At the game table we’ve always had this house rule that players do not ordinarily take back their moves. I’m not sure if it applies to blogging though.
Because I’m very close to changing my mind on something I wrote earlier about Cuba Libre. Well, I don’t want to take back everything, but I would like to update some of it.
I still agree with most that Cuba Libre‘s smaller map, simpler rules and thinner deck make it an excellent introduction to the COIN system. It’s just that I have come to see things a little differently now.
What happened? I played Harold Buchanan’s Liberty or Death a few times.
Then a few more times.
I got intrigued: Here was a longer, more complex game. And I had been playing it fluently almost right from the start, without noticing much of a learning curve.
Maybe it wasn’t that complex then? Well, its rulebook is 40 pages long and contains over 25,000 words. The average game length is around 3 hours. It comes with over 100 event cards, 6 force types, and includes a new battle mechanic. And its overall weight has been consistently rated second in the whole 6-volume COIN series. So I had to admit that Liberty or Death was, objectively, a complex game.
It just never felt like it.
Why? Maybe I was getting so much better at COIN that I wouldn’t even notice the complexity anymore? If only. But I couldn’t be playing it that wrong either, could I? Was it the subject matter then? Besides living in Quebec City (in the top right corner of the gorgeous map by Terry Leeds) and being familiar with a few episodes of the conflict, I did not have that many connections to the American Revolutionary War when I started learning the game (I do now, thanks to Harold Buchanan and John Ferling).
I got even more stumped when I went looking online and saw how well and how widely such a complex game had been received. By all kinds of players.
It wasn’t just me then.
But I noticed something. Every time I’d think of the game it was in terms of its events and people — some that I already knew about, like Guy Carleton, Benedict Arnold, the Battle of Quebec. And some I was just learning about, like Danbury, Adam Smith, the Sullivan Expedition, Langlade.
Then, as the cliche goes, it hit me.
Newbies Need Stories
One of my favorite features of the COIN series is its diversity. Every volume having a different (co-)designer guarantees that it brings something new and fresh to the system.
What Liberty or Death brings to COIN is storytelling. And not in a small way.
Here I’m not talking about immersive adventure tales like those found in Choose Your Own Adventure books, or Dungeons and Dragons and “Legacy” type games. Nor the speculative narrative framework emerging from more advanced COIN games.
More like something in-between. I’m talking about little hints, incentives spread over all aspects of the game. Tiny devices that are barely noticeable individually, but that combine to supercharge the design and increase your grasp on both the game and the history. Without you even realizing it.
Because nothing helps us get into a design and its subject matter, understand and remember sophisticated rules and numerous historical facts, like a strong narrative.
And nothing builds a stronger narrative, of a broader appeal, than clarity. Distinctive characters, tangible facts and concrete language.
Sounds simple enough, right? It isn’t. Designing such specialized games with the novice in mind doesn’t just happen; clarity doesn’t just show up uninvited. Somebody, somewhere, has to want it, and want it badly.
In Liberty or Death, the hunt for the indistinct and the abstract is too relentless, the elimination of anything anonymous and generic is too systematic not to be intentional. And not to be successful. The emerging (hi)story is pervasive. Compelling. Inescapable.
Let me show you five examples of what I mean.
1. Characterized Actions
The COIN system is engrossing and fun to play in good part because each faction has its own objectives and, up to a point, its own rules — but not entirely its own actions. The Cuban Syndicate may be the only faction that can build casinos, and taxing may be a Viet Cong specialty, but each side’s base set of four operations has remained pretty much the same — and generic. Even in a more extensive design like Fire in the Lake, the COIN factions will Train/Patrol/Sweep/Assault, and the insurgent factions will Rally/March/Attack/Terror. Liberty or Death is the first title to break the canon, so to speak. To fit the period, of course. But also to immediately give you, the new player, some more insight, a better grip. Some actions are largely the same but have gained a distinct name: the regular armies Muster, the Patriots Rally, the Indians Gather. More than ever before actions are unique to a specific faction. And their names are so tightly coupled with it that it’s easy to guess right away. Scout, Garrison, Raid. Rabble-Rousing. Common Cause. Partisans. Préparer la guerre. War Path. Roderigue Hortalez et Cie. Concrete, evocative names. Because actions do define character.
2. Capabilities Get Personal
The often interchangeable (or reversible) rather abstract capabilities and momentums, affecting the state of the game from outside the map, have been given a face, a personal name, and a specific location. They’ve been replaced by historical leaders taking part in the action. Washington, Rochambeau or Clinton will move with your forces, and lend them their main traits, for a variable period of time, as most may get replaced during the game. You can neither acquire nor accumulate them. They are fewer, simpler, but well-defined. Oh, and it’s much harder to forget that they’re in play, too.
3. Meaningful Influence
The black Terror markers, roughly making the population of a space more difficult to influence, were a common fixture applying indistinctly to every insurgent faction in every volume of the series. Until now. In Liberty or Death, they’ve been made more evocative in two ways. First, the Indians and the Rebels now have their own way of influencing populations, as well as their own marker to represent that influence. They also affect certain factions only. Second, the markers come in 24 different flavors. The names of 12 Indian tribes, as well as 12 portraits of eminent Patriots adorn them. Serving no other purpose, as the rulebook will tell you, than bringing “historical flavor”. That’s a modest way to put it. To the novice at least, names and faces of actual people bring more than flavor. They bring identity, connection and meaning. Raids are done by the Cherokee, the Choctaw or the Mohawk. Propaganda is spread by Patrick Henry or Benjamin Rush. Both have lasting effects in the space they’re in. Doesn’t it all make more sense to you, as you’re trying to figure out the whole thing? Don’t you appreciate how more readable the board becomes? Even the unused backs of a few counters are pressed into service, when it comes to strengthening the narrative — that’s how a storyteller thinks. And that’s how you, as a new player, will get even more engaged in the game.
4. Thematic Scoring Rounds
As a new COIN player I simply had no mental picture of what a Propaganda round represented. Even now I find that explaining it to new players by referring to any historical narrative is a bit of a challenge. Whereas what I need to explain Liberty or Death‘s Winter Quarters rounds is… practically nothing. Because they are self-explanatory. You’ll smile with understanding as soon as you’ll hear about them. It’s winter in the eighteenth century; of course, combat pauses, forces regroup, recuperate, check their supply, etc. Every phase falls into place. And sticks in your mind.
5. Razor-Sharp Events
I’ll be dwelling on this one a little. Because the selection and presentation of Liberty or Death‘s 104 events is one of its strongest “newbie-friendly” feature. They might be the single most important factor drawing new players into the game, without most of them even noticing it. Brilliant stroke indeed.
But why do those games have events in the first place? Why not just have instructions written on a bunch of numbered cards? It would still work fine, right? That just shows how storytelling is the very raison d’être of event cards, the backbone of CDGs. The historical in historical gaming.
On a gameplay level, knowing the deck and card interactions will make you a much better player. And to tame a 100+ card deck, you’ll need all the help you can get. Starting with the events themselves which, when clear and direct, almost become little tutorials.
I confessed elsewhere that I had a hard time getting into COIN. A Distant Plain was my first foray into the system. Of course most of my pain was of my own making: I had zero experience and made every single mistake possible. Still, after Liberty or Death I started wondering how events might have impacted my learning process. So I took a second look at all event cards, not only from good old ADP, but from the four first volumes in the COIN games.
I was surprised by what I found.
What’s in a Name?
OK, time to play a little game. For COIN beginners only. It’s a kind of reverse Pictionary: I’ll give you a few words, and you’ll try to come up with a mental image based on them. If you know some COIN, then try to associate that image with any one of the COIN factions. Or sides. Or games, even. Simple. Ready?
Not obvious? I know. Just bear with me one more minute. Let’s lower the bar a little. Forget about the games then. Just try to picture in your mind what event is depicted by the following terms, what is most likely to happen, where, or to whom.
Time’s up. You’re almost done. Now try to do the same with these:
I’m not being facetious here, nor sarcastic. I’m just having a look at those titles with newbie eyes. Assuming that you have no prior knowledge of the events they describe, here are a few questions for you:
- Which event titles strike you as being more vivid? Which ones resonate the most?
- Which events seem the most immediately understandable and, in a game context, actionable?
- Which ones feel the most like facts you’re learning about?
- How much do you remember from the first two lists? From the third one?
On the one hand you have one or two-word titles carefully stripped of any specific context, hinting at broad notions, factors, doctrines, developments, conjectures, etc. On the other, simple, informative headlines depicting narrow historical facts and figures.
The latter titles are written as newspaper headlines because they serve the same purpose: entice and inform. They don’t assume that you already know something about what they’re going to tell you. Perfect for a novice.
Now there ‘s nothing wrong with the former titles. It’s just that they’re not addressed to you as a beginner. You’ll come to appreciate them much more with repeated play, to enjoy how smoothly they flow in any which way, how they give speculation and conjecture a little more leeway. Because when populated with knowledge and experience, the abstract becomes synthetic, and the generic becomes versatile.
But you’d want to get into the game first.
(Not to mention that relying mostly on specific events to describe conflicts like the War in Afghanistan could have meant hundreds of cards, and titles riddled with unfamiliar, difficult names.)
That’s all it takes. An event could have been called Thaddeus Kosciuszko (or simply Kosciuszko, as I can easily imagine it being called in earlier volumes of the series) without anybody noticing. Because it’s fine, really. The last name is a sufficient trigger when you do know the guy and what he did. But Thaddeus Kosciuszko, Expert Engineer works even if you don’t. The two added words give you a sense of his role and impact, and allow you to bridge the knowledge gap and remain engaged in the game. Small change, big difference.
Concrete language helps people, especially novices, understand new concepts. Abstraction is the luxury of the expert.
– Dan Heath
A Final Tally
One more thing and I’ll let you go. I had to do it — a rough tally, nothing scientific. Just to satisfy my curiosity. Here’s the percentage of what I regard as concrete, specific events in each of the first five volumes of the series. To be counted as specific, an event had to be about a named person (regardless of their notoriety), or a contained, dated event (not necessarily on the card itself — I also used the backgrounds in the playbooks). No broad circumstances, locations, generalizations or conjectures.
- Andean Abyss: 23/72
- Cuba Libre: 28/48
- A Distant Plain: 10/72
- Fire in the Lake: 48/130
- Liberty or Death: 87/104
Give it a shot
I think Liberty or Death goes out of its way to engage new players. It is a lofty and demanding goal, that has been achieved brilliantly.
Not only its clarity will help new players but, even better, it has the power to turn passers-by into new players.
So if I am allowed to partly take back my previous move I would now say that Liberty or Death might be your most captivating and memorable way to get into COIN, or into historical gaming.
What best helps you get into a new historical game? Simpler rules, or stronger narrative?