Friday, 24 November 2017

Difficult Decisions and Designing History: A Colonial Twilight Review

As shown by the very sporadic updates in this blog, my policy of reviewing games is mostly concerned with finding something interesting about a particular game, something beyond just judging the game based on its merits. Lately, the only game that has truly inspired me to write again has been Colonial Twilight, and the reasons why this game is interesting both in terms of a game and also in terms of analysis are multiple. 

First of all, an introduction: Colonial Twilight is one of the latest offerings in the long-standing GMT COIN series. COIN (standing for COunter-INsurgency) are games that mostly seek to simulate unconventional warfare, with conflicts such as the Colombian FARC insurgency in the 90s, the Cuban Revolution, the war in Afghanistan and even the American Revolution. Overall, I'm a big fan of the series and currently own all volumes apart from one. 

At first, however, I was hesitant to buy Colonial Twilight: after all, I had plenty of other volumes that dealt with 20th century insurgency, so buying another one that fit that genre seemed slightly superfluous. What partially convinced me, though, was the fact that Colonial Twilight was made as a two player, while all other volumes were created as 4 player games (some, I would argue, to the detriment of the game). The other, important factor that finally made me decide to buy the game was that, from a historical aspect, the French-Algerian war could be said to be the birthplace of COIN warfare, and thus the birthplace of the very mechanisms that populate the COIN series of games.

Much like Cold War theories such as the Domino Theory impact and inform the mechanisms within Twilight Struggle, the theories as espoused by David Galula (an officer that took part in the Algerian Insurgency, and then wrote two books about his experiences), underpin ALL of the mechanisms present within the COIN series, specifically concerning the dichotomy between controlling a population and actually having support from that population (even though the actual support could only be present in a small minority of the people in an area). 

The Colonial Twilight playbook (the historical notes and developer diaries within these books are wonderful, and I wish more games produced developer commentaries because it's an interesting insight in the design process that the designers go through) does acknowledge this, providing an entire section on the writings of David Galula and his effect on both COIN theory and the COIN series as a whole.

With the above in mind, what makes Colonial Twilight really stand out to me is its purity in terms of adhering to the historical COIN analysis. Due to the 2 player dynamic, there isn't much for the players to get sidetracked by: you have only one enemy to worry about, and the victory conditions are crafted in such a way that you will have to be pro-active in order to win the conflict. Although I do love the politics and deals involved in other COINs (A Distant Plain is especially good thanks to the Coalition/Government dynamic), there is something to be said about playing a game where the only concern is to run an insurgency or counter-insurgency operation as efficiently as possible. In this regard, Colonial Twilight truly shines.

The mechanism that turns a standard 4 player COIN into a 2 player COIN, while keeping all the flavour, is also truly innovative. Instead of the standard initiative track, you get the following:

The way that it works is that the first eligible player can play in any of the spots, while the second can only place his tracker on a space adjacent to the one that the 1st eligible player placed his. So, for example, if the 1st player places on "Execute Limited Op", the 2nd player can place on "Execute Op only", "Execute Op & Special Activity" or "Pass", but not on "Execute Event". Then, when determining initiative for the next turn, the shade of the spot determines who is first and second. 

Although weird at first, especially if you are used to the standard COIN mechanism, this mechanism is quite elegant and, coupled with the fact that you can't see one card into the future like other COINs, can make players potentially make sub-optimal decisions in order to keep the initiative one more turn. It's clear that in order to make a 2 player COIN work at all, some innovations had to be made, and Colonial Twilight does not disappoint. 

The factions within Colonial Twilight play in a pretty standard way, if you have played COIN games before. The French government has the familiar array of Train/Sweep/Assault, with the only deviation is that, because no Lines of Communication or Economic Centres are present, there is no Patrol action. Instead, Garrison is present, an action that allows you to place police pretty much anywhere. 

This, to seasoned COIN government players, might seem like an incredible ability: starting from Andean Abyss, one of the most important factors that affect government strategy and tactics is "how to place police out of the cities and into the countryside". In other COIN games, the only ways to do it are usually either placing the police there during a redeploy, or creating a base (which is a limited resource) and then training police in that area. So being able to place police in an area directly is quite a powerful tool. 

The special abilities for the Government are the standard Troop Lift (which is comparable to the Coalition's Airlift in terms of power), Deploy (which is also comparable to the Surge ability of the Coalition, although it has the extra effect of also allowing you to depopulate an area) and, finally, Neutralise, which allows the government to destroy enemy pieces even with a special action, although it does by creating opposition to the government in the area. 

One final thing that distances the COIN faction in Colonial Twilight is the fact that you have both Algerian and French troops. Algerian troops are easier to get onto the board, but are limited in number and also can be subverted by the insurgents. The French pieces can only be placed on the map through a deploy, but have the additional benefit that they cause attrition on the insurgents if attacked.

The insurgent faction, the FLN, is also very similar to other insurgents factions such as FARC, the 26th July Movement and the Taliban. They can rally, march, attack and terror, with the only major difference being that their terror can never create opposition, just remove support. For special activities, they have extort (present in many other insurgent factions), subvert (which allows them to remove/replace Algerian forces) and a slightly weaker version of ambush, which only removes a single enemy cube and doesn't create a new insurgent unit.

By this point in this large, rambling review you might be wondering how any of this applies to the title that I have given this post. The "Difficult Decisions" that I refer to (although difficult decisions are a standard in the series) refer to one of the more interesting and innovative mechanisms that are present in the game: the Pivotal Cards. 

Old COIN hands might be wondering why I would call such a mechanism "innovative". After all, Fire in the Lake had already showcased the use of pivotal event. What sets apart the pivotal events in Fire in the Lake and Colonial Twilight, however, is the number of pivotal events afforded to each side (1 per side in Fire in the Lake, 3 per side in Colonial Twilight), and, principally, the fact that a lot of the pivotal events within Colonial Twilight are not as unequivocally good for the player playing when compared to FitL pivotal events (although the Tet Offensive event for the NLF in FitL does have some downsides).

This is what truly interested me in the game after that first play: the pivotal events make for some head-achingly difficult decisions and can really change the flavour of the game if they are played or not. They also inform what kind of strategy the player is attempting. The mobilization event, for example, frees up a lot of French units essentially for free, and is potentially the start of a larger offensive from the French player, but can only be played if the victory condition of the FLN player has reached a certain threshold: does the FLN player thus attempt to slow down his own accumulation of points in order to reach that point or not? 

The Mobilization event itself provides a further interesting and difficult choice: if the card is played, it allows the FLN player to play the pivotal event that allows access to Morocco and Tunisia, areas that can potentially house up to 6 insurgent bases in relative safety. But, if the Morocco and Tunisia cards are played, the French player has the option to start building border controls, which decrease the number of resources that the FLN player receives at each propaganda phase. It's difficult decisions, nestled into difficult decisions, nestled in other, even more difficult decisions.

The Suez Crisis is more straight-forward: the FLN player can play it at any time to remove French troops (temporarily) and resources, but it also costs the FLN player resources that they only get back on the next propaganda phase. Does the FLN player slow down his tempo in order to remove some French troops momentarily? That's also not an easy choice to make.

The final three pivotal events are Coup D'Etat, Recall De Gaulle and OAS, the former both French event and the latter being an FLN event. Coup D'Etat is literally a dice-roll: it could be good or bad for the French depending on what you roll. Recall De Gaulle can only be played if at least one Coup D'Etat has been played, and allows the French player to disregard penalties for casualties substained as well as making it easier to train in the countryside, while OAS is a powerful new special ability that can only be played if Recall De Gaulle has been played, and basically allows you to perform terror anywhere on the board, while also decreasing resources for the FLN player.

Coup D'Etat is principal in showcasing that most pivotals in this game are double-edged swords. While all other pivotals can only be played once per campaign, Coup D'Etat can be played once per campaign (ie the time between one propaganda card and another). But why would you want to play it? One of the central things about pivotal events that I haven't touched upon yet is that they also gain you the imitative as well as cancelling the current card played from the deck. Is there a particularly bad event that you want to prevent your opponent from playing? Playing Coup D'Etat (or really, any pivotal event) can get you out of that pickle. You might have a negative effect from the Coup itself, but sometimes that's preferable to the previous event being played.

Recall De Gaulle, on the other hand, is probably one of the most difficult decisions in the game. Although it does make peacekeeping in the countryside a lot easier, OAS is truly one of the most game-changing abilities in the game and can quickly lead to the government losing the lead, or even the FLN running out of resources. Thankfully, Coup D'Etat can potentially be used to get rid of both Recall De Gaulle and OAS, but the difficult decision remains. Crucially, it is possible to win as both sides without playing ANY of the pivotal events, and the wonderful thing about them is that they truly change the flavour of the conflict if they are played or not, instead of just helping/hindering one side or another like the FitL pivotals.

One other aspect that ties in with the pivotals is that there are many capabilities in the game that affect both side. One of these both makes the Neutralise special ability better, but also gives a further penalty to the French player for using it. Overall, the game is absolutely swimming in these difficult "will this help or hinder me more?" decision spaces, and for that, it should be commended. 

Considering all of the above (and cutting short a too-long article), I would say that Colonial Twilight certainly has the possibility of being one of more favourite COINs, alongside A Distant Plain. From a historical perspective, it is interesting (and certainly has made me want to read more about the conflict and rewatch The Battle of Algiers, a very thought-provoking film about the French-Algerian War), and from a gameplay/mechanisms perspective, the duality of many of its events really make the game stand out. If you are looking for a COIN game that doesn't require 4 people or even if you are entering the series for the first time, I would strongly recommend this volume in the series.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you very much for your kind review Riccardo!
    I'm glad you enjoyed this game, and all its difficult decisions... they are why I designed it.