Fire in the Lake – Boardgame Review
Passed Inspection: Strong integration of disparate elements to simulate irregular warfare; varied strategies and multiple playing options; multiple number of players, from solitaire to four.
Failed Basic: Unusual or nonstandard tactics may confuse or frustrate some players; may take at least one playing to understand game mechanics.
Fire in the Lake (FitL) is GMT’s strategic game covering the Vietnam conflict from 1964 to 1972. This is the fourth in their COIN (COunter INsurgency) series covering irregular combat in the late 20th century or in contemporary situations. Each game in the series uses the same COIN rules with only minor modifications, accommodating special circumstances. Players of the previous COIN games, such as Andean Abyss or On a Distant Plain, may not even have to read the rules before starting FitL. For a complete overview of the game system, see the Andean Abyss review on ArmchairGeneral.com. Briefly, this game is card driven and playable by one to four players. All four factions are always present, either in two-faction sides or with non-players that are controlled by an artificial intelligence (AI) flow chart. Interestingly, players can even drop out during play and the AI then controls that faction. The AI is adequate and has improved with each title, but games are always more fun with actual players. The strategy is more complex in FitL, and gamers who want to explore the COIN series may want to start with Cube Libre, the Cuban Revolution COIN game, first. That module is smaller in scope, which allows for faster play but still introduces all the game concepts and mechanics for learning this unconventional game system.
One of the most notable characteristics about the game is that uses asymmetrical, or mismatching, victory conditions. Even though there are two sides—the US (United States) and the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) are nominally paired in the counterinsurgency efforts against the NVA (North Vietnam Army) and the VC (Viet Cong) insurgency—ultimately only one of the four factions can win. Each faction has its own victory conditions, and those are neither zero sum nor necessarily mutually exclusive. For instance, the ARVN and NVA are interested in political control of territory, while the US and VC need population control. Those are independent values. For example, NVA forces can control the territory, which is simply area control based on the number of forces, while the population attitude—a progressive five-step scale ranging from full support of the US to full support of North Vietnam—could be fully supportive of the US. Each faction has its own means with which it can try to alter territory control and population attitude.
An additional complication is that a faction may require assistance from its ally to accomplish its own victory condition; while this help is usually in the best interest of the two factions’ side, too much help or help at the wrong time can place assisting faction at risk of losing. A good example of this is the basic conflict between the US and the ARVN use of police units. The ARVN could use them for territory control but the US needs to use them for population attitude. The subtlety, then, is how to keep your ally at bay or knowing when to time the inevitable double-cross. An interesting side effect is that it is possible, if not likely, that at some point(s) during the game, you may want to briefly ally with your opposition.
GMT always has outstanding game components and FitL is no exception. The 17″x22″ mounted map is an area movement representation of Vietnam, including North and South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, divided into rural provinces, cities, and economic lines (producing government income). The map has a matte finish that reduces glare, and the colors are pleasant light pastels, making the map overall very playable, although Jungle and Plains may be hard to tell apart at a glance.
The game uses a variety of wooden tokens. Square cubes represent army troops and ARVN police units. Oblong pieces are guerrillas; these can be face down (considered concealed or Inactive; although their location and number are known, they generally can’t be attacked), or face up (Active; the unit’s token is flipped to display the gold star that is on one side, indicating its now–Active status. Active guerrillas are vulnerable to attack). For the first time in COIN games, the government has its own guerrillas (ARVN Special Forces) or US irregular forces such as the Green Berets. These are especially powerful units but seemingly never present in enough numbers.
Disks represent bases. Bases are assembly areas for troops and guerrillas. For instance, at the end of each turn interphase, government forces have to return to a city or a base; the number of new guerrilla units is determined in part by the number of bases in a province or city.
The rules are among the best-written ones in the industry, concise but clearly enumerating procedures. The slight additional complexity is evidenced by the rules consisting of 24 pages, not the 20 of previous modules. The core rules are more like 12 pages, and the solitaire accommodations are eight pages. In general, the rules are deceptively simple: simple in that the description of the procedure for each activity is about four lines long; deceptive in that the timing and combination of the activities can be powerful but not always obvious. The playbook, equally well written, is mostly tutorials for multiplayer and solitaire example games. The examples are clear, well chosen, and provide copious explanations, not just for the mechanics of the rules but often the player’s thinking about why or why not to take the action. Other components include a sequence of play and planning map sheets, faction player aid foldouts, and non-player artificial intelligence (AI) in the form of flow charts.
The original two COIN games had only one scenario and depended on the card sequence for replay value. FitL has three scenarios. The 1965 to 1967 is the shortest one and is good for new players or those with limited time; 1968 is a medium-length scenario; and a full-length one covers the war from 1964 through its conclusion (as far as extensive American military involvement is concerned) in 1972. In addition, for a two-player game, each player can use two factions, with the counterinsurgency of the US and ARVN against the NVA and VC. There is limited cooperation between forces on the same side. For the counterinsurgency, both factions have to meet their victory conditions at the same time for them to win, while only one of the insurgency factions needs to meet its victory conditions to win.
The COIN series has a novel gameplay system. Although called a card-driven game, players do not have hands but instead reveal cards from the top of the deck to determine the turn’s events. A card also has the factions’ turn order sequence (e.g., ARVN, VC or NVA, US, etc.) and, periodically calls for an interphase of resetting units and checking victory conditions. The card sequence also adds to the game’s replayability.
In general, factions play every other turn. Order of play is determined by the faction sequence shown on the card drawn for this turn. The next turn’s card is shown at the same time as the present turn’s card, allowing players to better plan for their actions. A player whose faction is listed as the first to act on a card might opt to pass in the current turn in order to take advantage of the following card’s event.
The other notable game mechanism is the Sequence of Play track. There are three option tracks, each having two related options. The first active faction selects the track and its first option, so that the next faction is restricted to the second option. For example, if the first faction does not want to take the event but also wants to prevent the other faction from using the event, the first track must be selected, allowing operations but not the event. Taking the event allows the next faction—typically from the opposing side—a full, unrestricted turn, so players are in a constant balancing act.
At the core of the game are each faction’s set of operations and special activities they can perform. There is a general set applying to all, such as moving, or attacking. Each faction also has a series of special activities specific to that faction. For example, the US has Air Strikes (very effective at eliminating active guerrillas but with a political cost of losing population support) and Air Lift (quickly moving additional forces to new locations). On the insurgents’ side the NVA, for example, has the Infiltrate ability, which moves troops and can convert VC guerrillas to troops; the VC have a Tax option that generates resources but at the cost of losing popular support.
Since the victory conditions are mismatching, each faction really has to understand the other factions’ options. Even understanding the mechanics of the rules does not prepare you for the flow of the game. This is likely going to be the most confusing part of the game for new players. There are a lot of options, and the implications of the event cards may not always be clear at first. We started playing cooperatively, at least for the first few turns, in order to understand the mechanics. The strategy was much clearer after that. Players have to truly understand, for example, how quickly the government units move and the true advantages of the guerrillas.
The designers claim the AI is greatly improved, but it is not outstanding. The flowcharts are easy to follow and make sense. Clever players can game the AI because of its predictability. Some players admit to changing the AI some to make for more interesting game; in solitaire games the opponent rarely complains.
The COIN system is very good. It’s simple, robust, and represents non-standard guerilla warfare well. FitL is a noticeable departure from the other COIN titles in the situational complexity. The border is long and porous, so the insurgency always has plenty of places to move and attack. Perhaps too many, and players may be confused about what the strategy and tactics are for each faction. Unlike many card-driven games, luck doesn’t play a large part in the game, but the analysis paralysis may be overwhelming.
Armchair General Rating: 90%
Solitaire Suitability (1 is low, 5 is high): 5
About the Author
Robert Delwood has been playing war games since the PanzerBlitz days. He writes for several game magazines including ASL Journal, Fire and Movement, and Armchair General. As a programmer, he has contributed to Microsoft Windows, NASA and the International Space Station, and has an ASL player’s aid software package called SALSA.