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Tag Archives: GMT Games

Review: Fire in the Lake

 Fire in the Lake: Insurgency in Vietnam. GMT Games, 2014. Game designers: Mark Herman and Volko Ruhnke. $85.00.

pic2083738_mdLast night the PAXsims review crew got together to play Fire in the Lake, the fourth and latest in GMT Games’ COIN series. The game covers the Vietnam war from 1964 through to 1972, with players representing the United States (US), North Vietnamese forces (NVA), the Republic of Vietnam forces (ARVN), or the Viet Cong (VC). Rules for play with less than four players (including solitaire play) are included. It plays more easily with two players than others in the series.

The card- and map-based game system is very similar to that used in the previous games in the series, Andean Abyss (insurgency in Colombia), Cuba Libre, and A Distant Plain (contemporary Afghanistan). Given that we’ve already discussed that system extensively in past reviews I won’t say much more about it here, other than to highlight some of the ways in which it has been customized for the Vietnamese case:

  • Some players have access to more troops types. In Andean Abyss there were five (government troops and police, and FARC, AUC, and cartel guerrillas) plus bases, whereas in Fire in the Lake that number increases to eight (ARVN troops, police, and rangers; US troops and irregulars; NVA troops and guerrillas; VC guerrillas), plus two types of bases (regular and tunnelled).
  • The cards are periodized, for more historic play.
  • The Ho Chi Minh Trail and operations in Cambodia and Laos play a key role, especially for the NVA.
  • The player actions differ slightly in this game (as they do for all games in the series). The US “advise” special operation role is quite different from anything in A Distant Plain. US air strikes are powerful, and can degrade the Ho Chi Minh Trail—but also can damage local popular support if used in South Vietnam. Some of the operations seemed to be slightly more complex than in previous games.
  • The US has much less flexibility in adding or removing troops from the theatre compared to A Distant Plain.
  • The map has slightly more areas (30 provinces or cities, plus lines of communication) than does Andean Abyss (27+LOCs) or A Distant Plain (25+LOCs), and significantly more options than Cuba Libre (13).
  • Scoring takes place when a coup card becomes active, similar to the propaganda card in the other games in the series. This may change the current leader of South Vietnam, with ongoing effects, or weaken ARVN forces through infighting.
  • Each player has a special “pivotal event” card that they may play, essentially replacing the current event card. These can be quite powerful.
  • Accurately reflecting its subject matter, this is the first game in which you can’t play criminal cartels or warlords. No more drug smuggling or casinos for you!

pic1959464_lgAs with all of the games in the series, I had some relatively minor quibbles with how some of the operations are constructed. Air strikes seemed somewhat overpowered, especially in urban and jungle terrain. Our NVA player was not a fan of how his “infiltrate” operation worked. I’ve never liked the way in which pacification and the building of domestic support is a derivative of the “training” operation, both in this game and other in the series. I did, however, very much like the idea of pivotal events, allowing players to both “bury” an unwanted event card and launch a major, possibly game-changing, initiative.

Game Play

We played the medium-length, 1968-72 scenario. The first coup card came early before many operations had been undertaken, allowing the ARVN to set aside quite a large war-chest of resources and pacify much of the country.

The NVA built up large forces in Cambodia in preparation for a cross-border incursion, but ARVN forces slipped across the border to identify their locations for a series of devastating US air strikes. Given our habit of always playing games to a thematically-appropriate soundtrack, such raids were accompanied by either Steppenwolf’s Magic Carpet Ride (1968) or, of course, Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries.

Meanwhile the Viet Cong struggled to expand their underground guerrilla network. They had some success in subverting government troops and police and weakening the local patronage system, although they heavily suffered from periodic ARVN sweeps and raids. ARVN and US pacification made the regime surprisingly popular in large parts of the country. Despite differing victory conditions (and the fact that only one player can ultimately win), NVA-VC and US-ARVN cooperation was very good. This was especially true of the latter, with ARVN sweeps often setting the stage for US air strikes, and some US capabilities enhancing ARVN forces too.

Later in the game the NVA again built up large forces in Cambodia, taking advantage of a US Bombing Pause (event card). When the US then followed a failed coup attempt (coup card) with a substantial draw-down of American forces, the NVA unleashed its Easter Offensive (pivotal event). North Vietnamese troops poured across the border from Cambodia, advancing upon and ultimately capturing Saigon. The Viet Cong followed up with the Tet Offensive (pivotal event). This was rather less successful at inflicting serious damage, although it did augment VC guerrilla strength.

Stretched on the ground and having taken significant casualties, the US unleashed another series of air raids against the NVA, devastating their forces in many areas. ARVN troops and rangers poured into Saigon, attempting to regain control of the capital amid bitter street fighting.

At this point, the game came to an end. Despite the heavy fighting still underway in Saigon, the US managed to secure a narrow victory, largely due it its earlier withdrawal of forces and the significant pro-regime support that still remained in much of the country. The NVA and ARVN were close behind in their points total, however.



This game has a lot to commend it. I very much liked the way in which geography made itself felt in the game, something I felt rather less in Andean Abyss and A Distant Plain. In our game the Mekong Delta was very much its own sub-theatre, compared to the central highlands. The threat of NVA covert and overt intervention from along the length of the Ho Chi Minh Trail also has enormous strategic effect on game play.

On the other hand, our game suffered from significantly more “analysis paralysis” than any of our previous experiences with the GMT COIN series. There is no single obvious reason for this—the rules, operations, and events are only a tiny bit more complex, the types of forces available are somewhat more diverse, and the map has only slightly more playable areas. Three of our players had played several games in the COIN series before too.

Nevertheless, things slowed down considerably, to the point that we introduced an informal Stairway to Heaven rule whereby players were asked to finish their turn before the iconic 1971 Led Zepplin song was finished playing.

Perhaps we were tired, or too full of pizza. After all, war is hell.

At the time of writing Fire in the Lake is currently the highest rated of the four games in the COIN series on Board Game Geek, ranked an impressive 74th best wargame of all time. Among our group we all still preferred A Distant Plain, with two ranking Fire in the Lake in the middle of the series and the third ranking it his least favourite of the four. (In fairness it should probably be noted that I was the only person old enough to remember the Vietnam War, whereas the majority of the group work on contemporary conflict issues.)

Although our game ran more slowly than I would have hoped, I am certainly looking forward to a rematch!

Review: Cuba Libre

Cuba Libre. GMT Games, 2013. Game designers: Jeff Grossman and Volko Ruhnke. $69.00.


Recently there was yet another insurgency in the office, as a group of us got together to refight the Cuban revolution—but with rather less violence, and better pizza, than the real thing. Cuba Libre is another title in the GMT Games series which has also given us Andean Abyss (Colombia) and A Distant Plain (Afghanistan). All games in the series use the same basic game system, but with modifications to adapt each to the era and struggle being represented.

In the case of Cuba Libre, up to four players are involved: the Cuban government, the leftist July 26 Movement revolutionaries led by Fidel Castro, the anti-communist Revolutionary Directorate, and the criminal syndicate. The map is significantly smaller than others in the COIN series. Moreover, the geography of Cuba means that essentially all strategic movement is along an east-west axis, with most provinces bordering only two others. By contrast, in  Andean Abyss or A Distant Plain, most provinces border at least four, and players usually have myriad movement options. The effect of this is to render the geography of insurgency and counterinsurgency far more important in Cuba Libre, where players may seek to develop blocking positions to slow the expansion of rivals. Somewhat against my initial expectation, I soon found that I rather enjoyed this aspect of the game.


In general, pretty much all of the positive things we’ve said about other games in this series apply to Cuba Libre. One of our playtest group (who, as the communist opposition, eventually won the game) commented:

It was interesting to watch how lower numbers of possible guerrillas and bases changed strategies and how the geography really affected game play. It was challenging but to try to work with limited reinforcements and attempt to find a feasible way to increase government opposition without additional bases (for my victory condition). Without a speedy way to move my guerillas to opposite sides of the island, I found myself trapped deep in the mountains and unable to reinforce my western front. As a result, we struggled to spread the virtues of communism in many areas. In the end, we often had to quickly give the local population a terrifying reminder of the dangers of capitalism before we were attacked. The cards were great and especially painted a vivid picture of the terrible Batista government and their inability to keep our race car drivers safe! Each time we have played the COIN series, I am struck by how well the mechanics work. Despite a misunderstanding regarding how one card worked, the faction order system, ended up preventing me from dominating the game.… In the end however, the immortal words rang true. “¡Hasta la victoria siempre!”


Review: A Distant Plain

A Distant Plain: Insurgency in Afghanistan. GMT Games, 2013. Game designers: Brian Train and Volko Ruhnke. $78.00.

416Earlier this year PAXsims reviewed Andean Abyss (2012), a game of Colombian insurgency and counterinsurgency—and we liked it very much. Two other games using the same general  system have since been since been published as part GMT Games’ COIN series: Cuba Libre (the Cuban revolution), and A Distant Plain (insurgency and counterinsurgency in contemporary Afghanistan). A fourth game, Fire in the Lake (the Vietnam War), is currently in development.

A Distant Plain was codesigned by Volko Ruhnke (architect of the COIN series, and designer of the Charles S. Roberts Award-winning games Andean Abyss and Labyrinth) and Brian Train (well-known among both hobbyists and professional wargamers for his counterinsurgency games, notably Algeria). Expectations were thus high. Our expert playtest group at McGill University included an academic who works on fragile and conflicted-affected countries (me), a professional game designer who works on simulations for anti-corruption and financial intelligence analysts (Tom), and three graduate students (June, Alejandra, and Sean) interested in complex humanitarian operations, war crimes, insurgency/counterinsurgency, and related issues.

As you’ll see below, we certainly weren’t disappointed. A Distant Plain is a highly enjoyable and engaging game that gives a real sense of the strategic challenges and trade-offs of the Afghan conflict.

Playing the Game

As noted above, the core game system in A Distant Plain is similar to that of its predecessors. Once again there are up to four players, in this case the Afghan Government, the Coalition, the Taliban, and the Warlords. Extensive rules for 1-, 2- and 3- player versions are also included. Each turn, players can choose to either play event cards or undertake one of a series of possible operations, with the sequencing of initiative determined both by the event card and by who acted in the previous turn. Most of the primary operations are similar to Andean Abyss: counterinsurgents can train, patrol, sweep, or assault, while the insurgents can rally, march, attack, or terrorize. Some of the special activities allowed to each faction have been customized to the Afghan setting, however. The Coalition may thus “surge” its troops in or out of the country, the Government may “govern” (or misgovern, since this often involves converting aid into patronage), the Taliban may “infiltrate” and subvert non-Coalition forces, and the Warlords may “suborn” enemy units, using resources to buy off government or Taliban troops.


Indeed, despite a similar core game system, A Distant Plain should not be seen as Andean Abyss in the Hindu Kush—it plays and feels rather different. Perhaps most notable of all is the subtle relationship between the Afghan government and the Coalition. Neither side can win without considerable help from the other, but in the end only one player can win. Neither side can attack the other. Their interests and victory conditions overlap but differ: while the government cares about establishing patronage and bringing the country under COIN (Government + Coalition) control, the Coalition is, in a reflection of population-centric COIN doctrine, more anxious to establish positive legitimacy (“support”) for the Afghan political system, avoid casualties, and eventually go home. The Coalition has unlimited resources, but joint operations draw upon the scarce resources of the Afghan player, who can quickly grow resentful at the having his/her priorities determined by a bunch of foreigners.

For the Taliban, on the other hand, Pakistan looms large in their strategic calculations. Its stance is determined both by player actions (such as Coalition drone strikes) and the play of event cards. When supportive, the Taliban are able to use Pakistani border areas as a sanctuary in which to build up and move their forces.

Game play is also very  shaped by the quite different, Afghanistan-specific event cards, and the options they present. The COIN game system creates both interesting trade-offs (do I conduct operations, or invest time and resources in building longer-term capabilities?) and it tends to generate an interesting sort of path dependency, whereby acquiring a capability often leads a player to reshape their strategy to make best use of it—a point I’ll return to later.

The game now includes an optional  “deception” rule whereby players start the game with hidden assets, possibly augmenting their actions or scores. I strongly recommend using this, since it makes it much more difficult to know exactly what a player might do next turn, or exactly how close each is to winning.

In our game, Alejandra and I jointly played the Coalition. Our strategy looked much like that of the US since 2001: initially we tried to maintain a light footprint, but when this failed we undertook a major surge of troops in the hopes of shifting the momentum of the war against the Taliban. While our cooperation with the government was good at first, relations soon frayed as they grew to resent our heavy-handed tendency to expect them to meekly follow our campaign and state-building plans. For much of the game (and unlike real life) we had the Taliban struggling under pressure, and we also managed to avoid any significant casualties. However, this came at the cost of letting the Warlords establish militias and criminal networks in much of the country. Ultimately they would narrowly win the game.

Player Reactions

In keeping with the importance of patronage in A Distant Plain, in this playtest I used my control over the supply of Angela’s pizza to force the other players to agree to send in some post-game thoughts for inclusion in this review.

The Afghan Government (Tom) confirmed the problematic nature of its relations with the Coalition:

I was afforded the opportunity to represent the Afghan government in A Distant Plain.  Following my first, utterly enjoyable, GMT COIN experience with Andean Abyss, I was very eager for this game.  It did not disappoint. The game mechanics, much like Andean Abyss, are smooth and simple to understand, but very complex in their effect.

As the government I quite quickly discovered I was tied too closely to the Coalition forces.  I wanted to accrue patronage  and bring the Afghan population under control—whether they supported the government or not.  This differed from the Coalition somewhat, in that they wanted enough government support that there was no longer any need for Coalition forces to remain in Afghanistan.  While these goals are parallel, government  patronage often comes at the cost of legitimacy and good governance.  The Coalition could also determine much of my spending.  While coalition forces are extremely effective at eliminating insurgents, my own ability to attract more aid was partly dependent on doing it by myself. However, my initial strategy of single-handedly assaulting Taliban bases to increase aid was thrown out the window when the Coalition decided it was their solemn duty to eliminate the Taliban with drones.  So I had to play along, and try to build up police strength in outlying provinces to eradicate Warlord bases which, unfortunately for the Coalition, eroded support while providing me with a small boost in aid. Eventually I also started to redeploying (or withholding) my police in such a way as to limit the Coalition’s ability to use “civic action” to build support. This led, of course, to some very interesting negotiations when the Coalition realized what I was doing. If this game set out to illustrate the frustrations and complications of the Afghan government – Coalition alliance, it certainly succeeded!

The government was further hindered by the warlords’ ability to suborn troops and police and the Taliban’s ability to infiltrate (and hence “turn” government units).

The game also captures, in exceptional fashion, the consequences of certain actions or events on the course of the conflict through the event cards.  The cards provide such a fluid, unpredictable dynamic that necessitate rethinking one’s plan.

The Taliban player (June) commented:

I had enjoyed the game mechanics present in Andean Abyss and was especially excited to see them applied in a historical and geographical context that I was more familiar with. A Distant Plain absolutely did not disappoint. All of my favorite aspects from Andean Abyss were present in the new installment along with some new dynamics that arose as a consequence of the actors involved.

During our game of A Distant Plain, I played the Taliban. Immediately, it was clear from the victory conditions that I would need not only to build popular support in provinces with significant populations, but I would also have to get some insurgent bases on the board. Unfortunately, for a great deal of the first quarter of the game, I had to spend my turns “burying” event cards to keep them away from the Coalition. Nevertheless the Coalition soon obtained the Predator drones card, and their inclination to use them led me to spend my available ops rallying in my safe havens across the border in Pakistan instead of marching or rallying a small numbers of guerrillas into a province. I feared that spreading my forces out wouldn’t have much strategic purpose if they would be met with barrage of Hellfire missiles.  The Coalition also snagged several other capabilities over the course of the game, some of them directly limited my actions while others changed how I thought I should play. In the end, I had a huge insurgent build-up in Pakistan but hadn’t managed to do enough terror in populated areas.

One of the most interesting aspects of this series of games is the depiction, through the event cards, of actual historical events. These certainly appeal to history buffs and political science geeks. Many of the events depicted were major junctures in the conflict and the real effects of these changes can demonstrated in the game as well. For me, maintaining my relationship with Pakistan was critical to my ability to rally guerrillas without a high resource cost. Cards like “US-Pakistan talks” thus had the potential to help or hurt the Taliban a great deal.

The only aspect that we did not utilize to its full extent were the Lines of Communication. Although the Government, Taliban, and Warlords could all benefit from using or sabotaging them, it wasn’t clear to us initially how important they could be. I think the next time I play A Distant Plain I will have to be more aware how LoCs affect gameplay. Certainly the Taliban could have interdicted government movement and resources to a much greater extent through sabotage.

Overall, A Distant Plain managed to be fun for everyone while simulating the power dynamics and strategies of the different parties involved in the war in Afghanistan. I think it is a strong installment to the series and a great contribution to the genre of modern warfare board games.

Finally, the Warlords (Sean) enjoyed themselves too, and not just because they won:

I had a great time with A Distant Plain and am glad the game mechanics and card system are being employed in multiple settings. Having studied and lived in Colombia, I had really enjoyed Andean AbyssA Distant Plain really effectively translated that game system into the Afghani context. As the Warlords, it was fascinating to try to contest control of provinces without garnering too much attention from the other players. I initially pushed too hard by building many bases, but quickly learned I had to be more subtle. The game’s balance worked really well. It successfully demonstrated the complexity and difficulty of successful coordination between the Afghani Government and Coalition in the face of constant pressure from the insurgents. Once I discovered the power of the “suborn” special activity, I became a much more effective threat. It allowed me to buy off the opposition in order to relieve military pressure or remove an opponent’s control in a province. It ended up being vital in stopping a wave of government forces from attacking my Northern strongholds. I also thought the cards worked well in terms of pushing strategy in certain directions (e.g. Predator or Reaper drones) while not being overpowered. Overall, I really enjoyed the game and it was great to see firsthand the power-dynamics in that context. I am looking forward to playing Cuba Libre sometime soon.

Final Thoughts

There are a number of minor quibbles I could raise about A Distant Plain. Although I was pleased to see patronage built into the game,  I’m not entirely sure the system fully captures its complex effects. I might have designed the operations and special activities slightly different. It might also be interesting to tweak the win conditions in many of the COIN series games to allow narrow conditions under which two players might win.

These, however, are rather trivial objections, and are really testimony to the degree of interest the game generates than criticisms of how it plays. Let’s face it, this game is fun. I have no idea what play time for the COIN series is supposed to be, but our games (pizza included) easily go on for six hours or more—largely because of the political banter and negotiation the game generates. In the playtest, for example, we Coalition players developed the annoying habit (annoying to the insurgents that is—not to us) of making constant droning noises during periods of critical insurgent decision-making just to remind them of the death circling above. The Taliban seemed to get genuinely Talibanesque in its growing hatred for the foreign presence in Afghanistan (the drone noises didn’t help win any hearts and minds either), and both the Afghan Government and Warlords were even more duplicitous and cunning than usual.

As I noted with Andean Abyss, this isn’t a game well-suited to classroom use, in part because of the length of game play. However it could be used as a facilitated optional activity.

reapersAt the end of the game, I think two things most stood out. One was the difficulty of maintaining a consistent strategy in a dynamic, multi-actor environment. No matter how much one tried to plan several turns out, things would simply happen that altered your calculations. When they did, one was forced with an often difficult decision whether it would be better to stay the course (despite changed circumstances), or revise one’s approach (thereby having possibly wasted a turn or two of preparation). This is a useful antidote to those who see political-military strategy, whether in wargames or real wars, as something akin to a cake recipe. It is far more uncertain than that, at times as much Kenny Rogers as Clausewitz.

The second real take-away from the game was the path-dependency noted earlier, and the ways in which capabilities influenced strategy and tactics. Both of the insurgent players clearly feared the Coalition’s growing ability to use drones and airstrikes, a capability into which we had invested considerable effort through acquiring the relevant event cards. However, in retrospect, I am painfully aware of the ways in which our low-risk counter-insurgency-by-remote-control tactics came at the expense of other actions. We had been slow to push a Coalition presence out into the countryside. We had been slow to train the Afghan military. We had depended too much, perhaps, on UAVs in the sky rather than boots on the ground. We had done too much on behalf of our allies, instead of building their capacity to do more themselves. Cognitively, we had somewhat fallen prey to the “law of the tool”: “if you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail”— or, in this remotely-piloted case, “if you have a Reaper, every problem looks like a target”. True, we had done well in the game—had we been able to pull our troops out quickly, we might have even won. But could we have done even better if we had been less seduced by new gadgets?

I suppose answering that question will have to await our next game of A Distant Plain.

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Want this review in Russian? Here’s a translation, courtesy of StairsGames.

COIN in Afghanistan: A Distant Plain

Dudes, this is a major happening! For those interested in wargaming insurgency and counterinsurgency, the coming together of game designers Volko Ruhnke and Brian Train to produce a new board game on contemporary Afghanistan is great news—something akin to the Rolling Stones and Green Day touring together. Many thanks to Brian for providing the information below—we’ve already volunteered to help with the play-testing!

* * *

Now it can be told: Volko Ruhnke, designer of Andean Abyss, Labyrinth – The War on Terror, and Wilderness War, has teamed up with Brian Train, perpetrator of numerous designs on irregular warfare, to produce what could be the Grail of modern COIN games: a workable design on the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan.

The game is called “A Distant Plain – Insurgency in Afghanistan” and it comprises another entry in the COIN series of games by GMT Games, following the just-released Andean Abyss and Cuba Libre! (still in
playtesting). The basic system draws heavily from Andean Abyss, but features some important differences due to the changed dynamics of the situation: there are four player factions, but they actually form two pairs of antagonists, each in a very uneasy alliance of alternating convenience and necessity. With each turn cards are drawn from a deck of 72, forcing difficult decisions among shaping the larger
battlefield, exploiting short-term opportunities and pursuing local operations.

Just as in the actual conflict, the four player factions have dissimilar abilities, vulnerabilities and war aims. They include:

  • The Coalition – representing the Western interventionist forces of NATO. Their troops are highly capable and mobile, but few in number and their sponsoring governments are sensitive to casualties. The Coalition forces cannot do all the fighting; the Afghan government’s security forces must be trained to assume ever-increasing degrees of responsibility in order to keep the country stable once they leave. Meanwhile, how to build popular support for a central government that often seems more interested in enriching its patrons and friends?
  • The Government – Acutely aware of its own limitations, both in force capability and legitimacy, the Government must try to stabilize itself and extend its power outward from Kabul – the Taliban insurgency is only one of an impressive array of obstacles blocking its progress. The Government is simultaneously dependent on and frustrated by the  actions of the Coalition, which means well but has no understanding of how things need to be done in Afghanistan.
  • The Taliban – driven into its sanctuaries in Pakistan in 2002, the insurgency began to build and make inroads on Afghan society. The Taliban brought stability, order and righteousness to Afghanistan once; they can do it again.They have numerous tactical advantages, but their main task of solidifying opposition to the government while establishing a “shadow government” throughout the country is a difficult one.
  • The Warlords – this faction represents the many and varied tribal powers, local authorities, and criminal gangs in Afghanistan. As such, they represent the traditional atomized political structure of Afghanistan and their objective is to resist the efforts of the other three factions to bring the population under their respective centralizing authorities, all while securing wealth and power for themselves.

Features of the game include:

  • the difficult nature of joint Coalition-Government operations
  •  Pakistan’s variable position towards support of the Taliban
  • evolution of both side’s tactics and technology through “capabilities” cards
  • multiple scenarios to depict different phases of the conflict
  • graft, desertion, foreign aid, Coalition casualties, returning
  • refugees, drug trafficking and eradication, highway robbery, drone
  • strikes, bribery
  • and many more!

Finally, the game will feature a set of flow charts to handle the operations of the various factions, so the game is equally playable by one, two, three or four players.

The game has entered playtesting – the above shot was taken at the recent Consimworld Expo in Tempe AZ – and this will continue throughout 2012 as pre-orders accumulate (hopefully quickly) towards the magic P500 point. If all goes well, the game could come out well in advance of NATO’s final withdrawal of combat troops by the end of 2014.

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UPDATE: Frankly, it is spooky how fast Rodger MacGowan/GMT Games/C3i News turns these things into graphics…

UPDATE 2: A Distant Plain is now available for preorder on the GMT Games P500 list. Click the image below.


UPDATE: The game has now been published–see the PAXsims review here.

One step closer to the Abyss…

Well, here’s good news: GMT is now charging pre-orders of its forthcoming boardgame of insurgency/counter-insurgency in Colombia, Andean Abyss:

Dear Rex Brynen,

We’re writing to let you know that game Andean Abyss is one step closer to being completed and shipped out to you! Please note that today we charged your card for your order of 1 copies for a total of $65.00. As with all P500 games, this charge is made when the game in in our final printing process, so it won’t be long now until the process is complete and we can ship your game.

We will update the completion and ship dates for Andean Abyss on our website,, so please check there regularly if you want status updates. We hope you are as excited as we are to receive the finished product!

Thank you,

GMT Games

This is certainly the most anticipated COIN game of the year. Based on both game designer Volko Ruhnke’s past work in this area (Labyrinth: The War on Terror, 2001-?) and having played a pre-production version, I predict that Andean Abyss is going to be another success for GMT—and perhaps even another Charles S. Roberts Award winner.

Review: 1989—Dawn of Freedom

1989: Dawn of Freedom. GMT Games, 2010. Game designers: Ted Torgerson & Jason Matthews. Game developer: Bruce Wigdor. $65.00

It is 1989, and popular protests and uprisings have swept across much of Eastern Europe. In Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Bulgaria the old communist regimes have been swept away. The Baltic republics are well on their way to independence. In Poland and East Germany the contending forces remain more finally balanced, while in Romania the regime appears to have an upper hand. Pro-democracy activists in East Germany take a desperate gamble, hoping to translate their narrow lead in popular support into a successful campaign to unseat the dictatorship. In the ensuing power struggle, however, they fail: for the third time in less than a year, the East German regime survives. The failure reverberates across Eastern Europe, bringing to an end—for now at least—further hopes of political reform.

And so it was that, as the forces of democracy, I lost my first session of GMT’s recent boardgame 1989: Dawn of Freedom. Although I had overturned communist regimes in three countries and nearly toppled the Polish government too, my third high-profile setback in the Deutsche Demokratische Republik had cost me dearly.

Game Contents and Play

1989 is a two player card-driven game, in which one player plays the role of various communist regimes seeking to maintain power, while the other represents democratic forces seeking to topple them. The game contains a good quality mounted map of Eastern Europe, two sets of cleanly-punched counter sheets, a deck of 110 “strategy cards,” a second deck of 52 “power cards,” a rule book, and two dice.

Game play is similar in many ways to GMT’s very popular cold war-era boardgame Twilight Struggle (2005)—hardly surprising, given that both were co-designed by Jason Matthews. Each turn the players are dealt a hand of eight strategy cards. They then alternate in playing a card each, either for its operations value or for the event (and associated effects) printed on it. When eight such rounds have been played, new cards are dealt to top up each player’s hand. As the game progresses, the initial “early year” strategy deck has first “middle year” then “late year” cards added to it, thus assuring that key events occur in a loosely semi-historical sequence.

Two sorts of actions are possible when a card is played for operations points: a player may either place “support points” on the map in an effort to secure key locations, or undertake “support checks” to try to reduce the other player’s support (and possibly build their own). Locations are each associated with a particular domestic constituency (workers, farmers, students, intellectuals, the church, bureaucrats, or elites), each of which can offer advantages during power struggles.  Certain locations are also denoted as “battlegrounds,” and have additional importance in scoring victory points.

“Power struggles” are where political competition for the destiny of each country  comes to head. Each player receives a number of power cards, depending on the number of locations they control in the country. These are divided into four suits (petitions, strikes, marches, and rally in the square) plus constituency leaders and wild cards. The competing players then play a sort of modified “go fish” card game. The result determines the outcome of the power struggle, which—if the democratic player wins—can also result in regime change.

The game ends after ten turns, or when one player reaches 20 victory points.

The card-driven nature of 1989: Dawn of Freedom, in which the historical contents of the strategy cards help to drive both the game and its narrative, makes for immersive game play. The process by which power struggles are played out as a cardgame-within-the-card-driven-boardgame makes for nail-biting tension, even if the cards are really abstractions that—apart from the names of the “suits”—do not especially match with any actual political process. The rules are relatively straight-forward, and the rule book clear and easy to read.

I had two quibbles with the game, one minor, the other more substantial. My minor quibble related to the two possible operations a player can conduct, namely placing support points and undertaking support checks. While the former was clear enough (representing the organizational and mobilization efforts by the two sides as they seek to expand their power bases), it wasn’t clear to me what real-world process a “support check” was supposed to represent. It certainly wasn’t a clash with the opposing side, since it presented no material risks to the player undertaking it. Instead, it simply seemed to be a copy of the “realignment” operation that players can make in Twilight Struggle. I definitely would have preferred an operations choice that related to something the contending sides actually did (or perhaps even asymmetric options, different for each side).

My major quibble with the game was the way in which it models the domino effects of East European regime changes—or rather, the way it doesn’t. Toppling a regime may score you victory points and end further power struggles in that country, but it doesn’t have any particular effects on game play in the remaining communist countries. However, during the actual historical transformation of Eastern Europe, the “demonstration effect” of regime change in one country emboldened populations in other communist countries too, boosting their morale, weakening the deterrent effect of regime repression, and generally giving populations an expanded sense of new political possibilities.

Perhaps the designers didn’t want to create a runaway train effect, whereby the democratic player could establish unstoppable momentum by the mid-point of the game. However, in our game I found it a bit odd that successful revolutions in three communist countries had no discernible effects in the other three.

That having been said, 1989: Dawn of Freedom is certainly a very enjoyable game. Game play is interesting and nuanced. It is also immersive and exciting. 1989 is likely to become one of those games I frequently play, and I would certainly strongly recommend it to those interested in the genre or the subject matter.

Instructional Potential

This being PAXsims, we’re interested in more than just the game value of a game, however. What of the potential use of 1989: Dawn of Freedom in an educational setting? Here too my assessment is very positive.

The game plays relatively quickly (about three hours), and is relatively easy to learn. The historical description on the cards (expanded upon further in the rules) would certainly acquaint students/players with the key historical developments of this period. While two player games can be problematic with larger classes, the game could easily be adapted for team play in the way that we early suggested for GMT’s “global war on terror” game Labyrinth. Indeed, given the many similarities between the two games, much of what we have earlier suggested for using Labyrinth in the classroom (here and here) would equally apply to 1989.

  • Students could be asked to play the game through, and then write a critical evaluation (based on class readings, lectures, and outside research) of how it depicts the events and political dynamics associated with the fall of communism in Eastern Europe—much as one might write an academic book review. Such an assignment would challenge students to think critically about how the actual processes of repression and regime change might beset be captured within a set of game rules.
  • Students could be asked to suggest new rules or events (strategy cards), outline their proposed game effects, and justify these with reference to actual historical processes.
  • Students might be asked to play this and several other games of revolution and political change, and then design their own game of a completely different case.

As a scholar of the Arab world, I was particularly struck by the potential to use a modified version of the 1989 game system to design a game about the 2011-12 “Arab Spring.” There are many parallels between the two periods, especially with regard to the role of demonstration and domino effects. On the other hand, ongoing Arab political transformations were not occasioned by the declining power of a regional hegemon, unlike the pivotal role played by changing Soviet policy in the 1980s. Moreover, while the Arab Spring has involved East European-style mass protests in many cases (Tunisia, Egypt), it has also seen heavily militarized civil wars, with a degree of overt (Libya) or covert (Syria) external involvement. The transitional processes in some Arab countries (notably Libya and Yemen) are also even more uncertain than those Eastern Europe. Addressing those aspects in a game would require some substantial changes to the 1989 game system.

In short, 1989 could be used not only in teaching about the fall of communism, but also to generate some interesting educational and analytical perspectives into the decline and fall of regional authoritarian orders more broadly. Indeed, I may try using it in that way in a classroom setting during this coming academic year. If and when I do, I’ll certainly report the results back here as PAXsims!

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For further discussion of 1989: Dawn of Freedom, see the game listing, reviews, and forum at BoardGameGeek.

UPDATE: Also, game co-designer Ted Torgerson has offered some thoughtful responses to the points I raised in the review, so be sure to read the comments section too.

Review: Labyrinth

Labyrinth: The War on Terror, 2001- ?. GMT Games, 2010. Game designer: Volko Ruhnke. Game developer: Joel Toppen. $60.00

Before proceeding, I should note that I’m credited as one of this game’s playtesters. In fact, I was involved too late to have any input into the rules, and only offered a few comments on some of the card descriptions—hopefully, minimal enough involvement to  leave my objectivity intact in the review that follows.

Game Contents and Play

Labyrinth is a card-driven boardgame that depicts the post-2001 struggle between the United States and various radical Islamist jihadist groups. Designed for two players, it also has extensive rules to allow for easy solitaire play. Various scenarios are provided (starting immediately after the events of 9/11, shortly after the overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan, or with US intervention in Iraq), and the game can be played in “standard,” “tournament,” or “campaign” versions that provide games of between two and five hours or so. The high-quality contents included a mounted map of the world (or, at least, the parts of it represented in the game), wooden markers for jihadist cells and US troops, game counters, dice, rules and player aids, and the nicely illustrated deck of game cards.

The game system is somewhat similar to that of the Cold War boardgame Twilight Struggle, also published by GMT Games. In Labyrinth, the jihadist player recruits cells, travels from country to country, plots terrorist attacks (including those potentially involving weapons of mass destruction), and conducts operations designed to weaken and even overthrow Muslim governments. The US, for its part, conducts “war of ideas” operations intended to influence the alignment or governance of Muslim and other countries, deploys troops (and can even overthrow Islamist governments), disrupts jihadist cells and cadres, and mounts terror alerts designed to block plots-in-progress. The cards have various operations values assigned that enable these various activities. The cards also trigger historical events ranging from the Patriot Act to Somali Pirates to UN nation-building efforts that might affect US prestige, the positions or status of countries, jihadist cells/plots/funding, and other aspects of the game. (For a more detailed account of game mechanics, see the excellent review by Jeff McAleer at The Gaming Gang.)

The rules are straight-forward enough for an experienced gamer, although could be a little better organized in places. The player aids could also more effectively summarize key information on the requirements and effects of the various operations (although alternative versions designed by players have started to appear already on BoardGameGeek).

There are a variety of ways in which victory can be achieved. The US player can win instantly if s/he manages to shift a certain number of Muslim countries with a certain level of resources into “good governance,” if fifteen of the eighteen Muslim countries in the game have “fair” governance or better, or if all jihadist cells are eliminated. The jihadist player can win instantly if a certain number of countries with a certain level of resources fall under Islamist rule, if US prestige is low and fifteen Muslim countries have “poor” governance or are Islamist, or if a successful WMD plot is undertaken in the US. Otherwise, the winner is determined by the balance of resources controlled by Muslim governments with “good” governance versus those controlled by Islamist regimes at the end of the game. As game designer Volko Ruhnke notes in the design notes:

A particular design challenge with Labyrinth’s topic is that it straddles history recorded only recently and history yet to be made. What do the Islamists want—what is their “win” ? What does US victory look like? How will the contest end?

The game’s response to these questions—and its central premise—is that the “War on Terror” is really about governance of the Muslim world: that competent, accountable government will offer Islamic populations the future that they desire and thereby drain extremism of its energy. That jihadism roots in the abysmal quality of governance in many Muslim countries. And that global jihadists seek to take advantage of that poor governance to spur Muslim populations to opt for their version of Islamist rule. Labyrinth’s victory conditions, the way it tracks the status of countries in the conflict, and its core mechanics—jihadist operations in particular—seek to portray that premise.

In our first review game, the US intervened to overthrow the Taliban, and enjoyed surprising thereafter success in suppressing jihadist cells and stabilizing the new Afghan government. However, intervention also spurred Islamist recruitment, with the jihadists establish a new center of operations in the Red Sea area. The Somali government (such as it is) was almost overthrown, and only rescued by the deployment of US troops. The Yemeni government was overthrown by al-Qa’ida affiliates, but the new Islamist regime was toppled in turn by even more US intervention. US special forces and drone strikes whittled down some jihadist cells. Meanwhile, aid and reform efforts brought improvements in governance to a number of Muslim countries, finally resulting in a long-term US victory.

The second review game started with the US already in Afghanistan, battling the Taliban insurgency. To Washington’s horror, a string of jihadist successes led to the Islamist overthrow of the Pakistani government. While this was overturned by US troops, several Pakistani nuclear weapons went missing. Even as overstretched US forces fought to stabilize Afghanistan, Pakistan, and an increasingly unstable Indonesia, Washington also devoted growing resources to detecting and preventing terrorist plots. A planned nuclear attack against US facilities in Pakistan was blocked. WMD plots in France and the UK were also defeated. At the very end of the game, however, the jihadists obtained a virulent strain of the Marburg virus from a former Soviet bioweapons lab in Central Asia, and unleashed it against the US mainland—winning an automatic victory.

As both game summaries suggest, the course of recent and future history offered by Labyrinth is even more interventionist, violent, and spectacular than has been the real course of the post-9/11 “long war”. The game certainly addresses many of the so-called “low probability, high impact” threats that keep Western security officials awake at night, weaving these seamlessly into gameplay that also heavily emphasizes aid and diplomacy. The result isn’t entirely realistic, but it is enjoyable,  exciting, and engaging.

Instructional Potential

Labyrinth could certainly be integrated into university-level courses on post-9/11 security policy, insurgency, and counter-terrorism. Through playing the game, students could learn about the very real trade-offs that policy-makers face. Should resources be allocated to military action, to immediate counter-terrorism efforts, or to aid and diplomacy intended to address social and political environments that nourish radical jihadism in the longer term? What are the costs of adopting American courses of action that are out of synch with perceptions among allies or in the Western world? How might US domestic politics, events in other countries, and US  prestige and moral standing affect the prospects for strategic success? There also insights into radical Islamist movements to be gained, although these are perhaps more limited given that the jihadist “player” represents what in reality are a disparate array of groups with different aims, leaderships, and modes of action. Certainly the game highlights well such things as the demonstrative effects of terrorism; the difficulties of intervention, regime-change, and counterinsurgency; the ways in which violence can obstruct development; and the dangers posed by failed and failing states.

In suggesting that the game offers potential insights if used in an instructional setting, however, there are several important caveats that should be emphasized.

First, this is a sensitive topic. Students with differing ideological, ethnic, religious, or other viewpoints may perceive the game’s various portrayals in very different ways, not all of them positive. Students might well be outraged at “gaming” terrorism, violence, and repression. Students who have lost family or friends in the violence of 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq, or elsewhere might well find the game utterly offensive. (I, for example, lost two friends and colleagues in a terrorist attack depicted in one of the event cards—and while seeing it in a game didn’t bother me, it certainly might bother others.)

Second, while the game designer has worked hard to provide fair and objective descriptions of actors, events, and processes, there is certainly a considerable amount of simplification involved of various complex aspects of politics and religion. A course instructor would want to emphasize where the game has not (and could not) given detailed treatment of these complexities, and perhaps even use it as a launching pad for examining these topics in far more detail that Labyrinth would allow. A course instructor might also want to explore how the political, military, aid, and policy processes in the game differ from their real-life counterpart.

The final caveat, as seemingly with all of our boardgame reviews at PaxSims, concerns whether non-gaming students will easily be able to grasp the rules. I suspect most wouldn’t, and indeed would soon find themselves frustrated trying to work out how to play. The problem isn’t that the game is extremely complex (indeed, GMT Games rates it as medium-low complexity) or that the rules are opaque (they’re adequate), but rather that games like these aren’t intended for two neophytes to pick up and simply start playing. Rather, they work best with at least one experienced gamer helping to tutor the less experienced. In a classroom setting, therefore, one might best use the game for team play, with a proficient facilitator helping each team to understand its gameplay options. Using the game in this way could have the additional benefit of creating internal policy debates among participants as to threats, opportunities, priorities, and where best to focus scarce resources.

Concluding Thoughts

While the rules and player aids could be a little more effective, and while I could quibble about some of the politics and descriptions, it should be said that Labyrinth is an excellent game. I enjoyed playing it a great deal, and I heartily recommend it for gamers interested in the contemporary issues and era that it explores. Taking into account the caveats noted above—and with particular attention devoted to explaining, contextualizing, and facilitating it in the classroom—I also think it could also be used in some interesting and useful ways in some instructional settings.

UPDATE: Tom Grant has an excellent (and very critical) review of Labyrinth at the blog I’ve Been Diced, which has spurred a long thread of subsequent comments at BoardGameGeek. Most of his objections focus on the way in which complex political processes have been both conceptualized and rendered in the game, and—without changing any of my own views expressed above—I agree with him on many of these. That being said, I would suggest that :

  • From a gaming perspective, fitting a global strategic campaign into a two hour playable boardgame made much of this inevitable. Plus it’s a fun game, dammit.
  • The game’s focus on the stability of fragile regimes, terrorist plots, perceived global Islamist conspiracies, and “low probability, high impact” threats like WMD terrorist does reflect views that are quite commonly found in the security, intelligence, and diplomatic communities.
  • From an instructional perspective, the shortcomings in the game’s portrayal of various processes provides useful “teachable moments”—reinforcing my caveats above about properly briefing, debriefing, and contextualizing the game with students.

UPDATE 2: It occurred to me after writing this review, in the context of discussion of it at BoardGameGeek, that the card-driven nature of Labyrinth lends itself particularly well to modification. This in turn has potential instructional value too.

Feel that the game poorly models the underlying dynamics of Islamist grievance, counter-terrorism, or counter-insurgency? Simply design an additional or replacement card that addresses what you think is missing: the localized nature of many Islamist grievances, factionalism, the rentier use of oil revenues to secure domestic political support, bureaucratic politics within and between US government agencies, the negative impact of drone attacks on public opinion, or whatever. In the classroom, students who have played through the game might well be asked to suggest what cards they would design, and what game effects these would have—an assignment that would encourage them to prioritize their analytical concerns and think about how to model this without requiring that they design an entire political-military simulation from scratch.

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