Volko Ruhnke’s Andean Abyss is the first game in GMT’s new game series on counter-insurgency (COIN), with a game engine that could be described as a wargamicized El Grande (or perhaps El Grande meetsLabyrinth). Four players fight over a Colombia ravaged by insurgency, drug lords, and paramilitaries as they try to further their own factional goals. The game takes place shortly after the events of Mark Bowden’s excellent book Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World’s Greatest Outlaw, when the Medellín drug cartels were clipped in the mid-90s. One player plays the Government, and is the driving force for the game as they try to extend their writ throughout the country. The others play the FARC revolutionaries oppose them, the AUC paramilitaries, and free agent Drug Cartels.
This might not immediately strike you as a promising subject on which to base a game. The conflict is a nasty one of assassination, kidnapping, extortion, drug trafficking, and terrorism. It’s still ongoing, and ideas about it are likely to be educated guesses mixed with speculation. However, counter-insurgency is a compelling general topic. The United States’ most problematic foreign policy for the last half-century has been hip-deep in it, and so a game that is illustrative in even a small way could be important. Colombia, relatively unknown to the Americans that are the core market for wargames, could get less bogged down in ideology. From a purely game perspective, highly asymmetric games – where different players play with different objectives, or even different rules – are interesting and highly asymmetric games, like Ruhnke’s previous game Labyrinth, are very unusual. For me personally, I’m always drawn to games that successfully tackle challenging themes. A game that could get you emotionally drawn in to the tragedy of Colombia’s wars would be incredibly compelling.
The play of Andean Abyss is driven by a deck of event cards. Each card has an ordering for the icons for the four factions (Government, FARC, AUC, Cartels) across the top, which is the turn order for this card. Two cards will always be visible, this turn’s and the next’s. Each faction in turn has the opportunity to do something – take the event, run one or many operations – or pass. Only two factions can be active on each card, and whatever the first faction does generally forces the second faction into a more restrictive action (so if the first faction does an operation, the second faction will have a limited operation). Additionally, taking an action this turn forces a faction to sit out next turn, so a cycle tends to develop, with two pairs of factions alternating cards. However, being the first faction to act usually means significantly more flexibility than going second, so it’s important to know when to pass because the turn order on the next card up is favorable and giving up an opportunity to act now will give you more freedom later.
Once you’ve decided to take an operation, your options are given by a faction-specific Chinese menu of thematically named actions: march, recruit, train, attack, assassinate, extort, airstrike, cultivate, terror, and so on. Each faction has troops (cubes for the government, cylinders for the insurgents/guerrillas) which fight for the control of areas, and bases (discs) which provide both the economic backing to fund operations and places to recruit. Control is described on two axes (population in an area can support the government or oppose it, while the area can be physically controlled by one of the factions), and there are different types of areas (regions, cities, lines of communication) with different economic and population-control implications. The Government has a lengthy process to go through of cycling in army, then police cubes in an abstraction of building up civic infrastructure while other factions try to keep their power bases and forces in being and remain flexible. While there is a significant amount of real nuance here, to me it felt like just a really complicated and asymmetric variant of El Grande. You need your cubes in the right place and in sufficient quantity to control areas. If they’re out of position you need to move them. If you don’t have enough pieces on the board, you need to get more out. If you’re short money to fund actions, you need to get out more bases or do some extortion.
Volko Ruhnke is the designer of both Andean Abyss and Labyrinth, so it’s not surprising that to the extent that both games succeed, they succeed in similar ways, and where they fail, the failings are similar also. Labyrinth may have struggled with politics, reality, and a wonky endgame, but it was remarkable for how well it allowed two very different player positions with different motivations and different tools to play the same game. Importantly, neither position or viewpoint was privileged over the other – both Jihadists and the US get the same level of thematic attention from the game. Ruhnke’s older design Wilderness Wartried to do something similar, but it’s flaw (while, like Labyrinth, still being a game I enjoy) was that it privileged the British point of view somewhat over the French. The British concerns seemed to get more attention in gameplay detail and drove more of the action, while the French were essentially reactionary.
The factional viewpoints in Andean Abyss are somewhere in-between these two earlier games. The Government’s position is thematically well-developed, with a detailed process for expanding their writ. The guerrilla factions – the FARC, AUC, and Cartels – all feel pretty similar though. They all have a broadly similar range of actions available, although they are playing to quite different game-state goals. Those different goals though are were I believe Andean Abyss goes off the rails.
The first problem is the relatively straightforward nature of the AUC and Cartel victory conditions. While the Government has to go through an involved process of pacification, and the FARC is fighting a lonely and probably doomed war for control of population and regions, the AUC and Cartels need only get a fairly small number of bases on the board and (for the Cartels) accumulate a wad of cash. These relatively minor players – with few forces, no interest in controlling population, and more limited options – are compensated with easy VCs, to the point I’ve actually never seen anyone other than the Cartels or AUC win the game. Now, this is just my I experience and I don’t actually believe it’s the way it has to be, but it brings me to my main, crucial problem with Andean Abyss, which I could have written several paragraphs ago and saved us all a lot of trouble:
Andean Abyss is a game about counter-insurgency with no – none, zero, zilch – asymmetrical information. No hidden cards, no hidden units, no mysterious capabilities. Everything is on the table all the time. You know exactly how much force everyone has everywhere, you know the entirety of the options available to everyone, you know the results of any operations anyone might run. To the extent that there is randomness to the outcome of operations – which is almost none – everyone knows the probabilities. Everyone knows exactly how the the population thinks and exactly what to do to change their minds.
This seems highly questionable from a thematic point of view and gives little sense of the murky nature of these conflicts. Not only that, it has manifestly undesirable consequences for gameplay. Instead of making quick decisions about risk, players run several degrees of chess-like move and counter-move look-ahead, because that’s how the game is clearly telling them to think, and it turns what should be a 2 or 3 hour game that would be pressing its luck to go 3 hours into a tedious marathon (my games have gone 5 hours even for the short game). Even worse though, everyone can see all the time exactly who is exactly how close to winning. So it just turns into the usual exercise of bashing whoever is in front.
I had some hopes that familiarity with the game would drive down the playing time. The menus of numerous different actions, apparently different for each faction (although less diverse than it first appears), is hugely daunting for new player to grapple with. Playing a 100% open information game where everyone has different actions available and trying to get some sense of the implications of what you’re doing requires understanding a lot of things and constantly puzzling over options. Once you’ve learned this stuff, you could hope for a more streamlined experience. Unfortunately, there are two major obstacles. Firstly, few people really want to play again after the first 5+ hour slugfest. Secondly, the time you save in understanding the game is clawed back by the fact that now everybody knows everyone has to be on the lookout to block anyone who comes close to winning. So you add a lot of less than compelling scenario analysis and back-and-forth time back in.
Finally, like Labyrinth before it, Andean Abyss ducks too many hard questions and instead presents us with a crisp, clean, and sanitized design of cylinders, cubes, disks, and highly predictable outcomes that does little to convey the violence and capriciousness of the conflict. Perhaps an RPG would be a better format to explore the tragedy of Colombia, but Andean Abyss could have done more just by integrating more historical photos into the map and reference cards (the photos on the cards are too small and too far away to reliably make out), and using a more naturalistic approach to the visual design.
I really wanted to like Andean Abyss and wanted it to be a launchpad for a new and intriguing series of games. Flawed as they were, I am still fond of Labyrinth and Wilderness War. The game mechanics of Andean Abyss – the event cards that drive turn choices, the individualized faction action menus, the light economic model backing a positional game of discs and cubes – are promising. There is clearly a game that could have been built using them. Unfortunately, Andean Abyss is not it. Despite the undeniable level of thought and detail that has gone into it, what comes out at the end is just tedious, overlong, and overcomplicated in the same way as many other much less thoughtful king-of-the-hill type multiplayer wargames are. Unless future games address the core problem of 100% information symmetry, I don’t hold out much hope the series will improve.