All Bridges Burning: The Game that Made Me a Solitaire Wargamer

I finally had the opportunity to play a three player game of All Bridges Burning, the latest Counter Insurgency (COIN) game from GMT. It was the final thing I had to do before before being comfortable to review the game. It was great fun, probably the most fun way to play, but afterwards thinking about the experience I had a bit of a realization about solitaire play and about how different, but equally entertaining both solitaire and multiplayer versions of the game were to me.

My review will be coming to the wonderful Meeple Mountain (Check them out!) in the near future, but since I was in a reflective mood I thought I’d take the time to think out loud about my time with All Bridges Burning, simultaneously my first exposure to the COIN system, and, perhaps not shocking given the title, the game that really made a true solitaire wargamer out of me.

Counter Insurgency games have a difficult task to perform. Trying to represent tricky, often convoluted historical situations where front lines are fuzzy, combatants are as likely to be ordinary people caught up in a terrible situation as trained soldiers, and the horrors that come with that kind of war are on the table for all to see is no small feat.

There is a lot of potential for pitfalls, as the separation from politics and humanitarian issues that some ‘traditional’ wargames can get away with is inescapable here. Not that I believe that you can truly separate war (or wargames) from the political and diplomatic situations that led to them, but the specifics of what is covered or brushed over by a wargame is very different in a COIN situation.

All Bridges Burning’s Finnish Civil War (1917-1918) is particularly tricky to represent, given the grassroots nature of a lot of Red and White actions, but also because of the dearth of easily available academic material. Yet the designer V.P.J. Arponen has done an excellent job in my estimation of not only creating an engaging game (again, more of that in the review) but also a vehicle for transmitting historical information in a way that presents a digestible and, dare I say, empathetic look at an underrepresented historical event.

While this is true of the game at two and three players, Solitaire offers the kind of stress free environment that really lets the designer speak to you. Though it took me a little bit to wrap my head around the solitaire system, the innovations with COIN’s card driven system meant that after a few turns, I was off to the races. It began to feel less like a board game and more like sitting down with an academic text. Just as I approach an academic history, asking it questions, listening to arguments, and evaluating evidence to the best of my ability, playing All Bridges Burning encouraged me to do the same. It was presenting me with its own academic argument through its play and its supplemental materials.

I know that I’m not unique here, I’m sure most if not all wargamers enjoying engaging with the designers and developers and their interpretations of history through play, but now I really consider solitaire play allows the time necessary to really engage with historical interpretation and presentation. I had as relaxing a time playing All Bridges Burning as I have when reading for my dissertation, and that is something I think should be celebrated. I already appreciated wargames for their ability to give me a tactile engagement with the history I read, but this is on another level that I’m glad to have discovered for myself. I’ve finally figured out what solitaire wargamers have known forever.

All Bridges Burning has definitely piqued my interest in reading more about the Finnish Civil War, and getting my hands on other COIN games to see what their designers have to say. That is a pretty good endorsement for checking out All Bridges Burning, I think.

-Joe Fonseca