Andean Abyss: Board Game Preview

Preview of GMT’s upcoming title Andean Abyss

By Mike Owens

Andean Abyss Board Game Preview


Andean Abyss is the forthcoming game in GMT’s new COIN [Counterinsurgency] series. Designed by Volko Ruhnke, Andean Abyss is a one-to-four player game simulating the political, military and economic struggle for the control of Colombia in the mid 1990’s. The game represents that era of Colombian history just after the Cali cartel was smashed. During this period the Government was attempting to stabilize the country, while the various guerrilla factions were rushing in to take advantage of the vacuum. Players control one of four factions: the Government of Colombia; the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – Ejército del Pueblo), known as FARC; the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia), known as AUC; and the Colombian drug Cartels. Each faction has its own powers and victory conditions.

While Andean Abyss is nominally a card driven game, it uses some new and innovative mechanics to simulate the COIN campaign. Players of Volko’s previous simulation, Labyrinth, will recognize similar concepts. In designing Andean Abyss, however, Volko wanted to take it to the next level. “I wanted to get away from hand management which, while a fun side game in CDGs, is a little more removed from reality (to me),” says Volko. “I wanted to keep events and some sort of events-ops tradeoff, but keep the focus on map, force maneuver and sequencing of operations to build a strategy.”

Playtesting Andean AbyssI got involved in playtesting Andean Abyss pretty much on a lark. I had been following with interest the development of Labyrinth, Volko’s previous game design. I liked Labyrinth’s innovations; I liked its similarities to another groundbreaking game,Twilight Struggle, and I was interested in the way Labyrinth sought to model global insurgency and the Global War on Terror (GWOT). Plus I was interested in the subject matter, both personally and professionally.

In January 2011, on a Labyrinth discussion forum, Joel Toppen called for playtesters for Volko’s new COIN game. I figured, “Sounds interesting. I can proofread rules, I like CDGs and I don’t mind seeing what new games are coming out. Sure, what the heck, I’ll check it out.” At the time I knew I would be going to the Middle East soon and needed something constructive to do during my off-hours, to help make the time go faster. So I joined the group — and was extremely fortunate to get in on an early live VASSAL playtest game, hosted by Joel and supervised by Volko himself.

I realized a few minutes into that game that Andean Abyss was like no other game I had ever seen. The mechanics were simple, the variable player powers were interesting, the subject was unique, but the hook was the eligibility and sequence mechanism. I was immediately in love with this game.

Volko and Joel have been awesome throughout the development and playtesting process. They spent a lot of their time and a lot of their bandwidth discussing, thinking, sharing, challenging and most importantly of all, listening to the playtesters. I’m far from the most valuable playtester (that’d be Jeremy Antley, in my book) but I am grateful that I’ve been able to make a contribution.

Game Play

The key to the game is in balancing resources (cash), actions (the time to spend the cash) and “eligibility”. Volko explains, “…I wanted a semi-random (both card- and player-influenced) determination of player order. So the current card eligibility mechanic is an experiment to do all of that.”

Here’s how it works. Each card is revealed, showing the sequence of eligibility, plus the event.

Andean Abyss Action Cards

The card on the left, Zona de Convivencia, is the Played Card, the card currently up for action. The symbols across the top represent the four factions and are read from left to right to determine eligibility order; so, in this case, the FARC (red) would go first, the Cartels (green) second, the AUC (yellow) third and Government (blue) would go last. The next card to be played from the top of the Draw Deck also is revealed. As a result, when it’s time for a player to act, he not only must consider what the current card can do for him (or to him), but what the next card could do to/for him.

Once a faction plays an event or action, that faction becomes ineligible for the next card.

Andean Abyss - Play Sequence
This innovative mechanic really makes each game play out differently. It also makes the game a puzzle of position and tradeoffs. Players must work primarily toward achieving their faction’s unique victory condition, even as they occasionally taking defensive measures, block other players from taking full operations, parry harmful events and sometimes pass in order to preserve their resources or eligibility. And all this is done while they are positioning themselves for either the upcoming Propaganda rounds or the end of the game.

The Inspiration for Andean AbyssVolko was inspired to createAndean Abyss and the COIN series by the confluence of wargaming and work. “I’ve been fascinated with 20th Century insurgency/COIN since playing Nick Karp’s Vietnam 1965-1975 back in the mid-80s.”, Volko said, “I have always wanted a game that has the feel of little groups of guerrillas and troops hunting each other out in the bush, but with much less rules burden than Nick’s opus. More recently, I’ve become involved at work in games to train analysts and become even more interested in gaming topics of relevance to today’s world. Insurgency/COIN certainly is that.”COIN and COIN Theory is definitely a hot topic these days, as evidenced by new works from notable theorists such as David Kilcullen, Kalev Sepp, Bard O’Neill, and Thomas A. Marks, and increased interest in classical COIN writers like Bernard Fall, Robert Thompson, and David Galula. Understandably, the COIN works are primarily directed at Iraq and Afghanistan. So why Colombia? Volko explains: “As I shopped around for a “Volume I” COIN topic, Colombia 90s-today immediately appealed as a rich setting: One of the world’s last Marxist insurgencies, and a well-funded one, right-wing illegal groups, drugs, and a COIN strategy that succeeded in overcoming all that.

The more I looked into Colombia, the more fascinating it got. But the last game done on the topic was 20 years ago…predating the period Andean Abyss was to cover! So it was virgin snow.”


“The focus of all civil and military plans and operations must be on the center of gravity in any conflict— the country’s people and their belief in and support of their government. Winning their hearts and minds must be the objective of the government’s efforts. Because this is a policy objective, it must be directed by the country’s political leaders. Colombian President Alvaro Uribe pursued this course and gained broad support of the populace in the struggle against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and National Liberation Army narcoterrorists. His government is weakening the insurgents’ hold on their traditional zones of control and threatening their financial and recruiting base.”

–Sepp, Best Practices in Counterinsurgency, Military Review, May-June 2005
  • Operations – Train (with or without Civic Action), Patrol, Sweep, Assault
  • Special Activities – Air Lift, Airstrike, Eradicate

The government must perform both military and civic activities, initially by eliminating enemy guerrillas and bases, then by securing cities, Lines of Communication (LOCs) and Departments and finally by performing Civic Action.

Troops are its primary means for offensive actions. Through Troops by themselves can’t improve Support. The Government must also use its Police powers to ensure security and stability. However, Police can’t simply be placed in a rural Department without infrastructure: the Government must first establish Bases in order to place Police. Once military and civil control is achieved, then the Government can remove Terror and improve Support by spending resources on Civic Action.

The Government player has by far the most Resources and the most forces, giving him the greatest ability to strike out and destroy the other blocs, but Government operations are more expensive – each one costs three Resources, to the Factions’ typical cost of one Resource per operation. So the Government must always keep an eye on its budget, trying to be everywhere while maintaining an economy of force and working to ensure that the United States will come through with Aid. At the same time, Government must keep control of the cities, because once FARC has established a foothold there, it becomes difficult to root them out.

The sequence of effective Government actions also is more time-consuming. For example, in order to convert a contested Department from Opposition to Support four steps are required: Sweep in with troops to activate any guerrillas, Assault, to clear out the remaining guerrillas, Train, to establish a Government base that will support a Police presence and finally Train again to place Police and allow Civic Action. The process of ensuring security and restoring confidence in and support for the Government is a deliberate one.


Andean Abyss - FARC faction

“Among the conflicts in question, there is of course an apparent similarity in the enemies’ strategy, that is, their master plan for victory. Some common axioms are to make the populace a key factor in the arena of conflict, plan for a long war, and engage in all power arenas — political, economic, and informational, as well as military — to erode the stronger side’s will to sustain the struggle. There is also similarity of method — what the military community refers to as “tactics, techniques, and procedures.” Offensive action entails raids and ambushes, hit-and-run and stand-off attacks, and improvised use of weaponry. Protective measures include concealment, blending with the populace, deception, and denial of engagement, compromise, or key assets. Psychological warfare (against non-combatants) involves brutality, intimidation, and disinformation. Sustainment efforts include living “off the land,” smuggling, looting weapons and supplies, and operating secret factories and clinics.”

–Jandora, Mao in Mufti? Insurgency Theory and the Islamic World, Small Wars Journal, V5, July, 2006
  • Operations – Rally, March, Attack, Terror
  • Special Activities – Extort, Ambush, Kidnap

Meanwhile, FARC is attempting to destabilize the government through terror, sabotage and kidnapping. FARC Guerrillas will be roaming the map, remaining underground until it’s time to go active and conduct insurgent operations. FARC’s use of Terror will reduce popular support and, done successfully, increases popular Opposition to the government. Moreover, FARC is able to sabotage the economic Lines of Communication (LOCs), which represent oil pipelines and highways. These LOCs are crucial to providing the Government with the resources it needs to fund its COIN operations. FARC may use Kidnapping as well against the Government (in cities) and against the Cartels (anywhere), to replenish its Resources by taking them directly from the Government and the Cartels. But it also has to build up its support in the lower-population rural departments in the east and southeast of the country and the southern Andean mountain areas and strike out against Government supported, higher population cities and northern Mountain departments. In addition, FARC may conduct military actions, using Attack and Ambush operations to eliminate other factions’ forces and bases. Finally, FARC may use its powers of Extortion to increase its resources.


“Far from being marginal actors, Colombian paramilitary groups are sophisticated offensive armies, supported by regional landowners, drug traffickers, and members of the Colombian military….in July 1997, the AUC issued a statement announcing an offensive war…establishing as the primary targets the traditional guerrilla strongholds of the western plains and the eastern jungle departments.”

–Tate, “Paramilitaries in Colombia”, The Brown Journal of World Affairs, Volume III, Issue 1, Winter/Spring 2001
  • Operations – Rally, March, Attack, Terror
  • Special Activities – Extort, Ambush, Assassinate

AUC is a unique faction. Representing the right-wing paramilitaries, AUC lives under the good graces of the Government, rallying Guerrillas in areas where it enjoys popular Support, while seeking to supplant the FARC. AUC’s victory condition is simple: have one more base on the map than FARC. This has to be achieved through a balanced strategy of building bases through Rally and eliminating FARC bases through Assassination. While AUC’s natural enemy is FARC, it is also capable of striking the Government with Terror in order to keep it from becoming too popular. Like FARC, AUC guerrillas can use Attack and Ambush to eliminate other factions’ forces, and it can also Extort others to increase its resources.

I’ve used the analogy of a remora before in describing AUC. The Government is the shark, big and powerful, while the AUC is the remora tagging along, benefiting from the Government’s protection. It looks like the shark is in charge, but it’s the remora that’s really benefiting from the symbiotic relationship.


“The drug trade also produced violence against elements of the state…resulting in an increase in criminal activity and a transformation of the traditional conflict. Both bloody conflict and cooperation have occurred between [drug traffickers and guerrillas]. When drug traffickers become landowners, they have dealt with the traditional land conflict by creating death squads or paramilitary groups to terrorize the local population. In areas where the guerrillas are too strong to eliminate, the drug traffickers pay the guerrillas a “tax” on their proceeds. The relationship is pragmatic.”

–Holmes, Drugs, Violence and Development in Colombia: A Department Level Analysis, Latin American Politics and Society, Volume 48, Issue 3, September 2006
  • Operations – Rally, March, Attack, Terror
  • Special Activities – Cultivate, Process, Bribe

Although the other factions use high-profile and violent tactics to achieve their goals, the Cartels wants to sneak around the periphery, establishing bases and setting up shipments anywhere they are left alone. The Cartels’ main goal is to ensure their economic security through Cultivating bases and Processing Shipments in order to collect Resources during the Propaganda Round. While the Cartels prefer stealth, they are not toothless; they have their own guerrillas, used not only to scout out new locations for bases, but to defend the existing ones against the Government and/or the other Insurgent factions by Attacking. But the Cartels bloc is not above the occasional foray into Terror, which it can use to weaken both the Government’s support and the FARC’s opposition. The Cartels also have the ability to use their economic power to Bribe other player’s forces, by paying Resources to remove Government cubes, eliminate or flip enemy Guerrillas or destroy enemy bases.


Combat in Andean Abyss is very abstract and, for the most part, diceless. For example, the Government can Assault revealed guerrillas and remove them in numbers equal to the troops it employed. The Government player can also reach out and Air Strike, removing a single Active enemy piece – but only in the rural Departments. FARC and AUC can Ambush with underground guerrillas, automatically destroying an enemy Factions’ pieces. While the AUC can Assassinate, removing one opposing faction’s piece of their choice.

Both FARC and AUC may do a straight Attack, but they must roll equal to or less than the number of attacking guerrillas in order to succeed, removing 2 enemy pieces. By concentrating guerrillas, they will guarantee success in an attack, but at the cost of reducing their ability to take actions elsewhere.


Factions may, of course, travel around the board, using March actions to move from space to space. However, Insurgents have to move in small bands – or enter spaces with a minimal opposition presence – to remain underground.

The Government has some exceptional movement abilities: Sweep moves troops into spaces and reveals any Underground guerrillas, while Patrol shifts around Government units through a chain of cities and Lines of Communication (LOCs). The Patrol operations are used both to redistribute forces and to find (and potentially eliminate) guerrillas that are threatening to sabotage those LOCs. Finally, the Government may use Air Lift to move troops quickly from one space to another.


All factions may perform actions to place pieces on the board. For instance, the Government player may add troops, police and bases through Training; FARC, AUC, and Cartels players may Rally new guerrillas to their side in friendly (or at least non-hostile) territory and convert guerrillas into Bases. Cartels can Cultivate new bases, generally in out-of-the-way spots, but occasionally in cities right under the Government’s nose. Additionally, Guerrillas may use Rally to move Active forces to a base and flip them to their Underground side (a distinction familiar to players of Labyrinth.)


The three insurgent blocs may use terror, which is abstractly represented. In order to do so, an underground Guerrilla is flipped to its Active side, a Terror marker is placed with them and the Support or Opposition level of the space is adjusted depending on its current state and who is doing the terrorizing. The Terror markers also represent a cowed populace, making it more difficult for the Government or FARC to change the level of Support or Opposition (they have to pay to remove the Terror marker first). Because the victory conditions for the Government and FARC depend on Support or Opposition, respectively, Terror represents a direct way for AUC and Cartels to hurt these two political factions.


Each card also has up to two Events that can be played. Some provide direct benefit to the activating faction, some will hinder other players and some will provide lasting Government Capabilities (allowing multiple operations to be done for the cost of one) or Insurgent Momentum, enduring benefits to one or more factions (or hindrances to the Government).

Additionally, each quarter of the 72-card deck includes a randomly shuffled Propaganda card that triggers a Propaganda Round. Propaganda is best defined as a combination victory determination, resource distribution and a reset round.

First, players decide if anyone has met their victory condition, then they determine control of Departments and cities and collect resources for the next campaign. The Government and FARC can, in areas they control, conduct Civic Action or Agitation, respectively, in order to remove Terror and increase Support or Opposition. Plus, Government troops must redeploy from the countryside (unless they have established a rural Base), Guerrillas may go underground, Factions will regain their eligibility and, finally, the next campaign begins. Of course, because of their random position in the deck, players do not know when Propaganda will occur before the card hits the top of the Draw Deck, adding a “race against time” factor that further increases tension.

The Game Experience

One of the keys to successful gameplay in Andean Abyss is maximizing the variable player powers. Like its predecessor Labyrinth, Volko has designed a game that models the asymmetrical nature of Counterinsurgency. “Asymmetry between insurgent and COIN strategy is fundamental to why even do the game series. The asymmetry among competing/cooperating insurgencies just makes that sexier. Asymmetry can be hard to test and get everything in balance. I set out to do that 2-way with Labyrinth (again, the topic demanded it). With Andean Abyss, I have tried to learn from Labyrinth and push the design challenge farther–4-way asymmetry; multi-player as well as 2-player and solitaire systems; less reliance on dice, and so on.”

The tension in Andean Abyss comes from the player interaction. Andean Abyss will never be accused of being “Multiplayer Solitaire.” This is not only a zero-sum game, it’s a multi-way zero-sum matrix. For example, a Government action that builds Support diminishes FARC opposition, but allows AUC more freedom to work, although the AUC can’t establish bases if the space has already been taken up by a Cartels base. FARC is slashing at the Government with one hand while parrying AUC attacks with the other, all the while trying to maintain enough money to continue operations by stealing from the Cartels. And the Cartels forces are trying to hide while constantly pushed to move, running from the Government and FARC and occasionally protecting its Shipments from AUC as well. Each faction has both the ability to achieve its own goals and the capability to hinder its opponents’.

It’s inevitable in such a multi-faction, asymmetrical powers game that there will be diplomacy and cooperation, sometimes between “natural” enemy factions – for instance, the Government and FARC may conspire to knock the Cartels down by Eradicating their bases and Kidnap to reduce the Cartels resources. Andean Abyss accurately simulates the temporary, constantly shifting web of alliances found in any insurgency/counterinsurgency situation.

Like Labyrinth, Andean Abyss can also be played with a reduced number of participants. Those familiar with Labyrinth will recognize its Non-player faction AI sheets. With three players, the AI takes over the Cartels, with two players, the AUC is also controlled by the AI. Each of these (four player, three player, and two player variants) offers a slightly different and challenging game experience. Andean Abyss also has a solitaire mode. Playing solitaire, the human player controls the Government and tries to maximize the COIN success against the three other factions.

It’s important to understand that Andean Abyss is similar to insurgency and counterinsurgency in that it is a game of patience, waiting for opportunities and maximizing resources. I would compare Andean Abyss to tournament Hold’em Poker. On the face of it, it’s a simple game, but the meta-game is complex. As in tournament poker, passing in Andean Abyss is not a sign of weakness, it can be a sign of strength.

The key to success in this game is in using both offensive and defensive strategies to establish one’s own position while blocking other faction players from acting to their full potential. Occasionally, it is even necessary for you to trigger an event or action that appears to help another player in the short term, in order to benefit from it in the long term.

Is Andean Abyss an Accurate Simulation of COIN?I am writing this preview from somewhere in the Middle East. [But I’m far from being on the “tip of the spear”; I’m somewhere way down on the handle of the spear. I have not been to Afghanistan and have only been to Iraq a couple of times. I’ve never fired a shot in anger and I’ve only had a few small things lobbed in my direction.] I studied FM3-24 (Counterinsurgency), Brian McAllister Linn’s The Philippine War, 1899-1902, David Kilcullen’s “28 Articles”, and pulled Bernard Fall’s Street Without Joydown off the shelf after a 20-year hiatus. Being in the area has rapidly increased my awareness and study of insurgency and counterinsurgency theory in general and in the CENTCOM AOR (Central Command Area of Responsibility) in particular. Lately, I’ve read David Kilcullen’s Accidental Guerrilla and Counterinsurgency, William Polk’s Violent Politics, Dexter Firkins’ The Forever War and Sean Naylor’s Not a Good Day to Die, etc., etc.Playtesting Andean Abyss has driven me to expand my investigation of COIN beyond the Middle East. Thanks to Andean Abyss, I’ve discovered Thomas Marks, Kalev Sepp, John Jandora, and the Small Wars Journal. As a long-time wargamer and military history buff, usually I’ll read a work of military history and then find a game that simulates the battle or campaign I just read about. Andean Abyss has flipped that process for me. I started playtesting the game and that has driven me to research the COIN history of Colombia (in parallel with my study of COIN in general). The closest I had come to studying Colombia before was Mark Bowden’s Killing Pablo, which is a really interesting book, but it’s a prologue to the period covered byAndean Abyss.

And as I study the Colombian COIN experience more, I realize how much thought and research Volko has put into the Andean Abyss system and the faction interactions. Don’t let the cubes mislead you: Andean Abyss is a historically accurate, but more importantly, a strategically accurate representation of COIN. The operations, the support/opposition system, the resource system, the favored methods of affecting the other factions, the asymmetric player victory conditions – Volko has used simple mechanics to simulate elegantly the political and economic struggle that is key to winning the military struggle. I can say confidently that based on my study and knowledge, Andean Abyss “gets it right”.


The rules of Andean Abyss are simple but they do require multi-level thinking. Players must consider not only “what can I do,” but “If I do that, then what will the next faction do?” The subtle strategies and player interactions it requires and the variable powers and goals it involves make this a deep game, one that forces players to stay focused. Once you add in its innovative mechanics what you will find is not only a fresh and exciting game, but one that is highly replayable. Andean Abyss should be a winner of a game.

Got some feedback for us? Email your opinions and comments to guest contributor Mike Owens.

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