Some experiences are hard to imagine as microgames. The COIN Series, for instance. The most recent volume, Pendragon, can run for up to five hours, and that’s provided everybody understands the rules. Distilling the essence of something so dense into nine cards and a few dice has all the madness of compressing an entire brewery into a single squirt of breath spray.
Yet that’s precisely what Laurie Phillips did for his entry into the 2018 9-Card Nanogame Print and Play Design Contest. And all because of a killer history pun.
It was only a century after Julius Caesar first invaded Britain when Boudica, queen to the recently deceased Prasutagus, launched a massive rebellion. While the local governor was off on campaign elsewhere, multiple tribes rose against their overlords. Soon, the Romans found themselves hampered on every side. Colonies were razed to the ground, the responding legion was routed, and Emperor Nero considered a full withdrawal.
Yadda yadda yadda. The point is, The Coin Tribes’ Revolt: Boudica’s Rebellion Against Rome takes its name from two sources. The COIN Series, obviously. But also the famously extensive coinage of the Iceni — the tribe of Boudica. Those guys loved their coins.
See? I told you it was a killer pun. Somewhere out there, a bespectacled nerd just shuddered in ecstasy.
Meanwhile, Laurie Phillips’ miniaturization of the COIN Series feels shockingly complete. There’s the novel initiative system, in which only two players act each round. In this case, rather than being dictated by an event card, everybody rolls a die to determine their standing, then the first and second players select their boxes and take their actions. Sometimes you’ll want to take a powerful double action with a bonus maneuver — say, marching into a region and constructing a fort — while other times you’ll want to take advantage of an event. And, as has always been a hallmark of the series, you’d do well to consider what your selection permits the next player to accomplish. Sometimes it pays to take it slow, thereby limiting what the next guy can do.
And then, of course, there’s the asymmetry. Each of the game’s four sides come to the table with their own strengths, actions, and goals. The Romans are slow to build momentum but unstoppable once they get going, and hope to earn local support in order to quell any further revolts in the region. They’re opposed most fervently by the Iceni, who love burning cities and giving speeches that convince other tribes to join in on the vandalism. The Trinovantes are all about establishing control and rebuilding the bases they lost to the Romans previously, while the neutral-ish Catuvellauni just want to have enormous armies and tracts of land once the dust settles.
In the cramped quarters of southeastern Britannia, everybody is soon at knife-point, hoping to strike for victory right as one of the game’s reckonings arrives. But while reckonings are guaranteed to occur every few rounds, they may arrive early thanks to a lucky roll. Because of this, the whole game is strung with catapult-like tension; you want to be close to winning, but never so close that you’re the target of everybody’s combined ire. Far better to spring across the finish line at precisely the right moment — it’s just that you can’t know exactly when that will be.
Okay, okay, so it captures the essence of a COIN game. What’s the rub?
For one thing, the limitations of the 9-Card Nanogame Contest present considerable difficulties. Because the contest only permitted eighteen “components” beyond the cards themselves, each faction is stuck with only three dice on the map. At first this might not seem like a problem. After all, every COIN game has also forced players to work with a limited set of pieces. But dice represent both armies and bases, and factions who require both in order to thrive may find themselves arbitrarily hamstrung.
Furthermore, the other thing that seems to have been faithfully translated from the COIN Series is a certain level of mechanical ambiguity. How much of an action must you take in order to sway the local population’s support? Do bases fight in battles? For that matter, what exactly is a “unit”? Most of these questions are minor until suddenly an entire turn hinges on them, and not every answer seems readily available.
Here’s the thing. A huge proportion of microgames fall into some variation of the same trap, where they’re aping greatness without truly capturing it. By calling to mind something bigger (and probably better), they often inadvertently raise the question, Why am I not just playing that bigger, better thing? Brevity may be admirable, but it’s painfully overrated. If you disagree, by all means continue enjoying many brisk rounds of Tic Tac Toe.
To some extent, the same can be said of The Coin Tribes’ Revolt. It captures the form of COIN — the initiative system, the events, the asymmetry — without fully bottling the primary reasons that the series has garnered such a following. Namely, the sweep of history, the way small changes can generate tremendous waves over time, the arc.
But while it would be easy to dismiss this as yet another empty-headed microgame, nothing could be further from the truth. In spite of some tactical missteps, it’s a faithful homage and rather delightful to play, with its conflict forcing tough decisions at every turn and hardly easing up for a single second. If on the one hand it sports all the form but none of the function of a COIN game, it surely boasts much of the muscle but very little of the fat. In slimming down to nine cards, it has made itself a lean, wiry thing.
At the very least, fans of the series will get a kick out of the way it compresses Volko Ruhnke’s system into your back pocket. Personally, I’ll be using it to introduce some of the COIN Series’ core concepts in a lower-stress environment. You can find the files to print it yourself over here.
(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign. If you print off my monthly newsletter, you can even pretend that it’s a print-and-play game that we have designed together.)