Perfect Openings: First Turn VC Strategy in Fire in the Lake

8 people like this
Chad Jensen's Welcome to Centerville is Shipping Now!

Welcome to the first Strategy Article we’ve published in InsideGMT! Unlike the majority of our articles, this one was not written by one of our designers or developers, but by one of our players. I want to thank Mark D. (the new owner of  for creating such a well-conceived and well-written article that’s aimed at helping players new to Fire in the Lake. I’d also like to take this opportunity to invite any of the rest of you who would like to submit a strategy article on one of your favorite GMT games to please do so. My hope is that over time, we can create an excellent online resource of player-created strategy articles to help others as they sit down to learn and play our games. Enjoy the article!  – Gene

Pic 1


Fire in the Lake: Insurgency in Vietnam, designed by veteran designers Mark Herman and Volko Ruhnke and published by GMT Games is a 1 to 4 Player game that simulates either a part of, or the entire, Vietnam War. It’s a game with many moving parts and many interrelated methods, procedures, and techniques. The interaction of four players with competing, and often conflicting objectives (even for nominal allies) often results in a bewildering array of potential outcomes.

However, as in most games of skill or chance, there are fundamentals to which gamers should adhere, particularly new or inexperienced players. The player who gets the first move of the game should capitalize on this advantage. It can set the tone for the early portion of the game and, in Fire in the Lake, it’s the only move that can be planned with any certainty. After that very first move, the game can go off in a thousand different directions… but the first move can be carefully planned.

You can choose a “shotgun approach”, attempting to inflict damage on both of your historical enemies while simultaneously assisting your ally, or you can opt for self-promotion and the bettering of your own position. You can also choose to focus your aggression against one particular enemy player whom you consider the most immediate threat, hoping to rock him back on his heels for the next turn or two. Or you can try to do a bit of all the above.

Each player’s initial game situation is unique and demands a custom strategy that complements their peculiar capabilities. This article is geared towards inexperienced Fire in the Lake players who have a decent working knowledge of the game mechanics, but are still not “old pro’s”. It proposes a set of “perfect opening moves” for the Viet Cong, assuming the luck of the draw has granted them the very first move of the Short: 1965-1967 Scenario.

VC Initial Problem

Pic 2The Viet Cong’s initial problem is simply a lack of presence. 16 of the 30 available guerrilla units and 4 of the 9 available bases languish in the Available Box. The 5 VC Bases on the map are only accompanied by 2 VC guerrillas each which is generally considered to be the bare minimum protective garrison for a Base. This just does not provide the VC with the flexibility they need in order to effectively utilize their particular talents. And, should both the U.S. and ARVN players choose to move aggressively against them, it will undoubtedly be a frustrating session for the VC as they struggle just to stay relevant in the game, and put a few victory points on the scoreboard.

The Perfect Opener

Having established the primary objective of getting a significant number of VC units on the board (and possibly poking a finger in the eye of some of the other players if possible), let’s proceed with the action. Of course, we are assuming that the VC player will choose the Operation + Special Activity option. The Operation will be Rally and the Special Activity will be Subvert.

Rally Operation

A Rally Operation allows the Viet Cong player to:

  • Place new guerrillas.
  • Place new VC Bases (swapping 2 existing guerrillas for each new Base).
  • Convert Activated (exposed) guerrillas back to Underground (hidden) status.

The VC can perform one of these actions per space in as many Provinces or Cities as he has Resources to pay for, at a cost of 1 Resource point per Province/City, with the sole condition that the Province or City may not currently have Support (government support, that is). Since the VC begin the scenario with 10 Resource points, they can theoretically perform Rally Operations in as many as 10 Provinces and/or City spaces that do not have Support.

Rally Operation Details

Here’s the recommendation for execution of the Rally Operations:

  1. Kien Giang Province – Place 1 VC guerrilla. There is no Support there (in fact there’s Active Opposition) so the province is eligible.
  2. Kien Phong Province – Place 1 VC guerrilla. Again there’s no Support.
  3. Kien Hoa-Vinh Binh Province – Place 1 VC guerrilla. This province is Neutral (e.g. neither Support nor Opposition).
    Pic 3
  4. Tay Ninh Province – Place 3 VC guerrillas. Because this province contains a VC Base, the number of VC units that can be Rallied there is increased. Instead of just 1 guerrilla, the VC may place a number of guerrillas up to the sum of the number of bases in the space, plus the Population value of the Province/City. In this case, there’s 1 VC Base and the province Population value is 2, so a total of 3 VC guerrillas may be (and are) placed.
  5. Phouc Long Province – Place 1 VC guerrilla. This province has 0 (zero) Population value, and so neither Control nor Support/Opposition will move anyone closer to victory. However, the reason for placing a guerrilla here is more about preparing for future movement, perhaps into An Loc city, or maybe even on to the Lines of Communication (LOC) around Saigon.
    Pic 4
  6. Quang Duc-Long Khanh Province – Place 2 VC guerrillas. Again, as with Tay Ninh (above), more than 1 guerrilla unit may be placed due to the presence of a VC Base. So, there’s 1 VC Base in the province which is added to the province’s population value of 1, allowing for a total of 2 VC guerrillas to be placed there.
  7. Pleiku-Darlac Province – Place 2 VC guerrillas. Same situation as Quang Duc-Long Khanh (above).
    Pic 5
  8. Hue City – Place 1 VC guerrilla. At the start of this scenario, Hue is the only City that does not have some level of ARVN government Support (it is Neutral as evidenced by the absence of Support or Opposition markers). So the VC choose to take advantage of this rare early game opportunity to get units in a City and make trouble (as we’ll see in the description of the Subvert activity, later).
    Pic 6

That’s it for the Rally. Having spent a total of 8 Resource points (one for each Province/City placement), the Viet Cong have placed a total of 12 fresh guerrillas units on the map, all well indoctrinated and ready to raise hell! Now let’s move along to the companion activity: Subvert.

Subvert Special Activity

The Subvert Special Activity allows the Viet Cong player to do one of the following in up to 2 Spaces:

  • Remove 2 ARVN cubes (either Troops or Police).
  • Replace 1 ARVN cube with a VC guerrilla.

As an added bonus, the VC may reduce ARVN Patronage (graft/corruption which forms part of the ARVN victory point score) by -1 for each two ARVN pieces removed.

Subvert Activity Details

The recommendations for the Subvert Special Activities are:

  1. Binh Dinh Province – Eliminate 1 ARVN Troop and 1 ARVN Police unit.
    Pic 7
  2. Hue City – Eliminate both ARVN Police units.
    Pic 8

Other than the obvious benefit of having 4 less ARVN units to deal with going forward, what else have the VC accomplished with the Subverts?

  • Hue City is now completely devoid of COIN units and is no longer COIN Controlled. That will cost the ARVN two victory points. Also, the city is now left wide open for the NVA.
  • The COIN players (US and ARVN) will not be able to Pacify in Binh Dinh province because ARVN Police units are required for pacification, and the Subvert activity has left it Police-less. Of course, they can always move another Police unit into the province, but that’s one less Operation that can be used to kill VC!

As the final insult to the ARVN, at the completion of the Subvert special activity, ARVN Patronage is reduced by -2 (i.e. -1 for every 2 ARVN cubes removed/replaced) because the VC removed a total of 4 ARVN cubes.

VC Player Turn Round-Up

Let’s review some of the tangible (VC) benefits of the card-play just concluded:

  • 12 New VC guerrilla units on the board! – For a new total of 26 VC guerrillas deployed, out of the 30 available. This will ensure he has the force necessary to seize new opportunities that present themselves. It will also allow for conversion of VC guerrillas into VC Bases, which translates into VC victory points, without leaving the bases dangerously unprotected.
  • Loss of COIN Control in Hue city – The COIN player(s) will likely not cede a big chunk of I Corps without a fight. This means that they’ll have to divert resources north, which is bad news for the NVA… but good news for the VC! (remember, there’s only one winner in this game).
  • 4 Eliminated ARVN units – Replacing ARVN is an expensive process, which means more pain for the COIN partners.
  • Reduction of ARVN “Coin + Patronage” Level – This ARVN measure of victory has been reduced by -4 (-2 for the Patronage losses due to Subvert, and -2 for loss of COIN Control in Hue city).
  • Leverage with the NVA “ally” – The volume of VC units will ensure that the NVA will have to depend on VC cooperation, or at least acquiescence, if they hope to gain control of any of the Provinces in III Corps or IV Corps (the ring of provinces surrounding Saigon).

Not bad for an opening move!

Unfortunately, there is a price to pay for all this. The VC are now down to only 2 Resource points. The introduction of 12 new units, however, should allow them the latitude to recoup some or all of this turn’s expenses through Tax Special Activities in subsequent card plays.

Because he’s just executed an Operation on the opening card, the Viet Cong player will not be eligible for operations on the next card play, and should expect some level of retribution from the ARVN and US. But it won’t be the “cake-walk” it might have been for the COIN guys had the VC not reinforced across the board. I have yet to see a single Operation/Special Activity sequence in which a COIN player was able to eliminate 12 Underground VC units, so I think the VC will begin their next card play in measurably better shape than when the game started, no matter what the COIN players do (unless there’s some wicked Event card that I just haven’t seen yet… which is entirely possible).

Possibilities for the Next VC Turn

As I said earlier, the only move that can be meticulously planned for is the very first opening move of any of the scenarios, so speculating on what can be done on the “next” card-play is an exercise in Kentucky windage. But here goes…

The VC should be in decent shape to defend themselves against any COIN aggression. But they will have to replenish the VC coffers before too long, so I foresee a Tax Special Activity in the near future. They have the manpower to move to the LOCs (without Resource cost) and Tax there and to Tax in the provinces too, which is more lucrative than taxing the LOCs. So, a March Operation followed by a Tax Special Activity is the most likely next move.

Pic 9

Keep in mind that the Special Activity can precede the Operation, so the VC are free to Tax first. Since the Tax Activity is compatible with any of the VC Operations, the VC player can Tax first and use the new funds to conduct any other Operation desired!


With my limited experience playing this game, the idea that my “Perfect Opening Move” is actually the ultimate move stretches credulity… just a bit. However, while it may not be the “ultimate” plan, it’s a good, solid plan for the Viet Cong. If it serves to get you thinking about your own alternate “Perfect Opening Move”, than I’ve accomplished what I set out to do.

I just want to emphasize that, in Fire in the Lake, the Viet Cong are not the hapless victims caught between the hammer of US firepower and the anvil of North Vietnamese intransigence. They appear quite capable of winning this game decisively if they can get the majority of their guerrillas in the fight. Which is why I believe that the Rally/Subvert combination I suggest in this article is the best way to get the Viet Cong off to a good start.

When you devise some “Perfect Opening Moves” of your own, I’d like to hear about them!

– Mark D.

Fire in the Lake Page on GMT Website

Chris Janiec's Wild Blue Yonder is Shipping Now!

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

We'd love to hear from you! Please take a minute to share your comments.

19 thoughts on “Perfect Openings: First Turn VC Strategy in Fire in the Lake

  1. Hello,

    An interesting analysis, and it makes many good points. However, while an immediate Rally Operation can be quite rewarding for the VC, there are some details that Mark may have overlooked:

    * The first one is that US Train Operations DO NOT require the presence of Police in order to Pacify a space. ARVN Train Ops do need Police in order to Pacify, and so do all Coup Round Pacifications, but US Train Ops during the Campaigns don’t. There is also a COIN Base in Binh Dinh, so either COIN Faction could easily Train more Police there should they want to do so. In short, Subverting the Police cube in Binh Dinh will not prevent the COIN Factions from Pacifying that province.

    * The second point is that there are two VC Bases in spaces with Support, in Binh Dinh and Binh Tuy. Mark’s opening virtually guarantees that these Bases will be at least neutralised, and probably destroyed: since the VC cannot Rally in Support spaces, it only takes a Sweep Operation to Activate the two Guerrillas in each of those spaces and thereby neutralise those Bases for the entire first Campaign, or an ARVN Raid or US Advise Special Activity to remove the two Guerrillas in at least one of those spaces and thus expose its VC Base to an Assault. Once a province has no Underground VC Guerrillas and is turned to Support, it can be very difficult for the VC to break into it again… so think carefully before you give the COIN players such a good opportunity to clear you out of a province or two.

    The Sweep can be at least partially countered by executing a Terror Operation to make the spaces Neutral (before the COIN Factions have time to Sweep, that is), allowing the VC to Rally there at need. While this might not save the Bases from destruction, at least the provinces are much more likely to remain open to VC Rallies, Terror and Agitation!

    The Raid or Advise Special Activities can also be countered, by using the Subvert Special Activity to replace a single ARVN cube per space with a VC Guerrilla instead of removing two cubes per space. This way there are more Guerrillas protecting the Bases than those COIN Special Activities can remove in one card play, buying the VC at least some extra time.

    * Finally, it can be dangerous for the VC to deplete their treasury this early – not least because the NVA often needs financial support from the VC in order to build up their strength! While it might seem counter-intuitive for the VC to help their northern cousins/rivals in this fashion, the VC usually need the NVA to draw some of the COIN attention away.

    Yes, Tax can refill the VC coffers quickly… but only if the VC get to do an Operation plus Special Activity reasonably soon. The Short scenario only lasts 16-24 Event cards, so if the VC make themselves broke on the first card and the COIN Factions manage to block their Tax activities for a few activations after that, half the game could pass before the VC have fully recovered economically! Is it worth the risk? Well, that’s for each VC player to decide. I’ve seen this kind of early-spending strategies end in both triumphs and disasters, though somewhat more of the latter than the former.

    Best regards,

  2. Oerjan, Thanks for providing us all with the benefit of your experience with Fire in the Lake! I’m always looking for advice to help me take my game up a notch and I’m sure others are too. +Mark

    • Hi Mark,

      To follow up my previous post: One of the things I always look at when deciding what to do in a COIN game is what the other factions will be able to do on the visible Event cards.

      For example, a very strong US reply to the VC Shotgun Rally opening move is a Sweep+Air Strike: Sweep Binh Dinh and Binh Tuy to neutralise the Bases there and set them up for future destruction by Assault/Advise/Raid (but not by Air Strike, since that would remove the Support), and Sweep+Air Strike in (non-Support) Pleiku to remove all four VC Guerrillas and the Base there. While they’re at it, the US will probably Sweep a bunch of other spaces too, not least to make it harder for the VC to Tax, but those three central Provinces are the really important ones in this US move. In one stroke, the US has destroyed or neutralised 60% of the VC Bases, and while the Air Strike will shift Pleiku to Passive Opposition, at least there’s no Terror there. If this happens, the VC will probably lose the Binhs entirely, and have to fight hard to restore their position in Pleiku – which can be difficult when VC Resources are low.

      If the VC had opened with a Terror Operation instead, a US Sweep+Air Strike could remove 2 of those 3 VC Bases… but in that case the third one would still be able to Rally, and both of the Binh Provinces would be Neutral or at Passive Opposition and thus also available for VC Rallies. They would also have Terror markers, making it more expensive for the US to Pacify them back to Support.

      So, IF the US will be in position to do an Operation+Special Activity on card 2 – either because they’ll be 1st Eligible and the shaded Event isn’t too painful, or because they’ll be 2nd Eligible after another Faction’s “must-play” Event – then I’d avoid the “Shotgun Rally” opening and instead go for some variant of Terror + Special Activity to leave more options open later on.

      If OTOH the US are NOT in position to do an Operation+Special Activity on card 2, then the Shotgun Rally looks a lot better. While an ARVN Sweep+Raid combo can also neutralise both of the Binhs, it can’t take out the Pleiku Base at the same time; and it also uses up some of the above-Econ Resources that the US would otherwise use for Pacification. And, not least important, if the ARVN do execute a Sweep on card 2, then that’s one less opportunity for them to Govern before the Young Turks and their thrice-accursed Patronage bonus get displaced by the next Coup!

      Of course, if neither of the COIN Factions could do a Sweep+SA combo on card 2, then the Shotgun Rally is golden! I’d modify it a bit by Subverting the two Police cubes in Kien Hoa rather than the Binh Dinh cubes (no COIN Base in Kien Hoa makes it harder for the COIN Factions to replace those Police), and I’d Rally in a couple fewer spaces with neither a VC Base nor ARVN cubes (probably skip Phuoc Long and Kien Phong, since both of them can easily get reinforcements from Tay Ninh) to keep a somewhat larger Resource buffer, but the main lines of the opening are pretty solid in this case. OK, it could still turn sour if the VC don’t.get to Activate

      • (#*€%¡ ”Post” button being too close to the bottomedge of the text window for my fat thumbs…)

        Finishing up the above post:

        OK, it could still turn sour if the VC don’t get to Activate on card 3, but that’s a risk I’d be prepared to run.

        I hope I didn’t come across as too critical in my first post above. That wasn’t my intention at all! It’s just that I’ve had my head handed to me so many times using a VC Shotgun Rally opening when the US were in position to strike me down that I’ve developed a deep respect for its weaknesses as well as for its strengths.

        Best regards,

        • Oerjan,

          No I didn’t take your comments as criticism at all. Just another point of view. (besides, using the word “perfect” in a strategy tip is almost like begging the world to point out some flaws!).

          My experiences have been different than yours. In the games I’ve played, the US player has had to give some attention to the NVA as soon as possible before the situation in I Corps gets out of control, forcing them to postpone the VC attacks until a future turn.

          Even if the VC lose two bases in Binh Dinh and Binh Tuy, as you describe, they’ll now have enough guerrillas in position on the map to place 5 new ones! Including 2 in IV Corps (2-Point provinces as well).

          What I like most about this game is the variety of possible outcomes. We could go back and forth all day with points and counter-points but, as you said, there are times when a certain strategy is golden… and times when it may not be. You, as the player, have to develop a good sense of “what? how? and when?”. Totally “sweet”, as Volko says.

          Thanks again for sharing your experience.

          • Hi Mark,

            If the US has cleaned out Pleiku with a Sweep+Air Strike combination as discussed in my follow-up reply above, then the VC have enough Guerrillas on the map to place 4 new Bases, not 5. Of those 4, the ones placed in Kien Phong and Kien Giang are left with a single Guerrilla each for protection, which makes them very vulnerable to Raids by the ARVN Rangers in Can Tho and Saigon until the VC can Rally a third time…

            As for the US having to give attention to the NVA up north as early as card 2 – well. The Short scenario has some NVA Events that can turn them into a serious threat that early, that’s true, but most of the time I’ve found that the US can afford to wait with engaging the NVA in I Corps at least until card 5 or 6. Securing the central areas from the VC immediately saves me so much COIN effort later on that it is usually well worth it, even though it gives the NVA a bit of a breather at first.

            It is easy for a new US player to overestimate the NVA threat, BTW. Although the NVA can place lots of pieces on the map, they can also lose pieces *very* quickly to a well executed US counter-offensive! My record for NVA-crushing is removing 28 NVA pieces in one US Assault+Air Lift combination – granted, many of those were in spaces with US Bases, but still… For the US, it is usually both cheaper and easier to turn the NVA back than it is to Pacify Provinces that the VC have turned to Opposition.

            So yes, strategies and counter-strategies. Devising your strategy without taking the opponents’ potential counters into account can easily be fatal. That’s why I’ve pointed out some of those counters in this discussion 🙂

            Regards (and Happy Holidays!),

  3. How ironic; I swear it was maybe an hour ago I was just wondering if there’s anyone posting tactics on COIN games. Been playing alot of them this year and really seem to be missing some basic ideas. Thankfully, none of those games have been official competitions, so there’s time to pick up the tactics.

    Just so happens to be my first activation as the VC in my current FitL match, so will certainly consider this article as I ponder my first move. Had a bit of a gift earlier with a card that gave 3 free LimOps (Uncle Ho I believe), so may be doing just fine. Must better than my last ADP game anyways.

    • Barry, Yep, a helluva a coincidence. When I wrote the article, I was hoping that it would encourage others, more experienced in the game than I, to contribute strategy articles as well. Good luck with your current FITL game and let us know how it turns out! Rgds, Mark (

      • Can’t say much about FitL just yet – only on my 3rd game. Have just about got some insight on ADP though, and perhaps COIN in general. I think I’m somewhere in the neighborhood of 10-15 plays of COIN so far

  4. That was an excellent article full of great insights. I would very much like to see your take on the “perfect opening’ for the other three sides.

  5. Thanks for writing this! I look forward to articles for the other factions. Fire in the Lake is my first experience with the COIN series and after setting up the board, reading through the rules, and oogling at all the neat pieces, I was left at a loss as to what strategy to actually pursue. Articles like this that offer some tips on how and *why* one would take various actions are great.

    • Just got through my first play (full scenario) of a COIN game and it was FitL. I absolutely love the game and can’t wait to try out the other one I picked up (Falling Sky). This article gave me a nice insight into angles I may have missed as a new player to the COIN system. I don’t know if opening strategies for the other three sides where ever posted but I can’t seem to find them. I’d love some insight into how to make the most of other faction’s abilities. Particularly how to manage NVA resources against a VC faction unwilling to share resources.

      • Sorry Fred, but I never did complete the other articles. You know how it goes… So many interests; so little time. Hopefully I will get back to “Fire in the Lake” one of these days and complete the set of articles.