Introducing All Bridges Burning: Red Revolt and White Guard in Finland, 1917-1918

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All Bridges Burning is a COIN Series system game simulating the political and the military events of the Finnish Civil War of 1918 including a period of build-up to the conflict. It is the first COIN Series volume to have been designed for three players.

In All Bridges Burning, the three factions –the Reds, the white Senate, and the blue, non-violent, Social Democratic faction– compete for getting to define the shape of post-conflict Finland. The game is divided in two phases of pre-war build-up and the war itself. Alongside the player controlled factions, also simple German and Russian non-player sides bring their military force to bear.

Triggered by one of the first socialist revolts of the 20th century, the Finnish Civil War was in part about drawing the borders between the socialist and the democratic world systems, and in part about societal issues internal to Finland itself.

Helsinki has a history of white and red terror. The concept and uses of terror in All Bridges Burning and the historical conflict will be discussed in a future InsideGMT installment. (Non-final playtest art.)

Towards a COIN Game on the Finnish Civil War

I got to know the COIN Series initially as a fan, but gradually got more and more involved in the design side of things. I began as the designer of the solitaire non-players or “bots”, then as a developer, and simultaneously as a designer of my own game.

As a Finland-born gamer with design ambitions, the first historical topic to suggest itself to me as a potential target for a game design was, naturally, the Finnish Civil War. January 28, 2018, will be the centenary of the start of that bitter and brutal conflict.

My earliest notebook entries indicate that I was working on the game’s core concepts as early as December 2015. I worked on the design on and off until the Summer of 2017 when I finally felt ready to approach the series creator Volko Ruhnke with my ideas. Volko liked what he saw, forwarded the game materials to Gene at GMT Games, and the rest is history! For the past few months I have had the pleasure of refining the design with the help of a bunch of gaming buddies near and far –thanks guys!– as well as the developer Örjan Ariander (who, by the way, is every bit as good as they say –you won’t meet a sharper mind in gaming).

Needless to say, for us Finns the Finnish Civil War remains a topic of great interest –as well as little painful, too. The approaching centenary of the war constitutes a great opportunity to study the history of this little gamed conflict. As we shall see, the topic also offers, if you like, philosophical opportunities to reflect upon the impact of something as traumatic and horrible as a civil war. The COIN Series is known for providing surprising and inspired perspectives on historical conflicts with serious and often perplexing moral and political dimensions to boot. I think you will see that All Bridges Burning is no exception.

One of the most iconic photographs from the era show the entourage of the white Senate army supreme commander C. G. E. Mannerheim prepare to lead the victory parade in the capital Helsinki in May 1918. The moment is bitter sweet, however, because it was Imperial German army that fought the Reds out of Helsinki. The Germans had held their own victory parade a week earlier. (Image credit: the online collection of the Finnish Board of Antiquities, nba.fi)

The German forces pose for a photo after the conquest of Helsinki. Demonstratively a Red Guard flag has been thrown in the gutter. (Image credit: the online collection of the Finnish Board of Antiquities, nba.fi)

The Historical Conflict in a Nutshell

The build-up phase of All Bridges Burning begins somewhere in 1917. At that historical time Finland was not yet an independent nation but a semi-autonomous province of the Russian Empire. The last Tsar, Nicholas II of Russia, abdicated in March 1917 and waves of instability began to sweep over the Russian empire time and again. Across the Finnish political spectrum, the instability in Russia was seen by many as a chance to declare long-desired independence. The declaration was indeed passed on 6 December, 1917.

However, despite the declaration, internal tensions gripped the small nation. In a power vacuum caused by the Russian descend into their own civil war, in Finland grave social inequalities and feudalistic societal structures pitted the nobility and the bourgeoisie up against the masses of landless tenants and an emerging urban proletariat. In the latter half of 1917, political agitation, strikes, and violence drove the nation to the brink. Soon enough, all bridges between the competing political factions would be burning.

“[This is] an important feature of the Finnish revolution: no one date or single event marks its beginning. The country drifted into revolution, and from early November [1917] it became virtually impossible to avert.” -The Finnish historian Risto Alapuro

In January 1918 the tensions came to a head. The local Red Guard militias, certain politicians of the Social Democratic Party as well as Finnish Bolsheviks, launched a revolt. With less than two months gone since the declaration of independence, had the young state failed already? What would it take to put out the fires and begin the process of social reform and national reconciliation?

The historical war was fought between January and May 1918. On the one side fought the Reds –an ill-equipped, badly trained rag tag army made up of working class people and their Finnish Bolshevist and Social Democrat leaders. Almost equally unsuited to fight were the White Guards, formally led by the so-called Vaasa Senate, the non-leftist members of the Finnish Senate relocated at the start of the revolt from the capital, Helsinki, to the town of Vaasa on the country’s west coast.

The White force squashed the revolt in a few bloody and traumatic months. Of a nation of 3 million people, nearly 40 000 people died in the conflict and its aftermath, including about 10 000 executed or murdered and over 13 000 dying in the prison camps (see statistics here). In a later InsideGMT article I will describe in greater detail how this legacy of the conflict forms one of the focus points in All Bridges Burning.

A deciding role in the military defeat of the Reds played the supreme commander of the White army, one Karl Gustav Mannerheim –later Finland’s sixth president and the supreme commander of the Finnish army in the Second World War. In addition, the invasion of Finland by the Imperial German forces from March 1918 onwards decisively affected the conflict’s military outcome. Notable is also the contribution of the Finnish 27th Jaeger Battalion consisting of Finland-born men but trained in Germany. They provided the White army with the much needed leadership in the field, something that the Red Guards lacked almost entirely.

At the same time, despite the country having tens of thousands of Russian troops stationed in various garrisons throughout the country, the Russian involvement quickly dwindled down. On the one hand, internal turmoil in Russia confused the chain of command paralyzing the army and leading to mass desertions among the troops stationed in Finland. On the other hand, Russia’s ill fortunes in the First World War forced them to cede control of a number of European countries, including Finland, as formalized in the treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918.

The year 1918 was one of the darker chapters of our recent history. Our country was just about to free itself from a centuries long repression and to reach a long dreamed-of independence. This beautiful moment, however, almost got ruined by a bitter brotherly feud. The people split into two camps, passions inflamed on both sides, and soon blood began to flow threatening to drown budding independence. The period of the civil war was brutal and even after its end brutalities and the desire for revenge went on for a long time. –Väinö Tanner, Finnish period politician

The 3-Player Eligibility System

In a later InsideGMT article I will have the opportunity to spell out in full the historical justification as well as my personal story of discovery of how All Bridges Burning came to have three factions. Now I will contend myself with explaining how the 3-player eligibility system works. I will also attempt to give an idea of some of the dynamics it gives rise to.

The three 3-player sequence of play contains three horizontal rows of actions options. Also the German non-player power has its own slot in the display. (Non-final playtest art.)

Similar to the 4-player eligibility track familiar from the other volumes in the COIN Series, the 3-player track also features the eligible and ineligible factions boxes on the far left and right, respectively, with the various action options in the middle. Also familiar from the COIN Series, the first faction to act determines the horizontal row from along which any later factions must choose their action option.

The first eligible faction will thus get to have the first picks on the available actions. As in the other COIN volumes, this is both a burden and a blessing. The first faction to act has all the options on the table but also the opportunity and the need to adjust their actions according to what the remaining factions might be able to do.

By selecting the top row of the eligibility track, the first eligible faction also has the option familiar from the rest of the series of blocking any subsequent faction from getting to trigger the current event. An interesting implication of the three-player system is the relatively prominent role that events play in the game. Since the faction executing an event does not thereafter become ineligible, in this installment to the COIN Series more events than in any previous volume tend to get triggered. That is a delight to the designer since, as Mark Herman noted in his Wild Weasel podcast interview with Bruce Geryk a while ago, a lot of time, effort, and energy goes into researching and drawing up the event deck.

In the 3-player sequence of play, the Command plus Special Activity option is something quite special. That option, and that option alone, allows the factions to execute commands on more than one map space –gone is the option to conduct multiple commands alone. As the price to pay for the privilege, however, the Command with Special Activity option renders the executing faction ineligible on the next card. No other option in the sequence of play has that effect. This means that the other factions might get to play back-to-back limited commands against the faction that goes ineligible.

An event card from All Bridges Burning. Note that the card contains no faction symbols at the top. The cards are, however, structured by the familiar unshaded and shaded card text options. At the top the Powers Actions Phase symbol indicates that the German non-player power will conduct actions on this card. (Non-final playtest art.)

In All Bridges Burning, the event cards don’t have the familiar faction symbols at the top. Rather, the faction eligibility order is determined solely based on which action option each faction executed on the previous card. In the eligibility track graphic above, the smaller boxed letters from [a] to [d] indicate the order in which the faction cylinders return to the eligible factions box after actions have been taken. The players return their cylinders to the eligible factions box in the alphabetical order: the factions that passed return first [a], then the faction from the ineligible box [b], and so on.

What’s Different?

At the time I was working on All Bridges Burning, I playtested Brian Train’s Colonial Twilight, designed the FLN “bot” for it, and watched the game roll out to the gaming public. Colonial Twilight has been received very, very well. One of the reasons here is, I think, that it plays so fast. That game is a small-footprint COIN game, yet delivers that “COIN feeling”. I began to think people really wanted to have a light, easily accessible COIN game. No wonder Cuba Libre enjoys a special place in the COIN Series catalog.

This was by no means my explicit intention during the design process of All Bridges Burning, but I quickly realized that my game had those same qualities like Cuba Libre and Colonial Twilight: it was fast (one of the fastest playing games to date in the Series), it was intense, and it gives you that “COIN feeling”. Once you’re familiar with the game mechanics, the full scenario of All Bridges Burning can be played in about two hours.

As far as I can see, quickness of game play are a sum of the following factors (in no particular order):

  • The campaigns, when evenly stretched out, consist of nine event cards plus a Propaganda card each. That is the shortest campaign duration in the series to date (twelve plus a Propaganda card having been the norm). I was able to go as low as that with the number of cards in a campaign because in All Bridges Burning the factions get to act on most cards. A nine card window is thus more than enough to get something done.
  • There are no complex actions in the action menu. There isn’t really anything comparable to the universe of options that a Sweep with Air Lift or a March with a Special Activity offer in some of the earlier COIN volumes.
  • Often the factions in All Bridges Burning conduct a fair bit of strategic passing and an even larger number of limited commands which are quick and easy to execute.

All Bridges Burning is divided in two phases and the characters of the two halves is very different. This adds further diversity to your gaming experience. With the total of thirteen spaces on the map, and only about eight to ten or so of them used actively, the game is very much a “knife fight in a phone booth” –to use the memorable phrase once used by Roger Leroux to describe Cuba Libre.

All Bridges Burning modifies many familiar aspects of the COIN system. In later InsideGMT installments I will have an opportunity to talk at length about the game’s concept of terror, the treatment of the active and underground status of pieces, and more. There is also a little something special in the works for the non-player option for this game that I will have an opportunity to describe in greater detail in the future.

Last but not least, I want to thank Volko and Gene of GMT Games for taking All Bridges Burning on board. I believe having these individuals and company structures supporting you are one of the best things that can happen to a first-time designer in this industry. I look forward to sharing more of the game in future InsideGMT articles.


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