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Subject: lessons from three solitaire games rss

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Tim K
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I like the COIN series. I’ve played the three that have been published already as I write this – Andean Abyss a couple of times, A Distant Plain once, and Cuba Libre three times. I’ve also played a number of games without a full line-up, solitaire and otherwise (with and without bots). Volko Ruhnke may be my favorite GMT game designer because I think he is very creative. Wilderness War has some unique features and there’s no standard CDG quite like Labyrinth; then he develops a completely different type of card-driven game in the COIN series.

I think A Distant Plain is the most interesting of the first three COIN games, although like many others I’m *really* looking forward to Fire in the Lake. Meanwhile, lacking experience at ADP and finding myself with more time since a work contract just ended, I decided to play ADP multi-player solitaire (i.e., I played all factions; no bots). As it turns out I blitzed through three Extended Scenario games in about a week. I played with some assumed cooperation, as if I was negotiating with myself, :-P but generally just moved things along without trying to optimize every last decision.

I decided to relay some of my experience at BGG. Although I’m not soliciting feedback I wouldn’t post this without expecting others to comment. I rarely read strategy articles (for example, I have not read the comments in the ADP Playbook). Much of the satisfaction I get from gaming is determining strategy on my own, and that is after all why I embarked on these solitaire games.

The Taliban won the first game by one point over the Coalition. The Warlords were not too far behind, but the Government was about 20 points in the hole. The game went to the bitter end – the sixth Propaganda card was the very last card played.

The second game was a tie between the Warlords and the Taliban. Both COIN factions were pretty far behind, about 15 or more points if I remember correctly. The last Propaganda card showed up with five cards left in the draw pile.

The third game was another Taliban and Warlords tie! You’d think I don’t know how to play the COIN factions, but the end was actually quite close. The fifth Propaganda card showed up late; there were 14 regular cards left in the draw pile, and the score was C -14 (and one Surge away from withdrawing nine troops and three bases to be at -2), G -6, T -4, and W -4 & +25. Interestingly, the sixth Propaganda card then showed up as early as possible, only three cards later. Taliban and Warlords went on the first card after the fifth Propaganda card, not knowing the end of the game was imminent. Govt was first up on the last action card and I thought they were going to win by Sweeping multiple provinces until I remembered that is not permitted on the last event card. Unfortunately for the COIN factions one Lim Op each without Sweep was not going to change the current scoring. Alas for the Coalition they once again finished far behind. They were unlucky in being last eligible in a very limited campaign between the fifth and sixth Propaganda cards.

So what did I divine about each faction’s strategy and tactics in these solitaire games?

*******

Coalition: I assumed throughout the three games that the Government and Coalition had an agreement where the Government would place bases in a couple of population 1 provinces such as Herat and Faryab and bleed Aid there for Patronage, while the Coalition would place bases (therefore preventing Patronage) and try to control high population spaces (in compensation for Govt accepting the presence of the bases), including population 3 Kabul and some of the population 2 provinces Kandahar, Khowst, Nuristan, Baghlan, Konduz, and Balkh. In practice the Warlords usually controlled Konduz and Balkh and Coalition Kandahar, Khowst, and Nuristan. They contested Baghlan, with the Coalition usually having the upper hand. In these games the Taliban never mounted a serious challenge for control of Kandahar, Khowst, and Nuristan, although they terrorized them a lot.

Anyway, such an agreement between Coalition and Govt seems reasonable to me. My standard Coalition base deployment was three Coalition troops later supplemented by Training three Govt troops but not more. The Govt troops screen the Coalition troops during Attacks and Ambushes, but Coalition retains Civic Action priority since they match the number of Govt troops. I’d often also Train three police, since their presence are needed during Propaganda rounds for Civic Actions if needed such as after Terror.

Air power is very important to the Coalition. Air Strikes enable swift removal of unwelcome insurgents; in an Operation & Special Activity first Sweep, then Air Strike to remove the exposed insurgent. This is very valuable against the Taliban, since their Ambush SA is so powerful.

As these games evolved I found that I liked having a fairly heavy commitment of Coalition forces. In the first game the Coalition was lagging due to a modest troop commitment. They typically didn’t outnumber Govt troops in spaces and could not always implement Civic Actions during Propaganda rounds. Also, don’t spread the Coalition troops out too much. I liked having at least three spaces at all times with three troops and a base. Then I could Surge out 12 pieces at once if I needed to if Coalition had a shot at victory.

Incidentally, the Coalition seemed the most dependent on luck for pulling out a win. Pull out too early, and progress is lost as others move into the power vacuum. Wait too long and you finish way behind (as happened in games two and three). In fact I’d go so far as to say: if ADP represents reality to any degree, what are we doing there? I don’t see a true winning position for the real-world Coalition. When we leave the Govt will be soon usurped by the insurgents, much as what appears to be happening right now in Iraq.
Here is my take on Coalition Capabilities:

ISR: I may not have understood this one correctly. I was thinking reveal three more guerrillas in one Sweep space. I’m cautious if this is correct because revealing lots of guerrillas in a space comes at a risk because such spaces are vulnerable to Attack. If it’s reveal three guerrillas in *any* space, even a non-Sweep space, then it is more useful especially in combination with Reapers.

Like many of the Capabilities cards for both sides, it’s often the case that not being saddled with the negative capability is arguably more important than taking the positive version. Air Strikes being prohibited from accompanying Sweeps is a prime example. Sweep & Air Strike was the main method Coalition used to remove insurgent pieces, so I would rate avoiding this down side very important.

Predators: both a good upside and a bad downside. Like many capabilities Predators is great in combination with other capabilities, such as Reapers.

Reapers: I liked this one a lot, and used it repeatedly when I had it. Once again the downside should be avoided. Given the choice of juicing three Air Strikes or being left with one limited Air Strike I think it’s obvious what you should do.

Aerostats: elsewhere I’ve seen others call this a less effective Coalition capability, but I found it to be highly effective. Unless I misunderstand it vastly increases the cost of Taliban mobility in Pashtun spaces – every space entered counts as a March destination, including the first space. The Taliban can make a lot of hay Marching onto LoCs and into provinces then executing a Terror operation. They can also make a lot of hay by Marching into enemy-controlled provinces and Ambushing. In the third game the Taliban quickly found themselves short of resources because of the Aerostats.

However, I think the negative version of this capability is not bad. I usually Marched en masse. Flipping one active Marching guerrilla underground in those situations is not a big deal.

Find Fix Finish: I didn’t see this one in action. The Coalition got it in the third game, but the Warlords removed it with the Change of Tactics event. I think it’s especially useful against the Warlords, since I think they should generally spread out their guerrillas. I don’t think the negative version is very bad since my Coalition deployment doctrine usually had Govt troops in all spaces with Coalition troops.

Village Stability Operations: good upside, very bad downside. It’s nice to be able to place police anywhere, but it’s very valuable to be able to Train them without restriction. Coalition needs cops in every COIN-controlled Coalition base space to keep up the support.

PRTs: meh upside, bad downside. The upside is nice but not essential. I found I was able to keep the Coalition base spaces fairly stable with Support over the long term with one Civic Action per Train. Regarding the downside I did occasionally Assault more than one space, but I found I used Air Strike more than Assault. Given the choice between this capability and Reapers or Predators I’d go with one of the latter.

*******

Government: in the only game of ADP I’ve played with three others I was the Warlords. I didn’t realize until my second of these solitaire games how much more powerful the Coalition is in Assaults, and of course how their firepower is even greater with Air Strikes.

However, it took until the third solitaire game for me to realize the Govt’s Train and Desertion priorities. The most important spaces for Police are two on both LoCs to Pakistan and three or more in COIN-controlled provinces with Support where Govt has the ability to divert Aid to Patronage as freely as possible. Govt doesn’t really care about cops in other spaces. Police are also more limited in mobility. Troops move quickly for establishing COIN control. Therefore, the Govt should preferentially Train troops and Desert police. Certainly some accommodation must be made to the desires of your Coalition partner, but the Govt’s priorities are clear.

Govt should also emphasize to the other players that he’s got a big hill to climb to get into contention. One of the reasons Govt did poorly in the first solitaire game is that I had the other factions targeting Patronage right from the start. This was too aggressive. Govt Patronage doesn’t become a problem, I think, until it reaches the range of 15-20.

I think Govt should strive to establish a base at each end of the LoC arc, such as Faryab, Herat, or Farah. These locations in combination with a stable Kabul (which is always important) give the Govt more options for Sweep operations. Incidentally, the base locations should also be where Govt sets up its regular bleeding of Aid for Patronage.

Another reason Govt did poorly in the first game was that I overlooked returning refugees. Let’s think about them. Why return any refugees at all? First, it increases competition for control and non-control of population – the rising tide should yield more COIN-controlled population. Although it also increases the opportunity for Coalition Support and Taliban Opposition, both of those take extra steps to secure.

A more subtle reason to return refugees is to increase the number of spaces with at least 2 population. There are six spaces outside Kabul with 2 population at the start of the extended scenario. I think the Coalition has a good shot to build a base (thereby preventing Patronage) in three or four of these spaces, while the insurgents control two or three others. Since the Coalition has only six bases, and one should be maintained permanently in Kabul, creating more population 2 spaces stretches the Coalition’s ability to limit Patronage.

Finally, do not overlook Eradication of Warlords bases. I didn’t use it much, and not at all in the first game, but it is a useful Special Action for the Govt.

********

Taliban: the Taliban as I said before can really make some hay. However, they start with limited forces and bases. In all three games I spent the first third or so Rallying to increase the number of guerrillas and bases.

You don’t need to have them all on the board though before putting some fear into the other players. Slipping an underground guerrilla into a COIN-controlled province is a double threat. Terror can shift toward Opposition, and Ambush can remove two enemy pieces per space. I think three guerrillas and Extort on the Pakistan LoCs is pretty essential (as well a guerrilla and Extort at one or more Warlord bases); they are a valuable sources of sometimes sparse Taliban resources. Taliban guerrillas should eventually be Marched into any unoccupied neutral province with a population of at least one. Terror there creates Opposition.

Here is my take on Taliban capabilities:

Roadside IEDs: big upside, bad downside. The positive version increases the effectiveness of already-powerful Taliban Ambushes; the negative version decreases it. Occurrence in the early- and mid-game this one is a no-brainer, unless the Taliban is unlucky enough to need to choose between this capability and another.

Night Letters: this one is, I think, another no-brainer. It effectively increases the cost of Training by 50%, and Training is ongoing throughout the game because Govt troops and police Desert, get Suborned, or get Infiltrated. The downside, too, should be avoided because Taliban Terror is often a really easy way to increase Opposition.

Urban Specialists: I did not prioritize Kabul as a target. I question the COIN team that is lax in its control and support in Kabul. Therefore, it seems less important to me unless it is in combination with Suicide Bombers.

Car Bombs: again since I rate the Taliban Ambush ability to be one of its most important, then a capability that alternately increases it or limits it is important.

Suicide Bombers: good upside, bad downside. Secondary to the Ambush-related capabilities, but still valuable.

Accidental Guerrillas: meh upside, bad downside. Since I relied a lot on Sweep & Air Strike, I don’t think the Coalition is motivated to Assault that often. Certainly, though, removing redeploying Taliban to Available should be avoided. I often had to redeploy scattered Taliban guerrillas. AG, requiring more Rallies, and Coalition Aerostats can both make the Taliban short on resources.

ID Cards: This one is essentially a Govt capability. Govt’s implementation of the bad version depends on the strength of the Warlords and Taliban players. It may not be that important if either is doing poorly. However, if Warlords are strong Govt may pass on it to preserve Taliban Infiltration of non-Pashtun Afghanistan.

The upside, though, is definitely valuable to the Taliban. March-and-go-underground is an efficiency that can really help them.

*******

Warlords: I had no idea how to play Warlords in my one-and-only face-to-face four-player session of ADP. Govt won and I was nowhere near him in VPs. After these solitaire games I’m beginning to understand now why my buddy Chip says the Warlords are the most fun faction in the first three COIN games.

Warlords are pseudo-insurgents. They really play a middle man much of the time between the Taliban and the COIN factions. They’re also enabled in many ways to mess with each player. Coaltion Support or Taliban Opposition too high? Terrorize a few provinces. COIN or Taliban control too high? Suborn to remove pieces. Although they start poor, a strong Warlords player will also eventually have cash to spend on deals with other players, increased by their ability to collect tolls on LoCs, get money during Surges, and kick some Patronage to Govt and resources to Taliban during Traffics.

*******

This has been an interesting exercise. I make no claims about my strategy tips above being comprehensive. There is a big difference when playing against live, conniving opponents. Hopefully though I now have a good grounding for all the factions. I look forward to my next live four-player game of A Distant Plain.
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Brian Train
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Thanks very much for your thorough analysis and notes from your games!
I'm glad you feel you learned so much.
I think it was also important you pointed out that you could play all four factions yourself with a minimum amount of brain bifurcation.

Brian
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Tim K
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ltmurnau wrote:
Thanks very much for your thorough analysis and notes from your games!
I'm glad you feel you learned so much.
I think it was also important you pointed out that you could play all four factions yourself with a minimum amount of brain bifurcation.

Brian


Hi, Brian,

Thanks for all your work on the interesting game that is A Distant Plain.

To tell the truth, I didn't want to go near the bots. Eventually I expect to figure them out. My initial experience with them though is that the ADP bots are excessively obtuse. I'd like to write new versions that can be followed easily. However, I need to get back to my "job search job" first.

Tim K.
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Brian Train
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Thanks Tim, I appreciate that.
I did not do any of the work on the bots - that was all Volko and it was a tremendous amount of work, especially to create bots for all four of the factions.
People have found the bots very useful in learning to play the game, or when wanting to study factions in turn, and I think that's their best use - they are very valuable in that regard.
I don't think they were intended to be a good substitute for a sneaky thinking human adversary - but we do get enquiries from people getting hung up on the script, asking "did you really mean this, did you mean that".
To me, any game that tries to use an AI is often played by the human as a meta-game of "find and exploit the flaw in the AI".

Brian
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Tim K
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P.S. Brian, here's a vote for a COIN game about WWII Yugoslavia.

Tim K.
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Brian Train
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Well, you might get your wish one day Tim
But there are a lot of wars out there... witness the screaming match (which appears to be quieting now) about someone daring to apply the COIN system to Caesar's Gallic Wars.

Brian
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O.Shane Balloun
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htjester wrote:
P.S. Brian, here's a vote for a COIN game about WWII Yugoslavia.

Tim K.


Maybe Brian and Volko can title it, Liquidate the Kulak.
 
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Kevin Walsh
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ltmurnau wrote:
Well, you might get your wish one day Tim
But there are a lot of wars out there... witness the screaming match (which appears to be quieting now) about someone daring to apply the COIN system to Caesar's Gallic Wars.

I thought about it for the Hundred Years War, but frankly that conflict is too complex to be done as a whole using the COIN system, since the parties to the conflict frequently changed over time. The Breton Civil War might be a manageable sub-conflict, though I'm not sure that French royal forces (as opposed to the ducal armies of Charles De Blois) played much of a role in the fighting.

Aquitaine and Guyenne might be an interesting place to set it, but on that front it seems like the political control system in Hannibal: Rome vs Carthage might be the best model of the political situation.
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Jeff Gringer
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htjester wrote:
Another reason Govt did poorly in the first game was that I overlooked returning refugees. Let’s think about them. Why return any refugees at all? First, it increases competition for control and non-control of population – the rising tide should yield more COIN-controlled population. Although it also increases the opportunity for Coalition Support and Taliban Opposition, both of those take extra steps to secure.

A more subtle reason to return refugees is to increase the number of spaces with at least 2 population. There are six spaces outside Kabul with 2 population at the start of the extended scenario. I think the Coalition has a good shot to build a base (thereby preventing Patronage) in three or four of these spaces, while the insurgents control two or three others. Since the Coalition has only six bases, and one should be maintained permanently in Kabul, creating more population 2 spaces stretches the Coalition’s ability to limit Patronage.

Thanks for the nice and thorough piece of analysis Tim. It is a very rich game, and there are no single "right" way to reach victory. I also love to play it solitaire. Even if not as good as a four-way face-to-face (the ulimtate), it's a fascinating exercise in working through problem solving and short/long-term strategizing for each of the factions.

One other advantage for the Gov to govern and bring the refugees back is to make milking patronage that much more effective. I like to embed Gov in the bigger non-Pashtun provinces, especially Baghlan and Kunduz. Usually the Coalition is preoccupied to the south, and these two provinces are good platforms to ding the Warlords from. So I pump them up with refugees to 3-pops. They can then serve as both stronger COIN-control building blocks, and be opportune areas to hit the Govern SA and syphon off Aid to Patronage.
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