Robotech means nothing to me. Maybe less than nothing as the general anime aesthetic is not something I find appealing. Thus, I can’t speak to how well Robotech: Reconstruction captures its intellectual property or evokes themes therein, but I do know a little something about GMT’s COIN (COunter INsurgency) series, enough to identify the throughline to this design and how damn shrewd it is.
For the greater context, you have to understand how this game is unmistakably linked to COIN. If Robotech: Reconstruction hit up Ancestry.com, it’s family tree would be festooned with Cuba Libre, A Distant Plain, and Fire in the Lake. These are all conflicted-oriented area control political simulations. ‘A COIN Inspired Game’ would fit perfectly as a subtitle for Robotech: Reconstruction.
But that’s all unofficial. This isn’t a GMT release, instead published by Strange Machine Games and designed by Dr. Wictz, a pseudonym for the duo of Aaron M. Honsowetz and Austin Smokowicz.
It features four highly asymmetric forces with their own action menus and special rules. Each are at odds with one another, as only a single player may accomplish their unique special victory condition to win the game. Yet, like COIN, these factions are highly entangled through cleverly layered incentives and mechanical intersection.
There very much is a requirement for four players, each occupying one of the vibrant roles. Accommodations are given to automate one of the factions, but I found this less than ideal and not nearly as satisfying as engaging a full table braced for the conflict that will ensue.
I initially encountered a mental roadblock of sorts, struggling to forge a connection with the game. I overcame that hurdle once I mapped the included factions to their COIN equivalent, which admittedly is a trivial endeavor.
The Zentraedi Rebellion are the primary insurgents, seeking to radicalize civilians and overthrow the government. Like guerillas in its progenitor, they flip from their covert status to attack from the underground. The Zentraedi work with another political underdog, the Anti-Unification League. This is a human faction dedicated to rebuilding thriving cities and establishing peace. Instead of enacting violence and tearing it all down, they build and populate cities as they fight for control.
The opposition is the Robotech Defense Force. This is the governmental police, seeking to pacify the populace and win their hearts and minds. They struggle, however, to maintain their grip on an extended area as they must return to cities between rounds. Thankfully, they are buddied up with the Robotech Expeditionary Force, a military faction capable of sweeping deployment and extended campaigns. These militants are all about brute force, utilizing their numerous mechs to seize large swathes of ground.
Identically to Fire in the Lake, the alliances here are fragile. On the surface it’s a two-versus-two affair, as each faction has a natural partner they work alongside to control area and secure income. But there is only one winner, so you must maintain this delicate balance of furthering your joint efforts while also quietly knee-capping your frenemy at every opportunity. It’s a dance, one full of blades and spite.
While the COIN feel is retained, there are a couple of substantial divergences that manipulate the way players engage the system. The most notable is the sharp event system.
One unifying element of the COIN series is a central stack of event cards. They enforce the historical boundaries of the design, injecting actual headlines into play and providing a timeline of sorts. It’s also the driving force behind the tempo of play, as it determines who can activate and their capabilities. Many criticize this aspect of the system as it produces a hefty amount of randomness, making it impossible to plan long-term due to the unpredictability of game state and unreliable action economy.
If you felt like this needed fixin’, well, Robotech may have done it. Instead of an event deck in an external state devoid of player agency, the cards are dispersed into the hands of each participant. This is a substantial modification, blending COIN-style faction specific event cards with a Twilight Struggle inspired dilemma. There is a crucial timing element where you strategically decide when to play cards to benefit your opponents, attempting to influence the game state by controlling pace and momentum. There is a huge tonal shift as you’re granting your opponent’s opportunities as opposed to the deck randomly administering injustice.
You can play your own cards, however, but this is heavily disincentivized as you’re afforded less actions in the turn following the event execution. This is incredibly interesting as it opens up an entirely new dimension to the game’s economy, allowing players to trade event cards and forge unbinding deals to play them at opportune moments. This feeds the brittle alliance structure, baiting you into providing your ally a surge and shifting the dynamic precipitously.
Juiced faction events are introduced between various rounds, functioning similarly to the ‘Tet Offensive’ and other special event cards in Fire in the Lake. This injects an additional dimension into the bartering as well as enhancing the setting elements.
The other twist is that, despite my erroneous claim earlier, you can actually share victory with your ally. If no faction accomplishes their unique victory condition prior to the end of the fourth round, then score is tallied for minor victory. In this case, each faction is assessed against their primary opposing power. This means each group linked in that soft alliance can independently achieve their minor victory. This is a wonderful twist, as it feels earned and it provides a nice prickly texture to the friction placed between specific factions.
This is also a thoughtful feature as it’s intertwined with the game’s most defining personality trait: it’s ridiculously succinct arc. If it accomplished nothing else, Robotech: Reconstruction could be lauded for successfully compressing the COIN experience into a 120-minute bloodbath. It lasts only four rounds, with each faction taking one full turn per round – plus the multitude of actions triggered dynamically by event cards played. It’s extremely brief in both time and in the units of influence allotted. It’s streamlined as well due to eliminating much of the between round administration that occurs when a ‘coup’ is triggered in COIN, as well as stripping down the complexity of the faction-specific actions.
To accomplish the restricted playtime, the actions parceled out are sweeping and dramatic, despite their streamlining. When you take a move action for instance, you can move an unlimited number of units, as long as you can pay currency for it. The events, similarly, are absolutely wild. One card moves all of the RDF units on the board to a single space, effectively vacating numerous points of interest. Another wipes the board of all character standees – neat faction specific heroes that offer enhanced strength. Because the timeframe is compressed, the operations are more dramatic and impactful.
Of course, this means the game is prone to unexpected victories and upsets. That’s somewhat typical for this type of highly asymmetric game as it will take some time for players to familiarize themselves with their own abilities and objectives, much less their opponent’s. But it’s even more pronounced here where the board state can swing wildly in different directions.
Some would label this a flaw. I offer it merely as caution, as the sudden power maneuvers and unexpected twists offer a hugely enticing charisma to the experience that defines the game from my perspective. It’s unmistakably COIN-derived, but it accomplishes enough to establish an individuality that is honed and exquisite in its melodrama.
This is an effective piece of game design, for all the reasons I’ve stated. It’s captured my mind and enthusiasm.
But there’s a part of me that’s still keeping it at arm’s length.
Forthrightly, it’s a disappointing production. The board is distinct but garish. The cardboard tokens depicting the units are diminutive and paltry. These two factors combine to produce a board state that is difficult to parse. It actively inhibits play, occasionally causing participants to misread a territory’s status or overlook an important detail. This leads to errant confusion and the odd misplay. It’s not quite the catastrophe and it has not deterred me from returning, but it’s a noticeable gaffe that will surely affect your experience.
Now, the benefit of this composition is that the box is small, almost filler sized. And, subsequently, the game has a low $45 MSRP. I’m not sure I’ve seen such a rich game trimmed to this reasonable of an offering. It’s uncanny as this is a highly strategic experience that rivals large titles in scope.
My second qualm is more significant, and it’s in how the broader themes evoked in the design philosophy of the COIN series are filed down and nearly lost. Some of that’s still here in faint strokes, but much as the gameplay was compressed, the socio-political motif is partially washed out due to the fictional setting that is devoid of emotional impact. A Distant Plain wrenches at my heart when the Coalition performs a drone strike and craters the civilian population to shred a few terrorists. I can link that to my own experience, my struggles with violence and morality, and my concerns for the world at large. I feel no such emotional turmoil when Zentraedi are murdered, or neutral cities are swarmed and overtaken. I care not for these odd fictitious people, and the events occurring are even farther removed from reality than the already abstracted occurrences of a real-world simulation.
Yes, I would likely feel something if I was familiar with the Robotech setting. It still wouldn’t quite transcend play in the same way a historical game often does. Similar themes are espoused and teased out in small doses, but the impact is not nearly as significant or transformative. Robotech: Reconstruction is less moral drama, and more an energetic facsimile of another culture’s tragedy. Some may appreciate this buffer to suffering, although I find what remains a void.
If I step back and divorce myself from that qualification – something I am able to do during play – then I can truly resist holding it against the game. As a strategic likeness of political upheaval and complex shared incentives, Robotech: Reconstruction is indeed an admirable accomplishment. It’s able to successfully abridge a much larger design space to offer a compelling and theatrical experience that is gratifying. For that is enough to earn undue adulation.
A review copy of the game was provided by the publisher.