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Posted on Mar 14, 2013 in Boardgames

Andean Abyss – Boardgame Review

By Robert Delwood

Andean Abyss: Insurgency and Counterinsurgency in Columbia. Boardgame review. GMT Games. Designed by Volko Ruhnke. $75.00

Passed Inspection: Strong integration of disparate elements to simulate irregular warfare; excellent rulebook and getting started tutorials.

Failed Basic: Vague or unclear strategies may frustrate some players; many of the tables are unclear or ambiguous.

Andean Abyss (AA) is GMT’s game covering the Columbian political instability during the 1990s. It is a card-driven, 2–4 player game with a solitaire option and focuses on factional control (as each group defines control for itself) of the country.

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It is the first of GMT’s COIN (COunter INsurgency) series, and as such it represents irregular warfare. Gone are the familiar front lines and clearly opposing forces of WWII. Instead, there are four factions: The US-supported Colombian government, the Marxist FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, peasant army with a political platform of agrarianism and anti-imperialism), the right-wing AUC (United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, a loose conglomeration fighting left wing groups and protecting local economic interests), and the narco-trafficking Cartel (illegal drugs smuggling and distribution self-interest).

Components
As usual, GMT has outstanding game components. The map is an area movement representation of Columbia, divided into departments or areas, cities, and oil pipelines. Departments may be jungle, mountain or clear. They are rated for their Population Value, from zero to three, and pipelines, for their resource value. The map uses a matte finish and reduces the glare, always a welcomed feature. Most noticeable, however, is the copious number of wooden tokens. They range from square resource cubes to disks to oblong force cubes.

The disks represent bases, which are built in departments to support troops. For instance, prior to each presidential election, government forces have to return to a city unless there is a base present in their current department. Other factions don’t have a similar restriction, but their victory conditions require bases. Square cubes represent government forces as either police units or military troops. Oblong cubes are insurgent guerillas, and have an Undiscovered / Discovered side. Only Discovered guerillas may be militarily attacked, typically a two-step operation by government forces. Other components include conventional counters for marking control or to use as an event reminder.

The game is called card-driven but players do not keep a hand of cards. Rather, they use a single pile, uncovering the top card to show the turn’s faction order, events, or other notes. In the advanced version of the game, players see the top two cards. This is an important mechanism, allowing players to plan better. Before the game begins, the deck must be built, inserting Propaganda cards, an organizational interphase.

Other components include the rules, a playbook, sequence of play and planning map sheet, faction player-aid foldouts, and non-player aid foldouts (the artificial intelligence hierocracy orders for solitary play or non-player factions). Each player has a copy of all the factions’ capabilities.

The rules and playbook are four colors and are well written and clear. The rules are 16 pages, but the core rules are more like ten. They are deceptively short. For example, understanding the mechanics of the rules does not prepare you for the flow of the game. Some of the rules may require several readings to grasp the implications. The players have a lot of options along with conditional options. Likely, you’ll want to run through the game cooperatively at least once. It took us about four turns to get familiar with the mechanisms, and that included reading the excellently written playbook. The playbook is mostly tutorials for multiplayer and solitaire games.

There is only one scenario, although the game system allows for enough variations. For example, the event deck is 60 of the 72 cards. There may be a different number of players, and all factions are used, with the extras either being controlled by the players or used in as non-players, controlled by the AI.

Andean Abyss Game Mechanics
Guerilla warfare is a different kind of conflict and Andean Abyss reflects the confusion inherent in that type of warfare. At the start of each turn, flip over the deck’s top card. This determines the turn order for the factions. Only two factions may actually take actions, and generally factions are limited to playing every other turn. In addition, the card lists two events, only one of which can be used. One is favorable to the government, the other unfavorable. Some cards may also list other restrictions or capabilities for the turn.

The first available faction may play one of three action tracks. Each track only accommodates two factions. The tracks allow different combinations of activities such as an Operation, invoking an event, Limited Operation (like an Operation but restricted in some fashion), and/or a Special Activity. Collectively, these operations form the basis of the game, and the sequencing of them forms a faction’s strategy. After a player takes an action, or is unable to take an action, or passes (perhaps to get a better position later), the next faction plays. At the turn’s end, all factions on the track are placed in the Unavailable box, making them unavailable for next turn, and those already in the Unavailable box are returned to the Available box. This is the basis for a faction playing only every other turn. Some cards may make the faction available sooner.

The government has one set of activities and the other factions have a different set. For example, the government may select from Train (bring in new units), Patrol (movement), Sweep (attempting to expose guerrillas by flipping them to their Discovered side), and Assault (attacking Discovered guerrillas). The other factions have Rally (bring in new units), March (movement), Attack, and Terror (decreasing government support in areas).

Special activities allow factions to augment or bolster existing capabilities. For example, the government’s Air Strike allows the selective removal of guerrillas, perhaps in preparation for or coordination with an Assault. In the same way, FARC may use Extortion to gain additional resources.

Many activities require paying resources. Factions collect resources during an interphase and from certain activities (such as the Extortion). The Cartel faction has a special case of drug shipments that is worth a lot of resources if it can be moved out of the country but is also subject to being captured.

There are four Propaganda cards, marking the end of a period. At this point, victory is checked and if the game continues, forces are reset, resources collected, political points are assessed, and an election takes place, possibly introducing new conditions. The fourth Propaganda card is the end of the game.

Victory is checked only in the Propaganda phase. The most important point of the game is that each faction has different conditions. For example, the government must gain the support of the people, measured by controlled Population Values. FARC must also control Population Values and have bases. The Cartel is mostly interested in resources (by selling shipments).

There are three interesting aspects to these asymmetrical victory conditions. The first is that you have to watch all the varied conditions closely, since it’s possible to get the right combinations of activities in quick succession. The second is that it’s possible for any or all of the sides to always be close to winning. For instance, if the government goes first, it is likely to jump from its starting 50 Support points to 56 of their required 60 points. After a few turns, AUC and the Cartel easily get within range. As a result, by the first Propaganda card, it’s likely three of the four factions are close to winning. The last note is that the mismatching conditions can make for odd bedfellows. Often, two factions have a brief common alliance. It’s a changing game of three-player cutthroat. It is possible for a non-player faction to win.

Game Play
While the 10 pages of rules may make the game look simple, having a strategy is another problem. For the first game especially, this just isn’t clear—at all. It’s daunting not having front lines or not knowing factions’ strengths and weaknesses. Playing a few turns addresses that, but it never seems completely clear. Many players may stop during the game or after a single game, never to play again. Be assured that a second game is much more enjoyable.

Each faction plays almost equally interestingly. The government is the largest faction with the most options, and the Cartel is generally the smallest with the fewest options. In two- or three-player games, players may control additional factions, or those extra factions may use the non-player AI tables. In general, the government has the burden of attack. It takes a few turns to build up its strength, and it has to essentially announce its attacks a turn before, so the factions tend to run to avoid them.

The game averages 52 turns, barring an automatic victory. Remember, too, that a faction generally plays every other turn and only two factions can play during a turn. While the non-phasing players don’t have much to do, the turns are quick and there’s little down time. Games may take four hours or more, and it can be argued that a longer game doesn’t make for a better one. It seems three election cycles may have the same effect as four.

The cards introduce a slight randomness for political events but no one card radically changes the game and they do not trump actions. You can have a strategy and build toward it. However, all units are vulnerable, and it seems too easy to lose them. The net effect is that it may appear random and that long-term planning is difficult. Players have to decide this for themselves.

Solitaire Play
When playing with fewer than the maximum of four players, the extra factions can optionally be non-players. In those cases, AI is used determined their actions. Taking one more step, AA can be purely solitaire, with the government player trying to beat all three AI-controlled factions.

This uses a standard AI approach as a series of hierarchy decisions with different conditions. There is an AI table for each faction. The options are logical, and aggressive, but become predictable. It doesn’t make for bad games, but there is a feeling you’re playing to anticipate and to beat the AI itself. The most serious limitation is that the AI tables are very hard to interpret. It is often unclear how to proceed from one option to the next, with ambiguous directions.

Summary
The game accomplishes what it sets out to do. It simulates a chaotic and fluid war, and it does this in less than 10 rule pages. It minimizes luck and, while there is only one scenario, the game offers a high replay value. Strategies are possible, but players have to rely on adapting to the changing politics. The question is not whether this system works but if players will like the environment. Some will miss a more structured war, others will find the fluidity refreshing and challenging.

Armchair General Rating: 86%

Solitaire Suitability (1 is low, 5 is high): 5

About the Author
Robert Delwood has been playing war games since the PanzerBlitz days. He writes for several game magazines including ASL Journal, Fire and Movement, and Armchair General. As a programmer, he has contributed to Microsoft Windows, NASA and the International Space Station, and has an ASL player’s aid software package called SALSA.

1 Comment

  1. Interesting, guerilla warfare is different to formal battles such as WWII. Yours truly having been in Colombia, undercover, know it is a different world out there. My brother visits the country regularly, but for business purposes. It was quite a dangerous place in the 1980s and 1990s, it has improved, fortunately. However what of the headhunters in the Amazon basin and the Ecuador jungle :)

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