History to #Wargame – @gmtgames COIN Inspiration? Rebels at the Gate – From the Tonghak Uprising to the Sino-Japanese War in Korea, 1894

For tabletop wargamers, a popular game series in the past decade is GMT Games’ Counter Insurgency (COIN) Series. Starting in 2012 with Volko Ruhnke’s Andean Abyss – COIN Vol I , the system now (nearly) encompasses 14 volumes spanning conflicts from the past, present, and even future. I personally own two titles, Harold Buchanan’s Liberty or Death: The American Insurrection – COIN Vol. V and Brian Train’s Colonial Twilight: The French-Algerian War, 1954-62 – COIN Vol. VII with two more on order (Brian Train’s China War: 1937-1941 – COIN Vol. XII and J. Carmichael’s Red Dust Rebellion: The Martian Revolts – COIN Vol XIII). All of which means I have limited familiarity with the COIN system as a player and am far, far from being a COIN designer.

That said….

I recently read an article by Robert Neff called “Rebels At the Gate” in the May 1, 2021 edition of The Korean Times Online. The article discusses events from 1894 on the Korean peninsula focusing on a peasant rebellion that took place amidst the Sino-Japanese War. This passage in particular got me thinking about a possible game design:

The rebels ― identified as the Donghaks ― claimed to number several millions and had sworn to the death that they would rid the country of the foreign vermin. They didn’t in 1893 and, according to Sallie, they didn’t on September 15, 1894:

As a result of the threat, the “doors and windows were barred and the gates guarded by the legation soldiers but the night passed quietly and the excitement has entirely abated.”

However, the abatement was short lived. A few days later, Alice (Sallie’s sister who resided with the Sill family in Seoul), insisted she did not worry about the Chinese and Japanese soldiers rather “the danger now [in Seoul] is from the [Donghaks], Koreans who hate all foreigners and try to exterminate them whenever they can ― so a guard will be kept during the winter at least and perhaps longer.” A few days later she reported the rebels had advanced to a point about 50 kilometers south of Seoul. She insisted she was not worried and expressed the greatest confidence in the American marines guarding the legation in Seoul. 

The attack on Seoul never materialized. However, for the next couple of years, the regions outside Seoul were almost in a constant state of unrest.

Robert Neff, “Rebels at the Gate,” Korea TImes, May 1, 2021

It turns out that 1894 was an important year in Korean history. The book Korean History in Maps: From Prehistory to the Twenty-First Century (Michael Shin, Editor, Cambridge: Cambridge Univ Press, 2014) devotes an entire map titled, “The Year 1894: Gabo Peasants’ War, Sino-Japanese War” to this one year which shows not only significant battles but also the many peasant uprisings.

Korean History in Maps, p. 108

After reading Robert Neff’s article and looking at the 1894 map, the thought, “This really could be a COIN game” crossed my mind. Certainly, the historical events of 1894 are ripe for narrative exploration using the lens of a COIN game. One of the most powerful aspects of the COIN game system is the system’s ability to depict the interactions of multiple, often asymmetrically powered factions. In this case there are four factions:

  • Tonghak (aka Donghan) – “…the growing Christianity, the declining village economy, and certain government mismanagement led to the development of the strong anti-government and anti-foreign sentiments of the conservative Confucian literati as well as those of the Tonghak believers. The Tonghak had been seeking the legitimacy of their religion, exoneration of Ch’oe Che-u, the founder of the Tonghak sect, who was executed in 1864, and the prevention of the spread of foreign religion. At the same time, they were antagonized by illegal taxes which the local officials collected from the peasants.”1
  • Joseon (Korean Government) – “When the Tonghak Uprising became an open rebellion, the weak Korean government asked for Chinese help. Meanwhile, a truce was reached between the Tonghak rebels and the government…[which] issued a twelve-point reform program.”2
  • China – “The Chinese government whose aim was to strengthen its control over Korea sent an army of 3,000 soldiers and a naval force to Korea, violating the agreement which it had signed with the Japanese in April 1885.”3
  • Japan – “Meanwhile, the Japanese government concluded that it now had legitimate cause to fight a war with China, and the time was right. Consequently, it sent an army of 8,000 troops and a naval force to Korea.”4
  • Missionaries/Diplomats/Westerners – I don’t see these as a separate faction, but rather events or “terrain” that factions must be wary of.

These faction snippets can help define victory conditions, as well as thinking about the various Commands and Special Activities of each faction. At this point, my limited familiarity with COIN hinders me to design further but once I get another few games in house as examples I might be better suited to explore a possible design.

Focusing on the year 1894 also seems to make sense as that one year had a good ebb and flow of events. Broadly speaking, the year went though at least three distinct phases.

  • Gabo Peasant War Begins: Starting in January the first peasant uprisings in the South broke out. These uprisings spread into a full rebellion and by May troops from China and Japan arrived. At this point there was turmoil within the Korean government with palace intrigue in Seoul as a deposed king tried to place his son on the throne.
  • Sino-Japanese War Begins: By July, the Chinese and Japanese enter into open conflict. While the two outside powers fight, another peasant uprising begins which unites the Japanese and Daewongun Koreans (an alliance which eventually falters thanks to coup planning by the Daewongun). Interestingly, the Korean government fights alongside the Japanese against the rebels even as they try to implement reforms (carrot and stick approach?).
  • War Moves On/Peasant Rebellion Collapses: By November, the Chinese-Japanese fighting moves into Qing China and the peasant army is defeated with it’s main leader, Jeon Bongjin, captured. He was executed on April 24, 1895 just days after the Treaty of Shimonoseki ends the Sino-Japanese War and the tributary relationship between the Joseon and Qing dynasties.
Korean History in Maps, p. 109

Like I said, I’m no COIN game designer but this is a very interesting topic—and a great thought exercise.


Feature image from The History of Korea by Han Woo-Keun (Seoul: Eul-Yoo Publishing, 1970)

Footnotes:

1-4. Nahm, Andrew C., Introduction to Korean History and Culture, Seoul: Hollym, 1993, p. 158-162.

2 thoughts on “History to #Wargame – @gmtgames COIN Inspiration? Rebels at the Gate – From the Tonghak Uprising to the Sino-Japanese War in Korea, 1894

  1. I’m wondering if you could do an open-ended COIN wargame ruleset that could be applied to a bunch of different conflicts.

    My hunch is that it’d be technically possible but harder than a conventional one because of how situation-dependent unconventional wars are.

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