All Bridges Burning: A COIN System Game for Three Players

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Exactly a hundred years ago today, in the night from 27 to 28 January 1918, the Red Revolt was launched in Finland. The revolt also triggered the Finnish Civil War, one of the first of the 20th century socialist revolutions. Alongside the larger ideological struggle, the revolt also had a very particular background in the Finnish societal and political landscape of the day.

The war was tightly bound to class conflict in a rapidly modernizing society for which the unexpected social upheaval in the Russian Empire gave room to roam. –Tepora and Roselius in The Finnish Civil War 1918

This article is the second in the series (see Part One here) showcasing the features of All Bridges Burning, a new COIN Series system game on the Finnish Civil War, currently on GMT Games’ P500 list. In this article we’ll take a historical look at the game’s three-faction make-up and describe the political dimensions of the game as they are manifested in the concept of Polarization and the Political Display mechanic.

A leaflet was distributed by the Reds in Helsinki informing foreign citizens of the Red Revolt. (Image: online collection of the Finnish Board of Antiquities, nba.fi)

The Red Revolt: Historical Background

The Red Revolt in Finland was a collective effort of the various camps that made up the Finnish working class movement. Among its leaders were Finnish Bolsheviks, labor unionists, as well as a number of politicians from one of largest parties in the country at the time, the Finnish Social Democratic Party. Its foot soldiers were the various Red Guards, essentially locally organized militia groups of ordinary rural and urban working class people.

The only Pivotal event card in All Bridges Burning is the Revolt! card. No faction owns the event. Rather, it is automatically triggered by the presence of a certain number of pieces on the map. (Non-final playtest art.)

The Red Revolt was a culmination point of several months of unrest and mobilization in the country. One of the most significant moments in the build-up to the revolt had been the working class general strike in November 1917 during which a dozen people had died in unrest across the country.

While the Red Revolt was long time coming, the Reds were woefully under-prepared for it.

While an alternative polity was taking shape, a total seizure of power was not feasible: taking care of the administration and of other basic tasks of the state seemed to be beyond the party’s capacity. Even the militant worker guards did not envision a social revolution. As one Social Democratic leader [Karl H. Wiik] put it in his diary during the strike: “The revolution is preposterous, we cannot force the civil servants to obey when we cannot even force them to go on strike […] As a consequence of our lack of intellectuals, we shall not be able to master the machinery of government.” –Risto Alapuro in State and Revolution in Finland

The success of the General Strike of November 1917 also served to kickstart the bourgeoisie preparations for overt conflict with the working class. By January 1918, the bourgeoisie had organized themselves so effectively, that the Reds felt they were forced to launch the Red Revolt and thought of it as a defensive revolt.

[The Reds] could not ignore the government’s intention to put down the worker security guards as soon as it felt strong enough. After encounters with the bourgeois guards in several localities, and after the civil guards gained official status as governmental troops, it was decided, with great reluctance, to launch the revolution on 27 January. Not surprisingly, it was described as having ‘a defensive character’. –Risto Alapuro in State and Revolution in Finland

The Finnish Red government and the Council of People’s Commissars [of the Russian Bolsheviks] … were widely different, in particular with regard to the motives for seizing power. The Finnish socialists saw their principal task to be the preservation of democracy from the threat of a reactionary bourgeois coup, and shrank from pursuing a full-blooded social revolution. –David G. Kirby in Finland in the 20th Century

The Red Revolt occurred over a number of days in late January 1918 as the Reds took control of the largest towns in the Southern part of the country.

The map of All Bridges Burning shows selected towns and provinces of Southern Finland. Helsinki, Tampere, Turku and Wiipuri, all fell into the hands of the Reds in late January 1918. The town of Waasa as well as the surrounding province of Pohjanmaa in the North-West, however, were a stronghold of what became called the White Senate army. (Non-final playtest art.)

The Three-Factions Structure

Most historical literature as well as the existing boardgames on the topic tend to treat the Finnish Civil War as a two-party conflict between the Reds and the White Senate forces. With All Bridges Burning, however, I wanted to look at the conflict in its broader social and political context that stretches beyond the four or so months of war. Soon it became clear to me there were reasons to understand the story as a three-party affair.

A newspaper image from 1917 shows the “independence Senate” (Itsenäisyyssenaatti) preparing the details of the declaration of independence given on 6 December 1917. Therefore, 6 December 2017 was the centenary of Finnish independence. (Image: online collections of the Finnish Board of Antiquities, nba.fi)

The Finns are incredibly proud of their national independence declared a mere good month before the civil war broke out: on 6 December, 2017, Finland celebrated 100 years of independence.

The idea of an independent Finland … had been discussed, albeit in a desultory fashion, from the late eighteenth century onwards. … The final demise of the [Russian imperial] autocracy suddenly opened up a debate on the future of Finland in which independence came to be accepted by all sides as the only solution. –David G. Kirby in Finland in the 20th Century

A bewildering pair of facts about the Finnish civil war surely is, first, that all political sides desired national independence yet soon after its declaration fell into a bloody and bitter war and, second, that after the war the young nation would stand united again and defend its independence against Soviet aggression. For only some twenty years after the civil war, Finnish national unity was put to the greatest of tests as, in November 1939, the Soviet Union launched an attack to occupy Finland and put the country in the Soviet sphere of influence as agreed with Germany in a secret protocol of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.

How, then, were the Finns able to stand nationally united after having so recently gone through something as divisive as a civil war? I wanted to put that question front and center of the game design. I wanted to have the players have to think about the consequences of the war. There is something of a tradition for a perspective like this in the COIN Series. Many of the COIN volumes place winning the hearts and minds –rather than winning the kinetic military conflict– at the heart of winning the game.

The Finnish Civil War is often conceptualized in terms of a dualism: the Whites versus the Reds, or the bourgeoisie versus the socialists. Such a dualism also very much characterizes the collective remembrance of that conflict in Finland today.

Today the Civil War forms a major part of the public narratives and collective remembrances of the nation. The violent event that split the society and caused a national trauma for generations to come […] However, the internal violence  has left its marks in the society and collective remembrances, and the divisions may even today be relived in the right circumstances. They may no longer be  palpable (perhaps since at least since the 1970s, often even earlier), but there nevertheless exists a metanarrative that never fails to remind the Finns of the frictions in the past. –Tepora and Roselius in The Finnish Civil War 1918

In my game design, however, I wanted to transcend that dualism and remind the players of, first, what the two warring factions had in common –a desire for national independence– as well as, second, of what the country needed to become what it historically did: a unified, modern, democratic, as well as a socially and economically just, independent nation.

And so, as I was doing my reading on war, I began to see the outlines of a third, non-combatant, non-violent faction. It would consist of those moderates –historically from among, both, the political left as well as the right– seeking to solve the class antagonism through dialogue, reconciliation, and societal reform. (At the time of writing this, the faction still bears the name Social Democrats but the name may be subject to change because of the association with the Social Democratic Party the moderates among whom, however, only partially represent this faction, as we shall see below.)

I felt this third faction was essential to understanding the longer term historical outcome of the conflict: a nation that transformed from its semi-feudal state in 1917 to a country that soon would enact first of the many societal reforms that came to characterize what we today call the Scandinavian social democratic well-fare state, or the Nordic Model. An important step here was the Crofter Law enacted already in October 1918, mere six months after the end of the civil war. The law enabled crofters to become owners of the land they had hitherto been working, often for generations, as tenant farmers. Interestingly, one of the key demands of the working class made in the divisive “We Demand” manifesto published by the Social Democratic Party in the run-up to the civil war in 1917 had thereby been politically addressed. Surely it was a reconciliatory and reformist spirit of social justice that made it possible for the country to overcome the trauma of the civil war.

The “We Demand” Manifesto event card from All Bridges Burning. (Non-final playtest art.)

We find this reconciliatory spirit in the period literature. One striking voice here belongs to the classic Finnish novelist Juhani Aho (1861-1921). Aho was an ardent, self-confessed critic of the Red Revolt documenting his ire in the war time diary written in Helsinki under the Reds occupation. Despite the critique, striking in Aho’s thinking about the war is the understanding he displays for the Reds cause: “Those ideals, that drove the worker’s movement, have also belonged to others, to us as well, to that entire generation to which I belong”.

Aho did not only sympathize with the Reds’ cause, but appears to have taken political action on the matter as well. Aho records in his diary several meetings between “about ten persons influential and active in different walks of society“ speaking of wide-spread agreement on questions such as that a land reform must be instituted, a wide spread amnesty must be issued to the Red Guards other than their leadership, and more. In a striking passage, Aho summarizes a discussion point of the meeting as follows: “wide spread among the working class is the sincere belief that the Reds are fighting for justice. Do we not see thousands of them unflinchingly sacrifice themselves for their putative cause? That builds upon a certain seriousness. We have to recognize that. We can no more return to the old forms. A new society must be built. We must begin with a confession of sins. The causes that have led to this situation must be eliminated.”

Alongside actors like Aho, the third faction in All Bridges Burning is modeled on the war-time actions of those members of the Social Democratic Party who did not join their colleagues in the Red Revolt. Thus, in late 1917, in the run-up to the war, the Finnish Social Democratic Party split into two factions: the hard-liners who’d soon go out and stage an armed revolt versus the moderate, parliamentary reformists who stayed out.

Among the latter group belonged Väinö Tanner (1895-1966), a formative Finnish politician in the decades after the war. Tanner’s account of his actions during the civil war are detailed in a fascinating autobiography of the period. All Bridges Burning highlights Tanner’s role by including him in the game as a Personality marker of the third faction. Many of this faction’s commands and special activities are modeled on what Tanner was up to during the war.

Throughout the war, Tanner and a dozen other moderates conducted truce negotiations culminating in a truce proposal published in the Reds newspaper Työmies (the Worker) in April, 1918. Tanner also founded the moderate newspaper, the Finnish Social Democrat, active already from May 1918 onwards. One of Tanner’s most daring actions was the delivery to the foreign press of the so-called Tigerstedt report, a leaked classified document on the disastrous health, nutrition, and other conditions of the Red prisoners in the White prisoner camps. The report was published by a Swedish newspaper and caused an international uproar. It is fair to say Tanner and the moderates did a great deal to expose and water down the excesses from, both, the Reds and the White Senate.

The Event Tanner Abroad is one of the events in All Bridges Burning that highlight the significance of the actions of one of the chief moderates, Väinö Tanner, during the Finnish Civil War.

A final reason for thinking of the Finnish civil war period as a three-party affair was the realization that had the Reds –or indeed the Whites– won the civil war, the result would not necessarily have been conducive to the formation of the kind of socially reformed, nationally unified democracy that Finland came to be. I construed the third factions of the game on the premises that

  • In the long run, a Red victory might have made Finland part of the emerging Eastern Bloc led by the Soviet Union. An internal power struggle among the moderate and the hardliner Reds would have determined the precise extent of the alignment with the Russians.
  • An unmitigated White Senate victory could arguably have slowed as well as watered down the badly needed social reforms. The root cause of the Red Revolt –namely, grave social inequalities and feudalistic social structures– would not necessarily have been addressed.

For the history buffs among us, notable with respect to how an unmitigated White victory could have looked like is the late 1918 debate over what the Finnish form of state should become: parlamentarism or monarchy. The episode involved an attempt by the conservative right to install a German prince as the king of Finland. The attempt went as far as the Finnish parliament ratifying the shift from parlamentarism to monarchy in October 1918. However, the king-elect Frederick Charles of Hesse eventually withdrew from the post as Imperial Germany collapsed in late 1918. The demise of Germany also killed the monarchist project in Finland. The political aim of the monarchist project was the creation of a strong, right-leaning, and conservative political institution that would stand above party-political wrangling and have the final say, a veto even, in most matters of governance.

On 14 May 1918, a group of leading politicians issued a statement calling for a monarchy and the introduction of a number of delegates of certain social and economic interests groups into the Eduskunta [the Finnish parliament] to counter the “onesidedness” of universal suffrage. –David G. Kirby in Finland in the 20th Century

Had a proposal like this come to pass, it would arguably have meant tougher prospects for any projects of national reconciliation and reform.

Polarization and Politics

There is one key mechanic in All Bridges Burning that carries the chief burden of recreating the above mentioned historical complexities. This is the concept of Polarization represented by a counter that travels up and down a track measuring the level of mutual hostility and, conversely, of national unity. Polarization actions, such as Terror and Attacks, drive the marker up, while reconciliatory actions like de-radicalizing your own supporters, via a command called Activism, decrease Polarization.

(Non-final playtest art.)

On a basic level, game design is about generating dilemmas and forks in the road over which the gamers must make agonizing decisions. One of the central dilemmas of All Bridges Burning is that, both, the Reds as well as the White Senate faction have a clear incentive to take actions that drive Polarization up (such as Attack and Terror). Yet, at the game end, Polarization cannot be too high, otherwise neither of these two player factions will be able to win the game. In such a case, a foreign power –Russia or Germany– wins the game and the players lose collectively. Oh the sweet agony of trying to find the sweet spot of pushing Polarization but not too hard!

Thematically a collective loss by the player factions means the Finns have been unable to create a requisite level of national reconciliation, factionalism prevails, and the country ends up a vassal state of whichever external non-player power is stronger at that point. Historically Finland was effectively on that road –the commander of the German force in Finland, Rudiger von der Goltz, was referred to as the chancellor of Finland– but the collapse of Imperial Germany in late 1918 changed the course.

The Imperial German flag hangs in the Helsinki headquarters of the German army at the Hotel Kämp in the Spring of 1918. (Image: the online collection of the Finnish Board of Antiquities, nba.fi)

Polarization affects a number of things in the game, such as in how many spaces the factions are allowed to place new forces via the Rally command. Also, the higher the Polarization, the more the third moderate faction will earn resources during the Propaganda round. This latter dynamic represents the war or conflict weariness of the general population.

It’s a War Game Alright

If the above sounds like All Bridges Burning is more a political conflict simulation than a war game, well, I can assure you there is plenty of both in the design –and probably more war still.

The game is divided in two phases. The first, Phase I, covers roughly the second half of 1917, or about two Propaganda cards. This is a period of run-up to the outbreak of the hostilities proper. This period is characterized by the sides building up their positions, getting their hands in weapons if they can, pursuing some politics perhaps, with occasional flashes of conflict as mass protests and strikes turn violent.

Phase II is characterized by the beginning of open hostilities. The Red Bolshevik and the White Senate factions gain an additional, Phase-II-only, set of commands at their disposal. Quickly fronts will form as the Red and White forces clash for control of the country. Only now, in Phase II, do the German and the Russian forces become active.

In a future installment, I will dwell deeper into the game’s military model as well as the role of the German and the Russian forces.


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4 thoughts on “All Bridges Burning: A COIN System Game for Three Players

  1. Thanks for educating me on a key aspect of the history of Finland. Looking forward to the next article and finally getting the game in my hands to play.