FALLING SKY at Stack Academie Montreal May2016
Rewarding Falling Sky session with three dear friends in Montreal: Bayonets & Tomahawks designer Marc Rodrigue (in red), Pendragon designer Marc Gouyon-Rety (in blue), and perhaps the greatest tabletop diplomat that I know, Jean-Francois Tremblay (in black). Yes, JF’s Aedui won!

This is the second installment of our 2 part interview with COIN Series designer and creator Volko Ruhnke. In Part I, Volko shared his insights into the success of the Series and answered some difficult questions from critics about “milking” the brand.  In this installment he dives into more criticism and also talks about his experience designing Falling Sky with his son Andrew. I unabashedly love the COIN Series and own Volumes III, IV, V & VI and have Volume VII Colonial Twilight on P500. I also have written my feelings about the COIN Series down and explain why I think it is so fantastic!

Grant: I’ve recently seen some criticism and sentiment that the COIN system is a Euro-style system that is just scratching the surface of conflicts and using the same system no matter the actual historical conflict’s key points and issues! What is your response to this criticism?

Volko: On the tactical or operational levels, that may well be true: if you want to learn about how counterinsurgent forces actually conduct sweeps to flush and identify guerrillas, the COIN Series will not give you too much insight, because its focus is on national-level counterinsurgency.

And at that level—the strategic—I contend that the COIN system goes far deeper beneath the surface than most games on similar topics, because even highly detailed wargames tend to leave out the messiness of the inter-factional conflict and the political, economic, and cultural aspects that pervade all wars.

As affirmation of that, I cite the Series’ continued popularity. How dreary for all concerned if six published volumes in a row merely “used the same system no matter the actual historical conflict’s key points and issues”! I would not myself waste my time playing—much less designing—even a single pair of such lame games. Would you?

Grant: Talk about how the COIN Series has been received by non-traditional war gamers like me. Are you concerned about this cross over? Should grognards feel nervous or threatened?

Volko: One ambition that I harbored with the COIN Series was to help connect our tribes—wargamers and Eurogamers, if you will.

For grognards, my offer is of a model of warfare that gives players compelling insight into its military historical setting—or at least sparks historical debate—via forms that, while non-traditional for us, are at least as accessible. Simple cubes rather than counters with tiny stats on them, simple and even deterministic combat results, minimal fuss with terrain rules, and so on—yet a delivery of conflict simulation.

Look at the debates among grognards triggered by Harold Buchanan’s Liberty or Death, about issues such as the role of patriot versus native American conflict in the American Revolution, to cite just one example. How wonderful to have these conversations about politico-military history! And none of them mean that a single grognard need give up a single traditional board wargame (there are many AmRev games besides Liberty or Death available!).

For Eurogamers, my offer is of exciting gameplay free of the excruciating minutiae of heavy wargames—but still about and giving insight into something very consequential, historical conflicts. By taking on the role of a historical faction in a historical conflict and playing it out on the tabletop, you will almost effortlessly gain understanding of key historical dynamics—or at least, a certain designer’s own mental model of those dynamics. It’s OK for the fun to be about something serious!

I am privileged often to read wonderful testimonials from COIN Series players to the effect that this ambition succeeds, that playing A Distant Plain, for example, gave them an understanding of the situation there specifically or of insurgency and guerrilla warfare generally beyond what they had when they sat down at the game table.

Grant: What is to come for COIN?

Falling Sky Advane Production Set
Falling Sky advance production set: the finished product in action on my game table, showing the separate Available Forces displays can be oriented to suit player seating, here for a 2-player game with Andrew, April 2016.

Volko: I’m not quite sure! Until recently, I did not have any idea what COIN Series Volume IX might be—or even if there should be one. (I do now, and I expect that we will see that announced on P500 early next year.) One new possibility is that we build on the mode of COIN Series expansions started by Adam Zahm’s Invierno Cubano, a sequel expansion to Volume II, that takes up the story in 1959 where Cuba Libre leaves it off. I expect that we will now see more such COIN Series expansion packs. Another great possibility—opened up by Brian Train’s breakthrough 2-player COIN sequence of play in Colonial Twilight—is that other designers will follow on with application of the COIN engine to other suitable 2-sided historical conflicts.

More broadly, the direction and distance of COIN’s future path depends on our variety of designers, what they are interested in producing, and on fans’ reactions to each succeeding volume. I will ride along with the Series only where and as long as those folks’ attention warrants!

Grant: It appears to me that your game Wilderness War (one of my favorites by the way!) is really COIN lite. What points did you utilize from this brilliant point to point movement, asymmetrical CDG for the COIN system? What was your inspiration for the COIN?

Volko: Thanks! In a couple ways, that is right, and there is direct lineage from Wilderness War to COIN.

Wilderness War, of course, is a classic card-driven game design, in the style of Mark Simonitch’s Hannibal—Rome versus Carthage and Ted Raicer’s Paths of Glory. I have talked elsewhere here about my conception that the power of the CDG form could be adapted to avoid the distractions of hand management, and my experience in designing Wilderness War and my other CDG, LABYRINTH, equipped me with that conception.

Secondly, the historical aspect of Wilderness War’s setting, the French and Indian War, that most drew me to it in the first place was asymmetry. Here was the refined, effete minuet of conventional 18th-Century warfare, thrown into the raw savagery of frontier petit guerre. How did these forms interact? What determined which form would win out? These questions fascinated me and led me to explore them via game design. In COIN, I tried via the modern contest between insurgency and counterinsurgency, and with faction-specific modes of fighting, to take that exploration of asymmetry even farther.

Grant: What is your favorite COIN game? I know it must be hard but I know you have a favorite! Why?  I personally love Fire in the Lake and Liberty or Death!

Volko: Thank you! You’re right it’s hard for me to favor one of my children (or—in the case of Liberty or Death, Colonial Twilight, and Pendragon—grandchildren) over another. Seeing folks play Andean Abyss will always give me a special warm feeling, as it was the first, the pioneer, and the pure form. As I write, I am immersed in the support of Falling Sky’s release and in development of Pendragon, so they have my eye at the moment.

Grant: Tell us about the design process for Falling Sky: The Gallic Revolt Against Caesar – what was it like working with your son Andrew? Does he have thoughts to design in the future? How has the success of this volume of the COIN Series made you feel as a father?

Falling Sky 1 Early Map
Falling Sky early prototype game board, showing the original title “Gallic War” and that map’s historical errors “Narbonensis” and “Italia”.

Volko: You can imagine that it is a terrific feeling for a father to share a passionate endeavor with his son! We had already done some in-house co-design for our own amusement, so I knew that we could produce something great for the COIN Series. He was very taken with Caesar’s Gallic War—a school reading project—and our conversations quickly came to the notion that the COIN system would do a great job of portraying the setting of a fractious and rebellious Gaul.

As it turned out, Andrew and I have somewhat different design and development styles, and this posed challenges. For example, he favors making only small, incremental design changes and testing each; I meanwhile prefer to risk over-correction of a problem, so as to bracket the issue and then zero in on the solution. So we have engaged in extensive discussions of every last detail—we just such a discussion yesterday evening, as it happens—and many, many such hours went be as we refined Falling Sky.

We were able to meet that challenge, I think, only because we happened to live in the same house. We had regular access to one another to a degree that few design teams do. (Chad and Kai Jensen may be another such rare case, and consider what that team has produced!!) So we were able to work through every issue on Falling Sky to our eventual, mutual satisfaction, and I hope that the design shows that in its elegance and balance.

Andrew has indeed continued to design. We have taken advantage of his last summer before going away to college to prepare something new for playtest and, I hope, P500. But that project is not quite yet ready for prime time, so I’ll leave that topic there.

Falling Sky Test Pieces
Falling Sky homespun pieces set up on playtest map by Joel Toppen.

Grant: In Falling Sky, were you worried about the jump from modern conflicts to ancient?

Volko: I was not worried whether it would work, I knew it would because internal wars and rebellions have always been with mankind. And I was not the first to think of applying the COIN Series form to ancient conflict: David Dockter some time ago had suggested that I design a take on “Roman-style counterinsurgency”.

My only worry, a slight one, was that COIN Series fans would balk at that idea. As Andrew and I discuss in the Design Notes that come in Falling Sky, initial on-line reaction to the announcement of the game included the idea that the COIN system was designed to portray modern insurgency and so would be a poor fit to ancient warfare. And so Andrew and I were eager to explain—such as on Gene’s blog “InsideGMT”—how we would pull that off.

The key, naturally, was not to slavishly mimic the form but to think carefully about what was the same and what different about warfare in 50s BC Gaul from 20th Century Colombia and adapt the game mechanics to that. I believe that we succeeded, but fans’ reception to finally playing the game will tell.

Falling Sky Design Notebook
Just one page of our Falling Sky design notebook and draft cards from August 2014, showing lists of mechanical problems and solutions either adapted or rejected.

Grant: If you could, what would be one thing you would change in the COIN Series?

Volko: That question is hard to answer, because I can. I have enjoyed the opportunity to change aspects as the Series continued, not only with succeeding volumes but also with reprints and C3i magazine variants. We have refined the system, in my view, expanded its original boundaries with ever more far-flung topics, adjusted the mix of optional rules, corrected the inevitable errata, and improved the performance of solitaire system. Nothing is sacred, so I intend to continue changing COIN as appears warranted!

Grant: What’s one concept from real life COIN conflicts that’s impossible to translate into a board game format that you would love to be able to express appropriately in a game mechanic?

Volko: There are many, since these models (like all models) are simplifications for a certain purpose.

One in particular, though, is the inability in modern COIN either to forecast or to monitor the effects of the combatants’ efforts to bring local populations over to their side of the conflict. This outcome is the central mechanism of insurgency and counterinsurgency. We have to give the players in our games the ability to affect population’s support or opposition.

Yet the development and evolution of popular sympathies are so complex that they are very hard to get at in any reliable way with the tools that insurgents and counterinsurgents possess. Moreover, reliable polling to monitor how that contest for the people’s support is going—difficult enough in a peaceful society—is virtually impossible in a war zone.

Falling Sky Playtest First Minnesota
Falling Sky playtest set on the road: shake out session with the First Minnesota Historical Wargame Society at The Source in Minneapolis, June 2015.

Our games give players complete knowledge of their model’s rough measures of popular sympathy by region and mostly deterministic ability to move those measures. This simplification side-steps what I think is among the key challenges to any modern counterinsurgent campaign—the intractability and opacity of local sentiment. It would not be impossible to do better, but the complication of it would not be worth it for my game design purposes in the COIN Series. 

Falling Sky World Boardgaming Championship
Andrew demos Falling Sky at the World Boardgaming Championships in Lancaster, PA, August 2015. Assisting (gray shirt) is my older son Daniel; also playing are (green shirt) professional ancient history scholar and Kingdom of Heaven designer Scott de Brestian and (smiling) Fire in the Lake tournament master Eric Guttag.

Grant: I look at the amazing “stable” of designers you have in the COIN fold including Harold Buchanan, Brian Train and Marc Gouyon-Rety (who I’ve done an interview series on about Pendragon). How have you been able to find such perfect fits? Is there a COIN design bible or training you give to them as they have all been spot on?

Volko: As you can tell from several of my comments above, I’m most proud of attracting that stable! The fit comes from each of them working on what excites them.

Jeff Grossman thought of applying the COIN engine to Castro’s insurgency, I didn’t. With Brian, I approached him to do a design with me in the Series, because his work on gaming insurgency had already influenced me and the shape of the COIN system so much. I offered that, if he would do a game with me, he could pick our topic, and he picked Afghanistan as his holy grail of insurgency design. Mark Herman, as is well known, had been studying Vietnam for decades and long contemplated doing a card-driven game design on that topic. His vision was to have a multiparty conflict at least as much focus on internal Vietnamese conflict as on the US involvement, and COIN seemed a perfect vehicle for that. Harold and Marc each reached their own conclusions about how topics that they had studied for years could well be executed as COIN volumes before they approached me—Harold had already been playing his prototype AmRev COIN design with his local group for some time before that.

So, no: no bible, no training. Just collaboration within each partner’s own initial conception.

Falling Sky Design Consultation with Jordan Kehrer
A consult on Falling Sky design issues with COIN Series stalwart and Colonial Twilight developer Jordan Kehrer, August 2015.

Grant: Talk to us about your relationship with GMT! They are awesome and seem to really get the gaming community and the need to be connected. You do as well. Why is this important?

Volko: I’ve been with GMT Games since their first decade, the 1990’s, first as a tester, and also as a developer and scenario designer for other games (Combat Commander, Twilight Struggle). They are indeed awesome. One secret is that Gene thinks of the whole enterprise as a family—not just the staff and the design teams, but everyone buying, playing, sharing the joy of the games. I’ve never wanted or needed anything in writing from GMT, because the trust is just there, and flowing in all directions. Twenty years on in that relationship, and I have never been disappointed.

I feel that, even though I am freelance, I represent GMT Games within the gaming community. So I want to live up to what I always experienced from them, every moment that I interact with gamers anywhere. I hope I’m doing that OK!

Thank you to Volko for his efforts and assistance in putting this interview together.  He has been fantastic to work with and very with his feelings about his “children”. I look forward to many great games from him in the future.