23rd Jan2019

‘Fire in the Lake’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail


The Vietnam War has been depicted in numerous ways over the years and remains the subject of much discussion for armchair generals all over the world. Whilst there are hundreds of documentaries, movies and to a lesser extent, video games about Vietnam, board games are fairly infrequent. Whilst this may be because The Vietnam War remains a sore subject for many people thanks to its futility and proximity to living memory, there are likely some mechanical factors at play – what game system could realistically represent such a divisive conflict? The answer, it seems, is the COIN (or Counter-Insurgency) system from GMT Games. Fire in the Lake (which first debuted in 2014) is the sixth game in the COIN series, but of the three that I’ve played, it is by far the best.

The COIN system was specifically designed to properly represent historical conflicts that featured multiple (usually four) main belligerents, each with their own military, economic and political strength and varied objectives and victory conditions. With the USA, the Vietcong and both the North and South Vietnamese featuring, Fire in the Lake balances the real challenges facing each side during The Vietnam War, whilst using its own event driven system to subtly change the sequence of events in ways that feel both authentic and highly variable. All COIN games are strategically complex and quite long, but the actual mechanical structure is simple, which makes Fire in the Lake feel rewarding once you take the time to understand it.

As I touched upon in the reviews for both previous COIN games that we’ve reviewed here at Nerdly (Colonial Twilight and Liberty or Death), all COIN games revolve around an eligibility system that means (in the four faction variants like Fire in the Lake) that there will always be two factions that are eligible to take their turn based on the current card and two who aren’t. The eligible factions depend on the symbols shown on the previous card and which actions were taken. This is all tracked via a section on the board that looks a bit like a process flow – and that description is fair, since it makes the flow of turns very simple to manage.

As a result of this process flow mechanism, turns in Fire in the Lake are not actually hard to work out in terms of either eligibility or possible outcome. The turn order is clear and the process will dictate which actions can or can’t be taken. This can sometimes allow players to choose from the entire set of available Operations and/or Special Activities that their faction has at its disposal, but these occasions are rare. Only the player to act first will have full control over the options at their disposal – the second player on any turn will be limited to certain things depending on what the first player does, for example if the first player chooses to do an Operation and a Special Activity, then the second player may do either just an Operation or use the Event on the card. This may seem complex when written here, but by following the arrows on the board, it is greatly simplified.

In terms of what Events, Operations and Special Activities do, well these are all clearly listed either on the Event card (which will often be supported by text in the manual) or on one of the exhaustively detailed and exceptionally well written player aid cards. Each faction has its own player aid to support human players, as well as an AI guide that clearly explains how the faction should act if it is not controlled by a player (which is fairly common.) Broadly speaking, the players will focus on a single page that details Operations down the left side and Special Activities down the right. Each has its cost and what it enables detailed in about two to three paragraphs and once you’ve done each action once, you’ll be able to run through them very quickly. I should also mention that the game includes a tutorial booklet that walks up to four players through several turns of the game and shows off all possible actions, as well as a rationale for why most decisions might be made.

Fire in the Lake, like the other COIN games, may well appear daunting at first with its huge player aids, thick manuals and an absolute ton of pieces, but aside from the setup and perhaps the first two hours of play, it’s nowhere near as daunting as it seems. What it demands in setup and learning time, it more than repays in power level, flexibility and thematic alignment. I remain convinced that the COIN series strikes the best balance between thematic relevance and the kind of randomisation that is required to make gameplay interesting among any series of political games, except perhaps Twilight Struggle, which has many similarities anyway. Among its COIN based peers (of which I’ve played four) I find Fire in the Lake to be the most exciting.

I’ve thought long and hard about why that might be the case and I think it’s a combination of the subject matter itself, which is presented with a very straight bat as a war that had no clearly defined borders. No goodies, no baddies and no real purpose except to demonstrate the futility of war. On board, this is represented by the way that the USA can rapidly overwhelm the VC and NVA forces with superior firepower, but also by the fluidity of the opposing force, with the VC ability to use the Ho-Chi-Minh trail (which is unsurprisingly out of bounds for the USA and the ARVN) and to generally pop up in unexpected places.

The Event cards in Fire in the Lake are also interesting, with many events that will be familiar to players who’ve studied the history. Some of these are themeless “reinforcement” cards that simply act as powerful alternatives to normal Operation or Special Activity actions, but others are much more interesting. Regularly, inactive players around my table would Google the actual events for more information (Wikipedia contains an awful lot more information than my high school workbooks) and enlighten the players, and we found that historical context added real impetus to the action. Most pleasingly, as with the other COIN games that I’ve reviewed, these historical events seem to blend seamlessly into the timeline of the game, no matter where they occur.

Fire in the Lake is also one of the more attractive COIN games that I’ve played, although I’m not saying that Liberty or Death isn’t beautiful either. The main difference here is that the colours used are very bright and bold, which makes them stand out against the textures of green and brown that show different terrain types on the board. As always, tracks and boxes that surround the play area are clear and well presented, making it easy to understand the status of an active game at any moment in time. Fire in the Lake can consume a large table in its entirety and although it’s relatively easy to pause a game and return to it after a few days, only those blessed with a lot of real estate will find themselves able to do so.

In summary, I think I’ve labelled previous COIN games as masterpieces, but somehow Fire in the Lake surpasses even those. The more I play of them (and the next one will be Pendragon, which has a theme that I’m even more excited about) the more I like COIN games and having spoken to the designers somewhat, I now understand just what a labour of love these games are. Chances are that most people will have found this review because they are already interested in COIN series games, but if you’re here simply because you’re curious, then let me tell you now that they are worth investing in. Whilst Colonial Twilight still offers a simpler head to head experience (because it is limited to two factions) I think Fire in the Lake is the best of this series that I’ve played to date. Measured on its own, it’s simply incredible.

****½  4.5/5

A copy of Fire in the Lake was supplied for review by GMT Games.

One Response to “‘Fire in the Lake’ Board Game Review”

  • Fire in the Lake is an excellent two-thirds of a design that is in my opinion utterly ruined (and I have told Mark H. this) by discordant victory conditions that I think completely misstate the historical political goals in terms of game mechanics. I also think the division of the NVA and VC into two separate factions was a sign of the game being “forced” into the COIN system (I know no one was actually coerced, but the advantages of the four-player design I think overrode the history) in a way that is profoundly unsatisfying. It’s an engaging, intriguing game, but it diverges so far from its historical subject that I put it well down the list of best COIN games. See Andean Abyss in particular for a game that uses the system in a way that augments the history instead of fighting it. Also A Distant Plain.