Making of… COIN (English version)

This is just the original interview. Read the full article (in German, with pictures)  here.

image001MUWINS: Colombia? Really? Before Netflix and „Narcos“, the Colombian drug war seems like a risky topic to start a new game series. Why did you pick that setting?

Volko Ruhnke: I think that Gene Billingsley thought that same thing when I proposed the idea! But since I am not earning a living with boardgame design, I want to do what is interesting to me.

I had heard and read a great deal about Colombia’s internal situation in the 1990s and early 2000s, and it struck me as a rich and amazing story that I wanted to explore on my tabletop. Only one wargame had ever been done on the topic—Crisis Games: Colombia by Kaarin and Karsten Engelmann (in a remarkable coincidence, out of my own small town of Vienna, Virginia)—and that design predated the historical period that I would cover in Andean Abyss.

Drug war was not even the main aspect that drew me to Colombia. It was rather the multi-faceted nature of the insurgency there. How the drug war interwove with leftish and right-wing violence. And how a national government faced all that down with the determination after 40 years of war to re-establish its writ across llanos and jungle. I discuss my fascination with all that in greater detail in the Design Notes to the game. It turned to be the perfect setting to inspire a game system focused on asymmetrical and multifactional internal war.

As for commercial risk, my sense is that it would be a greater risk to pursue a project that the designer finds less than enthralling. If I’m going to be distracted by a topic like Colombia, I may as well get it out of my system. I am not likely to produce much worthwhile about something I think is boring!

image001MUWINS: Was COIN actually intended to become a series from the start, or was Andean Abyss expected to be „just“ that „game about Colombia“? We understand that successfull games tend to spawn follow-ups, but did you already have other settings in mind when creating AA?

Volko Ruhnke: I did. But that is where my plan quickly fell apart!

I originally pitched Colombia to Gene as Volume I in a “COIN Series”, and that aspect helped him accept the project for P500, since Colombia could thereby lead us to other settings. And you can see from the box of the original edition that Andean Abyss was “Volume I” from the get go.

However, I had planned to do only four volumes, one for Latin America, then Africa (Angola), East Asia (Philippines), and the MidEast (Iraq). The COIN Series has yet to publish on any of the latter three conflicts. So what happened?

Before Andean Abyss even shipped, opportunity intervened. Jeff Grossman who had worked on the Colombia game with us had an idea for a smaller version covering the Cuban Revolution. Our thought was a lower investment project, a magazine game with chits instead of counters, perhaps for C3i, and not bothering with solitaire rules. But Gene loved the idea enough to offer Cuba Libre as Volume II, and the rest is wargaming history. The COIN Series partnership among designers Brian Train, Mark Herman, Marc Gouyon-Rety, Bruce Mansfield, my son Andrew, and other creative folks whom COIN Series players will get to know soon all developed in similarly serendipitous ways—that is, by spawn rather than plan.

image001MUWINS: The direct influences for the COIN-system seem rather obvious: Your own Labyrinth shares a lot of DNA with the COIN games, and Twilight Struggle is related to Labyrinth. Were there other, maybe less obvious influences?

Volko Ruhnke: Here are a few more:

  • Nick Karp’s classic wargame, Vietnam: 1965-1975 (Victory Games), which gave me my original and still dominant conception of the dynamics of 20th-Century guerrilla warfare. Once I played Nick’s game, I was permanently hooked on heliborne sweeps, LoC patrols and jungle ambushes, and all that.
  • Brian Train’s system for internal political wars that predated his recent work in the COIN Series—his games on Algeria and Peru and other settings that provide operations menus, effects on popular will, violent and non-violent measures, and so many staples of insurgency and counterinsurgency and therefore the COIN Series.
  • Joe Miranda’s Battle for Baghdad, with its 6-way asymmetrical victory conditions that require players always to keep an eye on multiple measures of effectiveness on the gameboard lest some short combination of actions lead to an enemy victory despite one’s own progress to one’s own win condition. Battle for Baghdad owes a lot in its concept to the old Avalon Hill Dune, which in turn derived from the original Cosmic Encounter.

So all that genealogy lives in Falling Sky, Colonial Twilight, and Pendragon.

image001MUWINS: Some people even describe the system as a hybrid, mixing wargame and „eurogame“ elements. We at MUWINS love both worlds (as long as the games are good) and, personally, I still see COIN firmly planted in the wargame area, even though it is obvious that it’s far from a „traditional“ wargame. Do you yourself recognize any influence from so called „european style“ games? Do you play any of these at all?

Volko Ruhnke: Absolutely, and consciously so.

I aspire to help bind our various boardgaming tribes. So my wargames need to reach as far as they can into the eurogame toolkit to tell their politico-military stories in as elegant, accessible, and widely appealing way that they can manage.

And afterall, fusion is the essence of innovation and progress: we build better things when we combine proven ideas in new ways for new purposes. So “hybridding” is always an alluring path to me.

image001MUWINS: (Probably) related to the first question: The eternal chicken or egg dilemma: When designing a new COIN game, what comes first – the fascination for a particular military/political conflict or new ideas to tweak the existing mechanisms?

Volko Ruhnke: The first—and I don’t even see it as chicken or egg.

As you noted, my games are firmly-planted wargames. That means that their intent is simulation first, and the mechanics must follow that. The mechanics are our means to explore complex and consequential topics in a fun way. If the mechanics do not achieve that—in the case of wargames for the topic of human conflict—then they fail.

image001MUWINS: How do you come up with exactly 4 different actions per faction and still get them to mirror real life? Distilling basically endless options into those 4 possibilities sounds like work. How much thought goes into the theme, and how much into mechanism during that process?

Volko Ruhnke: A lot of thought, as you have guessed.

Game design—as much or perhaps all design—asks not so much “what do we put in?” as “what can we leave out?”. Board wargames are models: the designer’s mental model of how some historical or fantasy conflict worked, presented on the tabletop. Like all models of complex affairs, these are purposeful simplifications. So that distillation of endless options is at the core of simulation design.

One of my foibles, though, is an obsession with structure—certainly including that which is not always purposeful. So I find myself doing things like always simplifying to four core actions per faction, or pursuing even less meaningful little symmetries that I doubt anyone will notice but somehow grant me a sounder sleep. Some COIN volumes depart from these Volko idiosyncracies because their wise designers have spotted that not every formula in there is helpful.

image001MUWINS: How does the connection with the publisher GMT work? I am sure that after all those extremely successful games, they trust in you and the other designers to deliver yet another „blockbuster“ for them. But still – I guess there must be some kind of direction from them, be it in terms of quality control or of ideas about where they want the series to go next?

Volko Ruhnke: Thanks, that is a kind way to tie up that question!

Yes, as should be evident, I love my relationship with GMT. I started out doing playtest for them in the 1990s and have never had a reason to stop working more and more closely with them. Gene and I talk regularly about the COIN Series and a variety of other things going on in his company or my life. When I visit Hanford, I get to stay at his house. I have no written contracts with GMT Games—it is just a friendship of complete trust that has always worked.

Gene treats his designers as the intellectual owners of their creations. So there is input less than direction from GMT. They have a lot of ideas, but Gene always suggests consideration of something rather than directing anything, and I think he is very conscious of doing it that way.

As for quality control, there is indeed plenty of help from GMT, particularly from their art team. But even more of that help comes from all the players who sign up to playtest or otherwise participate in game development, for no remuneration except perhaps a complimentary copy of the finished game.

image001MUWINS: Is it hard to see your children grow up? Other designers seem to be as much enamoured of the system as we are. As players, we sometimes get the impression that there may be dangers for a design to grow too far from its roots by adding more and more elements to it. How is it for you to see your design getting influenced by other designers‘ ideas and approaches?

Volko Ruhnke: Oh! At first I thought you were asking about my sons, who have, after all, participated so closely in my game design hobby and are now mostly out of the house.

No, it’s a wonderful feeling to see other designers take an interest in something that I did and do something better with that. See my sentiment above on fusion and progress. The COIN Series would be just four volumes on far less wide-ranging topics and with less original mechanics, were it not for other designers’ ideas and approaches that have nurtured the Series to grow so far from its roots. That is a joy.

The pain in seeing a design go out into the world, rather, is that one knows it could have been better. When you see the published product meet the real world, the full population of gamers who will try it out, is when the warts on the thing take over the field of view.

I don’t mean that players complain. I mean that players’ interaction with the design gives the game its true expression—and there is far more of that after printing than during development. But development is then over. So that’s what I’m dwelling once the children have grown up and are mostly out of the house: oh, they did that, oh, yeah, we could have raised them a bit better….

image001MUWINS: And finally, more as a hint than a real question: Could you imagine doing a COIN game on the European wars of religion? Or at least give us an idea what you might have in store after all the current P500s have finally been delivered…?

Volko Ruhnke: Ha! Yes, I could imagine doing that. The European wars of religion have all the delicious ingredients needed—politico-military struggle; asymmetric ends, ways, and means; shifting, ambiguous, overlapping allegiances.

But I probably have designed my last COIN Series volume.

There are many other talents at work on behalf of the Series. We already know what Volume X will be, from a designer with a long association with GMT and on a long-awaited topic. But naturally I will let Gene announce the particulars when the time comes.

As for me, I do have something entirely different from COIN in work. And that, too, needs to ripen quite some before I can go into detail.