Fire In The Lake Review
Fire in the Lake is the 4th game in the COIN (COunter-INsurgency) series, initially known to me as “That Vietnam one with the great box art”. I’ve covered COIN games here before, namely Gandhi (review here), All Bridges Burning (review here) Cuba Libre (review here), and if you haven’t read any of them yet, let me cut to the chase: I love the COIN games. The COIN games sit somewhere in the tabletop ecotone between board games and war games and have challenges for players coming into them from either side, but they’re worth it. Fire in the Lake is another brilliant example of how you can lift a system from one game, make small tweaks, change the setting, and make a new game that feels fresh and engaging. I love Fire in the Lake. Here’s why.
It ain’t me, it ain’t me
The Vietnam War has been done in so many ways. From the passive interests of film and books, to agency-laden video and tabletop games. Fire in the Lake takes a fairly novel approach in not tackling the on-the-ground battles between the various factions involved. It adds a safety layer of abstraction by making the game function at the operational level. There are plenty of small differences to previous games, but those of you familiar with the way COIN games work will feel instantly at home with the concepts of control and support/opposition, which represent the political landscape of the conflict.
I love the way control and support work. It’s such a simple concept, but one which comes with multiple layers of nuance. You might think that the faction with control of a region or city would also have the local population in their pocket, but it’s not the case. It’s quite possible for the city to be controlled by the Counter-Insurgents (in this case the US and ARVN), but the VC and NVA’s actions mean that the populace there actively opposes that control. It’s a hallmark of COIN design, and it leads to some really tricky decisions to make. Taking a sub-optimal turn just to wrest control from someone feels like a punch in the guts, but sometimes you’ve just got to take your lumps.
One of the things I especially like about Fire in the Lake is the choice of playing the game in short, medium, or long scenarios. COIN games can be daunting things to learn, and the first game can really drag until the players all understand not only what they’re doing, but why. The why is so, so important, and sometimes difficult to convey. Being able to set up a short game, rattle through it in a couple of hours, and have everyone walk away from the table knowing what to do next time, is great.
It’s time to stop. Hey, what’s that sound?
I mentioned the differences above, and this is the point where I’d be excitedly rambling if you were sat in front of me, like the fervent nerd I am. We’ve got Coup rounds now instead of Propaganda rounds, which represent checkpoints in the game. Coups are essentially the same thing, but each coup brings a new RVN leader who stays in play – with their own ongoing effects – until the next coup. Coups also bring Monsoons, which means that the turn immediately prior to a Coup (you can always see the upcoming card in COIN games) has some restrictions. No sweeps, and restricted airlifts and airstrikes mean that there’s very little pre-coup preparation for players, and I like it.
The VC and NVA factions can create tunnelled bases which act in the same way as regular bases, but are much more difficult to remove. It’s a nice thematic touch, mirroring the tunnels the Viet Cong used during the conflict to not only hide during the days but also acted as supply routes, hospitals and caches for food and weapons. Another new touch is the introduction of Pivotal Event cards. Each faction has its own Pivotal Event which can have powerful impacts on the game state but require that certain pre-requisites are made first. Like spicy chillies just waiting to be thrown into the soup pot to cause havoc.
I nearly forgot to mention the Ho Chi Minh trail too, which represents the north-to-south trail in Vietnam. It’s a track which shows a value, which then determines how many troops the NVA can Rally. Actions can degrade the trail, reducing its efficiency. It’s a nice touch which represents something that doesn’t need to be on the map itself.
Another great thematic touch is the sort of forced symbiosis between the US and ARVN players. The US doesn’t have its own resources in the game, despite needing them for certain actions. Luckily they can just use the ARVN’s instead! This comes with its own restriction in the form of the Econ marker on the score track, meaning that the US can only spend the surplus above that marker. And this is what the COIN series do so well. They weave in forced cooperation between players who each want to win, meaning that these aren’t head-down, navel-gazing exercises in raw strategy. There’s an inherent layer of player interactions, never more evident than when a player desperately tries to steer someone else into a decision which doesn’t scupper their own plans.
War, children, it’s just a shot away
This is the awkward part of the review, because this is where I say “You know what – maybe Fire in the Lake isn’t for you”. I think it’s an amazing game, but I also acknowledge that it’s a deep game, and a complex game. Reading through the rules and setting the game up for the first time gave me flashbacks to when I tried to learn Gandhi for the first time. You can’t learn how to play Fire in the Lake from the rulebook, which sounds ridiculous, but it’s true. The rulebook is more like a technical manual. Trying to play a COIN game from the rulebook is like learning to drive with a Haynes manual. Just because you know the inner workings of a Ford Cortina doesn’t mean you know how to drive one, and the same goes for COIN.
Your friend in learning COIN, or in this weird analogy, your driving instructor, is the Playbook that comes in the box. The playbook walks you through some turns, explaining to you what’s going on, who’s doing what, and why. It’s vitally important to add this layer of context and application to the actions on offer. The thing is, even with that playbook, there’s no denying that Fire in the Lake is still a tricky game. There are a lot of small things that only go to reinforce my assertion that Cuba Libre is the de facto shallow end of the COIN swimming pool. On the giant Vietnam map you’ve got neighbouring countries with their own conditions for who can stay for how long. You provinces with 0 population, meaning securing them does nothing for your win condition. Lines of Communication bisect provinces, but despite looking like borders, they’re spaces you can occupy. The sheer size of the map, especially when compared to Cuba Libre’s board, makes it more difficult to read the map state at a glance.
None of this is to say that Fire in the Lake is bad in any way. Far from it, it’s an exceptional game. It’s just a very dense game, and learning it as your first COIN game may feel like hacking away at the jungle with a butter knife. If any of the points I raised above made you slightly more waterproof with an involuntary butt clench, head for Cuba Libre first.
Despite my warning shots in the previous section, I’ve got to say that Fire in the Lake is a wonderful game. The COIN games are fascinating to me, because you can see the genealogical traits passed down through the games. I haven’t played all of them yet, but the Lines of Communication are similar to the railways in Gandhi. The NVA leaders are like the British Viceroys in the same game. You still get those lovely player aid cards which list not only the choices for your Operations and Special Activities, but also the win conditions for each player. They feel like menus at a restaurant, and there’s something I can’t quite put my finger on which makes me enjoy using them. It’s a bit like ordering at said restaurant – “Oh waiter, yes, I’ll take a main course of Patrol, with Advise for dessert, thank you”.
If you’re a fan of historical games set during the Vietnam war, then this really is the game for you. I love it when games take on this operational level of detail, instead of dealing with the actual conflict on the battlefield. Truthfully, a part of that is because I know about some of the horrors of war that happened there. That sort of thing is ever-present in the back of my mind when I play a game which tries to simulate a real-life conflict. But even if you took the theme away from the game and replaced it with something fantastical or futuristic, the card-drive gameplay and tidal shifts of power across the board are just a lot of fun.
There is a Non-Player/solo mode which plays a mean game, but it’s also pretty heavy lifting on your part as the NP player. COIN came into its own with simple solo in Gandhi, BUT, there is a new NP method available with the Tru’ng Bot, which is available to buy separately. Unfortunately, I haven’t used it myself, but from what I’ve read and watched, it sounds great. Fire in the Lake just packs so much in the box, it’s a game you could play over and over, and still have a riot each time. The different scenarios, the different ways to play it with the different factions, and the sheer variety of some of the situations you’ll encounter, mean you can get a lot of hours from your purchase. It’d be remiss of me to not mention that the long scenarios really can be looooong (4+ hours), but in the same breath, if a Coup card comes out and you’re setup just right, that 6 hour game just got chopped to a 2 hour one. I think the medium scenario is the best, although your mileage may vary.
Thematic, atmospheric, and beautifully designed. Fire in the Lake is a complex, table-filling beast which needs taming, but rewards you for your investment.
Review copy provided by GMT Games. Thoughts and opinions are my own.
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Fire in the Lake (2014)
Designers: Mark Herman, Volko Ruhnke
Publisher: GMT Games
Art: Rodger B. MacGowan, Chechu Nieto, Mark Simonitch
Playing time: 180-300 mins