As you may know from my other previews and reviews, I love the COIN Series of games by GMT Games. They are a fantastic vehicle to allow me personally to engage in the struggles throughout history between great powers and those that are considered rebels or traitors. Each of the 5 volumes that I have personally played (including Cuba Libre, A Distant Plain, Fire in the Lake, Liberty or Death and Falling Sky) is a highly enjoyable delve into the time period depicted. The game mechanics are so well designed, that I am allowed to totally immerse myself not only in the theme, but actually in the philosophy, mindset, motivations and direction of each of the factions. A Distant Plain is no different for me and I am truly pleased that I P500’ed this title in early February for the 2nd Printing (this should tell you that the game is good!) which sold 1,000+ games. But before, I get into a quick look at our 1st play, I wanted to discuss what you can expect to see from the game.
A Look at the Game
Apart from the names and location of the game, being Afghanistan with the focus on Kabul at the center and the surrounding Pakistani regions that border Afghanistan, the core rules and mechanics remain mostly unchanged. However this is not a case of played one, then played them all either, as each game in the COIN Series has a solid selection of differences from the previous volume, including new mechanics, new challenges and slightly different Operations and Special Activities specific to this conflict. A Distant Plain is the first of the initial three games that has a Faction from outside the Country in which the game is set. In this edition, the Coalition and their Victory Conditions are quite unusual in as much as they are trying to withdraw from Afghanistan and the costly conflict and are not simply focused on overthrowing or subjecting it. This is possibly the most intriguing and interesting Faction to play because of the different challenges they offer.
This volume in Volko Ruhnke’s COIN Series takes 1 to 4 players into the Afghan conflict of today’s headlines, this time in a unique collaboration between two top designers of boardgames on modern irregular warfare. A Distant Plain teams Volko Ruhnke, the award-winning designer of Labyrinth: The War on Terror, with Brian Train, a designer with 20 years’ experience creating influential simulations such as Algeria, Somalia Interventions, Shining Path: The Struggle for Peru, and many others.
A Distant Plain features the same accessible game system as GMT’s other COIN Series volumes but with new factions, capabilities, events, and objectives. For the first time in the Series, two counterinsurgent (COIN) factions (the Government and the Coalition) must reconcile competing visions for Afghanistan in order to coordinate a campaign against a dangerous dual insurgency consisting of the Taliban and the Warlords.
What is New in A Distant Plain
As with each new volume of the COIN Series, there are many familiar actions, pieces and mechanics but there are always a few new surprises to improve the gameplay and give you the true experience of how each separate faction views the world and will go about trying to reach their Victory Conditions.
The Islamabad Track
This addition to the game is a very interesting one in which the Coalition and Taliban players have to pay attention and care about the attitudes and reaction of Pakistan’s people regarding the war in Afghanistan. As you can see from the picture below, the track has 5 spaces with the ends of the track on the right and left representing the levels adn intensity of the feelings of the Pakistani people toward the conflict, either a position of support for the Taliban with Sponsorship or one of outright disdain in Hostility. The marker represents the posture of Pakistan and can be moved through various events such as US-Pakistani Talks and Pakistani Offensive among others or through the Coalition using the Air Strike Special Activity in Pakistan.
What we found in our 1st play was that if the Coalition and Government are able to effectively limit the choices of the Taliban through the manipulation of the Islamabad Track to dictate where they can Rally (see Pressure) and their guerilla units disposition, either Underground or Active (see Hostility), you can truly begin to control what actions they take and where. The benefit of this is that this creates predictability which in turn leads to the Coalition/Govt dominating the board. That is the thing about an ambush, if I know where you are, and exactly what you are doing (through intelligence gathering activities), you are much easier to defeat. This is a very interesting new part of the game that we enjoyed considerably.
+1 Population Returnees Markers
The Government has a new Special Activity called Govern where they are able to add returning refugees to an areas population by placing a special +1 Population Returnees marker. These markers simply add to the spaces total population for the purposes of calculating the advantage of Support for scoring purposes. The markers also allow the Government to shift Aid to Patronage to benefit their final scoring calculation. The theme is perfect as these type of wars fought in the villages and homes of civilians cause 100’s of thousands of innocents to be displaced and their presence in a province adds to your support as they are obviously displeased with the situation. There are only 6 of these markers so they must be placed carefully so as to be able to take advantage while limiting the access of the Taliban from these areas as they will also use the +1 Population in their calculations for victory through their opposition. I really like this addition to the game as it seemed to lead to a game of keep away with the provinces where these markers were placed and added a level of tension to an already tense game.
Available Forces Box
Because a foreign force must expend considerable logistical effort to get its Troops and Bases into and out of the country, the Coalition may not place its pieces with an Operation, no simply voluntarily remove them. Instead it must use its Surge Special Activity. New to A Distant Plain is the Available Forces Box. This box is where the Coalition forces are staged prior to being deployed in Afghanistan using the Surge Special Activity and the number of forces in the box adds to the Victory Condition. The Surge Special Activity also comes with a price though as the Coalition has the option, not required, to roll a die and add this value to Aid and Warlord Resources. This mechanic leads to considerable negotiation and deal making between the factions and is a very interesting addition to the game. This thematically represents local payoffs for “security” and other financial entanglements associated with a war 4,000 miles away from your base of support. The Coalition player must balance the need for more troops on the board and the need to add to their Victory Condition and this becomes quite the balancing act. Without pieces on the board, you cannot enforce your will but with too many pieces, you will not be able to win. This is where working with the Government to deploy their Troops and Police is valuable as they can be used by the Coalition in Sweep and Assault Operations and Air Lift Special Activities to remove more insurgents.
New Operations and Special Activities
We have already discussed a few of the new Special Activities in Surge and Govern but there are a few new tricks in the bag of A Distant Plain. Train is an interesting addition as it allows the Coalition player to place Government cubes on the board rather than their own troops. They can even take cubes from sections of the map if there are none available to move them to certain areas through this Operation which is a major change from the other volumes. Also, Training in the capital of Kabul can recover Patronage that may have been diverted from foreign Aid back to Resources useful for counterinsurgency efforts. I love government bureaucracy as it definitely keeps the books clean!
For the Warlords faction, they have the ability to raise funds from their poppy fields (represented by bases on the map) by using the new Traffic Special Activity. They can simply select spaces where they have bases without any Coalition pieces and collect +1 Resource per base. This is a great thematic addition to the game as the local economy of Afghanistan is powered by the poppy and its byproduct Opium. The Warlords abuse this crop to fuel their activities to fight against the Coalition and the Taliban to assist them in carving out their power on the field. The Warlords also use Suborn to remove Government cubes, bases or Taliban insurgents from the map. This can be powerful as they try to influence local forces to allow them free reign.
Victory Deception Option
In order to add some variety and a little bit of the unknown to the game, there is this new optional rule called Victory Deception. This is designed to hide how close factions are to their Victory Conditions. If you use this optional rule, each player will draw 2 Deception Markers. These markers are owned by the player and can be used at anytime throughout the game as needed. There are 3 types of markers. They include Hidden Asset, Hidden Agenda and an Empty Threat. Each adds either a +1 Victory margin, no effect or can change a Limited Operation to an Operation and Special Activity. These markers are not game breakers but are nice additions to introduce a little more intrigue into the game.
As you can see, this new volume of the COIN Series has many familiar elements but also adds the NEW to expand the game to keep the experience fresh and exciting. Now onto the AAR for our 1st play through.
After Action Report for Our 1st Game in the Short Scenario
I received my copy of A Distant Plain in mid-May and have had some trouble getting it to the table with other games, including Falling Sky: The Gallic Revolt Against Caesar, being on my “to play list”. This week, during our usual Wargame Wednesday, Alexander and I decided it was time to break it out and play.
I chose to be the Coalition and Government factions and Alexander chose the Warlords and Taliban. We set the board up for the Short Scenario which represented the time period of 2009-2012 (the Extended Scenario covers the period of 2003-2012) and set up the deck with the required number of Propaganda cards and event cards.
I spent my first few turns taking advantage of fortunate events like Find Fix Finish (1 piece removed during Coalition Assault can be Underground) and ID Cards (Marching Taliban always Activate when entering non-Pashtun Provinces) which gave me capabilities that would last for the entire game and give me a special addition to my various actions. I was very excited about the Find Fix Finish as it can be very difficult to Activate guerilla units to allow them to be Assaulted and remove them from the map. This capability would make a big difference and make my Assaults more effective each time they were used.
Alexander also understands the power of capabilities and was able to obtain the Roadside IEDs capability by the end of the 1st Propaganda card. This capability was amazingly effective for him as it added the ability to remove a 3rd piece during Attacks and also to Sabotage empty adjacent LOC’s. Luckily I had deployed my Government Police cubes around the map to guard the key LOC’s, particularly the more valuable high value LOC’s near Kandahar, Nuristan near Kabul and Balkh in the north, so he was less effective in the game of Terror and Sabotage.
After obtaining my important capabilities, I was focused on the Taliban in the south around Kandahar, both to remove bases to increase my Aid (as you get +6 Aid if Govt removes a base) and to remove the Taliban insurgents to maintain control and limit his power to Ambush and Attack my Coalition forces. I moved into Khowst using the Afghan Commando event and then was able to Sweep and Assault there removing most of his insurgent units.
I was then able to begin focusing on the south around Kandahar where he had built up a fairly significant Taliban force with several bases and multiple units in each territory. I systematically used Coalition and Government Forces to do the Sweep and Assault rinse and repeat, utilizing my Find Fix Finish to remove one Underground Insurgent with each attack. This was slow going as he continued to replace units that I would remove but as always, this is a war of attrition and time as the Coalition and Government can typically afford such expense while the insurgents cannot. It took several rounds but I was finally able to declare Kandahar and Helmand as clean and then noticed that the Warlords had been allowed to run amuck in the north.
While focused on the Taliban in the south, I had been a little negligent of the Warlords and had allowed them to build up a pretty strong presence in the north. As you can see from the picture below, I was holding onto Konduz (mainly because I had placed a +1 Population marker there) but had lost control of Balkh at the 1st Propaganda card as I had to move my Government forces out to a base. I was in for a fight with them and was now regretting having ignore them. As you can also see in the picture, I was close to victory with the Coalition (at -6) and the Government was at -9. At this point of the game, we decided to call it a night with 2 propaganda cards remaining. After the final Propaganda round was completed, where each side spent resources buying Civic Actions to increase support or opposition, the board was set and we were able to determined the victor. Due to my COIN Control of several of the larger areas and my deft strategic deployment of both Troops and Police, I was able to gain support in 2 new territories while the Taliban was only able to gain a +1 opposition due to my presence. The final score of this game (in which we only played 2 of the 4 Propaganda cards) was Coalition -6, Warlords -7, Government -9 and Taliban -10. I claimed the victory with a major asterisk placed next to it as we didn’t finish all the way though. I will say that we had a lot of events (nearly 15 cards) between the 1st and 2nd Propaganda cards and after as we looked through the remaining deck, found that the next Propaganda round would have come in only 2 more events.
For our first play of A Distant Plain, the game seemed to be as simple and clear as the other COIN Series volumes and was just as thematic as the rest have been. I love the colors of the cubes but in this version, the map bores me with the neutral brown, tan and sand colors. I guess that too is thematic though as this area is high mountain desert! I can’t wait for our 2nd play which will be the Extended Scenario. This has been our MO with these new COIN games, that we start a new game to learn it by playing the Short Scenario, and once we are comfortable with the mechanics, new Operations and Special Activities and understand the Victory Conditions, we then move to the longer scenarios to fully experience the game. So, look forward to a future AAR to see how the game plays out. I will also say that I own 4 volumes now (ADP, Fire in the Lake, Liberty or Death and Falling Sky and Alexander owns Cuba Libre and has Pendragon on P500) and love each of them and see them as their own experience. While sharing similar mechanics of the core system, each adds their own unique and delightful elements that enhance and deepen the experience of the struggle that is depicted by the time of the game. For my money, the COIN Series of games are the best that the hybrid wargaming market has to offer!