Monday, 11 August 2014

Into the Jungle! A discussion on Volko Runke’s Andean Abyss

Part 1: I control everything, do I?

This is an article I had to write for months (actually a couple of years) but that for one reason or another it has been sent on the backburner countless times. There was always a compelling reason that was preventing me from doing it. Of course the reasons were indeed compelling, often it was the physical separation between me and my copy of Andean Abyss! I had it from 2012, thanks to Volko’s kindness, but until last September my box was in Italy while I was in London. Being Andean Abyss an huge box packed with (heavy) goodness taking it to my forward deployed position in London was out of question (thank you British Airways and your weight policy… well I have also a back to keep working too), and for one reason or another I was always prolonging my happy times in London. Finally my doctorate ended and not only I was stuck again in my marshy, unpleasant, unfriendly little village (negative side), but I had gaming space, gaming time (positive side).  The positive element of being stuck in a marshy, unfriendly, awful, unpleasant little village when your friends are abroad is that you do not have a social life; the negative is that you are so depressed your research work is slowed to a crawl.  I am still commuting so I can have a social life (well the idea that to hang out with a friend you have to take a jet liner is certainly a tad extreme…) but I have now plenty of game time so I had time not only to test drive Andean Abyss, but also to bypass my greatest hurdle, the fact I do not like the wooden cubes…
Well stop self commiseration and back to the game. Andean Abyss is something of a rarity a solo to four player counterinsurgency (COIN) game that took the gaming field by storm. Its subject topic is Colombia. Wait… Colombia? With all that hot and warm stuff off the presses why Colombia? Well if you are interested in Counterinsurgency Colombia is a perfect subject. It was one of the longest insurgency campaigns waged by an terrorist movement (the FARC, Fuerza Armada Revolucionaria de Colombia, Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces) that switched back and forth between high and low ebbs and that, for a while the FARC seemed poised to win. If you want to have a better look to the topic before committing yourself to the game (game that has a nice historical overview included) I cannot do better than point you here:

It is called From El Billar to Operations Fenix and Jacque. This is a full length research paper produced by the Combined Arms Research Laboratory at Fort Leavenworth on the topic. It is long but well worth read.  Doing a short, almost one liner, summary Colombia was an unlucky country with a communist insurgency in it, a powerful organized criminal cartel… The Cartel with capital C that was willing to resort to paramilitary/insurgency option to protect its Coca crops and export, a series of paramilitary ‘Self Defence’  organizations, and, finally, a government that lacked both the will and money to quash the bad guys until later on. It was a mess, but a mess from where the government emerged victorious in the end.  The Colombian government used both traditional and untraditional COIN methods to prevail. It is a perfect test bed for a game engine that wants to simulate this kind of nebulous activity. 

What I am setting to do now is a quite long discussion of Andean Abyss as a game, how it relates to real COIN in general, a description of my successful attempt to create proper counters for the game and general discussion. It will be a three part article. First I will concentrate on the game, then on how the game is relevant (or not) for the study of COIN operations, and lastly on my work on the counters.

Now the usual part, what you get from the box? Well, apart from a really sturdy large box (so large and heavy that when it showed up at my house, my mother picked it up thinking it was the usual game box and got a nasty surprise) you find a lot of things. The first thing is a quite pleasant hard mounted map of Colombia. People who know me also know I am not really fond of mounted maps. They warp, they are heavier (a consideration when you commute), they add to the cost for no real return value. Well I got this for free so I will not complain about it being mounted. What I like it is the ambiance it provides.  

It is an area map, with specific locations for cities and important line of communications printed on it. The colours are dark, and give me the idea of the jungle and mountain. I know mountains are often sunny, but the dark colours put me in the mood  of the poor chaps who have to climb them. I do not want to be gloom and doom, I am sure Colombia could be a nice place, and the Colombian PhD student I meet some years ago was a very nice and solar person (and end up being robbed and threatened with a knife on an Italian train… go figure), but for me it sets the tone. The map also gives you the whole geographical setting at a glance: mountain spine in the centre, coastal plains and Amazon basin on the two sides. As much the COINistas (more on them later) tell you that COIN is supposed to be waged among an human geography the terrain still there. You cannot skip the real terrain, it influences every human activity anyway. The fact that you do not only have the provinces (areas) but also cities and line of communication tells you that Volko is aware of this fact. The map board also contains a lot of track and information areas. This is good you do not need a lot of separate charts, it is very nice to be able to have everything in a single game ‘piece’.

Moving away from the map we have the ‘counters’ and the cards. I will describe the latter first. I like them they look well made (but I sleeved them anyway) and pleasant to look. They have always an inspiring colour picture in it that is related to the actual role of the card (it can sounds stupid, but it help you when you are playing to get the meaning of the card at glance) and the test is easy to read. There are also symbols indicating who can use the card and the order of play in the turn (more on that later).  The counters… well I told you up front. I dislike the wooden cubes. I am ok with the markers (they are nice and gives you the feeling of Colombia) but I hate the cubes. Said that they are simple coloured cubes (troops), disks (bases),solid octagons (guerrillas and bad doers) and cylinders (various functions). Some of them had an engraved symbol on one side so you can show open and hidden guerrillas. Part of my deal with Volko was designing some counters to replace the block and I will show you my results here. 

This time you can see my crappy photo skills too!

The Game also includes a rulebooks and a playbook. There are nicely printed with colour images. The text is not only easy to read (no no early style ultra dense AH typeset here) and, even more importantly, clear to understand. The fact that the playbook includes an extensive example of play is not hurting either. Kudos to Volko and his developer, Joel Toppen, here. The most difficult part is the solo player section. It is a bit difficult to understand at first because it is heavily procedural, but once you play a couple of turns it become quite easy to grasp. As one of my bosses, Major General Andrew Sharpe, British Army OBE, once said everything will become clear when you start playing.
The last part of the package are the charts. They are detailed and provide you a lot of stuff, including flowcharts to play the evil factions when you are playing solo.  

I cannot complain on the package. Except for the ugly cubes everything screams play me, at least to me. Once I designed, printed, glued, and cut the replacement counters I really had no excuse to not take a free ticket for a journey into Colombia. And here is the place where a long journey begins.

I had quickly summarized what you get in terms of hard components, but these are just components, the real meat of the game is the engine. Yet, before dwelling in it, I need to address a question.  Why Volko decided to provide me with a free copy of the game for this review?  Well, I do not want to boast my credentials (ok I tend to do this at times) but I think I am the perfect reviewer for Andean Abyss. Also understanding my background will probably help you to understand this review.  I know that if you have ever seen me in the real world I do not look to bright (can I add I am a quite caricatured character?), but certain people told me I am quite good in my field. As much it could appear incredible (yes Victoria this is in reference to your comment that I do not look the part) I am an academic (well I still have to get used to it, I still picture myself as a research student).  More to the point I am a military historian who also works for the Military. I recently got my PhD awarded from King’s College London, from the department of War Studies. I have worked for the British Army (DCDC, Doctrine Concept and Development Centre, and HQ 20th Armoured Brigade) providing historical and wargaming expertise. I am involved in professional and educational  war gaming (I did that for UK MoD DSTL, Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, and I was professor Philip Sabin main Teaching Assistant at King’s College for several years). I contributed articles to professional Think Tanks like the Phoenix Think Tank head by Commodore Michael Clapp, Royal Navy and where I had the honour to work with people like Major General Julian Thompson CBE OBE.  Due to my day time occupation I had the opportunity to discuss with serving and retired officers with combat experience (including Iraq and Afghanistan). On top of that my thesis (that I hope will be available in published form soon) discusses the doctrinal, cultural, and operational differences between the US Army and the US Marine Corps during the Vietnam War. The reason why Volko gave me a free game was that he thought my background was spot on for a review (or because he took pity on me… you decide!).    

Well after my personal rambling, let move back to the game.  I hate to classify games, mainly because often games falls in spurious categories and classifications seems to be different for every  few individuals at time (is Vomit Struggle a wargame for example? Is wargame an English word?).  In Andean Abyss there are cards and cards are indeed playing an important role, but I would hesitate to call it a card driven game. Well, no classification so let me explain how a turn is played.  The first activity the players do is turning the first card of the deck and then show the next one. The first card turn will set the tone for the turn. It shows the order of play and a two events (usually one event and its opposite).  Then there is an action phase played in the order shown on the card. One of the unusual mechanics of the game is that, while there are four factions (and possible up to four players) only two factions are usually active in a given turn. If you perform activity in turn X you will have to pass in turn Y.  What kind of activity you execute is up to you if you are the first eligible player (you do not have conducted operations in the previous turn and you are the first player listed on the current card) but are based on the first player actions if you are the second player.  Usually, the bigger is the operation launched by the first player, the bigger is the possible answer from the second player.  Operations varies from ones affecting a single map zone, to complex action sweeping Colombia… generally speaking you can recruits new forces, strengthen your available ones, move, or engage the enemy. You can also execute the event described in the version you like…  Combat is interesting. It is completely predictable for the government. The number of force you engage will produce a pre-determined result. Usually one enemy ‘cube’ will be removed per friendly cube. Terrain changes these ratios; two cubes are required to remove one cube in mountain, in cities only government police can engage. On the other hand the insurgents require a roll of dice to see if they will remove up to two government cube, the die having to be equal or less to the number of active guerrilla.  Beside these forms of open military combat you have terror, patrols (to uncover covert guerrillas), civic action, and, being Colombia, you can destroy or produce coca crops.  Special capabilities for the various faction include the ability of government forces to use airmobile movement, the fact that guerrillas (be they FARC, Drug Cartels, or Right Wing militias) can be covert (underground) or active. If you feel the need you can set up rackets (FARC and militias) to gain resources (asking money for protection…) or even assassinate (removing a single enemy ‘cube) if you are the Militias. The Militias can also steal coca shipments. Another important consideration is that your operations cost resources, bigger the operation is, the more resources it requires.  Victory is very simple and straight forward (at least until you try to achieve it): you need to increase the number of Colombians who support your cause. The higher this support is the close you are to replaced the other three factions as the new  leader of Colombia.  Of course this noble ideal requires you to master a lot of little nifty details, and to make sure your opponent support is not climbing too!

I have kept the description of the mechanic as short as possible. Both the rules and the playbook are in online so you can read them for free (even playing the vassal module if you are so inclined).  Yet there are twists that need to be addressed, mainly because is these twists that add personality to the game.  There are three different presidents in Colombia that get elected in due time (mainly as the government player is drawn into a prolonged struggle).  Each president has his own traits. Samper does not work well with the Americans and you receive less aid (look at his picture on the map and you will get the feeling why). Pastrana  tries to reconcile the country (the guy do not look determined) and will allow the FARC to place a free zone, essentially giving them a slice of the country to run and where the government forces cannot enter. Finally you get Uribe who looks thought and determined (and competent) and remove the FARC zones. The three president represent a kind of narrative, bungling at first appeasing in the middle, if the FARC does not win by that time you have an hardening of the government stance.  

Furthermore the four sides are not symmetrical. They have their own capabilities. The government has better mobility and, as discussed earlier, better combat capabilities. The FARC can do a lot of nasty things and usually has an easier tactical time in upsetting other people, but it is not so effective in fighting in the open.  The Cartel needs to literally cultivate its riches and ship them overseas to generate cash. The AUC is an interesting bag with limited combat capability and money, but thriving where troubles are.  These capabilities are represented as specific special activities unique to the faction.  Certainly the game spends a great effort in trying to differentiate the players. 

Finally in a world where finding other players seems to be difficult (especially if you live in a village in an uncivilized country and your friends are to be found in other countries…) the game included a full solo system. It can be used to replace missing players or, to run FARC, Cartels, and AUC while you play the poor guys in the government. The solitaire system is not a push over. It is logical and follows a reasonable approach to building what I will term ‘non governance’ (collapsing the presence of the current government ot the point it is not exerting any legitimacy). In my first solo plays I got soundly trashed by the system, mainly because it is tailored to build support for the insurgency and I got into panic-short-term-reaction mode with lack of resources (both in the map and in the card pile, a lot of important government capabilities had been removed in the initial random card selection). One thing I appreciate is that I did reasonable things, but still even if I was getting some progress here, I was more or less leaving the FARC rampaging unchecked too much. The oil spots strategy works only if you have resources to put into it. Focusing in clearing few areas at time is important, but you cannot simply forget the rest of your country.

In summary I cannot say I do not like Andean Abyss, as a game. I like the chaotic and depressing feel it has and the fact that even solo it gives you a big headache.  The game is challenging but well designed. But that is just half of the deal, and we will move forward shortly in Part 2...

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