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GrogHeads Reviews Fire in the Lake

Michael Eckenfels, 25 October 2014

Michael gives GMT Games’ latest COIN offering a work-thru

 

It’s 2014, and when you take stock of history, it’s almost unbelievable how time has marched on. The strangest thing is that our Vietnam War vets are in their 60s and 70s these days, whereas back in the 80s when I was in high school, this was the age range of our World War II vets. As these soldiers fade into history through inexorable tick-tocking of time, it’s good to know that the subject of the Vietnam War remains in the modern psyche, whether through books or companies like GMT producing games such as this.

Games simulating the Vietnam War (and yes, I’ll call it a war – let’s not get into a debate over ‘war’ or ‘police action’ or ‘conflict’ – unless you want to take it to the GH forums, of course) are fairly rare, though if you enter “Vietnam” in the BGG website you’ll get 45 titles, about 12 of which have been done since 2010. This of course doesn’t include games that have to do with Vietnam, but don’t have ‘Vietnam’ in the title – like this very game.

Several are all about tactical combat, though, and few actually try to detail the entire war including combat, politics, and internal struggles between alliances. When you buy Fire in the Lake, you’re going to get a complete package that includes all of this. If you’re only interested in the military aspects of the Vietnam War, you’re going to miss out on some interesting game play. First, let’s take a look at what comes in the box.

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COMPONENTS

I did an ‘unboxing’ article on Fire in the Lake, so if I repeat myself, bear with me.

  • One rules book. A very well done and well-organized book of 24 pages. That’s misleading, actually – only 12 pages are really for the game’s rules. The other 12 pages are for the game’s “non-players,” which are basically bots that automate factions, if the player(s) desire to let the game system take over and play a part in their game.
  • One play book. Another fine document, and one that comes across as a huge bonus. This book, in great detail, takes you through some sample game turns. A game that’s as rich as Fire in the Lake has a lot of options, and understanding everything you can do and what your opponents can do is absolutely essential if you don’t want to drown in the Southeast Asian quagmire. A lot of game designers and companies could learn from going this extra mile and providing this great ‘safety net’ to help gamers absorb the system. Like I said, it’s not complicated, it just takes a bit of getting used to.
  • 248 wooden blocks. I immediately had flashbacks to Bootleggers, Age of Mythology, and other old Eagle Games products that used wooden blocks extensively. The physicality of a wooden block is very appealing, strangely enough. I enjoy the vagueness of what they represent mixed with the physical reality of being something you can view and hold in three dimensions. Unlike flat military counters, wooden blocks have something of a life to them, and at a glance you can see where you or the others are dominating. The ‘vagueness’ I mention works really well with this game system, too. Each faction in the game has their own colors – olive green for the U.S., yellow for the ARVN, blue for the VC, and red for the NVA. There are three different types – regular troops and soldiers (square blocks), guerillas and special forces (hexagon tower blocks), and bases (coin-like blocks).
  • 130 cards. Like many other GMT games the game is driven largely by cards, and if you’re familiar with any such titles this won’t be a surprise. Even with that experience it takes a few tries to get used to reading them as they’re a bit different from other iterations I’ve seen. Once you get the hang of it though, it’s second nature. These cards reflect much of the Vietnam War’s historical events, including South Vietnamese coups, which the game’s card play is anchored to and determines victory. More on this later, of course.
  • One 22” x 34” mounted map board. Yep…mounted. Thankfully. And as it folds out into eight sections, much of the weight of this box is in this map board. It’s thick, colorful, and looks great, depicting South Vietnam and some of its neighboring countries in an area-control style. Provinces are divided by routes, which are not just borders, interestingly enough. They’re lines of communication, and they influence resources in the game and act as provinces in their own right. There’s also several large cities scattered about (Saigon, Cam Ranh, etc.). All of these are potential battlegrounds.
  • Player aid sheets. Another nice touch: there’s several, including one for each faction in the game as well as some other charts and tables to help with gameplay. All are well designed and since each faction is different, each sheet has different colors, another nice design touch.
  • Three six-sided dice. I love dice. The more dice, the better. I buy the cup o’ dice at conventions whether or not I need dice. I wish there were more dice in this game, but you don’t need them. I’m just a dice addict, is all. Fire in the Lake is good as is with three dice.

 

GAMEPLAY

Since I’ve not played any of the other three COIN games, everything I see here is new to me, so please bear with me if you have and know the system with them.

Fire in the Lake is a game for one to four players, simulating the Vietnam War from the mid-60s to 1972 or so, around the time of the Paris Peace Accords. The game mixes maneuvering, both political and military, into a chaotic mess that is South Vietnam during this period. The game designers (Volko Ruhnke and Mark Herman) both even included systems for the different factions so players may opt to play the game solitaire, too.

The full-color playbook document gives highly detailed examples of play.

The full-color playbook document gives highly detailed examples of play.

 

The game is largely driven through card play, which determine the order in which factions act for the turn as well as displaying an Event that can be acted upon that turn. Events are split two ways, so there is text that applies to the COIN side (the U.S. and ARVN) and separate text that applies to the insurgents (VC and NVA), making it appealing to any player.

However, the card that is turned over for that game turn isn’t the only one – the next card on the stack is also flipped over so everyone can see what’s coming up next. A player can therefore choose to pass if they want to, in the hopes of using the next card’s event.

There is an interesting limitation to player action, and that is only two factions may play per turn. The cards, as mentioned, list factions in order that they may act, so the first listed faction may choose to perform an action or pass. If they act, they may NOT act on the next card, and sometimes this can be a hard choice. Moving first isn’t always the most beneficial action, depending on what card is listed.

 

The US is dug in at Da Nang, but the NVA is building up in the north…

The US is dug in at Da Nang, but the NVA is building up in the north…

 

Events are not the only thing that a faction may perform. Each side (COIN and Insurgent) has specific operations they may do on a game turn. More often than not a player will probably want to do ten different things, realize that they can only realistically accomplish a fraction of those ten things, and then must compromise further to find the best benefit/cost ratio possible. Finding that benefit groove is no mean feat in Fire in the Lake. As chaotic as this game is, I’ve rarely seen a system with so many checks and balances. It makes me wonder even during gameplay if there is truly a way to win. But in all honesty, that makes playing and winning even more of a thrill than usual.

 

Cambodia and Laos are havens for the Insurgents. The US and ARVN cannot easily engage the enemy there.

Cambodia and Laos are havens for the Insurgents. The US and ARVN cannot easily engage the enemy there.

 

The choice a player makes for their faction’s action that game turn affects the next eligible faction. For example, if a faction chooses to execute the event on a card, the next player gets to execute both an operation and a special activity. If the first faction instead executes an operation and special activity, the second eligible player may choose a limited operation (the same as a normal operation, just only affecting a single province instead of several) or execute the event, and so on.

The limitations on the follow-on factions means that first faction can choose to play to benefit their own faction, or play to screw up the plans of the following factions. The latter is more prevalent than one might think, and can even come in the form of a faction from your own side hosing your plans. It can give you a bit of a headache at first trying to wrap your mind around all the possibilities, but like any system and game rules, it just takes a bit of practice to figure out what you can do.

And if that weren’t enough, each faction actually gets a ‘trump’ card of sorts. Each faction has their own rather powerful “pivotal event” card that is unique to them. Before the first eligible player makes a move, a player may trump the current card and instead execute their own. However, it’s only a once-per-game event, so once it’s played, it’s gone. Even better (based on whether or not you’re on the receiving end of one of these), there’s rules for trumping the trump cards. Certain factions can trump other factions’ pivotal event plays. If this sounds like a sadistic version of the card game Spades or Hearts, you’re getting the idea. While pivotal events can only be played once, sometimes players forget they have that card so when someone does drop one down, the others remember and this can result in a chaotic storm of best-laid plans evaporating.

 

The COIN forces are pretty well entrenched in the highlands of Vietnam. Whether or not it stays that way is a different matter…

The COIN forces are pretty well entrenched in the highlands of Vietnam. Whether or not it stays that way is a different matter…

 

Another card type that bears mentioning is the “coup card.” There are several of these, actually, depending on the scenario played. The South Vietnamese government changed regimes quite frequently, so this represents that happening. In-game, the time between coup cards (or from the beginning to the first coup card) represents about a year or two of time.

Coup cards start a coup round where victory can be determined and other things can happen, such as the U.S. player determining if they want to escalate their troop presence in South Vietnam (thereby losing points by deploying more troops and bases) or decrease it (thereby gaining points, but losing the combat power to hold off the enemy’s incursions). One other thing – a Coup card that’s flipped means it is monsoon season, so the card currently in play is affected by this, which limits operations severely. This helps limit all-or-nothing gambits that unbalance the game quickly just before a ‘scoring round’ that the Coup card represents.

As mentioned earlier, Operations are similar for both factions on a side (e.g., U.S. and ARVN have the same choices among Operations, but these are different from the Operations the NVA and VC may perform), and this is how factions gain traction on the game board. The U.S./ARVN operations involve gaining more ARVN troops and conducting sweeps, patrols, and all-out assaults. The NVA and VC can rally (sort of like train, but with guerillas), move troops  attack, or cause terror in a province.

These are all means to remove enemy troops and guerillas/special forces from the map and to try to shift province and city allegiances one way or the other. One thing I quite enjoy is the chess-like nature of these moves – there are no die rolls to make. The rules explicitly state what needs to be done, what the requirements are, and where a faction can perform these acts. It’s all very clear-cut, but deciding where best to do these things…that’s the not-so-clear-cut part.

 

The NVA seem limitless in the north, and once the ‘red tide’ starts pouring forth, it’ll be tough to plug the flood.

The NVA seem limitless in the north, and once the ‘red tide’ starts pouring forth, it’ll be tough to plug the flood.

 

Special activities takes the options for each faction another step or two further. For one thing, each faction’s special activities are unique to their side. For another, they can be executed before an operation if the controlling player desires. Sometimes the operation that the player chooses limits the special activity they may execute, though. Given the range of choices, sometimes the special activity is the best thing to do for a faction, so don’t think of these as a third cousin to operations.They can be quite powerful in their own right, if executed well.

Another striking thing about this COIN game is how it simulates victory. There are no all-encompassing victory point levels that generically measure a win or a loss. Instead, each faction’s ability to win is determined by two factors, and they’re all different – and sometimes at odds with each other, if indirectly.

The U.S. player is a great example – they have to have an amount of support and troops/bases in the ‘US available forces’ box (basically, back home in America) that’s higher than 50. It might sound do-able, but consider that the U.S. player can best gain support through keeping the enemy at bay, which means lots of combat troops, which means less of a score from having lots of troops deployed. Conversely, having lots of troops going home or already at home means less power on the ground and therefore more chances for the enemy to wrest that support away.

The ARVN are challenged to win through having COIN-controlled population and patronage, the latter of which was more or less at the expense of the population, presenting its own set of challenges. The NVA and VC are far less complex, with the NVA winning through a combination of the number of bases and controlled population, and the VC winning through number of bases and opposition to the Saigon regime. Without getting too political, I think this represents rather well the focus that the North had in winning the war, and the lack of focus that the U.S. and ARVN had on their side of things. Volko and Mark have both done an excellent job, as far as I’m concerned, in weaving the military and political aspects of this game into a single whole…no small feat.

 

Saigon is a haven for COIN forces, but there are Events that can change that (not to mention good play by the insurgents).

Saigon is a haven for COIN forces, but there are Events that can change that (not to mention good play by the insurgents).

 

As for the number of players – the game can field up to four human players. ‘Up to’ means that the game system can be used to simulate actions for non-player factions, so yes, you can enjoy Fire in the Lake with less than four. Two players may split the sides – e.g., one may play the US and ARVN, while the other plays the VC and NVA, using the higher victory conditions of either faction as their victory goal.

However, Mark and Volko have provided a very interesting option, and that is a flowchart system. Each faction has their own specific flowchart that can be used, in conjunction with a section of rules in the rule book, to determine what a non-player faction will do during a turn. This had a lot of appeal to me, but it took a lot of time early on. I had to abandon it as I didn’t have a good grasp of the game initially, and chose to play it with humans to get that grasp. I recommend anyone picking up this game to do the same to get a feel for it before employing the flowchart cards (very well designed, by the way), because it will make such games go a lot faster.

 

The game system’s flowcharts are easier to navigate once one plays a few times.

The game system’s flowcharts are easier to navigate once one plays a few times.

 

This makes Fire in the Lake very suitable for solitaire play as well. A player may choose to play one faction or two on the same side against the game system. Don’t expect an easy time of it, though. I tried a solo game as the U.S. player and thoroughly had my hindquarters kicked by the NVA. I was able to corral the VC fairly well, but the NVA became a commie train of death that flooded the South. I thought surely I screwed something up rules-wise, but more than likely it’s just because I have terrible luck with solitaire games usually (such as with lightning storms and B-29s, but that’s another article entirely).

 

CONCLUSION

Given the randomness of the cards and the conflicting goals swirling about, not to mention the fickle and chaotic nature of the Gods of Boardgame Wars, trying to guide a game of Fire in the Lake is like trying to herd cats. Right when you think you’ve got the game where you want it, some furry communist or bureaucrat is going to do something to screw up your best-laid plans. That’s what makes Fire in the Lake so enjoyable – there’s such an unknown to each game that no two ever play the same and there’s few strategies that survive the first card draw. You have to think and play on your feet and try to win without getting the others to notice and therefore dogpile on you. I really like the fact that there are two sides to the game, and then there are two sides to each side on top of that, making life much more interesting all around. I’d highly recommend this title to anyone that enjoys a game with lots of political action mixed in with combat and maneuvering. You won’t be disappointed, even if you only have a passing interest in the Vietnam War.


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3 Responses to GrogHeads Reviews Fire in the Lake

  1. David Hughes says:

    A very enjoyable, well-written and beautifully illustrated description of the game.

    How do you feel it works as a model of the war? And do you think that the COIN system is a good fit for this situation?

  2. Michael says:

    Hi David, this is Michael, the writer of the above review. Thanks much for your response! I’ll do my best to answer your questions.

    First, I’ve played a few Vietnam wargames, though not a lot. The scale of many seemed terribly daunting…I’m mostly thinking of VG’s great title, ‘Vietnam 1965-1975,’ if I remember it right. As a model for war, well, that’s a tough task for any developer, but this particular one does a great job of modeling not just the military aspects, but the ‘hearts and minds’ political aspects. I used the word ‘chaotic’ quite often in the review…and that’s exactly what it is. For this particular war, you get a great feel for what it must have been like to command each of the factions involved.

    As for your second question, whether or not the COIN system is a good fit for this situation…I’d say it works fine, but as I said in the review, I’ve not played any of the other COIN games in the series to measure it against anything. I’ve read other reviews of Fire in the Lake and seen many comments on how it’s one of the better games to simulate this system, and that makes perfect sense as this one was made after the others, giving the devs plenty of time and feedback to work the system into something that simulates everything well.

    Thanks again for the feedback and for reading. I encourage you to check out our forums if you’re not already a registered user; there is a very active community here of fellow wargame enthusiasts.

  3. […] won with 40% of the vote. For the second year in a row, a COIN system game finished second, as Fire in the Lake had a strong showing.  Third and fourth place were both DVG games, with Fleet Commander Nimitz […]

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