Fire in the Lake:  Designer Variants

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“A game design is never finished, only published.” 

Hello COIN Series fans!  On the basis of recent tournament experience with Fire in the Lake and how some players are reacting to the US Faction mechanics, we have been noodling various modifications to the US Faction, particularly for tournament play of the Short scenario.  Also, we are trying out changes to a small number of Event cards.

Here are a set of optional changes presented for your consideration, with a few comments about why so.   We invite your feedback here, as we will use that as we consider what subset of these changes we might incorporate into the next printing of the game, currently on P500.  Thanks!

US Faction mechanics

Players feeling that the U.S is favored should agree before play to use 1 or more of the following changes to Setup (2.1), Air Lift (4.2.2), Air Strike (4.2.3), and/or Commitment (6.5) –

“Political Rhythm” In the Short 1965-1967 scenario (only), shuffle the 3 Coup cards among the bottom 4 Event cards of each 8-card pile.

Comment:  While coups without regular periodicity are more realistic, the compressed play of the Short scenario can occasionally reward a US cut-and-run gambit without opponent recourse.

“High Winds” (recommended for tournament play) During Monsoon Season (2.3.9), Air Lift (4.2.2) may move US pieces only (no ARVN). Other restrictions remain.

Comment:  US players in tournaments have blocked ARVN victory by Air Lifting ARVN forces out of COIN Control immediately before a Coup—a clever but for us overly gamey tactic.


Air lifting ARVN.

Air lifting ARVN.

“Sortie Limit” An Air Strike Special Activity may either remove pieces or Degrade the Trail, not both. Air Strike may remove no more than one die roll of pieces total (1-6 pieces).

— If “Sortie Limit” is in use, the shaded #5 Wild Weasels effect becomes: Until Coup, each Air Strike may remove just 1 piece (not 1-6). 

Comment:   Air Strike has struck some players (especially when playing as a Communist Faction!) as unrealistically powerful in being able to focus both on close air support in the South and logistical strikes in the North, Laos, and Cambodia, and in its ability to combine with a Sweep to rack up tremendous body counts of guerrilla dead within a single Province.

“Rotation” In the Commitment Phase, US relocates Troops from Casualties to the map instead of to Available, selecting spaces as if relocating them from Available, before moving up to the usual limit of 10 Troops and 2 Bases. (US Casualties still go out of play as usual.)

Comment:   Our original postulate was that the pain of increased casualties would on balance tend to accelerate US exit from Vietnam.  But that premise is debatable in light of the natural desire to avoid lives having been lost in vain.  For gameplay, this change avoids appearing to reward the US for heavy losses of US forces.

US infantry, 1968: how many to be casualties?

US infantry, 1968: how many to be casualties?

“Withdrawal” In the Commitment Phase, for every 2 US pieces (rounded down) relocated from map to Available, VC may shift 1 Population by 1 level toward Opposition. Population shifted may be spread among spaces as desired (as long as no more than allowed Population amount is shifted). No space may be shifted by more than 1 level.

Comment:   The growing perception that America was abandoning Vietnam almost certainly affected the popular will, an aspect not otherwise modeled directly in the game.

Event Variants

M-48 Patton
Armored Punch: 2 non-Lowland US Assault spaces each remove 2 extra enemy pieces.
RPGs: After US/ARVN Patrol, NVA removes up to 2 cubes that moved (US to Casualties).

Comment: With the infrequent use of Patrol but the US, tournament players suggested a more potent effect to make RPGs worthwhile to the Communist Factions.

Patton in Vietnam.

Patton in Vietnam.


Long Range Recon Patrol: US places 3 Irregulars outside the South then free Air Strikes.
Patrols ambushed: 3 Irregulars map to Casualties. Shift each space they were in 1 level toward Active Opposition.

Comment:  Advent of LRRP early in a game before the NVA have built up can divest NVA of Bases to an unrealistic degree.



USS New Jersey

Fire support: US or ARVN free Air Strikes any 1-3 coastal spaces, removing up to 3 pieces per space (no effect on Trail).

Frightening free fire: Shift 2 coastal Provinces with US Troops each 2 levels toward Active Opposition.

Comment:   Given just the right situation on the map, USS New Jersey can devastate the Communist position to an unrealistic degree.

The unmodified originals.

The unmodified originals.


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12 thoughts on “Fire in the Lake:  Designer Variants

  1. We find that using a Sudden Propaganda Option (as in Cuba Libre – text below), where the appearance of the Propaganda/Coup card changes the order of the cards, keeps the factions more ‘honest’, since it stops over-effective gamey moves in the pre-Coup moves. However, in longer games, the effect of the advantage tends to even out and become less important.


    (Cuba Libre text): Sudden Propaganda Option: For less foreknowledge, if all players agree at Setup (2.1), whenever the next card is revealed as Propaganda, instead switch the places of the 2 showing cards and conduct an immediate Propaganda Round (6.0). The switched Event card will be the first card of the next Campaign (unless the game ends that Round). Ignore rule 2.3.9 below regarding the Final Event Card.

    • Thanks Peter!

      Another potentially nice aspect of such a “sudden Coup” option is that you then do not have bother with the Monsoon rules (which serve to dampen the advantage that you describe).

      A negative for me in such a switched Event option, however, is that it can amplify the importance of chance in when exactly the Coup appears, since there is not the Monsoon-limited in effect half-move to compensate those Factions that do not get a final full repositioning before the Victory check, Pacification, etc.


  2. This is the best game I have ever played and the variants all justified. When I play I also use a number of political rules relating to ARVN actions to simulate the “uneasy allies” aspect of the war. These come from the non-player rules. I also use the US commitment rules based on presidential policy. If I don’t use them the US and ARVN when almost every time (2 player victory conditions). I’m also playtesting a “Fall of Saigon” end game scenario. For me the greatness of the game lies in the subtle interaction between cards and player goals making Fire in the Lake different every time I play,

      • Been playing Fire In The Lake for a month or so with new variants. The most profound effect is the air strike capability of the United States being reined in. But to my understanding a more realistic option than just allowing the Americans air strikes .with a certain outcome. God I love this game ! Each time I play it something new emerges. As I play more games the importance of capability cards is becoming more evident.. Can you help me out with a question. The US search and destroy capability. Can the US search and destroy with only one troop cube in a province given there are underground VC in the space> My slow moving brain is having trouble with the explanation given in the play book.

        • Hi Terry, thanks for that feedback, that’s terrific to read!

          Yes, very possible that Mark and I overdid US air power somewhat in the original design. Glad that the variants are adding to the game for you.

          I really like how you are mining the Non-player rules for additional twists–quite creative!

          Regarding (unshaded) Search and Destroy: Yes, the US could Assault with just one troop cube against just one Underground VC Guerrilla and remove the Guerilla. The requirements for US Assault would have been met. Normally, no piece would be removed, but S&D allows the US to remove the 1 Underground Guerrilla.

          Hope that answers!
          Best regards and stay loose,

          • Thanks for getting back Volko. I’m still neck deep in Fire in the Lake . Have been trying out an alternative 1964 variant so as to aid uncertainty as to the opening set up and moves.Did you and Mark mean to create a masterpiece or was it an accident?

  3. I am absolutely loving this game! About to run my second play through. With only one game completed (Full game – US win by missing with the smallest margin – 49 points to VC 33) I’m far from an expert, but I don’t think I’m understanding US tactics for this game enough to use these variants yet. US only got a victory in my game because ARVN blocked a Communist victory with one last pacification to reduce opposition on the last Coup card. Better to see friendly forces win than the Communists! I’m sure, used correctly, American tactics are devastating and I’ll be spending a lot of time playing this game as all factions!

  4. Several months have passed of playing Fire in the Lake with the variants. I have found them to give greater balance. In an earlier post I stated that the US/ARVN tends to win most of the time. I’d like to withdraw that statement and just say no US/ARVN player should underestimate the difficulty of overcoming the NLF. This is not just the variants but my coming to a greater understanding of how to play the communist side. The air strike variant and the withdrawal variant certainly favor the NLF but this is how it should be. One of the great aspects of this game is that the US is embarking on a military mission in a country on the verge of revolution, as it did historically. It will take excellent US/ARVN play and a fortunate card draw to firstly stop a Vietcong takeover and then turn the tide against the VC and the NVA as the game progresses. Another aspect of the game that I find enticing is the the struggle to keep the Ho Chi Minh Trail open. Both sides have event cards that effect the trail and the US player must balance air strikes against the trail and in South Vietnam.
    These are just a couple of nuances in this great game. There are many more. I would be interested in what other players think. And a question for Volko who chooses the population shift on withdrawal (a great rule by the way) US/ARVN or NVA/VC.