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Subject: [Roger's Reviews] A Distant Plain: Afghanistan Deconstructed rss

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A Distant Plain
A game for 1-4 players designed by Brian Train and Volko Ruhnke


Three Canadian soldiers have been shipped out to Afghanistan and are based deep in the heart of the conflict: Kandahar Province, where the Taliban insurgency is fiercest. Every day, Canadian soldiers on the ground confront the chaos and violence of life "outside the wire". They don’t have the big picture; they’re not interested in the policy. They’re just trying to help the people, protect each other...and survive.

― Premise of the award winning Canadian radio drama Afghanada


Introduction
Afghanistan. It's in a largely untamed part of the world. The Soviets invaded them in in 1979 during the final decade of the Cold War, eventually pulling out in 1989 amidst rising casualty counts and the increasingly high drain on the treasury. The movie Charlie Wilson's War is an entertaining look at how the west aided the then Muhajedeen fighters to repel the Soviet troops.

Fast forward to a little over a decade later, the 9/11 incident triggered another invasion of Afghanistan, this time by the United States and its allies. The Taliban were removed from power, bases were built, and the International Security Assistance Force began training the Afghan National Security Force.

The US and UK led ISAF (and over forty other countries) thus began the exercise of nation building, the government under Karzai accepted their help, and the Taliban and the warlords have been waging an insurgency since 2003.

It is against this very current and very complex backdrop that the third came in the awesome COIN series is set.

COIN, short for counterinsurgency, is an entry into a different kind of warfare. Gone are the neat lines where the forces of side A are neatly arrayed against the forces of side B, with a map providing the tableau upon which the story plays out. No more mere dabbling with strategy and tactics with the occasional dose of fortune expressed as a die roll on a combat results table.

The strength of the COIN system is its inherent asymmetrical structure. Each faction has its own victory conditions, quite independent and different from the the others, and players are thrust into an interdisciplinary milieu where the complex and possibly alien motivations of their faction.

The discomfiture of taking on ones role in a COIN game, to be straitjacketed by ideological underpinnings translated into the set of actions your assigned faction can do and be rewarded by, is one of the challenges to be overcome, and ultimately tell the narrative of each game.

A Distant Plain is the most complex of the three COIN games to date. Notwithstanding that each game uses the same basic engine, each game also has its own idiosyncrasies.

Components



A Distant Plain is set in Afghanistan, and that's where most of the action will take place, but there are adjacent areas in Pakistan that are in play. The political status of Pakistan will affect the Taliban's ability to act (to some extent). Kabul is the only city in the game, and the economic centres are spaces along the road that rings the mountainous areas.

The COIN system uses wooden cubes, cylinders, and discs. Each faction has their own set of units to represent the pool of resources available to them, and these resources are based on a great extent on their goals.

A Distant Plain includes
- 22” x 34” mounted game board
- Deck of 78 playing cards
- 165 tan, medium blue, light blue, black, and green wooden playing pieces, many embossed
- 6 red and 6 white wooden pawns.
- 4 foldout Faction player aid sheets
- 2 foldout Non-player Faction aid sheets
- Sequence and Planning Map sheet
- Sheet of markers
- Rulebook
- Playbook
- 3 6-sided dice

Rules & Game Play
The rules for A Distant Plain, like the other COIN games, reasonably straightforward, but newcomers to the COIN series are very strongly recommended to read the play book because the game depends very strongly on players being aware of not only what they can do, but what the other players can do. The capabilities of each faction are asymmetric, and you may think that your move is a safe one, only to get a very nasty surprise from the next player.

As with Cuba Libre, the glossary of terms section in the back of the rulebook not only defines what a term means, but also gives you a reference to the rules section(s) that are relevant. This is brilliant as it saves a lot of time when you're looking something up. I wish more rulebooks would do this.

All of the COIN games to date have had four factions in play and A Distant Plain is no different. The four factions in the game and their victory conditions are:

The Coalition
These are the international troops, mostly US and UK, but certainly others. They are natural allies for the Government and help them by spending their money on training the Afghan forces, have the ability to send in surges of troops and are the 800lb gorilla in the game. They win if they can get support for the government + their available forces over 30. Their general aim is to build support for the legitimate government while getting their troops out.

The Government
This faction is trying very hard to stop the coalition from spending all their money on the Afghan forces and police so that they can funnel it into patronage. They win if the COIN controlled population in support of the government plus patronage levels exceed 35.

The Taliban
The Taliban want to reassert their supremacy over the country and oppose the efforts of the coalition and the government. Their major aim is to establish bases inside Afghanistan and turn the people agains the government and support them. They win if their support + bases exceed 20.

The Warlords
This faction is all about the money. As long as the population is indifferent to the Taliban and the Government and the opium can flow, they're happy. Although to some extent they're the natural ally of the Taliban, they are beholden to nobody but themselves and want their total resources to exceed 40 + see an uncontrolled population in excess of 15.

Each region has two separate and independent states. Control, which is granted to the faction with the majority of units there, and Support, which represents which way the local populace is leaning. Support can be pro-government (support), anti-government (oppose), or neutral.

The heart of the game engine are the event cards and the ability to take actions when your faction is eligible.

Thanks for the image Volko!

The heart of the game revolves around the cards. You always know two cards - the one that's up now, and the one that will be up next. Each card has the faction icons across the top indicating the order each player will be eligible to act.

However, the card events, while they can be potent, are not the whole story. The heart of the game is deciding what you want to do when you're up and weighing the benefits of being able to act vs. the opportunity you'll be giving the person after you.



In the image above, the Taliban (black) is ineligible. The Coalition (tan) has chosen the event on the card. One of the the Government (blue) or Warlords (green) will be able to act next, depending on what the card says. If we look at the ISR card in the previous image, you'd see that the Government would be next. If they pass (and collect some resources), then the Warlords would have the option to take the 2nd faction op or pass for a resource. If the Government decided to take the 2nd faction op, then the Warlords would get nothing, but be eligible on the next card.

For any given card, only two players will be able to act. The other two will either be ineligible (having played the previous card) or be forced to pass (in which case they get +1 resource, or +3 if it's the government).

There are three rows in the Sequence of Play table.

Row 1 - A faction operation, and the second player can only do a limited operation. A limited operation is a faction operation that can only be conducted in one region.

Row 2 - A faction operation + a special operation, and the second player can choose between an event on the card or a limited operation.

Row 3 - The event that is on the card, and the second player can do a faction operations + a special operation.

Each faction, based on their particular goals, has a set of faction operations. The complete list of all the actions available to everyone is on the set of player handouts.

When you are up first, you have to look at who's eligible after you, and who would be eligible before you on the next card. Maybe the next card is even more valuable to you than the current one.

Then there is another consideration - if you take the event, you leave open the option for the next faction to take a special action, or if you take the faction/special action combo, leaving the event open for the next guy. There are often times where taking the faction action option leaving only a limited operation for the next person.



This leaves open a lot of room for negotiations, haggling, promises to not attack the person if they take the event to let you take the special option. The possibilities are limited only by your imagination.

The game has four propaganda cards are victory check triggers and if the game continues, a reset.

When a propaganda card comes up, a set of steps is followed, in strict order. First is a victory check. Did someone win? Then the game is over. If more than one faction is eligible to win, then the one closest to their condition wins. If it's still tied, then victory goes in order to the Warlords, Government, and Taliban.

Assuming not, then there are some reset steps about getting income, support, redeployments (forced in some cases), and perhaps most importantly, resetting all factions' eligibility to act for the next round.

If nobody wins immediately after the fourth propaganda card, then the faction closest to their winning condition is declared the winner - there's a slightly different formula applied to everyone to give them a numeric score. Ties are resolved as noted above.

Conclusions
It's said that Cuba Libre is the most accessible game in the COIN series. This is true for a couple of important reasons. The smaller deck makes for a somewhat shorter game, and the smaller map means you're immediately in conflict with your fellow players.

A Distant Plain has more subtlety to it. The map is larger, the factions have some natural home spaces, and the tension builds up slowly as forces array and set up. It's easy for the coalition to surge onto the board and take out the Taliban in one space, but there are so many places for the Taliban to go that it's not a little like whack-a-mole. Meanwhile, the Warlords will simply go ahead and set up their opium plantations and make money. The Government is not a little dependent on the good graces of the coalition to leave them some resources to build towards their goal of getting popular support - if these two clash, then it makes it easier for the Taliban to set everyone in opposition to the government.

Then there's the operational mindset you need to adopt for the game. COIN games require not a little investment in understanding what your faction wants in order to execute your plans. If you're bound and determined to march your Warlord units on Kabul to topple Karzai, you will get wiped out by the coalition forces. This is not a classic wargame. This is also a clash of world views.

There's a lot to like in the COIN system. Each faction is different, sometimes dramatically so. You need to adopt to mantle of your faction and negotiate and play from that basis. Some level of suspension of disbelief is required. Every game will tell a new story.

A particular strength of the COIN system is that if you've played one, you can quickly learn to play another. The core engine is the same, but the faction capabilities and available actions are very different.

There is a steeper learning curve to A Distant Plain than Cuba Libre, but the time invested will be well worth it. Brian Train has captured the essence of the Afghan conflict exceedingly well. No matter how you feel about the current conflict, you'll learn something by playing this game.



If this is your first COIN game, the asymmetric turn order, not to mention eligibility rules, will take some getting used to. The fact that every faction is so different means that you'll be spending a lot of time and effort not only thinking about your next move, but also trying to figure out (and remember) what the other players can or might be able to do to you. The reference folder is handy, but there is a lot to absorb. Be prepared to spend a lot of time with your nose in the reference sheets.

A Distant Plain. Afghanistan deconstructed.


Thank you for reading this latest installment of Roger's Reviews. I've been an avid board gamer all my life and a wargamer for over thirty years. I have a strong preference for well designed games that allow players to focus on trying to make good decisions.

Among my favorites I include Twilight Struggle, the Combat Commander Series, the Musket & Pike Battle Series, Julius Caesar, Maria, EastFront, Here I Stand, Napoleon's Triumph and Unhappy King Charles!

You can subscribe to my reviews at this geeklist: [Roger's Reviews] The Complete Collection and I also encourage you to purchase this very stylish microbadge: mb
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Troy Creamer
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Great review! After playing all the other COIN games i like this the most but your are totally right its the most challenging to wrap your head around. However once you do its an amazing experience. I love all the COIN games but for different reasons.

Cuba - for the accessibility and quicker play time
Andean Abyss - A great stepping stone toward a distant plain and it was the first of its kind.
A Distant Plain - The theme is so relevant, the game is so deep, and the faction interactions are absolutely fascinating.

I have never seen a game with such asymmetric sides have such interesting and amazing interactions.

Such a rewarding experience,
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Jon
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Great review (as always Roger). Signed rulebook too!

Hey..... my game did not come with a signed rulebook ....

I am in the midst of my first ADP session (PBEM) and I am thoroughly enjoying it. I find myself looking forward to what my playing partners will do in their activations and trying to puzzle out my next plan is a real joy. Do I know what I am doing half of the time? No, but things are getting better. At this stage in my ADP learning curve I am still lurching about reacting to circumstance and trying to max out Patronage/COIN areas per card play (I am the Government). Not optimal as there is precious little long term planning which, I suspect, is key to success.

With the exception of solo playings of AA, all of my experience is via PBEM. I wonder how the game would play FtF? Would AP set in to slow things down? Depends on the players and their experience levels I suppose like in most if not all games. Given the number of options available to the players in ADP in particular, I could see some longish initial sessions.

One concern that I have had with all of the COIN games to present is the relative ease some actions seemingly entail. This old wargamer recoiled slightly at that when first encountered in AA and I have been wrestling with it for some time since. Where I stand now on the issue is that there are defensive options against such things, some of which I have discovered and others I have not. In essence, the "problem" lies in my inexperience.

Regardless, I have enjoyed playing this game immensely. Which is the whole point of the exercise no? To have fun! It and CL were my top new games from 2013 (although I have yet to play The Guns of Gettysburg ).

In fact, I have enjoyed them all to date and agree with Troy's thinking regarding difficulty levels. To paraphrase him, it is indeed rewarding.

PS - You know what I really enjoy upon reflection? I like how a player must base his actions not just on the board situation, but also on what the next card actions could entail (and who will be Active to employ them). It is that extra level of never stagnant activation ordering that elevates this series of games to my mind.
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Andy Andersen
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Excellent review. I'm beginning to work on Cuba Libre to get the COIN system down.

Thanks.
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It's just a ride...
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leroy43 wrote:





Looks like the Taliban and the Coalition decided to square up face to face there.
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Brian Train
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Thanks for the excellent review Roger!

I'm glad you enjoyed the game so much and will continue to play the COIN series.

"M. Poutine", if I ever meet you I will be happy to sign your rulebook for you!

Brian
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Jon
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ltmurnau wrote:

... "M. Poutine", if I ever meet you I will be happy to sign your rulebook for you!
Brian

I may just take you up on that Brian! When next I am on V Island. LOL!!

Thanks for the great game.
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Chris Montgomery
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ltmurnau wrote:
Thanks for the excellent review Roger!

I'm glad you enjoyed the game so much and will continue to play the COIN series.

"M. Poutine", if I ever meet you I will be happy to sign your rulebook for you!

Brian

It would have been even better if you had written a typo:

"Happy trials."

That's certainly what this game is.



Always like to see designers willing to go the extra mile. Thanks for the game!
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Ron
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thumbsup Great review, Roger; as always!
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Marc Guenette
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I don't agree that it is the most complex of the serie, but I'll say this is the game where the asymetry is the most pronounced.
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Jon
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Which would you pick for most complex Marc? I assume Andean Abyss? In your opinion, what makes it so? I value your thoughts.
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Pawel P
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Great review. Awesome game.
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Marc Guenette
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I think they all work different, and they all have their own inherent complexities. Cuba Libre seems to be the easiest down the road. When you think about it, making one mistake is tough to recover, there are less cards meaning less turns. No easy task. You have to maximize your opportunities all the time, more than in the longer games.

A Distant Plain is surely the less intuitive. The factions work differently. It's not as clear as who will collaborate with whom? I've seen ponctual Taliban/COIN deals because of the way the game was going. The geography is much more simple since there the "raod networks" is almost at its simplest expression. None in Cuba Libre, still but in CL they are geographicaly located in a way that it may be tough for some factions to get to LOCs. Warlords are wicked to play because they can just concentrate on where the wind blows and pull the guns where and when unexpected.

Andean Abyss is the one I have less experience. It's mostly 3 vs 1. It's a busy map, there are opportunities for everyone to chip in and do the damage .

The game share a common root. Faction Ops and Special activities. Fondamentally they all reflect the asymetric natures they are depicting. Being good at one doesn't mean you will be good at the others. their intrinsinc differences are deeper than what they appear. Capabilities and Momentum don't work toward the same goals in all 3 published titles because of the situation (their own specific case of COIN).

I'll accept that Cuba Libre is the easiest to jump in. It doesn't mean it's less complex. It's shorter, more intuitive (maybe), it is nonetheless a game where you have to observe and react to be on top on your game.

Mr.Poutine, do I know you? Just curious.
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Jon
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Interesting. Thanks for your thoughts. I am mulling them even as I type.

Kwebec wrote:
Mr.Poutine, do I know you? Just curious.

Nope. Well, not really. Geekmail sent.
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Brian Train
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cmontgo2 wrote:
ltmurnau wrote:
Thanks for the excellent review Roger!

I'm glad you enjoyed the game so much and will continue to play the COIN series.

"M. Poutine", if I ever meet you I will be happy to sign your rulebook for you!

Brian

It would have been even better if you had written a typo:

"Happy trials."

That's certainly what this game is.

:p

Always like to see designers willing to go the extra mile. Thanks for the game!

Good one Chris!
Glad you are (sort of?) enjoying the game.

Brian
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M. A.N.
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Great review! You find that golden middle between brevity and detail that makes a great review!

A couple of rules/terminology questions, as I am new to the game and I want to make sure that I'm playing correctly:

leroy43 wrote:
The Government
This faction is trying very hard to stop the coalition from spending all their money on the Afghan forces and police so that they can funnel it into patronage. They win if the COIN controlled population in support of the government plus patronage levels exceed 35.

My understanding is that The Government needs only control and patronage, not control and support plus patronage. Am I misreading this rule?

leroy43 wrote:
For any given card, only two players will be able to act. The other two will either be ineligible (having played the previous card) or be forced to pass (in which case they get +1 resource, or +3 if it's the government).

And here, I've been playing this part of the game where if an eligible faction is precluded from acting due to the fact that two eligible player actions exhaust the card, they just "sit out" that turn. Am I to understand that they get their income (if any) passively in this case?

Thanks for the write-up! Have fun.

Edit: grammar
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Volko Ruhnke
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M.A.N. -- You had it right on both counts.

You only get to Pass for income when 1st or 2nd Eligible (2.3.3). It is possible, however, for 1 or 2 such Eligible Factions to Pass and thereby give other Eligible Factions who are later in the initiative order a go on that card (perhaps what Roger was referring to).

-- Regards! Volko
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