Rendering Caesar’s COIN (Part I)

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NoRetreatItaly-TabBefore GMT had announced Falling Sky
 as an upcoming COIN Series volume, a couple images of our prototype posted on GMT’s Instagram site spawned a Boardgamegeek thread  contending that application of the COIN Series system to ancient Roman warfare was an unwise and awkward mismatch – a square peg in a round hole.  I was a bit amazed that a few cropped snapshots could generate such an impassioned discussion.   Andrew’s reaction to the thread was simply “well, we are changing the COIN mechanics, of course.”  

Thus, at first whiff, we faced the question of how the COIN Series would transition from modern to ancient.  How indeed are we changing the mechanics?  There is a lot to say to that, so to help us best address that question on InsideGMT, Gene back in August called for your questions.  Since then, Andrew and I have been busy supporting playtest of the game.  But now, finally, we have a chance to answer.  Part I below begins with the larger questions you raised about the change in era and player roles, incentives, and capabilities.  Part II later will delve into more details of individual mechanics and aspects of war in ancient Gaul. – Volko Ruhnke

Why the huge change in time period?

Andrew:  It’s a combination of me being personally interested in the subject, and our thinking that it would be an intriguing change of topic, after four volumes that all take place within a few decades of each other, to go back a couple millennia.  Gaul seemed like a good setting for the system, and a good system for the setting (as we will elaborate on below).

Volko:  Also, by showing how the core system fits a topic so far back from modern insurgency, we wanted by example to open the door to other designers to look across the span of all ages of history for topics that they feel the COIN Series mechanics might give new expression.  And that is happening!

The choice of Gaul, as opposed to any other ancient campaign, for me was simply an irresistible co-design opportunity that presented itself (as it has been with each of my other COIN Series co-designs).  Andrew had just read a translation of Caesar’s Commentaries and was redesigning to his liking the setup for the River Sabis battle from Commands and Colors: Ancients – Rome & the Barbarians.  We played the new setup and reworked it a few times, aiming for results as faithful to Caesar’s description as we could get them.  Andrew’s attention to the project told me that he had a focused interest in the topic, and we had done a lot of design work together for ourselves at home before.  So I knew that we could pull off a fresh co-design about the Gallic War.  With that, our conversations about the scope, roles, and victory objectives for a new COIN volume began….

How is Caesar’s conquest of Gaul (in many ways a personal war, fought without proper authorization, that he desperately tried to justify in his Commentarii) a counterinsurgency?

Andrew:  We picked this particular portion of the Gallic War as, at least in Caesar’s mind, the conquering had been done, and the task was subduing uprisings.  Caesar’s earlier entry into Gaul, and the fighting to expand Roman control that followed, are not included in the game.  The tribes’ default status on the map is to be under Roman rule already, that is, “Subdued”.  In the latter part of the war covered in the game (starting 53BC), there is a great deal of raiding, scorched earth tactics, and avoiding of open battle – although more big battles and sieges than the modern periods covered in previous COIN games.  Thus, while the game is quite different in its details from the other COIN volumes, the conflict that it depicts—both in its objectives and its tactics—constitutes the Roman-style counterinsurgency of the day.

Roman-style counterinsurgency: The sacking of Avaricum.

Roman-style counterinsurgency: The sacking of Avaricum.

Volko:  Regarding Caesar’s “improper personal war”, he was able to sustain and justify it—despite his political opponents’ objections and fears—because his war was a success for Rome as a whole.  His campaign was in line with Rome’s larger impulse and potential, during the late Republic, to expand.  Caesar the individual is very much in our game – indeed, he is arguably the single most important playing piece.  However, in the rare case (at least, so far in playtest) that Caesar falls in battle, the Romans by 53BC nevertheless remain in Gaul.  We surmise in the game design that Rome would appoint a successor to Caesar as governor of Gaul.  And that Roman, while less capable in suppressing any revolt against Rome, would almost certainly seek to do so on the Republic’s behalf—and the game continues.

I’d like to know how you two decided which Gallic and Germanic factions you would model. 

Andrew:  Before deciding the factions, I had to decide on what portion of the war to focus on, or whether to model the whole thing.  Each year of the Gallic wars, there was a different set of adversaries for Caesar.  I chose the part of the wars that I did—the latter years, as noted above—because that period was not a war of conquest but rather one of revolt and suppression, and so an ancient form of insurgency and counterinsurgency.  Also, it fit the multi-faction model of COIN the best.

That said, it did not perfectly:  there aren’t in reality just four factions, or even, as we ended up with, five factions.  There were many tribes, forming and reforming into confederations to pursue similar goals.  The factions in the game are therefore less like a single nation or group but rather a collection of tribes joining temporarily for a shared goal.

Of the non-Roman factions, I thought that the most essential one to include was the Arverni confederation, led by Vercingetorix, which is representative of the Gallic opposition to Caesar.  Second came the Aedui confederation, which is representative of the Gallic tribes who were mostly in support of Caesar.  Third, I added the ethnically different Belgic Gauls, at this time led by Ambiorix, who are also interested in keeping their independence from Rome but have slightly different goals and methods from Vercingetorix’s Arverni.  Finally, I thought that the Germans were important to include because of their continuing interventions into Gaul during this period; however, I didn’t think that they were active or influential enough at this point to require or deserve control by a player, because Caesar had already weakened them to a large extent.

Playtest art from Joel Toppen: The Arverni forces display.

Playtest art from Joel Toppen: The Arverni forces display.

In other COIN volumes, all four factions feel very different, in both goals and capabilities.  How are you distinguishing the three non-Roman factions in Gallic War?  Hopefully it’s not going to feel like the different barbarian factions are essentially interchangeable. 

Volko:  Interchangeable factions within a COIN volume would be a clear failure!  For goals and capabilities, our three Gallic Factions all are trying to increase their own power via allies among the tribes, and all raise warbands to do it.  Like the insurgent factions in the modern volumes, all Gauls work with the same menu of basic commands.  But the similarities pretty much stop there.

  • The Arverni are the most implacably anti-Roman. In addition to seeking to raise the mass of Celtica in revolt against Rome, they are seeking specifically to kick the legions out of Gaul—by battle, by razing villages that might support Roman operations, or even by demonstrating to Caesar’s political enemies in Rome by the Gallic successes against him that the Gallic campaign is a mistaken endeavor and a regrettable misadventure.  Arverni special abilities include entreaties to other Gauls to switch sides, and scorched-earth devastation to deny provisions to their enemies.
  • The Belgae similarly are looking to free themselves of Roman occupation, but they are most concerned with military control of their own area of Gaul. With a reputation for ferocity, they can rampage their warbands to frighten enemies off or induce their surrender.  With their special kinship to the Germanic tribes, they can enlist German warbands to fight temporarily alongside them.
  • The Aedui also are trying to become top Gaul, but in their case by riding the Roman coattails. They must leverage the Romans’ need for local friends and local supplies, the Aedui access to profits from trade with Rome, and their Celtic influence to suborn individual tribes and warbands over to their cause.

Naturally, balancing all these different goals and capabilities so that each faction will win the game about one-fourth of the time is a challenge—indeed, that is what our playtesters are focusing on at the moment.

Design detritus: Our notebook—pages of decisions made and re-made…

Design detritus: Our notebook—pages of decisions made and re-made…

I am enjoying the subtle changes in gameplay among COIN volumes.  Can you give us a rundown on how the factions will relate to others in the COIN Series?

Volko:   I can try!  The correlations, naturally, are rough.  But COIN players may get a feel from a Falling Sky faction, here and there, similar to the feel that they will recall from an earlier volume.

The first comparison that comes to mind is that of the Romans to the counterinsurgent factions of the modern volumes (Government, Coalition, and so on).  Caesar during the “Great Revolt” is, in effect, defending the Roman government of Gaul.  Tactically, the Romans have the highest mobility and the hardest hitting forces, like modern COIN forces.  They also have the most articulated combined arms system—in this case, legions, auxilia, and forts rather than troops and police; they must exploit to this system of arms fullest in order to triumph. Like modern counterinsurgents, they also must sustain and pay for the highest operational costs of all combatants.

But the particulars of Caesar’s time are in so many other respects different:  The Romans are not angling for popular support, but rather are subduing tribes.  While they can use a Build special ability to assuage tribes by granting them Roman civil engineering works—something akin to modern civic action—most of the assuaging is by the sword:  by battle and occasionally by dispersing whole tribes and selling them into slavery.  And Roman resource constraints principally represent the need for local sources of corn in distant Gaul, rather than a defense budget as such.  If Caesar is executing an expeditionary counterinsurgency like the US in Vietnam or the Coalition in Afghanistan, the resource flow is in the opposite direction, out not in.  For that latter reason, the Romans are much more reliant than any of their modern COIN Series counterparts on locals—a Gallic player—to supply their war.

That Gallic player is the Aedui faction.  The Aedui might feel akin to the local counterinsurgent partners—ARVN and Afghan Government—in the Series volumes about the Vietnam and Afghanistan conflicts, respectively, Fire in the Lake  and A Distant Plain.  The Aedui will most likely win by feeding and leveraging the combat power of the expeditionary Romans against mutual local enemies, while advancing Aedui dominion—under Caesar’s nose, they hope.  Their game thus must be exquisitely diplomatic, and requires a particular play style.  (One COIN Series player at the recent GMT Warehouse Weekend after playing as the Aedui declared them his favorite faction in the entire Series!)  Like the ARVN or the Afghan Government, the Aedui must manage their militarily more potent partner—making themselves just useful enough that their partner does not turn on them, but not so useful that their partner fully achieves his own objectives too soon.

Unlike their modern counterparts, however, the Aedui do this by their own wealth and Celtic clout.  Trade with the Romans, the Aedui confederation’s central position astride Roman supply lines, and its central importance in Celtic governance give them means and leverage to guide the Roman juggernaut against whichever Gallic rival is most pressing—or not, of course, depending on how the Aedui and Roman players are getting along!

The two anti-Roman factions—the Arverni and the Belgae—are hard for me to compare to any of the others in the Series.  They are both concerned with throwing off the Roman yoke by rallying tribes to revolt, and by fighting.  But neither wants the other to be the strongest in Gaul.  Perhaps the best analogy would be to the 26 July movement and Directorio Revolucionario insurgents of Cuba Libre.  These insurgent pairs are each fighting the authorities individually, sometimes may cooperate, often will jockey against one another’s position, and occasionally may fight each other directly too.  But the specific objectives and tools available to each differ markedly between ‘50s Cuba and 50s BC Gaul.  In particular, the Belgae’s Special Ability to enlist help from the non-player Germanic faction is unique in the Series, since no other volume has any such entirely non-player faction occasionally controlled by others—an aspect of Falling Sky that we are finding provides great room for Belgic player creativity!

I’d like to know if there is as much flexibility with 2-player, 2-faction vs. 2-faction play, as in previous COIN efforts and how well that works.

Andrew:  We think there is!  The game is designed for 1-to-4 players, just like the earlier volumes.  (The Non-player “bots” get designed late in development, so they are yet to be.)  The main way to play 2-v-2 would be the Romans and Aedui under one player, versus the Arverni and Belgae under the other.  These are suitable allegiances because the Belgae and the Arverni both very naturally come into conflict with Rome, while the Aedui and Romans very often have a friendly relationship because of their equal need of each other.

When you play this way, 2 players instead of 4, it does result in a very different game experience.  In the 4‑player game, the Aedui and Roman factions can clash, at least from time to time, as can the Belgae and Arverni, if one of the factions is threatening victory, as they drift into each other’s lands for expansion, or, for example, clash over the unclaimed Britannia.  In the 2-v-2, 2-player game, the Romans can always rely on Aedui resources; the Belgae have an extra incentive to kill Roman legions, which helps the same player’s Arverni victory; and so on.

Volko:  In addition, we have a short scenario running 52-51BC that happens also to be well suited to 3-player play, because the Belgae begin already knocked back by the Romans’ 53BC campaign against them and thus serve well as a second, backup faction for the Arverni player.  So, even without using the more complicated Non-player rules, our sense is that the design offers strong options for both 2- and 3-players.

Were there any particular challenges in adapting the mechanics of a series that has only dealt with 20th Century conflicts to the wars of this time?  What were the hardest parts about applying the system 2000 years before the oldest game yet in the series?

Andrew:  One of the biggest challenges and therefore changes in designing this volume was the way battle and armed conflict worked.  In the previous situations you never (or rarely) had two standing armies duking it out – it was guerrilla warfare almost all the way.  Here you more often had big armies clashing and causing heavy casualties to both sides in a single day, alongside actions akin to guerrilla warfare.  And there was more randomness and chance in that single day’s clash than in the accumulation of many small guerrilla actions of modern insurgency.  So battles had to work differently, and—via an entirely new Battle Command—are the most intricate actions by players in the game.

Volko:  A second major adaption had to be command and control and how it affected field operations in the different eras.  For example, with radio communications, modern cartography, and navigation, it is relatively easy for modern commanders to order dispersed units to meet up at a certain place at the certain time.  So operations in the 4 modern insurgency volumes tend to cost Resources per destination area, rather than per point of origin.  Concentration of dispersed forces thus is easy to achieve.  But the opposite is true in Falling Sky—the March Command used to maneuver forces costs Resources per origin region, so that concentration from dispersal is more expensive than the reverse.  This perhaps subtle but consequential change, along with others such as the Battle Command, alters the calculus of keeping forces in massed armies rather than in dispersed guerrilla and counterguerrilla units, though without forcing players to either concentrate or disperse.

Also, with radios, the geographic location of a commander in modern guerrilla or counter-guerrilla warfare is unlikely to be decisive.  But where geographically the person of Caesar or Ambiorix or Vercingetorix was in Gaul, and what forces were immediately around them, mattered a great deal.  So we have added named Leaders into the force mix, and have tied the COIN system’s Special Activities (here called “Special Abilities” for a bit less of a modern-operations sound) to the proximity of these leader pieces.  So the great captains of the day are integrated into the action menus and sequence of play that lie at the heart of the COIN system.  We love the way they came out, and early player reaction to them has been enthusiastic.  My guess it that the vivid presence of Caesar, Ambiorix, and Vercingetorix will be among this volume’s most popular twists to the Series.

In Part II, we will answer questions about other particulars of Gaul in the time of the Great Revolt:  sieges, supply, the Senate, and more. …



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9 thoughts on “Rendering Caesar’s COIN (Part I)

  1. “Thus, while the game is quite different in its details from the other COIN volumes, the conflict that it depicts—both in its objectives and its tactics—constitutes the Roman-style counterinsurgency of the day.”

    As I posted in the earlier thread, a Roman-style counterinsurgency of the day would be the struggle against Jugurtha, or Tacfarinas. Those would more readily fit the COIN model and would be very interesting conflicts to model. The Gallic ‘Revolt’, by contrast, although it had ‘insurgent’ elements, was quite different in that in order for the Gauls to win, they inevitably had to beat the Romans at their own game — with formed armies waging conventional warfare. In that regard, it was much closer to the American Civil War or, a little closer in time, the revolt of Owain Glyn Dwr in 15th-century Wales. That dimension — the Romans can win by doing nothing, it is up to the Gauls to defeat them in conventional pitched battle and ONLY conventional battle — is absent from the existing COIN games.

    • Hi Scott! Thanks for the substantive comment! We agree that there are many interesting ancient counterinsurgencies that could be covered. You won’t be surprised that we don’t quite agree with your analysis of the Gallic revolt in particular.

      The Romans could not win by doing nothing: if they sat in one place with their legions while the rest of Gaul threw off Roman authority, it would be a clear failure of Caesar’s venture. Caesar and the legions had to march to the rebellions and put them down, as indeed they did. It was mainly Caesar in 52BC who sought to meet Vercingetorix in battle, not the other way around. Vercingetorix’s guerrilla tactics were a substantial threat to the Roman position as Caesar sought to do so.

      In any event, in our design, the Arverni do have incentive to “beat the Romans at their game” of open battle, as you describe it. So we don’t dismiss the point you are making. The Arverni victory condition involving kicking the legions out of Gaul is indeed different than any heretofore in the Series. We think that’s a plus, in terms of Series variety.

      This incentive to pitched battle does not imply that the Gallic revolt was any less an insurgency, however. Most insurgent movements have sought to transition to conventional operations, including those covered in the previous volumes of the Series: the FARC unsuccessfully in the late 1990s; M26 and DR successfully in the Santa Clara campaign; the Vietnamese communists unsuccessfully in ’65 and ’72, then successfully in ’75; and today’s Taliban we shall see.

      In “Gallic War”, Vercingetorix must build up his forces, then use whatever combination of guerrilla, scorched earth, and conventional battle approaches he can to best Caesar — usually all of them.

      “Fire in the Lake” already features a big dose of formed armies waging conventional warfare, in the form of NVA troops against US/ARVN, alongside guerrilla warfare. So we had some reason for confidence that the COIN Series system could handle such a mix of regular and irregular operations, albeit in the ancient context. Naturally, we think “Gallic War” does so quite well!

      Regards! Volko

  2. Just a small terminology question. What names are given to Underground and Active Warbands? Underground just doesn’t seem right for the period.

    • We’ve gone with “Hidden” and “Revealed” rather than “Underground” and “Active”. We’ve changed those for two reasons: one, because like you said, they don’t fit the period; and two, because they are functionally very different. Being Hidden no longer prevents them from being attacked by enemies, it merely allows them to perform extra abilities (for example, Ambush), more able to evade combat and lessen losses. This is to represent that the forces in this game are much more standing armies rather than small groups of guerrillas hiding among a populace. In this instance, “Hidden” represents warriors not yet scouted by the enemy, and therefore able to conduct more actions, but whose general location is somewhat known because they are massed for a campaign.

  3. This will be a tectonic shift in COIN resource management strategy:

    “But the opposite is true in Falling Sky—the March Command used to maneuver forces costs Resources per origin region, so that concentration from dispersal is more expensive than the reverse.”

    Looking forward to it!