Satyagraha: The Board Game

For some reason I really like the shade of tan they use on this box.

The ninth volume of the long-running COIN Series, Bruce Mansfield’s Gandhi: The Decolonization of British India, steps into a setting that likely needs no introduction. What may need clarification is the ways in which it stands apart from the remainder of the series — and how it remains locked in orbit.

"Is that Florida?" —my friend without his glasses. Look, even without your glasses, that isn't Florida. Also, I told you the title of the game, so

Here is India, the jewel in the crown of the British Empire.

For those unfamiliar with Volko Ruhnke’s COIN Series, let me give you the gist by asking a question: how do you model modern warfare? No, I’m not talking about tanks and planes, although such expressions of force are obviously a component. Rather, I’m talking about occupations, insurgencies, and revolutions. I’m talking about a few men with bombs, largely inseparable from the civilian populace, able to move in secret to destroy a bridge or checkpoint, and therefore capable of stymieing an army many times their size, training, and outfitting.

Rather than portraying conflicts as symmetrical, with easily delineated sides deploying similar armies to the field, the COIN Series is all about modeling disproportion — and how size is no guarantor of which side emerges victorious. It’s about explaining how a juggernaut might be thrown into quagmire by upstarts, how an established regime is sapped of authority until it crumbles, how a thorn can lodge into the lion’s paw until it poses less danger than an overfed kitten. It’s about David and Goliath. Except the winner intends to send the remainder of their opponent’s supporters to reeducation camps.

Also there's a puma, I think.

The fundamentals of the COIN Series are present and untampered with.

There are a few crucial hallmarks of the COIN Series. The first is that aforementioned asymmetry. The second is the way it handles events and player interaction. In brief, every round opens with an event. Plucking some examples off the top of the Gandhi deck on the table beside me, players might be presented with the Akali Movement uniting the Sikh population or the controversial declaration of an Independence Day. From there, the game’s factions are allowed to capitalize upon this event or ignore it as they go about the business of shaping their nation into something closer to their personal ideal — or even suppressing the event by temporarily sacrificing some of their potential momentum.

But factions don’t only exist to impede one another. All but one of the current volumes in the series feature four factions, each with their own goals. Only one can ultimately win. Even when two sides are closely allied, like the Afghan Government and international Coalition in A Distant Plain, the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army in Fire in the Lake, or even the colonial revolutionaries and French of Liberty or Death, the ideologies underpinning these forces are divergent enough that only one can emerge fully victorious. Still, as the old maxim goes, The enemy of my enemy is my very temporary, testy, and dissatisfied friend. So it goes in the COIN Series. Even the bitterest of enemies can find common ground when faced with annihilation.

Until Gandhi, the series preoccupied itself with such ideas. Annihilation. Collapse. Overthrow. Force meets force. Oppression versus terrorism. Even the name of the series is bound up in the idea of eradication. You can’t have COIN without counterinsurgency.

What sets Gandhi apart is its appeal to nonviolence. Not that the conflict for Indian independence can be free of violence entirely. Far from it. Men will be beaten and imprisoned. Uprisings will flare hot enough to burn and kill. Civil war is a looming specter. But apart from such threats stands the principle of satyagraha, Mahatma Gandhi’s doctrine of force through truth and nonviolence. For the first time in the COIN Series, such a strategy is possible at all.

The Delhi faction pursues the goal of making Young Dan think their country really values sliced meats.

Each of the four factions pursues its own goals.

Here’s the lay of the land.

By the time the game opens — either in 1917 or 1930 depending on scenario — the British Raj is firmly entrenched in Indian governance. The East India Company began its rule in 1757, and the Crown assumed control from them in 1858. Apart from nominal independence granted to a few princes, there are British troops in the cities and loyal sepoys everywhere else. There’s no such thing as “remembering a time before” the Raj. For the most part, their goals are as predictable as the sun never setting upon their empire: keep the railways clear and the taxes flowing, sow loyalty when it doesn’t cost too much, crack down with martial law when it does. And maybe put an end to this whole independence fad.

Opposed to the British Raj stand three factions. And when I say opposed, I mean it. More than in most COIN volumes, there’s an immediate need for these factions to recognize the precariousness of their situation. The Raj isn’t merely entrenched; it’s relatively popular, at least at the outset.

Then again, at least one of these opposing factions isn’t too worried about popularity. These are the Revolutionaries, an amalgamation of multiple violent Indian organizations bent on ousting the British Raj. These are your traditional COIN insurgents, defaulting to the usual bombs and riots. Their pieces are often face-down — “inactive” — meaning they’re free to lurk across the countryside and even sneak into poorly-policed cities, disguised among the populace and immune to assault. The government can root them out, but this is a time-consuming and sometimes costly process, first requiring them to be revealed and later gunned down. Sometimes only that first step is necessary; because they trade primarily in secrecy, the Revolutionaries require hidden agents. Once revealed, they’ll have to slink back into the shadows before they can bomb or assassinate or incite violence against their rivals.

The other two factions pursue their goals through the nonviolent approach. The more recognizable is the faction of Gandhi, the Indian National Congress. They dream of a united, independent India, and are willing to risk imprisonment or bodily harm to see it come to fruition. Adjacent to them is the Muslim League, who have a similar dream except for a separate Muslim state of their own.

"What do we want? More oars!"

Protests are essential to the nonviolent approach of both Congress and the Muslim League.

These two factions — Congress and League — hold much in common. Rather than tiptoeing through the shadows to deliver bombs and bullets to opportune targets, their agitators are civilians and their goals are laid bare. This tendency toward public demonstrations quickly sets them apart. When either faction wants to sway public opinion away from the Raj and toward their sympathies, they hold public protests. Activists converge upon a location, a demonstration is organized, all their pieces are flipped up for the entire world to witness, and across weeks and months they seek to outnumber their opposition, weathering influxes of troops and sepoys or even rival agents, and gradually wearing down the resolve of the British until either the local populace is on their side or concessions are made.

Of all the relationships in Gandhi, this is the one that most resembles that of a dysfunctional marriage. The National Congress hopes to spread opposition far and wide; the League also wants opposition, but primarily in designated Muslim provinces in order to form breakaway states. But both have the power to dig at the other, cutting deals with the Raj in order to secure their own ends. It’s a bit akin to being in a tug-of-war against a gorilla, except you’re pulling left while your teammate keeps pulling right.

This emphasis on protests has dual effects. The first is a dynamic not found anywhere else in the COIN Series. Raj troops and sepoys are trapped in protesting regions, unable to leave and therefore unable to suppress problems elsewhere. It’s tempting to crack down, but martial law breeds the type of unrest that Revolutionaries thrive upon. Arrests offer a lighter touch, but they’re jagged propositions in their own right. The Raj needs to guard and feed anyone it imprisons, draining their resources over time. Further, arresting Gandhi actively spurs further protest. Far better to wait until the National Congress has overplayed its hand and can’t benefit from the groundswell of public furor that comes from arresting the nation’s Bapu.

The other effect is that Gandhi’s more artificial elements are sometimes outed. It’s always been the case with the COIN Series that the historical flavor can find itself upstaged by the particulars of each op’s requirements and effects, and that’s no different here. In this case, a Revolutionary attack removes enemy pieces; but so too do the Congress and League’s attempts at persuasion. In both cases rival pieces are removed, whether sent home or “sent home” in the eternal sense. The only difference is whether the mode of their transmission was a bullet or a sound argument. It’s your choice whether to buy into such distinctions.

Looks like America. /not as sarc as I'd like it to be

The Unity and Restraint tracks offer the possibility of social breakdown.

Other niggles creep into the design. Railways crisscross India and require entire paragraphs of rules, but they’re hardly utilized. The ability to strike on railways to hamper the Raj economy is well and good. But when the tokens for strikes are painfully limited — and furthermore when they’re double-sided with Revolutionary unrest tokens — the entire possibility feels like a side goal rather than a main objective. Meanwhile, factions are less likely to wheel and deal because only the Raj and Revolutionaries ever worry about funding. Despite multiple ways to strike a bargain with Gandhi, there’s no instance in which you can offer him a plush bribe at the precise moment that the National Congress has gone broke. That’s a shame.

The alternative, at least, makes for one of the game’s most interesting systems. At the top of the board is a track that measures India’s unity and restraint. The first, unity, accounts for how well the country’s Hindus and Muslims are getting along, while restraint represents the decreasing control of the Raj — and therefore the British Crown’s increasing willingness to invest in retaining control of the country.

This unassuming track quickly establishes itself as the beating or bleeding soul of India. Rather than spending money to conduct operations — the rallies, demonstrations, and acts of civil disobedience that are Congress and the League’s lifeblood — both instead take as many actions as these tracks permit. The number of protests the country can endure is similarly gated, although bases of support and Gandhi himself can get involved to let their factions bypass these limitations. Spiraling outward, other factions soon find themselves involved. The British Raj normally pays sepoys prohibitive amounts of cash to take action, but this cost decreases as the country slides out of British control. Similarly, it becomes easier for the Revolutionaries to foster unrest as unity falls.

The result is deliciously uncomfortable, both rewarding and threatening factions for both balance and imbalance. As Gandhi, your protests gradually chip away at national unity, therefore letting you start even more protests — but push too hard and the British can crush your gatherings with cheap sepoys. As the Muslim League, decreased unity galvanizes your people, but also increases the prospect of the Revolutionaries turning your Muslim constituents against your Hindu countrymen. You want people clamoring for a better life, not slaughtering each other in the streets.

Take that Michael O'Dwyer. I've never even heard of you.

As always, the deck allows for a wide range of historical events.

Yet that’s what awaits India at the bottom of both tracks. When unity and restraint have both plummeted, India is pushed to the brink of civil war and everyone gains new options to reflect this turbulence. More martial law from the Raj, easier protests from Congress, rapid breakaway states from the Muslim League, and the Revolutionaries — well, the Revolutionaries take advantage of the chaos to prompt open discord between the usually-nonviolent factions.

This imbues Gandhi with an arc that’s both fascinating to engage with and a bit on-rails. Whenever a campaign round comes around — when certain cards pause the regular action to check for victory, award resources, and prepare for another half-decade of struggling for the identity of India — the track veers ever closer to crisis. Although nothing is guaranteed, this is probably the most the COIN Series has ever enforced a narrative, nudging India’s situation toward total (if temporary) deterioration.

Not that this is a bad thing. In fact, it’s one of the reasons why the shorter scenario is superior to the longer campaign. Rather than dragging on, starting in 1930 practically guarantees you’ll witness multiple stages of Indian independence, from Raj dominance to the anyone-could-win middle act, all the way to a terrifying and chaotic endgame that breeds strange rivalries and stranger bedfellows. Gandhi and the Raj team up to curtail violence? The Muslim League forfeits their independent state to spite the government? The Revolutionaries turn their violence on Congress itself? These moments are the COIN Series in fine form, stretching the boundaries of the possible without ever quite snapping them.

Apparently nobody cares how Bihar feels about The Issues.

To get a sense for both the strengths and weaknesses of the COIN system, parse this at a glance.

The COIN Series has always fought a similar insurgency of its own, warring between its desire to explore history and its need to simulate asymmetric warfare. At best these are educational tools; at worst they’re subsumed by persnickety rules and the strain of keeping track of four sides.

In that regard, Gandhi is both shackled by the constraints of its genre and an evolution, albeit a lateral one. The obvious highlight is nonviolence, which is handled brilliantly. The series has always excelled at portraying clashes of ideology; for the first time, Gandhi presents a clash of philosophy, one that argues that force isn’t necessarily replied with force, at least not as we understand it. A redefinition is in order. A revolution of thought embodied by Mahatma Gandhi’s satyagraha itself, wherein force can be something radical without being a bomb or a cudgel.

Put another way, right as I began to tire of this series, Gandhi proves there’s more to explore. Its footing isn’t entirely even, but Mansfield has done something considerable with his fraught subject matter. Consider me refreshed.


(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign or Ko-fi.)

A complimentary copy was provided.

Posted on July 23, 2019, in Board Game and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Great review, Dan. Thank you.

  2. Thank you for the analysis, much appreciated! I’ll hopefully soon find some time to explore it, at first as a solo game. I’ve only opened the box.

    The less bloody implementation of COIN is what interested me. Many view “Fire in the lake”, and probably rightfully so, one of the best. Sure I’m interested in history, but the Vietnam war is so insane that I’ve no interest in having fun playing a board game about it.

    • I tend to feel that board games can represent difficult topics, especially when evaluating systems or institutions. But that doesn’t mean every game will be a good fit for every player. One of the things I appreciate about this volume of the COIN Series is that it touches upon some hard conversations — about the nature of social change, about your recourse against a popular oppressor, about whether violence is necessary to suppress rival ideologies — but still manages to highlight the value of nonviolent resistance as a worthwhile method of protest. It still contains bombs and bullets, of course, but it’s encouraging that those aren’t portrayed as the only ways to transform the world for the better.

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