Interview: Volko Ruhnke, creator of the COIN series

This week, Volko Ruhnke, designer of Nevsky, Labyrinth: The War on Terror and creator of the COIN series, joins Diagonal Move for a retrospective of his remarkable career.

DM: Hi Volko, thank you for joining us. During your design career you have created some of the most well-known historically themed games currently available. Please can you tell us how it all began? 

VR: Hi, thanks for letting me join you! I started board wargaming as a grade-schooler, with Avalon Hill games in the 1970s. For the first decade or so, published games to me were received wisdom: I did not think to doubt what came in the box. The designers were professionals, after all! Then, as a college student on a trip to Europe that include visits to various battlefields, I noticed that some terrain was quite different from what I had grown familiar with on my most revered game boards.

That epiphany—that games could be wrong in some way, could be improved—was the start for me of tinkering with purchased games and ultimately designing new games. At first, I would just get out my pencil and mark up changes to rule books. Or I would take elements of games that I owned, the combat results table, for instance, and apply them to different situations on homemade maps. Eventually, I got involved in playtesting for my favourite company, GMT Games. I had that fan relationship with GMT for years—I even helped GMT president Gene Billingsley assemble game boxes in a convention hotel room once—before I approached them with a design.

Wilderness War Volko Ruhnke

DM: Your first notable success was Wilderness War, in which players vie for control of North America during the 1700’s. It is still in print almost 20 years after its initial release.  Can you tell us about the development of that game and why you think it has had such longevity?

VR: In the 1990s, friends and I designed and ran paper historical campaigns for one another, homespun role-play campaigns with great attention to historical detail. One of mine was set in the French and Indian War: we sought to recreate the year 1756 on the American frontier.

That war was my greatest interest at the time as I live in Virginia. George Washington’s early military career was as a Virginia colonel, and I had studied his history including from his papers in the nearby Library of Congress. When I complained to a friend that the none of the existing boardgames about the French and Indian War had all the elements I thought needed, he challenged me to design my own.

I designed Wilderness War in 2000, when card-driven games were still young. Mark Simonitch’s Hannibal: Rome versus Carthage was a key inspiration. With Wilderness War, I tried to take the CDG form that Mark Herman, Simonitch, and Ted Raicer had invented and refined to my favourite setting, one that happened to emphasize competing modes of warfare, European-style massed armies and fortifications on the one hand and petite guerre of frontier raiders and rangers on the other. I suspect that Wilderness War still gets played mainly because it tries to hew closely to the original power of CDGs while exploring an asymmetric contest.

Labyrinth Volko Ruhnke
Labyrinth: The War on Terror (Pic: Volko Ruhnke)

DM: Labyrinth: The War of Terror followed in 2010. It depicts the struggle between the US and Islamic extremism. How does making a game based on an on-going or very recent conflict differ from one modelling events outside of living memory?

VR: A difference may be that more players already will have formed views of more recent history (or maybe not—hobbyists can be quite passionate and opinionated about whatever historical period fascinates them!). Regardless, history is always interpretation, and as a designer your interpretation is in there, no matter how objective you may strive to be. As professional wargamer Peter Perla wrote, game design is communication. So, I did try with Labyrinth or in designing A Distant Plain with Brian Train, about the still ongoing war in Afghanistan, to be explicit with myself about what we were saying to players about those conflicts.

However, whether it’s about guerrilla warfare or Gettysburg, a wargame presents a designer’s model that is necessarily simplified. The model can teach us something about past or ongoing affairs, but it only adds to the mental models that the players already bring to the table. My hope in game design is not to change anyone’s position on anything but rather to raise questions in players’ minds and thereby perhaps to help them refine the understanding of events that they already possess.

Volko Ruhnke (Andean Abyss)

DM: 2012 saw the release of Andean Abyss. What was the spark that turned a game about a relatively obscure conflict into a game that became the start of the popular COIN series?

VR: The idea for Andean Abyss sprung from my experience on Labyrinth and from my day job teaching US intelligence analysts.

From the latter, I had become ever more interested in insurgency and counterinsurgency (COIN) as a complex interplay of many actors and factors. A premise of Labyrinth was that jihadism versus counterterrorism was at core a global insurgency/counterinsurgency. And one I think valid criticism of Labyrinth’s model was that it reduced a multiparty conflict to just two sides. Australian COIN expert Kilcullen wrote that all counterinsurgency is multifactional, and I wanted to explore that.

Colombia offered a rich story of at least four powerfully competing visions for the country’s future battling it out, with a Government facing down three insurgencies at once and coming out mostly on top. How did they do that? Only one other boardgame had taken on Colombia’s war (Crisis Games: Colombia), and that game was published (out of my town!) years before the period that Andean Abyss would cover! Finally, after facing the challenge of designing a solitaire mode for one side in Labyrinth, I wanted to see if I could do that same for all four sides in a game, to mimic multi-side action for a single player, and Colombia’s factional struggle offered that opportunity.

GMT President Gene Billingley’s reaction to my proposal was hesitant—as he has since said, he did not think that he could sell a game about Colombian guerrilla war (until he got the chance to play it). He was right, in a way: initial preorders were quite weak, especially within the US. But the promise of a series to follow buttressed the potential of the volume, Andean Abyss got made, and players reacted well. Other designers joined me almost at once for new settings, and the COIN Series was off!

COIN Volko Ruhnke
Insurgency throughout history…

DM: The games that immediately followed Andean Abyss showed COIN to be a flexible system capable of depicting a variety of historical periods. Can you describe how the system developed during the first years and what you think makes it so flexible?

VR: The central design challenge in Andean Abyss was to effect as cleanly as I could the asymmetries among four factions in their ends, ways, and means (the classic components of strategy). Within that, I needed to show guerrilla and counter-guerrilla operations as mainly a matter of initiative (as an abstraction of local information advantage), since the contest of firepower so important to conventional warfare is not really the determinant of victory. Out of those modelling tasks I came up with the initiative-card sequence of play, faction-unique ops and special activity menus, and asymmetric victory conditions at the heart of the COIN Series.

Those game mechanisms apply well to such varied conflict settings, I think, because these asymmetric factional features of Colombian and other counterinsurgencies actually are true of all mass human affairs. All of us all the time have overlapping but not identical interests. All of history is factions. So, COIN Series topics are to be found everywhere.

(Factions come to the fore especially in internal conflicts like insurgencies—which are abundant across the ages but deeply under-gamed. But they are there in classic, apparently two-sided wars as well. You need to see them to understand how the Wehrmacht acted in World War Two, for example, and there is some great boardgame design work underway now to explore that.)

Volko Ruhnke (Fire in the Lake)
Fire in the Lake

DM: How does it feel for you to see the COIN series now being driven by other designers that are taking it into new and varied directions?  

VRL It is the best part of it for me. I had originally envisioned just four COIN Series volumes, one per continent: Colombia, Angola, Philippines, Iraq. They would have very similar internals to Andean Abyss. But what we got from all the designers who stepped forward is a far more varied and higher quality exploration of factional conflict. We have non-violence as a tactic, raiding for plunder, tribal loyalties, and—to come—future conflict on another planet.

I certainly never would have thought of Brian Train’s adaptation of the COIN Series sequence of play to a 2-player game (Colonial Twilight), which gives the same—even amplified—struggles for initiative. Nor could I have foreseen Bruce Mansfield’s rework of the Series’ solitaire system from difficult flowcharts of limited variability to smooth and capable card-based bots in Gandhi, now in work for retrofit to earlier volumes. VPJ Arponen with this 3-player All Bridges Burning and other designers have made their own, similar leaps within the system.

All Bridges Burning (COIN)
The forthcoming 10th volume in the COIN series

DM: Your most recent big game is Nevsky. It is set in mediaeval Europe and features logistics and operational issues affecting conflict during the period. Please tell us about the inspiration behind the design and its development process.

VR: The initial inspiration for a system examining medieval warfare at the operational level came from a college memory, a course called English Constitutional History that highlighted feudal service as a building block of law. To my wargamer mind at the time, the fact of limited military service (“show up with a helmet, spear, and horse for 40 days”) raised the operational question of how such time-limited duty affected military campaigns. What happened after the 40 days ended and the war was still going on?

The next inspiration was not from a historical but a game-mechanical perspective. I loved the game Angola (Ragnar Brothers, now in a beautiful MMP edition) designed in the 1980s but not really copied in the hobby. One fantastic mechanic in Angola is “Column” cards that very smoothly model friction in communications and trust among allied factions, while in fact speeding rather than impeding gameplay. I wanted to steal this mechanic and apply it to some setting where the means of communication were uncertain and the command or alliance system rickety. Medieval warfare seemed a perfect setting for that.

The next step was to find a campaign in the Middle Ages that really interested me. There are not many wargames depicting medieval warfare at operational scale, so the field was quite open. My father’s family was from the Baltic region. In the 1990s, I got to do a military history tour of Russia that really inspired me. I wanted my medieval operations designs to tour the cultural boundaries of Latin Europe, where I hoped to find more asymmetry and personality to two opposing sides’ military styles. Teutons versus Rus in 1240-1242 offered me all that interest, and a classic motion picture to help excite players to the topic. Nevsky was born!

Nevsky Volko Ruhnke

DM: Nevsky is also the first in a new series, ‘Levy and Campaign’. The next instalment, ‘Almoravid’, is now available for pre-order. How does Almoravid progress the series and what does the future hold for the series long term?

VR: Almoravid will take the Levy & Campaign Series to the opposite end of medieval Europe, geographically and with regard to its range of economic development, Muslim al-Andalus. Bigger armies, better roads, tougher fortifications across the countryside, and a more complex political environment as Christian kingdoms and duchies try to coalesce against even more fractious Muslim petty “taifa” states, until a massive African Almoravid intervention force arrives to beat the Christians back. The core rules of levying and marching, supplying and fighting will be quite familiar to fans of Nevsky. But the physical and political environment will  require different approaches.

For the future of Levy & Campaign, I am happy to report, I am enjoying a similar phenomenon to that of the COIN Series. Both new and experienced designers and researchers are stepping forward to create or co-design further volumes. Once again, my original concept for four volumes (one at each corner of medieval Latindom—Russia, Scotland, Spain, and the Holy Land) is superseded by opportunity for a broader array of settings. And the favorable reaction that Nevsky has received from designers, critiques, and most of all players now make realization of a full series possible. Next up will be Italy, from a veteran Italian wargame designer. Designs set in Byzantium, Dark Ages France, and Scotland have begun. We shall see!

DM: Coming full circle now, your games are successful, both critically and commercially, and increasingly influential outside of the traditional war game audience. What effect has this level of success had on you personally? 

VR: I am loving life, naturally! Game design is its own joy, related to but something other than game play. The widespread practice of players making their own games for themselves and their friends bears this out. A challenge, when our own designs go into publication, is that these two joys start to compete for what is already limited time in the week. “Design games, play games, have a life—choose two” as design teacher Alan Emrich once wrote. My great fortune, however, is that I a few years ago retired from a successful career in government service and can now delve fully into all aspects of my main hobby as well as enjoy my family and much more.

DM: What advice do you have for aspiring game designers?

VR: Follow your bliss! You are designing for your own entertainment, after all. (If instead you are striving for fame, fortune, or adoration, turn back now!) Borrow everything you can from other games—they are your toolbox—but mix them up, combine and change other’s tools as you see fit. There really are no rules. Go new places. Experiment away: no lives will be lost.