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GMT Games: Staring Into the Andean Abyss

posted Sep 22, 2012, 11:37 PM by Douglas Sun   [ updated Oct 25, 2012, 10:51 PM ]

I don't know if GMT Games takes this into consideration when it sets its release schedule, but one of the benefits of publishing a game right before a convention — even a modest regional con like the Strategicon conventions — is that you're sure to get a lot of people talking about it and playing it right when it debuts. It's all about getting the buzz going, which can only help you make a quick dent in your initial print run.

So it was with me and the first game in GMT's COIN series of counterinsurgency simulation games, Andean Abyss. Pre-order copies went out in the mail about a week before Gateway Con. I was eager to give it a try, and the convention seemed like the natural place to do it. Otherwise, it probably would have taken weeks to sync up the requisite group of four players (yes, you can play Andean Abyss with less, but four is ideal). Thanks to Ken Tee, Rick Byrens and the Wargame Bootcamp people, I was able to get in two complete games in an afternoon.

On the surface, Andean Abyss probably shouldn't have appealed to me. I find the subject moderately interesting — just about everyone in our group talked about how whatever knowledge we had in the situation in Colombia came from "Killing Pablo," the History Channel documentary based on Mark Bowden's book on the fall of Pablo Escobar — but I won't go out of my way to get into it. Andean Abyss covers a later period than
I think this is a view of my first game of Andean Abyss at Gateway Con 2012. The drug cartels (in green) are flourishing in the far reaches of the jungle, while the government (blue/light blue cubes) control the heart of the country.
"Killing Pablo," and the drug cartel faction in the game mostly represents the Cali cartel that succeeded Escobar's Medellin-based gang. Also, Andean Abyss looks kind of like a Euro game on the surface — wooden pieces instead of unit counters and no hex grid on the board.

But the COIN series is the brainchild of Volko Ruhnke, who also designed Labyrinth and Wilderness War, and that in and of itself recommended Andean Abyss to me. To my mind, Wilderness War remains one of the most playable — if not the most playable — of GMT's card-driven games. In fact, Ruhnke's designs do such an admirable job of distilling important decision points out of a situation and presenting them in an uncomplicated way that one could describe him as a perfect designer for meeting what I proposed here as the wants and needs of today's historical wargamer.

In short, Andean Abyss is challenging to play, but not challenging to learn. The rules mechanics are fairly simple, and our experience was that the game starts to move quickly even before your first learning game is over. By that point, you should be able to stop worrying about the rules and spend all of your time worrying about strategy. After a couple of times through the game, the most complicated aspect of it will be set-up — especially the fiddly business of having to separate the four scoring cards (called Propaganda cards) from the other action deck cards, build a stack around each one, shuffle each stack separately, then recombine them to get the action deck ready for play. That's about as fiddly as Andean Abyss gets.

The game achieves this admirable characteristic by making each faction truly unique. It's not a mechanical design decision, but an important design decision nonetheless. Andean Abyss has four different factions: the Colombian Government, the right-wing AUC militia, the Marxist FARC guerrillas and the drug cartels. Each faction not only has different capabilities, but very different victory conditions. This means that you can't play your faction assuming that your opponents are working toward the same goals as you. You always have to look at them a little sideways and keep an eye on how close they're getting to their own unique victory conditions. Just because you're getting close to your finish line and nobody can stop you, it doesn't mean that you're going to win; someone else may be even closer to his own finish line, and you may not be able to stop him.

But at the same time, Andean Abyss isn't exactly a four-cornered fight, and that adds to the strategic challenge for each player. Each faction's interests overlap with those of another faction, making those factions natural allies — at least for a time. Both the Government and the AUC need to suppress the FARC in order to win. By the same token, both the FARC and the drug lords need a weak Government in order to win. It's almost certain that at some point you will want to help another faction, if only to encourage them to do your dirty work. But once they become too strong, you will have to turn against them, lest they reach their victory conditions before you reach yours. I suspect that this is especially true of the Government's relationship with the AUC, because the AUC's victory conditions are actually quite simple: They just need to have more bases than the FARC when the next Propaganda card turns up, so that each FARC base they can destroy gets them much closer to victory. If you're the Government and you choose this approach, don't be surprised if you have to ease up on the FARC if the AUC does too god a job of pounding the Marxists. Likewise, the FARC needs to keep an eye on the drug cartels; the cartels may have enough money to win after the first Propaganda card, and they can get close having enough bases to win by placing them in remote parts of the country, where the Government will have a hard time destroying them. Yeah, it's like that.

Ideally, Andean Abyss should be played with four players. There are 3- and 2-player rules, but I can't imagine that this delicate-yet-brutal balance between factions is quite as exciting with less than a full complement. That being said, however, the solitaire rules seem to work well — a characteristic that Andean Abyss shares with Labyrinth. In fact, the 1-player version (as it's called) is a good way of learning basic strategy for all of the factions, and it's a useful exercise to undertake before you play against live opponents for the first time. You take the part of the Government, and easy-to-follow flow charts walk you through the insurgent factions' actions. The only uncertainty I encountered was the extent to which you can use events from the action deck to benefit the Government, even though one of the insurgent factions is using its turn to play the action. But the answer to that may be in the rules, and I just missed it the first time through.

Once you wrap your head around the asymmetrical relationships between the factions, Andean Abyss is flat-out engaging as a game, and I recommend trying it once it even if you're not especially interested in the subject matter. As a general rule, historical wargames have been less adept at handling asymmetrical warfare than conventional force-on-force conflicts. But Andean Abyss — and, one assumes, the rest of the COIN series — offers an excellent example of how to make insurgency and counterinsurgency gameable.