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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)


  1. A nice overview of the different games Simon. I'm surprised at how few spaces there are on the Falling Sky board, that and the large wooden pieces make it look a smaller game than the others.



    1. its a half mapper board. It is geographically smaller than the others, fewer territories but it ends up not feeling that small. Also all of the faction displays are moved onto player sheets. Mixed views on that, it becomes easier to sort your stuff out but you if one player is lax in noting how many tribes markers they have out you will have to count .

  2. I'd prefer to have it all on one map personally. Though it saves GMT money on printing a smaller board it still takes up table space as the displays need to be set out anyway.




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