Games Explained: GMT COIN Series
Grab a seat in that big comfy chair over there, go on….. I’m going to talk a little bit about the COIN series. A series of games that I have fallen in love with over the past couple of years, and for good reason, but we’ll get onto that a bit later on. The COIN (Counter-Insurgency) series is a selection of games using a system created by Volko Ruhnke, which include guerrilla warfare as well as being highly asymmetric, and focus on different counter insurgencies around the world, including historical and modern day conflicts. Volko Ruhnke also designed one of my favourite card-driven games, Labyrinth: The War On Terror, 2001 – ? and the famous Wilderness War.
The first game in the series, Andean Abyss, designed by Volko Ruhnke himself, was published back in 2012 and paved the way for a lot of amazing COIN games based on different conflicts around the world. Andean Abyss gives players a closer look at the conflicts that occurred in Columbia including the Columbian Conflict and The War on Drugs which happened in the 1990’s and 2000’s, played out by four factions: the Government, the Cartels, the Marxists, and the Paramilitary Forces. Andean Abyss includes political conflict and economic issues as well as military warfare. During the game, each of the four factions deploys distinct capabilities and tactics to influence Colombian affairs and achieve contrasting goals throughout the game, combined with area control, dice rolling and card driven game play.
I’m not going to go into too much detail about each of the games that are in the series right now but maybe in future, that is something I can take a look at. I’m just going to explain the system that everybody loves so much!
When I first played a COIN game, I didn’t know what guerrilla warfare or counter insurgency meant, or that COIN was an incredible game system, I just figured it was a cool game about a conflict I didn’t really know too much about but over time, I got to learn about all of the different conflicts that are portrayed in the series and now they are some of my favourite games. A lot of people ask me about COIN games and what the ‘COIN’ bit stands for, and with the popularity of asymmetric wargames increasing, especially with the release of ROOT which took some inspiration from the COIN games, it made sense to finally write this article. Now, I’m no expert, I am still relatively new to wargames and military history but I’ve learned a lot about these games and wanted to share what I have learned with you!
Lets start with Guerilla Warfare, which COIN heavily focuses on and is a type of asymmetric warfare between opponents of unequal strength. It can also be referred to as type of irregular warfare: that is, it aims not simply to defeat an enemy, but to win popular support and political influence, to the enemy’s cost. Accordingly, guerrilla strategy aims to magnify the impact of a small, mobile force on a larger, more-cumbersome one. If successful, guerrillas weaken their enemy by different military strategies, eventually forcing them to withdraw. In the early COIN games, you can see this represented by four different factions in the games, fighting against a government and even each other. Counter Insurgency, is normally conducted as a combination of conventional military operations and other means, such as propaganda and included a lot of different facets: military, political, economic, psychological, and civic actions taken to defeat insurgency. (Thanks, WIKI)
Cuba Libre which is the second game in the series and a perfect game to explain the COIN system, shines a light on the Cuban Revolution. It’s a four player game with four different factions; the dictatorial Government of Cuba, as well as the recently landed Marxist army supported by rural peasants, 26 July Movement. There’s also Directorio which is the Havana-based rebel student group and finally, Syndicate who were an American mob that had dealings with the government in the past and controlled casinos. During the game, these four factions have different win conditions and slightly different actions that they can take, which are representative of actions that each faction would have actually taken at that time.
Cuba Libre is the least complex COIN compared to some of the other games in the series and is often recommended as the game to play to familiarise yourself with the system. I can see the logic behind this, but found that doing a bit of research into the games, finding the historical period that I had the most interest in and playing that game first, was a better way of learning for me.
Most COIN games have four factions in them including Andean Abyss, Cuba Libre, A Distant Plain which takes a look at post 9/11 Afghanistan, Fire In The Lake which dives deep into the insurgency in Vietnam, a person favourite of mine Liberty or Death based on the American revolution as well as Falling Sky & Pendragon, Though some of the newer COIN games are shaking it up a little.
Colonial Twilight, which is one of the newest games in the series is set around the time of French-Algerian war and sees only two factions; The insurgent Front de Liberation Nationale and the Government fighting against each other. but uses that same system incorporating political and military warfare. There’s even a three player game in the works based on the Finnish Civil War called All Bridges Burning. The opportunities are endless and that’s the exciting thing about COIN, it takes you on a journey through history, with this genius system, that in time has evolved and will keep on evolving. One of my favourite things about COIN, is that is has given me this incredible insight into historical events that I wasn’t even aware of, significant events that shaped the world we live in but aren’t always spoken about. I appreciate that these games take modern day warfare and use it to educate and teach. These games don’t glorify the events that occurred but give people a chance to learn and explore and dig deeper into these subjects.
So we’ve established that COIN games have different factions that are usually fighting against each other and against a government or higher power.
COIN games are also card driven but not as we know it. There are event cards that can be played during the game. Players do not play these from a hand of cards though, there is an event deck that sits in the middle of the table. At the beginning of each turn, a new event card is revealed. Depending on turn order or which actions players can take, players can use their action play that card. The cards are highly thematic and add flavour to the game as well as another layer of depth and help drive the historical narrative throughout the game. This deck of event cards is usually split into groups with a propaganda card placed in between each group of cards then shuffled back together. The propaganda cards are used for scoring throughout the game, as well as end of game scoring.
COIN games also include combat which is usually determined by the rolling of dice and will differ between each game. Honestly, when I first started learning to play COIN games, this is the thing that caught me off guard the most and took a while for me to get used to.
Then you have the ability to play these games solo, which is something I enjoy. Each COIN games has a set of ‘bots’ or flowcharts for each player that will determine the actions of each faction that you are playing against during a solo game. These may seem tricky at first but once you get the hang of them, it’s a perfect way to play a solitaire version of the game.
The series combines wargame and eurogame mechanisms in such a beautiful way and the historical theme of each COIN game shines through. Every inch of these games have been carefully considered and it’s obvious when playing.
GMT Games, Volko Ruhnke and the designers have taken so much care with such tricky subjects and turned them into these fascinating games full of historical and political goodness and although COIN games may look scary on the table, with all of their gorgeous pieces and flow charts and humongous maps, they are actually fun and interesting and worth the learning curve that it takes to get into them. They vary in levels of complexity but I can tell you, as somebody who loves euro games, just as much as I love war games, they aren’t that much of a jump from some of the heavy euros that we all know and love.
So go on, dip your feet in, I think you’ll enjoy it!
Want some more information on each of the COIN games? this Geeklist on BGG is very useful: Guide to GMT Games’s COIN Series
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