Saturday, March 9, 2013

Andean Abyss

Volko Ruhnke's Andean Abyss is the first game in GMT's new game series on counter-insurgency (COIN), with a game engine that could be described as a wargamicized El Grande (or perhaps El Grande meets Labyrinth). Four players fight over a Colombia ravaged by insurgency, drug lords, and paramilitaries as they try to further their own factional goals. The game takes place shortly after the events of Mark Bowden's excellent book Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World's Greatest Outlaw, when the Medellín drug cartels were clipped in the mid-90s. One player plays the Government, and is the driving force for the game as they try to extend their writ throughout the country. The others play the FARC revolutionaries oppose them, the AUC paramilitaries, and free agent Drug Cartels.

This might not immediately strike you as a promising subject on which to base a game. The conflict is a nasty one of assassination, kidnapping, extortion, drug trafficking, and terrorism. It's still ongoing, and ideas about it are likely to be educated guesses mixed with speculation. However, counter-insurgency is a compelling general topic. The United States' most problematic foreign policy for the last half-century has been hip-deep in it, and so a game that is illustrative in even a small way could be important. Colombia, relatively unknown to the Americans that are the core market for wargames, could get less bogged down in ideology. From a purely game perspective, highly asymmetric games – where different players play with different objectives, or even different rules – are interesting and highly asymmetric games, like Ruhnke's previous game Labyrinth, are very unusual. For me personally, I'm always drawn to games that successfully tackle challenging themes. A game that could get you emotionally drawn in to the tragedy of Colombia's wars would be incredibly compelling.

The play of Andean Abyss is driven by a deck of event cards. Each card has an ordering for the icons for the four factions (Government, FARC, AUC, Cartels) across the top, which is the turn order for this card. Two cards will always be visible, this turn's and the next's. Each faction in turn has the opportunity to do something – take the event, run one or many operations – or pass. Only two factions can be active on each card, and whatever the first faction does generally forces the second faction into a more restrictive action (so if the first faction does an operation, the second faction will have a limited operation). Additionally, taking an action this turn forces a faction to sit out next turn, so a cycle tends to develop, with two pairs of factions alternating cards. However, being the first faction to act usually means significantly more flexibility than going second, so it's important to know when to pass because the turn order on the next card up is favorable and giving up an opportunity to act now will give you more freedom later.

Once you've decided to take an operation, your options are given by a faction-specific Chinese menu of thematically named actions: march, recruit, train, attack, assassinate, extort, airstrike, cultivate, terror, and so on. Each faction has troops (cubes for the government, cylinders for the insurgents/guerrillas) which fight for the control of areas, and bases (discs) which provide both the economic backing to fund operations and places to recruit. Control is described on two axes (population in an area can support the government or oppose it, while the area can be physically controlled by one of the factions), and there are different types of areas (regions, cities, lines of communication) with different economic and population-control implications. The Government has a lengthy process to go through of cycling in army, then police cubes in an abstraction of building up civic infrastructure while other factions try to keep their power bases and forces in being and remain flexible. While there is a significant amount of real nuance here, to me it felt like just a really complicated and asymmetric variant of El Grande. You need your cubes in the right place and in sufficient quantity to control areas. If they're out of position you need to move them. If you don't have enough pieces on the board, you need to get more out. If you're short money to fund actions, you need to get out more bases or do some extortion.

Volko Ruhnke is the designer of both Andean Abyss and Labyrinth, so it's not surprising that to the extent that both games succeed, they succeed in similar ways, and where they fail, the failings are similar also. Labyrinth may have struggled with politics, reality, and a wonky endgame, but it was remarkable for how well it allowed two very different player positions with different motivations and different tools to play the same game. Importantly, neither position or viewpoint was privileged over the other – both Jihadists and the US get the same level of thematic attention from the game. Ruhnke's older design Wilderness War tried to do something similar, but it's flaw (while, like Labyrinth, still being a game I enjoy) was that it privileged the British point of view somewhat over the French. The British concerns seemed to get more attention in gameplay detail and drove more of the action, while the French were essentially reactionary.

The factional viewpoints in Andean Abyss are somewhere in-between these two earlier games. The Government's position is thematically well-developed, with a detailed process for expanding their writ. The guerrilla factions – the FARC, AUC, and Cartels –  all feel pretty similar though. They all have a broadly similar range of actions available, although they are playing to quite different game-state goals. Those different goals though are were I believe Andean Abyss goes off the rails.

The first problem is the relatively straightforward nature of the AUC and Cartel victory conditions. While the Government has to go through an involved process of pacification, and the FARC is fighting a lonely and probably doomed war for control of population and regions, the AUC and Cartels need only get a fairly small number of bases on the board and (for the Cartels) accumulate a wad of cash. These relatively minor players – with few forces, no interest in controlling population, and more limited options – are compensated with easy VCs, to the point I've actually never seen anyone other than the Cartels or AUC win the game. Now, this is just my I experience and I don't actually believe it's the way it has to be, but it brings me to my main, crucial problem with Andean Abyss, which I could have written several paragraphs ago and saved us all a lot of trouble:

Andean Abyss is a game about counter-insurgency with no – none, zero, zilch – asymmetrical information. No hidden cards, no hidden units, no mysterious capabilities. Everything is on the table all the time. You know exactly how much force everyone has everywhere, you know the entirety of the options available to everyone, you know the results of any operations anyone might run. To the extent that there is randomness to the outcome of operations – which is almost none – everyone knows the probabilities. Everyone knows exactly how the the population thinks and exactly what to do to change their minds.

This seems highly questionable from a thematic point of view and gives little sense of the murky nature of these conflicts. Not only that, it has manifestly undesirable consequences for gameplay. Instead of making quick decisions about risk, players run several degrees of chess-like move and counter-move look-ahead, because that's how the game is clearly telling them to think, and it turns what should be a 2 or 3 hour game that would be pressing its luck to go 3 hours into a tedious marathon (my games have gone 5 hours even for the short game). Even worse though, everyone can see all the time exactly who is exactly how close to winning. So it just turns into the usual exercise of bashing whoever is in front.

I had some hopes that familiarity with the game would drive down the playing time. The menus of numerous different actions, apparently different for each faction (although less diverse than it first appears), is hugely daunting for new player to grapple with. Playing a 100% open information game where everyone has different actions available and trying to get some sense of the implications of what you're doing requires understanding a lot of things and constantly puzzling over options. Once you've learned this stuff, you could hope for a more streamlined experience. Unfortunately, there are two major obstacles. Firstly, few people really want to play again after the first 5+ hour slugfest. Secondly, the time you save in understanding the game is clawed back by the fact that now everybody knows everyone has to be on the lookout to block anyone who comes close to winning. So you add a lot of less than compelling scenario analysis and back-and-forth time back in.

Finally, like Labyrinth before it, Andean Abyss ducks too many hard questions and instead presents us with a crisp, clean, and sanitized design of cylinders, cubes, disks, and highly predictable outcomes that does little to convey the violence and capriciousness of the conflict. Perhaps an RPG would be a better format to explore the tragedy of Colombia, but Andean Abyss could have done more just by integrating more historical photos into the map and reference cards (the photos on the cards are too small and too far away to reliably make out), and using a more naturalistic approach to the visual design.

I really wanted to like Andean Abyss and wanted it to be a launchpad for a new and intriguing series of games. Flawed as they were, I am still fond of Labyrinth and Wilderness War. The game mechanics of Andean Abyss – the event cards that drive turn choices, the individualized faction action menus, the light economic model backing a positional game of discs and cubes – are promising. There is clearly a game that could have been built using them. Unfortunately, Andean Abyss is not it. Despite the undeniable level of thought and detail that has gone into it, what comes out at the end is just tedious, overlong, and overcomplicated in the same way as many other much less thoughtful king-of-the-hill type multiplayer wargames are. Unless future games address the core problem of 100% information symmetry, I don't hold out much hope the series will improve.


  1. interesting post Chris. I agree that fully open information does hurt the game, both thematically and strategically. The only unknown is the propaganda card, which no one knows the position of. I have seen the Government win a couple of games, never the Farc though (possibly because i typically play them). I have made moves that have put me into a winning position as the farc, but i can only hold it for a turn or two, so im sort of gambling on the progander card turning up at the right time.

  2. I agree with your comments, Chris. I played once and didn't see how it moved the ball forward in the multiplayer weuro space. We called the game after about 5 hours and all I could think was, "We could have played two games of Chaos in the Old World!"

  3. Well, that's kind of embarrassing. I've fixed it.

  4. Thanks for the review, Chris. I have added an option, including counters, to future volumes to address any "core problem of 100% information symmetry" for those who perceive one. Best regards, Volko

  5. In full candor, I helped play-test AA and have a positive view of the game. Folks reading the comments below should know that's my POV, but I don't believe my background should discard these comments as useful for critique.

    A few points regarding your review: (part I)

    1) Open Info 'problem' - I can understand why you would want a system full of hidden information, given that this game tackles an insurgent model. Yet I think you've given one mechanic- the gov't 'Sweep then Assault' mechanic short shrift in this regard. If AA had 'hidden information' it might make the theme more 'accurate' for some, but this would come at the cost of significantly more playtime. AP would become a major time-suck for playing the game. Also, hidden information is a design challenge that isn't always handled in an efficient and elegant manner. That's why the 'sweep + assault' mechanic, for me, solves this problem. You can never be sure how many guerrillas you will be able to assault once you have swept, as the insurgent faction can either 1) march the guerrillas out of harms way or 2) rally to have them flip underground. You might have 100% open info, but you certainly don't have 100% determined results because of it. This is important, because AA is a game of playing the probabilities.

    2) 'Timing' issues - I see many new, first-time players of AA become frustrated because they work to achieve their victory conditions, then become annoyed as other factions team up to take them down. AA is not a 'King of the Hill' type game. You cannot hope to hold the hill for long if you just surge to your victory conditions. You must, instead, build up your position so as to have the greatest opportunity to execute decisive moves when the opportunity presents itself. While you can certainly 'auto-win' before the last propaganda card emerges, I've found that experienced players will generally have the game go the full distance. If this occurs, position becomes even more important to build up so that one can surge in the end to capture victory. But any player that blindly charges to the top of the hill will find themselves in quicksand.

    Also, this is a game that favors negotiation. You really can't just charge towards your objective without at least consulting the other players. Now this may irk some players who want to create the 'perfect plan' for winning, but it also allows for the 100% open info of the game to be, once again, not connected to 100% predictability.

  6. (thoughts continued, Part II)

    3) AUC and Cartels Victory Conditions - Yes, these two factions have the most straight-forward victory conditions to achieve. But this by no means makes them a cake-walk to achieve. Cartels are vulnerable to FARC Kidnaps and Gov't Eradicates, not to mention AUC assassinations. Experienced players won't just let the Cartels amass bases and money. They will periodically cut the Cartels down to prevent an easy win. It only takes one game where the Cartels builds a pile of cash and then starts bribing everything off the map to have players realize the value of keeping the Cartels in check.

    As for AUC, the same issues apply. If you let them assassinate FARC without mercy, or some abstain from retaliation for their efforts by eliminating their bases, then you've essentially handed them the win. The Govt, in particular, has to know when to work with AUC and when to turn on them. Due to limited forces, AUC must concentrate their base placement which makes it easy to land a bunch of troops in a key department and take the fight to them. If they spread out, then it should be even easier to drop token forces across the board or airstrike lone bases.

    4) AA as a 'sanitized' experience - As far as aesthetics, the cards have roughly the same picture size as those found on Twilight Struggle or Paths of Glory. AA has terror, assassinations, ambushes, drug shipments, kidnappings, extortions, etc... Almost every board game I've played relies on the player to bring some amount of interpretation to play, and with AA, being a subject few Americans know anything about, this sort of interpretation can be hard to summon. But that's what the designer notes are for- and the notes over each event represented in the card deck. Are games that use counters any less 'sanitized'? If I execute a 'terror' operation, and place a marker on the board, is that 'sanitized' because it's just markers being placed, or because I'm not giving these acts the full, contemplative measure of effect they are meant to model?

    Now the theme may not grab you- which is a totally fine point to make. But it is a subjective point, and I, myself, find AA to be a pretty good model of a subject that is *highly* complex. YMMV.

  7. Jeremy, I'm afraid I don't find any of your points at all persuasive. You can't manufacture uncertainty out of thin air. Just because in Chess, when you threaten a piece, you really don't know if your opponent is going to counter the threat - he or she might or might not - not does not give Chess any uncertainty. In Chess, as in Andean Abyss, everything is on the table - turn order for the next two turns, available cash, available operations - and it's *your*job* to know whether your opponent can/will counter. The usual benefit of having some uncertainty - dice, hards, hidden information - is to short-circuit this sort of lengthy scenario analysis by making it either impossible or too dicey to be worthwhile. Some people will still try to do it, of course, but at least then it's not the game's fault. Andean Abyss gives you all the tool and all the incentives to do this analysis. So you can't be surprised when people do it and the game takes forever. If you're going to offer up negotiations as the escape hatch, really, you're just conceding the point.

  8. As for the photos, sure, the photo on the card is the same size as TS or PoG. But as I mention in the piece, AA's cards have to be viewed well across the table as opposed to right up in your hand. Most of the text is in fact unreadable at that distance under game conditions, and the only useful information that can be made out is the turn order across the top. It's classic bad usability design which doesn't work under actual game circumstances - people are constantly needing to pass the cards around because most players can't read the text.

  9. Let me just tell you that I find these analyses (? Sorry english is not my first language) of games very interesting and motivating, when it comes to my own designs :-)

    Without knowing the game: I would agree that I would expect a level of uncertaincy giving the topic. It would be OK if AA is a Euro, but as a thematic game, thats what I would expect. Probably woul reduce the "clean" feel too. But thats just from your writeup.

  10. The issue I have with using Chess as an example is that it is a game which possesses 100% open information and almost 100% predictability (hence the use of gambits and opening moves to steer the game towards a determined course of probability). Now if you could see every card that is to come up in Andean Abyss then, yes, you would have both 100% open information and 100% predictability. But you don't- you can only see one card ahead. So you may choose to take an Op + Special, but you are in no way guaranteed that the next time you come to bat that you will be given the same opportunity to conduct an Op + Special. Perhaps you come up second on the next card, and can only take a limited op. Maybe the next card contains an event you either want to take or deny the next player from taking. If you are on the receiving end of a string of limited ops, that can really alter your plans. Bottom line: you can't be totally sure what actions will be available to you in the future, not to mention when the Prop card might show up and put a kink in your plans. That, to me, is uncertainty.

    Negotiation- by its very nature- is also uncertain. I don't see how that concedes the point- it only bolsters the open possibilities. Now maybe you play with completely rational actors, but in my experiences people play with other motivations that are not always clear. Yes, everyone knows what the victory conditions are for each player and how they can achieve those conditions. But the fundamental uncertainty of when you will take your actions and the level, or degree, of those actions that will be allowed creates tension.

  11. Regarding the cards: A fair point. It is certainly a pain to pass cards around to each player when they are learning a new game. But I also think this comes from being unfamiliar with the game. When you played TS or PoG, didn't you have to look at every card played by your opponent? I know I did when learning to play TS- and it really made the game go *far* longer than usual. Any card driven game will take some time to become acclimated to the cards used. Now the one advantage AA holds over other CDG's is that you don't have a 'hand' to manage. All the time spend analyzing your hand can, instead, go towards analyzing the board, your position, and possible moves. So yes- you might have to pass cards around the first few times you play, but I hardly think that's a reason to knock the cards themselves. Otherwise you would have to hold each and every card game to this same standard.

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  15. Good review Chris. I haven't played AA, but I did play Cuba Libre recently. This has the benefit of being (theoretically) quicker - although we called it after three hours. Three of the four of us had played AA before.

    I am a huge fan of Labyrinth (around 30 games so far). When AA was first announced I naturally expected it to be a multi-player Labyrinth. In some ways it is, but critically it did away with operations rolls. In Labyrinth, some operations were automatic (disruption, alerting plots, travel to adjacent countries) while others, particularly for the Jihadists, required successful rolls. I can't understand why this wasn't implemented in the COIN series. Counter-insurgency is so hit and miss, yet Cuba Libre played out like a Chess game. With operation rolls operations in COIN series would be pushed through a lot quicker and, thematically, the "unknown" of counter insurgency and terrorism would be brought to the fore. I'll play again, but can't see myself sitting through five hours of Chess.