nasty consequences. A single step loss to a unit in this game can be devastating, and not easy to recover from.
James: Step losses will cost reinforcement actions or events to recover from, and can be very dangerous if most of your stack is depleted. However, I like the resource management aspect it adds to the game. It's far easier to remember to take into account than a winter attrition phase that so many of these games have.
The battle mechanic uses several modifiers to calculate 'firepower', then a roll of a dice, and a look up on the battle resolution table.
Mike: The battle table is a harsh one. And where else can you see an attack action described as ‘execrable’? A lot is considered in making up the final battle results: army size and composition, lead and main support units, leadership, exceptional aide-de-camps, card play, terrain, movement remaining... but all decided with one die roll. A bad roll can really spell doom: we often have suffered total annihilation in some particularly big battles. But the luck seems to run both ways, as more often than not a major victory is followed soon after by a disastrous defeat.
James: Execrable pretty much sums up my die rolling 'skills'. Agree though that the table is a harsh one. The battle mechanic does so many things right. You have plenty of opportunities to stack the odds in your favor. Despite that the battles can go horribly wrong. Somehow, though, the game remains fun and not frustrating. It all becomes part of the bigger story that is unfolding rather a face-to-face battle of strategic competition. What can seem like certain doom can be turned around in the following turns.
There is one scenario in the game. Does that provide enough variability?
Mike: The game has lots of back-and-forth, and I don’t think any of my five or six efforts has had the same feel yet.
James: It's that back-and-forth that really makes this game stand out. I'm not sure if there are any prescribed strategies for this game beyond determining if the US should declare war early or not. Despite the play length it's almost like sandbox game: you play it to see what happens. That in turn creates some remarkably tense games in very unexpected ways.
Mike: One of the games was arguably my most exciting finish ever: I managed to get the Mexican PW from 11 to 9 with a confrontation right before the end game roll, which was a ‘9’, giving me as the US a hair’s-breadth victory. The game tells quite a good story, and you can never rest safely.
James: The game I remember most is when Scott was chasing a weakened Santa Anna around southern Mexico, until reinforcements came and took the initiative back from Scott. That game was a real tussle, where the terrain and tactical positioning was key.
And The Final Word...
Mike: I really enjoy this game. We decided we wanted to really learn how to play, and went at it three times in the space of a week, finally completing the whole thing in the last go, in around four hours. I know when it was released there was talk of 2-hour games, but I don’t see that happening for us, unless there is an unusual blowout.
James: The reality for me has been this is a 4-hour game, but a very fun 4-hours with some great decisions to be made. I would play this again and again as either the US or Mexican side. The combination of mechanics, map, detailed counters, and interesting cards makes each play tell a great story that will throw up some superb anecdotes to tell your gaming buddies.
Mike: I think this is a worthy addition to any CDG fan’s cabinet. Not sure I’d want to cut my teeth on CDGs with this one, though. One of the toughest things about the game is knowing ‘what in the heck am I supposed to be doing?’ The war depicted is not commonly discussed or studied by most people (including self) so the objectives and way to meet those objectives is not always clear. We still don’t use navel power much, and taking over territories is less usual than direct combat. Still, interested enough to keep trying new approaches.
Very enjoyable review of a game that I have an interest in (subject and CDG), but have been wary of purchasing (previous reviews and comments) . Love the two person format.
Thanks for putting it together. Much appreciated.