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Subject: A Distant Plain: a game that speaks to those who choose to hear rss

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Severus Snape
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Pascal said, "The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me."
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A Distant Plain: a game that speaks to those who choose to hear.

Introduction:

I am writing this review fully aware that I do not know the correct approach while struggling with the question: what can one possibly bring to the gaming table that has not already been written or said about A Distant Plain? And yet there is almost an urgency to write; this is not a bad thing when a design makes us feel this way. There are ten written reviews on BGG, plus the video exposure. On the shoulders of these “giants,” one proceeds with hyperbole and trepidation well in hand, while hoping neither gets out of hand.

Every review is personal, whatever that means. This one may be more so than the average review, whatever “average” means, because this will be more a reflection than a review. It will be difficult to avoid the 1st person “I,” and the more one says “I,” the more one’s ego is front and centre. Attention is drawn more to the reviewer than what is being reviewed. Or, in this case, what is being reflected upon.

With this in mind, here is a list of the reasons why A Distant Plain has, in record time, found its way into my top ten list of games.

First, more than any other game I have played, this one tells a story. It is like that comment that Jim Dunningin made all those years ago that a good game is like a book, but it is a book that can talk to you. No other game has this effect. Not even the other COIN designs have this effect. Despite having Caesar’s Commentaries to draw upon, Falling Sky does not bring a narrative to mind; it is too abstract and too distant to bridge to the imagination. Don’t get me started on the desolation that is the abomination known as Liberty or Death. I am grateful that I did not give up on COIN—LOD, better, DOA, was my first adventure with the COIN series, and I am a sucker for strategic/operation AWI games, and one who is still waiting for the right game to come along. Richard Berg might actually have the best one out there, but I am way off topic.

Fire in the Lake, Mark Herman’s best design, for all of my burning interest in the Vietnam War falls short of ADP.

Why is that?

Without counting up all of the wooden pieces, the board of A Distant Plain seems less crowded and far less busy as a whole. There are provinces and places that become major sources of conflict and they, naturally, bring the wooden numbers into spaces. Stepping back a bit to look at the entire board, there is more space, and we are not just talking about those provinces with zero population.

What does less crowding, more space, and less business have to do with anything? Less crowding allows one to sense the ripples that even one stone can cause. The interconnections between events, operations and piece placements more easily come into view. In A Distant Plain, it becomes possible to indeed see the forest for the trees. Not always. One still has to step back and listen, as well as look. What is the design trying to tell you? To say to you?

If you read the first comment at the end, you will see that Mike Oberly cut through my wordiness to describe the effect of fewer cubes on the board this way: aesthetics with regard to open space. Nicely done, Mike.

Second, ADP and COIN games have a way of revealing, whether we want to see it or not, our personal biases toward certain conflicts and the people who fought them, or, in the case of A Distant Plain, still fighting them. One gets to see one’s blind spots. Not always but enough to get one thinking.

I teach high school English and much of what we read is dark and reflective of a dystopian universe, whether it is a part of the curriculum, or it is a novel a student has chosen for independent reading. From 13 Reasons Why to The Hate U Give to Orwell to Williams to Steinbeck to Atwood—have you seen her hair? It is a dystopian universe all its own. But I digress. A colleague once brought up the question: should we only teach literature that has some sort of redemptive ending? We are not talking “happy” endings; but should there be some sort of redemptive quality or aspect to the novel?

It is a great question; but what does this have to do with A Distant Plain?

Look at this war, our latest longest war, as others have called it, and ask yourself: where is the redemptive value to be found? Canadians, Americans, Brits, along with many other people from NATO countries have died. How many have been maimed and scarred forever? How many numbers of innocent Afghan civilians have died?

Where are the “good guys” in this? Who are the good men and women in this dystopian universe? What is going to come out of this? Because this is an ongoing conflict, the questions are open-ended. The game forces those willing to listen to think about the hard issues that go beyond the paper and cardboard.

Is an Afghan farmer the “bad guy” because he would rather plant poppies than wheat? Are the Warlords the evil ones because they supply the farmer with the seed to plant poppies? Which is more profitable for a farmer and his family? We know the answer to that, but what are we going to tell the Afghan farmer? What is the "right" thing to do in this situation?

I am not sure that I would enjoy playing the Warlords or the Taliban. Yes, “it’s only a game;” but if it’s only a game, why are people still fighting and dying in Afghanistan? Over Afghanistan? A Distant Plain has me asking: where is the redemptive quality in this tragic war? The men and women who have died need perhaps not "13 reasons why," but at least one or two "good" ones to bring some kind of redemption to their ultimate sacrifice.

Third, as the saying goes, “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” And my knowledge of this particular “current affair” is a very little thing. There is no desire to take a designer to the woodshed because of my “superior insights” into whatever is going on. Knowing as little as I do, I come to the game to listen, to learn.

Fourth, the components of the game are of typical GMT quality, superb as always. I like the colour scheme of the board despite it being basically fifty variations of brown, with a bit of black and white mixed into the mix. I like it better than Fire in the Lake; don’t misunderstand, because I do love that game, but the contrast of colours throws something out of gaming kilter.

Fifth, at least in the case of ADP, I have moved from “no bots to yes bots.” Most of my gaming life has been devoted to solo play, and I am fully comfortable soloing CDG designs. Using the bots in the past just seemed to slow things down too much. It is like playing face-to-face with a group of four, minus the colourful and insightful banter. By sheer dumb luck, I had the GMT C3i issue—I had sold off the EotS stuff—that has the revised bots. I began using them. Yes, they slow down the play, but this is actually a very good thing because I am biased toward the Coalition side—sometime soon, the Taliban will be given the orders to go medieval on the Coalition and it will be like a repeat of Tet ’68, where the VC died in droves but the seeds were planted for an American defeat. Using the bots makes me at least try to be fair toward the short term goals of the various players. As for those long term objectives—yes, I can read the victory conditions—and how to reach them, this is still very much a work in progress.

EDIT: I know I will not be satisfied until all four factions have won at least once. I have seen the Warlords with more resources than the Government, but never force the anarchy needed on the provinces. Only the Government and the Coalition have won in my solo games; this tells me that I am getting it "half-right" at best.

EDIT: I still do not know how truly fair I am with all sides, even while using the revised bots. Even with the bots, it seems one can still "game" the game. For example, during one turn the card that was to be played after the current one would be available to the Insurgents; either the Warlords or the Taliban would stage an "friendly-fire" incident if Government troops were with Coalition cubes.

What the Government forces chose to do--the Coalition "chose" to play the event to make what happened next possible--was to conduct two sweeps with large numbers of troops into spaces held or contested by the Insurgents. They "evacuated," in a sense, the provinces that they shared with Coalition forces. There were less than ten Government troops in their available section, so it seems, if I read the bot correctly, that Sweep was a legitimate option for the Government faction. Thus, the provinces became COIN controlled, helping the Government, and the tragedy was avoided. I hope this is both within the letter of the law, as well as its spirit.

Sixth, in COIN, Volke has done one for the ages. If there was a Pulitzer Prize for wargame designs, he would have to win. With Brian Train, it is impossible not to like the guy; his internet persona is one of humility and gratitude. Brian does not tell his critics where to go and how to get there. He keeps his ego in check and treats all with a gracious and patient attitude.

Now the direction is going to change to that of a couple of “cons” and a sort of “wish list.”


First, in none of the COIN designs is there ever a real sense of combat or action. There is no last roll of the die to see who wins or dies. Barry Kendall wrote in my review for Year of the Rat how he “won a game once rolling a "1" (okay, yes, very lucky but o so gratifying) in a counterattack up Highway 1 to retake Quang Tri on the last turn.”

Well, you will never get that sort of feeling with A Distant Plain. What you can get is the perfect last card before the Propaganda round, the card that, for example, allows the Coalition to surge and splurge his way off the board, knowing that the Government will not be able to lower the support enough to prevent a Coalition win.

Satisfying, yes. But as exciting as rolling Barry Kendall’s one? Never. Americans, the Coalition, etc., just how many enemy cubes will be removed for an assault. Don’t bother with the die; it’s not needed.

Where’s the fun in that?

At least the Insurgents have to roll a die. Having written all this, how could it ever be different with a COIN design? Will we ever get our roll the die and die back into the game? Or will combat always be this abstract? Please do not misunderstand: there is plenty of conflict but not combat, at least this is how it feels.

EDIT: I forgot that Liberty or Death does combat differently and a die is actually rolled. Now about the Native Americans as a fourth faction, and those victory conditions . . . .

Next on this wishful “to do” list is this: the rules need more clarity. Oerjan and Brian are amazing at the patient support they continue to provide. I could rant about how Joe Miranda just vacates a forum to make onto his next half-baked potato project in a game, but it would be a digression. It comes down to this: I still don’t know if I am playing the game correctly! And I love the game; but am I getting it “right”?

An upgrade kit that could offer more cards, events, scenarios, along with a revised set of rules, would be scooped up by legions of ADP fans, even while some gripe about the price, just as some did for the Fire in the Lake upgrade kit.

EDIT: On the link, Brian explains why he has not jumped at the idea of creating an upgrade kit.

https://brtrain.wordpress.com/2018/01/28/a-distant-plain-5-1...

The Foreign Affairs article that Brian includes gives food for upgrade kit thought: if the Taliban are too unpopular to ever be accepted by the population, as well as having some other political “negatives”—terror will never win hearts and minds—what kind of a scenario setup would we see in 2019? Just saying, that’s all.

EDIT: As Kermit the Frog would say: it ain't easy being green. How do the Warlords win in this game unless the other factions implode? Perhaps that is the answer. Wait and watch for your chance. I would like to hear from others on this question.

Last, for now, on this wishful thinking list, cubes will never replace counters for me. Not. Ever. Imagine a set of counters that reflected an actual OB, as accurate as possible: how cool would that be? How can you place Coalition cubes and think, “here’s her majesty’s 3 Para, and there is a Canadian brigade group, and then we have the American 82 Airborne”? You cannot. It won’t happen. And there is something fundamentally missing when cubes replace a good set of counters.

Conclusion:

Hopefully this review has given some sense of what makes A Distant Plain such an amazing gaming experience. If I can get my after school game club committed, I will teach this to them.

When it comes to the tumultuous history shared between Ireland and Britain, there is a saying that “the British never remember and the Irish never forget.” When it comes to the war in Afghanistan, what should we remember from this conflict? What is it that we should never forget? What is A Distant Plain trying to tell us if we have the will to listen and discern?

goo

I will be in and out of this review to edit and polish.
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Mike Oberly
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This is a really good game review. I, too, love this design, but I would have very much enjoyed your piece here even if I didn't.

I particularly liked your observation about the aesthetics with regard to open space...I completely agree, and I don't believe I have noticed anyone mention that aspect of ADP before.
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Severus Snape
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Pascal said, "The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me."
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"The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of."--Pascal
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MikeOberly wrote:
This is a really good game review. I, too, love this design, but I would have very much enjoyed your piece here even if I didn't.

I particularly liked your observation about the aesthetics with regard to open space...I completely agree, and I don't believe I have noticed anyone mention that aspect of ADP before.


Thank you, Mike. I appreciate your kind words, especially how you would like the review even if you did not like the game. I was trying to go for something "different" in this review, and I am glad that it was noticed.

goo
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Dave Daffin
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A great read. I recently bought the latest reprint of ADP, so this is very useful.

We don't hear from you very often - that's a shame. You write very well and it's very interesting. Hope to read more from you....
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Gianluca Spessato
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Yes, played solo with the new Bots is a very neat experience, and this game share for now my preferences for card-driven games with Fire in the Lake and Labyrinth/Awakening, in strategy-political contest. You deserve a "little Pulitzer" for a game's review!
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Severus Snape
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Pascal said, "The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me."
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"The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of."--Pascal
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Dave in Ledbury wrote:
A great read. I recently bought the latest reprint of ADP, so this is very useful.

We don't hear from you very often - that's a shame. You write very well and it's very interesting. Hope to read more from you....


This is very kind of you Dave, and thank you.

To write the "right" kind of review, I have to be in a certain place; this kind of description is even more abstract than COIN. I usually have to hate a game, love a game, and spend a great deal of time with a game. Some are on the table for two days and then packed up.

Being on break for Christmas--school starts up again Monday--I was able to spend a lot of time with this game. But even though I love the game, the sheer number of reviews that have been written was intimidating.

goo

Dave & Dan: thank you for the tips. I appreciate the gesture.
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Ivor Bolakov
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Wonderful review. ADP is my favourite COIN.

Quote:
At least the Insurgents have to roll a die. Having written all this, how could it ever be different with a COIN design? Will we ever get our roll the die and die back into the game? Or will combat always be this abstract? Please do not misunderstand: there is plenty of conflict but not combat, at least this is how it feels.


At this sort of level, combat arguably isn't important. What's more important is effective hearts and minds, which to a certain extent, precludes combat, at least on the part of the interventionist forces. You cannot fight your way to success.

Quote:
Last, for now, on this wishful thinking list, cubes will never replace counters for me. Not. Ever. Imagine a set of counters that reflected an actual OB, as accurate as possible: how cool would that be? How can you place Coalition cubes and think, “here’s her majesty’s 3 Para, and there is a Canadian brigade group, and then we have the American 82 Airborne”? You cannot. It won’t happen. And there is something fundamentally missing when cubes replace a good set of counters.


Likewise, at this level, hard factors really do not matter so much. Soft factors are predominant, and these are dreadfully difficult to sum up with a set of brief numerical values. What matters more than movement speed is willingness to engage with local forces, not to shy away from civilians, logistics efforts to support populations, etc.
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Fred Buchholz
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I see you are having trouble winning with Taliban or Warlords.

I have had the interesting experience of losing in the first propaganda round to the Talaban. I don't remember exactly the moves but we restarted and the pattern started to repeat itself, it took all three of us(coalition, government and warlords) in concert to stop them.
I think the government won because we were running out of time (store closing) so as coalition I pushed it their way.

Very good review, well thought out - dropped you some GG for your fine work



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Ivor Bolakov
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I think the Warlords need to drive a wedge between the Government and the Coalition to do well. At least one of them needs to be disinterested in taking on the Walords. I find a little stretch of immunity from the Coalition, in exchange for some anti-Taliban moves, is a good bet. Then the Government is left to take on the Warlords on their own, which isn't a promising prospect.
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I really enjoyed your review; thanks for taking the time to put it together. I totally agree with your comment on how the open space on the board really adds to the experience; never realized that until you mentioned it. ADP is a game I love and used to own but ultimately sold because the time length and table size required made it difficult for me to play the game as much as I would have liked. I think it is a fantastic game and it also inspired me to learn more about the situation in Afghanistan than I otherwise would have ever done, even speaking to a primary source at one point. As my kids get older and my gaming and free time adjusts accordingly I would consider re-buying ADP.

Hopefully, in the future you will be inspired to write about other games which you enjoy. I’d love to read more of your reviews.
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Severus Snape
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Pascal said, "The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me."
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OhBollox wrote:
I think the Warlords need to drive a wedge between the Government and the Coalition to do well. At least one of them needs to be disinterested in taking on the Walords. I find a little stretch of immunity from the Coalition, in exchange for some anti-Taliban moves, is a good bet. Then the Government is left to take on the Warlords on their own, which isn't a promising prospect.


Ivor, you are more politically savvy than me; you are demonstrating an example of being able to see the forest for the trees in this game.

As I have been soloing it, I have stopped along the way to ask myself: would the Coalition do such and such in this particular situation? And usually it involves some kind of deal with the Warlords.

This is where my lack of knowledge reminds me that I lack . . . knowledge; I have a lot of reading to do.

Q: does the ends justify the means? And just what are the correct ends that we wish to reach?

goo
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Severus Snape
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Quote:
Hopefully, in the future you will be inspired to write about other games which you enjoy. I’d love to read more of your reviews.


Thank you for the kind words, and the tip.

goo
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Ivor Bolakov
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I like to think that the Coalition knows the lessons of the attempted Taliban opium ban, which was a disaster: https://www.tni.org/en/article/learning-lessons-from-the-tal...

Yet the political reality means it can't be openly condoned or even encouraged (as it should have been for best results): https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/jan/09/how-the-heroin-...

It is too important to ever go away.
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Jeremy Antley
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As someone who started this journey as a playtester for Andean Abyss, I wholeheartedly agree that the COIN series has been an absolute delight to see developed and evolve over time. ADP is one of my favorites as well, but Cuba Libre/Fire in the Lake is an oh-so-close second.

You mention not winning games with the Taliban or Warlord factions, so I thought I would chirp in and offer some thoughts. I have always enjoyed playing the faction that has limited resources, like the AUC or Directorio, and the Taliban operates in much of the same way. First, always prioritize building up your presence in Pakistan and other neighboring 'safe' countries. Not only does this bring you closer via building up the base count, but it also gives you the ability to spread Coalition forces thin across a large border. Once you have done that, you should start using the Taliban double-move ability to great effect. If you have infrastructure set up outside Afghanistan and in the interior of Afghanistan, the Coalition will be hard pressed to check your motives in *all* areas.

In the early game, you should also prioritize Coalition casualties. This not only hurts funding for the government during Prop rounds, but also slowly whittles down the total force pool the Coalition can deploy. It can be worth it to give up a foothold in a province just to lay an Ambush and remove two Coalition cubes. If you have done a good job of this in the first few prop rounds, then you can focus on raising opposition and building bases in the second-half as the Coalition will be hobbled and the other factions will be (hopefully) also built up and looking to win, making you the less obvious target. Be wary of taking too many 'abilities' - you can only trade time and potential moves for accrued abilities for so long.

I had a game once where the Coalition, by luck of the draw, received the 'Aerostats' ability on the first turn, meaning I had to pay extra to march my Taliban around. I still won the game, and maybe used the March op once or twice at most. By playing whack-a-mole, I was able to keep the Coalition off guard and eek out a position of strength that I used to win in the end. Being hamstrung with resources means you have to be creative and see a long term plan to victory.

The Warlords are a bit tricky, but they are a powerful faction that can take a game over quickly if positioned correctly. You need to build up in the north, but if you want to make sure to not draw too much attention from Government forces in Kabul. You simply don't have enough manpower to compete with the flood of blue cubes that will inevitably appear if you build up too fast. Be sure to gain footholds in areas you know the Taliban will need to hold if they want to spread Coalition forces. This means places like Herat or Baghlan, or the other provinces in the NE adjacent to Pakistan (sorry, don't have the map handy and I'm a little rusty on the names). Don't be afraid to Suborn early and often, but know that removing too many forces too fast will often draw irrational ire from players. Better still to lay low, and use Suborn only to ensure that you have the upper hand and not total superiority. After you have built up resources, feel free to go on spending sprees.

You have to time your actions, to some extent, with what is happening on the board. If you suborn a bunch of Gov't troops away in the North, but the Taliban is relatively quiet in the South or West, then it will be pretty easy for the Gov't player to replace what you expensively tried to melt away. But if they are drawn into a battle with Coalition forces, or find Kabul under siege from an underground Taliban guerrilla, then you can more confidently use Suborn to gain longer-lasting control. Remember- the Taliban does not want to fight you much in the North. They have natural synergies that draw them towards concentrating in the southern part of the country. The Coalition, likewise, will want to focus on hunting down Taliban and protecting their cubes from Ambush. Their more limited numbers make resource-diverting excursions prohibitive. The Government player is your main threat, as they have the spare cubes and natural inclination to expand in the North and establish COIN-control.

Good luck in your future sessions!
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Roger Hobden
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I really need to remove the shrink-wrap and start playing that game !

I have questions about number of players and game length, however.

For instance, what works best for me with Andean Abyss is playing with three players and using the shorter scenario.

Does ADP play well with three players ?

Are there short scenarios that work well with ADP ?

Thanks in advance for the answers !
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Michael Debije
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I played the Warlords. I do not have any idea how to win.
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Ivor Bolakov
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Mallet wrote:

Does ADP play well with three players ?

Are there short scenarios that work well with ADP ?

Thanks in advance for the answers !


3P with the Warlords as a bot is the recommended and best way to go if you're short a player.

The short scenario in ADP isn't long, 48 event cards and 4 Propaganda cards. It's not as quick as the super-short one you can get with Cuba Libre, but it's around 2.5-3 hours.
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Roger Hobden
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Thanks for the information. very useful.

BTW, I never use Bots, and never will.

I also don't play solitaire games (except for Ambush ! ).

I am also never 'short' of a player, because my favourite way of multi-playing, is three players in all anyway.
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Bob Gibson
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I appreciate your comments and opinions. I, myself, own most of the COIN series games. A Distant Plain is, I believe, without question one of the top three (or possibly two) in the series. However, the comments you make about Fire in the Lake and even Liberty of Death are puzzling! IMO, they are fine games too - they absolutely tell a story, and reflect the conditions in that time and place in history.
To me, Liberty or Death is distinctive in that factions (with exception of the French) don't particularly wish to mix it up and battle. There's tactics in the strategy and I rarely see it utilized effectively in the games that I played (yes, myself included). However, there are those who’s strategy tips I’ve read and really drive the point that this game is different than the rest and requires a slightly different mindset than the other COIN games to play.

Regarding Fire in the Lake, I think it’s fantastic and with an apparent consensus that I see in the community, it could arguably be considered the best COIN game! You don’t like the amount of pieces on the board or the colors. To me that’s trivial and something that I would consider much as to whether the game was good or not. To me, the FinL is brilliant in its depiction of the goals of each faction, and in the struggle that each faction underwent in the ‘60’s. Just as with A Distant Plain, the factions in FitL are asymmetric, have different agendas that create mutual agreements as well as dissolution between these loose alliances.

You listed your reasons why LoD or FinL don’t stack up to A Distant Plain, which I don’t agree with but respect. For someone like myself who tends to be quite cynical in general, I don’t apply that same cynicism to COIN games. I love the all, and could play every one of them whenever offered!
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Severus Snape
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Bob, if you read my rating comments for Fire in the Lake you will see why I like it and give it a ten. Of Liberty or Death, I wrote a review.

More to follow.

goo
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Judd Vance
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Excellent review, Prof. Snape.

When I read such a passionate & well-written explanation, it frustrates me all the more that I just haven’t been able to get into COIN, despite multiple tries.

I guess the game is speaking in tongues and I can’t interpret.

Nevertheless, great to see passionate fans describe the internal tuning fork ringing.
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Sean McCormick
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airjudden wrote:
Excellent review, Prof. Snape.

When I read such a passionate & well-written explanation, it frustrates me all the more that I just haven’t been able to get into COIN, despite multiple tries.

I guess the game is speaking in tongues and I can’t interpret.

Nevertheless, great to see passionate fans describe the internal tuning fork ringing.


You might want to check out Colonial Twilight. I think that having a two-player set-up takes out some of the frustrations and make the game feel a bit more directly oppositional.
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Severus Snape
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Pascal said, "The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me."
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"The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of."--Pascal
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airjudden wrote:
Excellent review, Prof. Snape.

When I read such a passionate & well-written explanation, it frustrates me all the more that I just haven’t been able to get into COIN, despite multiple tries.

I guess the game is speaking in tongues and I can’t interpret.

Nevertheless, great to see passionate fans describe the internal tuning fork ringing.


Judd, perhaps a COIN devotee will come along with the secret Koolaid formula to allow you to see the light

goo
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Severus Snape
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Pascal said, "The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me."
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Thanks again to all those leaving GG tips.

goo
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