I spent Thursday at PrezCon playing a playtest copy of Fire in the Lake with Volko Runke. I hadn’t played any of GMT’s Counter Insurgency series before, so this was all new to me. I will begin with a breakdown describing how the game works and then move on to the actual session report.
- This is a “card driven game.” This means that there is a stack of event cards that determine the flow of historical events and opportunities in the game. Players may choose to exercise the card’s special actions instead of exercising their usual abilities.
- The turn order is specified on the current event card. Players can see the next one coming in order to plan around it. Players may pass in order to be sure to take advantage of the next card. Players may exercise the current card’s special ability in order to prevent another player from using it. Usually, when you act on one turn, you will be out of play on the next turn. Normally, two of the players will play each turn… but it’s possible for things to fall out such that a player misses a turn due to how his opponents manage things.
- There are four players broken up into two teams… however these alliances are extremely uneasy. You have to work together, but each player has different ways of accruing points, different strengths and weaknesses, and different abilities. You can’t count on your ally to do everything you want… and he is liable to leave you in a rough position if it suits him!
- The US player has unlimited funds… and can spend the ARVN’s money to train and deploy forces. The US needs to have COIN control in order to do certain actions, but doesn’t actually score points from having COIN control. The ARVN benefits from having territories support rather than oppose the government and the Americans. Yet ARVN does not get points from this support while the Americans do.
- The NVA begin the game weak, but can grow rapidly if they can establish bases and improve the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Several times it was pointed out that they need to wait for the right time to act… and then make it count. (They don’t have enough resources to act with impunity.) Meanwhile the Viet Cong can infiltrate and subvert and cause no end of trouble even though they appear to be weak militarily. The Viet Cong get points for having bases and for turning the people into opposition against the government.
I began the game playing the US and ARVN forces together. Volko suggested that we play the long game, which has many more event cards to play through. In the two player game, your score is always that of your weaker color. (This is to keep you from running one group into the ground in order to help the other one blitz past the victory conditions.) One neat feature of the game is a set of robot players… which allows people to play solitaire, allow to players to play with robot allies, or even have the robot player “sit in” for someone if they have to step away.
As a novice US player, I mostly just wanted to kill enemy units. They seemed so threatening to me. I would sweep an area in order to identify the guerrillas… then I would send in an airstrike to take them out. This pattern would keep the Ho Chi Minh Trail pruned back, but the collateral damage would create strong opposition that would cut into my victory points. Play continued through several event cards until a “Coup” card came up. This made the preceding card take place in Monsoon season (which lead to additional restrictions) and also triggered a housekeeping phase. (If anyone had met their victory point threshold when the Coup card came out, they immediately won the game.)
Someone arrived to take over the ARVN player and then suddenly everything changed. My yellow cube allies suddenly seemed to behave dangerously. They didn’t seem to want to do things that they obviously ought to do… and they seemed far more concerned with keeping me from scoring points than with killing bad guys. I would do all kinds of things to help them, but they would never seem to reciprocate. It just about drove me crazy… and I soon began arguing with the player that was running the ARVNS. I played a move just to get back at him and I overheard Volko say to the NVA player, “see…? they’re falling apart!”
Everyone has different abilities. If you don’t do anything fancy, you typically get to pick one action from each column.
But the NVA player had problems of his own and really needed the encouragement…. He thought everyone was picking on him because the Viet Cong had won in real life. He thought we were all biased and that we didn’t understand how difficult he had it. The Viet Cong player, on the other hand, was inscrutable to me. He seemed to be suffering from analysis paralysis. I would kill him, but he’d always seem to come back stronger somehow. He was actually a pretty credible threat for a while, though.
Things kept swinging back. Whoever threatened to win, ARVN would do exactly what needed to be done to dial them down to where they couldn’t anymore. He’d played A Distant Plain before, I think, and knew just what to do. (It was like in Illuminati or Uno where no one could go out without being much stronger than they appeared.) I was so far behind, I decided to pull out scads of troops in order to threaten a victory. I had far fewer men on the board, but I was just on the edge of winning the game.
Then my “ally” played the Ia Drang special action that had turned up. I was invading Laos! The NVA had just pulled out of Vietnam in into there to lick his wounds… but here I came. I airlifted a few ARVN’s to come with me just to spite them. I brought in several of my armies from territories around the board and then used roads to bring in some more. I wiped out the NVA forces and the ARVN’s eliminated the last NVA base there… and the fact that *they* did that had additional side effects.
I was miffed that I had been drug into such a precarious position. I then played the Linebacker II card out of sequence. (This was a special event card that I could on any round as long as certain conditions were met and the other players didn’t trump me.) This devastated the NVA and eliminated all of their money. The NVA player was furious. For the whole first part of the game, I’d been razzed for essentially playing kingmaker– I’d been handing the game to ARVN by letting him run up his victory point totals. (I’d been content to let him do this because I felt that it was up to the ARVN and the NVA to keep him down. At least… that’s what I’d been saying.) But now the NVA player was furious with me…. He wasn’t to the point where he’d flip the table over, but he did step away for a while to cool off.
Now… the thing about being in Laos… if another coup card came out… I’d end up losing the massive number of troops that I had there. Even worse… they’d be out of play, so I couldn’t bring them back unless something weird on the cards could make it happen. Guess what the next card in the deck was…? The coup!!! Doh! I think I was one point away from winning after the ARVN got done fixing things. I chose to bring in a few more troops in places that had heavy opposition. (My plan was to spend some time turning that around into support in order to get back to where I was threatening to win again.) I don’t know how that would have gone because we broke for supper right about then… and I had to head out.
I didn’t finish the war, but I got a sense of how it all worked. Of course, I got to do the most fun thing in the game and nearly won in the process…! The event cards and the Pandemic-like rules give the game its skeletal structure… but the heart of the game is in how you have to manage an ally that you can’t quite count on. The fact that each faction has different abilities and different means of obtaining victory means that it is not at all obvious what the correct thing to do is in any given situation.
This is a really compelling game.
Update: Note that when I describe ARVN player as driving me crazy, the VC player as being inscrutable, and the NVA player as being on the verge of getting table-flipping mad… I’m using some poetic license to try to get across the kind of physiological immersion that this game appears to be engineered to produce. Everyone there was a top notch gamer and a good sport– and I hope I haven’t inadvertently painted anyone in a bad light. But this game puts you in the mental frame of your particular faction in a powerful way. Tensions can run high in this game and the subject matter only seems to make it more volatile! It’s just a game, of course… but people playing this game are going to behave very differently when compared to the guys at the next table that are playing stuff like Puerto Rico and Small World. I have not observed this in many board game sessions. This sort of thing is more like what you can expect to see in a role playing game.