Burning Water – Thoughts on Fire in the Lake
Fire in the Lake Cover
Fire in the Lake was released in 2014 and has remained one of the most popular COIN titles. Mark Herman and Volko Ruhnke managed to cram the everything that made the Vietnam conflict such a quagmire into 3″ GMT Games depth box. The COIN series is stretched in interesting ways here because of the novel concepts like a bot that responds to US leadership, a year-based deck, and the unique concept of “The Trail” covering the status of the Ho Chi Minh trail.
I’ve played Fire in the Lake now on 6 separate occasions. Consequently, I’m no more qualified to pass judgment on the game than I am to offer nuclear fission advice to that teenager who managed to split an atom in his parent’s Tennessee basement. That said, I do feel like I have enough feel for the game in solo (3 plays) 2-player (2 plays) and 4-player (1 play) to offer some thoughts on Fire in the Lake.
It’s not that I’m not fond of doing reviews. I have posted more than a few on the site in the past year. Instead, I think these topical reflections on the game allow me to offer greater insight without seeming to pass judgment on a game entirely. They offer a more pointed look at a few aspects rather than trying to be a generalist in all aspects. Hopefully, you’ll agree that these are useful in helping to generate conversation and stoke some thoughts on the games where I don’t offer a full-blown review.
Solo Mode in COIN games is satisfying. I’m not surprising anyone here with this insight. That said, the bots are imperfect and I can’t imagine die-hard multiplayer fans or designers are keen to have their COIN title judged solely on the merits of the game that emerges from bot play.
Fire in the Lake is more event driven than many of the other COIN titles. I say that because the events in Fire in the Lake have a higher frequency of providing players with tempting capabilities, one-time actions, momentum, and punishing consequences for allowing the other side to take the event. While all COIN games share this at times, Fire in the Lake amplifies the frequency of these decisions to the point where players can be tempted to over-commit to events in lieu of solid operational play. We’ll look at that more later.
I bring it up here, however, to reveal that bots GET those actions and no amount of play prevents a bot from taking the juiciest of events. In some ways, this is a solid training tool to demonstrate the relative power of events. In other ways, however, it’s a random or missed opportunity when operationally the bot player could have capitalized on a “partner” faction’s last turn. In the context of a solitaire game, this is a great compromise and keeps the human faction honest. It should not, however, be confused with solid training for opposed play.
The solitaire mode is great for learning the mechanics, exploring the factions, the interactions of the factions, and for a game when you just can’t round up anyone to take on that ARVN player slot! Be wary of applying the strategies you develop against the bots broad cloth to an opposed game.
Double the Players = Double the Fun!
The two-player (2P hereafter) variant is actually truly enjoyable in Fire in the Lake. In some cases, the 2P version just isn’t all that satisfying. I’m thinking here mainly about Cuba Libre where the Syndicate faction wins or loses based on their ability to negotiate with other players. In the end, Cuba Libre excels when there’s a full table and even succeeds to a greater extent than Fire in the Lake when playing solo. Fire in the Lake, however, is EXCELLENT as a two-player game.
First, there are baked in rules for the amount of resources that can be traded between the insurgent forces. This helps even out the competing objectives for the NVA and VC. Though not formalized, the 2P version of the game creates an interesting dynamic for the Governmental player.
Since scoring is measured based on the lowest score of the two factions that a player controls, there’s not really a good way to “screw” one faction in order to get a shortcut to victory. While it’s easier in the 2P variant to push the ARVN over the finish line, or to withdraw all the US forces and jack up the available forces score, there’s a massive cost.
I think this balance and scoring mechanic make the 2P version of Fire in the Lake shine. While not specifically designated for two players, the balance and tradeoffs that must be negotiated by each player are equally difficult. That sounds simple and almost self-evident, but I challenge you to find multi-player games on BoardGameGeek that transition as elegantly between two players and four players. There just aren’t that many. In fact, it’s part of the reason why BGG allows users to score the “ideal” number of players.
Two players is the second most popular “Best” recommendation. I would wholeheartedly agree. I think the “recommended” is a little high on the one player, but I completely understand the rating and think that the nearly 20% of the folks saying that one player is NOT recommended helps support my case. Another interesting thing to note is that a full third of the respondents felt like three player is the worst way to play the game. I would agree here as well.
This is a remarkable achievement in game design. You have THREE viable player counts and two that truly shine!
Four Player Perfection
That game, as you can imagine, is perfect with four players. Every last lever, inter-player tension, faction rivalry, and opposed operation is finely tuned. I had a chance to play my first four-player version of the game on Sunday and we have already agreed to get back to the table to do it again soon! Consequently, I need to share a few observations about the four player version that may not (or maybe they are and I’m just slow on the uptake) to folks who haven’t tackled the four player game.
Cards are a nightmare
Fire in the Lake shoots meaningful event choices at players like an M60 unloading into a treeline. They’re loud, hard to ignore, and will tear you up if you don’t know how to react to them.
It can be so tempting to take events or overthink how the next faction on the card will use the event that every decision is wrought from the moment a card is revealed. While the difficulty of decision-making and the mental checklist of considerations is long for all COIN games, Fire in the Lake has high stakes for bad decisions in a way that I’m not sold all the other games do (though its true in many).
Complicating this even more is that you now have a partner player who is adding their two-cents to the debate and you KNOW FULL WELL they’re coming from a place of only halfhearted support. They have their own faction goals and getting you to commit to an event might be in THEIR best interest, but perhaps not so much in your best interest. I played as the ARVN player and between the US player and I we managed to out-think ourselves in terms of the number of events we took early on that gave operational tempo dominance to the Insurgent players!
Be careful with the events…you are going to have to take a hit sooner or later…learn which punches you can absorb…
You are your own team in the two-player variant. Consequently, you are forced to be an active partner and participant strategizing with your teammate in the four-player version. It reminded me, in some ways, of discussions we would have in Model United Nations (MUN) when I was in high school.
This means you have a very specific goal in mind. You cannot fully influence your allies. Critically, you have to give in order to get. So you need to figure out what costs you the least and gets you the most. You’re not required in every transaction to “win” that equation, but you need to do it more frequently than not in order to be successful. In short, the diplomacy with your allied faction is much like a negotiation with a belligerent faction at its heart even though you loosely co-benefit from each other’s goals.
It can be easy to discount the importance of these discussions and negotiations, but in reality they may be a co-equal partner in achieving victory for the non-traditional powers (VC & ARVN) in Fire in the Lake.
There is still a war!
It can be tempting to ignore the fact that Fire in the Lake portrays an active and deadly war. While the NVA and VC are provided with lots of tools to cause chaos, the US and ARVN are efficient at dealing with the “whack-a-mole” opportunities that arise.
Remembering to counter those NVA and VC incursions is critically important even if it means slowing down your race to your objectives. This is amplified in the four-player game because two brains are better than one! You are facing off against the best strategy that two people can see on the board at any given time. Knowing the NEXT card that will come into play can lead to some interesting conversation as war planning gets a little foresight that may not have existed historically.
The game is stronger for it, but the job of both sides is still to execute the war. Failure to do so will quickly lead to a mountain of NVA units that can be insurmountable to remove without some lucky card draws for the US and ARVN player. That was exactly the situation we found ourselves in during a recent play in fact! There is still very much a war going on and no matter how many COIN controlled provinces and cities you hold, or how happy the population might be…there is PLENTY of room for the NVA to delegitimize the South Vietnamese regime and win the game while the US and ARVN players do good things.
A final word about fun
COIN games present notoriously difficult choices. Maybe not every turn, but frequently enough that having an ally on your side is a huge boon to the fun you’ll have around the table. This is especially true if everyone has roughly the same experience and skill level with the game.
Mistakes will be made, the wording is at times difficult to parse in every situation, but is generally clear enough. Don’t sweat the small stuff, because in the end it’s all about having a fun afternoon trying to expose the South’s corruption or to stall the first domino from falling in Southeastern Asia.
In our game we let the NVA player get units on the board more quickly than we probably should have and then didn’t do anything to try to deal with those units. It doesn’t take too long before the ramifications of that error were felt. That said, it certainly didn’t stop anyone from enjoying themselves and we were all just as eager (if not more) to get back to the table and play this one again.
The benefits of camaraderie far outweigh the “aww shucks” of realizing a mistake too late and the COIN system is resilient enough that a few bad mistakes CAN be overcome by solid play. Celebrate the fun and forget all the rest…Fire in the Lake remains a classic design in the COIN series and deserves every bit of praise heaped on it over the years from folks far smarter than this wargamer!