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. Since that time, we have done 3 designer interviews with him for World War Africa: The Congo 1998-2001 in Modern War No. 52 from Strategy & Tactics Press, Soviet Fallout: The Nagorno-Karabakh War: 1992-1994 in Modern War No. 54 from Strategy & Tactics Press and Santander ’37 from SNAFU Design. A few months ago, I saw where Javier was designing a game on the Chaco War from 1932-1935 and I immediately reached out to him and he was more than willing to talk with us.

Grant: What historical period does your upcoming The Chaco War cover? 

Javier: It covers a rather obscure conflict, the Chaco War, 1932-35, pitting Bolivia against Paraguay in a barren land, the Chaco Boreal that has been described as a mix of desert and jungle, with the worst aspects of both.

As most Paraguayan Wars (like the Triple Alliance War, 60 years earlier), the Chaco war was perceived by that country’s army, government and population as a fight for national survival. Bolivia had 2.1 million people vs. 880,000 Paraguayans, that is, a numerical advantage of some 2.5 to 1. Also, during the earlier conflict, in 1865-70, the Paraguayans lost 90 percent of their male population and a large part of their territory, fighting, literally speaking, to the last man.

In the Chaco War, the Paraguayans had the advantage of a far more homogeneous population (almost all the rank and file were of mixed Spanish-Guarani stock) while the Bolivian rank and file were Aymara- and Quechua-speaking Indians from the Andes, ill motivated and who had a very hard time trying to adapt to the harsh climate of the Chaco Boreal. The Bolivians can mobilize large numbers of conscripts, while the Paraguayan manpower, although of far better quality, is much more limited.

Grant: What was your inspiration for this game? Why did you feel drawn to the subject?

Javier: There are very few games on this very interesting conflict. The epic of The Chaco War has marked several generations of Paraguayans and Bolivians since the 1930’s, and has left an indelible mark on folklore and literature.

In general, there are many South American conflicts waiting to be simulated with maps and counters. One recent and interesting example is Equatorial Clash, a game on the Peru-Ecuador War of 1941.

Apart from an old Command Magazine of the early 1990’s, most of what have been published are free DTP designs such as the ones designed by Pablo Martín Fernández such as Apuren el Corralito! These are IMHO outstanding designs that deserve getting a “professional” treatment (you can check them out on Consimworld, here and here). The Command game by Bruce Farcau was quite good too. While Martín Fernández’s games are more tactical, the Command game was tactical-operational. I followed a different approach.

Grant: What was your design goal with the game?

Javier: I wanted to give this war a more grand-operational approach, covering a larger area of the Chaco, including the upper reaches of the Paraguay River the first foothills of the Andes range as well as Bolivia’s oilfields.

Another aspect I wanted to include is the role played by the local Indian tribes who proved priceless for reconnaissance, finding out sources of water, among other tasks. The Paraguayans had a good relationship with the local Indian tribes of the Chaco, different from the heavy-handed treatment of Bolivians or Argentines. These Indians provided them with food and expert guides or baqueanos, which allowed them to navigate the Chaco bush to open picadas, or trails, to surround and destroy the Bolivian strongholds. The Bolivian Army was organized and trained to fight a mountain war against their old Chilean foe, not a war in the Chaco desert. This is reflected on the game by the Paraguayan advantages in the Chaco bush as well as by certain event markers.

Grant: What type of research did you do to get the details correct? What one must read source would you recommend?

Javier: Fortunately, there is a huge bibliography on the subject in Spanish, and a large part is available online on sites such as the imagoteca (https://imagoteca.com.py/) from Paraguay or portalguarani.com  

In English there are few books on the Chaco War. I’d recommend Bruce Farcau’s book on the subject (if you can find it – second hand copies can be quite expensive). The article in Command Magazine by the same author is quite good too. There are also the memoirs by the Paraguayan commander in chief, Marshall Estigarribia. These have been translated into English and is easily available.

Grant: What from the Chaco War was most important to model?

Javier: I wanted to model supply in a very hostile environment (thirst was a constant torment for both sides) coupled with the superior maneuverability of the Paraguayans vs. the Bolivians. Defensive weapons (mortars, machineguns) can be deadly, so the Combat Results Table is quite bloody.

The Bolivians are good on the defensive but the Paraguayans can easily outmaneuver them, creating a “corralito” or forcing them to flee into the Bush, where they die of thirst or starve to death.

Grant: How does the process of design change for a magazine wargame vs a larger boxed game?

Javier: Honestly, I don’t see any differences between magazine and boxed games, from the design point of view. The only difference would be game components, which in magazine games are generally limited to a single map and countersheet. This would be the only limit. That is, a four map, multiple countersheet game of the Chaco could not be published in a magazine (or in any other format, I’m afraid), but it would be great to have.

Grant: What is the scale of the game? How did you design the game around that scale?

Javier: Units are regiments, which is more or less the same scale as in the old Command magazine game. However, if the original had monthly turns and a smaller terrain scale, here I chose to use three month turns and larger hexes, covering almost all of the Chaco at 50 km per hex. This allows players to simulate not only the main front but the secondary fronts.

Grant: What different unit types does each side have access to?

Javier: Almost all units are infantry (“cavalry” units are actually dismounted cavalry fighting as infantry) while artillery and air support are abstracted into markers. There are also Corps HQ’s representing logistical assets, general staff and leadership.

Grant: What is the anatomy of the counters?

Javier: NATO icons, attack-defense-movement. Most have two steps. The Bolivian units of the early game cannot be replaced (this represents better quality cadres and troops lost during the early battles).

Grant: What is the general Sequence of Play? What type of experience did you want the Sequence of Play to invoke?

Javier: The Sequence of Play includes reinforcements and events (including political events), movement and combat. There is a two step combat phase, where units can use infiltration to isolate enemy outposts. With this mechanic I wanted to invoke the general course of events in most battles of the war: since frontal attacks were terribly costly, both armies (the Paraguayans in particular, later the Bolivians) tried to outflank the enemy lines to force them to flee. Paraguayans are much better at infiltration due to a number of factors (more on this later).  

Grant: What different random events are involved in the Random Events Phase?

Javier: Random Events are something that I use in most of my designs because they can create a narrative with a minimum set of rules. Random events cover everything from the purely tactic (local guides, flamethrower, trochas, or paths across the Chaco bush) to the operational (mandatory offensives) and strategic (Bolivian military coups).

Grant: What is the purpose of the Support Determination Phase? How are supply columns and support markers used?

Javier: It is an easy way to determine support available depending on the distance from the main supply source. For the Paraguayans, their main supply source is Isla Poí, connected by railroad to the Paraguay River. For the Bolivians, it was Villamontes, at the foothills of the Andes. Both sides roll on a supply table-the farthest from their supply source, the less chance of getting support markers. They get artillery and mortar markers, which represents number of shells fired rather than actual numbers of guns. Staff work (represented by leader’s supply modifiers) and diplomacy can also improve or degrade the logistical situation. The Argentines provided intelligence and logistic support to the Paraguayans that proved invaluable during the war.

Grant: How do players amass victory points? Why is Victory checked only at certain times in the game?

Javier: Players win Victory Points for conquering certain objectives. The Paraguayan player can also win VP’s by forcing the Bolivian to call a general mobilization, which brings extra cannon fodder on the map. However, the Paraguayans must win a number of objectives by turn 5-otherwise, the Bolivian player wins. If game continues, then victory is checked again on turn 10.

Grant: What area does the map cover?

Javier: The old Command game covered the main front, that is, the Southeast. In my design, the map covers almost all of the Chaco, up to the Brazilian border and the upper Paraguay. This gives the Bolivians the option (which was raised several times during the war) to advance towards Bahía Negra and Puerto Olimpo. One of the 1934 Paraguayan offensives aimed precisely at preventing that from happening. For the Bolivian player it might be worth the effort to probe that sector, forcing the Paraguayans to withdraw units from the main front. On the other hand, the Paraguayans can also try to advance in the north towards the Ravelo oil fields.

Grant: What strategic pinch points does the terrain create?

Javier: Well, most operations happened within a relatively short distance of the Pilcomayo River because it was a major source of transport and water. Besides, moving across the Chaco wilderness was a real challenge, because the area was just being mapped just months before the outbreak of the war. As of the 2010’s, there are still isolated tribes in the Chaco, that is, tribes that have not had any contact with the outside world.

Grant: What is Chaco Bush Movement and what does it represent from history?

Javier: Moving across the Chaco, as mentioned before, was extremely difficult. In this regard, the Paraguayans have a major advantage due to their better knowledge and better relationship with the local Indians. Indians served as guides and proved invaluable during the war. I wanted to reflect this role. Explorers such as the Russian exile turned Paraguayan Juan Belayeff (Ivan Beliaev) played a key role during the war.

Grant: What effect does supply and depletion have on units? What is the attrition represent in this conflict?

Javier: In a conflict fought in the middle of nowhere, or “a mix of desert and jungle, with the worst aspects of both” supply and logistics play a key role. Attrition simulates everything from diseases to lack of proper food and above all lack of water, thrist, “the white death” as they called it. 

Grant: How does combat work? 

Javier: Combat is odds based, with a Combat Results Table. Losses are expressed in step losses. Certain results (at high odds) can result in a Rout, that is, all units are eliminated. This represents, apart from combat losses, units killed by thirst and starvation during the retreat.

Grant: What is the makeup of the Combat Results Table? What unique odds are represented and why?

Javier: It represents a WW1 style conflict, so the CRT is rather bloody. Any attack even at 1:2 odds has a far chance to inflict casualties. This is good news for the Bolivians, for they can afford losing much more steps than their enemies. Die roll modifiers are decisive in Chaco War: players should accumulate leaders, supply columns and events to surround and destroy enemy concentrations. Frontal assaults caused massive casualties, so it is recommended to locate weak spots in the enemy lines, use infiltration and launch concentric attacks. At the tactical level, the double combat phase (combat-infiltration-combat) simulates the course of events of most battles of the war-frontal assault, infiltration to surround enemy positions, then final assault to cause a rout result and force the defenders to flee and die of starvation and thirst in the inhospitable Chaco, The Paraguayans called this tactic the “corralito” (From corral, farmyard).

Grant: What is the role of leaders? What different leaders are there?

Javier: Leaders play a key role, in particular for the Paraguayans-they provide tactical modifiers in attack, defense or infiltration. On the other hand, most Bolivian leaders during the war were useless or worse. To simulate that (and the failed Bolivian offensives of the earlier stages of the war) we have used a combination of random events (Mandatory Offensives) and the obligation of using the current Bolivian leader to support one attack per turn. The Paraguayan command was quite the opposite-they kept the same command team for most of the war, and some of their corps and divisional commanders were above average. Apart from occasional examples (such as Col. Marzana at Boquerón, represented by an event counter) most Bolivian leadership was poor at best.

Grant: How are air and naval units used?

Javier: Air units can be used to provide support but also for reconnaissance, which can be useful when moving across the Chaco. Naval units are mostly used for transport but they can provide gunfire support for Paraguayan units operating adjacent to the Paraguay river. There is also an optional rule to transport a naval152mm guns to support the assault on Villamontes. The end of the war prevented this from happening.

Grant: How do players win the game?

Javier: The Paraguayan wins by conquering geographic objectives and inflict enough defeats to the Bolivian so that they have to call more than one general mobilization. The Bolivian player wins by inflicting casualties to the Paraguayans. The Bolivians can afford to lose units, the Paraguayans not so much.

Grant: What type of an experience does the game create?

Javier: This war was in many aspects a contest of quality vs. quantity: the Paraguayan troops were, in general, far better motivated and commanded than their Bolivian counterparts. Both players need to know how to use two very different armies. Knowledge of the history of the war can help.

Grant: What are you most pleased about with the design?

Javier: I think that it simulates the Chaco War very well, with its many different traits and particularities in a playable setting. This is a good game to better understand the issues revolving around the terrain, the tactics of each side and the history.

Grant: What has been the response of playtesters?

Javier: Quite positive. It is difficult to engage players about a game they don’t know almost anything about. In general they learned a thing or two about the Chaco war.

Grant: What other designs are you working on?

Javier: I am currently working on Pensacola, a simulation of the American Revolution in Louisiana and the Floridas for Strategy & Tactics Magazine. I have also in the works a design for SNAFU about the spring campaign in Aragon in 1938. It uses the Santander ’37 system.

Thanks for your time Javier in answering our questions. I am very interested in this one and appreciate your approach, especially with dealing with the more controversial and difficult portions of the conflict.

If you are interested in The Chaco War, 1932-1935 from World at War Magazine #86, you can order a copy for $49.99 from the Strategy & Tactics Press website at the following link: https://shop.strategyandtacticspress.com/ProductDetails.asp?ProductCode=WW86