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Subject: Thoughts on Strategy: the Cartels rss

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Ben Martin
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With a possible Colombian peace treaty in the news, my friends and I have been returning once more to the abyssal depths of the darkest Andean jungle. After several excellent sessions over the last couple of months, I found myself one sleepless night turning over quite why we’ve enjoyed this game so much of late, and the lessons we’ve learned along the way.

I put together a few thoughts on overall strategy, and was going to write up my thoughts on strategy for each faction, but got sidetracked by work, life, etc etc and so never finished the other three factions. This has been on my hard-drive for a while so thought I'd throw them up here in case anyone's interested. Enjoy, and let me know if you agree or disagree with anything here!


How to think about strategy in AA

First off, let’s address the elephant in the room. Andean Abyss, as a game, can be a confusing beast at first. For hardcore grognards, the colourful pieces and abstracted combat mechanics smack too much of Eurogaming, while for more casual gamers the austere rulebook and profusion of crucial but easily-misunderstood rules minutiae can be intimidating. Plus, of course, there’s the fact that you really need to play this five-hour game at least four times (once per faction) before you can even begin to say you understand what it’s about, which can be a big ask for most gaming groups.

Once you’ve managed to get through those early sessions and got a handle on the mechanics, another criticism often emerges, one that I’ve seen various formulations of on these forums: that the game is too dependent on blind luck over skilled play, and suffers from the “first past the post” problem: the minute you look like you might win, everyone else piles on to drag you back down into the mire again.

I don’t think either of these criticisms are fair. AA, far more than most, is a game where power is balanced on a razor-sharp knife edge, subject to the slings and arrows of fortune – a thematically accurate representation of the conflict it simulates. The interaction of faction powers, the dilemmas of event cards, and the operation eligibility system make it almost impossible for one player to “dominate” a game.

This is crucial to both understanding and, more importantly, enjoying AA. It is not a game of landing crushing blows on your opponent. It’s about parrying, positioning, and heading off threats before they materialise. It’s a game of subterfuge, where canniness and misdirection are far more effective tools than the unthinking application of raw power.

In AA, often the best move is not the one that maximally increases your own power, but the one that sets up the most agonising dilemma for your opponent. It subtly rewards thoughtful play, and mercilessly punishes sloppy thinking. It took our gaming group a fair few sessions to understand this, but since that switch clicked, we’ve been rewarded with one of the engaging and satisfying experiences in gaming.

As such, here’s some thoughts on faction abilities and strategies that might help beginning or intermediate players get to grips with the delicate balancing act of playing Andean Abyss.



A bird's eye view of the Colombian jungle



Cashing in with the Cartels

In some ways, the cartels are the simplest faction to play. Note – that’s simplest, not easiest!

You have an easy-to-understand win condition (build bases, make money), and thus will spend less time pondering the question that bedevils all AA newbies at one point or another: “what the hell should I be doing right now?

Your win condition is self-reinforcing. Building bases makes it easier to get rich, and getting rich makes it easier to both build more bases and weaken your opponents, by simply bribing their bases and units off the map.

Your operations contribute more directly to your win condition. The Government has to string together long, complex chains of operations to clear out insurgents or build support in departments. FARC has to wait until a propaganda round before it can Agitate. And the AUC has to play a merry dance with meagre resources to both build bases and infiltrate its small guerrilla forces into FARC strongholds. The cartels, however? Rally, Cultivate, Process, rinse, repeat. Every single one of these operations gets you closer to winning, every time you do it. See, told you it was simple!



However, this simplicity is a weakness as much as a strength. It’s very easy for all to see when the Cartels are doing well, and when that little green cylinder starts shooting up the resource track, you’d better believe that all sorts of alarm bells will start going off around the table.

In short, the Cartels can get close to their win condition without breaking much of a sweat. But getting over the line – and staying there long enough for a propaganda card to come up – will not be easy. The Government can pick off your bases from the air with Eradicate and Air Strike, the AUC from the ground with Assassinate, and FARC can play havoc with your bank account with a couple of lucky rolls on a Kidnap SpecOp.




So how can any would-be drug barons out there close out a game?

I’d argue that the cornerstone of any Cartel strategy should be the fact that your win condition is not directly opposed to the win conditions of the other three factions. This is crucial. FARC and the Government will be swinging at each other from the get-go, while the AUC needs to go after the FARC sooner rather than later to have any chance of winning. Use this to your advantage.

Stay neutral in the early game. Siding closely with the FARC just gives the Government another reason to start spraying your plantations. Similarly, buddying up with the AUC will piss off the FARC, whose numerous guerrillas will never be far away from your lightly-defended jungle bases, ready for an ambush.

Negotiate, misdirect, and trash-talk. Since no-one is directly coming after you at first, you have space to play your opponents off against each other. If you can influence the direction of arguments and negotiations that don’t directly involve you, you can keep the other factions focussed on each other, and minimise the threat that you.

More money, more problems (for everyone else, that is). If one faction is running out of money and thus not pulling its weight, throw them some cash. You need all three factions fairly equally balanced so they don’t have the breathing room to come after you; the Cartels are strongest when the other factions are distracted – if they’re paying attention to each other, that means they’re not paying attention to you.

Manage your power curve. If you get too rich, too soon, everyone will know about it. Shipments are your friend here. During the first Propaganda phase, you can trade shipments for Bases rather than Resources to avoid the appearance of being too rich for your own good. In the midgame, they give you insane amounts of money; and just before the final Propaganda card a bonus LimOp can be just the ticket to get you over the line.

Diversify your operations. Building two bases in a 0-pop jungle department is basically a big neon sign to the Government, begging them to come spray you. Spread out your jungle labs. Smaller cities tend to be weakly policed by the midgame, giving you an opportunity to slip in. And keep an eye out for Government Capability cards: if you can somehow trigger the shaded versions of Ospina & Mora or Tapias (maybe by throwing some cash to a rival faction to trigger them for you), then cities become much, much safer for the Cartels.




These are just some half-finished introductory thoughts, and I'm far from an AA expert. But they're all things that have helped me explore and enjoy this fantastic game. Let me know what you think!
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Nik Knight
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Good article.... one minor quibble....
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Ben Martin
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Ouch... that'll teach me to post things while I'm at work!

Thanks for the edit
 
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Jason Sherlock
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Great starting point for a strategy discussion.

One that I will throw in: As counter intuitive as it looks, the police are often your best friends. Kidnap is ugly, as is assassination. These (rather than spraying) are your biggest threats. Having police near your labs protects them, and if your labs are in the cities, they can't be eradicated anyways.

Since the government is often more concerned about FARC, and it takes a dedicated sweep action to root you out before attacking (and you can go right back to underground on your turn), government won't be sweeping you too much, as he has better things to do.

Keep your bases spread out. I agree that 2 labs in a jungle invites eradication. One lab per jungle might get sprayed, but that is the cost of doing business, and again, government usually has better things to do than playing whack-a-mole with your solitary bases.
 
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