We became familiar with the work of Javier Romero when we played his game Lion of Judah: The War for Ethiopia, 1935-1941 from Compass Games in 2017. That game was a solid experience dealing with World War II in Africa and had some really interesting mechanics and tricks as players must work with the local native tribes as well as fight off the opponent. If you are interested, you can read our review of the game at the following link: https://theplayersaid.com/2018/09/20/if-this-is-to-be-the-way-of-our-world-why-make-treaties-at-all-a-review-of-lion-of-judah-the-war-for-ethiopia-1935-1941-from-compass-games/
Recently, I became aware that Javier was at it again and had designed a small wargame on action in The Congo that was appearing in Modern War Magazine No. 52 called World War Africa. I immediately reached out to Javier and he was more than willing to talk with us. I do want to apologize to him for holding onto this interview for so long as I have had it since late February but have not had an opportunity to post it because of previous commitments and deadlines with Kickstarters.
Grant: First off Javier please tell us a little about yourself. What are your hobbies? What’s your day job?
Javier: I am a historian and translator from Barcelona, Spain. I became a wargamer at age 13, when an uncle of mine presented me with a copy of La Guerra Civil Española, a game on the Spanish Civil War by Spanish publisher NAC. Within a few weeks of playing the game, I began to create house rules for the game because I felt that the rules of play were too simplistic…
Grant: What motivated you to break into game design? What have you enjoyed most about the experience thus far?
Javier: When I was in college, I rediscovered board wargaming. I enjoyed Command Magazine, S&T, The Games, Avalon Hill and Alea Magazine of Spain. But soon I realized that there weren’t any medium complexity games on the Spanish Civil War. In these times (mid-1990’s), we had the Europa Series game (For Whom the Bell Tolls). But, despite so much complexity it didn’t feel like the Spanish Civil War. So I wrote a proposal to Command Magazine, and, to my surprise, it got enough votes to be published. But, alas, Command Magazine disappeared, so, after offering my game to various other publishers, I ended up publishing it with GMT Games in 2010, some 15 years after the first version of the game. In the meantime, I had contacted Alea Ludopress, a Spanish wargame editor who published my first games: Iberos (Ancient Warfare in the Iberian Peninsula) and some Alea games such as Nordkapp, Kursk, and Italia ‘44 in 2020. Later I published games with Vae Victis France (Ebre 1938), S&T, ATO, Command Japan, OSS and Compass Games…
Grant: What designers would you say have influenced your style?
Javier: Joseph Miranda, Ted Raicer, Masahiro Yamazaki, in no particular order. My first game design, The Spanish Civil War, was heavily influenced by The Great War in the East by Ted Raicer, published by Command Magazine.
Grant: What do you find most challenging about the design process? What do you feel you do really well?
Javier: The most challenging thing for me is to focus on what you consider the main theme of the game, and leave aside what is secondary. My games try to provide a narrative and provide “period feel” with a limited set of rules.
Grant: What is your game World War Africa about?
Javier: The end of the Cold War in Africa witnessed an apparent wave of democratization in the continent. The Apartheid system was dismantled in 1992; in Ethiopia, decades of war ended with the fall of the brutal communist regime of the Derg and the independence of Eritrea. In Rwanda, Uganda and other countries, a new breed of African leaders, with the support of the US administration, seemed poised to sweep the corrupt regimes of the Cold War era. Things, however, would not turn out as expected. The fall of Mobutu spawned an endless cycle of brutal wars in the Congo. The consequences of these wars are still felt today. The war caused millions of deaths and came to be known as World War Africa, or The Great African War.
World War Africa is a simulation of the second Congo War of 1998-2001. The game pits two coalitions of powers trying to gain control of the Democratic Republic of Congo and its resources.
Grant: What inspired you to design a game revolving around conflict in the Congo from 1998-2001?
Javier: Well, there are many conflicts of the post-Cold War era that are waiting for a simulation. We have gamed almost to death WW3 what-if games, but we haven’t gamed much the dozens of wars that were fought in the post-Soviet space, including the Middle East and Africa since the 1990’s. I think that these conflicts involve too many “non accountable” factors, such as morale, civil wars, internal strife or politics, and what these days we call “the grey zone”, or “hybrid tactics”. Therefore, these post-Cold War conflicts do not fit well within the traditional “gun and rifle counting” mechanisms of most military wargames. World War Africa is a first attempt at simulating one of these conflicts in Africa.
Grant: What from the history did you need to make sure to include in the design?
Javier: The predatory character of the intervention of most of the countries involved. These countries tried to gain control of the DRC to benefit from their resources. The primary aim of many intervening powers was to impose a friendly government on the DRC, thus ensuring access to the mineral riches of the country and juicy contracts for their own companies. Failed that, control of mineral-producing areas generate revenue for the countries and their respective militaries, that, more often than not, ran near-independent operations.
Grant: As the game is a magazine wargame, how does that effect your design approach?
Javier: To be honest, I have never understood the difference between “magazine” and “boxed” games. I don’t agree with the idea that magazine games are somewhat more “improvised”. I have seen magazine games with well thought out designs, and boxed games that were rushed to publication.
Magazine games rarely publish multi player games so maybe that was the only way it affected the design approach. It is a two player game in which both players (government and rebel) control a coalition of forces that are activated at random, by chit pull. This simulates the chaos inherent to that conflict.
Grant: What is the scale of the game and the force structure of units?
Javier: Units are brigades and regiments. Hexes are 100 km across (the Congo is a huge country). However, the stacking limits are rather low (three units for clear/savannah hexes). This simulates that the armies fighting at the Congo lacked trained staff and personnel to control large formations.
Grant: What are each of the playable sides? What typifies the disposition of each and their main advantages?
Javier: There are two sides: Rebels and Government. The rebels control Rwanda, Uganda and their local Congolese proxies (the MLC and the RDC units), while the Government controls the Congolese Army (the FAC) plus Angolan and Zimbabwe contingents. The Rwandans have better quality and the ability to use infiltration attacks (a tactic similar to that used by DAESH in Syria… first infiltrating a town or outpost, then launching a conventional attack combined with attacks “from within” the position).
The Ugandans and Angolans have better firepower, in particular the latter, with their Soviet-style army, equipped with abundant artillery and armor. The Zimbabweans have highly professional units, very solid, and a very good air force. In general, it is a contest of numbers against quality. The government has the numbers, in particular the guerrilla forces that can infiltrate and harass the Rwandans, Ugandans and their proxies. Using guerrillas is key to win the game for the Government player.
Grant: What sources did you consult for the OOB, tactics and makeup of each side?
Javier: The main OOB sources (almost the only available) are the books of the Africa@War Series published by Helion. For a general view of the war, the books by Jason K Stearns, Gerard Prunier, Javier Rodrigo and David Alegre.
If you are interested, you can access the first six books in the Africa@War Series from the following links:
Great Lakes Holocaust
Great Lakes Conflagration
Wings over Ogaden
Rhodesian Fire Force
Wars and Insurgencies of Uganda
These digital releases are available exclusively from the Helion website.
Grant: What area is covered by the map? Who is the artist?
The map covers almost all of Congo, and it is a Joe Youst effort (and a very good one).
Grant: What is the anatomy of the counters? What type of different units are available?
Javier: Counters are NATO style, with the usual factors: attack-defense-movement. Most units are regular infantry and militias, although there are some mechanized or airborne units. PMC (Private Military Contractors) air transport units play a key role in the game. The color schemes try to not confuse players too much given the myriad factions and acronyms. As of today there are hundreds of armed groups in Eastern Congo alone.
Grant: As you mentioned, the design uses Chit Pull to activate units. Why did you choose this method of activation? What advantage does it give the design?
Javier: I feel that Chit Pull is an extremely useful mechanic to simulate the chaos of trying to coordinate various nations and factions, often with different objectives and outlooks. This system creates some uncertainty of activation as well as limited ability to control what happens.
Grant: How many different contingents are represented in the Chit Pull makeup?
Javier: There are lots. You have Rwandans, Ugandans, Zimbabweans, Angolans, Congolese government. As you can see from the counter sheet, there are lots of colors representing all of these different groups.
Grant: How can the activation procedure be modified? What does this represent from the battle?
Javier: The Angolans and Zimbabweans, when activated, roll to check the number of units that can operate that turn. Spending Resource Points can influence the die roll (the higher the die roll, the more units they can activate).
Grant: What is the general Sequence of Play?
Javier: The Sequence of Play begins with Resource Point (RP) collection and random events (random events can also influence RP collection), followed by activation phase, in which players alternate pulling activation markers to activate their respective contingents. After all contingents have been activated, the turn ends.
Grant: What are Resource Points and how do players use them? How is the amount determined each round?
Javier: Resource Points (RP’s) simulate resources extracted from the country and sent by foreign supporters. Players can use them to purchase support and weapons, including PMC air transport, rebuild units, modify activation die roll of certain factions, and also to gain VP’s at the end of the game.
The amount is determined as follows: some factions get a fixed amount each turn plus whatever RP’s they can collect from resource point towns they control on the map. That later figure can be variable, simulating corruption, presence of hostile forces, and up and downs in the international markets for commodities such as gold, diamonds, rare earths, etc. On the other hand, random events such as Coltan Rush may greatly increase your revenue and turn a medium range commander or two into millionaires. There is also overall uncertainty: mining operations are carried out in the middle of a civil war, transport and distribution structures are shaky at best.
Grant: What type of Random Events can happen at the outset of the Sequence of Play?
Javier: Most Random Events are reinforcements (activation of rebel forces), graft & corruption (negative modifier for RP collection), coltan rush (adds positive modifiers to RP collection), withdrawal of various forces, or help received from other foreign powers such as Libya. They can also simulate clashes between Rwandans and Ugandans or intervention in nearby countries. The random events are present in many of my designs. They simulate many things, add chrome, and generate a historically sound narrative without having to add tons of rules.
Grant: How does the geography of the Congo and its generally poor connections effect movement? What are some basic strategies for players to get forces where they need to quickly?
Javier: The Congo is one of the most dysfunctional countries on earth, so using helicopter and air transport is crucial to reinforce threatened points. Moving by land may take forever (even with three month turns). Helicopters are also useful to chase guerrillas. It is better to use militias to guard positions and keep a reserve of stronger units to be sent to threatened sectors.
Grant: What challenges does the Rainy Season create?
Javier: The rainy season makes movement even more difficult. There is also the extra difficulty that the country is in the middle of the Equator, so there are two rainy seasons, one north and one south of the Equator line. Guerrillas are harder to chase during the rainy season.
Grant: How do things like Air Transport, Helicopter Transport and PMC Air Transport effect the options of player movement?
Javier: Players can also use their RP’s to contract PMC air transport-however, the price is not fixed, and it may change depending on demand. In general, the most reliable means of transport are riverine and air transport.
Grant: What are the functions of the Kitona & Rwanda Boxes? What does this represent from the history?
Javier: The Kitona Box represent the Rwandan attempt, early in the war, to take Kinshasha and decide the war in a single stroke. The attempt failed due to the quick reaction of Zimbabweans and Angolans, but it could have been different. (For more information read here, for instance). In game terms, trying the Kitona gambit, even with a couple of units, forces the Government player to garrison the capital with strong forces, thus easing the rebel advance in Eastern Congo (losing Kinshasha means losing the game).
The Rwanda Box is used to simulate the infiltration of Rwandan Hutu forces into Rwanda proper (Having Rwandan Hutus in the Rwanda Box yields VP’s to the government player). Infiltrating (or at least trying) guerrillas into Rwanda forces the Rwandan player to use their scarce units to chase guerrillas.
Grant: What is the Rwandan Hutu Holding Box Combat?
Javier: The Rwandan units in Rwanda Box can try to intercept and eliminate Rwandan Hutu forces. They roll on the COIN table and apply results (helo unit support provides a positive modifier). This is a fast and easy way to simulate complex COIN operations.
Grant: How does combat work in the design?
Javier: There is combat between regular forces or militias that use an odds based CRT, and the COIN table, used to chase guerrilla forces in Rwanda. In regular combat, the Rwandans can use a special feature, infiltration. Infiltration provides them with bonus on the attack, in particular against poorly trained militias.
Grant: What was your goal in the creation of the CRT? Any interesting odds?
Javier: The CRT, even at high odds attack, is rather indecisive. This simulates the poor performance of most armies, with the exception of Rwandans and Zimbabweans. The key difference is in the die roll modifiers, provided by air support, weapons caches or infiltration tactics, among others. When rolling high die rolls (7’s or 8’s) then the attacks are more damaging.
Grant: How is victory achieved?
Javier: By accumulating RP’s, controlling RP producing areas, and also by infiltrating (or preventing) guerrillas in Rwanda. As commented earlier, conquering Kinshasha yields an auto victory to the Rebel player.
Grant: What are you most pleased about with the outcome of the design?
Javier: I think that World War Africa provides a sound narrative of the war. It provides players with an idea about a conflict very few people know about. I wanted to create an “African warfare” game, showing the traits that make it unique and different from other conflicts.
Grant: What type of experience does the game create for players?
Javier: Well, the experience of leading dysfunctional states, or a coalition of dysfunctional states, fighting each other for resources and influence in the post-Cold War world. They need to learn that to win they don’t need to destroy the enemy. It is better to control and exploit resources.
Grant: What other designs are you currently working on?
Javier: In May 2021, Modern War Magazine will publish another of my post-Cold War era designs, Nagorno Karabakh War, about the 1992-94 war between Armenians and Azeri. This will be followed by two more games for Modern War, Tanks of August (about the War in Georgia in 2008) and Land of Hate (Bosnia 1992-95). I am also working on Battle for the Mediterranean, a simulation of the naval campaign of 1942 in the Mediterranean for QuarterDeck Games. There is also a reprint “in the works” of my Santander ’37 game, to be published by the people of SNAFU. And I have also in the pipeline Unternehmen Zitadelle: Kursk 1943 for Compass Games, a complete redesign, or better a “reimagining” of the game I published in 2006.
Thanks for your time Javier in answering our questions. I am very interested in this one and will probably go ahead and buy it as it looks extremely interesting, especially with your focus on maintaining the various factions and their unique fighting characteristics. I am also interested in the COIN table and how that effects things and would love to see this used in other games with counter insurgents.
If you are interested in World War Africa: The Congo 1998-2001 you can order a copy for $39.99 from the Strategy & Tactics Press website at the following link: https://shop.strategyandtacticspress.com/ProductDetails.asp?ProductCode=MW52
ANOTHER great interview! Javier sounds like a really interesting mind. Of all the “brushfire Wars”, I’ve been aware of, Africa has been seriously downplayed as a theme for a war game. His game almost echoes a COIN game, in many ways. I like the challenge and the mechanisms… especially the combination of the chit pull and card play. His ideas about the ineffectiveness of some armies, in the fight also rings true… this would be a good theme for Legion or Decision Games to tackle… maybe High Flying Dice, as well.
I would be interested in knowing, since there are several good games about TSCW out there… which one’s he thinks meets his interest level? I’ve been fond of Las Barricades, Teruel, Shock Army (TFL), or perhaps “Revolution and Crusades”?The fact, that at 13, he was already “house ruling” games really resonates with me… again, fantastic interview… keep up the good work.
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Javier is doing some of the most interesting and topical work out there today… and yes, any conflicts taking place south of the Sahara are not well served in terms of quality wargames, especially relatively recent conflicts. I think there is a number of reasons for this and none of them reflect particularly well on us.
Most armies in the world are actually not very effective at “peer to peer” combat; they are better at internal security duties, even when they are not optimized for that, since that is what they spend most of their time actually doing.
I try to reflect this in games like my Brief Border Wars series (and if I ever get to doing Volume III, there will be at least one African title in the box); there was an older game, Chad: The Toyota Wars that also went some distance down this road (and some other paths too, it is an unjustly ignored design).
Arriba Espana was one of my first published game designs too, with its first edition in 1996 or so. It had several editions with the last one in 2009. Like Javier, I worked this one out because the Europa game For Whom The Bell Tolls (which began life as an insert in the Grenadier magazine called No Pasaran) was too much game complexity and fiddliness, and not enough political complexity.