As of 2 months ago, I owned no serious “war” games, and especially no GMT Games. I dabbled in the genre with light war games like Kemet, Axis & Allies, Memoir 44’, etc. but was always extremely intimidated by the many counters and especially the oddly shaped hexagonal spaces on the boards that for my anal retentive mind, seemed disorderly and out of place as compared to the nice and tidy square! These fears and biases kept me from ever trying “those” hex and counter games. I was more drawn to the Euros, deck builders and worker placement designer games that have become so popular over the past 5 years or so. I actually own 62 different games with about 50 expansions for those games which include titles from the big board game companies like Stronghold Games including Survive, La Granja, Among the Stars and Core Worlds; Days of Wonder including Five Tribes and Smallworld; Z-Man Games such as Merchants & Marauders, Stone Age, etc. among many others! I love board games and over the past 5 years, as I have lived close to some of my friends and family, have picked the hobby back up with great zeal! But my love for the COIN Series of GMT Games had another genesis.
As I mentioned I moved closer to friends and family in 2011 and began to play a wider variety of games with my English (from Southampton) brother in law Alexander Klein. He always had games that I initially thought were “weird” and not necessarily for me but that I played as I knew that he loved them a great deal. One of the first games that I would consider a “war” game, without being a hex and counter game, that we started playing together was GMT Games Twilight Struggle. When he brought his monstrosity to the table, I was immediately intimidated by its size, depth and all of the many multi-colored bits and pieces in the form of counters and chits. Although I was immediately intimidated, I was also immediately amazed by the event cards that drove the game. There were cards for both sides but they didn’t necessarily work for both sides. You had to juggle that hand of cards to help your efforts while making sure not to assist your enemy. I immediately fell in love with the CDG (Card Driven Game) element, which is a major component of the structure of the COIN Games although it is more commonly referred to as Card-Assisted in COIN Games. After playing TS over a 6 month time, we then moved onto a greater change with Mark Herman’s Churchill.
Churchill has very familiar elements similar to TS with the struggle for control of the hearts and minds of the people with Pol-Mil activities and Card Driven Game play but also added some faux combat elements into the mix. This allowed us to feel like we were waging war without worrying about a lot of numbers on counters, movement points, obscure rules about inter-service rivalries, etc. I loved Churchill for some of the same reasons that I loved TS mainly asymmetry of the two sides, CDG and the continual struggle for control over the issues being debated. After playing and loving both of these games, I decided it was time that I got into the genre and bought my first GMT Games game. After a lot of research on the subject, including watching lots of videos and reading tons of blogs (thanks to everyone who has put in hours and hours of writing/videoing to help poor souls like myself), I felt drawn to the COIN Series of games designed by Volko Ruhnke. For those that don’t know, COIN stands for COunter INsurgency and deals with rebellions, guerilla warfare and political struggles through various times in our history. In my humble opinion, COIN is a hybrid Euro-hex and counter type war game! I kept seeing tweets about Liberty or Death: The American Insurrection by Harold Buchanan and really felt drawn to this game, mainly due to my love and admiration for the American Revolutionary War and its leaders and history.
I scrambled to order a copy and found one through cardhaus.com, which interestingly enough is located in Southern Indiana, about 2 hours away from where I live in Brownsburg. I immediately fell in love with the game upon opening it both for its high quality components, including its sweepingly beautiful mounted map (the best I have ever seen including beautiful relief of trees in the wilderness and an amazing layout!) and the inherent struggle which is written into each page of the rulebook as you can actually feel the difficulty for each faction in achieving their goals and victory conditions. We played the game together about 5 times over the first week of owning it along with several solo tries with the Bots and I was hooked. I very quickly then moved to buy Fire in the Lake: Insurgency in Vietnam as I have always had an interest in that conflict and its undercurrents of political intrigue, public support and issues with drugs. After playing, I wrote a quick After Action Report last week on our first game of FitL.
With this long introductory discussion on my journey through “war” games and my eventual love of the COIN Series out of the way, I now would like to share with you the 5 elements that have drawn me to the COIN games and will continue to intrigue me as they are developed further:
I am a fan of history! I have read many biographies of great leaders in the history of the United States and the world as well as about various wars, battles and political struggles. In fact, hanging in my office are many prints of my favorite leader General George Washington. I have found that each of the COIN games (I own Fire in the Lake and Liberty or Death) have accurately captured the period they are describing and have tried to address and cause players to have to deal with the many struggles and difficulties of those times. For example, from the GMT Games website comes the following description of Fire in the Lake:
“A unique multi-faction treatment of the Vietnam War, Fire in the Lake will take 1 to 4 players on US heliborne sweeps of the jungle and Communist infiltration of the South, and into inter-allied conferences, Saigon politics, interdiction of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, air defense of Northern infrastructure, graduated escalation, and media war”.
This paragraph accurately captures all of the many elements that you will face when playing this game. As I have only played once, I experienced difficulties in logistics in moving troops around, not having enough resources to take the actions that I wanted to in a given turn, having to deal with the enemies actions of sabotage and terrorism and always keeping my eyes up and alert to the upcoming historically accurate events and how they will affect me now and into the future. I have a feeling that the military and political leaders at that time were dealing with the very same things. After playing, if I had no pre-knowledge of the Vietnam War, I feel that I would be at least passingly familiar with its many issues. Theme is a very important part of any game and the COIN games have captured that theme and integrated it very well into play from the event cards to the bits to the look and feel of the boards.
The COIN Series of games are built on asymmetrical goals and factions meaning that each of the four factions have different victory conditions (how do you play a game where not everyone is going for the same finish line?), different actions that they are allowed to take (what do you mean you can steal my resources and I can’t take yours?) and different means of obtaining them (what do you mean you can win by only having more villages/bases than me when I have to have more money and influence than every other player?). I believe that this is the systems biggest strength as you will have to become familiar with the other factions goals in order to know how to beat them but must focus on yours in order to win. This means that the game is infinitely re-playable and will feel different each time you play as you will be in charge of a different faction or factions. I also enjoy greatly figuring out what I should be doing with a certain faction and getting comfortable with their operations and special activities, only to turn around and play another game where I have to start all over again learning what to do.
Similar to TS and other Card Driven Games (CDG), COIN Games rely on printed event cards that are used for several purposes. The first and most important purpose is to set up the order of play for each faction that round (if the factions are eligible). This is a very interesting design concept as you see the current active event, as well as the very next event in the sequence. This visionary advantage allows you to plan your next turn moves by passing, taking a limited op or other action thereby locking out your opponent from taking the current event or taking the current event yourself for its benefit. This is such a glorious part of the game design. It can both be maddeningly frustrating as well as extremely satisfying! Another aspect of the event cards that I truly enjoy is that the events are more often than not, very powerful. They either give you a continuing bonus on future operations and special activities (as in the case of Fire in the Lake with the various Capabilities) or allow you to take operations and special activities more times that round than you would be able to had you not chosen the event and more often than not, at no cost or FREE! Also, because of the power of the cards and their ties to one or more factions, you can take the event which allows you a huge advantage, only to see that very powerful event reversed with the next event or with a regular operation. This is very frustrating but is one of the major reasons that I love the Card-Assisted element of COIN Games.
As an example of what I am saying, in a recent game of Fire in the Lake, I was able to play the event “Tribesmen” that allowed me to remove any 4 Insurgent pieces total from spaces with Irregulars.
This allowed me to remove 2 underground VC guerilla units in the highland province of Binh Dinh and the lowland province of Quang Tin. Usually, this action would have taken me several turns, one turn to sweep into the area uncovering the guerilla units making them vulnerable to assault and the next turn to carry out the assault operation to remove the pieces. So this event was very powerful and allowed me to get done in 1 turn what would have taken me several.
The counter move to this event though was the VC using their Rally operation to bring in more guerilla units on their next turn, which ended up netting them 1 additional unit in each of the provinces over what they started with (started with 3 hidden guerilla units in Binh Dinh and after my event and their rally, ended with 4! Started with 4 hidden guerilla units in Quang Tin and after my event and their rally, ended with 5!). Fantastic! I loved the feeling that it gave me of frustration and disgust but also loved that the game design is very flexible and allows for punches and counter punches!
Production Value & Beauty of Components
I have always been a sucker for a good looking, well made game. If that game has multi-colored wooden cubes and pieces (like the COIN Games), lots of thick, well made cards with great art or pictures (like the COIN Games) and well laid out boards or maps (you guessed it, like the COIN Games), then I am generally interested in that game and will consider purchasing. In fact, I am always leery of any board game that sells for under $50 as I have to wonder about the quality and how they skimped on that quality to keep the game under $50. So for a price value and for quality components, COIN Games are hard to beat.
Flexibility in Number of Players from Solo to 4 players
Not many traditional “war” games allow up to 4 players. For example, Empire of the Sun by Mark Herman is for 1-2 players (great game!), Wilderness War by Volko Ruhnke is for 2 players (one I own and love!), and Combat Commander: Europe by Chad Jensen is for 2 players (great game that I soon will own!). While solo or 2 player games are great, it is sometimes difficult to find someone that is willing to invest 4-6 hours into a game, and it does make for some lonely gaming, especially if you are playing solitaire. One of the elements that I really enjoy about the hobby of board gaming is the interaction between many players and being able to see their strategies, learn from their mistakes and successes and make more friends. I am fortunate to have a great gaming group of 5 guys but it is hard for us to play traditional 2 player “war” games as many are left out. This is where COIN Games excel! They allow solo play or up to 4 players which makes them more playable with large groups. In fact, as I have played Fire in the Lake more, I see that to truly appreciate the game and the complex struggle that the Vietnam War was, you need to have 4 players. This is where the true tension will come out! As in FitL, the US can spend ARVN resources! How dare you touch my money, said the ARVN player! And in Liberty or Death, the Indians can ask for resources but the British don’t have to give them! Great tension is set up in a 3-4 player game that typically won’t exist in a 1-2 player game. While I have had varying levels of success with the solo play using the “Bots” in COIN Games, they are well planned out and the player aid cards provide a clear flowchart of decisions for the Bots. This setup allows for improved solo play over other games on the market.
In conclusion, I find that the COIN Series designed by Volko Ruhnke and published by GMT Games is a fantastic hybrid game that will appeal to more traditional gamers and open doors to allow more interest in the “war” game genre. I highly recommend them and can speak from limited experience as I personally own 2 COIN Games, Volume IV Fire in the Lake and Volume V Liberty or Death. I also have ordered P500 versions of Volume III A Distant Plain: Insurgency in Afghanistan and Volume VI Falling Sky: The Gallic Revolt Against Caesar, which are actually shipping as of today! I look forward to each play of the series and cannot wait to explore it further in the future!