Designer: Mark Herman, Volko Ruhnke
Publisher: GMT Games (2014)
“Some of the critics viewed Vietnam as a morality play in which the wicked must be punished before the final curtain and where any attempt to salvage self-respect from the outcome compounded the wrong. I viewed it as a genuine tragedy. No one had a monopoly on anguish.” – Henry Kissinger
Fire In The Lake is the fourth volume in GMT’s COIN (Counter-Insurgent) series of games and has stormed onto the scene with the firepower of an AC47-Spooky. The series has flirted with my attention like a gorgeous woman catching my peripheral vision ever since Andean Abyss was first released to critical acclaim in 2012. When I caught word that the next installment would be centered on the harrowed conflict of Vietnam I knew I had to dive in face first. I was hoping the game would meet my mounting expectations; what surprised me ultimately was that it shattered them.
This can most succinctly be described as a succulent area control core with delicious layers of political, military, and economic icing slathered on top with the skill of a gourmet baker. It’s a truly asymmetrical game with four distinct factions that all function in very different ways. The Southeast Asian conflict is handled with utmost respect and care and even the daftest of individuals would be able to recognize this is a labor of utmost love. In addition to a huge mounted board with gorgeous artwork, tons of wooden pieces, and a mound of cards, the game ships with 9 different cardstock fold-out player aids detailing Operations for each faction, solitaire player scripts, Coup phase walkthrough, etc. The production is truly magnificent and rivals the depth and care of the gameplay itself.
The game is broken down into two separate teams competing against one another but uniquely contains an element of friction between allies as only one player can win the game. While the VC and NVA will need to lend each other support and resources, they will also need to keep a watchful eye on their neighbor and not let them slip away with victory. Likewise, the U.S. military is able to marshal ARVN units and deploy them at will, but must be careful to monitor control of the surrounding regions to avoid giving the game to their ally and ensuring their own defeat. There’s a common thread of push and pull here as players are given tough choices. Everything comes at a cost in Fire In The Lake and you have to pay dearly to win their hearts and minds.
“Vietnam was what we had instead of happy childhoods.” – Michael Herr
Play is comprised of a series of Coup rounds (representing roughly a tour of duty) as you play through multiple turns until the next Coup event card surfaces. When the Coup card triggers a special Coup round is enacted where you check to see if any faction has won, and then perform a series of sub-actions that are a sophisticated cleanup and refresh of the game state. The event deck containing the seeded Coup cards always consists of two cards showing – one for the current turn and one for the next which is visible a turn in advance so that players may prepare and act accordingly. This is a stellar mechanic as it inflicts agonizing choice forcing you to mentally battle with your analytical brain trying to decide whether you should act on the current turn or pass to take action on the next.
Factions start off the game as eligible (able to act) and each event card governing the turn lists the order in which players act. So the first card may have the United States acting first followed by Vietcong then NVA and finally ARVN. In that specific order each faction is given an option to act or pass. Only two factions may act on a given turn, so if the U.S. and the VC would take action in this example the NVA and ARVN would do nothing. On the next turn, any players that did indeed act are flagged as ineligible and unable to participate. What this results in is a sort of tempo and pulse that rides through the game like a smooth Jazz harmony as the action ebbs and flows according to the event momentum and acting forces. It’s an enticing feel that is incredibly unique and surprisingly simple in practice, yet allows for a range of strategic depth that marries to the individual faction mechanisms wonderfully. The turn order eligibility mechanic is the blood and pulse of the game while the Operations and individual force actions are the muscle and sinew powering along.
“This is not a jungle war, but a struggle for freedom on every front of human activity.” – Lyndon B. Johnson
If you choose to act when you are eligible you can either perform the text on the event card or perform an Operation. Operations are the meat and variety of the game as each faction has four distinct Ops they can perform along with 3 accompanying Special Ops which are utilized more rarely. The option of using Special Ops is dictated by what action the first eligible faction takes – if he took the Event then you can perform an Operation along with a Special Op, otherwise you are stuck utilizing an Operation and only performing it in one specific area or perhaps executing the Event if he chose an Operation with Special Op. Attempting to explain the intricacies of action selection and ramifications to your opponent is awkward in text but it flows quite easily in play and new players readily pick up the technique involved.
This game lives and dies on its layered approach to handling each faction with care and detail. Each represents a separate set of problems and issues you must tackle and the game experience can vary wildly depending on who you go to war with. I am going to discuss below the experience of playing each faction and the hard-nosed problems the game throws in your face.
“You can kill ten of my men for every one I kill of yours, but even at those odds, you will lose and I will win.” – Ho Chi Minh
The North Vietnamese Army is a force that is notable for its high degree of mobility and its underlying military strength. The NVA must deploy bases and control territory in order to achieve victory. They will be vying for control in direct contrast to the ARVN victory conditions and will have to either avoid or curtail the U.S. military strength in order to overwhelm the Southern region. You will start the game with a modest force deployed but can amass troops rather quickly and move your units along the Laos/Cambodia border with a speed that Chuck Yeager would be proud of. If you push too hard too fast you may draw the ire of the powerful U.S. military so you need to build and position delicately, waiting for the time to strike.
The Vietcong are a force comprised completely of guerrillas. They can be difficult for their enemies to root out and are fond of terrorizing and subverting the population of ‘Nam. Their struggle lies in being completely outmatched from a power standpoint, so they must play a game of cat and mouse and execute precise guerilla warfare in order to limit their own casualties. You achieve victory by building bases and primarily turning the populace against the COIN forces. The main way to do this is to execute the Terror Op which shifts a regions alignment towards Active Opposition allowing you to edge closer to victory. The push and pull you have to balance here is that the V.C. gain resources primarily by taxing citizens which pushes them towards Active Support of the COIN forces (the opposite direction of Active Opposition). This double-edged sword provides a difficult tactical situation as you attempt to subvert your enemies influence but have to undermine your own work in order to keep the money flowing. It’s interesting and a completely different strategic problem than anyone else has to deal with.
The Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) forces can seem like the least “sexy” faction due to prevailing shallow historical knowledge of the period and lack of overt military presence. While you do have to deal with the U.S. being able to command your troops and train them in areas without your consent, the game the ARVN play is ultimately one of the most interesting as you attempt to pull the U.S. towards offering a stronger military presence while you need to vie for control of the different regions in order to achieve victory. Another resource adding to the victory points accumulated by the ARVN is Patronage, which represents Government corruption, thus illustrating that the ARVN attain success by taking back control of their territory and soothing the platitudes of their elevated officials. It’s a diplomatic game as you must utilize your American ally’s strengths while seeking enough breathing room to govern your own lands and blow some money patting yourself on the back.
“Tell the Vietnamese they’ve got to draw in their horns or we’re going to bomb them back into the Stone Age.” – Gen. Curtis LeMay
The United States are the final faction and perhaps the most complicated to strategically tackle. They are the strongest military power in the game, able to inflict massive casualties through air strikes and through employing troops with bases, but you also have one of the most tenuous victory conditions. The U.S. need support of the populace which lies in direct contrast with the VC, as well as requiring limited military presence in ‘Nam itself. Yes, the U.S. actually receives victory points for pulling troops out of the war but this of course stings badly as you need to maintain just enough military presence to stem the red tide and suppress guerrilla operations. Their most powerful asset, Air Strikes, can inflict massive amounts of casualties but degrade Support of the region, moving the populace towards Active Opposition. That theme of the double-edged sword and enacting triage on difficult decisions in an unstable region is front and center.
In addition to providing four highly interesting factions that each present distinct strategic problems, the game offers one of the most involved and technically satisfying solo rule sets I’ve ever encountered. The solo system is comprised of “bot” decision trees for each faction which are built upon a complex algorithm developed by the extremely talented Oerjan Ariander. Each side can be controlled by these AI decision trees such that a game can consist of any number of bots and run smoothly (you could technically run a game entirely of bots if you’re that kind of person). The detail and scope they provide is astounding, particularly when you view the U.S. bot which actually performs differently depending on the policy of the President in Office (JFK, LBJ, or Nixon). That may be one of the most interesting and stellar details I’ve seen in a game design.
While the detail and scope of the bots is breathtaking, I would definitely recommend against using them until you are familiar with the game. They can be quite complicated and can be devious to understand if your familiarity with the game is limited. A newcomer is much better off soloing Fire In The Lake while playing all four factions so that they can get a taste of each and learn the capabilities of the different forces. Jumping right into the full-fledged solo game would be disastrous unless you had prior COIN experience, something I unfortunately did not. Assuredly, the game does solo extremely well with a single player taking on all four sides.
There are a couple of distinct elements that I need to take a moment to focus on. There is a large “bash the leader” quality to the game in that if you jump out to a lead early, you will be beaten down mercilessly. Most factions have a way to directly counter others victory conditions (even against your allies) and then they will quickly adopt Operations that sever your lead. Play requires more cunning and long-term momentum control as you build up quickly, utilizing your limited Ops to the best of their ability and flying under the radar. The second item worth noting is that the game can swing wildly at the drop of a hat. Different nations can pull off surprisingly effective Operations capable of massive damage under the right circumstances. I’ve seen the ARVN in particular gain 10 VP in a single round due to securing COIN control and Governing like a corrupt mad-man. The Event cards also can shift the power rapidly and with a fickle nature. This can be curtailed somewhat due to the following rounds Event being visible to all ahead of time, but it can be quite unexpected and game changing if players are not aware. Neither of these details mar the experience, rather, I view them as features that help build up the whole of this beast.
Tackling such an impressive and rich game in the format of a review was especially daunting as I can only hope to scratch the surface of this design with just a couple thousand words. The take away here is that this is one of the most brilliant and complete packages I have ever experienced in this industry. This is a heavy and complicated game but the wide reach of detail achieved with a surprising degree of elegance is astounding and worthy of insurmountable praise. This is the type of game you can leave setup on your solo table for not Weeks but Months while you continually uncover new facets and nuances just waiting to be discovered. This game is an achievement in and of itself as it’s the definitive operational level Vietnam game many of us have been searching our entire lives for.
“Everyone gets everything he wants. I wanted a mission, and for my sins, they gave me one. Brought it up to me like room service. It was a real choice mission, and when it was over, I never wanted another.” – Willard, Apocalypse Now