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GMT Weekend West 10/2012: Warring on Both Hemispheres

posted Nov 2, 2012, 11:55 PM by Douglas Sun   [ updated Nov 3, 2012, 12:07 AM ]

To my mind, the biggest story coming out of the Fall '12 GMT Weekend West is that, two months after the publication of Andean Abyss, Volko Ruhnke's COIN Series of politico-military simulations is just beginning to work up a head of steam. Andean Abyss was one of the games I saw being played when I arrived on Thursday evening, and I'm sure it would have seen more play if time hadn't been set aside for showing off the next two games in the series, Cuba Libre (Castro's revolution) and  A Distant Plain (the current struggle in Afghanistan). In fact, Ken Tee had playtest games of Cuba Libre running all day Saturday, and even then he had trouble accommodating everyone who wanted a go at it.

Unfortunately, I didn't have the chance to dip my hands into A Distant Plain, but the buzz about it seemed to be quite favorable. I did play an entire game of Cuba Libre and enjoyed it. It had a couple of possible play-balance issues, but those may have already been worked out in the two weeks between then and now. It's a smaller game than Andean Abyss — fewer map regions, fewer pieces, and for that reason alone it should make a good introduction to the series. The factions bear a formal resemblance to Andean Abyss: There's a U.S.-backed government that has to balance the use of brute force with the disadvantages of making its benefactor look bad; red-left anti-government guerrillas (Castro's 26th July Movement); a right-wing paramilitary that could help but also hinder the government (the Directorio); and a criminal faction (the Mafia, whose casinos are equivalent to the Cartel's drug labs in Andean Abyss). The players in Andean Abyss are relatively obscure to Americans who don't follow Latin America closely, but Cuba Libre will have some familiar names — most everyone recognizes Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, and you can't convince me that a wargame that has event cards named after Frank Sinatra and Meyer Lansky doesn't have a certain cool factor.

I'll probably have more to say about it in a couple of weeks, since I have been invited to another playtest session.

Ken Tee also showed me his notes for a possible fourth COIN game (to be co-designed with Ruhnke), on the resistance to the Marcos regime in the Philippines. From what I could tell, it will probably be at least as complex as Andean Abyss, but it will also be as engaging as any game in the series.

But my weekend wasn't all about mixing business and pleasure; some of it was just the latter. Ken, Martin Scott and I spent all of Friday (and I do mean all of Friday) consumed by the 3-player version of A Most Dangerous Time, MMP's imported Sengoku Jidai game, designed by Tetsuya Nakamura. I had played the standard, 2-player scenario before — once with Ken and once with Martin — in which one player represents Oda Nobunaga, plus Tokugawa Ieyasu and all of the lesser lords allied with the Oda, and the other player represents the patchwork of clans and factions arrayed against them. In the 3-player version, one player (in this case, Martin) retains all of the Oda forces, while the other two split the anti-Oda fragments between them.

Ken expressed the opinion that the 3-player scenario brings out the full flavor of the game in a way that the 2-player version does not. I don't know whether it was the peculiarities of this particular game or what, but I tend to agree with him. It was a brutal, exhausting struggle that lasted over 30 turns and saw momentum swing back and forth in ways that made you wonder if Nakamura hadn't designed a game so much as a sermon on the futility of human ambition. I won in the end, but only by the barest of margins, throwing a 20-strength Mori Clan army into Kyo against Martin's 18-strong defending Oda army; it took a healthy dose of good luck to win that battle.

It was a play-through that made me realize how much the game mechanics are designed to frustrate long-term planning and cut off momentum. The random player sequence within each game turn and the randomized movement allowances give you little to no certainty about when you'll get to move next and how much you'll get to move. Furthermore, the basic workings of probability mean that whatever localized good luck you may have in terms of the player sequence or movement allowance

A Most Dangerous Time, late in our 3-player game. The Uesugi Clan has been knocked out of the game, but the Takeda (at right, red counters) hang on grimly despite the early loss of Shingen. The Mori army at left would later make a desperate, but successful attack on Kyo to win the game.

may soon be offset by your opponent experiencing similar good luck. Even a little bit of that can nullify the best laid plans of mice and daimyo.

For instance, I was able to flip no less valuable a general than Tokugawa to come over to my side (along with his considerable body of troops) by using a Betrayal event card. But, due to bad luck in the player sequence draw, I was unable to do anything with him, or coordinate the Takeda Clan army with him before Martin drew the other Tokugawa Betrayal card in the event deck and flipped him back to his side.

Play balance was not as much of an issue as I'd feared. Even though the 3-player scenario splits the Oda's enemies in half, the victory conditions pretty much determine that they have to cooperate to weaken the Oda — right up until the point at which their common foe is weak enough to be the lesser threat. So both Anti-Oda players have to keep an eye on each other, to make sure that they're strong enough to have a shot at winning a showdown against each other.

I don't know if it was coincidence or the consequences of dreadful economic conditions finally coming home to roost, but attendance was well of its norms. IIRC, GMT makes room for 70+ people in the warehouse, and using that as a benchmark I would say that only 50 showed up. In recent years, the warehouse has always swarmed with us guests, and table space is at a premium on Friday and Saturday. This time, the warehouse seemed unusually empty when I arrived on Thursday, and there was never such demand for tables that Gene Billingsley would scold you if you left an unplayed game out. Don't know what to make of it, but there it was.