You lost miserably. Yet again. Still, you’ve played many COIN games. You feel you have a good grasp of the rules and strategy. You even manage to do OK sometimes. Why isn’t your play as consistant as you think it should be?
Well, for me the answer to that question was in the rulebook. I decided to look a little more closely at the rules, and I discovered a few very interesting passages whose significance had first eluded me — there is a lot to think about when learning COIN. But the good results I obtained after applying those few principles convinced me of their importance.
Some, maybe all of these observations will seem obvious to you, as they seem to me now. But since they apply to every one of the six COIN games published so far, I think that viewed as a whole, they may constitute some sort of basic technique for those games. A starting point that could be useful for new or future COIN players.
It All Starts with the Sequence of Play
It is quite easy, on those large, detailed, colorful COIN boards, to pay too little attention to that modest, unchanging chart called the Sequence of Play (SoP). But it is where some of the most crucial COIN thinking is done, where cruel trade-offs and thorny dilemmas confront the players, and brutal blows are exchanged. In short, it is where you could have your best say in what’s going on. No matter how good your faction looks on the map, what happens on the SoP can really make or break you. Or your opponents.
I’ve written elsewhere that there are some Eurogame elements in the COIN system. Well, here’s another one. Because on every turn, the two eligible factions will have to use their pawn on one of the three tracks of the SoP to do some worker placement.
As the first player, you get to choose the track, thus determining what option will be left to the other eligible faction. As is typical with worker placement, there is a cost for taking the most advantageous actions. Generally, by doing so, you leave more options to your opponent. You want to play the event, the next faction will get to play the full Operation + Special Activity combo. You want that combo, then they will have a chance to play the event. But if you are willing to forfeit your Special Activity, the other faction will be stuck with the most restrictive choice possible. Small sacrifices on your part can really bother your opponents, denying them the action or event they desperately need, or forcing them to execute them only partially.
It only takes a few minutes to appreciate the power of the SoP, but at least a few games to make it part of your thinking. When I’m first eligible I ask myself a few more questions before doing anything. Which faction is second eligible? What do they need most? Can I deny them that and if so, what would it cost me? How likely are they to pass? Should I pass? What’s the upcoming event and which faction would benefit the most from it? Is there a third eligible faction?
For me, getting better at COIN starts there. Learning to take advantage, in those otherwise chaotic games, of those moments where I can make a clear decision and have a direct impact on play, often at the lowest delay and cost.
Don’t Be Afraid to Pass
If you’re like me, when caught up in action during a COIN game, you often find yourself too absorbed in searching for the best possible move to even consider playing no move at all.
Passing sounds like passive — it is like doing nothing. In most games you pass because you can’t do anything else, or to indicate that you’re done. But in COIN passing is a very valid, active option most of the time. Indeed, on quite a few occasions, it will be the best possible move. Once we’ve looked at the benefits that can be gained from passing we understand that it is a must-have weapon in any COIN player’s arsenal.
It never stops, does it? Losing control, having guerrillas exposed, bases threatened, support shifting the wrong way. COIN can become quite relentlessly tactical. You can’t possibly anticipate every threat, and they’ll keep coming almost every turn. So you’ll naturally want to counter or mitigate them the best you can and as often as you can. And from one of those fixes to the next, you will get the impression of improving your overall situation, only to realize, at the end of a campaign or even a game, that you are in dire straits.
The thing is, responding, even skillfully, to every threat and blow will keep you in constant reaction mode. And I find that very rarely COIN games are won that way.
Passing can break that bad spell. Yes, it is a compromise — quite possibly you will miss some opportunity in order to pass. But passing can give you what I regard as one of the most valuable assets in COIN: initiative. You’ll want to be the one maintaining your opponents in reaction mode as much as possible, and you’ll want to be able to make a “summit push” for victory just at the right time. For those you’ll need initiative more than anything else.
The most obvious reason to pass. Most insurgent factions get 1 resource point by passing, and COIN factions get 2 or 3. But you don’t need to wait to be totally ruined to pass for resources. Or see those resources as a consolation prize for being unable to do anything of consequence. Timing is everything. And passing at the right time can give you the extra resources you need to be able to make your next operation unstoppable. Or even to reach your victory threshold.
Get the Event You Want
Randomness of the card draw is in the very nature of CDGs. Not knowing which event will show up limits planning. You can rarely be sure that something will happen, and that you will be able to do something about it if it does. But — in a regular game at least — you get to see the upcoming event and initiative order. And if they’re both favorable to you, you can secure that future event by passing.
In COIN no more than two factions get to play on each card. And it will happen that the two same pairs of factions will get to play in the same sequence over many turns. Now that combination may not be healthy for your faction. If you are the Taliban and have to face a recurring Government + Coalition combo you will know what I mean. You can get hit really hard. Turn after turn.
Breaking this cycle is another thing that passing can do for you. If you can’t use it to get better options, at least you can derail your opponents’ play.
All of the Above
Exactly. You can get all those benefits in a single (non-)move. Passing can be that powerful. Always consider it. Plan for it.
And never forget that your opponents can use it against you.
When I was a young boy, I used to play Scrabble with my grandmother. I remember how pleased I was to discover that just by shuffling the letters around on my tray, new words would pop out at me. Words that I would never have thought of by myself.
Rearranging the order of operations and special activities can do the same to your COIN plans and show new possibilities, some of them so advantageous that I had to go on the forums to check if they were even legal.
Let’s say that you intend to use a Rally operation to replace 2 guerrillas with a base, as can be done in most COIN games. And then, using some kind of Extort activity, you recoup the cost of that Rally, but by activating a guerrilla. Not bad. But wouldn’t it be better if you could do the same, without the disadvantage of ending up with an exposed guerrilla lying around? Just play the Extort activity first. And get rid of the activated guerrilla by including it in the exchange for the base. Likewise you might find it as convenient to interrupt a March operation with an Extort activity that will give you enough resources to march one space further. Or first Air Lift in a distant space the troops that you can then convert into a well-placed Government base.
Those are just examples, but you get the idea. Actions don’t have to be played, or thought of, in the order in which they’re presented on the player aids. Just like the letters on a Scrabble tray, try assembling them in many different ways and you might find interesting things to do.
Consider Both Outcomes of Every Event
One of the many ways COIN is a special kind of card-driven system is that most cards have two events, or more precisely two different outcomes for the same event. Dual-use events generally have opposite outcomes, each benefiting one faction, or one side of the insurgency. But not always. First, some dual-use events are less polarized and help or harm many factions equally. Second, any given event is rarely always beneficial or always harmful.
Dual-use events in a four-player game leave many avenues to explore on every card. Anything could happen. Events that are beneficial to one opponent, or even detrimental to you, can bring all kinds of benefits depending on the context. Maybe the adverse effect could only be partially implemented. Maybe a nice bonus to an opponent will leave him in a situation that you will be able to exploit decisively on your next turn, or will hurt a leading third faction that needed to be slowed down. Maybe an event’s damaging effect doesn’t affect your main strategy, while the small compensation it offers is exactly what you need.
The non-player factions have strict guidelines when it comes to which version of the events they are allowed to take. But human players always have a choice. By keeping an eye on the current situation of every faction, by observing the player dynamics at play, you might be able to make an otherwise adverse event be beneficial in some way to your faction at a particular time. Just don’t forget that your opponents can do the same, and double-check positive outcomes.
That’s also something humans (normally) do. Negotiation is by no means central to COIN games, but it certainly has its place, since it is one of the political realities the games model.
Other than exchanging actual resources, which might be restricted, you can mutually agree to trade favors and promises, or try to maintain or undermine alliances. When the game seems to turn against you, you always have the option to openly ask another faction for help. It is for instance a valid way of trying to avoid a catastrophic event when your faction is not even eligible. When a player takes a little too much of a lead, you can always try to unite with others against him. It might or might not be expensive, it might or might not turn out as you intended, and of course it might or might not happen at all.
Just remember that all negotiations have to be made openly, within the rules, and that they are not binding (for the most part). Such tense discussions, at critical moments, is something you might even find lacking in your solo games.
In the rules of every COIN game published so far, there is a small paragraph, around 1.5.1, mentioning negotiation. The terms differ slightly for each game:
- Andean Abyss: Negotiations allowed, not binding. Only resources or shipments can be voluntarily transferred (1.5.1).
- Cuba Libre: Negotiations allowed, not binding. Only resources or cash can be voluntarily transferred (1.5.1).
- A Distant Plain: Negotiations allowed, not binding. All factions except the Coalition may voluntarily transfer resources. The Government may transfer Patronage to Warlords resources (1.5.1).
- Fire in the Lake: Negotiations allowed, not binding. NVA and VC may transfer resources at any time that one of them is playing (1.5.2).
- Liberty or Death: Negotiations allowed, not binding. Voluntary resource transfer among factions other than by action or event is not allowed (1.5.3).
- Falling Sky: Negotiations allowed, binding for the duration of the action during which they were concluded. If during an action or event, resource transfer is limited to 4. If during the Winter round, any amount may be transferred to any non-German faction (1.5.2).
The Human Bonus
Human? Lucky you! Then you certainly know about that powerful, free and unlimited action that human players can take, whenever needed, in every COIN game. Or maybe not? It’s right there at 1.4.1 of every COIN rulebook. Voluntary removal. Generally introduced by the word IMPORTANT! Because it is.
Most player factions (unlike non-player factions, managed by special rules), if they find themselves out of available forces during an action or event, can remove the needed pieces from anywhere on the map to Available, and then place them where they’re needed. That’s right.
Just another little point of rule that could make a big difference. The only condition is that you don’t have anymore of the required pieces available. Admittedly this does not happen very frequently. But when it does you’ll be glad you remembered this one. I have even planned some Rally operations around that special rule. Almost not restricted (see below), this option is more powerful than many actions. And free. On some occasions it might even feel like you’ve just promoted a pawn to a Queen.
- Andean Abyss: All factions, all piece types, players only.
- Cuba Libre: All factions, all piece types, players only.
- A Distant Plain: Insurgent factions only, all piece types, players only.
- Fire in the Lake: All factions, not US Troops and US bases, players only.
- Liberty or Death: All factions, not British and French Regulars, players only (8.1).
- Falling Sky: All factions, all piece types, players only. To Available or the Legions Track. Citadels may be replaced with the factions’ Allied Tribes.
There it is. Just a few little tricks that I try to keep in mind. I never know when I might need them, but if I do, I know they can make a difference. I’d be curious to know what the most important rules and techniques are for you — what kind of impact have they had on your COIN experience?