Abstracts Get Political: Guerrilla Checkers
Welcome back to Abstracts Get Political, the only series that looks at how abstract board games can make ideological points even in the absence of a strong setting! Last time we looked at Suffragetto, a game from over a century ago that served as both an optimistic statement on the winnability of the women’s suffrage movement and a source of funding for the same. Today we’re going in the opposite direction by investigating a title that’s more cynical about the concept of “winning” altogether — Brian Train’s Guerrilla Checkers.
Brian Train is a household name in Château de Thurot, mostly for his work on the COIN Series. With titles such as A Distant Plain and Colonial Twilight in his portfolio, he’s an old hand at modeling asymmetric warfare. But where Train’s other games have considered issues of geography, ethnicity, and even competing notions of “victory,” Guerrilla Checkers reduces the concept to its most essential. Namely, that winning at guerrilla warfare is an issue of stamina.
There’s no mistaking Guerrilla Checkers for anything other than an abstract game. In place of colored cubes and clipped counters, it’s playable with items you probably have lying around the house, blobs of glass or buttons or rolled-up dryer lint. You won’t find any unit designations or combat strengths here. Nor will you be parsing the merits of geography. Chances are you have something suitable tucked away in a closet, one of those eight-by-eight grids that have proved so versatile for hundreds of years.
But even though Guerrilla Checkers isn’t a meditation on any one specific conflict, its opening arrangement is unmistakable. One player — the COIN player, for “counterinsurgency” — has six pieces arranged across the middle of a playing field that’s conspicuously absent of foes. It calls to mind news snippets of Kabul in early 2002 or Baghdad in May 2003. The invader has emerged victorious. Lee Greenwood throatily proclaims “I’m proud to be an American.” Pundits pat each other on the back about how the opposing force didn’t bother to show up.
Except the opposing force did show up. They’re right there, stacked along the sidelines. An entire pile of them, far more numerous than those six triumphant regime-busters. One storm may be finished, but another is already smearing the horizon scarlet.
From there, both sides engage in a contest of asymmetric warfare. The insurgent spills onto the grid with worrying speed, sticking to the intersections between squares and trying to entrap their better-equipped rivals in ambushes. In response, the COIN faction sweeps up the mess wherever it appears, often eliminating two, three, a half-dozen insurgent cells at once. Their commonality is a single goal: elimination.
I’ve written in the past about my dislike of attrition as a goal in abstract games. To sum up my complaint, victory via attrition too often comes down to nickel-and-diming your opponent to death, an exchange of tit for tat rather than a series of shrewd maneuvers. It’s little surprise that my favorite abstract games can be won even when I’ve been reduced to the smaller army.
Guerrilla Checkers moves in the opposite direction, with both sides intending to drive the other player from the table entirely. There is no alternative. No king to checkmate, no end zone to sneak into. But this is entirely appropriate given the game’s subject matter. If anything, that focus on nothing but eradication is the very appeal of Guerrilla Checkers, especially because both factions are burdened by dual considerations. It isn’t enough to understand your own moves; to succeed, you also need to settle into your rival’s mindset and then preempt it. How do you defeat an enemy whose force composition is wildly different from yours? An enemy who thinks differently than you do? There’s a reason Train’s rules recount advice from Mao Zedong. Your enemy’s momentum can be used to defeat them, if only you’ll learn how.
It works like this. The insurgent player places two pieces each turn, with the caveat that they need to be strung adjacent to other insurgents. It isn’t long before the board is latticed with guerrilla cells. But capturing a COIN troop is a tall order, requiring that it be surrounded on all four corners. Because of this limitation, every successful ambush is the result of multiple steps. One possibility is to surround more than one troop with a single move — thus requiring the COIN player to make a judgement call about which to sacrifice. Your insurgents can also wedge themselves in between adjacent troops, granting temporary reprieve thanks to the COIN player’s unwillingness to resort to friendly fire. And then there’s the possibility of drawing troops toward the edge of the board, where you’ll only need two insurgents to pull off a capture. After all, ambushes are easier when your occupied country has neighbors willing to harbor your insurgents.
Each of these possibilities is interrupted by the threat of the COIN player launching a total rampage. A single troop can hop over an entire string of adjacent insurgents, altering the board state in dramatic fashion. But the prospect of sweeping scads of enemies off the table is dizzying, even intoxicating, and cannot be interrupted as long as there’s another piece waiting to be captured. It isn’t uncommon to deposit your troops onto unsure footing, whether pressed up against the edge of the map or leaving an ally vulnerable to retribution.
This contest is surprisingly involved despite its simplicity. The insurgent player must evaluate how and where to deploy their guerrillas, when to sacrifice many to ensnare a few, and how to bring the jaws of their trap closed before they run out of manpower. The COIN player, meanwhile, is attempting to clear the board while exhibiting that rarest of all virtues, restraint.
For all these subtleties, Guerrilla Checkers always returns to that overriding goal. Nothing ends until one side is totally exhausted, their pieces spent, their presence nullified. Anything else is a fantasy. This is the game’s core statement, a reminder that the war won’t end by Christmas, that the visual of six triumphant troops in the middle of an empty field is not the conclusion but the beginning. We aren’t playing a war game. We’re playing an occupation game. Those are always longer and harder. And like it or not, there’s no substitution for sheer endurance.
Not bad for a checkerboard, a page of rules, and some rolled-up lint.
Tired of war? Next time we’ll be talking about peace.
Brian Train was kind enough to hand-craft a complimentary copy of Guerrilla Checkers for me. You can see it in the first two images up above.