Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

A Day with Volko Ruhnke at PrezCon 2014

Volko Ruhnke sets up the long game scenario for A Fire in the Lake with his playtest copy at PrezCon 2014.

I’d showed up to PrezCon intending to get a copy of A Distant Plain and then play it down in the open gaming area. I wasn’t too surprised to see the designer there– someone had pointed him out to me the year before. What got me was that he was setting up his new game and no one was clamoring to play it. Oh, sure… there were several other game designers around that wanted to say hello or talk shop. But no one seemed to want to play Fire in the Lake!

That to me really captures the essence of PrezCon. The tournaments are really what the event is all about. Everything else is secondary. Oh sure, the auction is a pretty big deal. But there are no panel discussions and hardly any talks scheduled. There are no “guests of honor” giving speeches. There’s certainly no one dressing up like geek icons. The games are the thing… and the tournaments are organized by the sort of people that will play their respective games 500 times or more. If you haven’t witnessed it, it’s really hard to imagine.

And that’s how I could end up playing a game with Volko Ruhnke for a couple of hours while everyone else just walked on by. I was actually embarrassed to have him all to myself for so long. (I’m not that quick of a learner when it comes to new games, I’m not an expert on military history, and I was a good twenty years younger than most of the other people playing these things.) Volko was extremely patient walking me through everything, though. Still, I was relieved when a few more players finally arrived.

The Ia Drang card completely changed the game when its special action was played by the ARVN player.

The playtest group peppered him with questions as we played. I was surprised when he mentioned that Andean Abyss was his favorite game out of the COIN series. He said it was more pure than the others somehow. At one point he said how he really did not like working on more than one game at a time– it just got so confusing going back and forth between them. He also noted that the prejudice we had against the North Vietnamese faction had parallels in how things have gone with Cuba Libre. People really do play harder against the historical victors… especially in these games. He said he thought that things would settle down once the games got played more and that the factions weren’t quite as imbalanced as we were thinking.

The NVA forces in this territory are about to be eliminated.

We all went out for drinks and a meal that evening. At the point of the game that we were at, we were beginning to wonder just how any of us were going to be able to pull ahead and win the game. This may already be written down somewhere else, but Volko talked about how his son went to an Andean Abyss tournament with the goal of winning with each faction. He did indeed pull this off– the grognards only noticed his oddly familiar last name after it was too late!

Evidently, even though the strategy for the COIN series is opaque to me at the moment… it can be mastered. I like how Stephane Brochu has expressed it on Board Game Geek:

The board… after Linebacker II was executed.

The chaos brought about from playing against 3 other players who have very different victory conditions and options than you make for a very dynamic series of game, but unfortunately one which is sometimes hard to grasp fully the first few games. You find yourself staring at the board too often, with no clear strategy or idea of what you should do. Couple this with the distinct feeling that any progress you might have made on your turn is usually destroyed in a few cards make this feels futile by time and that is, at least to me, the greatness of the game. You cannot simply plow forward and hope for a victory.

That pretty well nails my experience with the game. My only problem now is… waiting until June or so for its release! While it will be a while before I’d try the long scenario again, the shorter ones will easily see play. The game strikes me as being ideal with four players, but the development of the “robot players” means I don’t have to worry about whether I’ll be able to round up a full group or not. I’d probably even try a zero player game at some point just to see the robots fight among themselves…. A two player game with each of us having robot allies sounds fun… but we could just as soon play on the same “side” against them.

I wasn’t sure I would like something that looks this much like a “Euro Game,” but the paranoia and the tensions this game creates are powerful selling points. I’m hooked.

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4 responses to “A Day with Volko Ruhnke at PrezCon 2014

  1. PeterD March 6, 2014 at 10:53 pm

    I may need to get one of his games, if only because they seem to support solo play. What do you think in the best “starter” game in the COIN series?

    • jeffro March 7, 2014 at 9:45 am

      All other things being equal, I would go with the theme that was most appealing to me. If that doesn’t settle it, then it is generally a good idea to go with something later in the series than something earlier because kinks get worked out over time and new refinements are developed. As always, your mileage may vary.

      • volkoruhnke March 7, 2014 at 8:00 pm

        There is also the consideration that new twists get added as we go, conscious that more players are familiar with the series the further we go. Fire in the Lake is the most involved of the four volumes. All around, I would say that Cuba Libre (Volume II) is the most accessible, and certainly the quickest play. Regards, Volko

  2. Pingback: I am on the Sad Puppies slate for “Best Fan Writer”! | Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

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