Read the Editor’s foreword on what you can expect in this issue, and the inaugural Cardboard Emperors convention

Editor, James Buckley.


Welcome to the second issue of Cardboard Emperor’s Punched, the world’s, er, newest(?) war and strategy board gaming magazine. Issue #1 clearly went down well. As of end-April, almost eight-and-a-half thousand of you had had a read. There have been many messages of support and appreciation for our approach: accessible, light-hearted, modern. Thank you!

Even more exciting, the free game in our first issue – Gravelotte 1870 by Fred Serval – has been nominated for best Print & Play of 2020 in the Golden Geek Awards. If you haven’t already, please check out the game and then get voting!

On to issue #2 and no difficult second album syndrome for us. This issue is on the money – more COIN than an end-of-pier arcade machine. Yep! A COIN special. “Do we need more COIN?” I hear you sigh. Er, yeah…

Volko Runkhe’s system for modelling counter-insurgency is a rare beast that deserves more study. Hardcore euro-players and hardcore wargamers want to play it. It’s a unicorn. No. Let’s call it the COINicorn!

Our feature article this issue postulates on the key drivers of COIN’s success. Series developer Jason Carr then steps up to provide us with the latest news on GMT’s plans for the system. Of course, Volko has his say, penning an article that politely and elegantly rebuts my presumptuous questioning about how well the system models winning hearts and minds. Last but by no means least, future Golden Geek award winner Fred Serval surveys the vibrant landscape for fan-made COIN. Even as you read this, COIN fanatics around the globe are beavering away, dreaming of the day GMT’s monthly email announces their game modelling counter-insurgency in a Sri Lankan ant colony has made the P500.

Away from COIN, we interview Jaro Andruszkiewicz, co-founder of PHALANX. This will be the first of a planned regular feature called ‘Spotlight On…’, allowing us to get up close and personal with the whys, hows and whens of some of our favourite war and strategy board game publishers. PHALANX is an excellent and innovative publisher, so it’s great to get the background on the company and its future plans.

Rounding off this issue there are reviews of various games we have been enjoying at Cardboard Emperor’s HQ. My thanks to Paul Williams, Scott Moore and Neil Bunker (aka Diagonal Move) for their contributions, and to Ciotog Creative for the wonderful job (again!) with the artwork for this issue.

The launch of this issue coincides with the opening of pre-orders for the inaugural Cardboard Emperor’s in person convention – Conflict in Camden. Too long has the UK been a desert for war and strategy board gaming conventions. We’re going to change that. The rot stops here.

The event, barring a Covid-mutation catastrophe, will take place in London 2-4 July. Imagine: face to face gaming. We have been generously supported by GMT Games, PHALANX, Nuts! Publishing and the Players’ Aid for this event. Lots of give-aways for attendees. Thank you guys. For more details www.cardboardemperors.co.uk/cic.

As ever, I very much welcome any feedback on how we can improve our magazine. Email me with suggestions.

Also, if you like the magazine and want to help us make it bigger and better, please make a small donation here. I’d like to put out pdfs or potentially one day even a physical version, but this costs and I want the magazine to remain free, so reader support (and/or advertising) seem the best way forward.

Happy gaming! 

James – Spring 2021

Conflict in Camden was cancelled.


Why COIN is
going galactic

COunterINsurgency (COIN). What started as one gentleman’s idea to model the counter-insurgency in 1990s Colombia has morphed into a time-, continent-, (soon to be) galaxy-spanning ludic force of nature. 10 volumes and an expansion published by GMT. Four more plus an expansion on its P500 pre-order system. A host of fan-made games in development. Other games publishers getting in on the system. The COIN system is P-O-P-U-L-A-R.

My theory on its secret sauce: its rugged plug-and-play euro-wargame engine. The component parts can be tweaked, customised, reassembled. Designers just need to focus on the chassis. No surprise many of the volumes are made by first-timers. For gamers, the offer has similar appeal: low rules overhead to game a range of interesting, often lesser explored, settings. 

So what is unique about this “euro-wargame engine”, what is tweakable, and what does  ‘euro’ mean in this context? I think there are four keys*: 

  1. The sequence of play (the tough choices part).
  2. The logistical puzzle (the euro brain-burny part).
  3. The asymmetric victory conditions (the thematic colouring part).
  4. The factional interplay (the social fun part).

*Important to caveat that for All Bridges Burning and Colonial Twilight, given their lower player count, the SoP and factional interplay points are a bit different.

The sequence of play

Many modern war and strategy games of the type we like at Punched are card-driven (CDGs). The cards provide a currency for action, introduce randomness and unpredictability, convey theme, allow for small packets of new rules. 

COIN twists the first of these. The event card in COIN randomises player turn-order. And turn order is the main determinate of the actions you can take. 

Cocane Labs card from Andean Abyss.
COIN’s CDG – in addition to offering a specific event action on each card, the current card determines play order for the turn. In this card from Andean Abyss, the event card tells us that the Cartel (green) faction is the first player for this turn, followed by the FARC (red).

At the start of each game, the current and forthcoming event cards are revealed. In subsequent turns a new forthcoming event card is revealed. Players are prescient of the next event that will befall them, and their role in it. 

The first player can, typically, choose one of three actions: 

  • an operation only;
  • an operation and a special activity; or,
  • to execute an event on the current event card.

They do this by placing their faction marker in the relevant box on the left column of the piston-esque sequence of play, printed on the game board.

Sequence of play table from Andean Abyss.
COIN’s SoP – the action of the first player determines what subsequent players can do.

In most situations, the first player will want to take an Op + Special Activity, allowing them to combine standard operation such as marching from or to several regions, with faction-specific special activities (taxing the locals, or calling in air strikes on the rebels). 

The next player can only take the action in the adjacent right column box, or pass. There are only two columns of actions, so only two players can act per turn. If you have acted on a turn, you are ineligible to act on the following.

Why might you pass? The worst reason is that you have no resources to undertake any actions. Not a good situation. Passing typically provides a small resource boon. Alternatively, the available action in the right column box might not let you do what you need to do. Passing can be better than taking an ineffective action and becoming ineligible for the next card. It could be that you can do something amazing this turn, but the forthcoming card is just too good to pass up. Or too negative to let a key opponent grab. 

The tough choices this event card / sequence of play combination forces on you are a defining and compelling feature of the system. It captures many of the positives of CDGs listed above but takes the focus of the game away from hand-management squarely to what’s happening on the board.

The logistical puzzle

These choices are also critical in terms of figuring out the logistical puzzle of the system. I call them ‘logistical’ because I wear a war game helmet. For a euro-hatted gamer this is bread and butter, “right, I need this green cube and orange cube here, and that blue cylinder there, to do allow me to that – what’s the most efficient way to do that?”. 

The key to success in COIN is to figure out who you need to get where to allow you to do what, and the sequence of actions you must take to achieve this. For example, the governing factions in COIN typically win by getting ‘support’ from regions. To get support you probably need to undertake a ‘civic action’. Let’s build a school to replace the hospital we bombed last week! 

To undertake a civic action you may need to control the region, have a base there, have police cubes there, have troop cubes there. And how you get to that position requires a series of actions in a certain order over proceeding turns, all of which your opponents may interfere with. 

This all comes to a head at the end of the round, as triggered by the drawing of a special end of round card (called a Propaganda, Coup, Winter, Epoch, depending on the setting). These are victory checks, but also an opportunity for factions to increase their resources, gain additional support or control in regions, and redeploy units. 

You can only do these things if you have got the right pieces in the right place in previous turns. It is a logistical puzzle. Euro-loving players will be in their element. 

Pendragon, the fall of Roman Britain.
Now where did you say the light blue cubes need to go? (Pendragon: The Fall or Roman Britain – COIN Volume VIII)

The asymmetric victory conditions  

In COIN, every faction has a different conception of what success looks like. For some rival factions this may be zero-sum. For others it is complimentary. 

Cuba Libre, the COIN game set in the Cuban Revolution, assumes that for the Government and 26th July revolutionaries it’s hearts and minds, measured by support for or opposition to the Batista regime in different regions. For the liberal-minded Directorio student rebels its area control. For the US mob-run Cartels its opening casinos and continuing to rake in the green, as measured by total resources accumulated. The tug of war is that of popular support between the Government and 26 July. The other two factions can – technically – win doing their own thing. 

In Liberty or Death, the American Revolution volume, the victory conditions are very clearly intended to create a two-vs-two interplay between the factions. Both the British and Indians win if total support is higher than opposition, the French and Patriots the opposite. The sides also have a second individual victory condition to tie-break. But it becomes very difficult for the ‘allies’ to peg each other back, without also harming themselves. 

Now, one may quibble – and some do, see below – with some of the assumptions made to get to this point. But there’s no doubting this makes for great thematic underpinnings when you are playing the game. Each player has different incentives, some of which interact or are in opposition, some of which are independent. It also allows for each game to feel different in terms of flow and interaction, as the contrast between Cuba Libre and Liberty of Death demonstrates.

The factional interplay 

The asymmetric victory conditions also drive the factional interplay. Even the most shiny-hatted euro-player will find her path to success dependent on navigating the currents of COIN’s factional interplay. 

Some factions are naturally in opposition, others in alliance, by virtue of their victory conditions. Elsewhere, it can be more of a frictional, or even parasitical, relationship. 

In Fire in the Lake, the Vietnam War volume, the US can only win if there’s popular support for the government. It needs ARVN (South Vietnamese) resources to pay for civic actions (‘Pacification’) to build this support. The ARVN player sees the Southern regime’s survival as best assured through patronage, not support. US aid earmarked for Pacification may consequently get diverted by the ARVN player. Pity Westmoreland, no money for rural development programs for now.

Shared resources in COIN are like a joint bank account in a failing marriage, often with partners with very different tastes.

That is a mechanically driven interplay. The more interesting interplay is player-driven. In A Distant Plain, covering the insurgency in Afghanistan, the Western-led Coalition wins – like the US in Fire in the Lake – by getting the population to support the government, and its own boys and gals safely back home. During the normal course of play the Coalition player can only take civic actions to increase support where there are Coalition troops or bases. Since the Coalition is trying to get its people out, it makes sense to persuade the Government player to do the school-building instead. 

U.S. troops tried to win hearts and minds.
“Why aren’t we getting Karzai to do this? I’ve got kids of my own I want to see!” – a US staff sergeant plays with Afghan school children, March 2013 (photo from US Dept of Defense)

Let’s picture the scene…


Yes, schools are important of course, but how about we scratch each other’s back. Those Taliban rebels in the mountains of Nuristan. F15 air strike?


I struggle with your logic, but yes, I think we can oblige.


Whoa! Let’s not be hasty. We’re happy to move on peacefully, just a little bit of compensation for the lost poppy harvest is all we’d ask.


Go on…


Don’t tell me you’d seriously consider making a deal with these guys?


Think about it Mr. Government… This way you don’t have to spend all that time and energy on school building. Do something for yourself instead. 


OK. We’re on.


Wise. Once again you prove to our people you aren’t an American puppet. But, one thing. I can’t move out just now. Trust me, I definitely will. I just first need to pay the guys for the lost harvest. Now, about need those resources you promised…”

Imagine this type of interaction among all the factions, all of the time, both for positioning on the board and when considering action-selection on the sequence of play. Great fun!

Systemic flaws

Moans about the system are relatively muted. It is worth picking over some of the points raised. I’ll also give my two cents.

Turn order prior to end of round

One of the more common ‘complaints’ is the outsized importance of the randomised turn-order, particularly in the last few turns of the round. If the cards fall your way and you get the opportunity to do a couple of big actions, there might be little to nothing opponents can do to stop you winning, which can lead to a bit of an anti-climactic end to 4+ hours of gaming. 

My simple riposte: get yourself into the best position over the course of the proceeding hours, so that this risk is minimised. In my many games of COIN, I would not say I’ve seen this to be a major problem. The player that wins is, for the most part, the player who deserves to. At worse, it’s a random-ish outcome between those players that equally deserve the win. So, I’m not saying it’s not an issue, just not a big one.

Crabs in a bucket

Because it’s generally possible for all factions to negatively interfere with the victory progress of each other, COIN games can suffer from a crabs-in-a-bucket situation. As soon as someone pulls out into the lead, the other players extend their claws and drag them back. Not fair nor thematic, cry some.

I’d ignore this complaint. This is a feature of most games with lots of competitive player interaction. Wise gamers know the folly of taking an early commanding lead. Puts a target on one’s back. Indeed, arguably if you are doing this you aren’t playing well. COIN rewards building up alliances and getting your timing right. The better lesson: try and avoid taking a big early lead.


Remember the TV show ‘Pimp my ride’? Some of the volumes of COIN, particularly the more recent ones, head in that direction. A consequence of designers attempting to differentiate their games from other volumes, and simulate discrete aspects of a conflict. Sometimes this is handled very well. Gandhi, the volume on the decolonisation of British India, introduces the inter-locking concepts of Restraint and Unity to simulate propensity for conflict and tension between Hindus and Muslims. It is very elegant. 

Elsewhere, volumes layer on different mechanics or introduce quite convoluted combat systems and, in my opinion, suffer from a bit of bloat. So, I think this is a valid, albeit minor, issue. But that’s just my opinion, my favourite game in the system is the ultra-tight Cuba Libre. Others may love what I call bloat. 

PImped up car analogy.
What do you mean that seventh NPC faction over-pimped my COIN?
Fidelity to history

Finally, there some aggrievement over COIN’s lack of fidelity to history, or perceptions thereof. This can be in the way that the randomised event cards play out, resulting in a chronological order of events that only Dr Who can make sense of, or the choice of factions and/or their victory conditions. For example, the inclusion of the Indians as an independent faction in Liberty or Death really annoyed some people. As did the competitive relationship between the Viet Cong and NVA in Fire in the Lake. 

Mah. I can see it can be a thing if you are worried about that sort of thing. For me we are talking about a game first and foremost. Some minor sacrifices of historical accuracy can be made for ludic benefit.

The COINicorn

Without wanting to overplay it, COIN is a bit of a unicorn. A multi-player, negotiation-based war game, with euro elements. I speak from experience when I say it is creating the space for a new audience for war gaming. 

My entry to the field was via COIN. Multi-player negotiations with a historic slant. Yes please! I saw it as just a variation on the dudes on a map, Twilight Imperium-type games I was already keen on. And look at me now, a fully signed up war gamer with my own magazine. I even know what a Grognard is. 

But it’s also attracting those euro-gamers with a nose for history and a tolerance for player conflict. Which – when you consider Watch it Played’s Rodney Smith is now an evangelist – is a potentially massive audience.  

With more GMT and fan made volumes in the works (see Fred’s article below on this), and even a zombie version planned (called ‘ZOIN’ lol!), there’s always the risk that COIN, robust as it has proven, eventually runs out of gas. It would also be unfortunate if innovation in game design were to suffer if all new counter-insurgency simulations just default to the COIN engine. 

But let’s cast aside hypothetical concerns for now and just enjoy the ride, the world of strategy and war board gaming is infinitely richer for the COINicorn. 

Evolution of the mechanics of COIN 

I – Andean Abyss – Where it all began.

II – Cuba Libre – Andean Abyss in an area half the size. Knife fight in a phone booth, as the cliché goes. 

III – A Distant Plain – Enhanced cooperation and interacting mechanics between the two COIN factions.

IV – Fire in the Lake – Builds on ADP COIN synergies; introduces Pivotal Events; new types of bases (‘Tunnels’).

V – Liberty or Death – First ‘historic’ setting; variation of Pivotal card events (largely symmetrical, play at any time); off-the-board faction (French) and two-vs-two faction mechanics (Patriots/French – British/Indians; can’t directly deny victory conditions); campaign cards add catch-up mechanism; introduces ‘leaders’ that can be moved around the board, impacting on play mechanics.

VI – Falling Sky – Introduces an NPC faction.

VII – Colonial Twilight – First two player COIN; changes sequence of play mechanics.

VIII – Pendragon – Changing victory conditions for factions as the rounds (Epochs) progress (and Roman civilisation in Britain slowly collapses); involved combat mechanics, introducing strongholds and local garrisons. 

IX – Gandhi – Introduces concept of non-violent factions; Unity/Restraint tracks that impact faction capabilities and board state; new approach to solo system with introduction of cards to replace flowchart Bots.

X – All Bridges Burning – First three player; changes sequence of play mechanics; potential for NPC win.

You could say "COIN-u-copia".
So much gaming goodness… (photo courtesy of Shaun O’Keeffe)

Words: James Buckley

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GMT's Jason Carr.

 The Alchemist

Jason Carr works for GMT as the Series Developer for COIN (among other things). We wanted to get the latest on what’s happening in COIN and some of his insights, Jason kindly obliged:

What’s your exact role in relation to COIN?

I am the Director of Game Development for GMT Games, so I generally oversee the process of development as well as the development of any of the games on P500. I am also the COIN Series Developer since Gandhi, taking over from Mike Bertucelli. For COIN, I work with each design team closely to ensure consistency from game to game as well as quality for each game in the series. For some games I am very involved, but with other games I am able to leave the majority of the work to the design team. It just depends on the game, designer, developer, and situation.

What do you think explains the success of the system?  

Volko created a dynamic and flexible system, and it’s very easy to adapt to different situations. While each individual component of the system is straightforward (for example, the concept of Control, or the way that Guerillas flip from Underground to Active and back again), the layering of these simple concepts creates wonderful complexity. Adding in specific piece types, concepts, and tracks to suit a specific conflict enhances these core concepts to evoke completely different feelings from game to game.

I think that the Event Cards and the way they drive turn order is the innovation that most people associate with COIN and the reason the games have been so well received. This jockeying for position gives a lot of incentive for players to make deals, whine, complain, and beat up on each other, which makes every game a different and memorable experience. While I love playing COIN solo, I think we all can agree it is a much richer experience with other players at the table.

What’s been the most popular games in the series by sales?

Fire in the Lake, which has been a wonderful seller for us.

What’s the latest on the P500 timeline and when can people expect to receive their goodies?

Our next COIN product will be Fall of Saigon, an expansion to Fire in the Lake. Fall of Saigon covers the end of the American involvement in Vietnam, and the subsequent battles between the ARVN and NVA from 1973 to 1975. It has 2-player and 4-player scenarios, and has been a blast to play. That should be printed this year. After that is Ken Tee’s People Power, about the fall of the Marcos regime in the Philippines and the violent and nonviolent movements which brought that about. We don’t have a firm date for that to be printed, but the game design is done; we are just working on the Solitaire system.

Can you give any clues about what will come next on the P500 roster?

We are always evaluating new prototypes, and have a lot of cool things coming. Without giving everything away, there’s a planned expansion for one of our COIN games, and a game coming that is set in the same country as an already published COIN volume. Of course, everything is subject to change.

Moving to mechanics, the Momentum cards only last one campaign and so are not very popular in my experience, too little usage to spend a whole round acquiring – is there still a place for them or are they done?

That is up to designers. With the popularity of seeding Propaganda cards in the bottom half of a campaign stack, as well as shorter campaigns, players can ‘do the math’ more easily to determine if a Momentum card is worth taking – and as you say, often they are not. This is quite a contrast to Andean Abyss, which could have 30 cards between Propaganda rounds; that would be quite the Momentum effect! So I think designers have some work to do if they want to include Momentum in their design. In People Power Ken is using Personality cards to the same effect, but without requiring a player to give up their turn. I think there’s a lot of room for innovation here.

The Deception markers seem like a nice idea in principle but some are clearly very powerful while others do nothing. I’ve never seen them used in a game. What are your thoughts on them?

I know some groups have enjoyed them, but overall I think they have been poorly received by the COIN community due to the swinginess they introduce and the lack of ways for players to mitigate them. Again, this is a great area for innovation! I would love to see designers find new ways to use this idea, better integrated into the theme and mechanics of the game.

Can you explain how the solo bot system is developing and if the new card-based approach will be rolled out beyond Gandhi and Fire in the Lake?

The card-based bot system, which we call Jacquard (after the Jacquard loom, which was programmed using punchcards), was really just an experiment Bruce Mansfield and I did for Gandhi. We knew that if we designed the game with Solitaire play in mind from the beginning that a solo system would be easier to add – and that was true. But the question of retrofitting the system to other COIN games was never the intent of the project, so when Bruce was asked to do the bots for Fall of Saigon, and to use the card-based bots for it, we had to improvise. The result was retrofitting the bots to Fire in the Lake via the Tru’ng bots.

The reception for the bots has been great, so we are planning to continue to use them for People Power, China’s War, and Red Dust Rebellion, but the system will continue to evolve to be more competitive and (hopefully) easier to use. Other games may be retrofitted if anyone is interested in doing the work – I’m always interested in hearing from you!

What advice would you give to aspiring designers looking to use the COIN engine?

Think about what parts of COIN you can leverage specifically for your game’s topic – if it’s just the sequence of play/event cards, think about whether there would be another, better way to achieve the same ends. While the sequence of play works well for forcing player interaction, it also creates an irregular, unpredictable tempo which doesn’t mesh well with a lot of conventional military conflicts.

Likewise, figure out what parts of COIN you can discard. Nothing is sacred! Kill your darlings! If your game doesn’t need Control, get rid of it. Don’t spend time trying to make a COIN game, spend time making a great game and if it happens to be COIN, then so be it. I would rather make (and develop) a great non-COIN game than a poor COIN game.

GMT just announced the Irregular Conflicts Series inspired by COIN – what makes a game an ICS game?

The Irregular Conflicts Series is a sandbox for COIN mechanics and topics. The idea is to unlimit designers and let them play with the mechanical innovations of COIN: modify them, manipulate them, and find new ways to use them. Our first game, Vijayanagara, hews closely to the COIN formula, only removing the Control/Support model in favor of Tributary allegiance. We expect that future games in the series will take the COIN mechanisms much further afield. Our hope is that designers innovate and create new things, and the Irregular Conflicts Series is an attempt to provide a home for these kinds of games.

Finally, can you tell us a bit more about GMT One – what is it hoping to achieve?

GMT One is an in-house design studio at GMT Games dedicated to the design of Solitaire games and Solo modes within multiplayer games. I am the head of that studio, and have the pleasure of working with some of GMT’s best designers like Bruce Mansfield, John Butterfield, Mike Bertucelli, and Ben Hull. Our goal is to create the best Solitaire game experiences in the industry, by partnering with designers to incorporate Solitaire design organically in their games, rather than as a marketing gimmick or afterthought. We will also work on dedicated Solitaire games, such as Fields of Fire.

Our first project was the Tru’ng Bot Update Kit for Fire in the Lake, and we recently announced bots for Flashpoint: South China Sea and Red Flag Over Paris, with more to come. Of course, the big announcement was that GMT One is developing Ben Hull’s Fields of Fire, which is a one-of-a-kind Solitaire game that has a reputation for being difficult to learn. We plan to streamline the learning process for Fields of Fire to help more people enjoy this amazing game. We’re also thinking outside the box when it comes to ways for players to enjoy games solo, like with the GMT edition of the CDG Solo System, which lets players play both sides with imperfect knowledge. We hope to see designers and developers embrace what Solitaire gaming can offer, and we plan to support our designers to deliver the best Solitaire games we can.

Words: James Buckley

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OPINION: Volko Ruhnke

COIN and the battle for hearts and minds

Volko Ruhnke, COIN guru.
COIN denominations - from volume 1 to 6, missing 5.

Volko, we all know it’s a good game, but how good is the COIN Series at simulating counter-insurgency? I have a concern.

One of the counter-insurgencies covered in the series is the Algerian War of Independence (Colonial Twilight, Vol VII). Following the French withdrawal, David Galula, a French infantry officer, undertook an analysis of the conflict. It became a benchmark for counter-insurgency ‘theory’, still referenced by modern day forces. Galula’s four principles for success:

  1. “The support of the population is as necessary for the counter-insurgent as for the insurgent.”
  2. “Support is gained through an active minority of the population.”
  3. “Support from the population is conditional.”
  4. “Intensity of efforts and vastness of means are essential.”

In short, its hearts and minds more than brute force that wins out. It takes time. It’s expensive. 

If that’s so, why does the COIN Series do so little to model the hearts and minds aspect? In most volumes success or failure in combat is scalable and dependent on variables. Moving government support or opposition by contrast is mechanically deterministic. You just need sufficient resources, and cubes in the right place. Why isn’t more emphasis placed on the variables of moral and political suasion, given its importance to success? 

In short, are we actually simulating counter-insurgency, or are we just playing a rather involved area-control game?

When James contacted me to write this article, I asked him to frame a question that I could respond to. Above is his question. Here’s my response.

Thank you for the questions and the opportunity to address them in this issue of Punched. Galula’s theory was indeed among the inspirations for the COIN Series, not only regarding the focus of counter-insurgency on hearts and minds, but in other aspects such as the multifactional dynamic of most insurgency. These questions on the Series’ simulation can illuminate the design scope and purpose relative to other games. I will seek to address each below.

How much does the COIN Series model the struggle for hearts and minds?

Victory conditions are assymetric.

A glance at the victory conditions for just about any COIN Series game should immediately reveal that it puts the struggle for ‘hearts and minds’ at the very centre of play. The game constantly tracks popular support, neutrality, and opposition to the government. For some player roles (‘factions’), the amount of popular support or opposition is a key or even the only objective needed to win the game.

For others, ‘Bases’ represent not just military and logistical hubs but political infrastructure—political cadre, local shadow government, administration of services for the population, propaganda networks, and so on—and the player’s count of such Bases pieces on the map is their victory score.

Contrast these COIN Series player objectives with the victory conditions found in most conflict simulation boardgames. How many of the latter even consider popular support? The vast majority award victory by capturing and holding territorial objectives or eliminating enemy forces while preserving one’s own. (There are exceptions outside the COIN Series, such as Victory Games’ Vietnam, discussed below.) And that focus on land and attrition rather than hearts and minds is fitting because the overwhelming majority of these games concern conventional warfare, rather than insurgency.

And the unusual focus of typical COIN Series victory conditions on popular support is a big deal. Victory objectives incentivise players, and the resulting player behaviours — their strategies — drive the model in the simulation game. So, these rules for what will reward players with victory are not a small side detail, but rather the very heart of the design.

Why is moving government support or opposition in COIN Series games mechanically more deterministic and less dependent on variables than combat?

Actually, the rather deterministic resolution of combat was a common criticism of the earlier volumes, each of which simulated a modern counterinsurgency. For clues to the determinism of the Series’ mechanics for moving support, let us first examine its similar determinism in resolving combat.

Traditional wargames typically resolve individual combats with dice rolled on a ‘combat results table’ that produced outcomes dependent as much on the random rolls as on input conditions such as odds between force strength. In Andean Abyss (COIN Series Volume I), Government assault operations simply kill one exposed guerrilla unit per Government unit, with some differences to account for urban, rural, and mountain environments. Why this difference in game mechanics for combat?

Simulations of conventional combat tend to use highly variable combat resolution not only because the outcome of any single battle can be difficult to predict in real life, but also because a small number of engagements can decide the outcome of a campaign — perhaps just one battle. Think of simulating Napoleon’s 1815 campaign and the importance of all the variables on just one day and on one field, that of the Battle of Waterloo. A model of that campaign for fidelity should bring those variables — weather, morale, command, and the sheer happenstance of that day — into play.

Now consider instead the nature of combat in guerrilla and counterguerrilla warfare that is the bread and butter of a modern counter-insurgency campaign.

But what is the importance of a single guerrilla battle or a single day in a counter-insurgent campaign that lasts for years? The meaningful outcomes for real-world COIN result from the accumulation of myriad such tiny engagements. Each one is highly variable, but statistics in fact make the trends that matter to the conflict rather predictable. 

Therefore, our simulation of insurgency at the national (rather than tactical) level can afford to depict that predictability in guerrilla attrition, influenced by general factors such as troop efficiency, terrain, resources, and the decisions that national-level commanders make regarding where, when, and how often to sweep and assault. (Imagine the opposite design choice, to require players to calculate and roll out every clash of troops and guerrillas occurring across a country over the years-long war represented in a single session of the game!) 

Ok, that’s combat. What about moving popular opinion: do the games put too little emphasis on the variables of moral and political suasion, given its real-world importance to counter-insurgent success?

Mass political support or opposition to a government, perhaps even more so than attritional guerrilla warfare, is an accumulation of many, many individual occurrences—the opinion and expression of each of millions of citizens. A model of national-level counter-insurgency similarly can leverage statistical expectation to deliver a simpler, more accessible and engaging game. Think of how predictable an election is once underway and early returns become available: outside of very close races, news services can forecast the winner with high confidence even with only a small fraction of actual votes reported, because sampling of a large population works and trends in each precinct are known and matter rather deterministically.

The three-to-five levels of opinion represented in a COIN Series game, from ‘active support’ to ‘active opposition’ are simple representations of such accumulations of many individual thoughts and acts. As with guerrilla combat, we do not need to represent each individual citizen’s view in our simulation casting the players in the roles of national-level decisionmakers to produce plausible insurgency dynamics in their game play.

In the COIN Series, higher-level interactions of player decisions among multiple operations and events combine with semi-random initiative through shuffled card draws to produced highly variable outcomes of both the fighting and its effects on population support from one playthrough of the game to the next, at an appropriate level of detail.

From each player’s point of view, the way that varying opportunities and impediments to both engaging in combat and in shifting popular support feed into achieving victory conditions thereby ends up feeling far from deterministic. (Otherwise, it would not be much of a game!)

But are we really simulating counterinsurgency or just playing an area-control boardgame?

Spend resources to build support.

All that said, yes, it is far easier and more to shift popular support in a COIN Series game than in a real-world insurgency. In real life, combatants not only could not know exactly what the results of any given action might be on popular sentiment, they generally did not even know what effect they might already have had! This is because credible polling in the context of armed conflict is near impossible. The US counter-insurgency in Vietnam, for example, had to rely on indirect indicators of sentiment toward the Saigon regime, such as incidents of anti-government violence or the amount of information that the population provided on Viet Cong presence. COIN Series mechanics vastly simplify these uncertainties at the centre of counterinsurgency practice; for some player tastes, they may oversimplify to the degree that we no longer buy the model.

Here then we arrive at the nature of board wargames as models and the fact that COIN Series games are far from immune to their limitations. A ‘model’ is purposeful simplification, by definition, always. This is the reason that mathematician George Box famously told us that all models are wrong (but some are useful). Models always simplify a more complicated or complex reality; that is their point. Wargames simplify war so that we hobbyists might explore certain aspects of historical events.

Take the hex-grids so common in board wargames: hexes are simplifications of circles, chosen by designers because circles don’t fit together into a grid. Hex grids regulate forces’ movement over terrain when such matters of time and space were important aspects of the events we seek to simulate. But hexes warp movement, they allow faster progress in a certain six directions than in any other directions in between them. Similarly, the typical odds-based combat results table that jumps from a 2-1 column to a 3-1 column with markedly different effects simplifies the true dynamic that the impact of force correlations on the probability of combat outcomes would be a smooth curve in reality. 

Yet grognard board wargamers will rarely object to hex grids or CRTs as implausible or unrealistic. Players used to these models of movement and combat understand that, yes, these game mechanics simplify, so as to serve their purpose.

COIN Series mechanics that model of counterinsurgency are no different, only, perhaps, not as familiar and therefore more subject to scrutiny than hexes. Civic action and agitation mechanics in Andean Abyss, for example, require only area control by the right pieces and the investment of sufficient resources to shift popular support. These mechanics vastly simplify the reality of counterinsurgency.

They do so with the purpose of highlighting important aspects of that complex reality, such as that popular support is a key end of the counter-insurgent strategy, that the provision of security and a higher living standard to a population by its government, for example, was believed by COIN theorists to be a way to build the support and legitimacy necessary for victory over the guerrillas.

Certainly, we can get more refined in our game models to achieve a higher fidelity of the struggle for hearts and minds in modern insurgency. Designer Nick Karp’s brilliant and breakthrough wargame Vietnam 1965-1975 (Victory Games 1984) — an important influence on me in conceiving the COIN Series — is a shining example of that.

It models not only the need for security control of an area to make progress in winning over the population (‘Pacification’, in the Vietnam War context) but also the variability in results achieved. And it does so province by province, for no fewer than 35 distinct regions on the game map, each tracked individually, season by season, over the course of a decade of counter-insurgency war. Every other operational turn, over 40 times in a single game, players assess area control of each of the 35 depicted provinces, apply modifiers, roll dice to find the increase or decrease in population beholden to Saigon, then record and tabulate the results on a Population Control Sheet. Whew!

But that was too much even for the dedicated wargamer audience of Victory Games Vietnam 1965-1975 to take on as a matter of routine. So, the game drops all that variability of population control for a much simpler mechanic of victory points for area control and attrition in its scenarios. The Population Control Sheet features only in the full strategic game that takes many hundreds of hours to play (yes, I know that because I have done it; well, halfway through twice).

As I similarly knew that the COIN Series would fail if it asked players to dedicate that amount of time for a single playing, I emphasized simplification. COIN Series mechanics severely simplify the application of counter-insurgency precepts of Galula and others to specific historical conflicts. And they do so with the purpose of depicting those aspects in the form of a game that seeks to be more enjoyable than painful to play — a purpose that calls for them to eschew all the calculations and randomisations that would be needed to model these conflicts with any higher fidelity.

I hope that you will nevertheless end up spending many hundreds of hours over the course of time enjoying COIN Series games and continuing to ponder their implications for insurgency and the other factional and irregular conflicts so common throughout human history.

Words: Volko Ruhnke

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Fan-Made COIN games

There’s a thriving community on Discord that spends much of every day talking about COIN, playing COIN, and sharing thoughts and ideas about their own COIN-inspired game designs. Game designer Fred Serval shines a light on these COIN enthusiasts and some of the most interesting fan-made designs in the works

In April 2020, I joined the COIN player’s Discord server at the invitation of Joe Dewhurst, someone I had met on Twitter. He had just put out a call for testers for his COIN prototype about the Ōnin War (called The Pure Land). Little did I know that I was also embarking on an epic design journey. I discovered the community that wasn’t just playing COIN games, but making and sharing new COIN-inspired designs. 

Before looking at some of the most interesting fan-made, or as we call it on the server ‘Community Created’, designs under development, some background on the server and the community it created.

It was set-up in 2020 by London lad Luke Barton, who had become tired of trying and failing to find players in real life to play with. “I saw an opportunity with the ten-fold increase in players using Tabletop Simulator as a result of Covid to build an online COIN community,” say Luke. His two-fold objective for the group was that it should be a medium where it was easy for people to arrange games, and that the community should drive itself. “I set up the Discord server, hoping over-time perhaps there’d be 50 or so of us to play games. We reached that number in a few days!”. 

Two key joiners were Joe Dewhurst and Stephen Rangazas. Seeing a number of members designing or keen to design their own COIN games, the pair set-up a design workshop channel on the server. “We wanted to give designers, especially new ones, a safe place to get constructive feedback”, says Stephen.

Navigate the Discord server.
The design workshop channel on Discord and some of the games under development.

Designers are invited to the workshop and given a three-week development slot. Stephen or Joe commit to playing each game once solo, and then competitively, normally against each other. They then typically send the designer some written feedback focusing on usability, gameplay, and conceptual/model points in the design that could be improved. “If I have the time, I usually like to read a little bit on the topic to help give informed feedback”, say Stephen, “then we try to help organise live plays among the broader COIN Discord community.”

Joe adds: “The benefit for the designers is it helps them get early feedback, set a deadline, and gives them a taste of the back and forth of the development process. Hopefully, it will help some designers make the leap to designing a publishable COIN game, or ones that deviate from COIN but might show up in other series, like GMT’s new Irregular Conflict Series.”

“The Community-made games section has become the lifeblood of the server,” says Luke.

So, that’s the background. Let’s have a look at some of the future hotness that’s under development.

Cross Bronx Expressway

CBE represents negihbourhood poloitics/conflict in the New York borough of the Bronx.

Cross Bronx Expressway (CBE) by designer Non-Breaking Space (NBSP) is one of the projects I’m most enthusiastic about. A game about urban decay and regeneration, it’s what we call in the community ‘COIN-adjacent’: some mechanics are inspired by COIN, but it’s not a COIN game. Three features that make CBE a bit different:

  • The initiative track has been significantly altered, making for a very dynamic three-player game
  • A purely socio-political theme: Bronx urbanism policies from the 1940s to the 1990s
  • An amazing modern aesthetic

I asked NBSP where the design-inspiration came from. “I was playing a game of Liberty or Death and thinking about how the Indian population itself isn’t really represented, just their fighting units. I realised the displacement that would have been occurring to that population before, during and after the events being played out in the game was worthy of simulation itself. And that this could be transferred to the setting of urbanisation of the Bronx.”

In particular, CBE takes the COIN concept of ‘Bases’, and how they are placed and removed, as a good basis for representing housing infrastructure. “Housing was being removed and shuffled around in the Bronx in the same way that military fortifications might during a decade of conflict”, explains NBSP.

NBSP’s first commitment is to simulate the history of the period, and I’m convinced this game will provide a fascinating insight into this really interesting time in contemporary US social history. It also demonstrates that a COIN or COIN-adjacent game doesn’t have to just focus on violence and societal uprising. Hopefully, this game can inspire other designers in that regard. 

A Fading Star

By new designer Yann De Villeneuve – who only played his first game of COIN last year! – A Fading Star is a newcomer to the community pool of projects. Unlike CBE, it’s classic COIN. It builds upon A Distant Plain to represent the situation in modern Somalia after 2007 when an Ethiopian intervention ousted a coalition of Islamist factions that claimed power in the capital Mogadishu the year before. The game depicts the struggle between four factions: 

  • The weak transitional federal government (TFG)
  • The African Union mission (AMISOM)
  • Al-Qaeda backed Al-Shabaab
  • Somali Pirate gangs targeting commercial vessels

What makes this game stand out for me is the depth of Yann’s research on the topic and the way he has adapted and refined A Distant Plain’s core mechanics to deliver an exciting new take on the system, and a unique new COIN faction in the form of the pirates.

The game has benefitted significantly from community feedback. Yann cites the Al-Shabaab ‘Insurgent Broadcast’ Special Activity, which highlights the jihadists’ capacity to levee funds and soldiers by boasting about their actions, as being a community suggestion. “That added to the theme that Al-Shabaab as a more aggressive and insidious opponent than their Taliban counterparts,” says Yann.

Excited about this one? You should be. 

The British Way

Kenya on Tabletop Simulator.

Beyond organising the design workshop, Stephen Rangazas is also a designer and developer who works on COIN games for GMT. He decided to go through the workshop himself for his latest project: a pack of four two-player COIN games, focusing on British decolonisation. Each game focuses on one event (or ‘emergency’):

  • Malaya
  • Kenya
  • Cyprus
  • Palestine
Palestine on Tabletop Simulator.

The British Way (TBW) is full of innovations, from the initiative track to how insurgents use Bases and counter-insurgents use resources and intel. On top of being incredibly well-researched, TBW is a masterful exercise in game design. Using the same core system, Stephen manages to tell four radically different stories about some of Britain’s ‘dirty wars’.

The game’s development highlights the strength of community created COIN. Stephen told me his design only really took-off when he played an early version of my own COIN-adjacent game, A Gest of Robin Hood. It seems my design flaws were inspirational: “That game is also two-player and in the process of giving feedback for it I came up with some of the changes I felt needed to offer a COIN experience truly tailored to two-player head-to-head play”, says Stephen. 

“I think the back and forth interactions between The British Way and A Gest of Robin Hood exemplifies the benefits of getting a trusted group of designers who all want to improve each other’s designs.”


I’ll conclude by sharing with you Stephen’s three top tips for would be designer thinking about joining the workshop:

1) Don’t be worried about joining. It doesn’t matter if it’s early in the design process for your game, it’s often important to get feedback at that point. 

2) Don’t take feedback personally. Everyone understands it’s a prototype. If we provide critiques of the design, it is to help you push towards your next version. The point is to address things now before pitching to a publisher.

3) Be a sponge. You want to collect as much feedback as possible. You don’t have to incorporate all of it, but I would see the workshop as three weeks of serious engagement with your design, so take any feedback you can get. 

Have your own design? Want to playtest other people’s designs? Want to speak about COIN all day with other COIN nerds? Then JOIN US: https://discord.com/invite/fUeHg8CenT

Oh, and Joe’s game the Pure Land? Yeah, that just got added to GMT’s P500. Made the cut in about three days. Proof that if you work hard enough at it, you can get there.

Words: Fred Serval

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Searchlight or spotlight.


Jaro Andruszkiewicz from Phalanx.

This is the first in a series of ‘Spotlight on…’ articles we will publish in Punched.

The goal is to learn more about the history, philosophy and games releases of war and strategy board game publishers. 

First up is PHALANX, an Anglo-Polish publisher that releases accessible, innovative games with a focus on high production quality.

In the hot seat: Jaro Andruszkiewicz, co-founder of PHALANX. 

Can you explain the background to PHALANX?

The genesis was when I met my partner and now a long-time friend, Waldemar Gumienny. We were both avid players Empires in Arms and Paths of Glory, and realised we needed more modern games in Poland. We established a small online games store and named it Los Diablos Polacos (‘The Polish Devils’)

We thought ourselves disruptors on the market, and liked the devilish, rebellious sound of the brand name. We only later learnt that any, even light, associations with devil are a no-go in the American culture. We ultimately settled on PHALANX. 

My non-gaming work brought me to the UK. While here, I was able to acquire, thanks to Mark Simonitch, the license for Hannibal: Rome vs Carthage. As a result, the decision was made to establish a company on British soil and operate from here. 

That was five years ago. Since then, we have run 10 Kickstarter campaigns and published several games in several languages, either ourselves or via various partnerships. 

Phalanx catalogue of games.

What’s are the most popular war games in your roster by sales?

UBOOT is our bestseller, which was rather a surprise for us. A rather unusual package: a real time, app-assisted game, with role-playing and psychological elements that influences players’ decisions via visual and sound effects. Plus, an uncompromising setting, a unique and striking table presence, and some euro worker-placement mechanics. 

The game was very well received by the community. It won eight Charles S. Roberts Awards – a record I believe. This annoyed some of the more traditional wargamers. For them worker placement has no place in a war game. I think they are missing the real value of UBOOT – how well it recreates a war situation. Players literally get shivers when they hear that sonar searching for their sub. The game experience can be unforgettable.

Our re-mastering of Hannibal & Hamilcar is second on the list. The game is over a quarter of a century old but still plays fresh. It is just so well balanced. We are just in the process of sending files to the printers for the Golden Geek Edition of the game, with updated rulebooks and entirely reworked version of Hamilcar. 

Dudes on a map.
A wargaming evergreen: Hannibal & Hamilcar.

Freedom! by Vangelis Bagiartakis, a renowned euro games designer, is third on the list. Its subject matter is quite obscure – the Greek War of Independence and in particular the siege operation around the Greek Holy City of Messolonghi. And yet it sells surprisingly well, challenging the idea that only the games with well-known themes can get interest and traction. The game has sold out and is now in pre-order on our website in a wide selection of languages.

We also have high hopes for the next game in in the pipeline – an amazingly produced fourth edition of Successors – another Simonitch design. 

It seems you look to differentiate your games through production values and taking a more mass-market approach, by which I mean using miniatures and bright, colourful easy-to-read rule books – do you think the war game industry is too staid in general?

We identified that many historical games, and more specifically wargames, were not getting the attention they deserved because, well, they just look bad. 

We see games like objects of art. We want our players to feel a connection with them. Hence, we deliberately ‘overproduce’ our games. This has a commercial upside. Our customers come to us because they want refined items in their collection: games that not only play great, but also have an amazing table presence. 

And easy to read rulebooks? Hands up who does not like them. Zero hands up.

You mentioned your app-driven WW2 sub-sim UBOOT, will there be an expansion or variation of the system?

Yes. We have been working on two major add-ons.

One is a component upgrade – a model of the submarine made in plastic, rather than the current cardboard. We are in the final stages of the rendering. We wanted to run the Kickstarter for this earlier this year, but the situation has become complicated by the delays in production of the minis for our other games. We do not want to ask our backers for more before delivering the games they have already paid for. 

Aim your torpedoes to take out a merchant ship.
“Fire the 88mm!” Image from the UBOOT app.

The other is a mission editor. Most of the work on this has already been completed by Iron Wolf Studio, which designed the game with PHALANX. As soon as they are ready, we will be able to offer the app update, again probably via a Kickstarter, and hence allow for creation of an unlimited number of scenarios. This will give the players more content that they are able to play through.

What is your view as a publisher on the growth of Vassal and TTS? Will companies like PHALANX start charging for people to use relevant modules?

I think they should, one way or another. Making highly developed games is an awfully expensive process. A game like our forthcoming release Total Domination had a budget of five digits! We can only afford to make such games thanks to Kickstarter and pre-order. Publishers must look at every possible revenue stream to get a return. Vassal and TTS may help to convert players to buy physical games, but the link is rather weak. 

Of course, digital platforms allow actual consumption of the game, especially for players who are distant or unable to meet, which is a great thing. So, I think free access to a Vassal or TTS module should be offered to purchasers of the physical version of a game. At the same time, publishers should expect some contribution from those who just want the digital experience. I think this is what we are going to see start to happen.

What war and strategy games do you have in the pipeline?

We have, or soon will have, multiple games for pre-order: 1920 – a re-make of a hex and counter wargame on the Polish-Soviet war, which has aged exceptionally well. 1944. Race to the Rhine: Anvil –a classic of ours that is being reprinted and expanded. We are giving it a solitaire system and upping the player count from three to four players. Iron, Mud and Snow (working title) – a quick playing ‘weuro’ on the Barbarossa campaign, recommended to us by David Thompson. And King of the Planet – a 1 to 2 player game on the management of an empire, where you will be trying to out-do Philip IV, King of Spain. 

There is also a Kickstarter for Coalitions, which is a quick-playing sandbox game of war and diplomacy for 1 to 6 players, set during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. We plan this campaign to contain a pre-order for Pursuit of Victory, a separate, two-player Napoleonic wargame, which is in the final stages of development.

Future Kickstarter activity may see us launch an adventure campaign game for 1 to 6 players covering the realities of the American intervention in Vietnam. You will lead a group of recruits on a variety of missions. Another game we would like to bring to Kickstarter is set in early Medieval England. This is a highly competitive game for 1 to 4 players (or 5 with the ‘Danes’ expansion). It is a visual masterpiece, and we really can’t wait to share it with the public.

What is your favourite non-PHALANX game that you are playing at the moment?

Sadly, I have a limited ability to play games for pleasure. I have a lot of games to play and test as part of my job, but those are usually prototypes. A year ago, when the first lockdown started, I purchased Pandemic Legacy, and this is the game we play at home. I also play Memoir’44 and The Shores of Tripoli with my son.

Words: James Buckley

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Julius Caesar heralds the review section.


Armageddon War

Summary: A very thematic tactical-level war game with a great counter-attack and reaction mechanic that makes for a highly dynamic gaming. 

A regular sight on the television news in recent years has been that of a technical, speeding across a desert, adorned with chanting bearded fighters and the streaming black flags of ISIL. The scene may then cut across to a poorly trained local militia-fighter, blindly shooting an AK47 above a parapet. Maybe there’s a final reel of Russian fighter-bombers, rocketing a spot in the desert from the air. Such is the unfortunate fate that has befallen parts of the Middle East and North Africa in the 2000s. Such are the images my mind conjures when I play Armageddon War – “a platoon-level game set in the near future”.

ISIL machine gun mounted on pickup truck.
ISIL technical with a heavy machine gun, Syria.

That near future is 2028. The setting is the Middle East. ISIL is resurgent. Russia and the US battle indirectly through proxies, though accidents can and do mean things are sometimes more direct. Israel, Turkey, the Kurds, the Syrian army and rebels skirmish continuously. 

You and your opponent are participants in the fight. The base game comes with 15 scenarios. The first scenarios start simple. New mechanics like off-board artillery, IEDs, snipers and drones are introduced as the scenarios progress. In one scenario you might be a Syrian opposition force trying to hold off ISIL raiders. In another you need to finish off a botched assassination job before opposing reinforcements arrive. In later scenarios you play Russian forces supporting a coup against an ISIL-friendly leader in Turkmenistan, or combined US and Israeli forces encountering Russians and Syrian rebels attempting to capture a city.

ISIL captured tank counters on hex map.
ISIL forces in captured tanks advance.

If all of this sounds incredibly interesting and thematic – it is! Modern tank-porn lovers rejoice. Want to know who wins out of a T-14 Armata and M1 Abrams? You can find out in this game. Autonomous vehicles, Apaches and drones come up against militia armed with RPGs. Sometimes, in a tight urban setting, your elite Israeli Mechanised Infantry unit may become pinned down by that AK47 waver in the parapet.

It’s not just the theming that makes this game so enjoyable, it’s the mechanics. Forget IGO/UGO. Each side will comprise one or more formations. At set-up, each formation is assigned one or more chits. These are drawn from a bag. All units of the drawn chit’s formation: tanks, infantry, technicals, drones, can activate. Once all the formation chits are drawn, all but the last drawn chit are returned to the draw bag, and play continues. There’s no end of turn. The game ends when there’s a winner, or after a certain number of chits are drawn. 

This allows for some very tactical play, and tough decisions. Your chit is drawn. Do you go all out, hoping to also get the next activation chit? Or leave some units unactivated? This is an important decision. Unactivated units can react, opportunity firing on the opponent’s turn, potentially ending an assault in its sandy tracks. Weighing up when and with which units to press home an attack, and who to hold back for reaction-fire, is often the difference between winning and losing.

Armageddon War close combat counters.
The game has special rules for close combat. Armour is disadvantaged in urban areas.

The other main difference between Armageddon War and other hex and counter games is the lack of a combat results table. Combat results are determined by custom coloured dice. Stronger units may get the opportunity to roll more of them. The quality of them – the number of ‘hits’ each face has – will move up or down depending on factors such as range, if the attacker has moved, unit quality and the like. It takes a while to get the system down, but it streamlines things when you do.

There are several expansions for the game, all part of the initial Kickstarter, but now available separately. Alone in the Desert, a solo card-driven system. The 600, a six-scenario persistent campaign where one player plays the US infantry battalion throughout, the other various opposing factions (I’m desperate to try this – email me if you are too!). And a standalone expansion, Burning Sands, covering a hypothetical conflict in 2028 between Jordan and Hezbollah (meant to be quite gritty and low tech, so probably more for the hardcore). The designer is also planning a Chinese invasion-of-Taiwan game, based on the same system.

Armageddon War with expansions.
Base game plus expansions.

As you’ll have gathered, some of the scenarios in Armageddon War require you to play the ISIL commander, trigger IEDs, kidnap civilians. If that kind of thing makes you feel queasy, steer clear. The rules I found very poorly laid out. I had to design my own player aid to resolve the issue. But others haven’t had a problem. 

Price and availability could be sticking points. It’s $100 MSRP. That’s quite a lot for the fairly limited number of, albeit high quality, components. I’ve also not seen it currently available through any UK retailer, though there are second-hand copies. A new print run is planned by the publisher Flying Pig Games at some point, so hopefully that situation will improve.

I hope so. I want to see this game played more. If playing out some of those iconic Middle Eastern conflict scenes you have seen on the TV in recent years appeals, try to pick this up. Great game.

Words: James Buckley

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Twilight Imperium 4th Edition 

Twilight Imperium banner.

Summary: If you’re looking for an optimised space combat game, that plays cleanly and quick, TI4 isn’t for you. But if that depth, breadth, character and complexity appeals, then nothing else really competes.

“Signs of great change are everywhere. This year, as if walking out of ancient prophecy, the Lazax returned from the darkness of history in a foreboding cybernetic form. Their coming is like the first wind of a terrible storm. The galaxy is waking, as if some ancient beast stirs from its slumber… the day will soon come when a new Empire will rise. For the sake of all, may the new Emperor have not only the power to seize the throne, but the strength to conquer the peace.”

So begins the latest edition of Twilight Imperium from Fantasy Flight Games. Twilight Imperium – TI for short, has been around in one form or another almost since the dawn of ‘modern’ board games. It is the poster child for ambitious, high production value, space operas. Arguably, without Twilight Imperium there wouldn’t be a Fantasy Flight Games, Without FFG, modern thematic board-gaming (especially the non-euro kind) maybe wouldn’t either. That weight of history though doesn’t answer two important questions; “what’s it all about?” and “is it any good?”

What’s it all about?

TI is a grand strategy space opera in an original setting. Over the course of 6-10 hours, between 3 and 8 players will develop their fledging empires from a single solar system and handful units to star-spanning imperiums. These will be backed by fleets of powerful ships and fighter swarms, deploy ground armies to conquer and hold planets, research new technology, trade and haggle with their neighbours over everything from boundaries to votes in the galactic Senate, all in pursuit of an elusive 10 Victory Points and the crown of Emperor that comes with them. 

What TI isn’t is an optimised knife-fight between fleets of interchangeable plastic bits. It sprawls. It takes time. Each Round consists of multiple phases in which each player gets to take various actions, all of which usually have an entire flow-chart worth of steps. That said, the galaxy can still feel claustrophobic, your borders are never defended as well as you’d like, and maybe, just maybe that enemy fleet across the cosmos is manoeuvring for a surprise attack on you through a wormhole. Despite an average of a 7.5 hour play time for four players, you don’t have much room to dawdle. Fleets are expensive to build and slow to move, so getting them in the right place at the right time takes skill and planning. TI is first and foremost a strategy game; it challenges you to control timing, positioning and logistics, not a tactical game that hinges on dice rolls and massive battles. That’s not to say big fleet engagements can’t, or don’t, happen; but repeatedly smashing mountains of plastic into each other and hoping you emerge from a close fought engagement on top is rarely the long-term winning play. 

Complex conflict on the Twilight Imperium board.
Ground forces from the Titans of Ul and the Nomad vie for control of the crucial planet of Mecatol Rex, whilst the fleets of the Vuil’Raith bide their time (Tabletop Simulator module).

If that’s piqued your interest and you’ve decided a day of space based empire building is for you, the second question beckons: 

Is it any good?

I’ll admit to some bias here, the previous incarnation of TI (3rd Edition) was the first ever modern boardgame I bought, before I even really knew much about the hobby. It was consistently one of my top picks ever since, and 4th edition has only improved and built on those illustrious foundations.

TI4 is not perfect. The Agenda phase (where the players vote on different political effects, which can vary from the basically irrelevant to the awesomely powerful, depending on the situation), is noticeably weaker than the grand strategy layer where you build your fleets and expand your empire on the modular, tile based, galaxy map.  The technology tree is a branching, multi-armed beast that takes a few playthroughs to get to grips with. (The first time someone sneaks past your defenses with Lightwave Deflectors will prompt a sudden reappraisal of the ‘nice but not that great’ Fleet Technology tree). Trade can be a vital ingredient in fuelling the war machines of the galaxy, or amount to little more than a few tokens passing back and forth depending on the races in play. Combat can result in some downtime if it’s not your fleets engaging in dice and card-driven destruction. Even the myriad of unique factions lend themselves to a degree of ‘tiering’ with some potential balance issues. 

But all of that really points to TI4’s true strength; it’s breadth; it’s depth; it’s detail. It has politics, and technology and trade and espionage and diplomacy. But it also has space combat, and orbital bombardments, planetary invasions, rebel uprisings and even, in one recent game, planet-cracking super weapons. It presents players with the constant challenge of lots of levers to pull in pursuit of your objectives and only a murky sense of what the ‘best’ choice is. 

Given everything that’s going on in the ‘real’ world at the moment, a quick point on play options seems appropriate.  TI4 is not a cheap acquisition, clocking in at $150, or around £120, and that’s before considering expansions, hundreds of sleeves, inserts for the huge numbers of cards and tokens and so on. I’d say you get your money’s worth within a couple of playthroughs. The production values are excellent, with high quality artwork, decent sculpts on the plastic and genuine mountains of unique cards. Given the playtime, even a couple of outings starts bringing the cost per player hour down to fairly reasonable levels. 

Twilight Imperium base game plus expansions equals no room.
TI4 unpacking. Those boxes aren’t empty, I just ran out of space on the floor…

Picking up an old copy of TI3 is sometimes floated as a budget alternative, and it’s certainly safe to say TI3 is better than no TI at all, but 4th Edition is a noticeable step up in terms of both gameplay and production quality. If budget is a concern, then the TTS (Tabletop Simulator) module is very playable, and even helps save on the setup and tear-down time. 

Words: Paul Williams

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Brief Border Wars

The uninspiring cover of Brief-border-wars.

Summary: The quad is back in this thematic and fast-moving wargame. Four unique scenarios covering lesser-known border battles, you’ll finish one and want to jump straight into another.

Apparently, back in the day, quad-games were A BIG THING. A common core system, packaged with four individual scenarios, chrome-added in special scenario rules, and four paper maps. Four-for-one – who’s not going to like that? Brian Train certainly does. So much that he’s decided it is time they make a comeback, at least in his go-to field of wargaming enquiry – irregular and unconventional warfare. 

Enter Brief Border Wars, designed by Train and released last year by Compass Games. Four brief wars, eight borders. The briefest the four day-long ‘Football War’ between El Salvador and Honduras in 1969, the longest the month-long ‘Operation Attila’ Turkish invasion of Northern Cyprus in 1974. Rounding off the quad are the ‘Third Indochina War’ between China and Vietnam in 1979, and the ‘Second Lebanon War’ between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006. 

The system is card-driven and lasts seven turns. There is a grey side and a white side. There are 42 Action cards: half grey, half white. The Action cards have differing combat and movement values. Players alternate playing a card for unit combat or movement. 

The system looks to model incoherence in small-scale conflicts. There are optional rules to ramp this up, but the core method is through the Action card draw. Six Action cards in total can be played each turn. These are randomly drawn at the start of each turn from a common draw deck. 

Statistically, on the first turn each player should receive three cards of their colour in their hand from the six dealt. Statistically. In reality, Ms Grey may get five of the six, meaning she’ll be undertaking beaucoup operations. Poor Mr White will look haplessly on, nursing his single Action card and cursing the poor logistical preparedness of underlings. The flipside: 20 of the remaining 36 cards in the deck will be white cards; Ms Grey may end up rueing her wild first-turn romp as she lacks capacity to respond to later-turn white counterattacks. 

Providing a counterweight to the cruelty of the draw, in lieu of playing an Action card or passing a player can use one of their six Special Action cards. These allow for generic actions such as refitting disrupted and damaged units or defensive combat reactions. In some scenarios they also have other impacts. They will be useless at certain times in a game, and crucial in others. They need to be used wisely. 

Combat is bucket-of-dice. The attacker can choose which and how many defending units to target. The more units targeted, the lower chance of individual success. Combat result outcomes are calibrated against the attacker, so this decision counts. 

Operation Attila. The white Cypriot units defending Nicosia are disrupted.
Operation Attila. The white Cypriot units defending Nicosia are disrupted. The Cypriot player may need to play a precious Special Action card to refit them and salvage the situation.

Movement is typical fare but for a pinning rule that matters. If your good units get pinned, you’ll struggle to control nearby areas. And the game is won or lost through area control.

The system is brought to life by scenario-specific chrome. In the Second Lebanon War the attacking Israeli player loses VPs from successful rocket attacks from Lebanon. The IDF will want to take out those launchers, but getting to them is tough, and can mean you are neglecting wider tactical area control. In Operation Attila the Turkish player can spend a Special Action card to undertake an amphibious invasion. This places a ‘beachhead’ marker and attacking units in a coastal region of your choice, but you need to keep a supply line open to the beachhead for inland units to be effective. In each game two scenario-specific random events will be drawn. These may ground your aircraft, discard a card from hand (ammo shortages), and so on.

This is a light, fast-moving wargame. It can be taught in 20 minutes and over in two hours. For all that, it offers excitement, colour and tactical depth. Each scenario feels unique. You finish one and want to jump straight into another, or set up again and reverse sides.

For me, the most thematic is the Second Lebanon War, and the tightest Operational Attila. The Football War – despite the fun name – can be a bit dreary as you slog through the jungle. Not quite a 0-0 draw between Hull FC and Macclesfield Town on a rainy winter’s night, but not as fun as the others. The Third Indochina War is probably the most conventional and with the least bells and whistles. It presents a tough if enjoyable terrain-based challenge for the attacking Chinese forces. 

Brief Border Wars Indo-China on Vassal.
The Third Indochina War scenario on Vassal. The game plays well on Vassal.

The games are not particularly balanced. Reflecting historical outcomes, the Chinese, Israelis, and El Salvadorans struggle to control conquered areas. As with other Brian Train games there are a bunch of optional rules to boost or hinder a side. I think the idea is to swap in or out the variants depending on the desired playing experience. Nice idea, but with each of the four games having five or so variants do I have the time to figure it out for myself? No, is the answer. There are some pointers, but it’s all rather vague. I would prefer just to be specifically told which variants to play for a balanced game, and which for a historic game. 

Maybe that will happen in the forthcoming Volume 2 of the series, which dials the time-period back to four conflicts between 1913 and 1940. Or Volume 3, which if commissioned will return to the modern era. Keep them coming Mr Train, score a hat-trick and you keep the match ball.

Words: James Buckley

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The Jours de Gloire series

Rivoli map board with counters and cubes.

Summary: a comprehensive set of tactical Napoleonic games designed with Gallic flair.

Jours de Gloire has its origins in a set of rules developed by Richard H. Berg and Marc Bransdma, but most of the 32 games in the series were designed by Frédéric Bey. A celebration of the bicentenaries of the various battles, the original titles were published from 1997 to 2015, mainly in French wargame magazine Vae Victis, and by Frédéric’s own labels Canon en Carton and Ludofolie Editions. 

As you would expect for a tactical system, it uses the traditional hexes and counters, terrain modifiers, and combat resolution table. The moderate counter density allows room for manoeuvre in most battles and the simple terrain and line-of-sight rules do their job well. The combat system is easy to grasp and enables the odds to be calculated in advance, while still providing a suitable degree of uncertainty. A chit-pull mechanic for activating formations is where the game most deviates from being a simulation, but it provides the dynamism and uncertainty needed to replicate the experience of battle and does, at the very least, offer the illusion of tackling command and control issues. 

The series rules are only 10 pages in length, but should be approached in a French spirit – do not expect them to be comprehensive or to cover all eventualities. There are specific sets of rules for each battle which give the unit set up, schedule of reinforcements, and victory conditions, and they also detail special cases that deviate from the series rules. 

Fuentes de Onoro - the forces of Masséna and Wellington clash in western Spain in 1811.
Fuentes de Onoro – the forces of Masséna and Wellington clash in western Spain in 1811.

When choosing a first title or battle to play, do not repeat my mistake of being the typical Englishman and opting for Waterloo. The system is not at its best when tackling that more attritional engagement, and it is far from ideal as a learning game. I have found that some of the battles from the Peninsular War, with relatively few formations and of modest duration, are an easy entry into Jours de Gloire and really showcase the system. If you can read French, then I’d recommend trying some of the Trophée du Bicentenaire scenarios (available in pdf from the Jours de Gloire website).

Overall, the system not only creates diverse and enjoyable games, but also makes for a great teaching tool on Napoleonic tactics. Carefully planned use of combined arms is most effective, but opportunities must be taken when they present themselves. Cavalry attacks should be unleashed only at the right time, and can be devastating when attacking poor quality or disorganised infantry units in their flanks.

So, when playing the French, open a bottle of Gevrey-Chambertin or Boulevard Napoléon wine. With the British on your side, taunt your opponent with a Napoleon Complex IPA. Or if you are in Canada you might even go for an Imperial Russian Stout from the Wellington Brewery. Lean forward over the map (or towards the computer screen) – be careful with that drink! – and relax, but not too much.

Words: Scott Moore

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1565: St Elmo’s Pay

Bright cards from 1565: St Elmo’s Pay.

Summary: Tempt your unsuspecting CCG loving friends into trying a war game with this fun head-to-head battle with a rich historical theme. 

In the 16th century Malta was a largely barren, yet strategically key, island in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. It was also home to the Knights of St John. Led by the septuagenarian Jean de Valette, the Knights had engaged in bitter and escalating hostilities for years with the Ottoman Empire. It was their expulsion from Rhodes by the Ottomans in 1522 that led to the Knights making their home in Malta several decades earlier.

The culmination of these hostilities took place during the hot summer months of 1565, when Suleiman the Magnificent decided enough was enough and sent an armada, led by Mustafa Pasha, to wipe the Knights of Malta off the face of the earth. 

From the opening volleys in May to the arrival of Spanish relief forces in September, some 130,000 cannonballs were fired during a siege that saw just 3,000 islanders (including 500 knights and assorted other forces) successfully defend Malta against 10 times their number. Terror tactics, including crucifixions and using the heads of prisoners as cannonballs, were employed, water sources were poisoned, and no mercy shown was shown by either side. Casualties were significant, with the Ottoman’s estimated to have lost a third of their force to fighting and disease. 

For those of us that enjoy our boardgaming bloody, 1565: St Elmo’s Pay, by designer Tristan Hall, is a 1 – 2 player card-based game that allows players to relive the Siege of Malta. 

Following 1066 Tears to Many Mothers, in the Historic Epic Battles System, gameplay closely mirrors that earlier game. Players take turns to play cards into a 3 x 3 card grid with each row representing the forces amassed at one of the St Elmo, Senglea and Birgu frontiers. These cards have an array of effects that can be used, among other things, to attack your opponent, generate resources, and complete objectives. 

Objectives thematically represent important events building up to the siege itself, such as the depopulation of the neighbouring island of Gozo some years earlier. Once all objectives are overcome, the focus moves to the fighting at the frontiers themselves – a head-to-head race to be the first player to inflict a certain amount of damage on two out of the three frontiers.

The mechanics – tire a card to use an action, discard cards to play a card – will be familiar to a wide range of gamers familiar with Collectible Card Games (CCGs), making 1565 well suited to newcomers to historical gaming. Though its key to note that 1565 is not a CCG. Everything you need to play is in the box at the outset, including a solo AI.

1565: St Elmo’s Pay card play.
Cards are played into a 3 x 3 grid with each row representing the forces amassed at one of the St Elmo, Senglea and Birgu frontiers.

Aside from a degree of overlap between card effects, 1565 is almost completely asymmetric. Each player has a unique card deck and objectives to overcome. As such the factions feel quite different; the Ottoman’s being both relatively easy to field and destroy, while the Knights are more resilient yet costly to play. 

While it is unlikely to appeal to those looking for a strict simulation of 16th century siege tactics, there is nuance there. Master the interaction between the cards and how these are manipulated to build the best army possible, and you should come out on top.

Playing in around an hour with relatively little rules overhead, 1565 St Elmo’s Pay is fun, competitive battle with a rich historical theme. A third game in the series, 1815: Scum of the Earth, moving the system on to the battle of Waterloo, has now completed a successful Kickstarter. One to look out for if you like the sound of the system but are not so interested in the two earlier settings.

Words: Neil Bunker (aka DiagonalMove)

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What's in store?


Von Manstein’s Triumph 

Von Manstein map showing Normandy, France.

Summary: an innovative approach promises a dynamic and interactive siege assault game.

Von Manstein’s Triumph is an upcoming 2-player block game from Spanish publisher Bellica Third Generation. By the time you read this, it may well have already funded on Kickstarter. I have been able to preview it thanks to an excellent Vassal module featuring most of the final artwork. 

The game depicts the final German assault on Sevastopol over four weeks in the summer of 1942, a topic rarely covered in board wargames, at least on this scale. A card-driven block game with an area-based map might remind you of certain titles from Columbia Games or other publishers. However, apart from using blocks for fog of war and to mark unit strength in up to 4 steps, Von Manstein’s Triumph is very much its own game. 

The heart of the action is the card system, which designer Francisco Ronco has developed from the earlier game Santa Cruz 1797 by Iván Cáceres. And, coincidentally or not, Iván provided the superb artwork for Von Manstein’s Triumph.

The players alternate action phases in a typical wargame fashion, but each phase can involve multiple card plays from both players. At the end of each phase, both players refill their hands with cards.

There are different classes of cards. Orders cards enable the active player to redeploy units, or launch air strikes or artillery barrages. An Assault card is used to move a group of blocks from a single area, or to move a single division. Up to three Assault cards can be played simultaneously to move multiple divisions in a co-ordinated assault. Whenever blocks enter an enemy-held area, then a combat is initiated. As soon as the combat has ended, the non-active player may then play a Reaction card to simply move units or even to counter-attack, before the active player continues with the phase. 

Von Manstein battle board.
The game has some beautiful artwork and innovative graphic design

Combat consists of rolling multiple dice during a single round. However, unlike most block games, all dice are rolled together and the number rolled depends less on unit strength and more on the use of Combat cards – up to three per player – as well as terrain and special markers representing armour and pioneers. Armour, bunkers and minefields can modify die results or reduce hits taken. Casualties are not just suffered during the combat itself, but also during the subsequent retreat by the losing side, provided that the opposing player has units adjacent to the area where the combat took place and projecting a field of fire.

Victory is determined by control of specific victory areas at the end of the game. The Axis player must decide where to attack the Soviet defensive lines and, when a breakthrough is made, then has a choice of targets. The Soviet player can opt for different defensive strategies: moving up reinforcements to reinforce the lines or plug a gap or, at a suitable time, pulling units back to the secondary line or tertiary lines. 

Keep an eye out for this game, it’s a good one.

Words: Scott Moore

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