03rd Oct2018

‘Colonial Twilight: The French-Algerian War’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

colonial-twilight-box

As someone still very new to the COIN (Counter-Insurgency) series of games, I certainly wish that I had begun my time playing them with Volume VII – Colonial Twilight: The French-Algerian War, rather than Liberty or Death, which I reviewed earlier this year. I’m not saying that Liberty or Death is bad – far from it; I absolutely loved it! But, with only two factions to contend with and a few other slightly simpler mechanics, Colonial Twilight is a better place to start for an outright novice. Set around the French and Algerian War from 1954 to 1962, Colonial Twilight focuses on a less well trodden part of history, but learning and deepening the players understanding of different conflicts is one of the prime reasons why I love war games.

Let’s begin with the components. Colonial Twilight positions the French army and its local police and Algerian military allies on one side, with the Algerian Nationalists or FLN (Front de Libération Nationale) on the other. The French troops are all represented as blue, whilst the Algerian forces are either light green (for police) or dark green for military regulars. The FLN are all black and whilst there are cubes, hexagonal cylinders and disks among the forces, there’s less potential for confusion here than in the four player COIN games that usually feature four to six colours of piece, plus at least as wide a variety of different shapes.

Among the many things that I’ll highlight about Colonial Twilight which I think differentiate it from other COIN system games is the setup, which in this case is relatively simple compared to its sister games across the series and probably on par with most heavy euro games. Whilst I’m not going to go into reams of hyperbole that suggest Colonial Twilight is a light game by any means, the weight of setup is certainly one of the things that helps me suggest that it might be an excellent starting point for players who want to migrate into “serious” war gaming, much as I have.

This theme of accessibility continues on the basis that even once you have it set up, Colonial Twilight is easier to get to grips with than you might expect. As with all COIN games, GMT includes a couple of player aids that feature detailed summaries of which actions are available to each faction. In this case, the options are split between Operations and Special Activities for each side and in a system that is pretty unique to the COIN series, the actual options available to each side are dictated by an initiative track that swings from corner to corner depending on who will act first (which is directly related to how powerful their action was last turn.)

The turn structure of Colonial Twilight is therefore fairly easy to get the gist of and can roughly be summarised as drawing an event card, resolving the action (or actions) of the first player and then resolving the actions of the second player. Sometimes, if it’s beneficial to the active player, they may choose to activate the event text that is described on the card in place of their action, but if it isn’t in their interest, the first player to act can prevent the event from being triggered if they are prepared to execute a weaker action first. It’s a simple, elegant system that at two player, you simply can’t fail to come to terms with. In four player COIN games, it’s common for only two factions to act against each event card, which can feel a bit limiting.

Another benefit to the head to head nature that Colonial Twilight introduces is in how clear winning and losing is. The game manual does describe a number of scenarios based on the final difference in points between the two factions, but with all that fluff aside, the two sides have fundamentally opposing ideologies and will fight (both literally and politically) to uphold them. If you take the other COIN game that I reviewed (Liberty or Death) as an example, the conflict is focused on the war of independence between England and The United States, meanwhile the French player enters the game after several turns, whilst the Native American player acts out a slightly strange effort to expand their own territory in a way that some might call a bit historically inaccurate or strange.

Colonial Twilight brings clarity across the board then, from the setup until the final scoring and at all points in between. Its simplicity is even reflected in what players will actually do in order to win. You see, the actual, physical board in Colonial Twilight is massive, considering that only two factions will occupy it. What you’ll soon learn about the game is that controlling regions is nowhere near as important as controlling the populace. Cities (where the population values are highest) need to be heavily contested, whilst the French player can (to a certain extent) allow the FLN to gain some ground around the edges of the map, especially where the population count is at its lowest.

Of course, deciding when and where to focus your effort is part of any COIN game (or any complex wargame really) but in Colonial Twilight, the direct nature of the game introduces a much more chess like feel. There are fewer ponderous (in terms of board state) turns here than I found in Liberty or Death. Watching the FLN forces creep onto the map in their underground (face down) state brings mixed emotions for the more heavily weaponised French forces. Do they use what is essentially two actions to reveal and then eradicate FLN forces in what might be a non-pivotal location, or do they risk that rebel presence bubbling over and becoming an overt threat?

Having played Colonial Twilight a few times on each side now, I can see how the two different sides play very differently, but the game is remarkably well balanced. Without actually knocking other COIN games (since I love the three that I’ve played, including Liberty or Death, Pendragon and Falling Sky) I think that the poor performance of one player and the presence of “fringe” factions (like the French and Native Americans in Liberty or Death) can bring odd or uneven outcomes to the table, but that happens rarely in Colonial Twilight. The initiative system leads to relatively straightforward choices for the second player which has several effects; it speeds up the game, aids teaching it quite a bit and keeps the outcome on more of a narrow path (albeit one still littered with deep and meaningful choices to make.)

Whilst it’s hard to knock a full blown, four player afternoon with one of the bigger COIN games and four experienced players for sheer spectacle, Colonial Twilight is a much more realistic proposition in my household. I play two player games as often as I play solo and multiplayer games combined and at three players, I have only once convinced my group that using the (admittedly excellent) automa rules in a COIN game was going to be fun. I was right (and it was) but it was time consuming all the same. If you can find a regular partner to play Colonial Twilight with, then there is potential here for a really deep and strategic experience that will unfold in different ways each time you play. A very high recommendation from me.

****½  4.5/5

A copy of Colonial Twilight: The French-Algerian War was supplied by GMT Games for review

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