PAXsims

Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Review: Andean Abyss

Andean Abyss: Insurgency and Counterinsurgency in Colombia. GMT Games, 2012. Game designer: Volko Ruhnke. $75.00.

pic1381149_mdAndean Abyss was released last year to much acclaim, and indeed is currently ranked as one of the top forty wargames of all time by members of BoardGameGeek. I recently played a game with a group that included three political science graduate students, one of whom is Colombian, another of whom taught in Colombia on a Fulbright Fellowship, and all of whom specialize in the study of intra-state conflict. Joining us was a professional game designer who develops simulations on money laundering, terrorism, and corruption for financial intelligence and anti-corruption agencies. It was as tough a bunch of critics as I could possibly assemble, given the topic.

The bottom-line verdict up front: everyone loved it. But before we get to that, let’s first look at the game design, and then move on to explore its possible use in an educational setting.

Game Contents and Play

Andean Abyss is a four player game of insurgency and counterinsurgency in Colombia, in which players assume the role of the government, the leftist guerillas of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), right-wing paramilitaries of the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), or the drug cartels. The game can also be played with less than four, and even has a fully-developed solitaire version. In our case there were actually five of us, with two forming a sort of collective revolutionary leadership of the FARC. Since much of the game revolves around plotting, fleeting alliances, and political expediency, the more the merrier.

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The game includes a 22″ x 34″ mounted game board, 170 wooden markers, a set of cardboard markers, a deck of 76 cards, player aids, and dice. You can find the rules online at the GMT website, and videos describing game play can be found both there and at BoardGameGeek.

The cards are the central mechanism of the game (see below). Each may be played for its event (which often comes in two versions, either helping or harming a player), or to enable an operation to be played. Each card has a symbol for each of the four players across the top. The first player indicated gets to decide first whether they will play the card for its event value, perform an operation (or operations), or pass. Up to two players can act on a given card, and if a player acts in one turn they usually lose their ability to act on the next card. Since two cards are face-up at any one time (the current card, and the next card), it is vital to plan ahead. You won’t win this war by making it up as you go along.

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Each actor has a slightly different mix of actions they can perform. The government may train forces, patrol, conduct sweep operations, or undertake assaults against previously-identified guerrilla units. The various non-state actors can rally support, march, attack, or terrorize. Each actor also has special activities that they might be able to conduct as well: air lift operations, airstrikes, or drug eradication in the case of the government, and ambush, extortion, kidnapping, assassination, drug cultivation, and drug processing depending on the particular insurgent. One can quibble about the way some of these choices are structured. I wasn’t entirely convinced of the logic of separating the government’s “sweep” operation (which identifies underground insurgents but doesn’t eliminate them) from the “assault” operation (which kills them), since in practice both things generally occur together. Political hearts-and-minds activity by the government (“civic action”) occurs in conjunction with the “train” operation, while it might have been better separated out as a separate operation type. While the FARC can use “terror” to mobilize opposition to the government, it has fewer opportunities to build support through the more positive “agitation” (equivalent to the government’s civic action). However, these quibbles are minor. Overall, the game system works very well.

Operations generally cost resources, so players also need to pay attention to their financing. The government must keep the major highways and oil pipelines free from sabotage, or their income will drop. They may also benefit from US and other aid—especially if they seek to eradicate drug cultivation. The insurgents can variously generate resources from extortion, kidnapping, and drugs.

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Pinky-promising with a drug lord. Not that either of us trusted the other in the slightest!

The victory conditions for each player are very different. The government and FARC each need to maximize their degree of popular support. The AUC needs to weaken the FARC. The cartels need to establish bases and earn money. While the players can wheel and deal as much as they want (and trade resources and drug shipments as they do), in the end only one player wins. The game is scored and reset, government troops return to cities and bases, and a new Colombian administration with slightly different policies might be elected, each time a “propaganda” card comes up in the deck. At this point, a player can win. Otherwise,  the game is ends when the last propaganda card comes up, and the player closest to their victory conditions wins. The cartels might have something of an advantage if the game goes this long—after all, they benefit from keeping the country in chaos.

In our game, the FARC spurned an early deal with the drug cartels, which cost them heavily. Every other player was briefly in a winning position at some point. In the latter part of the game, the government and drug cartel agreed not to target each other, allowing the former to concentrate efforts on regaining control of, and political support in, former FARC-held areas while the latter grew rich on drug proceeds. They planned to double-cross each other, of course–but the final propaganda card came up before the drug lords could be cut down to size, and they ultimately won the game.

Instructional Potential

Our playtest group ran the gamut from a boardgaming neophyte to those with considerable experience. I, however, was the only one who had played Andean Abyss before. Everyone picked it up quickly. The game lasted closer to six hours than the four suggested on the box, although that was in part a function of new players, a two-person team, and the obligatory break for Angela’s pizza. The rules are clearly written, and the playbook does a very good job of walking a player through a few sample turns, summarizing player capabilities and priorities, and explaining the design choices made in the game, That being said, I don’t think this is a game that non-gamer students could simply be told to play as a course assignment. Instead, one would need to either directly facilitate games (which is difficult in all but the smallest classes), use a “train-the-trainer” strategy of recruiting students to help other students play the game, or make it an optional assignment or project for the most highly motivated. Game time is obviously too long for in-classroom use. One could, however, have a single ongoing game through a multiweek course, with multi-student teams representing each actor, and a few moves each day.

The key question, however, is not how easily game play can be adapted to the instructional constraints of audience and available time, but whether the game actually offers useful insight into modern Colombian political history, insurgency, counter-insurgency, and similar topics. Here I think that it is a little less self-explanatory than a previous Volko Ruhnke-designed game, Labyrinth, which focused on the post-9/11 “global war on terror.” Most audiences—outside Colombia, at least—would be unfamiliar with many of the events summarized on the event cards, whether it be “limpieza social” (“social cleansing”) killings, the assassination of special prosecutors María del Rosario Silva Ríos and Carlos Arturo Pinto Bohórquez, or Policía Nacional chief General Rosso José Serrano Caden. I also found that the very clever card mechanism—which I liked a lot—drew so much attention that the insurgency itself was a little overshadowed at times. For that reason, this is a game that would require a lot of briefing and debriefing in an educational setting.

It should be noted that, during our playtest, none of the players had any objection to the general depiction of the Colombian conflict. On the contrary, my money laundering expert was pleased to find he could use narco subs and cross-border drug-processing labs, while the players with the most expertise on Colombia were impressed at the appearance of historical events (“We get FARC zones? Cool!”), even if—as with most card-based games—not all events occurred in historical order or with similar effect.

Concluding Thoughts

Andean Abyss wasn’t designed as an instructional tool to explore counterinsurgency, but rather as a boardgame for conflict simulation hobbyists. As a game, it rocks. It is well-balanced, enjoyable, and features a very elegant card-based system at its heart. The replay value is high too, since the card system guarantees that each game is quite different. I strongly recommend it. Indeed, it is probably my favourite insurgency-themed boardgame of all time, with the possible exception of Freedom in the Galaxy (SPI, 1979).

SPQRWallp-FORUM(RBM)ssThe design is also the first of several in what GMT Games bills as its “COIN Series.” A Distant Plain (an Afghanistan conflict simulation codesigned by PAXsims contributor Brian Train) is currently in production and will be shipping soon, as is Cuba Libre (a game of the 1957-58 Cuban revolution, codesigned by Jeff Grossman). A fourth game in the series focusing on the Vietnam war, Fire in the Lake, is currently in development, codesigned by Mark Herman.

* * *

Update—The Quick Play Version

Volko Rohnke has kindly passed on the quick play scenario for Andean Abyss, previously published in C3I Magazine #26 (2012).

Quick-Play Scenario

by Volko Ruhnke

This setup allows for completion of a game of Andean Abyss in less than half the usual time and is well suited to introduce new players to the COIN Series system. It depicts, roughly, the Pastrana and early Uribe eras, the middle portion of the period of Colombian history covered in the full game.

Deck Preparation: Shuffle the 72 Event cards and deal face down 4 piles of 6 cards each (24 Event cards total). Set the rest aside—they may not be inspected and will not be used. Shuffle a Propaganda card each into the 2nd and 4th piles, then stack the piles into a draw deck, 1st pile on top, 4th pile on the bottom. The remaining 2 Propaganda cards are not used.

Game Board: Set up forces and markers per rule 2.1 (see Rules of Play page 14 and the images on the map). Then modify the set up as follows—

  • Medellín: Add 4 Cartels Guerrillas and 1 Cartels Base.
  • Cali: Place Active Support. Remove the Cartels Guerrilla and Base. Add 4 Police.
  • Bogotá: Add 6 Troops.
  • Santander-Boyacá: Add 1 AUC Base.
  • Arauca-Casanare: Remove Opposition (the space starts Neutral). Add 1 AUC Guerrilla.
  • Meta West: Place a FARC Zone. Add 4 FARC Guerrillas.
  • Huila-Tolima: Place Active Opposition. Add 3 FARC Guerrillas, 2 AUC Guerrillas, and 1 Cartels Base.
  • Vaupés: Add 2 FARC Guerrillas.
  • Edge Track: Adjust Resources to AUC 5, FARC 10, Cartels 20, Government 30; Opposition+Bases to 22; and Total Support to 56. (Leave Aid at 9.)
  • El Presidente: Advance to Pastrana.
  • Propaganda: Skip the Victory Phase (6.1) of the first Propaganda Round—Factions cannot win until the second (last) Propaganda card.

Flip the first card and have at it! Be aware that, with far less time for development of board position than in the full game, different strategies may be needed! – vfr 

5 responses to “Review: Andean Abyss

  1. Walt 14/07/2013 at 10:50 pm

    Excellent review on a little understood topic, thanks for posting it. Glad you clarified its a boardgame, not a conflict simulation.

    Political conflicts are more difficult to design than military ones. Hopefully someone will do so one day.

  2. volkoruhnke 15/07/2013 at 8:57 am

    Thanks Rex & company for the field test! I agree with all your observations regarding challenges for classroom use (I have not attempted it myself).

    One mechanical note, regarding: “The FARC has more limited opportunities to build ongoing political support, since its equivalent to civic action—agitation—can be undertaken at only a few points in the game…”:

    The FARC can use Terror in addition to Agitation for this purpose. Unlike the Government’s Civic Action, Terror can hit several regions on a single card ahead of a Propaganga Round. Provided that the FARC can establish Underground Guerrillas in the target Cities and Departments, Terror offers a quick and relatively cheap means to advance the FARC’s cause (and wreck the Government’s!).

    Best regards! Volko

  3. Rex Brynen 15/07/2013 at 9:16 am

    Quite right, Volko–I worded it badly in the original review. My point was that insurgents don’t just win positive support through acts of violence. Fixed above.

  4. volkoruhnke 15/07/2013 at 11:24 am

    Yes, this was a playtester criticism of how we (Brian and I) originally had depicted the Taliban in A Distant Plain. So in the final version of that game we allow the Taliban to perform their version of agitation (“Sharia”) as part of their normal Rally operations, wherever they posses bases, even if the province is counterinsurgent-controlled. In this way, we try to represent Taliban shadow governance–probably an improvement over how I did it for the FARC in Andean Abyss. – Volko

  5. Gerson Monteiro 27/02/2015 at 3:51 am

    Right. I agree that insurgents don’t win positive support through violence. Terror acts may just block population support to government campaigns or may instead make government side gain all the support (active support). But this balance depends too much of the economic/social characteristics of the region where things happens…
    Gerson.

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