I feel like our blog is becoming the COIN connection as we have recently featured many great games and designer interviews on the series, including a recent post of our interview with Volko Ruhnke regarding the evolution of and future of the COIN Series. So today we have Part I of another great series of posts (probably 3 in total!) coming your way from an interview with Brian Train, designer of several COIN series games (A Distant Plain (2013) and an upcoming COIN game tentatively titled Thunder Out of China) where we take a look inside Colonial Twilight: The French-Algerian War, 1954-62 Volume VII of the COIN Series. Brian is an amazing designer and has been successful in the industry for many years. I love his other COIN game ADP (see my Review here) and have every confidence that CT will meet not only my expectations, but will blow you away when it is released next year! Please sit back and prepare yourself to be blown away!
Grant: What are the main differences in this installment of the COIN series? What were the challenges of doing a 2 player design for the COIN system?
Brian: The main and most obvious difference between this game and the others in the COIN series is that it is for two players, which changes the sequence of play completely. Other differences from the main run of other COIN system games include no Lines of Communication or Economic Centres on the map, and an explicit “no look ahead” rule with respect to the Event Card deck.
At the end of the 2014 Consimworld Expo, Mark Simonitch told me that GMT would like to consider the idea of a COIN system game on the 1954-62 Algerian War, and that Gene B. thought I should be the one to do it, since I had published the first wargame on the war (Algeria: The War of Independence in 2000). I readily agreed and went home from Phoenix with a head half full of thoughts (or a head full of half-thoughts) on how to do this.
My first major decision was that this should be a two-faction game. I spent a lot of time thinking and reading/re-reading what the histories had to say on the numerous political conflicts the pieds-noirs and the French Army had with the government in Paris. “Ici, C’est La France!” by Kim Kanger is the only other game on the war, published ten years after my Algeria, and it treats the frustrations of the pieds-noirs as an important mechanism to push the game through its successive historical periods. So certainly these groups suggested themselves as factions, and of course the Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN) was not the only organization interested in armed revolt against the French. But in the end, I believe that the capabilities, numbers and aspirations of these groups were not dissimilar, continuously active or significant enough to constitute workable third and fourth factions. However, many of their actions and ultimate effects have been incorporated in many of the Event Cards (OAS, Coup d’etat, Third Force, Factionalism, etc.), or indirectly represented in game mechanics like the France Track.
Grant: Tell us about the design for the sequence of play/eligibility track? How did you make it work for just 2 players?
Brian: This was the biggest departure from the other COIN system games, except it wasn’t, quite. The sequence of play is still largely the same; like the other games in the series, you still always have two factions executing operations or events in a turn, except now it’s always the same two, who are 1st and 2nd Eligible. Incidentally, this cranks the tempo of the game way up; the short scenario of the game (3 Propaganda Rounds) can be played in 2 hours or less between two reasonably quick-witted players.
When I started on the design, I knew it was important to retain the flexible turn order of the 4-player iterations of the COIN system, and some of the gamesmanship involved in choosing what to do in a turn. My first thoughts were to use a linear track where 1st Eligible would slide back and forth depending on what each side did, inspired partly by the Orders Matrix and Initiative mechanism used in the popular GMT game Fighting Formations: Grossdeutschland Motorized Infantry Division. But that wasn’t quite it – either side could choose to do what it liked, largely independent of the other, and the test games were not satisfying.
One morning I was lying in bed staring at the ceiling, waiting for the alarm to go off so I would have to get up and go to work, and thinking about the flowchart-like Sequence of Play found in the COIN system games, where the choices of one player limit those of the others. I revisualized that flowchart in my head as a single graphic area, divided into sections representing the several options available to players and arranged in the same spatial relationships. And so, we have the Initiative Track (during testing it was variously called the Horseshoe, the Pentagon, or Home Plate).
Here’s how it works: Each turn, the new Event Card is revealed and the 1st Eligible has a choice of any space on the Track. After executing his choice, he places his cylinder on the appropriate space, and the 2nd Eligible player may choose from any space adjacent to the 1st Eligible player’s cylinder. So, for example, if the 1st Eligible player executes the Event Card, the 2nd Eligible can choose between Op + Special or Pass. Just like the other COIN system games.
You will also notice the two shaded spaces on the Track: if the 1st Eligible player chooses either of these, he becomes 2nd Eligible in the following turn. So, if a player wants to remain 1st Eligible, and keep that freedom of choice, he is required to act in smaller bites: an Event Card here, a LimOp there… while he is (or should be) building up for a burst of activity that pays off in a set of operations and Specials in multiple spaces. If he isn’t, then the other player is largely free to do as much or as little as he likes during his actions.
Do you play Go? There is a concept in that game called “sente”: It’s like a kind of tactical initiative, where one player makes a series of moves to which the other player reacts, up to the point where the first player becomes overextended or finishes a desired sequence… whereupon the other player gains sente, and so it passes back and forth during the game.
Two other things I should mention about the Initiative Track: at the beginning of each campaign, the player order is reset so the FLN is 1st Eligible. Also, each side has three (or fewer, depending on the scenario) Pivotal Event cards that it can play if the enabling conditions are fulfilled, and when they do the eligibility is reset so that they become 1st Eligible.
It’s also struck me recently that any of the four-faction COIN system games could be played by two people taking any two factions each, using this sequence of play. Unfortunately, I have not had time to try it myself yet, but it seems as if it might work – so any readers out there are invited to try it out for themselves!
Here’s the idea, using A Distant Plain as an example:
Players take 2 Factions each, with normal 1st and 2nd Eligibility determined by what they do on the Initiative Track; but which Faction they control that gets to do something is determined by the leftmost faction order on the Event Card drawn. So, let’s say Albert is playing Coalition and Government, and Bill is playing Taliban and Warlords. The card drawn is “Operation Iraqi Freedom”, which has a faction order of Taliban – Coalition – Government – Warlords. According to the Initiative Track at that moment, Albert is 1st Eligible and can pick any space on it, but the action will be done by the Coalition (as it is leftmost in the faction order on the card). Bill is 2nd Eligible, so the choice of space is determined by what Albert did, and the action will be done by the Taliban (leftmost of his two factions in the faction order on the card). Be sure to use the No Reveal Option as detailed in 2.2; looking one card ahead in the 2-player iteration ruins the game. And for victory conditions, they are unchanged: use directions in 1.5.
Grant: Thanks for sharing with us the change in the Initiative Track as well as helping us understand its machinations. I know there are several other changes in the game as well. Why are there no Lines of Communication or Economic Centres marked on the map? Was this more thematic or does it have another purpose?
Brian: The reason is simple: the insurgency never did decisively close down or sabotage any major transportation routes between Algerian cities – though they had to endure frequent small ambushes, the French military always had freedom of movement. As for Economic Centres, Algeria’s economy was largely agricultural: its main products were wine, fruit, and grain and most of the produce was shipped directly to France. After the devastation of World War II France was not in an economic position to rebuild or develop Algeria in any helpful way; in fact, about 400,000 Algerian men found employment in metropolitan France, and the wages they sent home to their families propped up a significant part of the Algerian economy. Hence, in game terms there are no Economic Centres of great value for either player to exploit or sabotage. The large oil and gas deposits that were discovered in Algeria in the 1950s had only begun to be developed in the last year or two of the war, and while protecting the sites did occupy some French troops, these sites are far off the south edge of the map and so have been left out (though who would exploit them, and how, was an important point in the independence the FLN negotiated from France).
Grant: Why did you decide to remove the “look one card ahead in the Event Deck” option? How has it changed the planning for rounds?
Brian: We did remove the “look one card ahead in the Event Deck” option very early on, as with 2 players it promoted overly gamey behavior, worse even than the second-level stabbery that you encounter with some COIN system game players, who will consciously do or not do something purely to make another player ineligible based only on what card is coming next, or the artificial way all players will behave when the next card showing is a Propaganda Round card. This has been addressed in two ways in other games in the series; either artificially limiting what operations players can do on the last card before a Propaganda Round, or simply switching the two cards. I prefer the “no look ahead” option for these games anyway: some people think it’s more chaotic, I think it makes people concentrate more on what they want to get done.
Grant: How have you handled the effects of Terror in this design?
Brian: In my view, terrorism works well to intimidate people into silence and inaction, but not to spur them into supporting the instigator of the terror. This view is supported by many writers, including Stathis Kalyvas in his book The Logic of Violence in Civil War. Hence, the use of Terror in this game is slightly different from other games in the system. The FLN player may use it as an Operation to eliminate Support for the Government, but he cannot use it to build up Opposition – they must themselves clear away any Terror markers before building Opposition through Agitation.
The Organisation de l’armée secrète (OAS — or Organisation armée secrète, lit. “Organisation of the Secret Army” or “Secret Armed Organisation”) was a short-lived French dissident far-right paramilitary organization during the French-Algerian War (1954–62).
Grant: Are there any major changes to victory conditions? What are each of the 2 factions’ victory conditions? Which of the 2 factions has the harder time of obtaining these conditions?
Brian: The Government victory condition is: Total Support + Commitment exceeds 35.
The Commitment Level is a quantified reflection of the political “elbow room” the home government in Paris is willing to extend towards continuing the conflict, which is by extension the willingness of the Metropolitan French civilian population and its government to continue to maintain Algeria as a part of that country. Unlike the Indochinese and African colonies, Algeria was legally a department of France and contained a large number of French nationals, so losing this territory meant a great deal more to French national prestige than Madagascar or Laos becoming independent. It is tempered by many non-military factors but is largely a wish to shed minimal French blood to retain this part of their diminishing empire (though they are not as sensitive to casualties as the Coalition in A Distant Plain, or the US in Fire in the Lake), while ensuring its administration is as stable and legitimate (or at least accepted) as possible. There is also the wish, in the inevitable post-colonial period, for the newly independent Algeria to be as amenable to French influence as its other African possessions proved to be.
The Government player may deliberately raise or lower the Commitment Level by sending or withdrawing forces to or from Algeria during Propaganda Rounds. Certain in-game events will also change his Commitment: for example, destroying FLN Bases, sustaining French casualties, using Torture, certain Event Cards, the status of the France Track, and so forth.
The FLN victory condition is: Total Opposition + Bases exceeds 30.
For the FLN, victory is a more obvious measure of success: the player wants to have a large and functioning “shadow government” against the day that Algeria is given independence, measured by the number of Bases, with a general acceptance, or at least acquiescence, by the majority of the population (a large Total Opposition).
In this game there is only one degree of Support or Opposition in the game, not the two-layer Passive and Active states found in system games other than A Distant Plain. On the one hand, the only segment of the Algerian population that was fervently in favour of Algeria remaining part of France was the pieds-noirs, a small minority; there was also native support for continued French rule, or at least continued guidance by France, but it was dispersed and only moderate. Meanwhile, among the Muslim majority population, most people were for some form of independence from France but the FLN’s methods and practices were not universally endorsed; in many cases their Support could be considered an opposition to the FLN-imposed Oppose. Therefore, both sides can expect only moderate response to their respective positions.
My opinion is that the Government is the harder side to play, and to win, but his is also the more interesting side as he has many more things to juggle and consider. In playtesting we’ve detected a definite “learning curve” as players come to grips with the varied options available to the Government, while the FLN player is fairly consistent and straightforward in his strategy – though it is not easy for either side to win outright.
Grant: What are the Commands and Special Activities like for each faction?
Brian: Some old, and some new.
Government Operations are:
- Train (place Algerian cubes, build Support, or affect the Border Zone or France Tracks)
- Garrison (move Police around populated spaces, activate some Guerrillas)
- Sweep (move Troops and activate Guerrillas)
- Assault (Troops attack Guerrillas)
Government Special Activities are:
- Deploy (move French pieces among selected spaces and Available, or Resettle spaces (turning Population 1 spaces into Population 0, a reversal of the “Govern” activity in A Distant Plain which adds Population to spaces)
- Troop Lift (move French Troops around any distance)
- Neutralize (destroy exposed FLN pieces, when paired with a Garrison or Sweep; requires Troops and Police to conduct, and builds Opposition in the space)
FLN Operations are:
- Rally (place new forces, build Opposition, or affect the France Track)
- March (move to other spaces)
- Attack (attack Government pieces)
- Terror (destroy Support in a space)
FLN Special Activities are:
- Extort (gain Resources in spaces where they have Control)
- Subvert (remove or replace Algerian cubes with Guerrillas)
- Ambush (special Attack that always succeeds)
You will notice that the FLN is largely similar to the Taliban in A Distant Plain; when it comes down to it, at a basic level many insurgencies work the same way.
Wow! Thanks Brian for that in-depth look at Colonial Twilight…..and that was only Part I! In Part II, Brian will discuss the game pieces and force structure, the Border Zone and France Track as well as some of the history behind the game.
The rules for the game are now available:
Thanks for the heads-up Brian. I am really looking forward to June.