Falling Sky Review: Para Bellum!

Published: June 14, 2016 11:00 AM /

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Falling Sky Header

GMT Games' COIN series (COIN stands for COunter INsurgency) is very highly regarded in the board game world, especially among players who style themselves wargamers. Designed by Volko Ruhnke, each of the series' six games (as of this writing) promises balanced, asymmetric warfare, and sociopolitical intrigue  paired with an easy to learn rule-set. Falling Sky: The Gallic Revolt Against Caesar is the sixth game in the series, and my first foray into the COIN system after being interested in it for quite a while. After numerous games, both against other humans, and against the cleverly designed non-player bots, I can say that the game hits those descriptors on the head. In the case of Falling Sky, and, I'm assuming the rest of the COIN series based on what I've read about them, "easy to learn" is a relative term though. The rules themselves are tight, and there really isn't anything that is confusing or non-intuitive about them, but the way they are implemented presents players with an absolutely staggering amount of options, depth, and strategy, all of which have to be considered every single turn.

Falling Sky Board
The board in Falling Sky is beautifully constructed. There are no bottle necks, so it's almost impossible to ever feel fully secure.

Falling Sky is driven by a single deck of cards that is constructed semi-randomly at the beginning of each game, with Winter cards shuffled in at regular intervals. The cards themselves determine turn order, and offer one or two Events as optional actions for the players to take. Two players act during each card, and the next turn's card is always revealed, letting the other two players know what their options will be, but don't mistake random card draw for random. The action taken by the first player each turn determines which action the second player can take. Because each turn flows this way, the first player not only has to decide what they want to do, but they have to weigh that against what they want to allow their opponent to do. The Events on the cards can be powerful, but knowing that your opponent will get to take a full action followed by a special ability can be enough of a deterrent that the first player may opt to instead limit their own action in order to further limit their opponent. Even if a few cards keep the turn order consistent, the tables will turn eventually, so one player wont always be limited by their opponent, and they will come across cards that allow them to act first as well, sooner or later. Players always have the option to pass their turn in order to gain a small bit of resources, and potentially act first on the next card. Players can even block an opponent from acting by passing at the right moment. Since only two factions will have the chance to take turns on each card, a pass at the right time can be a brilliant strategic move.

Falling Sky Sequence of Play
The Sequence of Play is the core of the COIN system. Players have to balance what they want to do with what that action will allow their opponent to do. Decisions in Falling Sky are rarely easy.

The fact that players can only ever see one card into the future means that long term plans are especially hard to lay out. Each player has a clear set of goals, and there is no information hidden from the other players, so it is always clear exactly how far each faction needs to go to win. The trick is laying out that plan, and executing it, without knowing exactly what is coming via the cards, and what kind of wrench might be thrown into the works. The dynamic turn order means that players not only have to consider what they want to do, but also what their opponents might do in the mean time. Except in rare cases, players have time to react to the actions taken by the other players. If the Roman player marches a large force into one area, for example, it's easily seen by the other players, and since battle can't be joined immediately after a march, the other players have time to react it. Deciding which is the proper course of action though—whether it be to bolster their own forces, attack before the Romans get the chance, or high-tail it out of there—is another matter entirely.

Falling Sky Cards
Each card lists the turn order across the top, and shows the Event available for that turn on the bottom. Many Events have two possibilities, further increasing their strategic depth. The Events can have direct, immediate effects or can give one faction a power boost for the remainder of the game.

The tension built by the move/counter-move nature of Falling Sky is only heightened by the board layout itself. The board is structured in such a way that there is never truly a safe place to be. It's nearly impossible to turtle up in Falling Sky without paving the way to easy gains for your opponents in other areas. No faction has enough military might to truly control any significant amount of the board at any one time. This forces players to try to pay attention everywhere, to make sure they keep their flanks covered while moving against the weak point of their enemies. This is easier said than done, and nearly every decision comes with a healthy dose of calculated risk. The close, dangerous layout of the board, and the constant back and forth as factions fight and posture over territory, provides Falling Sky with an engrossing narrative. In every moment, a glimpse at the board tells a story, and a vignette of snapshots, turn to turn, shows a fluid back-and-forth; an ebb and flow that will see each player experience highs, lows, victories and defeats multiple times across a single play.

Falling Sky Faction
Each faction in Falling Sky has a sheet where they keep their available forces as well as their Ally discs and Citadel/Fort pieces. The Aedui sheet also keeps track of their win condition, which is to have more Allies than any other faction.

A game of Falling Sky will see a fair amount of bloodshed, as Roman Auxilia and Legions clash with Gaulic Warbands, and the Gauls turn their Warbands against one another. Combat in Falling Sky is deliberate, quickly resolved, and almost entirely deterministic, but it is still interesting and players can't just rush round the map fighting as often as possible or they will pay a heavy price. Roman Forts and Gaulic Citadels provide a huge defensive benefit, cutting their Faction's losses in half, while Roman Legions are so well trained that they can potentially absorb huge amounts of punishment before being eliminated. The Gauls have the home field advantage and can lay deadly ambushes for their foes, while also retreating away into the nearby countryside if attacked by a superior force. Caesar, on the other hand, has a brilliant military mind, and has a chance to counter attack even when ambushed, and is absolutely deadly when on the offensive at the head of his Legions.

Even though the outcome of a combat is easily calculated, and is a foregone conclusion if both sides stand and fight, that rarely happens, so players have to be careful about how and when to engage each other. Players can overextend if they push too hard, and end up only able to watch as their once-victims slip away, only to reappear elsewhere to take advantage of a  lightly defended area now left vulnerable. This constant positioning can lead to epic moments when a player finally manages to outmaneuver an opponent, leaving them no way out and dealing them a devastating loss. Those moments are fist-pump worthy when you spring the trap and gut wrenching when you have the trap sprung neatly around you.

All of these different points of consideration are where "easy" goes right out the window and gets left behind forevermore. There is so much that needs to be considered at any one moment, whether it be all four factions' victory conditions, which action to choose based on the potential actions opened up to your opponents, or where to leave yourself unprotected in one moment to take advantage elsewhere in the next moment, that it is easy to feel overwhelmed while playing Falling Sky.

Falling Sky Control
Control of each Region is only gained if a faction has more pieces there than all other factions combined. It can be easy to forget to change control markers during play as pieces are moved around the board, but it is very important to ensure that control is shown accurately.

There is quite a bit to keep track of mechanically as well, and it can take a few games before players are familiar enough with the game to actually play it correctly without missing something. After every action players need to check Region control, whether any faction's score needs to be adjusted based on the current game state, and adjust their marker on the resource track based on any resources just spent. There are so many things demanding player attention, and players can easily get absorbed in thoughts of strategy and tactics that some of these things can be easy to overlook, and quite a few of them, especially player scores and Region control, can be vital to decision making, and can even alter the effectiveness of some faction's actions.

Falling Sky Senate
The Roman player has to keep an eye on the political climate back in Rome while campaigning in Gaul. The Senate decides how many Legions and Auxilia to send to Caeser each spring.

As for the factions themselves, the game can feel entirely different based on which faction is played, and it truly is amazing how incredibly balanced they manage to be, while all having separate goals, as well as different ways of achieving those goals. The Romans are military powerhouses, able to quickly traverse the map with powerful, well-trained Legions. The Romans can also build forts just about anywhere, further increasing their military might. They have to be careful to keep their supply lines open though, as maintaining a force of well trained soldiers is an expensive affair. Caesar also has to keep the Senate back in Rome in mind, as things can go south quickly for the Romans in Gaul if the will of the Senate is against him. Caesar's main goal is to subdue as many tribes as possible, bringing enough of the population under heel to take control of all of Gaul.

The Aedui and the Romans are tentative allies, and the Aedui use that friendship to increase their wealth via trade. They take the wealth that they make via trade with the Romans and use it to undermine and suborn the Gallic people, winning their loyalty with payments and bribes. Even though they are the weakest militarily, it only takes one Aedui unit operating covertly to turn the will of a Region's people to the Aedui cause. Playing as the Aedui in Falling Sky is less a game of war and more a game of political intrigue and subterfuge, as they attempt to gain more allies than any of their foes.

The Arverni have the love of the people, and with the help of their leader Vercingetorix, can rapidly mobilize a sizeable military force. While they aren't the best fighters, they are able to Devastate Regions, starving their enemies and depriving them of valuable resources, especially once Winter hits. Vercingetorix and his Arverni have to win the support of numerous allies while simultaneously depriving Caesar of his Legions, by any means necessary.

The final player faction, the Belgae, are led by Ambiorix, and are fierce fighters capable of enlisting their Germanic cousins to the east to help them fight to retain control of the north of Gaul. The Belgae are so fierce that they are capable of frightening their enemies into fleeing the field before battle is joined, but they only have local support in the very northern parts of the map. As they expand outward, their campaign becomes more expensive, and they have to be careful not to overextend lest they run out of resources. The Belgae and Arverni also have a tentative alliance, but it exists more because they share a common enemy in the Romans than for any mutual benefit.

There is also a German faction, but they are never fully controlled by a player. The Belgic can enlist them for help, and can use them to harry and harass the other players, but the Germans will do their own thing every time Winter rolls around. They aren't overly powerful, but, if left unchecked, they can become a serious annoyance, especially for the Roman player if they are trying to keep control of the east side of the board, and keep their supply lines intact.

Whichever faction is played, Falling Sky provides a rich, tense, and strategically demanding experience. The Romans and Arverni are a bit more complex to play than the Aedui and Belgae, but no faction is easy to play, and the methods for achieving their goals are so different that it would be a true challenge to master all four. All four factions are required for each game, but the game comes with an AI for each faction that is extremely well-designed, so even a solo player can play the game to the best of their ability and still face an interesting challenge. Playing against the AI's is actually a great way to see the strengths of each faction and give players a general road-map of the direction they should head in in order to be successful when playing as the different factions.

Falling Sky Player Aid
Falling Sky has excellent player aids. Each faction has one for each human player. There are also player aids included for each faction for when it is being run by the AI instead, including specifics about how to handle certain card Events that are relevant to that faction.

A note on play time: Falling Sky can end in a flash. Because victory is checked every Winter, and players are never sure exactly when Winter will show up, a game of Falling Sky can end in under an hour if players aren't paying attention to where the others are relative to their victory conditions. More likely though, once players are familiar with the game, or when playing solitaire, the game will be a hard fought contest until the very last Winter. That means that a game between players of equal skill can last up to 4 hours. This isn't a game for people looking to sit down for a quick hour; rather, it is more well-suited for those who intend to sit down to 2+ hours of high-tension, attention-demanding conflict.

Falling Sky Components
Falling Sky has awesome components. The stamping on the wooden bits is especially striking, as well as serving a direct game function by showing if a unit is hidden or revealed.

A note on “chrome”: The components in Falling Sky are almost entirely excellent. The wooden bits are all uniformly colored and have wonderful metallic stamping on one side that really pops. The cardboard chits and cards are all thick and easy to read and feel good to use. The player aids are great, especially when playing with non-player factions, and the playbook teaches the game in a great, step-by-step manner that walks the player through example after example, teaching by doing. The faction mats are thinner card stock, but they generally aren't handled often, usually staying stationary on the table once the game has begun. The rulebook is exactly that, rules. Be advised that learning the game by tackling the rulebook first makes for a very dry and somewhat difficult learning experience. Start with the playbook to make the learning curve much smoother.


The bottom line:

Falling Sky is an amazing war game, but that description doesn't really fully explain what the game is. The push, pull, ebb and flow of the game demands so much more than simple military superiority and maneuvering. Every decision is key, and a wrong move can spell disaster if a player's opponents are savvy enough to capitalize on it. The layout of the board , and the asymmetric goals, and win conditions for each faction mean that no position is ever safe. It also means that no faction is ever truly out of the game, even when they have taken a beating. No faction has enough manpower to ever completely secure their position, and smart play trumps brute force every time. Falling Sky is a game that takes a commitment to learn and play properly though, because, even though the rules are tight and concise, there is so much for each player to consider at all times that it can feel overwhelming, even after multiple games. Players willing to spend the time to really plumb the depths of Falling Sky, and the COIN system it is built upon, will be rewarded with a deep, engaging, and satisfying experience. Players looking to sit down and fight a few quick battles will need to look elsewhere though.


Get this game if:

You enjoy deep, strategic games.

You like balanced, asymmetric factions.

You want a wargame/sociopolitical conflict game that uses options and choices, rather than overly complex rules, to provide tension and depth.

You want a deep, strategic wargame that accommodates solitaire play very well.

Avoid this game if:

You prefer cooperative games.

You prefer dicefests.

You prefer games with shorter (< 120+ minute) playtime.


The copy of Falling Sky: The Gallic Revolt Against Caesar used for this review was provided by GMT Games.

Review Summary


Falling Sky is an amazing game for players looking for a tense, deep and strategically demanding experience. Falling Sky is for those players who like games that demand careful consideration and smart play.

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