When organizing my previous entry on Fire in the Lake, into my timeline, I mention that it is “one of the few games that begins its treatment of the U.S. Vietnam War in 1964, before direct U.S. action began.” I know this because the manual tells me that it starts in 1964.
From direct experience, however, this can be a hard thing to pin down.
Fire in the Lake is part of the COIN (Counter Insurgency) series of games from GMT. I’ve previously discussed the pedigree of these games that seems to stretch back from various games included in under this banner, to Labyrinth to Twilight Struggle. In turn, the last extends the principles of card driven games as the key play mechanism. Within this group of historically-focused games, the cards introduce into the game various notable, historical events. The cards and their mechanics generally have multiple functions within the game, but put it into a historical context and connect the table-top exercise with the actual history. They can also serve as “wild cards,” disrupting the the otherwise predictable flow from turn-to-turn, creating excitement, uncertainty, and replayability within the games.
Fire in the Lake, and from what I’ve seen* of the COIN series as a whole, is an interesting implementation of this. Unlike the traditional understanding of a “card game”, cards are not drawn and held in a hand to be played by each player. Instead, the cards are dealt face up from the deck and are visible to all players. The cards are also visible one turn ahead, allowing planning to encompass not just the current turn but also the next. This information is equally visible to all players. There is no “hidden knowledge.” Even unplayed pieces are displayed for any player to tally up and consider as needed. Typically two players can take actions in a given turn, so the two-turns worth of cards is also a complete cycle through all four players. The player order is elective, with the right of first refusal being determined by the active card. So you can’t choose what card to play; instead you choose how to play the card in front of you.
Contrast this with Twilight Struggle. In that game, each player’s turn** is conducted with cards from their hand, allowing them leeway in determining which events get played and the order in which they are played. There is the mechanism where, in most circumstances, events for your opponent are automatically executed but, that aside, the players could chose to simply not execute any events. Fire in the Lake also contains a similar method to suppress an event – if you have priority in a turn, you can prevent an event from being played by any other player through curtailing your own actions. However, in Fire in the Lake, events have two different outcomes, each tailored to benefit one side over the other. It would seem to make it likely that play would generally see the events triggered (either in their historical or counter-historical form) for most turns.
It is the cards and their events that propel one through the game’s calendar. The game consists of a number of “campaigns,” which are separated by special “Coup!” cards. The Coup! cards trigger extra resource management and scoring turns and, depending on the setup, mark the transition from one phase of the war to another. The next-to-last card, before a coup, is considered to take place during the monsoon season. The rule book states that each of these campaigns represents 1-2 years of the war. However, other than the effects of the monsoons, there is no other close tie to the calendar. Turns don’t represent (for example) 3 months of real time. Nor are there any seasonal effects other than the monsoon. Two cards played back-to-back might be taking place nearly simultaneously or they might be separated by many months.
I dwell on all this as an introduction to placing the tutorial on the calendar. The events that make up this game are fixed in order (for tutorial purposes, cards are not shuffled) and all taken from the “1964” event set. Some of them have precise ties to an historical date while others are more general, representing the application of various strategy and tactics appropriate to that time.
So when does the tutorial start? If we take a look at the first card, it is a reference to a fixed date event, but one that occurred in 1963. Pictured on the card (“Burning Bonze”) is Quảng Đức‘s death on June 10th, 1963. The problem is, the game also starts out with Dương Văn Minh in charge of the government, which puts us after the November 1st, 1963 coup that overthrew (and assassinated) president Ngô Đình Diệm. The Coup! card which ends the tutorial uses the overthrow of Minh by Nguyễn Khánh. Whether that refers to the replaced of Minh by Khánh the first time, on January 30th of 1964, or the second time on August 16th of the same year, or again in October, is another part of this to puzzle out for the obsessive-compulsive player. Given the intervention of the Gulf of Tonkin incident (the fourth card played) and the Brinks Hotel bombing (the fifth, representing a December 24th date), we should probably assume it is a later date.
To resolve this, frankly pretty pointless, exercise, I’m going to take a page from the book I’ve recently read. In those pages, one of the main characters witnesses a monk setting himself ablaze during a riot in a scene meant to invoke Quảng Đức’s suicide. However, the narrative of the book places this sometime in the middle of the summer of 1964. It’s purpose in the narrative is simply to show the impact of South Vietnamese instability on the special-forces operations, about which the book is written. Likewise, the play of this event to start off the tutorial drives the game in that it destabilizes the situation in Saigon, forcing the South Vietnamese player to spend his first turn reacting to the event rather than advancing his own plan.
Given all of this analysis, and to put this ridiculous musing to bed, I declare that the tutorial scenario in Fire in the Lake starts on the fourth of July, 1964. I will place it on whatever timelines accordingly. From July 4th to…
Oh dear. While we now have a monsoon season (late May? of 1965?) and a coup (one of three possible dates) to monkey with. What to do?
*I also have A Distant Plain.
**I am being imprecise in my language. The Fire in the Lake rules use “turn” to describe the action of the player, “round” to describe the actions of one or more players associated with a single card, and “campaign” to to describe the series of rounds/turns that occur within one “pile” of cards (containing one Coup! card). If you’re familiar with the correct terminology, this might bother you.