Review: Congo

Rating: 4 stars

wargames-illustratedThere are some of us (maybe more than are willing to admit) that remember issue #132 of Wargames Illustrated, which gave us a set of ‘Darkest Africa’ skirmish rules from the pen of Chris Peers, along with an accompanying set of figures from Wargames Foundry, and skirmish games in the African bush were the ‘in thing’ ….

…which probably simply goes to show that all things are cyclical, and any ‘non-mainstream’ wargaming period will once again become fashionable at some point in the future.

_20161219_10103918 years later, and Studio Tomahawk – the game design studio behind Saga and Muskets & Tomahawks – released a new skirmish game set in 19th Century Central Africa – that game being Congo. At the time, Africa was described by the western press as an unexplored, wild and dangerous land. This is the setting for this game.

Congo is a game designed to be played by 2 (or more) players on a 6′ x 4′ table. The rulebook is a 108 page, full-colour  hardback book, and comes complete with a deck of 44 cards and a sheet of punch-out card tokens and measuring sticks.

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Congo token sheet

In addition to this you will (obviously) need some miniatures and some scenery, along with a number of dice: D6s, D8s and D10s.

Each player will require a warband (described as a ‘Column’ in the rules), which is made up of around 30 miniatures. These are split into one of four factions: White Men Expeditions,  Sultanate of Zanzibar, Forest Tribes or African Kingdoms. Each Column consists of a number of Characters, a single set of Auxiliaries and a number of Groups. Characters, as the name suggests, are individual figures. Auxiliaries are individual figures which can be placed with Groups, and Groups are fighting units, consisting of between three and six figures, depending upon their type.

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Choosing an army for the game is easy, with four fully detailed Columns in the book

 

If you are looking for pre-built warbands, both Wargames Foundry and North Star Military Figures have some available for purchase, each built from figure ranges they have available. Prices range from £25 – 40. (Foundry also sell an ‘Adventure’ Pack, which contains bonus miniatures that you may need to play several of the scenarios).

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A selection of the cards from Congo. Top row: Action Cards, Bottom Row: Totem Cards & Sorcery Card.

At its heart, Congo is a card driven game, although the mechanic may be slightly different from one the average wargamer may have seen before (it’s another instance of Studio Tomahawk using mechanics more familiar with board games, and transporting them to a miniatures game setting).

 

A Turn is split into three phases:

In the Opening Phase, each player selects three action cards to play from their available hand of seven cards. Each player also draws a Totem Card.

The Action Phase is split into three steps. In each Action Step, both players select an Action Card to play. These are revealed simultaneously, and the card with the highest Initiative (the number printed at the top of the card) being performed first.

_20161221_075659-copy-4There are three different types of Actions. The ‘Foot’ icon denotes a Movement Action, the ‘Bow’ icon denotes a Shooting Action and the ‘Drum’ icon denotes an Influence Action.

Movement Actions can be used to move, including charging into combat. Shooting Actions can be used to shoot or reload (required for muskets), whilst Influence Actions can be used to Rally or inflict Terror on opposing units. However, Red icons cannot be used offensively, therefore whilst card 3 has four movement actions on it, none of them can be used to engage an enemy unit in melee.

The number next to the icon is the number of units (Character/Group) that can perform that action in the Step. A unit can only perform a single Action in a single Step.

Three Action Steps are performed, after which the Action Phase is complete.

The End Phase in then performed, which primarily consists of checking if the scenario has been completed, checking for any in-game effects and moving the turn marker.

Totem Cards can be played at any time, and can be used to give the effect on the card.

Movement is usually performed using a Small measuring stick, although under a number of circumstances this distance can be doubled. Groups of miniatures are all placed in base-to-base contact with each other thus immediately doing away with any issues of unit coherency, or instances where a member of a Group may not, for example, take part in melee combat.

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Shooting is performed at a range dependent upon the weapon, but is generally limited to Medium range (6″) or Long range (12″) with the only exception being Jezzail Muskets, which are used by some Sharpshooter regiments.

Shooting, Melee and Influence actions are performed by rolling dice, and attempting to beat a target number to gain a ‘success’. The target number is always 5, so the quality of the unit is measured by the type of dice rolled – either a D6, D8 or D10. Each Character or Group has a number of stats (Shooting, Combat, Bravery) which denotes what dice they use for each type of Action. Under certain circumstances, extra dice can be rolled.

When Shooting, you usually roll a number of dice equal to the number of miniatures in the Group who can fire, and see if any succeed (equal or exceed ‘5’). Cover rolls are then taken (you get a cover roll, even when in the open) and the number of Cover successes removed from the number of Shooting successes. Casualties can then be removed from the target unit.

In Melee, each unit rolls a number of dice, and add up their successes against their Combat stat. The number of successes are then compared and a table is consulted to determine how many casualties are inflicted.

Stress tokens can be gained by Groups and Individuals during the game, these can be removed by using an Influence Action, and rolling against a Units Bravery Stat.

Whilst there are some finer details in the rules (including the possible use of magic by Witchdoctors, and the effect of animals in the game) those are the bare bones of how the game works and plays.

_20161221_075623The game is accompanied by eight different scenarios, each presented in the form of a newspaper page from a fictitious publication: “Le bulletin de la Societe Geographique”. This introduces the scenario, gives a table layout, details the protagonists, deployment and objectives of the scenario, along with any special rules and the game duration.

It’s worth noting that not all games simply include the protagonist factions – several include other creatures, such as crocodiles, lions and even a certain giant gorilla…

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There are several double-page pictures throughout the book, featuring some fantastic scenes using miniatures from the Foundry range.

 

So, what do I think of this?

Firstly, Congo is a very well-appointed set of rules. The rulebook is of excellent quality, beautifully presented throughout and featuring a host of painted miniatures from the Foundry range. It certainly looks the part. In addition, the rules are presented, and more importantly, read very clearly – it seems that Studio Tomahawk have learnt from their experience with the Saga and subsequent Crescent and the Cross publications. As a result, there is very little which is open to misinterpretation, and areas which have proved problematic in the past (such as melee combat when miniatures in a group can be up to 2″ apart) have been resolved by simply changing the formation rules in the game. This potentially affects the aesthetic look and feel of the game, as you have small clumps of miniatures moving around the table, but it certainly makes life a lot easier from a mechanics point-of-view.

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The rulebook is generally easy to navigate. It has a good contents page (though no index) so rules are quite easy to find. A couple of pages about building scenery for your games are also included, which are always a welcome addition.

The game is driven by  cards, which automatically means that a certain part of the community will hate it. However, it’s a different type of card driven system, being much less random whilst at the same time putting constraints on what each player’s column can achieve in a single turn. Because you always have the choice of all seven action cards at the start of your turn, you have to carefully plan your actions. Do you simply proceed with your plan, or provide some form of contingency against what your opponent is doing?

The use of Totem cards provides addition flexibility for each player, plus the extra decisions of when to use them – do you play them for an immediate advantage, or wait and accrue several for use in a single, potentially devastating turn?

As far as the dice mechanics are concerned, I have always been a fan of using different polyhedral dice instead of additional modifiers ever since I first came across this back in the days of Stargrunt 2, so that’s always a winner in my book.

Whilst there is nothing new with Stress tokens. However, having different types, with each type having a different effect on the unit, does add another layer of depth to the game – plus an extra decision to make when it comes to rallying your group. I’ve not said a lot about this, but suffice it to say that different types of stress causes units to perform worse in different situations. Does it make it overly complex? Not considering the size of the game, though I would want to have to consider this with too many more units on a side.

There are a few grumbles:

Firstly, I actually would have liked it if your choice of action cards was more constrained. I was fully expecting that the cards played during one Action Phase were not available to choose during the next (that’s a very common mechanic in card actions in board games) so it would add an extra level of planning to each turn. Perhaps this idea was tried and discarded for being a little too limiting.

Secondly, they have fudged the whole area of buildings by simply making them obstacles that you cannot enter, unless in exceptional circumstances that they detail in a scenario. They freely admit this in the rules, and the reason why they did it (it avoids having to write the potentially troublesome rules for buildings!) but, to be honest, it’s a little bit of a cop-out. Buildings were a major source of grief in Saga – it almost seems that they have decided that they weren’t going to do that again!

And whilst on the subject of making things simple, whilst I fully understand the reasons for ensuring that all figures in a group have to be in base contact with each other, I’m not sure that quite fits in with the ‘skirmish’ feel of the game. And whilst on that subject – especially given the weapon ranges (which we will come to shortly) – does anyone else feel that the table is too big? Congo strikes me as a game that can easily be played on a 4′ x 4′ table, so I’m not sure why they advise 6′ x 4′ as the optimal table size.

3993805-jungle-outside-of-bangui-0My major gripe is with the weapon ranges in the game.

With a single exception, no weapon can fire more than 12″.

congo-savanna

Admittedly, they are dealing with two completely different terrain types in the game, as you can switch where your adventure takes place between the sweeping Savannah and the dense Jungle. Even so, having especially rifle and musket range limited to a single length of a measuring stick seems to be the case of over-simplification and making ‘reality’ fit the mechanic and tools of the game, rather than any other purpose. Why not simply allow rifles and muskets to fire 2x L? Especially as you are already catering for the representation of terrain on the battlefield by giving units in open ground a cover save. The only saving grace in this is that at least one unit cannot charge into melee against an opposing unit without risk of coming under fire at some point.

In conclusion, Congo is a solid set of skirmish rules which yet again take aspects of board games and apply them successfully to affect the command and control of players in a miniatures game. The result is a fluid and fairly fast game, although one that can produce lots of counters on the table, so not for the aesthetic purists among you.

The cost is relatively small, due to the size of the armies involved, which also means that painting is not too much of a chore – plus the armies are somewhat colourful. If you fancy a break from playing World War II or Napoleonic’s across the fields of Europe, with the emphasis very much on adventure and certain ‘pulp’ aspects of the genre, this would make an idea small project.

4 Comments on Review: Congo

  1. The range issue has probably something to do with the terrain that players are willing to put up. I thought once that the range restrictions should depend more on the terrain (and hence become terrain makers problem than rule writers) but then realized that in reality wargame terrains only seldom exhibit the necessary ‘clutter’ for that to occur.

    Hence, the easiest way to overcome the relatively unrealistic terrain is to artificially reduce ranges in order to include terrain features that aren’t there.

  2. The errata on rules website says that the boardgame size is an error, and that the game should be played on a 4′ x 3′ table.
    This really improves play, with the short ranges and movement, and small number of turns.

  3. Excellent review. I’ve read the rules haven’t played them yet. Also concerned about buildings and gunboats, but house rules or later supplements may address those. Thank you for your insights.

  4. Stephen Holmes // April 29, 2017 at 12:10 // Reply

    I’d lie to counter your first grumble – that use of action cards is not constrained.
    Since players must select three cards for the three phases of a turn, each card can only recur once in three turns.
    In most cases this is both more restrictive (and requires less tracking) than “Can’t do the same thing twice”.
    Of course it’s possible to use one card for the last phase of one turn and then the first of the next.
    This enables period features: Regulars delivering rapid fire,agile elusive natives…
    In the course of 5 games I’ve not seen it happen:
    Columns tend to play their strongest suit in the first phase – shooting or charging before the other side have had an opportunity to pin or eliminate their troops.
    The third phase is frequently used for rallying, mopping up, or dashing through a cap caused by earlier combats.

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