When I caught wind of an expansion being worked on (I actually saw it in a picture posted on Twitter by Mark Herman about another game and I saw it in the background) for my favorite COIN Series volume Fire in the Lake, I was very excited to say the least. Over the past year or so, I had been waiting for the announcement to be made on one of the Monthly Update emails and it finally came in August. I do need to mention though that Alexander and I were fortunate enough to have an opportunity to play the expansion with Mark Herman and Dan Pancaldi from No Enemies Here while attending WBC in late July. I reached out to co-designer Volko Ruhnke earlier this month and he was very willing to give us an inside look at the expansion.
*Please keep in mind that the artwork used in this interview is not yet finalized and is only for playtest purposes at this point. Also, as the game is still in development and playtesting, details may still change prior to publication.
Grant: Volko welcome back and thank you for taking the time to answer our questions about Fall of Saigon: A Fire in the Lake Expansion. Why was this part of the Vietnam War not originally included in Fire in the Lake?
Volko: Thanks for having me back! Fire in the Lake seeks to simulate the US counterinsurgency in Vietnam. 1964 saw great enough escalation by Johnson of the number of US military advisors that we already can think of the war as a US war. 1972 saw a complete enough withdrawal of US combat personnel that we no longer can thereafter. For gameplay, with the severe outcome for the VC faction of disastrous 1968 offensives combined with a more effective US COIN strategy under Abrams, historical 1973 offers more of a 2-faction than 4-faction contest.
Grant: Who was the driving force to move this expansion forward? You or Mark?
Volko: Mark was definitely the driving force. He came up with the idea of a 2-player expansion of Fire in the Lake to 1975, did the research, and did the initial design work.
I had had several conversations with him about the project, but I only got engaged for real this summer. As I like to fancy it, Mark’s vision shaped the machine, and I engineered the undercarriage.
In many cases, what I received from Mark were collections of ideas. I then fleshed them out into usable COIN Series rules, play aids, and cards, adjusting and filling in gaps to ensure coherence within the design and with the original Fire in the Lake.
For example, for the new Fall of Saigon Event deck, Mark sent me a list of titles and general effects. I combined and added to those, arrayed them per Faction permutations, and wrote them up as actual, mechanical COIN Series Event cards. I expanded, refined, and integrated the US Posture Track and related rules to interact with several Ops and Special Activities to enact the way that Mark had envisioned the role of the US in the post-Paris game. And so on.
Grant: What unique aspects of this part of the war make for a different experience for those who have played Fire in the Lake previously?
Volko: In 1973-1975, we see the final “mobile phase” of a successful insurgency. The guerrilla and counter-guerrilla fighting is still going on, perhaps at a reduced level. But the movement of massed forces on the offensive to seize territory comes to the fore. And this time, both sides have modern ground equipment, represented by Fall of Saigon’s Armor units among other new features. We have, in the multiplayer scenarios, the dynamics of the Paris Peace Talks and its consequences for the shape of the conflict, including weariness in the North. Then, depending on the scenario and what happens, we see the United States in an enabling role behind the ARVN, as two potentially equal maneuver armies battle it out along highways and among cities.
Grant: This expansion doesn’t necessarily focus on insurgency and counterinsurgency but more on mechanized warfare. What opportunities and challenges to the design did this present?
Volko: Operationally, we needed something like the Armor units and Spearhead Special Activity that Mark came up with. It is key for the play experience that we see and feel the difference that you mention.
Strategically, it’s trickier. If the focus is on mechanized warfare, what are the VC doing that is of consequence? Does anyone care about Support/Opposition and all the other COINy parts of the original game? Our answer yields two options:
A) Set the scenario start at the historical outcome post-Paris, two players only, mechanizing NVA versus mechanizing ARVN.
B) Start at an earlier point in the war, and allow the usual range of outcomes among the four Factions; VC and US may be essentially out of the center of the fight by 1973, or it may not be, and the players write the alternative history of post-Paris.
Grant: What sources did you consult on the development of the expansion? What one source would you recommend to wargamers to read?
Volko: I had it quite easy, because I could rely on the fact the Mark Herman has reread more books about the Vietnam War than I have even heard of. His central source for the design is Black April by George Veith. In fact, most of Mark’s Event titles that he sent me were keyed to pages in that book. So, I bought and read that. It’s a bracing story with ample fodder for personalities, instances, and phenomena featured in the Fall of Saigon Event deck. I heartily enjoyed the book and certainly recommend it.
Grant: The outcome of the Paris Peace Talks factor heavily in the role of the US and NVA forces in the game. How does this work and what are the results of this addition for gameplay?
Volko: Historically, much of the fighting by 1972 is positioning for the Paris Peace. In the three Fall of Saigon scenarios that span Paris, Players similarly by mid-game should have their eyes on Paris as an intermediate prize. This is in actuality what players are vying for in most games of the original Fire in the Lake: the victory conditions are not really yielding the end of the war but rather the positioning for US withdrawal in some measure and the relative strength of Northerners and Southerners at that point. In Fall of Saigon, we then actually play that out via a Paris Peace talks procedure summarized in a matrix chart.
There is a bit too much to explain it all here, but readers will get a very good sense of it from this chart.
The US most often but not always will Retreat from Vietnam—withdraw all Troops and be subject to the US Posture Track’s restrictions on how much it can help the ARVN. But it also will gain greater flexibility in enabling its Special Forces Irregulars and ARVN itself to fight in a sort-of amped up Advise-like menu of actions.
The NVA, if it has not grabbed and held onto enough populated territory in the South may have to agree to a withdrawal outside the country. But, of course, it can come back in—there is no possibility of an enduring ceasefire or any such.
US Anti-War movement and NVA War Weariness build up after Paris and subtract from final Victory margins, and US Posture can wax or wane. Thus, both sides via Events are watching their own and the other side’s strategic will.
And, after Paris, the real mechanization race can get underway, and ARVN and NVA both get those potent Armor units to build and throw down the Highway LoCs via Spearhead actions. And revised post-Paris victory conditions turn the endgame operational focus from the rural population to control of the capital Saigon itself.
Grant: As you mentioned, you have added a few new tracks to the game including the US Posture and Initiative Tracks. What are the specific purpose of these Tracks and how do they change the game?
Volko: The Initiative Track is easy to explain: It’s not so much new as a loyal application of Brian Train’s brilliant adaptation of the COIN Series sequence of play for two players only used in Colonial Twilight. The Initiative Track in Fall of Saigon is used only in the 2-player 1973-1975 “Black April” scenario to enable a quick duke-it-out to the death between NVA and ARVN. The Initiative Track tile fits right over the Sequence of Play on the game board, and off you go.
The US Posture Track adds a 5-box scale similar to the Trail Track. As the Trail represents the health of the Communists’ pipeline from North to the South, US Posture tracks the health of the pipeline from the United States to the fighting in Southeast Asia.
Glancing over the US Posture Track (playtest art, not final), you’ll see that it enables or restricts both ARVN and US op tempo, shifting back and forth and resetting just like the NVA’s Trail. Various Events—often representing political affairs back in the United States—shift the Posture marker. The US Posture Track will be a on a tile that fits on the game board over the Overflow box just south of the Trail and Out-of-Play/Casualties, or players can put it just to the side of the board if they prefer.
Grant: The biggest new addition is armor for both the NVA and ARVN. Why was it important to include these tanks in the expansion?
Volko: Mark may have an additional answer to that, as Fall of Saigon’s Armor pieces were his conception.
For me, the movement and fighting in Fall of Saigon needs to feel operationally different than Fire in the Lake, for the reasons we discussed above about what was different in the Vietnam War post-Paris. Not only should ground forces move more quickly and hit harder, the LoCs should matter more for advances. And the overall heft of NVA and ARVN formations should be greater.
We might be able to achieve all that with new rules alone. But how much easier to get there and how much more vivid by adding a few more bits of wood!
Grant: What is a Spearhead Action you mentioned earlier and what advantage does it give the attacker?
Volko: Spearhead is a fourth Special Activity on the NVA and ARVN Faction sheets (see below). It requires Armor to use it, although some number of regular Troops can accompany the Armor units. Its advantage is to combine move and attack in one blow, as it features both and can accompany a March before or after. In that way, it’s somewhat like Air Lift + Assault, but instead of helicopters flying anywhere, Spearhead’s Armor must use LoCs for maximum advantage. Spearhead also provides a possibility of action fast and furious enough to capture the enemy’s Armor pieces to add to your own forces!
Grant: What is the general strategy advised for the use of armor? What are ways to counter these powerful units?
Volko: That gets into player strategy rather than game design, so at this point the honest answer from me is “I don’t know yet”. Having smart people play the game will tell us.
That said, I’ll note that nearby Troops protect Armor against Attack, Assault, and Air Strike (similar to how Guerrillas protect Bases), and Armor is immune to Raid or Bombard. Armor removes enemy Armor 1-for-1, however, and as noted can Capture enemy Armor via Spearhead. An implication may be that the best defense against Armor is having your own Armor, with some Troops alongside.
Grant: How can these units be captured and used against the attacker the next round? Why was this important to include?
Volko: Whenever Spearhead is used to remove an enemy Armor piece, a chit is drawn from a pool, either “Destroyed” or “Captured”. Destroyed means that Armor piece goes Out of Play. Captured means the chit goes on the piece, and it is not part of the attacking sides forces, until destroyed or recaptured.
Mark can tell you his professional experience that led him to put Armor capture and destruction mechanics into Fall of Saigon. The upshot is that captured armor was used as a gambit of destroying friendly abandoned vehicles before the enemy could take them resulted.
Grant: It seems to me that the VC aren’t really important in this new war. Is this the case? What role do they play in this new war with tanks and heavy bombing?
Volko: That’s a big question and the short answer really is that it depends.
In the 2-player scenario that jumps off from the historical situation in 1973, the VC play little role, just a minor auxiliary run by the NVA player. This is in the situation that the VC got creamed in their Tet offensives of ’68 and then prevented from recovering from that by an effective US counter-logistics campaign under Abrams (see the book A Better War by Lewis Sorley). In this scenario, we have the not necessarily center-of-the-curve outcome that the VC are flat on their backs by ’73. They hardly get mention in Veith’s Black April about the ’73-’75 war, for instance.
But in the other scenarios—’72-’75 that I believe you played with Mark at WBC, the ’68-’75 extended mid-length scenario, or the full shebang for the crazies ’64-’75 saga—we probably don’t have that outcome. Instead, the proliferation of tanks and perhaps the fall back by US forces on heavy bombing as its main intervention well may occur in the context of a VC still potent in the field. In this situation, the VC remains relevant indeed, and can even be the one who makes the difference in control of Saigon, robbing the NVA of the Communist victory (Editor’s Comment: That is absolutely what almost happened in our game at WBC. Alexander nearly slipped into Saigon with the VC to take the victory away!).
On the other side of that coin, readers who looked closely at the Paris Talks matrix above will have noticed that a poor showing by Hanoi in Paris will rob the VC of a chunk of opposition, as the North has sold out the Southern revolutionaries by agreeing to a (temporary) withdrawal to Laos and Cambodia. So the transition to the new phase of fighting may be as relevant to the VC’s position and the VC may be to the post-Paris situation.
Grant: How have the relationships changed between the traditional allies?
Volko: Much of this we discussed above, but here is some additional detail:
The ARVN is even more in the forefront post-Paris than they are able or need to be after Vietnamization. But should they instead try to help the US score up to the Talks, so that no US Retreat occurs?
The US can bag a pile of points via US Retreat at the Paris Talks as the Troops all come home. But then it needs to hold things together and deny Saigon to the Communists. The US player’s opportunity in Fire in the Lake to use ARVN forces as a tool for trimming back the Communists via Train, Advise, and added ARVN Assault is vastly amplified. See the US Posture table above, for example, as US can now Advise as if an Operation. So is US Retreat a good thing or a bad thing for the US chances vis-à-vis ARVN?
The NVA concern about a VC victory before the North can ride into Saigon as the heroes will tend to sharpen post-Paris. The big green counterinsurgency machine has left, so who is mowing the VC grass? Well, NVA are not in the South in force, and if they have not yet been Infiltrating a lot of VC Bases, now is the time. On the other hand, the NVA would still love to have the VC to draw off COIN fire and serve as a blue carpet into Saigon—ARVN holding Saigon can create an ARVN win. So, a variety of new frictions between Northern and Southern Communists are in the offing.
Grant: What new Pivotal Events are included in the expansion? Why were these events chosen and how has this formed the focus of the expansion?
Volko: Mark brought Pivotal Events to the COIN Series, so no surprise that we have ‘em in Fall of Saigon. The hitch here was that not all four cards could be based on historical Events, because the premise of the US and VC Pivotals is alternative history—that these Factions remained players on the ground post-Paris.
The NVA and ARVN Pivotals are more straight-forward and the only ones used in the 2-player scenario. The NVA launch their big push for Saigon—even in Monsoon if they want. The ARVN try to turtle in the populous, ethnically homogenous southern half of the Republic. These things happened in the 1975 campaign.
For the US, Mark wanted the Pivotal to be the big final air intervention that Nixon had threatened, that Hanoi fretted over, but that did not occur—a sort of Linebacker III, if you like. For the VC, I asked Mark what might have been a dramatic pivotal move if the VC were still in strength. His answer was a mobilization surge rather than any sort of Tet offensive—they were not going to repeat that mistake at this point.
Grant: There are 72 new Event cards for 1973-1975. What is the process like to select these cards and then how do you balance them?
Volko: It’s an important question: there is an intricate process of balancing that I had to go through on the 72 Event cards. They need to have as much as possible historical and gameplay connection to the Faction order at the top of the card, because that order declares ownership, initiative in the historical and gameplay sense. They need to offer just the right opportunities to shift US Posture, the Anti-War movement, and Northern War Weariness. They need to help make the NVA the hard-hitting force that it had become by 1975. They need to reinforce the different operational, political, economic, and diplomatic realities of this end-phase in Vietnam. And so much more. Testing will show how well the deck achieves all that (and then we’ll fix it!).
Grant: Can you show us a few examples of key events and talk us through their usefulness?
Volko: It’s interesting that you should ask about Event cards in that way. Mark thought that certain Events, if less significant than the Pivotals, might nevertheless be essential to developing positions in the short span of 1973-75 that we added a simple drafting process to allow each player to ensure that one selected card makes it into the deck for each year.
But in truth I have no idea yet which will be key. So let me just pick at random and talk about it. The random number between 1 and 72 is…#6:
National Press Club – As you can see, we are still in 1973 here: The Paris Peace is fresh, and Nixon is still not under much political pressure, Watergate is not yet that big of a deal. The US controls this Event and the NVA is last in line—pretty COIN-friendly. The ARVN or US player can use it to improve the level of US support in South Vietnam, and US can use it to ease Anti-War pressure. Giving it up to the Insurgents allows them to do the opposite. The Event represents President Thieu’s tireless efforts to keep his country’s US patron in the game and to hold the Nixon Administration to its promises to help Saigon enforce the “Peace”—an ultimately futile diplomatic effort but at this early point still promising success.
OK, let’s try another. The random card is…#10:
Giap’s Central Cell – Naturally the expansion Fall of Saigon brings in new Capability cards. The Veith book gives great insight into the command structures and personalities on both sides in the final campaigns. No surprise that Mark tagged much of that for Event cards. Here we represent the command element that Hanoi created to plan and coordinate the final conquest/liberation of the south by Northern conventional forces. The Capability card puts some simple twists on good ole’ LimOps to play with NVA op tempo.
One more card…#68:
Naval Evacuations – Depending on how things go, Fall of Saigon can see the collapse of Southern defense lines against NVA formations, the replacement of attritional warfare with massive movements. Some of the Events portray the chaos and final trauma that accompanies the suddenly mobile end game.
In addition to the 72 card Event deck and the Pivotals, the new Coup cards are worth mention here. This time they regard not the leadership in Saigon but those in Washington, as Nixon’s domestic troubles ended up having such dramatic effect on US and RVN post-Paris strategy. The successive Coup cards impose increasing penalties on the US/ARVN side, especially if the US did not Retreat from Vietnam.
Grant: What has been the experience of playtesters? What do they like most about the expansion?
Volko: Difficult to answer because playtesting has only just begun. You guys are among the first testers, so you tell us! In my group, the biggest impression, I think, was the Fall of Saigon is such a different situation than anything presented in Fire in the Lake, and that was before we even got to Armored Spearheads.
[Editor’s Comment: From my perspective, we really enjoyed the balance of power versus paying attention to your victory conditions. As the NVA, in the early game I got caught up in thinking too much about victory through meeting my conditions as I would have when playing Fire in the Lake, than in getting in a position to win the game by attacking and taking over Saigon. I also really enjoyed the focus of the US on spreading out their Special Forces and Advisors to assist with controlling the NVA Armor buildup through the use of Air Strikes.]
Grant: There is a new solitaire system being designed by Bruce Mansfield. Does this system compare to Arjuna from Gandhi? Does this system work with Fire in the Lake as well?
Volko: Yes, and we hope so. Bruce with COIN Series Developer Jason Carr and a growing design team is endeavoring to back-fit several COIN Series volumes with card-based Non-players similar to his bots in Gandhi. So Bruce is onboard and underway in designing the Non-players for Fall of Saigon using his new framework. Because Fall of Saigon expands Fire in the Lake, it makes sense to design the Arjuna-style bots to encompass the expansion and base game both. But this is a work in progress, so we will have to wait and see how Bruce pulls it off!
Grant: What has it been like working with Bruce on this system?
Volko: Bruce is awesome, and my confidence in him is sky high. Most importantly for this project, I think, is his reaction to anyone telling him that something is impossible. It simply spurs him to charge forward and do it.
Grant: What is the focus of the 2-player “Black April” scenario and what game experience does it offer?
Volko: We discussed the 2-player “Black April” scenario some above. The players are NVA and ARVN only, using the 2-player Initiative track choppered right in from Colonial Twilight. The NVA player controls a few VC Guerrillas, while the ARVN player may or may not get to use US air support, depending on the US Posture level.
Population Support and Opposition still matter some, as does Patronage, but the focus is much more on the NVA seeking to grab territory and finally control Saigon itself. If readers have played Brian Train’s 2-player version of COIN in Colonial Twilight, they will know that it moves very fast—no pauses for negotiations, for starters—and keeps the focus on the operational aspects of the campaign. So not so much distraction from dysfunctional alliances as in Fire in the Lake, more just rev up your M-113s or Type 59s and off we go.
Grant: Is this expansion model going to continue for the COIN Series games in the future? Why or why not?
Volko: I’m not sure what the expansion model is really. I wrote the rulebook (technically, Expansion booklet) for Fall of Saigon using Ariovistus—which expands Falling Sky—as a template. And, while Ariovistus was a historical prequel instead of sequel like Fall of Saigon, the case for obtaining Fall of Saigon if you enjoy Fire in the Lake enough to want more seems the same as for adding Ariovistus to Falling Sky in your collection.
Ariovistus has turned out to be a best seller for the year, so the model appears to be working, and Fall of Saigon preorders are strong (thank you, readers!). But where COIN Series expansions go from here, I cannot say. There is not a plan there, rather only flexibility in responding to the designers who step forward as Mark did.
Grant: What other games in the series have you thought about expansions for? How about Andean Abyss?
Volko: Funny you should mention Andean Abyss. I had not thought of it, but a volunteer designer has started work on what would be a prequel to AA, covering the Escobar era. Work has only just begun, so we shall see!
Grant: If you remember we talked about the future of the COIN Series a few years ago and there have been a few new excellent new editions since then including Gandhi. Are you pleased with the direction of the series?
Volko: I am absolutely delighted. In my eyes, the Series has achieved things that I would not even have thought to aspire to, in the range of settings visited, the improved play experience for two players and for solitaire, and the panoply of Faction and forces types reaching far beyond classic insurgency and counterinsurgency.
I had thought initially to visit a modern counterinsurgency on each of four different continents and then be done. That was less than eight years ago. Most amazing to me after nine published volumes and another two very near to coming out, the energy appears to be increasing, with more and more talent joining in to offer new and better.
Grant: Are you amazed at the system’s versatility? Is there a conflict as yet undone that you just feel would work really well?
Volko: Yes and yes. As I noted above, the range of application has gone far beyond my conception—a vivid illustration, I think, of the potential of synthesis of diverse cognition through gaming.
What works well in the COIN Series frame is a conflict of social interests among parties with differing types of ends, ways and means. Well, that is most of human history, plus a lot of great fiction literature as well. I won’t name a specific conflict here—there are too many, and new ideas cross my scope almost weekly.
Grant: What other projects are you working on? What do you want to work on?
Volko: Thank you for asking! In addition to Fall of Saigon, I have late undertaken a reboot of Hunt for Blackbeard, as you may have read in Gene’s September Update. I am simplifying the implementation of the hidden hunt system via the tried and true tool of standup blocks, plus some other streamlining, in hopes of returning the offering to P500 for a better response.
But the bulk of my time has been on a deep journey into medieval Spain—the Moors, Reconquista, El Cid, and all that—for the second volume in my Levy & Campaign Series of operational warfare in the Middle Ages. I hope to have that design ready to debut at SDHistCon in San Diego in November, then on to Spain at BellotaCon20 in Badajoz in January.
Thanks again for the conversation!
Thank you for your insight into the design Volko. We had a great time with this one in our play at WBC. Maybe it was because it was with Mark Herman and Dan Pancaldi, but I think the expansion is unique and brings some very interesting new strategic dilemmas for players to learn and explore.
If you are interested in Fall of Saigon: A Fire in the Lake Expansion, you can pre-order a copy for $33.00 on the GMT Games website at the following link: https://www.gmtgames.com/p-832-fall-of-saigon-a-fire-in-the-lake-expansion.aspx
Excellent interview. Thank you! Ordering this on P500 was a no brainer. Can’t wait to get it.
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