I have had my eye on a certain wargamer/new designer/innovator/solo bot expert since I came across his great Twitter feed nearly 2 years ago. VPJ Arponen has delighted many of us with his interesting play pictures of various COIN Series games and his insights into the world of solitaire bots. In fact, last year, we worked with Vez on posting 2 Guest Blog posts on our site covering his experiences with solitaire bot design. Volume 1 was titled “The Science of the COIN Bot” and was a very interesting look into some of Vez’s work on COIN games such as A Distant Plain and Colonial Twlight and Volume 2 was titled “Hitler’s Reich, or a “Bot” Driving Toward Moscow”, which focused on his efforts to assist with the solitaire side of Hitler’s Reich designed by Mark McLaughlin.
I was really not surprised last year when I saw that Vez had been working on his own design. I was surprised that the design would be a COIN Series game, one of the more respected and prestigious series in recent memory. Not that Vez couldn’t do it. That was not my thought at all. Just that he would be doing it as his first real design attempt. So, in late 2017, he wrote an article in C3i Magazine Nr. 31 about his new COIN game called All Bridges Burning: Red Revolt and White Guard in Finland, 1917-1918. As I am want to do, I immediately reached out to him about an interview on the game and he asked that we wait until the game was actually offered on the P500, which it was in December. We have worked on this over the past month and I am pleased to be able to share this interview with you.
Grant: Vez, first off, tell us a little about yourself? What games do you like to play? What do you do for a living?
Vez: I guess I came to the hobby fairly late, in my late 20s. I quickly developed an interest in historical conflict simulations and historical games in general. I see this interest as an extension of what I do professionally. I’ve got a PhD in Philosophy and work in academic research on topics such as social change and social action, which also involves studying and learning from history. For me, game design, just like my work, is about trying to understand and systemically represent how human social and cultural phenomena unfold. I was born in Finland 30-something years ago, but through events in life and love, I now work and live with my wife and two children in Germany.
Grant: I know that you are a big solo gamer. What do you love about solo gaming and share with us your solo game design experience?
Vez: I love the peace and quiet of solo gaming. I’ve spent many wonderful evenings studying such classics as Fire in the Lake, a COIN Series game on the Vietnam War.
That interest led me to wanting to try my own hand in designing some of these solitaire systems. To date, I’ve done a bunch of solitaire system work in the COIN Series: the variant “bots” published in the C3i Magazine for the COIN Series game A Distant Plain on the Afghanistan conflict, as well as the FLN “bot” in Colonial Twilight are my work. Other than that, I did an Axis “bot” for the upcoming Mark McLaughlin and GMT Games game called Hitler’s Reich.
I’m currently working on a new cards-based solo system for my upcoming COIN game, All Bridges Burning. This project excites me a great deal.
Grant: I know this is your first design. How did you decide to take the leap and try your hand at design? What do you love about it? What keeps you up at night?
Vez: As noted above, to me my design work kind of is a natural extension to my professional work. I always loved to analyze games I was playing. I once wrote Sid Meier, the father of the Civilization computer game series, a letter presenting him an analysis of that game as a simulation and where I think that game could go next. I’m still waiting for a reply though… haha!
I absolutely love the design work as I’ve got to know it via All Bridges Burning. I love to plan and set up systems, switch them on, and watch them work themselves out. In preparation for All Bridges Burning, I spent a lot of time thinking about the COIN games: what are the recurring mechanisms and dynamics in that series; what makes these games feel deep or strategic; how do these games create tension; and more. I love that stuff.
What keeps me up at night? Well, once on boardgamegeek.com I saw Cole Wehrle had a badge named something like “always thinking about game mechanics”. That can keep me up at night sometimes –not that badge but…ah, you know what I mean!
Grant: Please share with us the story of pitching this idea to Volko Ruhnke with this design idea for the COIN Series for GMT Games?
Vez: Well, Volko is just a great guy, so enthusiastic, helpful, and a straight and sharp thinker. My notebook indicates I had been working on my COIN game, on and off, at least since December 2015. In the Spring and Summer of 2017, I made a big effort to get the game to a state in which I could present it to Volko. Since I couldn’t really go and meet Volko or GMT’s Gene Billingsley face to face, I recorded a video talking about the game. (Later I read that Bruce, the designer of the COIN Series Volume IX, Gandhi, had done the same.) Next, I sent that as well as the electronic game materials to Volko. He wrote back a few days later saying he was very excited about this game and had already forwarded the stuff to Gene! Gene wrote a few days later saying GMT has an interest in the game, and so off we went.
Grant: What concerns do you have about designing a game in such a successful series as the COIN Series?
Vez: I don’t really have any concerns, quite the contrary, actually. First, having Volko, Gene, and the rest of the COIN and GMT crew available for discussion and advice just is really helpful for a first time designer.
Secondly, I’ve got the feeling it helps the first time designer immensely to put out their first design using a pre-existing system, in my case the COIN system. A first time design can easily be, so to speak, a collection of mechanisms that, however, entirely lack dynamics (been there, done that). In my view, that is the hard part about game design: figuring out how your game mechanics give rise to difficult player decisions and player interaction. It helps a lot to have a pre-existing system to work with because the system already contains a great deal of dynamics to begin with.
Finally, in case you are wondering whether I feel pressure that the game ought to make similar preorder numbers as some of the recent COIN games, I most definitely do not feel any pressure in that regard at all. I think I might feel different though if the game had got off to a really sluggish start on GMT Games’ P500 preorders list.
Grant: Congrats on the game’s early success as it currently sits with around 700 preorders. What do feel are your design goals? What do you have to make sure to include and cover in this game? Why the choice of the title All Bridges Burning?
Vez: As a Finland born person, I’ve got a personal relationship to the theme of All Bridges Burning, which is about the events surrounding the Finnish Civil War of 1918. To describe that background, let me insert here what I think is a really nice passage from two Finnish historians who recently put out an English language collection of papers on the Finnish Civil War. This is from the introduction to that volume:
Today the Civil War forms a major part of the public narratives and collective remembrances of the nation. The violent event that split the society and caused a national trauma for generations to come has largely become almost 100 years later a part of a rather comfortable national narrative. This narrative tells a story of a how a nation, threatened with total destruction and division, survived and began the slow healing process towards national unity […]
However, the internal violence has left its marks in the society and collective remembrances, and the divisions may even today be relived in the right circumstances. They may no longer be palpable (perhaps since at least since the 1970s, often even earlier), but there nevertheless exists a metanarrative that never fails to remind the Finns of the frictions in the past. (Tepora and Roselius. The Finnish Civil War 1918: History, Memory, Legacy. Leiden: Brill. 2014.)
So I think my game is about trying to come to terms with that legacy and see for myself what it was about. It’s noteworthy that practically all of the literature on the topic casts the conflict as a two-party affair: the Reds versus the Whites, the working class versus the bourgeoisie. That dualism, together with the idea that one party were the good and the other the bad guys (depending on whom you ask), continues to persist to this day. I don’t think the people of the United States are strangers to political dualism either, so I think the game might have that kind of a contemporary relevance actually. It might lead the players to thinking about the more general theme of national unity versus political factionalism as well as social justice.
In any case, All Bridges Burning is about presenting a third way how to relate to the divisive dualist legacy in the Finnish context. My game wants to say that there really could not have been a modern, socially unified, political advanced and reformed, social democratic Finland as we know it, had either the Reds or the Whites won an unqualified victory. Historically, the White Senate won the war –although the victory was not unqualified, I would argue. So, to me the Finnish Civil War was about social reform, social justice, and Finnish independence –we ought to carve out a space in the middle for emphasizing that in the usual dualist conception. That’s also why the game has three, instead of two, factions. That’s not an entirely uncontroversial approach though.
As to the game title, it’s meant to refer to the tragedy of a civil war. A nation gets polarized, split into political camps, things get out of hand, and soon all bridges between the camps are burning. In a way, the game is about putting out those fires.
“As to the game title [All Bridges Burning], it’s meant to refer to the tragedy of a civil war. A nation gets polarized, split into political camps, things get out of hand, and soon all bridges between the camps are burning. In a way, the game is about putting out those fires.”
Grant: One thing about COIN games is that some of the conflicts covered sometimes don’t appeal to everyone. Such appears to maybe be the case with All Bridges Burning. Why should we be interested in the battle for Finland’s independence from Russia in 1917?
Vez: A great question. A number of things come to mind.
First, as many of the playtesters of All Bridges Burning have been saying, the game actually contains lots of new concepts that still somehow are parallel to and vaguely familiar to the rest of the COIN Series. So, I think in playing this game you’ll be feeling like there’s something distinctly novel going on here – not the least of which is a three-player game in a series known for four-player games. At the same time you are playing a game that involves your familiar COIN game system – or something very much like it.
Second, I think (war)gamers are actually not all that afraid of little gamed topics. I’ve seen many folks post on the internet saying they are looking forward to getting to know a conflict they knew nothing about before. So I think the topic can also attract, not only repel.
Third, I think there’s something topical about the dualist politics I was talking about above regardless of whether you are in Finland, the United States, Germany, or wherever. I mean, in America, too, the recent years – the last year in particular – have been an incredibly politically polarized time. Lots of different aspects are coming together in this, but at the root of it, both sides of the American political divide subscribe to certain core ideas about the importance of the nation but also about justice and opportunity in life.
Grant: I also see on BGG considerable discussion about current politics in Finland and the differences in your chosen lean. What are your thoughts on this aspect of the game? Are you concerned about these discussions and your take being misinterpreted?
Vez: I’m glad this came up because I think it’s a misconception to say that All Bridges Burning has a chosen political lean. As explained above, the game is about transcending the dualist legacy and reminding everyone that the nation had a lot in common as well. What we can see in the discussions on BGG is, I think, the weight of the dualist legacy of the war always coloring anything that deals with the war. Because of that dualist legacy – and that in that dualism there are only two options as to what anything can be – anything that is not clearly in favor of the Senate faction must be in favor of the Reds, and vice versa.
There is an academic paper on the Finnish Civil War from the 1970s titled Red, White and Blue in Finland, 1918: A Survey of Interpretations of the Civil War by a Finnish historian named Ohto Manninen. This is the only source that I am aware of to cast the war as involving three factions. In the article, Manninen wrote:
There is still a great deal to be done on the objectives and motives of the Reds and Whites, but above all, a third group, those who remained neutral or stayed outside the conflict, has received little or no attention. These neutrals can be and have indeed sometimes been called ‘Blues’.
(You’ll find this English language article in the Scandinavian Journal of History 3, 1978.)
Grant: What other sources have you read and used for the historical aspect of the game? Any good recommendation for someone to read if they only want one book on the subject?
Vez: Unfortunately, as can be expected of a small conflict like this, a lot of the really interesting written material is available in the Finnish language only. However, for a recent English language introduction to the conflict, I would point people to the aforementioned introductory piece by Tepora and Roselius. This can be read online here: https://www.academia.edu/7930626/Introduction_The_Finnish_Civil_War_Revolution_and_Scholarship_co-authored_with_Aapo_Roselius.
Grant: What are the various factions and what are their individual motivations in the civil war? What was your inspiration for the three player factions and two non-player factions?
Vez: So, the game has got three player controlled Finnish factions in it: the Senate, the Reds, and the Moderates. Looking at their objectives from the victory conditions and resource earnings point of view, here’s a break down:
- The Senate earn resources from turning as much of the country as they can to some level of support while their victory is tied to restoring Senate control in a good number of the town spaces in the game. This reflects the historical task of the Senate forces of defeating the Red Revolt and taking the country back under their control.
- The Reds earn resources from putting as much of the country under their control as they can. Their victory consists of the sum of the populace they’ve turned to opposing the bourgeoisie plus the number of working organs of civil administration (“bases”) that the Reds have been able to institute on the map. This reflects the historical challenge of the Reds convincing the wider populace that the working class is actually able to organize and administer every day life.
- The Moderates earn resources chiefly from their own underground activities of developing and publishing reconciliatory and reformist politics. Their victory is the sum of advancing the political process of reforms, establishing their own underground political networks, and amassing reconciliatory and reformist political capital (i.e. “resources”).
- An important additional element to the above is the Polarization mechanic. That’s essentially a marker going up and down a track affecting various things. One of the things Polarization does is it prevents any of the three player factions from winning unless the marker goes below a certain threshold.Some folks have been concerned that this might give rise to the phenomenon of a faction whose own victory prospects are nigh just playing to sabotage someone else’s victory. I agree that such sabotage should not be too easy, but I also think that the possibility to sabotage will necessarily be present in every game in which one faction may hurt another. It’s interesting psychologically to see if and under what circumstances it might come to sabotage when people play this game. I think the COIN Series has been great at exploring many kinds of moral ambiguity and sabotage may be another aspect of that. Given that All Bridges Burning is about making or breaking national unity, the moral ambiguity involved in going and sabotaging someone’s victory won’t escape the players, I think. This takes us to the non-player factions, the Germans and the Russians more of which will be explained below.
Grant: How does the outside influence of Russia and Germany play into the game?
Vez: Historically, the Finnish Civil War was about internal class politics as much as it was an arena for the great powers of the time – Russia and Germany – to settle the geopolitical score. Until December 1917, Finland was not an independent nation at all, but a semi-autonomous province of Russia. So the Russians had that relationship to Finland to begin with, as well as several garrisons of troops stationed in Finland (these made up 40,000 men when the war started in January 1918). On top of that, Finland is located in a strategically interesting spot: today’s border with Russia runs at about 200 km or 125 miles from St Petersburg, while in 1917 it was a mere 50 kilometers or about 30 miles from that city! So, to this day, Finland remains a strategic gateway to one of the most important Russian cities. The Germans were fighting the Russians in the First World War at the time, and of course, had a geopolitical interest in Finland. Against that background it is no accident that, both, the Russians and the Germans had troops involved in the Finnish Civil War. The Russians, however, were effectively forced to withdraw their support of the Reds quite early on in the conflict. A recent estimation is that about one thousand Russians fought among the Reds during the war. This was because, first, Russia was going through its own descent into a civil war so the Russian military was in a state of confusion and disintegration. Also, second, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918 formally committed the Russians to withdrawing from Finland.
The Germans, by contrast, send an invasion force to Finland soon after the Brest-Litovsk treaty was signed. They fought in some of the most consequential battles of the Finnish Civil War such as capturing the capital, Helsinki. All that is present in various ways in All Bridges Burning relating to the non-player German and Russian factions who provide some additional military muscle to the Senate and the Reds, respectively. Only the Germans really are an independently acting faction somewhat similar to the Germanic tribes in the COIN Series Volume XI, Falling Sky.
In the game, the edge track has two markers – German and Russian Vassalage – that determine the level of foreign participation in the conflict as well as whether a Finnish faction is able to win the game. One of the central dilemmas for the Reds, and especially the Senate, is how much friendly foreign participation do they dare to encourage without putting national independence, and their own victory, in jeopardy.
Grant: What are the force structures for each side’s units? How is counter-insurgency handled in the design?
Vez: Typical to the COIN Series, the force structure is looked at from a certain level of abstraction. Also, as discussed above, historically, the Reds and the Senate armies were largely untrained peasant armies, so there isn’t a whole lot of detail to go into anyway. That said, in the course of the conflict, especially the Senate army, became more and more structured. The commander-in-chief of the Senate army was C. G. E. Mannerheim – later to lead the Finns in the Winter War against the Soviets – who took concerted steps towards creating a structured and disciplined Finnish army. Mannerheim was able to draw from a cadre of military officers (among them also volunteers from Sweden) as well as from German-trained but Finland-born jaeger who served in key roles as field commander’s of the otherwise fairly ragtag Senate army. In All Bridges Burning all this makes an appearance in the form of capabilities that enhance the sides’ fighting abilities as well as in the form of events.
Grant: I notice that there is no option to do a Command only in multiple spaces. What was your reasoning for this limitation?
Vez: The option to do a Command in multiple spaces dropped out of the equation quite early. As soon as I had the basic game structures and actions menus figured out, I saw the game was small and tight and so the option to do stuff in multiple spaces just seemed turbocharged. Dropping that option out also heightened the role of the action option that does let you act in multiple spaces – the Command + Special Activity option – so that was a welcome effect as well.
Grant: I also notice that certain powerful combos of Command + Special Activity actions don’t exist. What is the reason for your choice to amp this down?
Vez: I think this just sort of fell out from the historical setting. I mean, in the Finnish Civil War we are essentially talking about badly trained militia armies fighting each other. These guys did not have airlifts or air strikes to make use of. Hell, they hardly even moved away from their home localities other than later in the war. A lot of the action was local and stayed local. The only really well-trained military force in the game, the Germans, were not very numerous and did not have air support or anything like that supporting their campaign in Finland.
Grant: I also see that the event cards are low impact for the most part. Why is this the case? Does this create any new strategies in regards to denying events?
Vez: The relative low impact of the events is an artifact of how the three player sequence of play came to to be what it is. As noted above, on the whole, the game is small and tight with no really big splashes happening one way or another. Against that background, it did not really fit to have events that would cause big waves. This goes together with the fact that in the three player sequence of play the Event play option does not render the executing faction ineligible. That being said, there are important events in the game, but this is not the same as big events. By important events I mean events that afford a faction something nice, like a free base, or a free increase in opposition, or something like that. Those are quite important for creating a dynamic in which the factions might occasionally want to pass to pick up or deny a certain event.
Another thing that contributes to the relative prominence of events in this game is that the importance of the full Command + Special Activity is somewhat toned down. In the series to date, you’ve pretty much been dying to get to take that Command + Special Activity option, but in the three-player sequence of play you often end up avoiding it because it is the only option that renders you ineligible on the next card. So you need to carefully time that option. Given that in All Bridges Burning you’re not taking so many full Commands with a Special Activity, you tend to play more events instead while your first choice usually is the Limited Command option.
Grant: Looks like the map is relatively small with 8 different sections in addition to only five city spaces. Is this how the map always was envisioned? What changes has it undergone? Was the small map intentional or is it more a representation of the small geographical area of Finland? Due to this small map are games fast and fierce with lots of interaction?
Vez: The number and the nature of the map spaces has actually been remarkably stable throughout the development process. The provinces are historical Finnish provinces. As to the cities – or towns as I like to call them since they were, and often still are, really quite small places – there I had to make some choices as to what I wanted to include. As to the fierceness of faction interaction, yes, I think especially in the later stages of the game the factions are at each other’s throats. There usually are some important battles taking place between the Reds and the Senate towards the end. And the Germans roam around the grounds as well which can feel really intense. Regarding the play time, the other day I played a live game with two playtesters using Vassal and Discord. The game finished at the start of the final Propaganda Round and we took 3.5 hours to get there. We probably could have squeezed that down to 3 hours if we had wanted to. The game is divided in two Phases, Phase I and II – or the build-up and the war phases. Phase I tends to play really, really quickly. In our game we were done with that Phase in 75 minutes. It is Phase II that takes longer to play.
Grant: Can you summarize what is new and different in your design as compared to other COIN entries?
Vez: An upcoming InsideGMT piece of mine on All Bridges Burning will be talking about something that is central to how this game differs from other games in the series: the concept of Terror, the Active/Inactive status of the playing pieces and how that ties with everything else. I don’t want to pre-empt that article by talking about that topic here. Rather, let me talk about the game’s two phases instead. The two phases have a very different character deriving in part from the fact that in Phase II, the Reds and the Senate gain an additional set of actions not available in Phase I, namely, the ability to March and Attack. If I was to summarize the difference, then I’d say in Phase I the factions are focused on building up their strongholds while in Phase II they tear each other down. Let’s look at the game play faction by faction to give you an idea of how the game plays from phase to phase.
- The Moderates begin the game with very few pieces on the board. The challenge of playing them in Phase I consist of, on the one hand, gradually getting enough pieces on the board to be able to turn them into what the game calls networks, that is, into those familiar discs that the COIN Series knows as bases. On the other hand, the Reds and the Senate are likely to get more and more polarized which slows or stops the political process, which the Moderates need to work to keep alive. In Phase II, the character of advancing the political process changes towards the Moderates working underground amassing political capital as well as distributing information about the atrocities and whatnot taking place in the country. While the Moderates do all this, in both phases they need to make sure they keep safe from the retributions from the Reds and the Senate who’ll be ready to give the Moderates a chase. The Moderates also have the task of gnawing on the Reds and the Senate positions converting red and white pieces to blue as well as denying control where they can.
- The Senate game play focuses on building up for the war and then fighting it. That’s easier said than done. In Phase I, the Senate build-up often takes the form of establishing a solid base of support, a solid, capability-enhanced army, as well as maybe already establishing control in one or the other Southern town. In Phase II, the challenge is one of going out and getting the rest of the necessary town population under Senate control. A key dilemma here is how to deal with the Germans who, on the one hand, constitute a very welcome military enhancement, but who, on the other hand, threaten to reduce Finland to German vassalage in absence of the Senate taking active steps to the opposite direction.
- The Reds probably are the most sweetly frustrating faction – if that’s even an expression? – to play in the game. In Phase I, they begin the very fragile process of building up the foundations of a socialist future, which the other factions, however, gradually pick apart. The downfall is becoming increasingly apparent later in Phase II as the Germans and the Senate army roll in – the former were described by a playtester as a “death star built out of three cubes” which is spot on. The question for the Reds is whether they are able to hold on long enough. It is, however, not unheard of to see the Reds make a dramatic return from the brink right at the game end. The Reds have a bunch of additional options that they may decide to explore: what if they work to keep the Russians around as a fighting force able to challenge the Germans? What if the Reds themselves focus on building a powerful army of their own?
Grant: What does the future hold for Vesa?
Vez: Well, I feel I’ve got more to give as a board game designer, so I think there’s more coming on that front. I’ve got a few ideas for political-military themed games that I think will be of interest to people reading this blog.
Thanks for your time Vez as well as for your great passion and knowledge about the Finnish Civil War and for sharing with us some insight into All Bridges Burning. I for one am eagerly awaiting this game and can’t wait to explore the new strategies and challenges that this 3-player COIN design will offer. We are also going to be working with Vez over the next few months to have a few posts where the idea is that Vez write up something like a partial playthrough, with the exception that he *is not* focused on describing the moves, but rather he will talk about selected design challenges that the various aspects of the game — as they arise during the playthrough — brought up. I very much look forward to this innovative way to explore a game before its release and we will see how it goes.
If you are interested in learning more about All Bridges Burning, or want to go ahead and commit to purchasing the game for the special P500 price of $49.00, here is the link to the game page: https://www.gmtgames.com/p-675-all-bridges-burning-red-revolt-and-white-guard-in-finland-1917-1918.aspx