Saturday, 4 January 2020

Colonial Twilight

Plays: 2Px1.

The Game

Colonial Twilight is the 7th game in GMT's COIN (Counter Insurgency) game series. These games are categorised as wargames, but they are a very different breed from conventional wargames. Instead of battles between nations, these games are more about rebellions and uprisings. Usually one of the sides is the government in power, while another is a rebel faction. Many COIN games are designed for four players, e.g. Fire in the Lake, Cuba Libre and Andean Abyss, and are at their best when played with four. Colonial Twilight is designed for two. If you often have difficulty finding enough players for a full four-player COIN game, then this is good news. Just note that in a 2-player COIN game, you won't have those intricate relationships between factions, e.g. temporary alliances, betrayals, ganging up on the leader, and checks and balances.

The setting is the Algerian war of independence, from 1954 to 1962. Algeria is a French colony. Some rebels want independence, but the French government wants to maintain control. In France and in Algeria, there are people who support maintaining the colony and also people who oppose it. Both the government and the rebels want to win public support for their causes. Public support counts towards victory points, and also gives money. The game board shows a map of Algeria, bordering Morocco in the west, Tunisia in the east, the Sahara desert in the south, and the Mediterranean Sea in the north. Both Morocco and Tunisia became independent earlier than Algeria, and when they became independent, Algerian rebers used them as bases to launch attacks. The three round areas are the major cities in Algeria.

On the track, the two cylinders indicate the money of the players - black cylinder for the rebels, blue for the government. The green square marker is the victory point marker of the rebels. The VP value is calculated based on two things - the number of rebel bases on the board, and the support of the people. The two square markers showing the French flag are the commitment level and the government VP. Commitment can be thought of as the support of the people in France. The government VP value is also based on two things - the commitment level, i.e. support level in France, and the support level of the people in Algeria. The government player and the rebel player each have a VP goal.

This is a propaganda card. Some such cards are shuffled into the deck. You check for victory only when a propaganda card is drawn. If the game doesn't end, you go through a reset procedure, which includes collecting income, and then you resume playing. The game ends when the last propaganda card is drawn, even if no one has reached the target VP. Whoever is nearer to his goal wins. The timing of propaganda cards is semi-random. You can't precisely plan for it. You need to make sure your funds can last until the next propaganda round.

Every area on the board has two square spaces for markers - the support marker and the control marker. A yellow support marker means the people support the government, while a red support marker means the people support the rebels. No support marker means the people doesn't care either way. The light blue control marker with the French flag means the area is controlled by the government. Control simply means having more pieces than your opponent. The dark green control marker means the area is controlled by the rebels. Support and control are separate concepts. An area being controlled by the government may not necessarily support the government, and vice versa. The number at the centre of an area is its population value. This determines the VP value if the area supports the government or the rebels.

The cubes are government employees. Blue are French, green are Algerian, i.e. locals. Darker cubes are soldiers, lighter cubes are policemen. The main difference between Frenchmen and Algerians is Algerians may be persuaded by their brethrens to defect and join the rebels. The main difference between soldiers and policemen is policemen can only investigate and expose underground rebels, while to actually fight and kill rebels, you need soldiers.

The black hexes are the rebels. Each rebel has two sides - a plain black side and a side with a green moon icon. Black means the rebel is still operating underground and cannot yet be targeted by soldiers. Green moon icon means the rebel is exposed and vulnerable. Some actions performed by rebels get them exposed. The government may also perform specific actions to root out the rebels. It's troublesome for the government to kill rebels, because of that extra step needed to expose them. It is also challenging for rebels to kill government personnel. Firstly, because it's iffy - rebels often need to roll a die to determine if the attack is successful; and secondly, because they will suffer casualties.

When the neighbouring countries become independent, they become accessible to the rebels. The rebels may build bases and train operatives here, and government forces may never enter. This is a pain in the neck for the government player.

This track on the right is the border zone track, and it indicates how well the government is patrolling the borders. By patrolling well, rebels which cross the border, especially when in large numbers, are more easily detected. Both the government player and the rebel player can perform actions to manipulate the border zone track.

This is the France track, and it simulates the political mood in France. If this is not managed well by the government player, or the rebel player takes steps to worsen this, the commitment level of the French population will drop, and the rebels will receive more funding.

Every round a new event card is drawn. There are usually two effects, and if you choose to use the event card, you pick one of the effects. Usually one effect benefits the government, and the other the rebels.

This little diagram called the Initiative Track is very important. All your actions are driven by this neat little mechanism. The two boxes at the bottom determine who goes first and who goes second during a round. In this example, the rebel player goes first. If you go first, you may place your marker in any of the five spaces, and execute the allowed actions accordingly. The player who goes second may only place his marker in a space adjacent to the first player's marker, unless he passes (central space). Let's say the first player picks the bottom right space (Execute Op Only). The second player then may only pick the central space or the top right space. This is how the first player can restrict what the second player gets to do.

If the space you pick is a shaded space (top left or bottom right), in the next round you will be the second player.

Let's look at what the five spaces mean, starting from the top right. Execute Limited Op means performing actions in only one location on the board. At the bottom right, Execute Op Only means performing actions in one or more locations on the board. At the top left, Execute Op & Special Activity means you can perform both normal actions and special actions in multiple locations. At the bottom left, Execute Event means using the event card of the round. The central space is for Passing, which means earning a little bit of money.

The number of game pieces is limited. If you run out, you won't get to train new troops or build new bases. This section of the game board is for placing the available rebel pieces. The black discs on the right are the rebel bases. The numbers allow you to instantly tell how many bases have been built on the board (10 now).

This is the section you place the available government pieces. The discs are the bases. The government has fewer of these.

These are Pivotal Event cards. Depending on the scenario you play, both players start with some specific Pivotal Event cards in hand. During a round, you may play a Pivotal Event card to replace the normal event card of the round. Pivotal Event cards have long term effects. They have their pros and cons. In the game I played with Allen, I never played mine because I thought it wouldn't be beneficial for my situation. Since Allen's Pivotal Event card had mine as a prerequisite, he never got to play his either.

In Colonial Twilight, you need to train troops, move troops and fight, but you must remember that ultimately it is the victory points that matter. All that fighting are but means to an end. You need to win the support of the people. It is a big chunk of your victory points. The rebels want to build bases, and the government needs to manage the political mood back in France. Rebels building bases is a tricky thing to manage. If you are the rebels, building bases is victory points, but when these bases get destroyed, it's victory points for the government. Many events are powerful, and drive the story. It is not just about whether you want to use the event. You also need to think about not allowing your opponent to use the event.

The timing in earning victory points is important, since the victory condition is only checked when a propaganda card comes up. Even if your opponent has achieved the required victory points, all is not lost yet. You can still pull him back before the next propaganda round.

The Play

I played the government, and Allen played the rebels. We did the mid length scenario, in which Morocco and Tunisia were already independent.

There are two rebel bases (black discs) in Tunisia. This is a good place to recruit and to launch attacks from, because the government can't march in. Tunisia is now an independent country and French forces can't just walk in. Normally each space on the map can accommodate two bases. See the circles printed on the map.

Cities (round spaces) are more easily controlled by the government, whereas the rural spaces are more easily controlled by the rebels.

As the government, if I wanted to fight rebels, I had to use my army, and not my police force. The police could expose the rebels, but could not actually kill them. Only soldiers could kill rebels. I think soldiers need to be concentrated into a few or even just one strong army, so that they can kill off rebels and destroy rebel bases efficiently, i.e. spending fewer actions and taking fewer turns. That was how I played. Concentrating my soldiers did mean I only had a few armies, and I could not be everywhere. I had to prioritise and pick the most troublesome areas to focus on. In this photo I had one such army - the dark blue and dark green cubes just outside the city. Most of my other cubes on the map were light coloured.

Later in our game, we realised that Allen's strategy was probably not a good one. He had been using the concentration strategy too. We felt this was bad for him, because it meant making things easier for me. I could just send my armies to where he had amassed rebels and bases, and strike hard. He had conveniently gathered his pieces for me. In hindsight, he probably should have adopted guerrilla warfare. A whack-a-mole situation would have been difficult for me.

One nifty thing which Allen's rebels got to do was to convert Algerian units. They could convince Algerian soldiers and policemen to stop working for the government, and even convince Algerian policemen to become rebels themselves. This was a pain to deal with. I had to make sure I didn't leave a group of Algerians unsupervised. I must get some Frenchmen to partner with them. At least if the locals were converted, I still had some Frenchmen remaining.

Near the top left in the photo above, I had an army of four dark blue cubes, poised to destroy the last remaining rebel base (black disc) in the territory. In the city (round space) near the top right, I had two French policemen (light blue cubes). A rebel (black pawn) had just entered, and was certainly up to no good. I had to do something. The countryside had many red Oppose markers. I only managed to maintain support (yellow markers) in and around the cities.

Typically, the government is rich and the rebels are poor. In our game, the opposite was true. At one point I ran low on cash and struggled to get things done. Many actions require spending money per location you want to perform the act. Being poor means doing much less, and sometimes not even having the choice because you can't afford it. I had thought I was rich, and I had spent too recklessly. In the photo above you can see I was down to $5 (blue cylinder). I sometimes had to Pass just to earn a bit of money. I think it is important to not run out of money. If you are completely out of money, or close to it, it means you have no options except to Pass. This is a vulnerable position and you don't want to be caught with your pants down like this. I think it's better to Pass and sacrifice some progress when you are near bankrupt, and never let yourself get into a bankrupt state.

In this photo you can see I had a large army (8 dark blue cubes) near the centre. I was going to destroy that concentration of rebels and bases, and afterward I would send my troops to the east, where the rebels were multiplying like rabbits. At this point Allen already had 13 (of 15) bases on the map, as indicated by the table at the bottom right.

Now my main army was in the east, ready to kick names and take ass. Rebel bases were attractive to me, because by destroying them, I not only reduced the rebel victory points, I also gained victory points myself in the form of political commitment in France. Destroying bases is not easy. As long as there are still undercover rebels, the government needs to first expose them, then kill them, before moving on to destroy the bases. So the rebel player can protect bases using rebels as human shields.

Pieces killed during fighting are moved to the Available Forces area and the Casualties area alternatively. Sometimes pieces are moved to the Out of Play area. When you recruit, you can only recruit from the Available Forces area. Usually pieces in the Casualties area and the Out of Play area are only moved during the propaganda phase. It is important to manage your pool of pieces because it determines how flexible you are on the map itself.

In this photo you can see my government funding was down to $4. I was in dire straits and my position was about to crumble. I was only saved by the next propaganda card coming up in time. After that I spent my money more carefully.

This was after the propaganda phase. My money was now at $39. In this game the government player is supposed to be richer, but I don't think that's true. Although the government has more money, its actions are also more costly, usually $2 compared to $1 for the rebel player. Things work out to be about the same. The government isn't really that much richer than the rebels. In this photo you can see that the rebels in the eastern part of Algeria had been dispersed. However the support for the rebels was still strong - so many red Oppose markers all over the map.

Algiers the capital city had a Pop +1 marker, so the population was actually 4. It was supportive of the government (yellow marker), so it was worth 4VP to me at this point.

Intense fighting was bad for the rebels. Allen had many pieces (black) in the Out of Play box, which limited his recruitment on the map.

This territory in the centre is a plains space, while the territory on the left is a mountain space. It is harder for the government to deal with rebels in mountainous spaces. The effort is double. E.g.2 policemen are needed to expose 1 underground rebel, or 2 soldiers are needed to kill 1 rebel. On plains, the rate is 1:1. In this territory in the centre, the two policemen (light blue cubes) had exposed two rebels. We still needed to update the control status of the territory. This should be controlled by the rebels, because there were six rebel pieces to the government's three. The white pawn is just a reminder pawn used for marking locations where actions are being performed. Often the active player must pay based on how many locations he is performing actions in.

If you look closely, you will notice that in many territories there were exposed rebels, showing the green moon icon. This is because Allen had performed the Extort action. Extortion means taking money from the people. Whenever the rebel player does this, one rebel is exposed.

At this point, my government VP was at 36, which meant I had achieved the required 35VP. The rebels needed to reach 30VP, and they were at 26 now. Allen had much local support, especially in the rural areas. I had strong commitment from France, mainly because I had destroyed many rebel bases. Soon afterwards, the next propaganda card was drawn, and I won.

Four rebels had gathered in the capital. I had to expose them quickly and then get rid of them.

The Thoughts

Colonial Twilight is a complex wargame. This is not a conventional war. It is a rebellion. You fight mainly for the support of the people. Killing enemies are just the means to this end. The government and the rebels play very differently, and this is one of the main attractions of the game. The game has strong historical flavour and strong character. The event cards is a box of chocolate. You never know what surprise lies beyond the corner. It keeps you on your toes. Every card can be a crisis or an opportunity. You need to be mindful of the timing of the propaganda cards. You must ration your spending wisely, and be prepared for the next victory condition check. The game is certainly educational. I learned about the history of Algeria. Compared to 4-player COIN games, I must admit it is not as rich and the interaction is less varied. However it is still a decent and worthy COIN game.


Delores Keeper said...

I’ve got two young teenage sons, and I was very concerned about them playing online, very graphic war games. I mean, they weren’t doing it, as far as I know, certainly not at home, but... you teens are sneaky! I started introducing them to board war games, especially COIN games, and they are completely hooked. They engage the mind, and boys natural bloodthirsty competitiveness, without exposing them to images and ideas that I don’t want for them. I recommend these kinds of games to the parents of teen boys and girls. They are educational too. Oh, and fun!

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

Agreed! Certainly COIN series boardgames will give teenagers a more strategic view and help them understand more - history, social perspectives.