Over the past few months, I have been reaching out to the designers of the COIN Series by GMT Games for insight into their versions and take on the series. These interviews have included a 3 Part series with Marc Gouyon-Rety regarding Pendragon: The Fall of Roman Britain (Part I, Part II & Part III) and I will be publishing an amazing interview with Brian Train regarding Volume VII Colonial Twilight: The French-Algerian War, 1954-62 (Part I & Part II) later this week and I also have another interview with Harold Buchanan in the works as well. But as I was working with Marc, he asked me if I had reached out to Volko. I had not as I was sure that Volko would not have time for a small time blog like ours in the midst of trying to finish up several volumes and starting new projects as well as living life. Boy, was I wrong! I got up the courage and made contact and Volko was the nicest, most accommodating interview I had ever had and gave us some really good “meat” to chew on. After working with him on this, I can see why the COIN Series has been so successful, mainly due to the fact that they are good games with amazing settings, but also because the creator is an amazing individual that pays great attention to the little details that make games so grand and has a passion for and love of design! So without further ado, please enjoy Part I of my interview with the Godfather of the COIN Series, Volko Ruhnke.
Grant: First off, thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to speak with me. Did you have any idea the COIN Series was going to take off like it has? Your first COIN game was Andean Abyss in 2012. Since, there have been 5 other volumes published with several more on the horizon. Did you expect this? Or is this all a total shock to you?
Volko: Most of that is a total shock. With my proposal to Gene Billingsley of GMT Games of what became Andean Abyss, I did describe to him a series of games—but of four volumes only, covering modern insurgency in Latin America, Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East, respectively. None of my original ideas for settings beyond Colombia (Angola, Philippines, and Iraq) have gotten published, however. Instead, other designers, starting with Jeff Grossman on Cuba Libre, stepped forward with their own ideas.
And that phenomenon—the COIN Series’ ability to lure in and evolve with so many talents in the field—is a key explanation for the fantastic reception that board gamers have given the Series. That reception, in turn, has drawn in the creative efforts of ever more designers, developers, testers, and artists, so that we have a virtuous circle and, as you put it, takeoff.
“None of my original ideas for settings beyond Colombia (Angola, Philippines, and Iraq) have gotten published, however. Instead, other designers, starting with Jeff Grossman on Cuba Libre, stepped forward with their own ideas. And that phenomenon—the COIN Series’ ability to lure in and evolve with so many talents in the field—is a key explanation for the fantastic reception that board gamers have given the Series.”
Grant: How did this COIN concept and system come to you and how did you transform that idea into a workable gaming system?
Volko: I put two larger design impulses together…
1) The importance to us today of insurgency as a form of conflict, its frequency in and consequence in history, and its typically multi-sided nature, contrasted with the paucity of game designs on that sort of war among the many, many 2-player wargame designs of this or that conventional conflict.
2) The power of Mark Herman and Mark Simonitch’s iterative innovations that became today’s card-driven wargame form—its seamless introduction of political and other non-military aspects into a model of military operations—contrasted with how I felt that its hand-management and deck management challenges distracted from player focus on the situation on the map.
So the basic concept was to portray and give insight into modern insurgency as politico-military conflict, harnessing common instead of handheld event cards to drive initiative and the selection from a menu of operations.
Grant: What makes the COIN Series so popular in your opinion?
Volko: I am probably the worst person to answer that question, since my perspective on the Series—from the inside—is doomed to be out of touch with anyone else’s. I hope that the main answer is that the COIN Series delivers many good things all at once and does so in an elegant and accessible way: tense tactical trade-offs, deep strategy, insight into storied history, engaging interaction with other players around the table, and immersive solitaire.
Grant: How has the COIN series changed over time? Do you like the changes and are you comfortable with the direction?
Volko: The designers and co-designers who came to the Series have taken it to places that I never would have thought of. I’m not just comfortable with that, I’m thrilled. And I’m eager to find out where we will end up next!
Grant: I know that Pendragon really has no traditional counterinsurgency. This is a definite change. Is the COIN brand being watered down? In five years will it still be true to the COIN beginnings?
Volko: I would not say “no counterinsurgency”—there are internal rebellions depicted in the design. But the larger question is apt: Pendragon’s focus is on migratory conquest and internal Roman stresses that are not really about rebellion.
There is no cause to see this as “watered down”, however. Rather it is expansion and exploration. There remains plenty of room for classic insurgency and modern guerrilla warfare, such as in the volume immediately preceding Pendragon, Brian Train’s COIN Series take on 1950’s Algeria, Colonial Twilight. Pendragon designer Marc Gouyon-Rety—as you know—has explained why he found the COIN Series a good host for his design’s topic of the Fall of Roman Britain: the game engine’s accommodation of asymmetric ends, ways, and means; of multi-factional and internal war; and of political, economic, and cultural clash interwoven with military campaigns.
I use the positive connotation of “exploration” to emphasize the need in any Series for the addition of variety as each volume is added. In an upcoming C3i magazine article (issue Nr30), I attempt to dissent the requirements for variety in the Series—and the inherent danger that you note of not remaining sufficiently true to the original form. The upshot is that a series stretching eight or more volumes must both reward initial investment in learning the system and provide ever greater departures to make playing yet one more game in the series worthwhile.
As to whether the newer COIN Series volumes will remain “true” to its beginnings, I will have to leave that to players. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating: if volumes VII, VIII, IX continue to satisfy those who stand by the Series, then so be it!
Grant: The COIN brand seems to get auto-P500’ed (P1000, really) when any title is added. I guess the question is if it is “milking” the brand to not have counter-insurgency (but be a good game using the system) and still call it COIN?
Volko: We touch on this balance elsewhere here, and it is tricky. Calling a design “COIN Series” at this point implicitly promises something. To me, that something boils down to the payoff in investment in learning one of the earlier games and the delivery of a similar but far from identical play experience. So as long as a further COIN Series volume stays true to enough of the core engine that dedicated Series fans have learned and mastered, with enough twists to transport them to a different historical time and place, I’m happy to “milk”.
“Calling a design “COIN Series” at this point implicitly promises something. To me, that something boils down to the payoff in investment in learning one of the earlier games and the delivery of a similar but far from identical play experience.”
Grant: I noticed there are at least 8-10 rumored titles out there! How do you choose what struggles are worthy of the COIN Series?
Volko: That’s easy: I don’t!
I give my advice to designers who have proposals but have not yet invested the major commitment into producing a prototype. I might comment on appropriateness of design choices in topic, scope, factions, victory conditions, and the like—with an eye to desirable characteristics for the Series such as an alluring setting, asymmetry of goals and options, and strong politico-military content.
But, as we discussed elsewhere here, I am eager to leverage different designers’ unique creativity to ensure variety within the Series. So in the end the designer either will make an excellent game that features enough of the system’s core engine to be readily recognizable as COIN Series, or the designer won’t.
I hope you enjoyed Part I of the interview! In Part II, Volko talks about the design process for Volume VI Falling Sky: The Gallic Revolt Against Caesar, the experience of designing this game with his son Andrew and his thoughts on the future of the COIN Series.
Part II of the interview has now been posted.