I play a lot of heavy Eurogames. I enjoy long, tortuous brain burners and thick rulebooks don’t bother me. I’m also quite interested in history. One could think that the COIN Series, published by GMT Games, and featuring a card-driven game system designed by Volko Ruhnke to model guerrilla warfare, was a natural step for me.
But it turned out not to be. At all.
Now that I am more familiar with that system, I wonder why I had such a hard time getting used to it. And as I look back, I can identify a few things that I did wrong, which made the learning curve needlessly steep and frustrating.
Here they are.
So If you are a Eurogame player currently trying to wrap your brain around COIN, or wondering if this kind of game is for you, I would encourage you to do two things. First read on, skim through what follows and see if anything can be of help. Second, play a COIN game as soon as possible. It can be an exceptionally rewarding experience.
Just don’t do what I did.
1. Don’t Assume That You Will Be Playing a Eurogame
An easy mistake to make. So you’ve looked those COIN games up. You’ve established that there are no hex-and-counter stuff, no micro-management of weapons, supply lines, line of sight or reinforcements. Instead, you feel right at home with what you see: four-player games, region maps, resource management, brightly colored wooden pieces, a victory point track around the board and a certain level of abstraction. You’ve got area control, influence, cards, dice. Really seems like a war-themed Eurogame, doesn’t it?
Now what happens when you first sit down at a COIN table with expectations of that kind might not be pretty. Because the clean, orderly, safe Euro experience you’re accustomed to gets disheveled rather quickly and extensively.
Far from being eased into the game by nice rule writing and flavor text, you’ll fight your way through stern, telegraphic style statements. Their military terms and acronyms will remind you how little you actually know about the subject matter at hand, or counter-insurgency in general, whereas the terms you do understand won’t keep you in a Euro mood for long. Assassinate, Kidnap, Devastate, Rampage or Terror are as far from medieval farming, Renaissance painting or Mediterranean trading as you can get.
You know that moment when the rules of a good Eurogame click, when it all gels in your brain and the game kind of takes off on its own, so you can sit back and plan for victory? Won’t happen with COIN. Every card will disrupt your plans one way or the other. You will never sit back.
You know that Euro moment when you finally get that clever engine going, pumping more and more points or resources all the way up the victory track? Won’t happen with COIN. You will never be on top of things.
You know that rare, unexpected moment that can arise once in every few Eurogames, that dramatic turning point that everybody will remember and talk about for a long time? Now that will happen with COIN. A lot. Probably a lot more than you’d like — practically on every card flip, that is.
I guess what I mean to say is that, although the actual ruleset of any COIN game is not heavy, and that it is undoubtedly rooted in Euro-style gaming, the way the games unfold is different enough to be destabilizing for the Eurogamer and the wargamer alike. So better approach them with as few preconceived ideas as possible.
2. Don’t Try to Get It Right — You Won’t
If, like me, you come to COIN from a Eurogaming background, you might tend to approach the rules a little too literally, and expect a little too much from them.
As the first few turns of any COIN game will demonstrate to you, reading and rereading the rules will not, cannot give you a sufficient understanding of the game.
Don’t think of the rules as a classical music score, where every note, every intonation is clearly written, but rather as a jazz chart, where a few abbreviations and sketchy lines barely give you some general direction.
And keep in mind that COIN games are extremely prone to player mistakes. Contrary to most Euros, COIN turns are not a quiet succession of neatly arranged, recurring phases. Sometimes there is a lot to do, and you don’t get to do the same things in the same order every turn. Which means that acquiring automatic reflexes takes much longer — at least it did for me. On top of that, there can be so many adjustments ensuing from a single move that you are bound to forget one of them. And build subsequent moves on that oversight, so that it will be almost impossible to sort out and correct.
You will stray off course often, sometimes without even realizing it. I guess you have to accept that, because triple-checking and second-guessing your every move is probably the best way to ruin your game. You want to take back every wrong move? You will simply mess things up even more. You want to go online with every rule question that pops up? Your tea will get cold before you complete your first move, and at best you will end up with more (and often conflicting) answers than you can handle anyway.
Just play it through, play it often, do your best. Leave as many stones unturned as you can. Don’t try to avoid, or worse, to correct mistakes. Just play, and let it sink in. It will.
3. Don’t Start with A Distant Plain
Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against A Distant Plain, quite the contrary. But starting to learn the system with Volume III of the series was definitely not the greatest idea in my case.
The complexity level of the (as of now) 6 COIN titles published varies significantly, at least from a beginner’s point of view. And even if it has been shown that the overall complexity does not increase with every new title in the series, the first two volumes are widely recognized as the simplest, the easiest to grasp, especially when transitioning from Eurogaming.
I’m not saying it’s necessarily a bad idea to approach the system from Volume III or IV; a lot of players do just that. But one has to realize that these later games are more advanced iterations of the base system, and as such they add quite a bit to it: new rules, finer intricacies and more exceptions, conditions and bookkeeping. Falling back to Andean Abyss after A Distant Plain was quite a shock for me. Not because it was that much simpler, but because I then discovered the vanilla version of many basic COIN concepts. I could finally see that what appeared to be, in ADP, a dense rule full of ramifications was, in fact, a thin layer of details added to a common foundation. I don’t know for you, but for me, things are much easier to learn in a gradual way, layer by layer.
So if you have the chance to get to know the core COIN ideas first by playing a good deal of the first two volumes (Cuba Libre was recently reprinted and the Andean Abyss reprint is on the GMT preorder list), why not do that. Both are about the same complexity level, but the map of Cuba Libre is much smaller and simpler, making it the perfect entry-level game.
Once you’ve got the core system down I think that the order in which you play the COIN titles does not matter at all and comes down to personal preference.
4. Don’t Begin by Playing Against the “Bots”
Now this is, by far, the very worst mistake I made.
My only excuse is that I play and enjoy a lot of solo games, both Eurogames and wargames. So, I first became aware of COIN because of its solo system, which I was very curious and eager to try out. A Distant Plain had just been released and, even if I was not especially attracted by the topic, about which I knew next to nothing, I bought it with the main goal of trying to play against those non-player factions, or ‘bots. So, terribly unaware of what lay ahead, I confidently jumped into a solo game right from the start.
Here’s how it felt. It’s the first bot’s turn. You just want to know what it can do this turn, and where. You rummage through a lot of rules, conditions and exceptions scattered over the rulebook, the playbook, the player aid sheets, errata and online forums. You reevaluate the board for the nth time, counting cubes of each color, checking which spaces are indeed adjacent, calculating control for all the targeted provinces. Ok. That probably means that it should do that, here. Done. Oh, wait, are there still three destination spaces to be determined for that first operation? So you go through this again, three more times. Before trying to resolve the trailing special activity and its own set of conditions and priorities. And you end up with not much more than guesswork, moves you can’t even fully explain to yourself. But at least you made it, right? The turn is finally completed! And then — then comes the turn of the second bot.
Then the third one.
Hopefully you get the picture. Ever made a long bus trip, getting off at every single stop?
As I said the COIN rules are neither that many nor that complex. But the so-called solo rules are not, in fact, rules. They are a broad and detailed set of instructions, conditions and priorities meant to apply the rules, to make non-player factions provide the best response in almost any situation. So trying to execute those instructions without a prior knowledge of the rules is a recipe for disaster.
I would suggest that you get the rules down first. By playing. You’re by yourself? Play each faction in turn, the best you can, digesting the rules. Get to know the main cards, the basic conditions. Take the time to make the necessary connections. To get acquainted with each faction, its main strengths, weaknesses and motivations. I’d say, until you begin to be able to think ahead. Then you can play fluidly against the bots. This will be a challenge, since they are cleverly designed, but a truly fun one.
5. The Help You Will Need Is Outside of the Rules
Based on a lot of comments seen online, what happened to me during my first few “real” plays happened to quite a few COIN beginners: even with a reasonable understanding of the rules, I still got stuck, because I had no idea of what to do.
Even if figuring out what to do is part of the fun behind historical gaming, one still needs a place to start. And with a COIN game, that place is not the rule book.
Obviously. For me the quality content that fills most GMT’s playbooks, the COIN ones especially, is a large part of the enjoyment I get from their games. And the COIN playbooks are the first stop for any COIN beginner.
The examples of play, the background notes for all factions and overview of how they interact, the summary of changes for experienced COIN gamers are all very helpful. And I especially enjoy the short blurb describing every event card in the game. It is well researched and hints at the event’s place in the whole narrative as well as at its impact on play. It has become a habit: During my first two or three COIN games, I will pause at every card flip to read the blurb. Not only did those 60, maybe 90 second pauses save me time in the long run, but they allowed the game and its subject matter to really grow on me.
This one seems also quite obvious with hindsight. But I got too entangled in all those solo rules to take advantage of the Propaganda rounds (or Winter cards, Winter Quarters cards, depending on the game played). Not only are they one of the rare somewhat predictable aspects of any COIN game, but their fixed phases are the menu of all short-term objectives for each faction: criteria for resource allocation and adding/removing forces, strategic value of control, roads, bases, etc.
Reverse-Engineering the Bots
You don’t want to play them at first, but that does not mean that the non-player factions are useless. Far from it. Think about it: in order to offer credible opposition, their behavior has been built on precise, complete, prioritized lists of best assessments and best responses, developed and tested by experts at the game. Those few charts might very well be the best possible gateway to the whole system. So, who in their right mind would try to tackle their first few games without such valuable advice? Well, I did.
Get to Know the Conflict
It goes without saying that knowing the historical background will help you play and enjoy any historical game. It might be even truer with COIN. In some cases, knowing the facts will help supplement rule ambiguities or shortcomings, and often help to remember pesky exceptions.
But you don’t need to be a scholar or a military expert to enjoy COIN — I’m most certainly not! If you can’t spare the time to read some of the titles recommended in the playbook’s Selected Sources, my other trick is to use the event card titles as a table of contents. Just type them as written, between quotes, in Google. See what comes up. Articles. Reports. Video documentaries. Manuals. I did just that many times and always learned something new, interesting, even surprising, that helped me get a more solid understanding of the game.
Playthroughs and Session Reports
Finally, looking at a few detailed playthroughs can help a lot. There are a few good ones online. Even if they won’t answer every rule question out there (and, yes, they probably contain mistakes), they can help clarify a few points and give beginners a general idea of the flow of the game.
All in all, there is simply no doubt in my mind that COIN games are quite accessible to the serious Eurogamer. But they are not Eurogames. Don’t spoil your first contact with COIN with the above mistakes and you’ll see how rich and unique a system it is.
What about you? Did you have a hard time learning COIN? Would you approach it any differently?