Brant Guillory, 12 September 2020
It’s hard to overstate the influence that the COIN series of games has had on the wargaming world over the past decade. Heck, its influence has gone beyond just wargaming (Root!), unless you write for Meeple Mountain. They’ve been covered in the Washington Post, and used by the military for training exercises. Volko Ruhnke, the godfather of the COIN series games, even spent a few hours with GUWS explaining how to design one.
In our wargaming program at Origins, the COIN games have been a popular addition, largely because they are designed for 4 players, so we can get more gamers around the table than with something like Ft Sumter. One year, we actually had to get out a GM’s personal copy of Liberty or Death to start a third full 4-player table, because there were so many interested gamers that wanted to join the fun.
However, there’s a set of modifications that we made to the COIN games – specifically A Distant Plain – that went beyond the traditional 4-player experience. By crafting each faction as a team, and moving much of the interpersonal diplomacy, horse-trading, backstabbing, etc away from the board itself, we’ve evolved the basic 4-player game into a more free-wheeling and dynamic environment that dramatically reduces the opportunity for analysis paralysis, amps up the possibility… nay, ‘likelihood’ of confusion and fog of war, and keeps the game moving to where everyone stays involved at all times.
So here we are briefing all the players on how we’ll be running this game, with the understanding that there’s limited space to move the diplomats off of the table this time.
click images to enlarge
So, here’s what we did:
A – Every faction in the game has at least 2 team members. Truthfully, there was only 1 time that there were 3 on a team, so this is sort of optimized for 2/side, but see the ideas below for further thoughts. Those 2 members/team were split into a military commander and a diplomatic officer, with the exception of the Warlords, as we’ll explain in a minute.
B – The military commanders sat around the game map, and had direct access to the board. They were responsible for moving pieces and executing the orders each turn. While they had some latitude to cooperate, especially the Coalition & Government commanders, they were in no way required, or even expected to do so. In the one game where we had a 3rd player for the same side, we split the military command of the Afghan Government into “military” and “police” and had a commander for each. Although it didn’t functionally affect the game in any significant way, it did give everyone something to do around the mapboard.
C – The diplomatic officers were seated at a completely separate table, with a couple of map photocopies, the ‘flow chart’ for their respective faction ‘bots, and a lot of caffeine, as well as the deck of cards that drove the game. They did not have access to the map, and were specifically forbidden from getting to it unless they were granted permission by the GM. Such “field visits” by the diplomatic corps were very rare. In case it wasn’t already obvious, the military commanders of one faction were not allowed to talk with the diplomatic officers of another faction, and vice versa.
D – Whereas many players play the COIN games with both the current turn card, and the upcoming (next) turn card face up, the team COIN game only shows the current turn card. Players have to make the best possible decision with the limited info they have about this turned no idea what’s coming next.
1 – At the start of the turn, the new card is revealed at the diplomatic table. The respective diplomatic players have roughly 5 minutes to decide what they want to do with the card, from executing the action on the card to choosing an action from the flowchart. During these 5-ish minutes, the diplomatic officers could engage in all manner of negotiation with each other, from sharing ideas about upcoming actions to promises of support or inaction, to outright chicanery. At least once, the Afghan Government diplomatic player made it a point to pull his Taliban counterpart to the side every single turn, even if most of their discussions were “I really don’t have anything to cooperate with you on; I just want the Coalition player to stay on his toes.”
we used the flowcharts to help the players make decisions; they were not forced to follow the actions recommended by the ‘bots, but were encouraged to follow them as a guide to making the decision to help eliminate consideration of irrelevant options
2 – Once the discussions are done, and the turn order & actions are set, then diplomatic players pull their military counterparts aside, away from the map table. The diplomatic officer would brief the military commander on the decisions for action, the turn sequence, and any negotiations that were conducted over the execution of that turn’s card. The military commander was also able to brief the diplomatic officer on outcome of the previous turn and verbally update the current situation The military commander was not allowed to write down a current situation map on one of the photocopies, or in any other way try to provide “perfect intel” to the diplomatic counterpart.
Truthfully, this restriction almost seemed a bit redundant, as by the time the next commander-diplomat consultation came around, the map situation would’ve been very different anyway, and in the future, we may well scrap it.
We did pull everyone around the map for the scoring cards, which gave the diplomatic players a chance to ‘reset’ and see where things were on occasion, but most of the time they were drawing on their photocopies based on info coming back from their military commander.
3 – The military commanders now try to execute their orders to the best of their ability (or desire, as appropriate). Note that the military commanders don’t even necessarily know what card came up, depending on what they were told by their diplomatic counterpart! There are times when the diplomats gave the commanders too much to do within their resources. There are times where the diplomats wanted actions in places where no forces existed to take action. There are other times when the diplomats instructed their commanders to cooperate on a specific operation, only to have the ‘cooperating’ military counterpart decide to go off in another direction. Generally, however, the military commanders tried to stick with the missions they were given, with only occasional variance.
The GM overseeing the map, and helping the players move pieces around, will usually hold onto the card at the table here to make sure all the right turn conditions are observed (order, actions, events, etc)
4 – At the end of the turn, we’d update the map situation for the military commanders, and then repeat back at step 1.
We treated the warlords differently, as there isn’t really a hierarchy among them for a diplomatic/military split. Instead, what we did was have 1 player as the diplomat, and the military commander, in the same turn. So that player would be at the negotiating table, and then the same person would be around the map actually making things happen. However, every 2 turns or so, we swapped out the warlord player, so the rest of the players were interacting with an entirely different person every few turns. This represented the shifting fortunes of the various warlords in the country, and the impermanent nature of any deals made with them. While the warlord players were not explicitly told act differently whenever they tagged into the game, they all embraced the role of ‘chaos agent’ quite enthusiastically, and were more than happy to blow up each others’ plans, deals, and alliances for the sake of staying in character.
In at least one game, the warlord players (both experienced COIN gamers) were doing such a great job in their roles that rather than have one of them stand around watching the other one play, we let them each sit at the table where the active player wasn’t. So while the warlord player was acting a ‘military commander’ role at the map table, the counterpart warlord was schmoozing the diplomats at the other table, offering all sorts of promises and threats with no idea what the situation on the ground would be once the warlord players tagged out.
To make the game move a bit faster, we put a few rules changes in place
1 – We did away with the LOCs completely. Many of the players were not familiar with the COIN games, and the LOCs were an additional level of complication that they weren’t going to grok given everything else we were throwing at them. There were times when we hand-waved over the LOC instructions on a card, or claimed GM prerogative to execute something ‘close’ to the intent of the actions on the card. But by & large, the players didn’t really notice the lack of LOCs, or their impact on the game.
2 – We ‘pre-built’ the deck so that it was primarily full of ‘big’ actions for the players to react to. There’s no catching you breath in this one. Additionally, when pre-building the deck, we paid careful attention to the turn sequence at the tops of the cards. Not only was the first player changing every turn, but we wanted the last player to be different from turn to turn whenever possible, too. We also put a scoring card about 4 cards in, just to force a scoring turn early in the process to perk everyone up. The total deck size was about 25 actual cards, plus 3 propaganda cards – one near the top, one about halfway, and one was a few cards from the bottom.
3 – After setting up the shorter scenario from the rulebook, we did give the Taliban a few extra underground guerillas to place on the map, mainly to make sure there were enough options for the Taliban players to take the game in different directions. The first 2-3 times we played, the Taliban players always seemed quite constrained in their opening moves based on a pretty limited setup out of the gate.
WHAT WE’D DO DIFFERENTLY
As noted above, there’s a few things we’d still like to tweak about how we execute this team COIN game.
1 – Give the military commanders their own copies of the maps to draw on for their discussions with their diplomatic counterparts during the orders phase, because by the time the diplomatic officer is trying to use that map to make decisions around the next turn’s card, it’s already out of date from the previous turn’s resolution.
2 – Make a copy of the turn-sequence box on the map, and put it on the diplomatic table, since that’s where it’s actually needed. The GM was constantly bouncing back and forth to confirm who had which actions available. The diplomatic table needs this far more than the military table does.
3 – Find something better for the “inactive” warlord player to be doing besides watching a counterpart completely wreck all sorts of carefully laid plans. We were lucky in one game with some experienced players (as described above) that could freelance a little more effectively. But other times, the inactive warlord player could’ve been on a donut run and no one would’ve noticed.
4 – A second GM would allow the diplomatic table to continued to operate while the military action is going on over at the map table. This would seriously speed up the game and definitely ramp up the information gap between the two tables, wherein the diplomats are having to make decisions based on last turn’s military activities, without knowing the outcome of the current activities yet. Realism!
EXPANSION TO OTHER COIN GAMES
The diplomat/military player bifurcation would absolutely work for Fire in the Lake, and probably Liberty or Death with the Indians in the “warlord” role. It would be very interesting to see how teams would handle Cuba Libre, because, let’s face it, they’re all warlords of varying degrees. The 2-player per faction setup would be tougher to replicate for Andean Abyss in that it might not seem realistic for the AUC to have a seat at the diplomatic table, for instance. Could a team game like this work with one faction left out of the negotiations, and forced to just react to what everyone else is doing without a protected opportunity for their own negotiation? Perhaps. It would certainly be worth an experiment to see.
How well these multi-headed roles would work in Pendragon or Falling Sky remains to be seen. I think players might have a harder time accepting the split roles during warfare that predates the Westphalian state system, but it’s certainly worth a try (on someone else’s part!). Knowing nothing about how Ghandi plays, I wouldn’t even hazard to guess if this would work.
Truthfully, this mode of play works very well for A Distant Plain because there’s so much negotiation that’s already built into the game just by virtue of the subject matter, and the way the Coalition player is tied in with the Afghan Government player. When all the participants have seen the headlines of the Coalition negotiating directly with the Taliban while keeping the Afghan Government at bay it doesn’t feel artificial or unrealistic in any way. Rotating in a different warlord-du-jour throughout the game does force players to build in contingency plans for “what if we get screwed by someone we’re supposed to be ‘cooperating’ with?” and, well, that’s kind of the idea, innit?
Yes, this takes a larger-than-normal game group to pull off. Yes, it would be really hard to do in a COVID-induced distributed game because much of the interpersonal dynamics of the negotiating table are lost. While most players would likely abide by the honor system that limits who can talk to who, and keeps the diplomats away from the game map (and therefore limited on their knowledge of “ground truth”) there’s always the possible of “that guy” showing up in the game and wrecking it for everyone else.
But at a larger game convention, or conference setting, or an academic environment? The whole game can be played in 3-4 hours, not including setup time, and a generally a good time is had by all.
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