New Game Weekend: Liberty Or Death: The American Insurrection

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A package containing my most highly-anticipated game of early 2016 arrived a couple weeks ago, and I finally unpacked and played all the glory that is Liberty Or Death: The American Insurrection by GMT Games.

Designed by Harold Buchanan in consultation with the creators of of GMT’s COIN series of  games (including Volko Ruhnke), LoD places the American Revolution within the context of an 18th-century counterinsurgency on the American continent. Buchanan is a true inspiration as a first time game designer at midlife putting his passion for the period to work on the tabletop. Interviews at The Tattered Board podcast and Grogheads reveal Buchanan’s story of a lifelong gamer (with a degree from MIT in Finance and Game Theory) whose kids have grown up and out of the house, allowing him the time to pursue game design. His love of the Revolution and gaming has truly paid off with LoD.

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GMT’s Liberty Or Death hits the table for the first time

I’ve played multiple games of Cuba Libre and Fire and In The Lake from the COIN series over the past couple years, and those familiar with the mechanics of these games will find much familiarity and a few new differences in LoD. The game presents the American Revolution as one among four factions — British, Colonial, French and Indian — each vying for their own victory conditions. The British control both Regular (red cubes) and irregular Tory (green cubes) forces, the Colonials play with Continentals (blue cubes) and irregular Patriot Militia (blue cylinders), the French use Regular (white cubes) troops and the Indians field irregular War Parties (tan cylinders). Two loose alliances of British/Indian and Colonial/French work in concert to move and occupy city and Colony territory while battling, building forts and settlements and controlling political dissent.

The British press the war in New York

As in the other COIN games, LoD action is driven through a set of beautifully-designed cards. Cards provide varying turn order with depictions of historical events a player may choose to play or not play according to their force’s (or their ally’s) advantage. Alternatively, players may opt to perform a series of other combinations of actions specific to their nationality to move, battle, skirmish or raid, muster forces, build forts and villages, manage coastal blockades, promote propaganda or share in economic support and trade. An active card is in play with a look ahead also granted to the next card to be played, giving the game a true campaign feel as future moves are plotted, executed or thwarted.

Once a series of cards are played through, a season ends with the draw of a random “Winter Quarters” card. These cards, each with their own individual effect, create a round of actions where victory conditions are checked, resources are gained or spent, forces redeploy or are removed from the game and leaders may change. The variable combinations of turn order, events and actions contribute to the significant replay value of LoD, as even similar periods of campaigns may play out very differently in each sitting.

The French arrive to support the Colonists in Massachusetts

One of my favorite aspects that sets LoD apart from many games is the relative non-involvement of the French early in the game. The French player does not start on the board at all, but instead spends the early game offering monetary support to their Colonial allies. Once certain conditions are met in terms of Colonial victories over the British, the French enter the game by landing troops and offering naval support and blockades of coastal city ports. A French victory is achieved through the accumulation of British casualties and opposition to British rule.

The Indians are likewise an interesting faction with their main concern of building villages in territories while helping the British maintaining their hold on the hearts and minds of the colonies. Indian war parties assist the British through harmful raids which reduce the effectiveness of the Colonials while also advancing their tribal territorial expansion. Victory for the Colonists comes through the British casualties and holding the growth of Indian villages to a minimum against the construction of Colonial forts. A British win arrives with the accumulation of Colonial casualties and support for the King.

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Historic leaders are a new mechanic in LoD

Another way LoD differs from other COIN games is the insertion of leaders to each force, such as Gage, Washington, Rochambau or the Indian chief Cornplanter. As the game goes on, some leaders may randomly swap out for others, making it yet another variable for players to manage. With each leader holding their own set of unique abilities and modifiers, players need to work effectively to utilize them knowing full well they may be replaced in future turns.

Each faction also receives a “Brilliant Stroke” card for one-time use in the game to trump another player’s turn and perform an extra series of free actions. Additionally, the French’s entry comes with the achievement of game prerequisites and play of their unique “Treaty of Alliance” card. Figuring out the exact moment to deliver a big, often game-changing, play with one of these special “Brilliant Stroke” cards looms large in the mix of decision making throughout the game.

Examples of LoD cards featuring key personalities and events of the war

The entire design of the LoD is wonderful, with a rich playing board hinting at design elements of 18th-century maps without any compromise to game play. The cards are likewise rich in their look and content, each summarizing an aspect of the war or its politics in just a few lines of text and game effects. The rules and playbook are well done, and the designers notes by Buchanan and Ruhnke are well-worth a read for historical background and tips to playing to the strengths of each faction.

“The British Return To New York” scenario at Metropolitan Wargamers

A game of LoD may be played in one of three campaigns of varying length. A short late war game from 1778-1780 is outlined in “The Southern Campaign,” and a mid-length “British Return to New York” scenario runs in the early war of 1776-1779. Players wishing to roll up their sleeves for a long game can tackle most of the war in the  1775-1780 period with “A People Numerous and Armed.” Each scenario provides specific starting situational set-ups as well a guide to creating decks of cards for the campaign seasons with the game. A brief guided intro scenario also makes a first-time walk through of the game time well spent.

Since receiving the game, I’ve run through the introductory scenario plus multiple plays through both he the Southern and New York campaign scenarios. In a most recent game with some players both new and experienced with the COIN series at Metropolitan Wargamers in Brooklyn, NY, the Indians had the frontier ablaze and my French were far too late to the action except for dumping money into the rebellion. The British forces had much of the East Coast and South locked down without much trouble from my tardy French navy. Ultimately, the Colonials squeaked out a minor victory and had some very lucky battle results in upstate New York.

With my life split between growing up in Western New York and living in New York City for the past 20 years, the American Revolution was been a near-constant presence in my life for decades. As a run-up to the release of LoD I threw myself into classic and contemporary games of the American Revolution, playing the period in a variety of mechanics and design. With a few games of Liberty of Death under my belt, I’m thrilled to have the period refreshed anew, and the game will be very much at home with my other American Revolution games.

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New Game Weekend: Fire In The Lake

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I sometimes forget that I was born during the Vietnam War, one of the more complicated military conflicts in American history. In April 2015 we’ll be sitting 40 years after the fall of Saigon and the pullout of American involvement in the region’s conflict which began in the mid-1950s. To mark the occasion, the US government has quietly launched a special 50th anniversary Vietnam War Commemoration website this past year. Decades later, the complicated legacy of Vietnam continues to reverberate as even the website has proven to be controversial.

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Game set-up for the Fire In The Lake 1965-67 beginner’s scenario

Having played a few games of Cuba Libre over the past year, I’ve finally had a chance to dive into another in the COIN Series from GMT Games this fall with the Vietnam War themed Fire In The Lake. The counterinsurgency (COIN) games focusing on modern conflicts have fast become new favorites among a lot of us at Metropolitan Wargamers in Brooklyn, NY, and since the summer a core group at the club have been working through multiple games of FITL and getting a decent handle of this richly complex game.

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Sample cards from Fire In The Lake

Like other games in the series, FITL uses a card-activation mechanic to drive the game among the competing factions of US forces and US-allied South Vietnamese ARVN counterinsurgency and the insurgent northern NVA and Viet Cong guerrillas and regulars. Cards provide turn order at the top of each with a symbol for each faction. Each player chooses to use the Event on a drawn active card, conduct an Operation and/or possibly also conduct a Special Activity related to the Operation. Operations include such things as Rally or Train (recruiting troops, irregulars and/or building bases); March, Patrol or Sweep (to move and expose and/or remove guerillas), Assault or Attack (to remove enemies); and, Terror (to effect support and opposition). Adding in Special Activities such as the VC’s Tax and Subvert, the devastating Air Strike from the US, Ambush and Infiltrate from the NVA and the ARVN’s Govern and Raid makes for a powerful set of player actions.

The card text contains effects beneficial to the US and ARVN COIN players at the top and NVA and VC events in a shaded box at the bottom. Events can produce either immediate benefit to the player using the card or a negative result to another player, so a player might choose to act on a card’s Event merely to prevent another player from using the Event. Keeping an eye on turn order and the next available card also drives decisions, as one player’s choice can limit or enable the next choice available to the following players. Every nine cards contains a random Coup card which pauses play for a round of faction-specific series of phases whereby resources are gained, troops are redeployed, pieces are reset and victory conditions are checked.
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FITL Support/Opposition, Control and US, NVA, ARVN and VC Victory track markers

Each of the four groups has their own path to winning the game with victory points scored at the edges of the board on a track that also marks Resources, Aid and Patronage levels. The VC score by shifting the population of provinces toward opposition and constructing bases while the somewhat allied NVA win through gaining population control and creating bases. The ARVN player gains points through population control and earning patronage from the population of the cities and provinces. The United States wins through shifting support and building up the number of available bases and troops (reflecting a victorious withdrawal of the military from Vietnam).

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Another FITL game in progress this week

The combination of random turn order, Events, Operations and Special Activities creates a dizzying amount of variation to how a FITL game plays out over a few hours. With many interdependent actions and victory conditions, an unpredictable stack of Event cards and uncertainly timed Coup scoring rounds, Fire In The Lake makes returning to Vietnam again and again a most worthy choice.
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New Game Weekend: Wilderness War

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I wound up spending a fair amount of time this past year touring sites related to the French and Indian War period while feeding my gamer’s appetite for the Seven Years War period with A Few Acres of Snow. With a little research and talking with some of the members at Metropolitan Wargamers, I decided I needed to go bigger and dive into a game focused on the French and Indian War. All trails led to GMT’s Wilderness War, and I had a chance to play my first game this past weekend.

Published in 2001, Wilderness War is a game that causes a lot of the gamers I know to glaze over with wide grins. The game is designed by Volko Ruhnke and uses a card-driven mechanic much like his COIN games series also published by GMT. I have a few games of the Runke-designed Cuba Libre and Fire In The Lake under my belt, so I knew that a French and Indian War game from him was certain to be a mix of relatively simple rules wrapped up in a rich historic board game experience.

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Wilderness War game board

The gorgeous map – hardbound in the latest edition – presents the Northeastern colonial areas of North America in the mid 18th-century. As with the war itself, the game is largely defined by geography. “Cultivated” (ie settled) areas are indicated with boxes, and “wilderness” areas and Indian settlements are printed as circles. Mountainous areas are also depicted with chains spreading through western and central Pennsylvania, the Hudson Valley region and portions of central New England. Connecting these areas are roads or trails and the more important waterways which served as the superhighways of the period. Many of the larger cultivated settlements begin with heavy fortresses protecting the space, while the game set up places a series of French and British forts and stockades throughout the map.

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Sample Wilderness War game counters

Game components consist primarily of 70 cards and 271 cardboard counters. The counters generally depict movement and combat ratings, with reduced values on the flip side once a unit takes damage in battle, during a wintering period or from an event card. Command markers also carry tactics numbers, which help during combat, and a command value. Cards allow activation of units equal to the number printed or by command rating. Special events may also be played for British (red), French (blue) or either side (red/blue), and cards with a brown-red band are events which may be played at any point during either side’s actions.

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Sample Wilderness War cards

The game plays with year-long turns each containing an early and late season, each approximating about six months of time. In each season, players begin by being dealt eight cards apiece. Later events and actions may modify a player’s hand size, but in general the French and British player then take turns playing cards to move forces, engage in battle, construct defenses or play out events as depicted on the cards. With some pre-planning, each season moves relatively swiftly toward the conclusion of a year of war. At the end of each year, victory points are tallied and units are checked to see if they suffer losses during the winter period between each yearly season of fighting.

Wilderness War comes with a playbook outlining several small to mid-sized games featuring particular periods in the war or a set-up for the entire war from 1755 to 1762. For my first game, we jumped in with both feet and started from the outset of the war  with me playing as the British and my experienced opponent using the French. The French begin the game with a small force stretched across the Lake Ontario, St. Lawrence River and western Pennsylvania regions. British forces start poised on three fronts along the Hudson River, stretching west toward the eastern tip of Lake Ontario at Oswego and just south of western Pennsylvania. The French are buoyed with their strong alliances with several Indian nations while the British hold enormous access to colonial, regular British troops and numerous commanding officers waiting to be called into service.

Using the swift wilderness movement and  raiding capabilities in the 1755 and 1756 turns, the French sent Indian forces into Pennsylvania, Virginia and New England to raid unprotected British cultivated areas. The British quickly moved to redeploy their meager regulars throughout these areas to build stockades and push back further raids. At the same time, the French massed their forces and captured Fort Oswego. By the end of the second year of play, the French were already sitting on six victory points.

With a string of stockaded defenses set up to the west by the beginning of 1757, the British began to land troops at their coastal port arrivals to offset negative British political effects which stymied the use of more Colonial regulars and militia units. British troops commenced the long march into the Pennsylvania mountains and the nearby target French fort at the Ohio Forks (today’s Pittsburgh). Back to the east, the French began using their new base at Oswego to launch a push to the southeast into the Hudson Valley and the ill-defended areas around Albany, Schenectady and the Oneida region. All the while, the French continued to recruit additional Indian forces to buffer their defenses at the Ohio Forks and continue raids toward the east. The 1757 late season ended with my leaving too many British marooned in the mountains of Pennsylvania in a clear rookie mistake which led to my mass of troops taking heavy losses in the winter season.

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The British stockade defenses on the western frontier lay the groundwork for a push on the French at the Ohio Forks in my first game of Wilderness War

By 1758, my British luck seemed to change a bit for the better. Drawing and playing the William Pitt event card, I was able to increase my card hand size to nine cards and gain access to more British forces. Rushing more British reinforcements west into Pennsylvania, the French fell during a siege at the fort protecting the Ohio Forks, giving the British a firm foothold on the western frontier and awarding two victory points. Additional British troops rushed up the Hudson River Valley to hold back the French push toward Albany. As the British remained engaged in fights, the French began shifting their forces along Lake Ontario and the northern frontier while also raising a large force from the Iroquois in central New York. With 1758 at an end, my British forces were safely wintering on two fronts but in a severely weakened state and still way behind on victory points.

We called the game at its midpoint, deciding to restart another time now that I had been introduced to the general game. I still hadn’t experienced some major facets of the game such as naval movement and amphibious warfare, but I had quickly come to understand some of the major drivers of how the game plays. As a beginner, here are some lessons learned from my first game of Wilderness War:

  1. Defend the frontier. Especially for the British, but for both players, keeping the frontier defended by building stockades and forts is a must. Regular troops caught in wilderness areas are easy targets for Indians and other non-regulars, so having defenses built is key to defending territory. Having a network of stockades and forts to defend from, retreat to and maintain supply line coherence is a necessity if an army is going to succeed in the wilds of North America.
  2. Don’t get caught out in the cold. Open country and mountains are a strong enemy, particularly to 18th-century European armies. Paying attention to stacking limits as each year ends is important to keeping a force at strength. When conducting operations, players need to keep in mind where their troops will all wind up as a year ends and forces settle in for the winter. Nothing is worse than spending a series of turns marching troops into position only to have a portion of them die from starvation, disease and exposure in the period following each year’s turn.
  3. Play the long game. The full game goes to eight years of warfare, so strategy needs to take a long view. The first half of the game most probably belongs to the French as they and their Indian allies sack the wide open and undefended frontier. The British simply can’t be everywhere in the early years of the war, so spending time building defenses while also waiting to get the right cards to call in reinforcements is important. Massing and moving large forces on both sides to be strong enough to siege and capture forts takes a fair amount of planning but pays off in victory points.

Wilderness War is a fantastic playable document of the French and Indian War. The shifting alliances, opportunistic events, geography of the country itself intertwine to capture the period with a realness that might be familiar to any French or British commander on the 18th-century American frontier.

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New Game Weekend: Cuba Libre

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The GMT COIN series of games have fast become favorites at Metropolitan Wargamers in Brooklyn, NY. The series focuses on 20th-century insurgencies including Andean Abyss in modern Columbia, A Distant Plain in Afghanistan and the Viet Nam War-themed Fire In The Lake to be released in 2014. Future planned games will focus on conflict in Angola and Iraq. This past weekend I got a chance to play the second in the series, Cuba Libre, set in the Cuban Revolution period of 1957-1958.

The game plays up to four players, each taking on the role of either Fidel Castro’s 26th of July Movement leftists guerrillas, Cuban President Fulgencio Batista’s Government troops and police,  anti-Batista/anti-Communist student Directorio forces or the corrupt Syndicate of casino-owners led by American gangster Meyer Lansky. Using traits unique to each faction, the game plays through a fast-shifting series of diplomatic, economic and militaristic actions toward victory conditions unique to each group.

CCNapRussiansCutnerGMT’s Cuba Libre game board

Like other COIN games, Cuba Libre is compromised of a relatively simple map, abstract wooden play pieces, cardboard markers and a stack of 48 event cards. The map features the island of Cuba split into mountain, jungle and grassland areas, cities and three economic centers for the production of sugar cane, tobacco and coal. Each area carries a population point value from a high of 6 in the capital of Havana down to 1 in the smaller cities and rural areas. The factions begin with unique set-up conditions with Government troops and police primarily clustered in the cities, July 26th guerrillas in their hidden mountain camps, Directorio forces hiding in Havana and Syndicate casinos in the vacation destinations at the western end of the island.

Cities and territories are controlled when one faction’s pieces outnumber the sum of all others in the space. Each space also exists in one of five states of political stability from the pro-government Active Support to Neutral to the rebellious Active Opposition. The game’s shifting control of space and political conditions plays to specific victory conditions.

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Much of the game’s action is driven by Cuban Revolution-themed event cards which determine the turn order in each round and possible special outcomes. Each card is neatly illustrated with a period photograph, some short historic flavor text and events which may help or harm one or more factions. Players make choices in activating the event card each round or opting for a combination of Operations or Special Activities, again unique to each faction. For example, July 26th rebels can choose from Operations like March, Attack or Terror and Activities like Infiltrate or Kidnap. Government forces may play Operations like Sweep, Train or Garrison and Activities like Air Strike or Reprisal.

IMG_2863Cuba Libre at Metropolitan Wargamers

There is a ton going on in Cuba Libre, and the game’s flow can quickly turn. In my first game, the Syndicate player quickly moved toward victory conditions by building multiple casinos. My son, playing as the Government, made side deals on different turns with the Directorio and Syndicate players. My July 26th forces managed to throw much of the board into open rebellion but I could never amass enough of my guerillas where I really needed them. Cutting the game a bit short in the end, we scored it as a Government victory.

Learning how to leverage the strengths of a particular faction makes for a lot of replay value in Cuba Libre. The mix of simple components, plenty of space for strategic options and actual history baked in is what makes this and the other COIN Series games from GMT among the best being produced today.

castro¡Viva la Revolución!