Saturday, June 11, 2016

Wargame review — Falling Sky

The Gauls Feared Only One Thing...

Designers: Volko Ruhnke, Andrew Ruhnke
Player count: 1 to 4
Publisher: GMT Games

Without fail, the term “counterinsurgency” conjures up modern images of armed conflicts. Late night TV coverage of one war or another in the Middle East, a social uproar somewhere in South Africa, a civil war in some ancient part of the Eastern Block—what these events all have in common is that they took place in modern times. Indeed, too many of them are still happening right now.
And that’s what GMT Games first tackled when they brought their COIN series of games to the table: drug cartels in Columbia (Andean Abyss), guerrillas in Afghanistan (A Distant Plain), Fidel Castro’s own brand of counterinsurgency (Cuba Libre), and the absolute quagmire of an operation that was the Vietnam War (Fire in the Lake). The fifth title in the series opened the door a bit wider, as designer Harold Buchanan offered Liberty or Death, which deals with the American Revolution against Britain.
In 1775.
This suggested that “counterinsurgency,” as a wargame simulation concept, could see applications outside of our immediate time frame. But just how far could that model reach back and still feel accurate?
How about the year 52 BC?

Falling Sky recreates the conquest of Gaul by Julius Caesar, and showcases the mighty Roman army as well as the native tribes that resisted the Roman advance, sabotaged their efforts, and fought back at every turn. The conflict unfolds on a beautiful map of what we would noawadays call France (mostly), where one player wears the Roman red, and three more embody the Celtic Arverni (led by Vercingetorix), the Belgae (under the guidance of Ambiorix) and the more or less pro-Roman Aedui. The game is playable with a full complement of opponents, or with just the one, in which case automated bots (complete with decision flowcharts) handle the missing human controllers.

For the COIN virgins in the audience, a quick overview of the system is in order. 
The engine runs on a deck of event cards with the opposing faction colors lined up at the top, in varying order. At any given moment, two cards are visible: the one for the current turn, and the one for the next turn. On each card, the first faction listed at the top gets the option to act first, performing either the card’s historical event or one of its own faction actions. If that faction decides to pass (or if it’s unavailable because it’s acted on the previous turn), then the next faction in the row gets a shot, and so on until up to two factions have acted.
An important notion here is that for each card, the action of the first faction dictates the options left open for the second faction. Generally, if a faction plays the event, then the following faction will have to perform one of its actions, and vice-versa. Also, some actions are different from faction to faction, while others are the same. For instance, in Falling Sky, all three of the Gallic factions have access to Rally (get more warbands to the board!), March (move your warbands across the board!), Raid (steal resources from your opponents!) and Battle (crush the enemy!)—while the Romans can resort to Recruit (their own, snobbish version of Rally), Seize (because Raid doesn’t sound imperial enough), as well as March and Battle. There’s also the possibility of throwing a “special ability” into the mix under certain circumstances, and those vary greatly from one faction to another. Let’s list just a few: the Aedui can Suborn (replace enemy pieces with their own), the Arverni can Devastate (which starves armies and seriously hinders the Romans), the Belgae can Rampage (scare away opposing pieces), while the Romans are allowed to Besiege (which automatically destroys a citadel—a very painful experience for anyone at the receiving end).

So far, all COIN games have involved four factions. But Falling Sky introduces the concept of a neutral faction that can possibly affect all others: the Germanic tribes. The Belgae can sometimes manipulate them to do their dirty work (through one of the Belgic special abilities, Enlist), but most of the time those guys will just mess around on their own. Keep an eye on them.

The game’s deck sports 77 cards. Five of them are Winter cards, seeded semi-randomly into the deck, and which essentially trigger a housekeeping round. When a Winter car pops up (signifying the end of a year), the Germans go haywire and steal and attack everything in sight, while the other factions must prepare for the cold season. This means that Gallic warbands need to relocate to friendly tribes or citadels—lest they risk not making it through the winter—while Romans legions and auxilia must relocate along their supply line (if it still exists…) or else pay to maintain forces in place. And that ain’t cheap. Especially in a devastated region.
If, at the end of a Winter round, a faction has attained its own, individual set of winning conditions, they win! Otherwise the game continues. When the last very last Winter card has come and gone, the game ends anyway and the one faction closer to its goal is declared winner.


As with all previous COIN titles, Falling Sky ships in GMT’s “reinforced double deep box,” a large, armored thing that keeps every little piece safe. And there are a lot of those: 200 wooden pieces, with cardboard counters galore. The cards are their usual, thick slabs, which makes them capable of enduring hours of abuse, if a little tricky to riffle shuffle. The (mounted) mapboard is pretty—not quite the showstopper served up with Liberty or Death, but the thing offers more eye candy than the standard, functional, and a little drab board found in each other COIN opus. I like a board that stops passersby in their tracks and forces them to inquire about the game, and the one that ships with Falling Sky does a nice job of it. It’s interesting to note that the board is much smaller than what COIN veterans have come to expect: indeed, it shares its diminutive dimensions with the Cuba Libre board. Ah, but it achieves this through subterfuge, in that each faction’s holding box (where unused pieces are temporarily stored) exists as an external rectangle of cardboard instead of residing in a corner of the map. It makes no mechanical difference, but it can trick the unwary gamer into believing that Falling Sky will consume less table space than most of its older brothers. Just don’t put away that Ping-Pong table yet.

Then there are the player aids, and those are legion. (I couldn’t resist the pun. I’m not even sorry.)
Four foldouts feature information relevant to all four playable factions; two more foldouts sport decision flowcharts for any non-player factions in your I-don’t-have-enough-friends games; two additional aids detail the sequence of a Winter round, as well as highlighting the nasty stuff those Germanic tribes have in store for you; and one last foldout outlines even more rules for non-player factions, plus the whole battle procedure (a little difficult to grok at first, but ultimately very smooth and logical).

A 32-page rulebook and a 48-page playbook round out the package. But don’t panic just yet: there’s no need to study all of it before you jump into your first game. Which doesn’t mean it’ll be a cakewalk.
Read on.


I’ve written this before about other entries in the COIN series, but it bears repeating: the game is not complicated, but reading the rules can (almost certainly will) be overwhelming. This is because half the rules—eight pages out of 16, in the case at hand—consist of lists of procedures. And that makes for a pretty sedate read. (“The Aedui can do this, or this, or this, or even that. Then the Arverni can do this, or possibly this…”) Otherwise, the core system is very simple.
So what I always do when I’m teaching a COIN game to new players (or having them prepare for their first game) is explain (or ask them to read) everything but the actions and special abilities of each faction. You can read the action titles in bold (Rally, March, Raid, Battle…) to get a very general sense of what everyone will be doing, but otherwise, skip that section. You’ll be reading and re-reading all of that from the player aids anyway, even if you read them in advance, because that stuff is hard to learn unless you’re doing it as you’re reading it. So you might as well absorb everything else about the game—turn sequence, what happens during Winter, winning conditions—which amounts to eight pages when it comes to Falling Sky.
Trust me: read those eight pages, sit down with the extremely well done foldouts, and let it fly.

The playbook offers another path to enlightenment, and that’s its detailed tutorial, spread out over 16 illustrated pages. You’ll also find non-player examples in there, as well as design notes and strategy tips. All of which becomes very interesting… once you have a couple of games under your belt. At the very least.


I’ve always enjoyed COIN games, but have usually felt like I was standing just on the edge of that great expanse we call cluelessness. Even in the case of what is usually considered the simplest of the COIN series, Cuba Libre, I never felt that I was in total control of my faction, nor that I could totally wrap my head around the possibilities afforded my opponents. I was having a lot of fun, but perhaps not always completely understanding why—if that makes any sense. I might be because too much time would elapse between two sessions, allowing understanding to seep through the cracks and evade all accumulation; but whatever the case may be, my next move was always a source of nervousness.
With Falling Sky, however, everything became clear. Stupefyingly so. It is because repetition, across the entire COIN lineup, finally managed to crack that thick skull of mine? Possibly. But some of my opponents also commented on the fact that Falling Sky felt clearer than its predecessors. There’s less of a guerrilla, free-for-all feeling, for one thing: front lines tend to establish themselves with more contrast, crisscrossing the board the same way alliances are forged and torn asunder throughout the game. Perhaps making actions essentially identical between all four factions lightens the number-crunching burden a bit. But whatever the case may be, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Falling Sky as an entry point into the COIN system. (For the curious, Fire in the Lake is the last one I would recommend as a first foray.)


I will go out on a limb and state that Falling Sky is my favorite COIN game so far. (I was previously really in love with Fire in the Lake, and I haven’t played Liberty or Death yet.) It’s a really meaty contest between four players, and once you get past the first few learning sessions (where downtime can wear out the most resilient among us), the game just sings.

Two final notes.
Don’t underestimate the Aedui. At first blush, the blue faction appears weak and somewhat less exciting to play. They don’t have a leader (along with the associated unique power that other factions enjoy) and they come to the fight with a smaller contingent of units than everyone else. But their Suborn special ability is possibly the most powerful in the game, and some events really give them the high ground. In the end, the Aedui are a bunch of underhanded bastards; they may look like anything but a threat… until it’s too late.
Also, don’t underestimate the complexity of running non-player faction. Those are sophisticated AIs, and it is worth nothing that no two factions “think” alike. So familiarity with one flowchart doesn’t mean anything when it’s time for the next bot to act. I still have some scars from my very first session of Andean Abyss (the first COIN title), when I sat down to play the game solo. What can I tell you—I was young and foolish. Listen here: solo is NOT a good way to learn the game. An unfortunate state of affairs, perhaps, but very true. I’ve found that two bots was about as much as I could handle and still find the overall experience agreeable.

Other than that, grab a few friends and sit down with a COIN game. You’ll thank me later.

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