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Capturing Australia! COIN is Boring Pt. 3

(To read the entire "COIN is Boring” series, please click here.) 

A few weeks ago, I made the not-so-original observation that there were (almost) no video games about counterinsurgency, or at least any video games that took counterinsurgencies seriously. But before games went digital, the world gamed analogue-style.

Oh yeah, I’m talking about board games, with wooden blocks, plastic soldiers, card decks and dice.

If you love strategy, you probably love board games. I’d guess that 95% of ROTC cadets and national security PhD’s love the board game Risk, the game of global domination. Michael C and I are no exceptions. We’ve written about Risk before, mainly because we love it. Just love it.

Risk is all traditional warfare, almost a parody of the general idea of how war works. Your troops are here. Enemy troops are there. Get a bigger army and kill them. Oh, and take Australia or South America first. (Somehow, Australia is a strategic stronghold.) Worried about the locals rebelling? You shouldn’t be. The more land you hold, the more troops you get. Conscription!

Virtually every strategy board game--from Chess, Checkers, Abalone--follows this basic pattern. Find the enemy, then kill them. Or surround them, in the case of Go or Hasami Shogi. Stratego introduces the fog of war...but you’re still trying to destroy your enemy’s forces before they destroy yours. (Morale is never an issue.)

Then we come to wargames, modern board games that simulate real war. Risk is the king of the wargaming genre, considered to be the first mainstream wargame. Other mainstream games like Axis and Allies and Diplomacy still focus on taking territory and winning. As the genre aged, the subject matter and gameplay matured as well, but the focus didn’t stray from traditional war. In Warhammer Fantasy Battle, the players simulate fantasy battles between fictional races. In Gettysburg, players recreate the historic battle (this trend has been repeated ad nauseum for almost every important battle/war.) In Panzer Leader and Squad Leader, you literally command ground troops.

Virtually every popular strategy board game depicts traditional warfare, which begs the question: what about counterinsurgencies? Are there COIN board games? If there are COIN board games, are they popular? As I wrote in my post on videogames, I don’t know how you would even make a game about counterinsurgency without inspiring outrage. Could you design a game that wouldn’t incite debate? Could you make it simple?

To find the answer, I turned to three friends who are self-described board game junkies--two of which attend gaming cons--and they hadn’t heard of any COIN board games. But a quick Google search later, I found it, the COIN board game:

Andean Abyss.

As one reviewer describes it, Volko Ruhnke’s Andean Abyss is “the first title in the newly planned COIN (Counter-insurgency) Series focusing on historic internal war scenarios in which insurgency and the interaction of multiple sides played a major role.” (To check out other games in the rest of the COIN series, which are based of the game mechanics developed in Andean Abyss, click here.)

Awesome. Just what I was looking for. So how do you play?

“Andean Abyss takes 1 to 4 players into this multifaceted campaign for control of Colombia: guerrillas and police, kidnapping and drug war, military sweeps and terror. Each of four factions deploys distinct capabilities and tactics to influence Colombian affairs and achieve differing goals...Andean Abyss also provides an engrossing model of insurgency and counterinsurgency in Colombia—smoothly accounting for population control, lines of communication, terrain, intelligence, foreign aid, sanctuaries, and a host of other political, military, and economic factors.”

Wow. Sounds fascinating. (And I do mean that, although hardcore board gaming falls into a similar territory as Dungeons and Dragons or World of Warcraft for me. I’m aware that if I start playing games like that, I’ll fall in love and become a nerd. (Er, more of a nerd.)) This game has inspired conversation and debate (check out this review, this review and this podcast) and the game designer, who has spoken at military universities about his game, writes essays describing the modeling and explaining the choices he made.

But I’m not writing this series to discuss the accuracy of counter insurgency gaming. (My first thought when found Andean Abyss was, “I want to play this game and review it on the blog.” Hopefully I’ll write about that in a future post.) No, I want to discuss the aesthetics of counterinsurgency media.

What’s the problem with Andean Abyss? Take this paragraph from a review of the game:

“Upon cracking open the box we find two booklets, one for the rules (16 pages) and another playbook (44 pages) which includes a detailed tutorial, designer notes, card descriptions, and many other sections to help ease play. I’ll point out it’s imperative to give the playbook a solid read through as this is essential to understanding all of the elements of play in this extremely interesting, possibly initially confusing, simulation of the volatile political situation of Colombia in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.”

So a counterinsurgency board game does exist...and its rulebook is 44 pages long. And you have to read it first. And even this game isn’t popular among hardcore gamers. None of my friends had heard of it, though one guy did have Labyrinth, a post-9/11 board game about America versus the terrorists also created by Volko Ruhnke. Among the hardcore gamer community, which is already small, Andean Abyss doesn’t rate as highly as other as traditional war sims. I doubt a counter-insurgency board game will ever be accessible to anyone but the most hardcore hardcore board-gaming fans.

I don’t blame gamers or game designers; it’s not their fault that COIN is boring. So until the junior version of Andean Abyss gets made, I’ll be camping out in Australia trying to take over Asia.

eleven comments

I really want to play Labyrinth now. I hope it uses Borges quotes.

For the board gamers out there, I actually do want to play both Andean Abyss (Actually, I probably want to play the Afghanistan game), Twilight Struggle and Labyrinth. Hopefully, I’ll review them on the blog.

There are indeed some COIN board games out there.
I know so, because I, Joe Miranda, and Volko Ruhnke have designed most of them.
Most recently, Volko and I co-designed “A Distant Plain”, which is the Afghanistan game in the series using Volko’s COIN system (which is derived from a system I developed in the 1990s to cover the conflicts in 1960s Uurguay, 1980s Peru, and 1950s Algeria).
You do not have to read 44 pages of anything to play the game; the basic rules of play for A Distant Plain are about ten pages long, would probably be about five pages if you took out the colour diagrams and sidebar explanations about what’s going on.
A lot of paper does come with the game, and what it covers is things like “scripts” for non-player factions to follow when you have fewer than four human players available, long and copiously illustrated tutorials on how to play a sample game, designers notes from both designers on the intent of the design and the design process, commentary and strategy hints, and explanations and references (inlcuding bibliography and pronunciation guide) for every one of the 64 event cards in the game.
You will want to read this stuff later, and for some players it still won’t be enough.
But to play the game, just a few pages of rules.

However, while play of the game itself is not complicated, playing it well is complex: you have four factions, each with different methods, strengths and weaknesses, and objectives. The interplay between the four humans is intense (it is best iwth four, but as I said Volko Ruhnke spent a lot of time and effort making scripts for “bots” to play absent players when you don’t have a foursome).

Are there simple COIN games?
I don’t think there are many at the puerile level of RISK (I agree with you, it is a parody of war, invented by a Frenchman soon after WW2), I think if there were they won’t teach you much about COIN.
Maybe Terrorbull’s game “War on Terror”, which certainly is a parody, in a blackhearted way.

There are some games that illustrate some of the principles behind insurgency, in an abstract way: I designed Guerrilla Checkers in 2010 while workign on another Afghanistan game with some other folks. Try it, it’s simple and fast and you already have the pieces lying around the house: [url taken out – how many am I allowed?]

And now that I’ve started lobbing Boardgamegeek URLs at you, here are some useful lists of what COIN type games there are out there:

[Edit: whoops, your software said I exceeded the maximum number of URLs and I should stop spamming you; go here and the urls for the lists are there.
http://brtrain.wordpress.com/game-links-.. ]

And finally some individual titles I think are most COIN-related, alphabetically by designer, though some of these are long out of print or not published yet:

Mark Acres: The Twilight War
James F. Dunnigan: Chicago-Chicago, Minuteman: the Second American Revolution, Plot to Assassinate Hitler, Up Against the Wall
Karsten Engelmann: Crisis Games: Colombia
Lawrence Harris: National Liberation Front
Kim Kanger: Ici, C’est La France!, Tonkin
Ben Madison: Liberia
Joseph Miranda: BCT Command Kandahar, Battle for Baghdad, Decision: Iraq, Holy War: Afghanistan, In Country, Indochina, Marine Global Response, Nicaragua, Sealords, Somali Pirates, Stryker, Winged Horse
Volko Ruhnke: A Distant Plain, Andean Abyss, Cuba Libre, Fire in the Lake, Labyrinth
Brian Train: A Distant Plain, Algeria, Battle of Seattle, District Commander: Perregaux, EOKA, Greek Civil War, Green Beret, Guerrilla Checkers, Kandahar, Next Lebanon War, Operation Whirlwind, Red Guard, Shining Path, Somalia, Tupamaro, Virtualia
Lynn Willis: Bloodtree Rebellion

I have left out tactical level games like Boots on the Ground or Operation Phantom Fury because while they are about battles against insurgents, they don’t – and can’t – show much about the psychological campaign-planning aspect of COIN. They are still exciting games, though, like all those first-person shooter video games that claim to be about insurgency but aren’t.

In the end, though, I can’t deny your final assertion about notoriety or accessibility of these games. There are several reasons for this.
Part of it ties into the small number of people who play serious historical board war games, these are people who know a lot of history and tend to stick with the history they know, rather than the history not yet written – which is why there are umpteen dozen games on Gettysburg and only one on Fallujah.
Part of it is the subject matter itself – irregular warfare is war at its cruellest, most complex and least visible, with the most twisted psychology involved. It’s not easy to simulate, even on a basic level, and there are few who want to go there.
Part of it is just basic numbers. Yes, there are millions of males who will line up for the latest video game shoot-em-up, but how many of them read newspapers, or have read even one book about the state of the world today? How many of them regularly read your blog, or blogs like yours? The number of Americans (and board wargaming is, for the most part, an American hobby) who have been in the armed forces recently is small, and outside of them, there are precious few people who have really tried to understand the last 12 years of war, or what is really going on in the world.

It’s not just your assertion that “COIN is boring”; I think it’s far more that ALMOST NO ONE WANTS TO KNOW ABOUT IT, no one wants to know what is being done in their name. We have a society that is in heavy denial, and has become even more provincial, distracted and blinkered than before.

Thanks for the chance to weigh in. If you want to know more about any of these games I’ve listed, please let me know.

@ Brian – Excellent, excellent response. love to have an expert on the subject chime in. If you ever want to guest post, feel free.

And I hope I’m able to play A Distant Plain soon, and review it for the site. It sounds like you and Mr. Ruhnke have done great work.

Thanks Eric, I appreciate that!
I’ll think about doing a guest post.
Meanwhile, I have put On Violence on my blogroll on my game design blog.

By the way, the URL for Guerrilla Checkers is http://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/71035.. (I guess I have a limit of two URLs per post).
Download the rules you will find in the files section and try it out; you might find it interesting.

My apologies for coming late to this one, I’ve been on leave for a couple of weeks now and being spending time with the family.

I’ve been interested in designing a counter insurgency game since the mid 1990s. The original trigger for my interest were the decolonisation conflicts of the British Empire. This wasn’t a board game, nor a computer game. The group I belong to designs face to face games for multiple participants, a bit like the sort of command post exercises those of us who’ve done some military or civil contingencies time would recognise.

I never ran the decolonisation game that prompted this, it needed 20 players, which was too many for the free venues and too few to make it economic in the hired halls. However there were a number of spin-offs, including a look at the Palestine/Israel insurgency in 195-48; Malaya in the 1950s and Aden in the early 60s.

By the time I’d looked at those traditiional insurgencies we got into the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. My most recent attempt, which sort of almost counts as a board game (it has a map, which is really only for flavour) looked at the experience from the point of view of the Afghan farmers, and the drivers that took them to insurgency (or not as the case happens). I ran it twice, both times with someone who served in Afghanistan as one of the players.

I come at all this as a hobbyist. I make the games I’d like to play but cannot find commercially. The same is true of the people that I play with, we form a community of game design activists. (Chestnut Lodge Wargames Group, mainly in the UK). Over the years I’ve played games as both an insurgent and a counter-insurgent. They hold a lot of game play and interest. However a lot of it defies easy mechanisms that you can write down on a few pages than just about anyone can understand.

Part of this is that insurgencies aren’t all the same. What works in dealing with one group might only make things work with another. You need to get inside the culture and methods of the insurgents to defeat them. Or at least that is how I read it. Sometimes it will be unpalatable for modern players to play those games, either because of a close connection with someone hurt by the insurgency, or because current moral standards differ from those of the period or culture concerned.

That said, I think it is possible to write good games about insurgency. They just need to be specifically tailored to the insurgency in question and the players appropriately briefed in advance. You also need players that will roleplay it a little rather than just play to mechanisms.

Hello James, are you coming to the Connections-UK conference in London in two weeks?
I will be there, and speaking on a panel with Jim Wallman – so if you aren’t coming, it will be almost like meeting with you.
The megagames that you guys run are excellent, but they are almost never done over on this side of the Atlantic.
A lot of your motivations are also mine; I got into designing precisely because no one was publishing the sort of thing I wanted to play.
This predated the Internet, so it’s easier to find different designs now.
Over the years, I have developed a system or two that serves as the framework for insurgency situations, but each game in the “family” is quite different from the others, as are the games in the GMT COIN system.
Insurgencies are unique events, and alien to the experience of most of us civilian wargamers, so you are right that a little bit of role-play and stepping out of oneself is needed for greater understanding.
Often games are stymied by a lack of will on the part of players to play in it, not play with it.
Like most social/communal exercises, the better half of the experience lies with the people participating in it.


Sadly I won’t be able to make it. I’m due back at work on 2nd September after a three week absence, so too much catching up and getting things going again to be able to slope off to a 2 day conference!

I know Jim Wallman very well, he’s one of the leading lights of Chestnut Lodge as well as Megagame Makers. Shame that you’ve not played a megagame in the States, I would have thought you’d have enough interested folk to pull it off. There is a Dutch spin off doing Megagames on the continent, and I helped Jim as one of the umpire cadre to get them going a few years back.

I’m intrigued by your board games and will look into getting copies when the gaming budget has recovered later in the year.

Oh, that’s too bad.
Well, be sure to talk to Jim Wallman afterwards to get his views on the conference.
I’m looking forward to meeting him.
Actually, I am from Canada, but there are no more megagame-interested gamers up here in my corner of the country than there are in any equivalent area of the US.
Feel free to look around my site, and I would be glad to discuss anything that piques your interest!


I am totally addicted to Andean Abyss. It is a super rewarding game and I am playing solo!! It generates a story as you play as it is event driven by cards although you don’t have a hand of cards. Fascists, communists, drug cartels and the government fight for control of the cities and areas of Columbia. Each player has a radically different win condition. What’s not to like?

Yes, you have to put some time in, but the playbook is not a rule book so it is sort of unfair to say it is a 44 page rulebook. It is actually an 10 page rulebook which extends to 13 if you want to play solo. The playbook is a run through of a game so you can follow it yourself with explanations given for all the actions. You don’t need to do this though.

Labyrinth (on the fight against Al Qaida) is good but not as detailed and backstabby as Andean Abyss as it is a 2 player game. I can tell you games of this, with four people, usually erupt into deal making mayhem with lots of shouting and masses of fun. Way better than Risk.

Andy, if you liked Andean Abyss, you will love A Distant Plain. It’s just come out, it is the same system as Andean Abyss but is a co-design between Volko Ruhnke and me about Afghanistan. It’s also for four players (but there are options and ‘bots if you have fewer) but the big difference is instead of one Government and three insurgents, there are two insurgent factions (Warlords and Taliban) and two counterinsurgent (Afghan Government and Coalition). All have different means, methods and motives. Players have remarked on the unique hate/hate relationship between Government and Coalition; it’s very backstabby and devious. Give it a try!