Set Another One Afire
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A complimentary copy was provided.