Set Another One Afire

This Art: Better than the Pendragon Art. Any Art: Better than the Pendragon Art.

One of the things I value about the COIN Series, which stepped onto the scene back in 2012 with Volko Ruhnke’s Andean Abyss, is its ability to fill in the gaps of history. The Finnish Civil War was a bloody three-month conflict that left lingering scars for decades, yet it’s one of those wars that’s usually only mentioned in passing, more notable for how it impacted the foreign policies of its larger neighbors, especially Germany and Russia, rather than for the sovereign republic it ultimately birthed.

No longer! As the tenth volume in the Coin Series, All Bridges Burning is the first published design by VPJ Arponen. Never mind that. His confidence with the subject matter is evident in the game’s finest details. I’d even go so far as to call this one of the series’ most radical entries.

I love how the map's stark tones emphasize the cold and the expanse of the setting.

Preparing for the coming war.

Before we dive into the particulars of All Bridges Burning, let’s follow tradition by introducing the game’s conflict and how Arponen chooses to represent it.

First things first: Because the game opens in 1917, you probably have a good idea of the ideological dispute at the heart of All Bridges Burning. If you guessed “socialism vs. monarchism,” you win a gold star. Or is that a red star? Famously, the two main factions are so entrenched in their political goals that they’re named after their respective colors. There are no long acronyms here, the ARVNs and 26Julys that are so common to the series. The two main combatants are Whites and Reds. And because nobody at GMT messed up their order of painted cylinders, that’s exactly how they’re depicted on the map.

Right away, this dispute has a few shades of gray to it. The Reds, of course, fancy themselves the mouthpieces of the overlooked working classes. Insofar as the workers know what’s good for them, anyway, since the Reds are suspiciously urban and don’t necessarily hold many values in common with the ordinary working man. That’s where the Whites come in, a senate-in-exile thumping their chests about tradition and duty. Both factions dream of asserting their independence from Russia, which is in the midst of its own bloody transition from tsardom to provisional government to Bolshevik experiment. Yet their vision for an independent Finland is divergent enough that both are willing to court foreign powers for military assistance. While the Reds try to energize the remnants of Russia’s occupying troops, the Whites cozy up to German monarchists with an eye toward placing one of their own on the throne. There’s a very real danger of handing the country’s reins to another foreign power, both historically and as one of the game’s less cheery outcomes.

In most depictions, the battle lines of the Finnish Civil War are marked by Red and White alone. Instead of stopping there, Arponen takes a step he acknowledges as controversial by injecting a third faction. As consummate centrists, the Moderates straddle the ideologies of the previous two factions. They want an independent Finland, but they aren’t willing to sell the keys to the house to get it. They acknowledge that labor reform is necessary, but hope to legislate from within the halls of power rather than shooting everybody who disagrees with them. Where everybody else uses terror and bullets to get their way, the Moderates like to talk. Mostly by publishing the news and writing books.

For a series that generally focuses on extremism, it might seem like a strange step for the series to include somebody in the middle, and a faction that couldn’t rightly be called “a faction” at that. In practice, though, the Moderates aren’t more than a stone’s throw from the vague “Revolutionaries” of Gandhi: a political entity that may not have had the benefit of obvious leadership, but one that was no less effective for its decentralized nature. Arponen’s contention is that although the Whites won the war, their initial stance — a German prince on a Finnish throne — softened toward a representative government thanks to the activism of more moderating influences. The COIN Series has always tried to express how “power” functions when it can’t be represented by the usual trappings of standing armies and police forces. The first step was insurgency, then nonviolent activism. In All Bridges Burning, Arponen takes the next logical step: journalism, authorship, and national character. While the Whites and Reds tear up the countryside, court foreign aid, and eventually trash Helsinki, the Moderates are the ones helping everybody understand what those events portend.

I don't think the system is as well suited to two-player adaptation, but this leaves me with a lot of hope for future three-player titles.

The three-player system offers some tactical flexibility.

Apart from Brian Train’s two-player Colonial Twilight, every volume of the COIN Series has been strictly quadri-directional, focusing on the interactions between four powers at loggerheads. This is largely because the system designed by Volko Ruhnke was built for four factions, prompting other designers to search for conflicts that fit a similar model.

The three sides of All Bridges Burning necessitate a modified approach. Like the rest of the series before it, there’s a heavy focus on a procession of event cards and how the players at the table react to them. Two cards are always visible, one for this round and another for the upcoming round, and players are permitted to choose whether they’ll enact the event, take a regular action, or perhaps take a weaker action to also suppress the event so that nobody else will benefit from it.

At first blush, Arponen’s system is somewhat more finicky than Ruhnke’s original grid. Theoretically, every faction can be “eligible” every round, a major difference from previous volumes, where any action other than passing would consume some amount of time and therefore render its actor ineligible for the next card. Here, the only action that causes such a delay is a full command — a wide-ranging action that can be taken in multiple spaces and combined with a powerful “special activity.” For example, an ordinary limited command might see the Reds recruiting forces in a single space or bullying some Moderates in town. By contrast, a full command would expand one of those actions to as many spaces as the Reds could afford, plus let them hold political rallies for cash or dig trenches in advance of some White troops. These full commands are major occurrences, often redrawing the state of the map, or at least gouging a pressure point where previously everybody felt comfortable. By contrast, limited commands and events let a faction take turn after turn, provided they don’t fall too late in the tie-breaking order.

All this is to say that the system does require some additional overhead, but it affords something that’s often gone missing from the series — tactical flexibility. In the past, limited commands were easy to regard as booby prizes, a lesser option best taken when you had nothing better to do. All Bridges Burning repurposes them into minor activities that may occur more often. Rather than blowing your resources on a sweeping recruitment drive followed by a period of mobilization, it’s now possible for a faction to tiptoe around their opponents. A cell of activists can be recruited in a city and given a terror mission in the same span of time it would take their foe to uncover them.

This is especially a boon to the diminutive Moderates, with their limited forces and constant pressure to gather news of battles and terror attacks and report it back to base for publication. I’m not even sure the Moderates would function without the tactical possibilities such a system offers. Watching a faction deftly switch between small but rapid actions and grand campaigns even feels natural. I won’t call it superior to the main system, but after eight volumes of the same thing, there’s something to be said for having to adjust my expectations.

Yes, I should have also taken a picture of the polarization track. Oh well.

Politics matter.

The biggest change is more historical, even remediating. The COIN Series has always suffered from a severe case of Saturday night fever — as in, it was great and all, but what about the morning after? In some cases this is played for deliberate effect, such as when U.S. victory in A Distant Plain or Fire in the Lake is less a matter of truly successful nation-building and more a case of withdrawing from the afflicted country at an expedient moment. The appearance of victory over the actuality of it, and what that says about the imperial aspirations of the United States. Even so, there’s always been the assumption that a faction’s last-minute conquest of a particular city, the swaying of particular hearts, the surge of particular troops, that these will hold true. They won’t be undone with one additional move not because a rival faction didn’t have the capability to do so, but because the limitations of a board game declare that they won’t.

The Finnish Civil War only lasted three months and two weeks in early 1918. With All Bridges Burning, Arponen extends that to a full two years. Not the war itself, precisely, but the conflict that bookended the cannon fire. In the game’s first half, players are limited to a few basic actions for adding cells to the map, radicalizing those cells into more willing combatants, intimidating rivals, and some straightforward massaging of public policy. It isn’t until the end of 1917 — or when enough Reds and Whites are on the map that war is inevitable, whichever comes first — that the war begins in earnest. Marching and battle appears, along with the Moderates’ desperate attempts to broker collaboration, unity, and eventually peace.

Speaking of which, Arponen also examines the lasting shudder of all those detonated bombs and prisoners of war. Every faction has some interest in reducing polarization, the game’s measure of the bitterness between its two main sides. For the Reds and Whites, these interests are necessary to their future sovereignty. Both are able to court foreign powers, bringing Russian or German armies into play in exchange for agreements of vassalage with that nation. These armies are the game’s best fighting forces, but they’re also a devil’s bargain. If the final victory check is reached without bringing polarization back under control, it’s entirely possible that Finland will lose its sovereignty to the winning faction’s patron, which is the same as defeat. In other words, it isn’t enough to smash the enemy. You also need to take the first tentative steps toward getting everybody on the same page.

It’s been remarked that the really interesting stuff in history is the stuff that happens in between the wars. All Bridges Burning illustrates both why that’s true and why my inner child thinks it’s bupkis. That first phase, with its limited means of conflict, might be described as calculating; a more accurate impression would be “sluggish.” It’s never so bad that it feels like an extended setup for when the rifles are finally passed out, but the stakes, by virtue of being delayed, are more nebulous. The advent of war brings an undeniable kineticism. The impact of each action is more immediate. By extension, the game’s pacing becomes shorter of breath.

Who will win? Good question.

1918 tends to be a violent year.

Still, I suspect All Bridges Burning gains more than it loses. By expanding his scope to consider the before and the after, Arponen makes a sounder statement about the burdens of state-building than the COIN Series has managed thus far. We may think of wars as singular moments, but that’s too simplistic. They’re also rising tensions, drawn lines, and resentments that don’t disappear overnight. In this regard, Arponen has expanded the series in an essential direction.

Not as important but no less impressive, he’s also crafted a worthy tenth volume. It’s inevitable that we’ll reach a point where these games stop delivering on their premise. Fortunately, today is not that day. For now, this is the most I’ve appreciated and enjoyed a volume in the COIN Series since Fire in the Lake.


(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 September 1, 2021, in Board Game and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 18 Comments.

  1. Christian van Someren

    ABB is such a weird entry into the COIN system. I like it a lot, I really appreciate that the politics play such a big role, and the 3-player turn structure is innovative and engaging (a big improvement on the 4-player system, IMO, since you have decisions to make each turn). Also, the foreign powers in the game add such a nice twist, since you can use them to help fight the other factions, but you must also keep the Germans/Russians from taking control.

    The game play is very different from your traditional COIN games, with some fiddly rules. Cells in particular function oppositely to what we’re used to (being face-up is generally good, unless you’re a Moderate). The combat system is unnecessarily convoluted (you are able to force your opponent to retreat, but I’ve never seen this actually happen). And as you mentioned, the first half of the game can feel a bit directionless at times (although the more I play, the more I think that the first half is really where the game is decided, and the second half is just knocking down the dominos you set up before).

    I would also add that the solo system is fantastic, very streamlined and innovative.

    Great review as always, keep up the good work!

    • Thanks for reading, Christian! I agree, All Bridges Burning has some fiddliness to it. I probably should have raised that concern in the review. Although fiddliness and COIN go hand in hand at this point, so for the most part I took it in stride. And it’s certainly easier than some of the recent volumes, so by comparison it probably struck me as more acceptable.

  2. Thanks for an excellent and perceptive interview. His research is excellent and I agree he broke some really new ground for the COIN system in this game. After he had written the bots for Colonial Twilight, Vesa and I discussed a Finnish Civil War game (I had self-published a strictly military one in 2010) and from the start, agreed that the prelude and aftermath needed to be reflected in the game. Some wargames try to capture the run-up to the shooting, as a way of setting up scenarios for the Main Event, but few if any reflect on the “what now?” when the shooting stops.

    • Right! It’s an interesting question to consider. I’m now curious whether one could design a game that truly bookends a conflict with lead-up and cool-down. I know at least one designer is working on a game about the Reconstruction. I’d like to see more of that.

      • I’d like to see more of that too. I’ve designed one like that called Caudillo, in a thinly-disguised post-Chavez Venezuela as factions maneuver to fill a power vacuum; it’s available for free and I was most of the way through a significant revision of it with another notable designer when COVID hit (so that’s been stalled, but it was stalled at a good place I think).

        I’ve also been thinking a contemporary Afghanistan one would be a welcome exercise, but it is beyond my ability to research right now. Should be explored with a matrix game by the professionals….

  3. Have the recent events in Afghanistan changed your outlook on the COIN series?

    A gaming buddy of mine recently suggested playing A Distant Plain, and it struck me as kind of ridiculous. The whole series is based on this theory of “nation-building” that has been exposed as utter horseshit. (Pax Pamir, however…)

    Or is the COIN series so abstract that the destruction of its thematic foundations doesn’t actually matter?

    • Great question! Maybe even good enough to write an entire article about…

      I suppose it depends on how one regards the handling of those foundations. Just last month, somebody on Twitter mentioned that this outcome was always inevitable in Afghanistan, and that the only piece of media that really understood that inevitability was A Distant Plain — specifically, that the better your faction performs, the worse its relationships with its allies become. (I wish I could find that comment now! Sadly, my searching skills have never been very good.)

      I get the sense that many people took Brian Train’s game as somehow propagandistic. I took it as a statement on how foreign interests clash. The best outcome for the Coalition is to shore up some support and then disappear from the country, even though none of the underlying causes of their involvement have been solved. That’s why I bring up the “Saturday night fever” problem. In most cases, one or two extra turns would spell defeat for the Coalition after their winning move.

      In other words, the Coalition can only win because the game state is finite. Played across an indefinite state, the Coalition will always lose. Which speaks more to the limitations of the medium than anything else.

      • Hah, and while I was typing all that Daniel came out with more very good points! Thanks, you are a lot more articulate than I am on these things.

      • But the things the Coalition does to “win” never actually happened. There was no support; there was no training. (Insert Afghan army jumping jacks video)

        I guess it all works if you measure “support” and “train” on a different axis than reality – they reflect phony metrics and Pentagon paperwork rather than any real-life facts on the ground.

        Or maybe we just need to change some labels… The Coalition player can be “Lockheed” and rather than gathering support, they’re just spending as many US tax dollars as possible before the jig is up – A Distant Plain: John Company Edition.

      • It seems inaccurate to characterize the training and support as nonexistent. Inadequate, siphoned, and suddenly withdrawn seems more accurate. General Sadat’s piece in the NY Times paints a picture of a war that was lost for political reasons, while still owning up to the corruption of his own government. Recommended reading.

        As for John Company: Afghanistan, I sincerely hope that as the situation clarifies, some ambitious young designer takes a stab at U.S. military profiteering. What a mess.

    • A Distant Plain was designed in 2012 and its scenario action stops in 2013, for a reason (NATO ending its combat mission in the country, seemed a good juncture). There is language in the playbook about how the game is a product of our thoughts and research up to 2012/13, and we did not claim any predictive value for it. We meant that. To condemn it because it could not perfectly model the situation 8 years after that end, a situation that only came about with changes in political and operational parameters outside the scope of the game, is a bit much IMO.

      The current situation, in COIN terms, required meta-level events and arrangements far beyond the framework of the original game design, combined with a lot of deliberately bad and counter-productive play. You could still try to render an ADP analogue, a rough game-equivalent (or inequivalent) states and conditions, and how they could be prompted or advanced by deliberately bad play. See the link below.

      Some more Afghan post-mortem, and a sort of analogue

      As for the “whole series” being based on a theory of nation-building, it clearly is not.

      The game system is one of choices from asymmetrical menus of actions among different factions, assisted by random card draws from a deck: this makes it flexible enough for all kinds of situations, from Arthurian Britain to colonized Mars. This year I’ve been working on an adaptation of the COIN system to cover a series of completely non-kinetic political situations.

      Or maybe you are talking about the modern-period volumes in the series – 5 out of 10 that have been released so far – that focus specifically on counterinsurgency. Again I would disagree, the games on Colombia and Cuba deal with internal disorder and an established government trying to keep the lights on.

      The volumes on Algeria, Vietnam and Afghanistan are more in the vein of foreign occupation or interventions, against an insurgent enemy that enjoys foreign sanctuaries and is partly a foreign proxy (at least in Vietnam and Afghanistan). And where a faction is attempting to build Support or Opposition for the host nation government, the concept is not who can deliver the most soccer balls or build more agricultural co-ops or make the most micro-loans; it is about putting yourself forward as the guarantor of physical security, law and order against chaos. This is how governments and shadow governments work in building nations – this was a main ingredient in the Taliban’s victory last month (and in their climb to power in the 1990s, too).

      Though the challenge now is for the Taliban to keep what they have gained, and I think that takes a new and different kind of game, as I remarked to Daniel above.

      Or maybe you are using the term “nation-building” as some kind of shorthand for a bundle of concepts you don’t like, I don’t know.

      • “As for the “whole series” being based on a theory of nation-building, it clearly is not.”

        The series was started by a CIA analyst, whose stated inspiration was “my day job teaching U.S. intelligence analysts.” Call it nation-building or something else, but the idea that the West can create functioning, stable democracies via a combination of military force/foreign aid/NGOs is the cornerstone of the series.

        “The game system is one of choices from asymmetrical menus of actions among different factions, assisted by random card draws from a deck: this makes it flexible enough for all kinds of situations, from Arthurian Britain to colonized Mars.”

        Well, this is what I was getting at with the question about whether the COIN system is so abstract that its absolute failure to model reality even matters. I guess your answer is that is doesn’t.

        This passage in your linked piece gets at what bugs me about COIN games:

        “One more note, about meta-level events and arrangements: one thing about the COIN system games, indeed most wargames, is that they have no hidden information (except for any secret deals the players may have made with each other). And few if any games have the ability to lie to the player himself about the state of his forces and how they are doing in the game. Yet that is exactly what would be required to make an approachable model of the historical end of this war: years and years of players lying to each other and themselves; the game itself lying to all players about the state of play; layers and layers of self-deception, mistaken signals, perverse incentives and hidden agendas.”

        Isn’t this part of what is supplied by die rolls and other random elements? You might think you have a real force, well trained and supplied… but your snake eyes say otherwise.

    • Given that the Taliban can win in ADP I don’t really see how that happening hurts the model. Besides, the system was originally modeled on a fully successful counterinsurgency and then applied to other situations.

      That most of the later COIN games have been about situations where the insurgents won is because they’ve tended to be about famous insurgencies. And the insurgencies that become famous tend to be the minority that win.

      • Good point. “Nation-building” as we generally understand it only occurs in particular volumes of the series.

      • The first volume of the COIN system was on Colombia, but Volko drew inspiration for the system from a game on the Algerian War I designed in 2000.
        There’s a quad of four small games coming using a riff on the COIN system, called “The British Way”. Three of the four conflicts were successful counterinsurgencies: Malaya, Cyprus, and Kenya (Palestine is the odd man out).

      • Oh man, imagine the discourse if/when someone finally makes an Iraq War coin game. Especially when they label coalition victory as the historical outcome.

      • Upstream Dan said,
        “In other words, the Coalition can only win because the game state is finite. Played across an indefinite state, the Coalition will always lose. Which speaks more to the limitations of the medium than anything else.”
        I think the same stipulation would apply to an Iraq game.
        If you present a game that is tied to a given time period, it has a beginning and an end and you can define a “game” victory for the factions within that time period, which may have nothing to do with the larger, longer scale historical outcome.
        So the Germans can win a France in 1940 game, but they still lose the bigger, longer term game five years later.

  1. Pingback: Best Week 2021! Reject Orthodoxy! | SPACE-BIFF!

Leave a Reply to Dan Thurot Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: