Type: Card Driven Game (CDG) / War Game

Time to play: 240-360 minutes (Teaching: 20-30 minutes)

Best played with: 4 Player (1-4 Players)

I tend to find zero sum war games can be frustrating with hours of tense negotiations building to a single move that felt either unstoppable or lucky (but rarely something in between). So when I started playing Fire in the Lake with a group of war gamers I was apprehensive and terrified by the learning curve. However, once I had played it – I couldn’t wait to get it to the table again and to eventually write this review.

So why did this game take hold? There’s so much there! So let’s start with the basics – it’s thematically a very rich and engaging game. The Vietnam War was a key point in Asia-American history which, whilst I don’t intend to write a thesis, provides an intense and challenging setting for the basis of a strategic game. Everything from the sprawling and complex map with different terrain times, to the four different factions vying for ground control or political control.

These four factions include the North Vietnam Army (NVA) and the Viet Cong – fighting to expel the US and overturn the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). In the alliances of these factions you find more complexity and enjoyment – each side with two factions working together. However this is not a co-operative game, and each faction will do what they need to in order to win this war for themselves.

The Viet Cong seek political support for their cause, the NVA seek military presence, the US seek to withdraw whilst retaining allied political support and the ARVN seek ground control in key regions to hold onto government. There are secondary conditions that support these win conditions, but what ever faction you are and what ever path you choose, it will be a tricky negotiation between your allies and your enemies.

All of this still doesn’t get to the complexity and interest of the way the COIN games work – the card revealing both an event that could be played out and the turn order. Every card offers a unique moment and drives the turn order, offering opportunities to each faction. Every turn you will be choosing how to play or if to pass. Sometimes a pass may squeeze out another player or offer your ally the advantage. Sometimes squeezing out your ally is the best thing for you to win!

Oh, and if all that’s not enough then be aware that scoring is done four times in the game – if you are alone above the win condition then you win. However, these scoring cards are randomly positioned in the deck and the uncertainty makes it difficult to position for. The additions of monsoon conditions and other variations on the cards makes it difficult to act even once you know the card is coming!

Okay, there’s a lot of complexity and I have tried to keep this high level – honest! All the above blends down to a complex series of ground operations, political shifts and public events that make this war a steady escalation of tensions between four sides in very different starting positions and with various early, mid and late game advantages.

The ARVN player has the might of the US early game, but as the US pulls back in order to complete it’s win condition the ARVN are exposed to NVA attacks. The VC start with very little presence, but can quickly amass forces and even provide tunnels to make their bases harder to move.

Add to all of that the differing troop types of each player and the advantages these confer in the military operations and in the political sabotages. Each move by each player is complex, rich in strategy and moves the needle only a fraction back in their favour. This tight nature of the game makes for a long gaming session, and a lot of situations where players feel it is impossible to actually win.

However, the story that emerges is immense, full of detail and involves backstabbing or successful negotiations. At the end of the night you will have made big offensive plays and a lot of small defensive checks. You will have watched others hand you advantages as often as the cards handed them major events. You will have seen dice rolls go your way and fail – but always at the margin.

Now, the rules overhead is the biggest issue to new players and the entirely asymmetric nature of every player is tough. However, you should also watch out for the feeling that one player can let the game slip away. This is a knife fight in the corner, and if one player doesn’t bring the knife then it leaves him open to another’s attack. The slip up of one player can leave everyone feeling frustrated by the accidental kingmaker.

However, a committed group of players with good experience can make this game a rich evening of plotting, careful efforts and perhaps double-crossing.

Last notes,

  • If you like a deep and complex war game with minimal dice, this is the one to go for
  • If you need meaningful moves to victory, and hate players pulling you back, then this will frustrate and irritate
  • If you win, try again as another side!