Sunday, 10 July 2016


A run down of the COIN games I have played

COIN (COunter INsurgency) is a series of games that GMT started publishing back in 2012 with Volko Runke's Andean Abyss. The first four games all focused on modern insurgency wars but in the past year the series has branched out into Republican Rome and the American Revolution.

I've played a fair bit of COIN at this stage and thought a run down of my experiences with the series so far might be informative.

First off, what of the series as a whole? Which one is should you buy? How hard are they to play? And other profound questions...

The two foreign factions make good use of their domestic allies.

The main strength of the series is their ability to naturally bring out the murky alliances and the shifting nature of factional relationships in these conflicts. Each game has four factions, usually one represents the government, one or two armed insurgents, one criminal syndicate or trade based faction, and sometimes one or more foreign military powers.

Each player has an objective that is diametrically opposed to at least one of the other players. Perhaps their faction needs to win the hearts and minds of the populace, perhaps they need military control of a region, or perhaps they just need to make as much money as possible from exporting drugs.

Coupled with this each faction usually has a natural ally, the NATO forces that prop up the government, or the leftist guerrillas that distract the authorities from the cartels operations. It might seem like a straight team game, and the Vietnam game Fire in the Lake can appear that way at moments, but there can only be one winner. As such these are games of negotiation where the Karzai is seeking the support western forces one turn and striking a deal with the warlords the next. The changing player order, the ability to short change another player out a proper turn, the event cards and the limited set of actions each player can perform all feed these plots.

Their biggest weakness is probably their tendency to generate false endings. COIN can be viewed as four factions playing tug of war over a tea towel with victory is only counted when special 'coup' cards are drawn. Whilst no one knows exactly when this will happen usually one player will drag the leader back from the brink just before it counts. Whilst thematic this can lead to games going on a bit and sometimes be anti-climatic.

Which to buy?

COIN games sell out pretty fast with most going out of stock in the UK within three months of arrival. GMT are pretty good at doing reprints but you are still looking at a two year wait, so the best advice is probably just to buy what is available.

From what I have seen, there isn't really a dud game, nor a true standout so given a choice buy the topic that appeals to you most. I believe that all the games in the series have had Volko in an advisory role, whilst this adds consistency it possibly reduces variety, as such unless you are real enthusiast I wouldn't own more than one. There are fewer differences between titles than there are in the CDG or block families of wargames.

Hard to play?

I often play them with boardgamers as opposed to wargamers and they are pretty easy to teach. Each game comes with a tutorial that helps you learn the system. The only downside is that some of the rules can read a little like computer code, a statement followed by lists of clauses and exceptions. Expect to have to put some effort in but you won't need a diploma.


Andean Abyss - The first game in the series focuses on the Columbian Governments fight against the FARC, drug cartels and AUC guerillias. It plays in about 3-4 hours fairly consistently, possibly the best simulation of the series and presents the widest array of strategic options to the guerillia factions in my view. The main downside is that the Government and the FARC are clearly the two A side factions with more pieces and more things to do than either the AUC or the cartels. The later can still be fun to play but some might feel short changed.

photo courtesy of Lucas Brooks (AAC guild)

A Distant Plain - Mechanically this is almost identical to Andean Abyss, but there is more information to track and the introduction of the NATO military faction shakes things up a little. Western nations will not tolerate casualties so keeping them low becomes integral to victory for NATO. The main selling point is the familiarity of the conflict, in most other respects I slightly favour Andean Abyss, though this title does feel more even handed between its factions. Plays in 4-5 hours.

Cuba Libre - Not played this one, but I am told it is the shortest and simplest of the series.

Fire in the Lake - This entry has a different dynamic from its sister games. The players are split into two teams with the dilemma being that if they do not work together they will both lose but if they help their team mate too much they will hand the game over to them. Casting Vietnam as a four faction game has been somewhat controversial, whilst I am no expert on this conflict I felt the games namesake book made a reasonable case for this view. As military game this one is clearly the most interest and the least attritional. Each player has a very powerful one use only event card, like Tet, that can swing the game in their favour if used judiciously. This is my pick of the series, but there are some downsides. You lose the shifting alliances and negotiation that defines the series to an extent, equally there is a greater rules weight with the added military complexity. The short scenario runs around 3 hours, but the proper game is somewhere between 4-7.

Liberty or Death - Pass, not played, although my friend Simon liked it and I've been told its a great conversion of the system to the American revolution.

Falling Sky - I have only played this once and the game was cut short. We played 3 hours and saw one winter (coup) card which made this the slowest COIN game I have played by some margin. The game does a better job of converting a system designed for modern conflicts to the ancient world than I had expected. For instance, rather than using inactive 'hidden' troops as a way of infiltrating territories or avoiding combat they are used to determine whether one side can ambush another and receive a heavy advantage in combat. Combat itself is much easier to achieve, no longer must a player move in, sweep to expose hidden troops and then assault across three turns, as simple move attack will suffice.  This entry in the series also probably has one of the better faction spreads, the Belgae get their German Allies, the Arverni can employ scorched earth tactics, Caesar fulfills the foreign military role and the Aedui the trader faction.

Pax Pamir - Not a COIN game from GMT, but I am inclined to agree with Chris Farrell's notion that if you want COIN short and light this is it. The shifting alliances, area control and randomly drawn victory determination cards are all there, though make no mistake there are differences. This is a card game about building up a tableau and denying resources to your opponents. It plays in about 30-90 minutes but can be a rather unstable game with one side winning as if by mistake on the first 'coup' card.

Image courtesy of Cole Wehrle (game designer)

Monday, 4 July 2016

Megagame Mapping with Inkscape. Tutorial 1

I'm putting together some mapping tutorials for the Pennine Megagamers. Here a link to the first pdf.

Sunday, 3 July 2016

Jena Campaign - Debrief - Lessons learned.

On the last Saturday of this past June I enjoyed one of the best learning experiences I have had in wargaming to put a positive spin on it. The day did not start well in character as General von Ruchel I arrived to the field 3 hours late having boarded the wrong train. When I arrived I discovered that my colleagues had spread our forces in a long thin line between the Fulda gap and Gera with no reserve.

Control's game map

The Jena campaign megagame, designed by Rupert Clamp was devised as a double blind map game. Each side of 10-15 players wrote orders for each division ordering it about a large map of central Germany. When battle was joined a divisional commander collected his regimental level counters and played a simple face to face tactical game.

A step up the chain of command it was the army commanders (generals) role to devise the overall strategy for then the divisional/corps commanders and their chiefs of staff teams to implement.

Or if you were on the Prussian team being a general consisted of arguing with your fellow generals. I made sure that all my fellow generals were abundantly clear on views on every aspect of the campaign.

For me this was a game of three arguments, two that I won and should have lost and one that I lost and should have won.

The field of battle

First because we had no reserve we could not counter Marshal Davout when he brushed Blucher aside north of the Fulda Gap. My friend Paul argued that he should  march after Davout and fight him once he tired, I argued that he would not catch the French (they had a higher movement rate) and that he would probably lose a one on one fight if he did catch him. Rather we should accept that Davout would reach Halle and cut our supplies in around 3 days and we should focus on trying to fight the pivotal battle against the rest of the french before that clock timed out.

What I didn't know was that Davout had essentially no moral left in his force as he had forced marched them day and night to reach his present position. In fact he never did reach Halle before the game ended despite the open road. If Paul had fought him, we might not have lost.

Team planning map

Second, convinced that the game should come down to a climatic battle, like all Napoleonic campaigns did I continually argued that we should concentrate our forces and strike at one point delivering a pivotal blow to the French. In some respects this was not a terrible view to take, Napoleons objective in every historical campaign was to defeat the enemy in detail in a major battle as this would allow him to end to the discussion as to who had supremacy over Europe.

However this was not in Pete's (the thief of Europe!) mind, rather he decided that the best approach for the French was to employ Fabian tactics in the centre whilst running two corps around either flank to try and seize Halle and Leipzig cutting us from our supplies. As such by arguing that we should concentrate in the centre and smash the French in a major battle I opened up our flanks. For a long time my divisional commander Simon and I had made a case for taking one of your divisions off the southern flank and moving it into the centre as a reserve. We got our way but in doing so we could no longer effectively defend the approaches to Leipzig.

The final argument revolved around how to finish the campaign. We had done pretty well in our field battles but the French had taken Leipzig and we would lose our communications with Halle soon. What to do. I argued that no Napolonic army ever surrender because it had lost supplies for a few days and that we should fight out of our encirclement towards Berlin. In the end the presiding view was that we should concentrate on Jena and await a French attack as this would be the most fun and fitting end to the game. Another idea was that we should push out towards Leipzig and try to retake it (which wasn't the worst idea in some respects but you really do need supply for a siege).

In the event Napoleon not being a fool simply ignored us and sat on our supplies and the game ended with the Prussians in a rather compromising position rather than with a head start on the road to Berlin.

My excellent divisional commanders, far more competent than I was

The game was a good lesson in assumptions for me. I had underestimated the effect of marching on moral and assumed that a pivotal battle was necessary. In the longer term it would have been, since armies did not tend to surrender on home territory for lack of the supplies, the worst case scenario was a disbandment and humiliating surrender. Whilst this might seem like a total victory Napoleon always tried to force a major battle so that he would not have to return the following year to re-establish his supremacy to the now reorganized opposition. In short we had done far better than our historical counter parts but we had not radically changed history.

My friend Pete (Napoleon) wrote up his thoughts on the game here;

Overall I was impressed with Rupert's design, it had the right tempo for a Napoelonic game and generally felt historical in play. The double blind aspects generated plenty of tension and control did an excellent job of feeding the right amount of intelligence out to the players. The only thing I would challenge was the notion that the loss of Halle and Leipzig being a victory condition. After all the Russians accepted the loss of Moscow and for a brief time the Austrians Vienna, the only nation to bottle at the loss of their key city was in fact the French.