Thursday, 18 August 2016

COIN: Do I Give A Toss?

I sooooo much want to become a fan boy for one of the hottest game systems to emerge in the wargaming hobby in recent years: COIN. Short for 'counterinsurgency', in which - generally - each player controls one of 4 factions vying for dominance in a historical conflict, COIN has quickly morphed from dealing with recent conflicts in Colombia and Afghanistan, to the American War of Revolution and even - now - back to Caesar's Gallic Wars.

A fan of CDGs (card driven games), I was quickly attracted to the COIN system. To date, I have played Cuba Libre half a dozen times and Liberty or Death (which students of history unfamiliar with the game would quickly link to the American War of Independence) three or four times. 

I have to say that I enjoyed my first games of Cuba Libre. Roger of the famous Roger's Reviews Geeklist on BGG handily summed this game up as being like a 'knife fight in a phone booth". From my experience, that's a very apt description. You're often into the action very quickly, with 4 factions duking it out for dominance on the non-too-roomy island of Cuba. The game narrative is dynamic and spirited, with a single card play capable of creating quite an upset to what had been the status quo in cosy Havana for instance. 

But the Cuban magic started to wear off after I played a couple of games in which I controlled the Directorio (yellow markers) guerrilla faction. No matter how much I wanted to exercise the full palette of commands and special actions available to me, I could never quite seem to do so. Instead, I often found myself doing the same, repetitive command combination. Then I heard one of the other players express a similar sentiment about his own faction.

Yet, undeterred by this, I persisted with COIN and soon fastened my attention on Liberty or Death. Being a huge fan of Washington's War and the historical period and theatre in general, I went to quite some lengths to get hold of a copy before they sold out (ably assisted by the terrific staff at GMT in the US, I must say - a quality team). Besides, it's such a gorgeously handsome game, with first class components. Here's a taste:

Upon receiving my copy, I sooooo wanted - now - to be a fan boy of Liberty or Death. But, several games later, instead I've become a 'Doubting Thomas'. Maybe even a Benedict Arnold. Let me hasten to add that it's not that I have been punished by the game, to trail the field at the finish. Quite the most of the games, I have come close to winning. It's more about the game experience that has left me a little cold. Let me explain. First and foremost, it is the sheer down time of waiting for your turn to come around again. This is of course an issue with many 4p games in which player interaction can be minimal. But in COIN, this feeling is intensified by the fact that there is often little to be done when your turn does come up. For a start, depending on the eligibility table on the game map, you may either choose the event on the card, or exercise a particular combination of command and (possibly) a special ability. That may seem fine, but some of the commands are specific to a particular situation in the game, so can often be ruled out. At least in my experience, what normally results then is that you either go for the event or enact the usual command that you have become accustomed to. Mustering with the British. Rallying with the Patriots. 

Whatever you choose, the sum total is that you often find yourself doing a few small actions on the board, before handing the baton (figuratively speaking) to the next player....before resuming your snooze. This is particularly the case if all you have at your disposal is a limited command, restricted to a single area.

Gaming buddy Steve shares my views on COIN. He points out that one of the pleasures of CDG games is that you receive a hand of cards, which then allows you to plan your intended strategy for the turn, taking advantage perhaps of the combination of events and 'op points' on offer. The intrigue is seeing if the strategy can be implemented....largely depending on whether it survives 'contact with the enemy'. This approach to gaming supports conceiving an overall plan....strategic goal setting. By permitting you to only respond to a single card, COIN is a much different ball never know what your next option is likely to be. It's piece-meal.

This probably sounds overly critical, but my experience of COIN thus far often leaves me somewhat frustrated and feeling like a kind of machine attendant, in which the machine is the game system. A gaming buddy of mine who now avoids COIN games, quipped that you don't play the game, it plays you. I can't help but feel that there is more than a grain of truth in this.

Of course, COIN now has a legion of it has to be doing a lot right, doesn't it? Are they deluded, or am I just a lonely voice, signifying little? Certainly, I would love to hear the views of other gamers. Perhaps my viewpoint can be rehabilitated. That would be nice, especially as Liberty or Death now takes up considerable space in my game collection. Sometime, someday, it WILL return to the table.  For deep down - in the guerilla-infested forest of my mind - I still want to love COIN games.


  1. I wonder if they play better 2-player with each side taking 2 factions. One of the problems is that our gaming group doesn't get fully into the spirit of player-player negotiation, perhaps due to unfamiliarity with the game. Its one of those dilemmas, if it takes ten games to get to the promised land, can you find three other players to invest that time?

  2. Pertinent questions. I'm sure someone has already experimented with a 2p-2faction approach. Maybe it skews the dynamics of the intended factional game design too powerfully. A bot or two may be preferable.