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Posted on Dec 15, 2020 in Boardgames, Front Page Features

In Search of The Finnish Compromise. “All Bridges Burning: Burning: Red Revolt and White Guard in Finland, 1917-18” Board Game Review

In Search of The Finnish Compromise. “All Bridges Burning: Burning: Red Revolt and White Guard in Finland, 1917-18” Board Game Review

Ray Garbee

By Ray Garbee

All Bridges Burning: Red Revolt and White Guard in Finland, 1917-1918. Publisher: GMT Games. Designer: V.P.J. Arponen. Price $72.00

Passed inspection: Shines a light on a subject often overshadowed by other contemporary events. Expands the COIN system to support a three-player game.

Failed basic: A bit of errata to integrate into the game.

I’ve been enjoying GMT’s Counter Insurgency series of games since playing Colonial Twilight: The French-Algerian War, 1954-62. That game was an illuminating view of a conflict of which I knew few details or grasped the context of the struggle. V.P.J. Arponen shines a similar light of knowledge onto another conflict – the Finnish Civil War of 1917 and 1918.

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Box art

In an informal, unscientific poll, 100% of the people I spoke to had no idea that Finland had experienced a civil war. In fairness, there were a lot of competing global events at the time. The Great War (aka World War One) was dominating the news cycle. Beyond the raging conflict on the western front, the collapse of the Russian Empire and the eruption of the Communist Red Revolt sucked up a lot of the remaining media attention.

But within the demise of Imperial Russia, the Finnish people saw an opportunity. The opportunity for a Finnish nation that was independent of their historical domination by either Sweden or Russia.  It was an opportunity, but that opportunity was contested by several groups who had very different visions of a future Finnish state. The Bolsheviks vision for a nation of the working class stood in opposition to the desire of the current ruling elites to retain control. Game designer Vez Arponen tackles this competition to define the future in “All Bridges Burning:  Red Revolt and White Guard in Finland, 1917-1918.”

All Bridges Burning (ABB) is a solid entry into the COIN series as it strives to what other entries in the series have done – use the base COIN game system to present the point of view of each faction while engaging the players with a complex game system that is far from the rote “IGOUGO” of a traditional wargame. In addition to covering an obscure conflict, ABB brings the first three player COIN game to the series. This alone makes ABB an important addition to the COIN series of games.

I know, I know, you’re thinking “this all sounds great – but tell us about the game!” Right, let’s get on with it. Cracking open the box we find the following components;

  • A 20″ x 25 1/2″ mounted game board
  • The Rules of Play booklet
  • A Playbook booklet
  • A deck of 47 Event cards
  • 88 wooden pieces
  • A sheet of markers
  • 3 Faction player aid foldouts, each including the German Actions Flowchart
  • 1 Sequence of Play and Attack Procedure sheet
  • 17 Solitaire system cards
  • 1 Solitaire Play Aid Sheet
The game components

Starting with the game board, we find a mounted board that depicts the geography of southern and central Finland. The northern reaches of Finland are omitted. This reflects the distribution of population in Finland. The biggest city is Helsinki with the other towns and regions having lesser populations as you continue inland away from the coasts.

The gameboard

The map depicts the background landforms in an icy blue-white. (Foucault might ask “why are Finland’s land forms often depicted as a shade of white on many maps?”, but I digress.) Town spaces are superimposed on the provinces and depicted with a black and white image representation of each settlement. It’s a pattern familiar to most tabletop game players. But, unlike other COIN titles such as Cuba Libre or A Distant Plain there is no distinctive terrain (i.e., woods, open, hills) just different provinces. The attributes that give each space a unique feel are a space’s population, the geographic borders with adjacent spaces and the network of rail connections between those spaces.  You won’t be looking for the high ground here, but instead looking for those key spaces that allow you to control population or advance you forces closer to your goal, be that a specific place, or a concentration of enemy forces you want to engage.

Graphically, it’s a solid presentation that keeps the important tracks and holding spaces on map and visible to all players. The size of the game is reminiscent of Cuba Libre or Andean Abyss. The game fits comfortably on a standard 3 foot by 5-foot dining room table.

The rule book is a 32-page paperback, saddle-stitched booklet. It’s pretty standard fare for a COIN series rulebook. The back page has the set-up instructions for the game. The text is clearly written and lavishly illustrated with graphics of the various counters, map spaces as well as historical images to help visualize the places and events.  It’s a nice design, but do yourself a favor and download a copy of the living rules from the GMT website.

In addition to the rules the game includes a playbook that has examples of how the game is played. Playbooks are most welcome as they can help demonstrate how a rule is executed. This is no exception. If you are new to COIN games, you’ll find the playbook a super-helpful reference.

As with any COIN game, the event cards are the heart of the game. These cards convey the scope of critical events from the conflict and allow the executing faction different responses to those events. The cards are broken into two (2) thematic sets – pre-revolution and post-revolution. Some of the cards will add capabilities to a faction that will be useful in future turns (hey, who doesn’t like a train?) while others will aid in managing the political dimension of the game. The event titles and descriptions are micro history lessons that give the players deeper insight into the conflict.

The units are wooden cubes and cylinders. These are exactly what you’d expect in a COIN game or other modern wooden block game design. The Red pieces are for the Communist Reds faction, the white blocks for the Finnish Senate (aka “The Whites”) and the Moderates field the dark blue pieces.

All Bridges Burning has a minimal amount of markers.

The player aid charts are worth a mention as each faction has access to different Commands and Special Actions. For example – the moderates don’t field an army. Instead, the Moderates specific commands and actions are focused on influencing the political and social dimensions of the conflict. At the same time, the Moderates are using their action to build their own position and amass enough resources to dominate the outcome of the conflict. By comparison, the commands and actions for the Senate faction is a more traditional kinetic application of force. They have an army and they need to defeat the Reds and occupy the key towns in Finland. The Senate commands and actions reflect this goal.

In addition to the play aids are a deck of cards for solitaire play. These cards function like a flow chart to help determine what action a ‘non-player’ faction will take in a given game turn. With cards representing all three factions, you could actually play a game just watching all three factions act based on their respective card decks. 

All Bridges Burning is played in a series of turns. One of the unique things about ABB that sets it apart from other COIN games is that the order of play is not dictated by the current event card, but instead by the activities the players took in the prior turn. It’s not radically different from other COIN games, but it is different enough that you’ll need to think about it. Also, unlike other COIN games, it’s often possible for all players to take some type of action in a game turn, even if that action is just to pass.

The first player has the choice of playing the current event, choosing to execute a command and special action, to pass, or just to performance a limited command. This last is important as it’s a way of shaping the game turn so that the other players cannot play the event card. It’s a sound tactical decision that players of other COIN games will recognize. Following the first players choice, the second player selects an action based on the direction set by the first player.

The nature of the game means that a player is either acting to strengthen their own position or working to subvert their opponents. This is as good a time as any to mention the Germans in All Bridges Burning. While not a separate playable faction, the Germans function as a reactive non-player faction. Historically, the German Empire intervened in the Finnish Civil War on behalf of the Senate faction. These battle-hardened veterans of the Great War will ensure that the Reds army of militia forces will likely be quickly routed from the board. The flip side is that Germany is not an altruistic actor in this conflict. The German goal is a Finnish vassal state, or at the least a nation clearly within the German sphere of influence. While the three Finnish factions battle each other, they must keep a wary eye on the level of German involvement in the war and the degree of polarization between the factions. Let things get out of hand and ALL the players may wind up losing the game as Finland emerges from the conflict subservient to German political direction.

The game captures the nature of the conflict across the multiple dimensions of a social struggle, political control and armed conflict. Each faction wants to win, but that is always balanced against the risk of falling into either the German, or the emerging Soviet sphere of influence.

All Bridges Burning is a solid game. It’s a unique subject as there are very few games that cover the Finnish struggle for independence and fewer still that depict the complex relationship between the factions.

Even the way battles are fought supports a complex view of the war. If large battles result in heavy losses, the increasing numbers of prisoners held by each side fuels the polarization of sentiment regarding the war. The period of armed conflict was a bloody period of Finnish history. Historical data show that life expectancy plunged during the time of the conflict in 1918. The relatively small population and the bitter battles being fought could easily have hardened each faction’s attitudes to a point that reconciliation would become impossible.

The design of the game conveys a sense of the factions within the conflict. The Senate has an effective military force. This is not just numbers, but can be augmented with the German trained Jaegers. The Jaeger provide a core of trained veterans to serve as the officers and NCO as the Senate levies more troops. In turn, the Senate’s commands and special actions reflect their strength in bringing kinetic force to bear.

The Reds face the twin challenges of conducting a military campaign, while trying to construct a civil administration that can win the ‘hearts and minds’ of the local Finnish population. This comes across as a case study of being ‘jack of all trades, but master of none’. The Reds need to build political support amongst the people to win the game, but the only way to do that is to demonstrate they can provide an effective civil administration that meets the needs of the people.

Meanwhile, the “Moderates” sit in the midst of the two factions seeking a third way forward. Part of me was reminded of Maude Flanders rallying cry of ‘won’t someone think of the children’, but the Moderate faction is just that – a faction seeking to rein in the extreme tendencies of each of the other factions and in doing so, blaze a path toward a united, independent Finnish nation. The primary forum for the Moderates is the social media of their day – newspapers – and the political arena.

The Moderates need to shape public opinion by publishing news and opinion articles that will lead the Senate and Reds to implement political reforms (exciting things like an eight-hour workday) that will address the needs of the people and conversely make it more difficult for the other factions to mobilize the people to action.

A key battle space for the Moderate faction

The game conveys a clear sense of who the factions are, what they are trying to achieve and how they plan on going about realizing their goals. Like a good COIN game should, the methods each faction uses are unique and give a good sense of the asymmetrical nature of the conflict.

The down side of this uniqueness is that you’ll need to read the rules closely. The best example of why is spotlighted in a note within rule 2.2.3 – the third player may execute an event, or they may take an action. (Edit: Thanks Vittek for pointing out this paragraph needed revision!) Unlike other COIN games in which only two factions take actions. In All Bridges Burning, all three factions may act.

All Bridges Burning is a good game, but like a diamond in the rough it’s not without a few flaws. and that means acknowledging the errata. There’s a fair amount of errata. I advised you to download the living rules from the GMT website. This is why. There are enough changes that it was easier to print the current copy of the rules than go through and annotate the rulebook that shipped with the game. The errata extend to some features on the game board as well as corrections to the player aid charts.

The good news is that the errata has been identified and catalogued on the GMT Games website. GMT recognizes that there’s more than the usual quantity of errata with the first edition. They are working on an update kit that will ship to all the P500 backers of the game. For the rest of us, the update kit will have a minimal cost. You can get the latest details on this from the GMT website. In the meantime, I’d encourage you to do download the files for the rules, board, tables and cards and integrate them into the game. You’ll find that all the changes to the tables and rules are nicely highlighted so you can see what was changed.

As noted, All Bridges Burning is a three-player game. As such it faces some unique challenges. Lewis Pulsipher outlines the general challenges common to three player games in a short abstract with the most common issues being leader bashing and kingmaking. Both of these were common when I played the Avalon Hill game “Kingmaker” with just three people. We often experienced leader bashing as the obvious front-runner became the target of the other two players. The lead would swing back and forth as each player attempted to marshal their forces and be pulled back by temporary coalitions. These coalitions were the epitome of ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’.  But then, if one player fell markedly behind the other two, they would often throw their efforts behind supporting one player over the other, thus ensuring that their choice won at the expense of the other player. They may not have won the game according to the victory conditions, but they definitely decided the outcome of the game!

At first glance, I worried that All Bridges Burning would be susceptible to the same problems. As soon as one player pulls ahead, the other two will focus on knocking them down. I’m relieved to find that, for the most part, this is mitigated by the COIN mechanisms. The active faction sequencing and the variability with the card driven events bring a degree of unpredictability to the game that can temper efforts to knock down the leader. This is coupled with the semi-random appearance of the propaganda card which means that winning is as much a matter of timing as it is tactics.

You will need your faction to peak at the right time. Surge too soon and you competitors will pull you back. The converse of this always seems to happen to me – I need one more turn to execute the actions to achieve victory, only to have the propaganda card pop up before I’m ready!

The Germans are on the move!

The good news is that these mechanisms help balance out the strategy to drag down the current leader. Unlike a game of Kingmaker, the finite game length of ABB means that at some point, players have to do what’s best for themselves to achieve victory…or else the Germans (or Soviets) may win and you ALL lose!  This last bit is inspired as it constantly reminds the players that though they have grievances, if one of them wins, it’s still a win for the future of an independent Finnish state.

All Bridges Burning is a solid choice for a gamer seeking a solitaire game. The game includes process flows to automate the play of all of the three core factions. Each bot is a set of cards that function as a decision tree for that non-player faction. In addition to this, many event cards have different activities when performed by one of the non-player bots.

It’s coupled with an event card chart that implements events for a non-player faction in a way that’s a bit different from the standard text of the event. Be warned the Moderates become a force to be reckoned with as a solitaire faction. Ignore the Moderates for a couple of rounds and you may find yourself in danger of losing the game!

The Germans are already automated for the base multi-sided game. They continue to act in the same basic manner when you are adding in the solo bots with the exception that the bot for the Whites cannot direct the actions of the Germans.

All Bridges Burning is another solid entry into the COIN series. The game shines a light on events that help explain modern Finnish history. Technically, it effectively expands the core COIN game engine into a three-player gaming space. As you would expect from a COIN game. The game play is asymmetrical. Each faction has unique goals for victory and different tools to use in achieving that victory.

It’s tough to feel good about conducting terror operations and cracking down on civilians and democratic institutions, regardless of your goals. But these events were part of the history of the conflict. All Bridges Burning is an excellent insight into the events and challenges the Finns faced on their path to independence. A great game should do more than provide a competitive experience, it should also teach and challenge the players assumptions. All Bridges Burning easily accomplishes both of those goals. It’s an engaging game. But it is also a powerful teaching tool. The game teaches the geography of Finland and it teaches the history of the events that led to the compromise made by the Reds, Whites and Moderates leading to the creation of the modern Finnish state.

Armchair General Score: 92%

Solitaire suitability (1–5 scale, with 1 being virtually unplayable as a solitaire game and 5 being completely suitable for solitaire play):  5

Ray Garbee has been a gamer for the past four decades. Ray’s interests include the Anglo-Sikh Wars through the conflicts of the 20th Century and beyond, but his passion remains American Civil War naval gaming. His past works include Iron Thunder, Anaconda, Anaconda: Capital Navies and articles in a number of defunct hobby magazines.

3 Comments

  1. Not to be picky, but in your 4th para you make a reference to “All Brides Burning”, an obscure Eurogame on the bygone practice of suttee.

    Like all those Winter War games, a blue-white map is appropriate for this game, since most of the war was fought in deep snow.

    Vesa did a great job cracking the “three body problem” for the GMT COIN system.

    Brian

  2. Thanks Brian! That’s an easy fix.

    The Winter War comment resonates. Perhaps its the way the turns are defined by the propaganda cards instead of as discrete calendar based game turns, but I never had a sense of seasonality at work…except as noted, the white map conveys a sense of winter.

  3. I’m sorry but you article needs errata 😉

    “The down side of this uniqueness is that you’ll need to read the rules closely. The best example of why is spotlighting is a note within rule 2.2.3 that is easy to overlook – if the third player executes an event, they also may take an action.”

    That’s not what the rules say.

    “IMPORTANT: Unlike in many COIN System games for four Factions, in All Bridges Burning the third Eligible Faction may also take an action on each Event card.”

    It’s trying to say that normally in COIN games only 2 players will act on each Event Card (or each round, if you prefer). In ABB, on the other hand, all 3 players will act each round (if they are eligible, obviously). This is very important. For example, in a normal COIN, if there is an Event that is particularly good for a faction, but that faction is 4th in initiative, you can safely take a Command + Special Activity, because you know the 2nd or 3rd eligible faction will act to prevent the 4th faction to execute the event. In ABB you don’t have this privilege.

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