COIN Operated: An introduction to GMT's new-model wargame09 Jul 2018 0
Even if you don’t play board games there is a fair chance you might be aware of Volko Runhke and his COIN (Counter Insurgency) game series. The nature of his games has captured public imagination with major news outlets running a series of articles on Volko’s CIA career and his unconventional designs. What this means for gamers is that there is finally an opportunity to play as Pablo Escobar or Castro, have a valid reason to cry "Charlie don’t surf" repeatedly, and demonstrate how much better you would have done than Bush in Afghanistan.
COIN can be described as multi-factional guerrilla wargames with a simple area control system that is driven by actions and objectives that are often unique for each faction. Bolted on to this is a card-driven historical event system; the result is simplistic, asymmetrical progression with a historical narrative. With four players the military environment has a political layer of oversight that drives player interaction, sub-optimal decisions, and tense tactical trade-offs. Even your so-called friends can pose a direct threat to your efforts through corruption, cultural patronage, or shady business practices.
COIN games first appeared in 2012 when Volko Runhke published Andean Abyss (2012). However, it wasn’t an overnight concept. Development started with Volko’s Wilderness War (2001), which tries to marry up 18th century formulaic conventional war with traditional tribal warfare: in North America. For me it didn’t work, but it was interesting in that you have to balance out siege warfare whilst dealing with guerrilla frontier raids.
This was followed by Labyrinth: The War on Terror, 2001-? (2010), which captures the global conflict for influence and stability between Islamic radicals and the US. It is Labyrinth that first demonstrated some of the core mechanics that would go on to form the basis of the COIN structure that we would first see in Andean Abyss, a Colombian Civil War game.
With COIN you will never be on top of the situation. As soon as you have stabilized things in one area there is an emerging crisis in another. Big gains are possible but holding on to them can feel like clutching at sand. The card-driven scoring system only compounds this problem; you can plan long-term strategic goals but they count for nothing if you don’t have anything to show short term when the scoring card is revealed. With so much of the success of war being driven by short-term political motives, this captures the realities of modern war by occasionally shoving them in your face and rewarding your long-term pacification strategy with a low points score.
COIN isn’t for everyone; there are no hexes, no equipment elements or labelled units. With its brightly coloured pieces, COIN can be easily mistaken for a Euro resource management game rather than a wargame. This Euro feel does mean that COIN games are accessible to the non-grognards. The simplicity of the actions mean that you can feasibly get your non-wargaming friends to enjoy what is effectively a wargame simulation. Although if you are looking for a very high-level political game, you might be frustrated that population support doesn’t translate into a capability difference; perhaps in a future iteration this will be addressed.
Because of its focus on national-level counter insurgency, COIN won’t teach you about real-world COIN tactics or ISTAR (surveillance) assets. If you want a 'political friction free military' game then you aren’t going to enjoy the complications of the inter-factional tensions and the cultural, economic, and political aspects that pervade in COIN's vision of warfare. If you are like me and enjoy having political interference and oversight to ruin your well-laid military plans, then COIN games really hit that sweet spot.
If you are a solo player, or just have a smaller group, then the COIN system is great because it has strong AI bot mechanics. It’s really just a series of flow charts, but the structure of the mechanics and event cards allows for a plausible and challenging narrative to develop. This AI bot system allows a four player game to work well even when played solo. To top it off, the AI isn’t half bad; "I think the AI can hear us" became a common catchphrase for us.
So if you are now sold on this concept or want to explore more what are your best options?
Andean Abyss allowed players to fight a civil war in Colombia with a series of unpleasant factions in a deeply unpleasant war. If making roadblocks, kidnapping, death squads, extortion and manufacturing cocaine is your thing then this is the game for you. This game was the first in the series and is a bit rougher than the games that followed it, but the theme works very well.
This was followed by Cuba Libre (2013), in which you don’t just get to play as Castro trying to bring revolution, you can also play as corrupt casino bosses trying to prop up the winning side. If you are looking for an entry-level COIN game then this is your best option. Cuba Libre has a much smaller map than most of the series and an accessible theme, which means you don’t need to worry about blowing the minds of some of your less wargame-y friends.
Colonial Twilight: The French-Algerian War, 1954-62 (2017) is a handy two player game if you struggle to round up 4 players on a regular basis. Whilst you lose some of the political dynamic of a four player game the game loses none of the excellent COIN gameplay and operational frustration and can be played easily in a long evening.
A Distant Plain (2013) and Fire in the Lake (2014) are much more meaty affairs. A Distant Plain covers the ongoing Afghan war with a range of scenarios that allow you to explore the different stages of the war and the evolving capabilities of Western Forces. Alternatively, you can play the role of a corrupt warlord just trying to earn an honest living growing heroin.
Fire in the Lake (pictured at top) captures the whole of the Vietnam war and the very asymmetric capabilities of the various forces. Playing as North Vietnam and building up a huge regular force to roll into the DMZ was a great fun until we met conventional American forces and my force got absolutely smashed trying to overrun a major firebase. Falling back on expanding the Ho Chi Min Trail, I at least had a great backing sound track to listen to whilst I watched the Viet Cong win the war at my expense.
Moving the system to pre-modern times was a challenge as it was marketed as a system designed to portray modern insurgency. Yet it seems that the Euro-style system works no matter the time period or operational realities of the day, as their more recent releases show.
First was Falling Sky: The Gallic Revolt Against Caesar (2016), which captured ancient warfare between the Gauls and the Romans. This was a major transition from the earlier games in the series as it introduced conventional armies facing one another. This game has a very powerful Roman army lined up against tribal forces - Asterix this is not.
This was followed by Liberty or Death: The American Insurrection (2016) which covered the American War of Independence. This is a breakthrough game that captures the multi-faceted political complexities of this conflict rather than portraying it as a rather two-sided Hollywood war.
This year saw the release of Pendragon: The Fall of Roman Britain (2018), which looks at the arrival of tribal sea invaders knocking down the last vestiges of the old British-Roman elite. Accessible and with an interesting theme, this makes the likes of the ahistorical 878 Vikings feel rather dull by comparison.
Looking forward, we have the first primarily political game in Gandhi: The Decolonization of British India, 1917-1947 and another civil war, All Bridges Burning: Red Revolt and White Guard in Finland, 1917-1918.
Future games in the pipeline are rumoured to include: Shattered Star (1990s Somalia), A Terrible Beauty (1920s Ireland), People Power (1980s Philippines), and Thunder Out of China (1930s China), but it could be a couple more years before we see those hit the store shelves. Most of the games mentioned in this article are currently out of print but GMT is about to start a big print run of most of them in 2018.
You better start saving.