Interview: Brian Train, Designer of Colonial Twilight and Brief Border Wars

Brian Train, designer of A Distant Plain, Colonial Twilight, and Brief Border Wars joins Diagonal Move to discuss the simulation of unconventional conflict in wargames.

Brian Train with Brief Border Wars
Brian with his latest release

DM: Hi Brian, thank you for joining us. You have been a game designer for many years. Please can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you got started?

BT: Thanks Neil. I am Canadian, I live in British Columbia on the “left coast”. I started playing wargames in 1979 when I was 15; my favourite uncle sent me a copy of Tactics II for Christmas. I have played and studied them ever since.

I had always wanted to design wargames because almost no one was publishing games about the kinds of things I wanted to play. My first attempt at game design was a simple small game on the Pusan Perimeter phase of the Korean War, in 1982; I typed the rules out by hand, hand drew the map on some photocopied hex paper and made the counters by hand. It worked but obviously only one copy was ever made!

Years later, in 1990, I was in Japan teaching English, and most of my game collection was on the other side of the ocean. I wanted to play wargames, but none were available – but this time I had a computer and a printer. The first two games I designed were Power Play, about a coup d’etat in an imaginary country, and Civil Power, a tactical game about making and breaking urban riots. Funnily enough, the first was inspired by an old movie with Peter O’Toole and David Hemmings, the second by an essay by Hunter S. Thompson.  I kept designing after I got back from Japan and in 1995 Kerry Anderson and I started the Microgame Co-op, later known as the Microgame Design Group.

Kerry Anderson and I co-founded the Group to make it possible for amateur designers to have their games done with some nice artwork (Kerry wanted to do the graphics) and distributed on a non-profit basis. We charged customers what it cost to print and mail these games, plus little to invest in new equipment (e.g. colour laser printer). We were non-profit by intention, not by outcome! Surely that was unique…. Production quality was strict DTP: an 11×17” map, one sheet of counters you had to mount and cut yourself, no more than 6-8 pages of rules and charts, packed in a plastic comic book bag. I found it an agreeable challenge to work within these stringent parameters; a lot of writers will tell you that it is harder to write a short story than a novel.

The MDG turned out almost 40 titles in eight years. It suspended business for a while because Kerry wanted to go back to school and finish his doctorate (he is a meteorologist who studies lightning and lightning-caused forest fires; one of his enduring best selling designs is Smokejumpers, a game on fighting fires). Kerry has recently started the Design Group up again to produce small quantities of some new and old games.

By about 2000 I was starting to get some attention from other small publishers; by 2005-07 I was publishing things with Fiery Dragon Productions, a small press company in Toronto. This let me out of the comic-book bag ghetto: these guys produced games in small tin boxes (and later, somewhat larger cardboard boxes) and could make die-cut counters. By 2010-15 my games were appearing in magazines and an even larger number of small press outfits.

In not quite 30 years of designing I have published over 50 titles. But I still sell some of them with mount your own counters in a comic book bag!

BTR Games
Brian’s own small publishing outlet

DM: Your games tend to focus on modern-day, non-traditional conflicts. How do you choose a conflict to examine and what is it about these conflicts that inspires you to them in a game/simulation format?

BT: I choose what I find interesting. It’s a lot of work to design a wargame, and it takes a long time, so if I can’t stay interested in the topic, or the problem I want to solve, then chances are I will not finish it. For example, I once designed a game on the Battle of the Bulge called Autumn Mist, later redone as Winter Thunder.

I was never very interested in the historical battle, but I wanted to use the battle as a setting for a corps/army level system I had developed. Originally I wanted to use this system for the Manchuria 1945 Soviet offensive, but I haven’t done that yet – instead the system has been used in Bulge 1944, Poland 1939 (Summer Lightning), and Yugoslavia 1943-45 (Balkan Gamble, an alternative-history game about the Allied invasions in the Balkans that never happened). One day I’ll get around to doing it.

I don’t care very much about whether a game will sell well, just that it explores an interesting problem in a way that players find absorbing. Games don’t have to be finely balanced to be enjoyable, and a lot of simulations are not interesting enough when they are modelled too literally. But at the same time you want your players to learn something about the historical situation, so you cannot turn it into too much of a game – so I guess playability is more important, but it can be taken too far.

Once in a while a publisher will ask me for something on a particular topic – that’s how I came to do Colonial Twilight.

Brian Train A Distant Plain
A Distant Plain – A COIN game set in Afghanistan

DM: You have revisited certain conflicts (e.g. Afghanistan, Vietnam) several times during your career. How do you differentiate between games on the same subject? 

BT: I suppose it’s fair to say that I have spent a bit of time hanging around Afghanistan, Kandahar province in particular. I did A Distant Plain with Volko Ruhnke to cover the entire country, then four different games on the situation in Kandahar province using four different systems: a quite complicated development of an early guerrilla system; the “4 box” system I had used for other strategic level guerrilla conflicts but taken down to province level; a variant of the Staff Card system Joe Miranda introduced in Bulge 20 (and co-designed with Joe); and the District Commander system of diceless operational-level counterinsurgency games. Each system stresses different parts of the conflict and focuses on modelling different aspects of it.

I think that’s quite acceptable, look at how many different games have been done on the Bulge or Gettysburg, and how each one is different. Though maybe it’s unusual to have one designer go back to the same campaign again and again.

Winter Thunder
Autumn Mist was redeveloped into Winter Thunder

DM: Winter Thunder explored The Battle of the Bulge. How do you keep a conflict or battle that has been frequently gamed fresh?

BT: Winter Thunder is a development of an earlier game called Autumn Mist I first put together in 2002. It uses a corps/army system that has two hooks: activation of formations by chit pull and a near-diceless combat system using a matrix of choices between players. Eighteen years ago these were not particularly common mechanics and I wanted to explore how they worked for situations at this level; to this day there are still not very many Bulge games pitched at the division or above scale, so it’s still kind of fresh that way.

I guess it’s more common for me to design a game on a situation that’s fresh because it’s the first one on that conflict! In some cases, they are still the only ones on that conflict (e.g the Tupamaro urban guerrillas of Uruguay, the Shining Path of Peru, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the Cyprus Emergency, etc.).

District commander Brian Train
Vol 1 of the District Commander Series

DM: When designing how do you model/abstract real-life situations?

BT: Maybe half of my 50 titles belong to one or another family or system I have made, as a general approach to a particular type of conflict. For example, I have a system I call “Between the Wars” which revolves around armies operating with fragile morale and organization, using mostly infantry with small detachments of supporting arms (examples include Finnish Civil War, Strike for Berlin and War Plan Crimson). Even within each family, there are considerable variations depending on the circumstances of the conflict.

But the other half of my titles consist of games using systems I have never used before or since (though I have grabbed interesting bits out of them for use in other systems later). I like experimenting; it doesn’t always work, but then at least you know.

The process of designing a game has been described very well by James Dunnigan in his Complete Wargames Handbook.

Some of your readers may be familiar with this book, and if they’re not I highly recommend it. Chapter 4 describes the 10 steps a wargame goes through in design and development. These are pretty much the same in both the civilian and professional worlds.

  1. Concept development. (what it is that you want to do, or prove)
  2. Research. You will have done a little of this during the concept development stage. At this point you must fill in as many of the gaps in your knowledge as you can, and most importantly, start to sort out what needs to be presented in the game most, and how best to do that.
  3. Integration. This is where you take all of the research material and your knowledge of game mechanics and integrate it into a prototype game.
  4. Create prototype.
  5. First draft of rules.
  6. Game development. (Play testing, changing, rewriting, more testing, changing, rewriting in a seemingly endless loop)
  7. Blind testing.
  8. Editing. (bringing everything up to the same standard and tuning)
  9. Production. (of the physical product)
  10. Feedback. Because later on, some smart second-guesser will always have an opinion… as they say, no work of art is ever finished, it is only abandoned.

The first three steps are critical. If you don’t get them right, no amount of work in the seven succeeding ones is going to save you from later criticism and ridicule.

To add to this, the brilliant and nice Peter Perla has a great acronym for identifying and positioning six elements of game design, TREADS (found in his excellent 2007 paper, “Wargaming and Analysis” )

TREADS stands for:

  • Time (turn scale, treatment, relation to space)
  • Relationships between:
    • Entities (who are the acting bodies, organizations, etc. and how they relate)
    • Activities (what players do in the game)
    • Dynamics (what changes in the game universe result from these activities)
  • Space (map scale, form of map, relation to time)

I’ve found this valuable in getting things straight in that very important third step of Integration.

Volume 2 of the District Commander Series

DM: Why do you think some conflicts capture the imagination of gamers more than others and is there an under explored conflict that you would like to work on?

BT: A bit over half of my games are about irregular or unconventional warfare. By and large this is not a popular genre among wargamers. Even though this is the predominant mode of actual conflict in the world today, and you might expect that wargamers might have more interest in contemporary conflict, this appears not to be the case.

Wargamers are interested in history generally. They can have intense involvement and knowledge of certain historical periods, but I am not convinced they are any more interested in current events than the general run of non-wargamers.

World War Two, Napoleonic and American Civil War titles still dominate the market; they always have, and probably always will. Though there are many exceptions, and people seem more accepting of titles than they used to be – when I started wargaming in the late 70s and early 80s, there were almost no wargames on the Vietnam War but now games on this war appear regularly.

So, I spend most of my brain cycles on irregular warfare topics, an underexplored field in itself, and go for underexplored conflicts within that genre and portray them at various levels.

Many of them are strategic level where an entire country is shown (Shining Path, Algeria, Andartes). The challenge here is to show the long-term, non-military effects of many small military and non-military actions – irregular warfare is a “strategy of tactics”, where there are very few climactic battles like Dien Bien Phu. So many of these games use the semi-arbitrary concept of Political Support, measured in points on a scale of 0 to 99. When someone runs out of this support, the game is over, and they have lost.

Recently a few irregular war games have appeared that have modern settings but show the action at the tactical level (Boots on the Ground, Phantom Fury). They may have a few special rules or restrictions in them but essentially they are games about tactical infantry combat, which has been largely the same for the last 75 years, just with more and more asymmetric technology and firepower between the two sides. I don’t do tactical level games at all, except for Civil Power, a “sandbox” game on rioting and urban disorders (and another common contemporary event).

What is even more interesting, and much harder to do, is to show irregular war at the operational scale, in between these two levels. This is where a player has to think in terms of connected battles as they contribute to campaign plans and the non-military effect of what is going on in the conflict. Yet he does not represent a national leader or government who can set policy or allocate resources on a large scale: he must do not only what he thinks is required to win the conflict, he must also do what his government tells him to. I started in on this with my game Kandahar, where the two players are regional commanders (one the regional commander of Afghan security forces, the other a field commander of the Quetta Shura Taliban) and continued it in the District Commander system.

I’m also really interested in the problem of urban irregular warfare. I think it’s really urgent to do more work in this area, with the growing urbanization of the planet and the breakdown of civil government and infrastructure in trying to deal with this process, further complicated by accelerated climate change. But this topic is not addressed at all well, even in the professional wargaming world.

Last spring, I went to a conference on “Analysis of Urban Warfare” organized by the Military Operations Research Society. It was a very interesting three days but it seemed to me that more interest was directed towards the problems and tactics of kinetic formal conflict within large cities than on how I think conflict will probably play out in them – more Stalingrad than Mogadishu, put it that way. I’ve done about half a dozen titles on this topic (Battle of Seattle, Civil Power, Tupamaro, Operation Whirlwind, District Commander Maracas, Nights of Fire and development work on We Are Coming, Nineveh) and I am going to do more.

Brian’s 2 player entry in the COIN series

DM: You are perhaps best known for your entries in the COIN series. How do you find working within the constraints of an existing and popular system?

BT: Yes, my best-known designs are those using the GMT COIN system.

In 2000 I designed a game on the 1954-62 Algerian War of Independence – I had always been interested in this war, and this game was the first to be published on the war, in any language. In 2007-08 a professional colleague of Volko Ruhnke discovered the Fiery Dragon edition of the game and together we worked out a simpler version of the game for him to use in his classes. Volko saw the game and it gave him some ideas for what would become the COIN system.

I helped playtest his Andean Abyss in 2010 and I could see he was on to something – then the game came out the following year and he name-checked me in his designer’s notes! A year or two later we met in person, at a conference on professional wargaming, and quickly agreed to work together on something…  A Distant Plain was the result, in 2013, and what a privilege it was to work with him.

So, with Colonial Twilight, in a sense I’d come full circle, working on the third game ever published on the war, using a system partly inspired by the first. The most interesting thing about that game is that it was the first volume in the system for other than four players; cracking the “two-body problem” was interesting. Nevertheless, I have since made up a 4-player variant of Colonial Twilight for those who can’t break the habit.

The GMT COIN system is a really flexible one that lends itself to a lot of different kinds of conflicts. I’ve often thought that it might be a good one to try in a power-politics situation, where there is no overt conflict or violence. I have managed to add something with each title, as has everyone else working in the system. One problem of doing things slightly differently within an existing system is getting players to unlearn certain habits or assumptions they have made in playing other games in the system!

There are a few other occasions where I have used all or part of someone else’s system, because I found it particularly useful or interesting to implement. One example is Joe Miranda’s Staff Card system. He introduced this in Bulge 20 and I have used since in BCT Command Kandahar (a co-design with Joe), The Scheldt Campaign and Third Lebanon War.

Guerilla Checkers – released by Nestor Games

DM: Looking back which game makes you think “I’m glad I did that” and why?

BT: I suppose game designs are like one’s children: some disappoint less than others. But when I think about it, that’s actually pretty easy to answer: Guerrilla Checkers, the simplest game I’ve ever done in terms of rules, mechanics and components but it cuts to the nature of asymmetric warfare so quickly.

I had been working with some other people on an Afghanistan design, and about oh-dark-I-don’t-want-to-look-at-the-clock one morning I was staring at the ceiling and thinking about how the insurgents and counterinsurgents there, while both occupying the same section of the world at the same time, approached the physical terrain (ridges, gullies, roads) and human terrain (villages, tribes, relationships) in completely different ways. Why not have an abstract game where the two sides are playing with quite different pieces working in quite different ways, but are using the same board with the same ultimate aim of neutralizing the enemy?

The game uses mechanics from both Draughts and Go, but the combination of the two systems makes for a completely different game experience. The rules are very simple, but strategy can be deep. While it is a perfect information game, it is highly asymmetric.

COIN Brian Train
Brian’s latest COIN series design

DM: Can you tell us more about your recent releases?

BT: I’m working on several things right now.

Brief Border Wars, my attempt to revive the old SPI style quadrigame of four small, short games in one box that share the same rules system, came out this summer. The publisher decided that it should have a sequel, and it’s an interesting system, so the last month or so I have been working on Volume II; four new battles, each pre-1945. If I want to do a Volume III they will be post-1945 situations.

China’s War 1937-41: a game using the COIN system. It is somewhere north of 1,200 pre-orders on the GMT P500 system. I actually got this game to about the 50% done point in 2015, but I had to shelve it in order to finish Colonial Twilight off properly.

The main mechanics and victory conditions have been largely the same since then; I’ve been twiddling with a few numbers, and the Event Cards have been a lot of work and refining and tuning, as they usually are in creating a COIN system game. It’s about to start development and serious playtesting, but COVID-19 has derailed everything of course.

China’s War is the first volume in the COIN series to deal with any theatre of World War Two. It’s also a bit different in that it begins with a foreign invasion, where most of the other volumes deal with internal civil conflicts or insurgencies, or resistance to pre-existing occupations. Also, notably, where Andean Abyss had three insurgent and one conventional (non-insurgent) factions, this one is the reverse. The general situation is that one faction is invading China – while the remaining three factions are opposing the invader, they all have their own agendas. They are mutually hostile but can’t overtly attack each other; I joke that that might be a good game for four passive-aggressive types to play!

Civil Power: a tactical “sandbox” game on urban rioting and disorders. This was one of the first games I ever designed, and it has always been available from me in one form or another, but finally it is getting a better-than-DTP treatment with Conflict Simulations LLC. I’ve taken the opportunity to update the style, organization and content of the rules (almost as much work as making an entirely new design!) and have updated and added quite a few new scenarios – from the last stand of the Paris Commune to this year’s riots.

Map for Brief Border Wars
One of the maps in Brief Border Wars

DM: Do you have any advice to share with aspiring game designers?

BT: Discard thoughts of riches. There are probably five people in the world who have made anything like a living from designing board wargames. However, if your ideas are any good, you may get some notoriety, along with some pin-money, and that’s not bad. I have always treated this as a hobby. It might pay for itself in a good year, but don’t count on many good years.

Do what interests you. At least then you’ll be making one person happy (or at any rate heartily sick of the topic). Don’t be afraid to be interesting, either: do something different, and do it differently.

Don’t be afraid of doing things by yourself, for yourself. It’s a lot easier than it was in the 70s when there was no Internet and even photocopiers were hard to come by.