Hidden COINs

original image: Greg Groesch for Washington Post story, 2016

Many of my Constant Readuhs will know of my fondness for games with limited information for one or both sides, and my disdain for games that make a point of giving both sides complete information when lack of same was critical to the historical situation the game claims to represent.

I’ll freely admit that many of my games have this exact fault. I rationalize that it’s for ease and speed of play when the players may have enough new stuff to struggle with already, that Chaos may rear its head and wreck the perfect plans people make with their undue dollops of information, that most wargames are played solitaire anyway (maybe even truer of my games too!), that players hate the loss of control and certainty and don’t particularly care how unrealistic that is, and so on… But I keep making such games, and write optional rules for other games where fog of war can be introduced.

But hoo boy, would I like to make it a big part of everything I design. If you’ve ever played an umpired or double-blind game, board or miniatures, you quickly get the feelings of angst and caution you should be feeling when playing these things… every bend in the road is an ambush, every house is boobytrapped.

And so, from the time that I first started in on the GMT COIN system (playtesting of Andean Abyss, then work on A Distant Plain and later Colonial Twilight), it didn’t bother me much that these games were perfect-information exercises, as the multi-faction nature of the games gave people enough to tussle with. But more than a few people have commented about how this does let the game down in the realism department, where insurgency situations are concerned.

I can’t shake the feeling that an umpired game of say, A Distant Plain would be something to see (or not see, or not be sure you’ve seen!) indeed. It wouldn’t be hard to arrange with multiple copies and a willing Director, would take a long time to play most likely but it would be an eye-opener for the players… who would also have to be willing, because this kind of thing strains the patience of most players who like their complete information and control of things, though that situation is far from reality. 

I’ve never had the time or opportunity to try this. Anyone is welcome to give it a spin. Has anyone tried it, or heard of someone trying it? What do you think?

About brtrain
This blog is mostly devoted to posts, work and resources on "serious" conflict simulation games.

15 Responses to Hidden COINs

  1. Rick says:

    Brian, I agree with your comments. Games should have some “unknown factors” to them. Yes, the most unpredictable games are where you don’t know what your opponent is doing until they actually do it. You correctly point out the angst in those double-blind games, but you recognize that finding opponents is also a challenge. I think your post nailed it.

    I would add this: games that predefine how players should act within the game, especially games where there is documented history behind the events.

    How many designers have you heard of tell people in online forums, “Well that’s not how Hitler or Mussolini or Stalin or whoever would have acted at the time.” As far as I am concerned, if I wanted to experience the exact shoes of these people of the past I would read a number of books on the subject rather than play a game where player’s behaviors are preordained to a precise path, resulting in a predictable game of “Here’s what the SS did this time.”

    Historical wargames, in my opinion, should have at least 2 basic scenarios: historical and “give the players some reasonable alternate choices”. That way players can see the historical scenario replayed in front of them, assuming they encounter the same luck or misfortune as history. The historical scenarios should challenge the player to “do better than historical results”, “avoid that loss” or “take that hill”. Then players can explore reasonable what-if choices and learn about what could have happened, and perhaps, how history could have changed.

    Those “what-if” scenarios are, in my opinion, harder for game designers to create because they have to study the history in some detail, and sometimes go back 5 or 10 years to see how a situation actually developed. That research and objective yet critical thinking takes time and resources. I think few designers & developers want to put in that sort of time & effort.

    As you have mentioned in the past, game designers, and probably developers also, don’t get rich in your business; you probably don’t even break even in the games business. And that brings up a fundamental economic incentive question: “Do I focus my time on a cheep formulaic and repetitive design resulting in volume but not quality? Or, do I focus on doing 1 or 2 games having something of real quality that I am proud to put my name on?” Some game designers opt for the former approach (we can both name a few), while some opt for the later approach (and we can both name a few here).

    • brtrain says:

      Thanks Rick.
      I guess for many players it’s either the amount of history they are prepared to let into their game, or the amount of game they are prepared to let into their history.
      The only guidance I ever took on the historical vs. alt-historical aspect was James Dunnigan saying that if a wargame could not replicate what actually happened in history it was a failure, but that was about the only standard you could apply… because what happened historically did happen, sure, but it was only one of many possible outcomes.
      So I go from there and try as much as possible to give players the opening situation and let them go from there, and give them alternatives too such as free-deployment sandbox scenarios where they pick their forces (or mobilize them on the fly), present alternative historical plans, and so forth.
      To do this convincingly does take some research and thought and willingness to put up a few fences around the limits of the ranch. A long time ago in the early days of Command magazine, Ty Bomba wrote disdainfully in an editorial about “study hall wargames”, where people came up with silly match-ups plucked from the air or something like that, anyway not serious wargames. (I’ve tried to find the original piece, but no luck… I even asked Ty about it a while ago and he did not remember).
      Time, resources and money: Yes, I have written and said many times that even though I have been doing this for more than 25 years, I have never treated it as more than a hobby that could pay for itself in a good year, and don’t count on many good years. All the money I have ever been paid for my published games over those years is less than one year’s pay at my day job, and the great majority of that money has been from only three designs, all published in the last seven years: A Distant Plain, Colonial Twilight and Nights of Fire a distant third.
      So I haven’t lined my pockets, sure, but I wasn’t in this to do that. What designing has done for me is vastly improve my writing, my ability to think in systems terms, let me do research and specialize in a particular niche, and brought me into contact with a great many very interesting people! (A few jerks too, but that happens no matter what you do in life.) It’s been a pretty good bargain.
      Formulas and repetition: well, yes that can happen but I would point out that a large number of my games belong to one or another of five or six “families” that share some common characteristics to sketch out common situations. You can see that here (think the list is a bit out of date): https://brtrain.files.wordpress.com/2019/01/ludography-by-family.docx
      The key is to see when a certain system is not appropriate for a situation, and either to alter it, or come up with something else… a large number of my games also use systems that I never used before, or since.
      But no matter what you do, you had better be prepared to “show your work”.

      • Rick says:

        Brian, as always your honesty comes through in your comments here.

        I agree on the premise of Jim Dunnigan; a wargame should reflect the history, but I would add “within reasonable limits”. Not all aspects of reality can be simulated in a wargame, nor should they. That breaches the topics of “too much chrome” and “agonizingly long rules”. Dunnigan might see both of those topics as “don’t do that” guidance to prospective designers.

        Side note: Some of the best commentary I have read on graphical design in wargames came from none other than Redmond A. Simonsen. I wish I could find those articles and pass them along to a few modern day wargame graphic artists because some of what I have seen (and sadly bought) look like rejected Jackson Pollock works thrown onto hexgrids.

        I agree with your view on game options; keep things within the limits of the ranch. One problem I have found when considering options (after doing as much research as I can tolerate or afford) for a game are the limits of thinking through the intersecting impacts of those options, assuming they exist. Mathematicians can do a better job than myself at explaining permutations, combinatorics, and binary trees, but it all boils down to thinking through all of the potential impacts of the various options. The goal is avoiding absurd and-or impossible situations.

        I have no issues with “formulaic game design”, but it has it’s limits and times when it should not be used. You noted that. It is certainly a big challenge for a game designer to pick the right system for their game design. Perhaps that is a strength of the COIN system; it’s limits appear to be well known after a number of titles in the series, but it still seems “adaptable”. Volko came up with a great game system and GMT’s support for it has been equally great.

        Perhaps the biggest issues I have seen with mainstream wargame publishers is too much reliance on “formulaic game design” in order to meet a publishing schedule or to “demonstrate steady growth” in a game design family. I think you and I have traded private messages in the past on the perils of mass-produced wargame publishing, “rubberstamp wargaming” as I call it.

        The sad part of “rubberstamp wargaming” is the fact that there actually are a few “diamonds in the rough” among all of the mining spoils. It would be nice to see further development of those titles by a designer and-or developer that accept the fact “they aren’t in it for the money”; think along the lines of the old SPI’s “Moves” magazine, but with more “substance”. The challenge is finding a market for those evolved works and then publishing them at an acceptable price. I think there are solutions to that; you have used a few of those solutions over the years. Nudge-nudge-wink-wink. (shameless Monty Python line)

        Thank you for your designs.

        • brtrain says:

          Thanks Rick.
          Graphics: Redmond Simonsen took the time to write his thoughts and practices about graphic design in wargames; most designers don’t (and I can understand why they would hate to do this, they would much rather make art). His lessons are preserved online, for example the chapter in the SPI Wargame Design book on graphics and physical systems. I regard his work as an early high-water mark in design, though perhaps it is partly nostalgia: I skimmed a blog post by Rachel Simmons the other day where she takes issue with some of his points (albeit from a point in time 40 years removed).

  2. Brant says:

    Dude, you know that this is *exactly* what we do with our Team COIN games at Origins, right?

    I’d love to have an even bigger group of participants to put several different roles on each team, but ultimately, the idea is a general lack of info clarity on the part of every participant, with each member of the same team having *some* info but not all, and having to act on what they can get, rather than *everything*

    • brtrain says:

      Obviously I didn’t.
      But I do now.
      Interested to know how you make this work – does each faction have its own copy of the game, with some of the pieces on the map? What kind of things does everyone know?

    • Pete S/ SP says:

      It would be something I’d be very interested in.

      I’ve done lots of Kreigspiel type games that were double blind (home made megagames) although people have tended to move away from them these days.

      The need for a larger than otherwise needed number of umpires is one big stumbling block, also the time to report back to players means that there can be downtime whilst the umpires work out the turn – feedback indicates that puts people off as they aren’t fully engaged.

      Personally they are my favourite type of games but I get to play them so rarely.



      • brtrain says:

        Yes, those are the problems – lots of downtime, trying to coordinate everything as an umpire even if you have help, slow play, the number of people and space required.
        I can see why these are not the usual ways to play.
        But while people may not be fully engaged, they are engaged in a way that doesn’t come with any other play.

  3. Trevor says:

    Cool idea. Regarding the games you mentioned above, do you have any rules, guidelines, or recommendations to implement blind play? Perhaps examples of other games with rules that approximate what you’re envisioning?

  4. A highly interesting idea! It’d make the games more about risk management.

  5. D R says:

    You already know my thoughts on this Brian, any COIN game where the player can calculate the odds of ‘success’ (even within a range), is probably not representing what were the problems / decision points for the actual participants – with the odds calculation capability leaning towards the insurgents most, if not all, of the time …

    Games that did it pretty well, and were actually quite quick , were Search and Destroy, and Grunt back in the old SPI days, and I see glimmers of hope in Urban Operations. Talking analog games of course, computer games can handle it quite nicely.

    • brtrain says:

      The saving grace for the COIN games (on insurgency situations, not the pre-20C ones) is that they are pitched at a level and with such a bendy time scale that you aren’t calculating odds or rolling dice, you are seeing the effects of many, many small engagements, simultaneous games of Search and Destroy (a very good revision of Grunt) running in parallel… with lots of tiny dice being rolled.
      The insurgents have inbuilt advantages without needing to run odds or roll any dice (though the only consistent time you do that is when the insurgent chances a large attack), mainly being able to hide and having to be sought first, Ambush, etc.
      I guess what I’m getting at in my post is that when you look at the map of a modern COIN game, you have perfect information about where the insurgent enemy is, and therefore what he is likely to do. Removing this certainty would make the counterinsurgent faction players a lot less certain, and spend more time watching and sweeping.
      Even without a single or double blind setup (the best, but time consuming and slow) you can still do things with dummy Guerrilla pieces, for some deception… and work in some surprises, like the Deception markers in A Distant Plain.

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