COIN Volume I: Colombian Conflagration

My money's on the guy with the airplane.

Space-Biff! has been quieter than usual over the past couple weeks. Apologies. Couldn’t be helped. After all, I’ve been devoting most of my board gaming attention to figuring out Volko Ruhnke’s formidable COIN Series, which, if you haven’t heard of these behemoths, are all about insurgency and counterinsurgency — guerrilla warfare, hearts and minds, that sort of thing — and they’re endlessly and utterly compelling. The first volume, for instance, is called Andean Abyss, a four-way conflict over the jungles, mountains, and cities of Colombia, and it’s possibly one of the most thrilling, deep, and disheartening board games I’ve ever experienced.

Not so much in this picture, but somewhere sometimes they struggle.

Government forces (blue) struggle to maintain control.

The only problem is that, much like the rules of the game itself, explaining Andean Abyss is sort of like trying to nail down where a circle begins. Not only is it rather involved (despite the rules not being all that lengthy), but each of its four factions are also largely asymmetrical, to the point that each one plays almost like an entirely different game. They’ve got their own sets of actions, styles, strategies. Their own goals.

For instance, take the Government. As the game opens, they’re all but locked into Colombia’s cities and LoCs — Lines of Communication, in COIN-speak, which is so gleefully riddled with acronyms that it’s often shortened to CNSPK — with a single military strongpoint in the mountains and a beleaguered handful of troops and police ready to spring into action. They’re besieged from all sides by rebels, even from within. There’s room for growth, but to where? To the forested coastline and its ample cover for insurgent activities? Into the Cartel-run city of Cali? Up the guerrilla-protecting mountains? Airlifted into the Amazon? The only way for the Government to take firm control of the country is by spreading its popular support outside of its original territories, but that’s kind of like saying the only way to win is to poke a nest of vipers with your tongue.

And no matter what you choose, Andean Abyss is going to punish you for it. Your soldiers might descend on a guerrilla base with God’s own wrath, but your time in the jungle means they can pressure you elsewhere. You might shore up the defenses of Bogota, but that means you’ve just left that stretch of pipeline exposed — and sure, that’s a fun double entendre and all, but I really mean you’ve left an oil pipeline unprotected and the rebels are going to bomb it. Good job, champ.

As the Government, your entire world will revolve around those excruciating tradeoffs. Stamp out one enemy faction and another will flourish. Shore up one weakness and two others will appear. Pursue your agendas and everyone will pounce on you, very possibly with a bunch of terrorist strikes. Should have protected that pipeline.

This is sort of a bad move. Guerrillas should fight like guerrillas until they're in a position of strength.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC, in red) are on the rise!

While the Government struggles to set up infrastructure and protect it, on the other side of the coin (pun alert!) you’ve got the FARC rebels, a Marxist uprising that’s sort of missed its window of opportunity, what with the collapse of the Soviet Union and all. But what they lack in support, they make up for in enthusiasm.

The ebb and flow of the action in Andean Abyss is generally set by the struggle between these two, as both are bent on manipulating popular support to their favor in order to control the country. In pretty much every other detail, however, they couldn’t be more different.

For one thing, while the Government’s police and military are stomping around, the FARC (and by extension the other two guerrilla factions) are destined to tiptoe. One of their best strengths is secrecy, so their troops can either be underground or active, either safely hidden from or vulnerable to the Government’s vastly superior forces. Staying out of sight lets them take all sorts of actions, from terrorism to ambushes, but invariably those actions give away your location. Life as a FARC guerrilla, then, is to strike some sort of balance. You need money, but can you risk sending that squad to extort the local villagers when reports of their activities will suddenly become known to the Government? Instead, should you sabotage that highway to restrict the movements of police through their own corrupt empire, despite the risk that the same police would then know where to look for you?

Military actions as the FARC require a lot of push-pull, as you send out waves of guerrillas, slipping them past Government patrols in small enough numbers not to raise suspicion, only to strike and retreat back to their safehouses. And heaven forbid you treat your fighters like an actual military — they’d be shredded in minutes. Better to keep them hidden and think of yourself like a force of nature: your goal is to erode, not to smash.

And very well, it appears. The FARC player must not care much about building bases.

The United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC, in yellow) target the FARC.

The third faction, the paramilitary AUC, illustrates some of what’s best with Andean Abyss. This is an alliance of landowners who’ve had it up to here (I’m pointing to my third nipple, just below my collarbone) with the anti-ownership activities of the FARC. So they’ve banded together, stockpiled some guns, and now they’re out for blood — as what usually amounts to a pro-government army. This is cool and great for the Government! Wherever the police and military can’t easily reach, the AUC can, traveling into the jungles and mountains and wiping out enemy guerrillas without all that pesky “confirm before you kill” crap the bureaucrats in Bogota have to fret over. And when they aren’t killing FARCers, they’re probably killing members of the game’s fourth faction, the Cartels.

However, the AUC isn’t resigned to working under the Government forever. They’ve got some ideas of their own, see. And if they can get big enough to supplant FARC, they just might be big enough to chew the whole tamale at once. Which means their allegiance isn’t quite as straightforward as it might originally sound. While they’ll usually work in tandem with the Government, there are times when the AUC will cooperate with the Cartels. There are even a few times they’ll band together with the FARC. It’s complicated. The Government might get fed up with AUC and start hunting them down — after all, whenever the AUC sows a little terror of their own, the good old USA takes note and blames the Government, decreasing the foreign aid that trickles into the country.

This is possibly my favorite thing about Andean Abyss. Allegiances are never assured, and any of the four factions could be fighting bitterly one turn, only to set aside their differences the next to take down a newly-discovered common enemy. It’s Lobster Bucket: The Game, with one faction clawing its way towards the top of the cage, only to get dragged down and have one of its pincers lopped off for the trouble.

Yay for drugs!

The Cali Cartel grows drugs and gets rich. That’s it.

Lastly, you’ve got the Cartels, deliciously free of the political shackles that restrict everyone else. Both the FARC and the AUC struggle to recruit in regions that don’t support them, but the Cartels just hire mercenaries wherever they damn well please. And since their goal is to plant a bunch of grow-fields and make lots of money, they thrive on chaos, sending gifts of cash and drug shipments to whoever they’ve decided to ally with that turn, and bribing away the armies of their enemies instead of bothering to fight them. If guerrilla warfare is considered unfair by conventional forces, these are the guys that are considered unfair by the guerrillas.

As a history geek, I can't help but read each card's in-manual historical description as we play. We might as well LEARN while we're killing each other.

Card-driven, though not in the way you might expect.

And that’s Andean Abyss in a nutshell: four factions constantly at each other’s throats, the very real possibility that the game will end without anyone having actually won (a distressing parallel to real-life counterinsurgency efforts), and lots of simmering resentments at dozens of constantly redrawn alliances.

The system that governs the entire thing is simple enough at its core, a card-driven wargame that, instead of giving each player a hand of cards, presents just two at a time. Players scramble to take advantage of the current card and gauge which ones they can afford to skip, since only two of the four players can act on any one card. It’s one of those rare games where choosing when not to act is often as profound as the moves you make.

However, for all its depth and brilliance, Andean Abyss is still a difficult game to recommend without a few words of caution, mostly because this sort of payoff requires a significant investment. In addition to at least a six hour playtime, it can be a real pain to get a handle on. Unlike most other games, teaching the rules isn’t as straightforward as having one person read the rules and then teaching them as you play. Instead, every player must have a fairly comprehensive grasp of all the available actions and what their consequences are. And it can be difficult to instill that into a group not acquainted with heavier games, because as soon as you explain one thing, you’ll need to explain two others in order to clarify the rule you just taught, and around and around it goes. Just explaining that the Government can eradicate a Cartel grow-field, but it will raise Opposition — “Wait wait wait,” someone interrupts. “What’s opposition again?”

Like that. Many times over.

Ten space pennies to whomever can explain what's going on here. Be brief, concise, and exhaustively descriptive.

Utter chaos, both within Bogota and without.

Now, none of that last paragraph is intended to discourage you from giving Andean Abyss a try — on the contrary, it’s a phenomenal experience, educational and enlightening on one side, and tight and thrilling on the other. I can say without reservation that it’s one of the most compelling games I’ve played this year, if ever.

However, in a few weeks we’re going to take a look at the second volume in the COIN Series, which if you’re curious is probably the better entry point to this ambitious game system.

Still. It’s set in exotic Colombia, offers some of the best alliance-rending dilemmas out there, and you can play as the amoral ringleader of the Cartels. I know exactly how enticing all that sounds because I’ve been there too, so I understand if you have no choice but to check out Andean Abyss right this very instant.

Posted on April 9, 2014, in Board Game and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. I’ve been wanting to get into Volko Ruhnke’s games for a while, but I’m concerned about the difficulty of getting one of his four player COIN games to the table. Have you played “Labyrinth: The War on Terror, 2001-?”? If so, do you think there is enough similarity between it and his COIN games to use it as a sort of introduction to Volko’s work as a whole? I feel like, being two player, it would be easier to get to the table, and once I’ve played it with several people, and they’ve become comfortable with with the mechanics, I could introduce “A Distant Plain”.

    • I haven’t played Labyrinth, so I really have no idea. One of the cool things about the COIN games though is that you can run most (any?) of the factions on autopilot, so players can even drop in and out as necessary, and the game takes over. I haven’t tried it myself, but I hear the “AI” provides a stiff enough challenge that you won’t actually need the full four players.

  2. Spot on — this game is excellent, but the better point of entry to COIN has to be Cuba Libre. Half as long to play, cleaner rules, the tricky-to-track LoCs (lines of communication) are completely removed, and the map is less than half the size too.

  3. Oh man, this sounds SO rad.

  4. I’ve been thinking of getting into the COIN series for a while now. If I’m familiar with wargames, would you say wait for your Cuba Libre and A Distant Plain reviews before taking the plunge, or just jump straight into Andean Abyss?

  5. It’s spelled Colombia. Two Os and no U

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