There are a fair few games that I hate to love. They could be devouring my life, wallet and happiness like Netrunner. It could be a game that I love to play but know in my heart is bad like Betrayal at the House on the Hill. Or it could be a game so mammoth that I never get to play it with anyone, and that is Fire in the Lake.
Fire in the Lake is the latest in the COIN, or counterinsurgency, series, these games are slightly abstracted large scale wargames set in a historical counterinsurgency. Past games have been set in Cuba or Columbia but Fire in the Lake takes on the Vietnam war. Players have the choice of four factions , the NVA and Viet Cong or the US and ARVN, these factions all play quite differently and actually have different win conditions too.
All the action in the game is driven by the massive event deck, this determines the turn order and the players can in turn decide whether to execute the event’s effect or take one of the many actions available. These events are incredibly thematic representing real historical events, personalities and equipment, and provide some nice simplification as well. Only two players can act each turn then sit the next one out so as a team there is some serious decision making to be done, if presented with the opportunity do you both act but give the enemy a free turn next and who of you should wait if not. You also play with the next turn’s event on display so you might want to forgo action to have first dibs at a powerful event.
The insurgents and the counterinsurgents play totally differently, with the insurgents being much worse at direct combat but requiring the conventional armies to root them out before they can attack. So you end up feeling very much like General Westmoreland, watching tiny groups of guerillas pop up all over South Vietnam and not really wanting to put in the effort to clear them out, while the vast conventional armies of the north mass over the border. By contrast the insurgents’ task also seems daunting, your forces grow much more slowly and are significantly less good in a fight, but that’s usually not your goal, you might be happy sneaking in one guerilla unit to sow havoc in the enemy rear areas.
Even within the teams each faction has different objectives and means of achieving them. The US army is an efficient mincing machine in combat but it is small in number and only gets reinforcements rarely, this problem is compounded by their victory conditions since they win by bringing the boys home alive and not escalating the conflict. Also they want to build support for the South Vietnamese government among the populace so this compels them to maintain a presence in as much of the country as possible to stomp out VC agitators wherever they appear. By contract the ARVN faction couldn’t give a toss about being popular and just wants to control territory, which they can do with their large but comparatively ineffective army, another avenue for victory points is to divert US government aid to the personal pockets of the ruling class however this will infuriate the US player as it both decreases the money available to fight the war and reduces support that the US player has been building up.
The insurgents get on a little better but still butt heads, both want to build bases to establish a supply line but the VC wants to spread discontent with the Saigon government whereas the NVA are interested in controlling land in the south, in a sense this means the NVA opposes ARVN and the VC opposes the US. I would say the NVA and ARVN are most evenly matched since the NVA use conventional troops as well as their guerillas.
Since you only do one type of action a turn, albeit several times, it takes a while to put your strategy into action but don’t take too long or you’ll be caught out by one of the games fantastic coup rounds. The coup cards go into the event deck and provide mini resets to the game. Most importantly if players have enough of their type of victory points they can win the game immediately. If this not occur each side gains money, builds support or opposition in regions they control, then the counterinsurgents redeploy. ARVN must retreat back to the cities or bases as the monsoon comes in and the US has an opportunity to bring in reinforcements or draw back its military commitment in the south.
I love Fire in the Lake, but it’s so intimidating i could never bring it along to a board game evening, the level of rules learning being maybe on par with a miniatures game like Warhammer. However the game does include something rather interesting, an option for any number of the game’s factions to run on autopilot so I can play against the game, referencing the massive flowcharts to see what the non player factions can be a pain, but it is a great way to spend lazy sunday with some baileys and a stack of war movies. Fire in the Lake is a long game and more than a little confusing, but there’s just nothing like moving a giant pile of those wooden troop cubes around the war map.