Home Videos Games Podcastle

Insert COIN - Counter Insurgency for Beginners


So I just posted this in the last played games thread.

I’m super excited about COIN at the moment, and I know a lot of people got various games from the latest P500 shipment, so I’m wondering how people are finding them, what their thoughts are, and how they feel about the different games?

Because the above is quite a lot of infodump, I’ll wait before expanding on why they excite me so, but let’s hear from people. Even if you haven’t got one yet, what are you curious about? What is putting you off?

Talk to me about COIN, everybody!


The only one I have played is the Vietnam one, which was superb. Very tense, strategically complex, and a lot to get stuck into. I don’t know how much crossover there is with the rules in this series, quite fancy playing Pendragon but getting 4 people together for this sort of game can prove tricky!

I’m more than a bit wary of the games in the series that are set in the current era though, as I am concerned as to the author’s bias on the subjects. I am not sure we can game this period accurately for quite some time.


Yeah. I’ve got A Distant Plain, because it garnered a lot of excitement from people I like to play with, but I think it’s going to be very different playing something so fresh and ‘real’.

But I think it’s okay, as long as you recognise you’re exploring an authored statement, and keep your mind on the biases. I was quite impressed when Volko engaged with this discussion in the SUSD comment threads after his interview with Thrower. He seems quite keen on people knowing his bias, and exploring that perspective, and then criticising and challenging it.

Which is, of course, what we should always be doing. My doubts about Archipelago are only assuaged by the fact that every game I’ve played has involved a deep discussion about the politics and violences of colonialism.


Oh I missed that, will have to go back and take a look - thanks!


Well the only thing I did with my Falling Sky copy was looking at the stuff and reading some pages of the manual. I really want to play it and I have the players for it but I have to find the time to learn the rules to teach it to the others and that is a problem right now…

But I loved your report and I love reading more about your thoughts, AlabasterC!


COIN games play very well solo, both using the official Non-player Faction rules or using the old-school informal What Would Other Players Do style of singleplayer. There’s no reason not to give it a go on your own, too! It’s a better experience with a full complement of however many factions the game is designed for, but lack of logistical support is no reason not to play games in this particular series. :slight_smile:

So far I’ve played Fire in the Lake and A Distant Plain. They very much have their biases, but so do the games about older conflicts; indeed when working with older conflicts those biases are informed by colder data trails. The concept of “historical distance” is a bit wonky … generally the more time has passed since something happened, the less accurate our ideas about it are. Meticulous research goes into these games but they are very much abstractions rather than depictions; not only because they need to allow for non-canon events to occur but because complex as they are, they are not especially granular simulations. This is to their benefit; simulating organizations and governments and people doesn’t stand up well to granular simulation the way simulating a plane or a particle does.

Where was I … biases! They very much have their biases, but they do not feel disrespectful or wildly inaccurate. Taken as the abstracted, interpretive games that they are … both reflect the hows of their respective conflicts briliantly; they’re less concerned with whats and whys which is where biases tend to get you into the most trouble anyway. When you try to win based on the rules as written, more complex features of both conflicts pop out onto the table as emergent behaviors without being explicitly codified. To me, that’s all the accuracy I could ask for. They’re respectful, fascinating games that play well and that help me contextualize things I’ve learned about these conflicts from news stories, history books and documentaries in a new light. :slight_smile:

I very much want to grab Pendragon and/or Liberty or Death.


I hope @Boydesian can chime in here, soon. We all know he’s very knowledgeable i.r.t.: COIN, but he is also on hiatus right now.

I, personally, am clueless. 5 minutes with Mr. Boyd taught me more about COIN games than anything I saw online.


With Falling Sky I did actually take the time to run through the tutorial scenario on my own. It took a long time, so if your trouble is finding the actual time, it won’t make much difference, but it felt really useful to me, getting me a lot of the structure, and specifics, while also teaching me a bit about motivations and why people would make choices. I reckon after you’ve been taught one COIN game, or done the tutorial for one, it should be pretty easy to pick up another. I’d be surprised if Cuba Libre isn’t always going to be the best starting point, but Falling Sky does have the benefit of having a more straightforward military structure, that might make knowing what to do do a bit simpler.

Gwath is right on the nose about abstraction, historical distance and biases. Really well said.

One thing I don’t think gets mentioned, and so I was surprised to see in our game, was how the ‘tenuous alliance’ thing leads to potentially large moments of betrayal. This seems to happen on different scales. There’s small lies and big lies. There’s forgetting to help out, and there’s actually turning on your opponent. The big rebalancing in our game was when I actually directly attacked the other revolutionaries. It was a powerful moment. We’d been pursuing our own goals for a while, and clearly interfering with each other’s support, but this was the first direct attack, and it felt huge. It took me close to victory, but wasn’t enough. Cuba Libre certainly, and likely elsewhere, have the factions clearly defined enough that there is scope for emotion and role-playing that perhaps muddy the waters of simulation, but also make for a better game experience. I did, in the end, once the Pact of Caracas sealed my fate, turn down the opportunity to lose myself the game to be able to undermine M26 further. My gut told me that while I might have the slimmest chance of victory, I was probably just going to end up handing the game to the Syndicate. That was a compromise I couldn’t bear. I preferred the other revolutionary faction winning to the syndicate, so I kept the peace. I would lose either way, but in many ways this was monarchmaking, problematic in many games. On the other hand, I gather it was relatively historically accurate. The Directorio did end up throwing support behind Castro in the hope of being able to work with him easier than they could with government aligned forces. It didn’t work out that way, but it was accurate.

So I find that particular element quite interesting, and would like to hear how ‘in character’ people have been in other COIN games. Does this disrupt or support the simulation? The faction guides are certainly written in emotional and spirited language (I was told I ‘may have to work with the devil Batista’), so I think it is in the scope of the design, but do you lose the more mechanistic intention of the rules? (I’d actually most like to ask Volko this.)


I think, with exceptions because no game is perfect and obviously with only the two I’ve played as evidence, that the rules are designed so that these sorts of role-play decisions tend to dovetail very nicely with the actual rules tactics.

Looking at A Distant Plain:

The Coalition cares most about two things: the sum of population in Support regions and the total of Available coalition pieces. They want to create Support and de-escalate their involvement.

The Government cares about two things: the amount of Patronage they can generate and the population in COIN regions.

The Warlords care about two things: the population in Uncontrolled regions and their own total resources.

The Taliban cares about two things: the population in Opposition regions and the number of their own bases in play.

Other than defining the term “enemy” such that it doesn’t apply between Coalition and Government forces, the game doesn’t tell you what you want to do to any of the other factions. It just gives you a number. And that number combined with the actions available to each faction is where all of the magic happens. Most of the complexity in FitL and ADP is in the record keeping system and the jargon. What’s “Sharia?” Oh, its just ADPs jargon for adjusting Support/Opposition as the Taliban player. Etc. Once you have the core system concepts down, each new COIN game is mostly about learning the new jargon and the fine details of what each faction can do. Even your first COIN game, the tough part isn’t so much learning how the system works as figuring out what on Earth you’re supposed to do while you stare at that player sheet. When would I Assault? How often should I sweep? Should I Train? When the heck am I supposed to bother Patrolling?

I’ve wandered a bit off-course here. We’re trying to get to roleplaying and I decided to get there through the magic numbers.

The Coalition needs to get a certain combination of Available pieces and Support population. This number is set in such a way that they can’t afford to do without the assistance of the Government for most purposes. Similarly, they aren’t told “You hate the Taliban” but rather the Taliban quite straightforwardly needs to get regions to Opposition which naturally counteracts the coalition looking for Support.

Let’s look at the map, because I forget the exact calculations:

If the US pulls out entirely, they have 28/31 points. If the US commits all all available troops and holds full support of the government, they have 25/31 points up to 31/31 if returnees have been rallied, too. This means two things clearly: first, asking for Government assistance in protecting territory is essential. Second, while you can win through supporting the Government and fostering retournees even under heavy losses … the optimal strategy is to secure high-population support in a small number of regions (probably around Kabul) and then pull out as many troops as you can.

The Taliban, meanwhile, doesn’t need to defeat the Coalition anymore than the reverese. If they put all of their bases down, they get 19/21 points. If they foster maximum opposition they get 25/21 points up to 31/21 points. The Taliban wants to focus on opposition much more clearly than the Coalition wants to focus on Support. The Taliban ends up wanting to spread rapidly and early through rural areas to maintain a strong level of Opposition and a bunch of bases on the board, and then spends its efforts trying to eat away at larger population centers and keep its bases minimally protected. Meanwhile the Coalition tends to turtle in high population regions while going back and forth on how much to commit and the Government is stuck needing to expand quite a bit or develop a super robust patronage system … but without really having especially efficient means to doing all of that without the Coalition help. The Coalition, despite not caring about doing so directly, has the best tools for rapidly forcing into territory with the Government’s strength being holding down the fort later and giving the Coalition extra oompf.

The Government doesn’t care about Support–it just wants the control and the patronage. It’s on you to generate support. But you don’t care about control directly … you just want the support. Your uneasy alliance with the Government–taking away their resources, moving their troops, training new troops for them, dismantling their patronage, and tacitly approving of their Control so long as it allows you to defend Support–reinforces the uneasy relationship between the Afghan government and the actual coalition.

And here we are. The game builds the role-play elements of the factions into the rule structures. Playing your role doesn’t harm the game’s tactical play because for the most part optimal system tactics tend to reproduce similar narrative desires. By tweaking how everyone performs the basic actions of holding and swaying regions, moving, fighting, and developing resources … the richness of this de-jure role playing gets even more fascinating. But here we are, mostly focusing on the magic numbers and their relationship with the board state and we’re already seeing a lot of the more complex tensions in the conflict arise!


That’s a brilliant explanation of how the rules use the magic numbers and actions to create the motivations, and so build for roleplaying, but it doesn’t address my issue (which is fine, my issues aren’t the important thing here!)

In some ways, it’s similar to the Dead of Winter problem, where different people see different win conditions outside of those stated by the game. (Which isn’t necessarily about role playing, but I guess I came at it from that angle). I got myself into a position where I felt I couldn’t win (this may not have been the case). I needed to sacrifice two bases (two out of ten points worth of victory conditions) in order to be able to take aggressive actions against the July 26ers (M26), who were already way into their victory margin (five/six points ahead of it). I could sacrifice my own victory to take M26 down, but it would only give the victory to the Syndicate or the Government, thematically my more obvious opposition, but in game objectives sense, this was no different to M26 winning. I lost either way.

So I went with my gut, and did what (arguably) the Directorio actually did. I resigned myself to a losing position, because I saw M26 winning as being closer to my win condition than the Syndicate or Government winning. That’s nowhere in the rules, and rejects part of the system that’s supposed to create my motivation. Now, possibly I was roleplaying an extension of my in game motivation (the numbers encourage me to seek an alliance with M26 early on), or just my understanding of the history, but either way, I pulled away from the strict reading of the rules, because I was in a tough position.

But was this okay/fun/fair? I was frustrated in my final turns, because I had no effective actions to take. But that’s fine, it was my call. But it was tougher for the Syndicate, who would’ve been in a position to win if I’d pursued victory more ruthlessly (even though the chance of it actually turning into a victory were tiny, if existent).

Like I say, it’s like Dead of Winter, where the game rules state that you only win if all of your objective card items are complete, and push ruthlessly towards that, others will happily pull for a team victory in which they lose, and still others will tank the game for the team if they think they can’t win. (It’s also the same as any game which results in someone being in a monarchmaking situation…knowing they’ve lost, but knowing their final turn probably decides who does win…it’s often a very frustrating moment, resulting in weird diplomacy and passive aggression more often than not.)

So maybe my question isn’t about role playing, even if my specific example felt like it was.

I don’t think I’ve made anything clearer, but thanks again for your ludo-motivational breakdown!


I think anytime we start judging fairness based on how hard everyone tries to win, we end up in trouble.

There have been interesting discussions here in the past about whether or not players have an obligations to win on the game’s terms and personally I don’t think the COIN games have any more of an issue in that regard than other games in my collection. For people who see that as a problem, extra-curricular motivation is not fixed by the rules of COIN games, but neither is it created by them.

I don’t think you have any obligation to the Syndicate to play harder than you have incentive to play; that’s a philosophical determination on my part that has a lot underpinning it that isn’t necessarily related very directly to this discussion (and some of it got me into trouble in the cheating thread …).

More directly, does playing with incentives beyond pure tactics harm the COIN experience? I don’t think so. If we can set aside the “fairness” to the Syndicate player (which I’m willing to explore more, if you like), what we have is a game of complex interactions and choices where the tactical system changed because of social mechanics such as you preferring one opponent winning in your stead to another. This is often referred to negatively as “king-making” but its one of those annoying words like “pretentious” where we use it as a short-hand to describe inevitable realities with “but in a bad way” appended :P. King-making is an inevitable side effect of any socially motivated mechanical system. If you encourage players to invest in social structures, then they will make decisions based on those social structures that have emergent properties which do not necessarily directly reinfrorce hard-coded victory conditions. While you felt it wasn’t quite what you were after, this is why I took the direction I did with magic numbers earlier more than because you mentioned role-playing!

The game’s hard-coding has emergent properties which lead to non-hard-coded behaviors some of which reinforce a role-play state that evokes the actual conflict (which I focused on out of slight misundestanding of your intent) … but the same principles apply in creating social tensions which feedback into your decisions about how much to risk and how hard to play and how to balance effort, risk and reward.

Much as chess is not without elements of luck, the lack of systems like hidden roles doesn’t stop COIN games from being social engagements where negotiation and alliances matter. While your table dynamics might be inspired by real life and mirror it MORE accurately that the game-as-system could alone (as in your example), they might also steer it in a less realistic direction.

The result is the same: a complex system of interactions from a relatively straightforward if moderately complex rule-set that can be modified to explore a wide variety of modern and ancient conflicts with an alarming fidelity given the extremity of the abstraction and consistency of the mechanics from game to game. I don’t see anything wrong with that, but perhaps I’m still missing what you’re after.


I think that hits the nail on the head.

Any fairness related concern I have is more philosophical than practical, and as such somewhat unanswerable on that level (or at least, subjective enough to be a rehash of previous comments).

And realistically, these effects are still a product of the game design, and just another level of the depth of simulation (even if they take you away from history, that’s just another way that this set of modelled assumptions and motivations could have taken the path of events, if you accept the model (or are willing to accept it temporarily for the sake of exploration)).


I’ve been playing a lot of COIN recently with two games of Falling Sky and two of Fire in the Lake in the past month or two. I haven’t played Cuba Libre or Liberty or Death but i’ve played all of the others. My current preference is probably either Falling Sky or Fire in the Lake though all the games in the series are solid. I prefer these two because there is more maneuver and cut and thrust and less resource management, but only by margins.


I can back @Alexava up on this. Volko is a very honest, open, and approachable designer. His approach to games is very scholarly, no doubt a product of his CIA background, and he is more than willing to impart any information regarding his design decisions if you ask him. If you are on Twitter I recommend you follow him as he often makes observations on published games, as well as upcoming titles too. He’s @Volko26 (I assume he’s on FB too, but I’m not so I can’t help you there).


Well, nothing would make me happier than to swoop in now and say something sparkling and intelligent, but @Alexava and @Gwathdring have analyzed the COIN system as a game quite thoroughly and excellently. I really enjoyed reading your takes. Well done to you both! :thumbsup:


I think I’ve got a pretty good handle on the GMT COIN system after quite a few plays on A Distant Plain. Lots of tricks needed to identify when to push the right decision button and against what faction to find your groove in this. Although my last game last night taught me a few lessons on not keeping Taliban faction at bay while playing Coalition. I lost by Prop card 2 in the short scenario to Government who was at +3. Even though to look at the map here, about 5 card draws from the end, the Taliban was really making strides and kicking my butt bad (note casualty counts above, that was DOUBLED by the end) :disappointed:

I was pretty conservative with my surges and probably should have done some serious pulling out after Propaganda card 1. But I gotta say, I truly love the asymmetry and complexity of relationships in this game. I’m hoping to see something akin to this when I try Andean Abyss and Pendragon when I finally get my hands on them.


Interesting. I own A Distant Plain but have yet to break the plastic. I’m in no hurry to open it either since one of my two best friends in the world is flying SIGINT aircraft out of Bagram right now, and will be for the foreseeable future. Too topical for me I suppose. The really coincidental thing is that he was telling me on his last rotation home that should his company’s contract with the U.S. Army not get renewed, his next probable posting would be for DEA in Columbia. Andean Abyss sits on my shelf awaiting an unboxing as well.


I just took a stab at my first solo play of Liberty or Death and after my first big major battle I realized I messed up the sequence of play at some point because the faction I thought was active was displayed on the sequence as Ineligible! Ugh! I couldn’t seem to trace my memory as to where I left it off and which faction was left on the played card. I was already about 3 hours into it so I just gave up right there.

I think I just got real complacent with the simplicity and familiarity of the system that I neglected the actual assist that the sequence display and markers on the board do to help you keep track. I learned a big lesson for sure this session.

Nonetheless I love the game and really enjoy how different it plays than A Distant Plain .


I think the beauty of COIN is just how different each game plays, despite them all using the same system.

I’m just hoping someone picks up the lonely copy of Liberty or Death from my FLGS before my resolve finally cracks. There’s only so long I can persuade myself I have enough COIN games …


Vikki Ruhnke has done an interview with Polygon, about the intersection between his day job and board gaming. Ie, boardgames used in training at the CIA!

I think it’s the first time I’ve heard Volko talk about his day job, and I was surprised it was still game focussed, though obviously it makes sense.

I’m still pretty squicky about the CIA connection though.