Tabletop Review: Andean Abyss (board game)
by Justin Jeffers on October 10, 2012

Andean Abyss (Board Game)
Publisher: GMT Games
Authors: Volko Ruhnke
Game Length: 4 – 6 hours
Number of players: 1 – 4
Release Date: 7/31/2012
Cost: $75.00 (GMT Games), $52.50 (Thoughthammer.com)
Get it here: : GMT Games -or- Thoughthammer.com

Andean Abyss is the work of designer Volko Ruhnke, who is probably best known for his games Labyrinth: The War on Terror (which I am tempted to parody in a re-theming titled Lab Zin: The War on Terroir) and Wilderness War, neither of which I have played but, after tasting Andean Abyss, I want to!

This is game is #1 in a series of games about insurgencies in various parts of the world (the series is called “COIN”). Coming soon are games by the same designer set in Afghanistan and Cuba: A Distant Plain and Cuba Libre respectively.

The Theme

There are four factions fighting for their place in Colombia: the government (consisting of troops and police), the AUC or Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (a paramilitary group), FARC or Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (a rebel group), and the Cartel (drugs, man). Each faction is different and has different goals (represented by different win conditions), and different actions that are available to them during the game.

At first, I wasn’t crazy about the theme. Colombia? Insurgency and counter-insurgency? I laid out the board and was kind of disinterested in the myriad names I did not recognize and were not very easy to remember (a lot of the cities and departments have two names!). Also the theme is kind of dark and gritty, like I felt dirty even getting involved with this game: drugs, guerrillas, rebels, troops, police, killing, looting, assassination…these are all part of the real events that the game deals with in a straightforward manner.

After playing the game a bit, I was still unfamiliar with all the place names but I was getting the hang of the gritty feel. You see, there are four factions and they all want power and control. This game is very cutthroat, but each faction is balanced enough that no one is so powerful they can knock someone out of the game. If you get targeted by some nasty tactics, you can switch your course next time or come right back at your aggressor.

The Bits

The components of this game are quite nice, you get one sheet of counters and lots of wooden pieces. One of the coolest things is that a lot of the wooden pieces come stamped with a shiny symbol on one end, either a star or a leaf (presumably a coca leaf for the Cartel faction). The cards are of a nice, pliable stock, not quite as thick as some other GMT games like Twilight Struggle but they feel like you can actually shuffle them comfortably!

The board is great, and I absolutely love the layout. Once I started playing and realized how fine-tuned the board layout was to the game I was amazed. It’s hard to describe briefly, you just have to experience it yourself. You’ll be playing and then realize: “oh, this track was put here because of this, brilliant!” Also once you get the flow of the game down, the board facilitates play very well.

The only thing I’m not crazy about on the board are the textures or patterns that they decided to use for the terrain types. The jungle, mountains, and grassland are painfully dull in a tiled-Windows-background way. If they were going to go for more purely functional art on the board, I think I would have preferred lighter colors and less clutter in the textures used. Maybe even just a topographic-style map.

The Game

Ok, so what about the game? Well, depending on who is playing this game and how much they are able to get into it, it can be a great experience or fall flat. The reason is because of the theme and the complexity level, which is most definitely more than the casual gamers I know would want to bother with. Let me explain how the game basically works.

At the beginning of the game, the board is set up with the pieces of the various factions going into their starting places (cities and departments), a deck of event cards is put together with the Propaganda! cards mixed in throughout, and each player is given a folded booklet with the actions available to each faction.

Here’s one interesting thing about this game that makes it a little simpler than other GMT card-driven games: there is no hand of cards. At the start of each turn, one face-up card from the deck is put in play and then one card from the top of the deck is turned face-up for the next turn. So there is always one card in play and one card that everyone can see coming up for the next turn. This removal of a hand of cards gives the game a unifying feel in regards to the players, everyone is playing from and seeing the same events come up in the game, as though they are happening to everyone, and each player has to decide how to play upon this event. Each event has two effects should a player choose to activate one of the card effects, one light and one shaded. The light ones generally favor the Government and the dark ones generally favor the guerrillas.

Each card has all four symbols of the factions along the top, and the order of these symbols determines who gets to decide what they want to do. This is important because there are a total of two actions per turn, two! Also, the first action taken determines what the second action may be. Let me explain: if the Government player decides to take an action and does the normal Operation action (which allows him to pick one of his operations to do in various areas, maybe something like Train which lets him place more Troops and Police), a player who is listed after the Government can only choose to do a Limited Operation (which allows him to pick one of his operations, but only execute it in one area). Once someone decides to take that second action, the turn is over and whoever took an action is put in an “ineligible box”, unable to take an action the next turn.

To sum up: each turn a card is in play, and another one is showing for next turn. The players decide what to do in the order portrayed on the card, and once two players have taken an action or the last player in order has passed, the turn is over and a new one begins. Pretty simple!

In Summary

For me, this is a bit of an odd one but I am glad that I experienced this game because it introduced me to Volko Ruhnke. I really appreciate the 4-way asymmetry that this game introduces and the various ways that the factions can interact and hurt or help each other. The AUC might take out some FARC bases, which is great for the AUC but also for the Government who is responsible for keeping them all in check, the Cartels are also happy because now there is more room for them to sweep in and set up bases as long as they can keep from getting taken out. Meanwhile the Government likes AUC smacking FARC around but gets nervous because it can’t allow the guerrillas of any faction to become too powerful. It’s all a push and pull, and I find it quite fun. The card event mechanism is great and simple, and because there are so few actions a turn play feels like it is moving very quickly.

The “Play Book” which contains the scenarios for the different types of games begins with an excellent tutorial that takes you step by step through a few turns of the game, showing you hands-on how different actions work and how a turn flows. Once I had done this tutorial, I just had to look through the rules to make sure I wasn’t missing any key concepts, and then I felt fairly comfortable playing. I knew nothing of the strategy, but I could start making choices (ahem, guesses anyway).

As I said earlier, I would expect casual gamers to be completely uninterested in this game, but for those willing to put in the effort to learn they will be richly rewarded with a game that is engaging and tricky. The components are excellent, and gameplay less difficult and time-consuming than a number of GMT’s wargames/political struggle games. Well worth it for fans of Ruhnke or those looking for a unique and intriguing game. Fans of this game should also be aware that you can play it on VASSAL, a sort of online board-gaming engine.



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