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Subject: review by someone who has never played a full game correctly. rss

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Stephen Mould
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I have a couple of rules for rating and reviewing games. I generally don’t review, or even rate, heavier games until I’ve had at least a couple of playthroughs and feel as if I have the rules down. I tend to review games in genres I feel comfortable with, so Euros and Ameritrash games, usually. I wouldn’t review abstract strategy games, for instance, as although I like them, I barely get a chance to play them. Same with miniatures games and, significantly for this review, wargames. I usually put the basics of how to play a game in my reviews, not a comprehensive how to play but at least an overview. So, with these rules in mind, here are a couple of caveats to my review.


1. I am not a wargamer. I have played a few wargames (Combat Commander, Screaming Eagles, Wilderness War, Hammer of the Scots) and I know enough to know that a number of you grognards will currently be screaming at the computer that Wilderness War and indeed A Distant Plain aren’t really war games. I don’t own counter clippers, I prefer wooden cubes to cardboard chits and I have never considered buying a sheet of plexi-glass.

2.I have never completed a full game of A Distant Plain in which all the rules were played correctly. And I don’t mean that we forgot to allocate a resource point, or that we were slightly wrong about the way a specific type of movement works. No, in our second attempt to play the game we completely misinterpreted a really very clear rule affecting one of the ways in which the government faction gets victory points. Worse, we didn’t notice until we’d been playing for two and a half hours and the government player was about to win.


3. I still don’t really know how to play.


4. Therefore, I will not really be talking about rules or mechanics. I want to try and convey the thing that makes this game worth reviewing after a game and a half.


So with those points in mind, let me say that at first I wasn’t sure about this game. There are a lot of rules. It’s complex and long (for a eurogamer). It’s very...brown. Seriously. I mean, look at the board:





That’s a lot of shades of brown.


My brother (who is indeed a wargamer) insisted that this would be the best game ever, it wasn’t as hard as it looked and it’s not all brown, look those cubes are green! So when I sat down to play our first game, as the Coalition, I was unsure.

It was immediately apparent from the rules explanation that the Afghani government was my best friend on this map. I could move his troops around for him, help him take out insurgents and in return I would use his resources for my actions.

On the other side of the table, the Taliban and the Warlords, though not entirely hostile to one another, were certainly not as close to each other as me and my bosom buddies in Kabul. There was a certain amount of suspicion in their early game negotiations as the Counter-Insurgency forces began working together to systematically wipe out the terrorists and make the west of the country safe for democracy. How we chuckled as I carpet bombed the Taliban out of their compounds to the south of Kabul. How we cheered as the warlords bases were destroyed in the north. Minor setbacks in Kandahar and the eastern mountains did nothing to dampen our spirits as the first propaganda phase happened.

It was at this point that I realised the terrible position I was in. Sure, I’d been having fun with my government buddy, clearing out the Taliban and shutting down the Warlords opium operations. But the thing was, all that this had accomplished was to push the Government closer to victory. Nothing we had done had got me any closer to winning. And then we got to the part of the phase where I could move the various regions we controlled towards support for the coalition, one of my victory conditions. By spending the resources of my friends in government, I could buy support. But only if the Government player allowed me to. Which he didn’t.

Tensions began mounting immediately. As soon as the propaganda phase was over, I used my first action to pull the majority of my forces out of the country, leaving the Government with much less support. All that bombing, fighting and troop training we had prioritised early on had allowed the insurgents to play the event cards, pushing Pakistan to full support for the Taliban, meaning we now had to deal with constant terrorist attacks across our supposedly ‘safe’ western border. In the east, the warlord was building base after base, pulling in more and more cash from their poppy fields.

Meanwhile, the once cosy COIN relationship had descended in a kind of bitter silence. We weren’t exactly working against one another, I was still carrying out missions I thought would be beneficial to us both but there was a definite tension. As time went on we spoke to one another less and less until we were barely communicating at all. I was now using his resources to bribe the local populations into supporting him, whilst simultaneously pulling more and more troops out of the country, Leaving him with much less resource to carry out operations and little support when he did.

By this point the Insurgents were getting the hang of their factions and began targeting roads and carrying out terror attacks on previously loyal regions. We ended the game after about 5 hours and the Government was declared the winner due to being closest to his victory conditions. but no-one was satisfied as we had all started making up ground.

So the next time we played, everyone opted to control the same factions and the game ran much smoother and much more tightly. I began to see the way to victory, which was less about ensuring a stable government and more about saving face back home and getting the locals to like the west so they wouldn’t help the people who wanted to bomb us. It appears that the main way to accomplish this was bribery. If all that led to some form of democracy that would be lovely but if making friends with the drug exporting warlords would help me achieve my goals, so be it.

This second game was a much cagier affair. Negotiations between the two loose factions were soon flowing as everyone began stabbing everyone else in the back in order to achieve their short term objectives.

This game was amazing. I began to see, in a much clearer way than ever before, the political realities of the war in Afghanistan. This is a war of compromise, of grubby deals in backrooms between parties that would prefer not to be speaking to each other at all. A war of saving face and cashing in. This game educates, but not by putting historical facts on the event cards, or by recreating conditions with exacting precision, although it does do both these things. No, it educates by putting you in the shoes of the people making these decisions. It asks you to put aside any political or moral qualms and accept that your faction is right in its desire for victory and then shows you what victory in this theatre means.

As the coalition, it requires you to spend Afghan government resources building up their forces, carrying out operations against the Taliban who threaten your position, whilst simultaneously turning a blind eye towards and occasionally directly helping the rampaging drug lords in the north, as they rip regions away from government control. Never mind where all that opium's going. Then, when you feel the government can take care of this mess you’ve created for long enough for you to win the game, you abandon them entirely, withdrawing as many of your troops as possible back home.

It’s morally exhausting.

The end of the second game was something of an anti-climax, as we all realised the horrible mistake we’d been making as we saw that in our misinterpreted version of the rules, the government could win next turn. Entirely our fault and entirely disappointing.

We haven’t had a third attempt yet, as my brother, the wargamer of the group, has been unable to attend due to other commitments but I know that the four of us are itching to play again, try one of the other factions and delve into a whole new world of moral relativism.


Positives:

Dramatic, emotional, complex and deep. Mechanically everything works beautifully and the asynchronous nature of the factions, both in terms of the actions you can take and the victory conditions, give it a lot of replayability but it’s in the interactions between players that this game really shines. I’ve never enjoyed not talking to someone as much as I did in this.


Negatives:

Whether or not it’s ‘really’ a wargame, it certainly comes from that school of design. That means a complex (though not necessarily difficult) ruleset that is written in a style that may put your average eurogamer off. The game says it can play 1-4 but honestly, I can’t imagine any number but 4 giving you the real experience. It’s very long, with the short version clocking in at 4 hours when you’re pretty confident with the rules. And the board is very brown.


Conclusion:

This game is like nothing I’ve played before. It creates a political quagmire on the board and then asks the players to extricate themselves from it. It requires long term planning, diplomatic skill and timing. The most unusual thing is the feeling you get after playing. It makes you feel morally dirty. It makes you think deeply about the game and its setting. It’s a game that gives you a deeper understanding of an ongoing, real world situation and an appreciation of the problems inherent in any kind of solution. How many games do that?

Eurogamers will probably be put off by the rules but this would be a mistake. It will require time and dedication to learn but not as much as you might think. If you have a wargamer in your group who could learn it for you and teach everyone else, this would probably be a good way to go. But if you don’t put in the effort, learn and play this game you’ll be missing out on one of the most unique experiences in board gaming.


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Benji
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Great Review, highlighting the best things the COIN games have to offer (apart from a very brown map ).

However, maybe you should start with Cuba Libre or Andean Abyss - both are easier to get into that great system and deliver similar experiences of cooperation and betrayal.
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Stephen Mould
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Like I said in the review, I don't think its all that complicated. the mistake we made was due to incompetence on our part. shake
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Christopher Taylor
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We've probably never played a full game, of anything, correctly. We call them asterisk games.

Nice review!
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John Rogers
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Great review. I too am not a "wargamer" though I find myself drawn to the recent barrage of socio-political, cube-based fare from GMT like the COIN series, Navajo Wars, 1989, and Twilight Struggle.
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Roger Hobden
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Very nice review !

I like very much Andean Abyss and Cuba Libre, and will be playing A Distant
Plain shortly.
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Jan van der Laan
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Excellent review! It is as if you're describing reality instead of a game. And that is were this game shines. Capturing the Afghan conflict on a (brownish) gameboard and putting you in the shoes of the real world decisionmakers. And these decisionmakers are not always playing by the rules too or understand exactly what they're doing...
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Andrzej Cierpicki
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Thanks for the thoughtful review Stephen. I've only played Cuba Libre in the COIN series so far, but this is definitely higher up my playlist as a result of your post!
 
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Adam Parker
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Great game design makes the complex simple, replayability maximum, and abstraction credible.
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One of the most honest review titles I ever seen, and one I can relate to in oh, many, many different titles I’ve played in my life

Nicely done.
 
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M. A.N.
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Good stuff, here.

It turns out that Afghanistan is actually a very brown place...
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Seth
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Stevemould wrote:
Negatives:

... ruleset that is written in a style that may put your average eurogamer off. ...


... Eurogamers will probably be put off by the rules but this would be a mistake. It will require time and dedication to learn but not as much as you might think. If you have a wargamer in your group who could learn it for you and teach everyone else, this would probably be a good way to go. ..


Well... I enjoy a typical wargame and I even own a few GMT games that have a very complex rule set (Europe Engulfed, I'm looking at you) but this is a terrible terrible read... I have to ingest it somehow for tomorrows game but I just can't get through it... (it also doesn't help I don't own the game)

Maybe I'll just read the playbook and hope someone else in the group WILL have a full understanding of it all. Exhausting!

Cheers,

Seth
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