Colonial Twilight is Volume 7 in the COIN series of games from GMT. It will be the first game in the series designed for two players. That alone has attracted much attention from fans of the series; in fact, it’s probably responsible for more attention than the subject matter of the game itself, the struggle of the nationalist Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN) against the French colonial authorities.
On the last day of the Consimworld Expo in Tempe AZ in May 2014, Mark Simonitch sat down with me and asked if I would be interested in designing a COIN system game on the Algerian War. As I was the guy who had designed the first game to be published on that war (Algeria: The War of Independence 1954-62, first published in 2000), and considering the influence of that game on Volko when he designed Andean Abyss, and my co-design of A Distant Plain with Volko, I of course said yes! By fall I had roughed in the design and was doing my own playtests; by the end of the year I was working with Jordan Kehrer, an experienced and very able developer. Jordan helped me to see vital concepts from another vantage point, and was always willing to throw ideas back and forth; I’ve been very pleased to work with him.
By spring 2015 we had the game in approximately its present state, and at the Consimworld Expo in June we showed our work to Gene…. And lo, Gene saw that it was good, and put it up for P500 the following month. The game took about 43 days to reach its trigger point, and as of this writing pre-orders stand at 939.
We’re still in playtesting and the artists are starting to work their magic, but it’s possible this game will be in players’ hands by the end of 2016 or early 2017. While everyone is waiting, I thought it would be helpful to talk about the design a bit.
Here are some of the main differences between this game and the others in the series.
The most obvious difference is that it is for two players: the counterinsurgent Government (representing both the government in Paris and the Algerian colonial authorities) and the insurgent Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN). Many people have asked me why only two factions, noting the numerous political and ideological conflicts the pieds-noirs (Algerian non-Arab colonists) and elements of the French Army leadership had with the French civilian government, but in the end it was Paris that called the shots. Similarly, the FLN was not the only organization interested in armed revolt against the French. But in the end, I believe that the capabilities, numbers and aspirations of these other elements were not active, durable or significant enough to make workable third and fourth factions. However, many of the related incidents and cumulative effects were incorporated into Event Cards, or indirectly represented in game mechanics like the France Track (which reflects the attitudes of the French civilian population and government, and the influence of the FLN among the hundreds of thousands of Algerian expatriates in France).
How did we make the Sequence of Play work with only two players? Well, the sequence of play is still largely the same; like the other games in the series, you still always have two factions executing operations or events in a turn, except now it’s always the same two, who are 1st and 2nd Eligible. The Initiative Track (during testing it was variously called the Horseshoe, the Pentagon, or Home Plate) is a way to retain the flexible turn order of the 4-player iterations of the COIN system, and some of the gamesmanship involved in choosing what to do in a turn.
In each turn, the new Event Card is revealed and the 1st Eligible has a choice of any space on the Track. After executing his choice, he places his cylinder on the appropriate space, and the 2nd Eligible player may choose from any space adjacent to the 1st Eligible player’s cylinder. So, for example, if the 1st Eligible player executes the Event Card, the 2nd Eligible can choose between Op + Special or Pass. Sharp-eyed players will notice that the relations of the choices to each other are essentially the same as in the flowchart-like diagram on the Sequence of Play player aid supplied in the other games: I just came up with a different way to visualize it.
Less sharp-eyed players will notice the two shaded spaces on the Track. If a player is 1st Eligible and chooses either one of these, he becomes 2nd Eligible in the following turn. So, if a player wants to retain the initiative and remain 1st eligible, he is required to act in smaller bites: an Event Card here, a LimOp there… while he is building up for a burst of activity that pays off in a set of operations and Specials in multiple spaces. This concept is somewhat similar to “sente” in the game of Go: one player makes a series of moves to which the other player reacts, up to the point where the first player becomes overextended or finishes a desired sequence… whereupon the other player gains sente, and so it continues to pass back and forth during the game.
Another important mechanical difference is removing the “look one card ahead in the Event Deck” option, as with two players it promoted overly gamey behavior. Playtesters have reported that this adds tremendously to the tension and uncertainty.
Pictures of the playtest maps have been posted on Boardgamegeek, Consimworld and other places. Players will notice there are no Lines of Communication or Economic Centres marked on it. The reason is simple: Algeria’s economy was a basket case, kept running by two things: French purchases and subsidies of wine, fruit, and grain produced there; and the cheap labour provided by about 400,000 Algerian men in metropolitan France, who worked in factories, lived in slums and sent their wages home to their families. Large deposits of oil and gas were found in the Sahara Desert in the 1950s, but this industry was not developed significantly during the war. Hence, there is nothing of great value for the FLN to sabotage.
There is only one degree of Support or Opposition in the game, not the two-layer Passive and Active states found in system games other than A Distant Plain. On the one hand, the only segment of the Algerian population that was fervently in favour of Algeria remaining part of France was the pieds-noirs, a small minority; there was also native support for continued French rule, or at least continued guidance by France, but it was dispersed and only moderate. Meanwhile, among the Muslim majority population, most people were for some form of independence from France but the FLN’s methods and practices were not universally endorsed; in this case Support could be considered more like an opposition to the FLN-imposed Oppose.
Similarly, the use of Terror in this game is also different from other games. The FLN player may use it as an Operation to eliminate Support for the Government, but cannot use it to build up Opposition – they must themselves clear away Terror before building their own effort through Agitation. In my view, and the view of many writers on the subject, terrorism works well to intimidate people into silence and inaction, but not to spur them into supporting the instigator of the terror.
The Government victory is based on Support among the population on the map in Algeria itself, and a sufficiently high Commitment level. Unlike the Indochinese and African colonies, Algeria was legally a department of France and contained a large number of French nationals, so losing this territory meant a great deal more to French prestige. In the game, the Commitment Level is largely a reflection of the political “elbow room” the home government in Paris is willing to extend towards continuing the conflict. It is tempered by many non-military factors but is largely a wish to shed minimal French blood to retain this part of their diminishing empire (though they are not as sensitive to casualties as the Coalition in A Distant Plain, or the US in Fire in the Lake), while ensuring its administration is as stable and legitimate (or at least accepted) as possible. There is also the wish, in the inevitable post-colonial period, for the newly independent Algeria to be as amenable to French influence as its other African possessions proved to be. Hence the two non-material conditions of victory for the Government.
The FLN victory is based on Opposition among the population and having enough Bases. These are typical Insurgent objectives, similar to the Taliban in A Distant Plain and the Viet Cong in Fire in the Lake: the FLN wishes to have a large and functioning “shadow government” against the day that Algeria is given independence.
That’s All For Now
In future blog posts I will write about the pieces and force structures in the game, the specific menus of Operations and Special Activities for each faction, and other goodies about this fascinating war. I hope everyone is looking forward to its release as much as I am!