GMT's COIN Series Buyer's Guide Review
on Jan 5, 2017
So you want to try your hand at GMT's COIN Series? Or maybe you’re just curious what the whole thing is about? In either case, great! You’ll find, hopefully, that not only is this one of the smartest gaming systems out there, portraying warfare as dynamic, brutal, political, and never ever straightforward, but also that it’s surprisingly accessible.
Before we begin, one word of warning and one of advice. The warning is that the COIN system isn’t overly complicated, but it isn’t necessarily simple either. COIN stands for “counterinsurgency” for a reason. And if you don’t know what that reason is, see if you can count on more than one hand the number of breezily successful counterinsurgencies found throughout the annals of history. Stuck yet? Point proven. Each of the six current volumes in the series features four sides, all with their own rules, abilities, goals, friends, enemies, and opportunities, and even for a veteran of the series a new volume can be intimidating at first. That’s one of the reasons I’m writing to you from the distant future, to help you find a good point of entry. The shallow end, if you’ll brook a slightly condescending expression.
But here’s my word of advice: don’t worry about that too much. Just dive in. The COIN Series has cast a wide net, and if you’ve got an interest in history it’s almost certain that something here will snare your interest. So if you’re not interested in the topic of my first pair of recommendations, skip them. Seriously, I won’t take it hard. Skip through this list until you find something that fascinates you, then jump in head-first. You won’t regret it.
The Shallow End
There are two volumes that I use to introduce my friends to the COIN Series, and thankfully they’re both reasonably easy to lay hands on.
The easier of the two — and the one that’s more representative of the system as a whole — is Cuba Libre, about Fidel Castro’s revolutionary movement in the latter half of the 1950s against Fulgencio Batista’s corrupt “legitimate” regime. Remember in The Godfather Part II when the Corleones are sent packing because Havana goes from mob paradise to warzone over the course of one boozy night? Yeah, that’s the topic, and the American Mafia is one of the game’s factions, the wheeler-dealers who just want to have fun without worrying too much about all this sticky ideological stuff. If you want to learn COIN without risking aneurysm, this is the one that does it all, or nearly all. There are urban centers to manipulate, jungles and mountains to hide out in, and enough slimy politicking to appease [insert your least favorite presidential candidate]. It makes for an easy stepping stone into the series at large, teaching the basics on a smaller, more traversable map, and stripping out some of the complicated “lines of communication” stuff like roads and pipelines in favor of easily-digestible economic centers that everybody wants to take a bite out of. And if that doesn’t sell it, I will say that for a few years Cuba Libre was my favorite entry in the whole darn series.
Falling Sky, on the other hand, represents a bit of a departure for the series. Gone are the Kalashnikovs and red-painted pieces of Communism in favor of Julius Caesar’s attempted conquest of Gaul. The problem for Old Backache is, well, that Gaul is brimming with Gauls. Fortunately, some are more willing to work with the Romans rather than oust them, leading to all sorts of clever advances and counter-maneuvers. This is easily my favorite volumes thus far, though it doesn’t slot into the rest of the series quite as neatly, placing greater emphasis on battles and outright subjugation than the manipulation of public opinion.
For newcomers, these are the easiest ports of entry into the venerable COIN Series. And if you find yourself still straddling the fence, you can learn a little more about either, since Michael Barnes and I were fortunate enough to review both Cuba Libre and Falling Sky.
For anyone up to a bit of a challenge, I’ve got another pair of volumes for you to consider.
First up is A Distant Plain. This is the most contemporary entry in the entire series, set during the modern Afghan conflict, and one of its trickiest aspects is the way it positions two of its four factions as ostensible allies, only for them to bicker their way to defeat half the time. While the Coalition and the fledgling Afghan Government are so completely interdependent that they even draw from the same pool of resources, they have very different ideas about how to pacify and govern in Afghanistan, forming a wedge of policy and practice that gives their Taliban and Warlord rivals enough breathing room to operate. The result is a unique political dynamic that might not appeal to those who enjoy the series’ more freewheeling entries, but is every bit as illuminating as it is a great game.
That same political duality is alive and well in Liberty or Death, the COIN Series’ original foray into an earlier time period. In this case, it’s the American Revolutionary War, with the British and their Native allies struggling for control of the Colonies against the Patriots and the adventuring French. Just as wars fought with muskets and line formations relied on bombastic victories to guarantee political stability, here the COIN system is tweaked to accommodate set-piece warfare. In particular, much of the system revolves around forcing situations where your armies can maneuver away from danger while backing your opponent into inescapable corners. Public opinion swings with each victory or defeat, so losing even one big fight in a crucial location just might make it your last. As such, the spotlight lands a little off-center when it comes to the politicking, but there’s nothing wrong with rolling up your sleeves, raiding the frontier, and kicking General Washington in the hippopotamus teeth every now and then. And as an aside, this represents a real ante-upper in terms of graphic design. Where the previous volumes sports maps that were functional, Liberty or Death’s map of the Thirteen Colonies is nothing short of gorgeous.
The Andean Abyss, that is. Sadly, both of the games I’ll be listing here are currently between printings. This means they aren’t in stock at Miniature Market at the moment, though any diehard fan of the series is going to want to take a look anyway. Rest assured, Miniature Market will be stocking the next printing of both of these titles.
The volume that started it all, Andean Abyss is also a hulking monster, sprawling and intimidating right from the get-go. The struggle for Colombia in the post-Escobar ’90s is appropriately violent, ranging from cocaine fields in the deep jungle to sieges in Bogota, from Communists encamped in the mountains to the far-right militia determined to raise hell no matter which side gets burned. For a first attempt, Andean Abyss is surprisingly polished and easy to dive into, though its scope makes it a little tough to handle everything at once, especially for the uninitiated.
Fire in the Lake
But if Andean Abyss is big, Fire in the Lake makes it look like an historical footnote. Like the war for South Vietnam that serves as its subject matter, this is the entry I’m most likely to dread getting drafted into. It’s big, it’s complex. To call it “daunting” would be underselling this monstrous package. In addition to both sides — the U.S. and ARVN against the Viet Cong and North Vietnam — attempting to infiltrate and undermine the other at every turn, it even boats some conventional-warfare clashes between North Vietnam and the standing counterinsurgency forces down south. There’s an air war to manage, the Ho Chi Minh Trail to disrupt, tunneled bases that are impossible to uproot, and more, all of which make this one for COIN veterans only.
Then again, as I wrote above, you really ought to ignore my recommendations. Pick what interests you and give it a shot. The COIN Series is as diverse as it is clever, and it continues to grow for a reason. So do yourself a favor and take a look. If you have any interest in history, politics, or asymmetrical warfare, you can’t do much better than the COIN Series.