A few weeks back, I wrote one of our Best 3 Games with… posts focusing on one of my favorite designers Brian Train. At that time, one of our regular readers and recent contributors Francisco Colmenaras stated “Of course, you realize…now that you’ve done a post on one designer, you’re going to end up doing multiple ones for many famous designers?” He is right as now I feel a burning need to do some more of those type of posts.
The Godfather of COIN! Or at least, that is what I think of when I hear the name Volko Ruhnke. True he has designed one of the most unique and flexible gaming systems to model counter insurgency ever, and this system has now spawned 8 printed volumes with an additional 2 that have been announced (Volume IX Gandhi and Volume X All Bridges Burning). But, there is a lot more to this great designer who has found the vehicle to bridge a divide as wide as the Fulda Gap between traditional crotchety wargamers and Eurogamers. Frankly, this man knows how to design a playable game that focuses on the conflict at hand and deals with elements of that conflict in a way that simply amazes me. I want to thank Volko for his great games and also share with you my 3 favorite games he has designed. So, without further pomp and circumstance, I give you my Best 3 Games with…Designer Volko Ruhnke!
3. Wilderness War: The French & Indian War, 1755-1760 from GMT Games
Wilderness War takes two players into the climactic struggle between France and Britain for control of North America during the French & Indian War. The game is a Card Driven Game and uses strategy cards to fuel actions for each player, which can include raids, river movements, marching across hostile terrain or sieging a fortress. The game is played out on a point-to-point map stretching from Northern Virginia to Canada and really becomes a battle for supply lines over the course of play. As the leader of either the French or British forces in North America, you will need to defend your frontier, raid your enemy’s territory, build fortification networks through the harsh wilderness, recruit Indian allies (or breakup those alliances), besiege forts and fortresses, and deal with events occurring in Europe that are above and beyond your control.
As mentioned previously, Wilderness War includes a deck of strategy cards for conducting campaigns and incorporating the many events and personalities of the war and is a very elegant part of the design. The French player can recruit up to sixteen different Indian tribes as allies, secure a continental alliance in Europe against Great Britain, sortie his squadron at Louisbourg, force a ministerial crisis in London, and work toward draining support for the war from the provincial assemblies. The British player can recruit Mohawks and Cherokees, plan for and conduct amphibious operations, implement a global strategy via William Pitt, destroy the French fleet at Quiberon Bay, and expel the Acadians.
I really love the asymmetry in the design between both the French and British. The British are really powerful, and in a straight up fight, are sure to pummel the French. But, the French have access to a lot of Indian allies and must use them to bolster their forces and to put pressure on the British by raiding their settlements to gain victory points. I have written a strategy article on the French as I have used them the most in my plays. You can also check out our AAR #1 and AAR #2 written in 2016 for more information on how the game plays. I love this game and feel that is has earned its spot on this list.
To me, the simple beauty of this game is in the struggle. It is truly designed to be difficult on both sides and to require lots of strategic flexibility as plans will change from turn to turn based on the play of various cards or the opportunities that present themselves. In my opinion, there is no clear advantage for either side if proper strategy and tactics are used, even though the British are superior in numbers and power. This result means that this game is very well balanced, well put together and a strategic gem of the gaming world. I would highly recommend this game to anyone that loves CDGs and there is a reason that it has sold very well over the years since its first printing in 2001.
2. Labyrinth: The War on Terror, 2001-? from GMT Games
Labyrinth: The War on Terror, 2001-?from GMT Games is probably the wargame that we have played most over the past 4 years. I bet we have played it 15+ times and I can say that each play has its own unique challenges and difficulties. Like Wilderness War, Labyrinth is a Card Driven Game that focuses on a very difficult and visceral part of our American experience as it is obsessed with the United States’ efforts to stamp out and eradicate terrorism around the globe.
The game is about choices. Choosing how to mitigate the damage to yourself from your hand of cards, which are not always beneficial to your effort, while also doing your best to slow the advance of your opponent. The cards that are dealt to each player have historical events, either beneficial to the US or the Jihadist, printed on them and must be played, which allows those events to go off. I say must be played but there are ways around this. Checking whether the conditions required for the event to even go off are met and playing the negative cards when they are not. The Jihadist player can also throw events away which is a key to their success.
The United States is a powerful superpower that has access to seemingly endless troops, ultra-powerful technologies for spying and killing terrorists from a safe distance, as well as the general support of the world in their efforts, although this can be fleeting and must be taken advantage of when held. The Jihadist on the other hand has stealth on their side and the advantage of maneuverability. They can sneak in behind all of the best laid protections to plant a WMD in the most unlikely of spots and have the ability to spread like wildfire. The winner of the struggle will be the side that best plans out their efforts, follows through with those efforts, even though they may be difficult or are continually foiled by lucky dice rolls, and that minimizes the self inflicted damage from their hands. I really love Labyrinth and have a great admiration for the elegant mechanics used in the design. I also love Labyrinth because it causes great frustration in me as my plans don’t always work as I wanted or my opponent does something that I wasn’t expecting. I also have experienced exultant joy as a roll has gone my way or a desperate gamble has paid off. Any game that can cause those range of emotions is sure to be one of my favorites. We have also played the expansion Labyrinth: The Awakening, 2010-?and enjoyed the new added features it provides. We also wrote strategy articles for the US Player and the Jihadist Player if you want to check those out.
1. Fire in the Lake: Insurgency in Vietnam from GMT Games
Did you have any doubt that Fire in the Lake would be in the top spot on this list? What a game! I have always been enamored with the Vietnam War. From my younger years, I remember watching the short lived television series Tour of Duty. I also read the graphic novel series The ‘Nam from Marvel Comics. But, my interest really grew after watching movies such as Apocalypse Now and Platoon. I always asked myself, how are you expected to fight a war where you don’t know who the enemy is?
Well, this question sums up the Vietnam War experience to me and Volko’s magnum opus is Fire in the Lake, without a doubt, as it attempts to answer that question and does a fantastic job. Fire in the Lake: Insurgency in Vietnam is Volume IV of the COIN Series and teams up two amazing designers in Volko and Mark Herman. The game is an asymmetric treatment of the Vietnam War and pits four players against each other, as even allies want to win the war, but win it in their way. The US Player has control of lots of powerful forces that can utilize Air Lift, Assaults and Sweeps to drive the insurgent guerilla forces of the Viet Cong and NVA back into the jungles but the VC and NVA have tools at their disposal to evade these heavy handed tactics such as tunneled bases, the terrain itself including jungles, rivers and mountains, and the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The US Player must also watch his own back as his ally, the ARVN, is more interested in patronage and lining their pockets with US dollars than necessarily winning the war through brute force. This game design takes into account all of the difficulties with this quagmire, and through the cards used to assist the game moving forward, inserts key events such as drug use, protests at home, booby traps and the Tet Offensive.
If you haven’t played Fire in the Lake, please do yourself a favor, and do so. It is an exquisite experience that will test you on so many levels and leave you exhausted at the end of the effort while yearning for more. But, don’t go into it thinking it will be easy as it will not be and is sure to have you pulling your hair out as you attempt to win this war. Great theme. Great game play. High quality components and a well thought out design. To get a little more insight into why this game is so great, please read my article on Why I find the COIN Series to be Fantastic! I use several examples of the game play from Fire in the Lake to prove my point.
I hope you have enjoyed my list of the Best 3 Games…with Designer Volko Ruhnke! He has given us so many great games that have changed my attitude and perception of historical events. I love to play wargames but I also love to learn history. And his designs are great for anyone that wants to learn. We were fortunate enough to do a series of interviews with Volko on his creation the COIN Series and you can check that out here on our blog: Interview with Volko Ruhnke Part I and Part II
Please let me know your thoughts on these games as well as those that I left off the list, such as Falling Sky: The Gallic Revolt Against Caesar. I have also played a few of Volko’s campaign scenarios for Combat Commander and have really enjoyed them.