The Tuesday Interview – Brian Train (The Game Theorist!)

Brian Train stops back at GrogHeads for an asymmetric interview  ~

Brant Guillory, 9 May 2017

 

Let’s start this off with a whopper: all-time best game you’ve ever played? Why that one?

Hmm. I really don’t know what would be the all-time best one. One I never seem to get tired of is Minuteman, the Second American Revolution by James Dunnigan. I played it again and again back in the day, and one of the first variants I ever designed was for that game. The premise back then seemed farfetched but 40 years later, I am not so sure. But I liked the processes of building up an insurgent movement, or the counter to it, through covert and semi covert actions, and the eventual payoff of an actual revolution. The various scenarios were interesting too, including two occupation/resistance ones and a four-way second civil war that could develop any number of ways.

I think I got more out of that design than any other SPI game I played, but a close second would be South Africa; another game people say they love to hate but I spent a lot of hours tinkering with it.

OK, so now let’s drive everyone nuts. A bunch of your more famous counter-insurgency games – Tupamaro, Shining Path, Power Play – are not wargames, since you can play entire games with no actual martial conflict, and still win. Fair characterization? Or unnecessary pedantic hair-splitting? How would you characterize your designs where there may never be a need for a bullet to fly in anger?

Well, in my insurgency games like Tupamaro and Shining Path, there is a certain amount of low-level violence but by and large there are no divisions marching on the capital city, so I suppose that’s fair. In these games there are plenty of non-violent options, but I would say the design of mine that draws the most distinct line in this respect is Ukrainian Crisis. In that game there is a very clear division between overt and covert forces and how they are used, and between turns that are geared towards mobilization and diplomacy and those that are for military action. It’s quite costly in terms of Prestige (the catch-all game currency) to run amuck militarily, and quite possible to play a game to victory without ever engaging in overt kinetic conflict… though you might feel driven to do that, if the enemy is threatening to outmaneuver you in the non-military arenas.

I guess this might drive some people nuts, but chances are they would not be within a country mile of playing many of my designs anyway. I’ve designed a fair number of all-military, straight-out historical games, but my preference is for political-military affairs that offer options along a whole spectrum of action.

What’s been the best innovation in wargaming design over the past 15 years or so, and what hole has it filled that previous designs missed?   What’s been the most over-hyped idea in game design for the past 15 years, and where have you seen it lead games astray?

Gee, search me. I actually don’t play a lot of games, and when it comes down to it I am not very good at the ones I play. I study them instead. I don’t think I could point to anything in particular but I like some trends I have seen over the last while:

  • New ideas about sequences of play and how turns are structured, and what they represent – the increasing use of cards has helped here (not just card-driven games, but card-assisted ones as well)
  • More acceptance of basic asymmetries in game systems and mechanics
  • More acceptance of fog of war, through things like block games
  • Willingness by designers to experiment with all of the above

It’s hard for me to point to anything I don’t like, since it’s likely I wouldn’t have enough experience of it to make a comment.

 

You’ve now been pulled in to talk at the US Army War College, the National Defense University, and whatever defence ministry Canada has left, in addition to Connections, and several different commercial conventions. What’s been the most rewarding of those seminars / discussions? Give us a time someone in the crowd asked you a question that really made you think?

Heh, they didn’t have to pull very hard…. And actually I’ve never done anything for Canada’s Department of National Defence (except for nine years of full and part-time service, back in the 80s). I think one of the best times I had in a discussion was last year when I spoke to a class in a game design program at the University of Montreal, an intense one-year post-degree diploma program where the students design several manual and computer games themselves. I talked to them about games on modern irregular warfare and counterinsurgency (the default mode of actual post-WW II conflict but poorly received by hobby gamers), and their capability to act as subversive and critical objects with respect both to the mainstream media portrayals of the conflicts they model, and to the larger body of wargames themselves. The students asked some really thought-provoking questions, particularly about the morality and sensitivity of doing work in this area.

 

I’ve never been under any illusion that this could ever be anything more than a hobby that pays for itself in a good year.

How close are you to unplugging from your day job and plowing full-time into dazzling the world with your games? Are you just one major defense contract from bunkering into your attic and churning out a game a week for the rest of us to enjoy?

Nevah happen, GI. I’ve never been under any illusion that this could ever be anything more than a hobby that pays for itself in a good year. After more than 25 years of designing, and closing in on nearly 50 published designs, I am just happy that I have this creative outlet in my life that never stops challenging me, and brings me into contact with so many neat people (some pudd’nheads too, but that’s how it goes…).

 

What’s someone else’s design that you played and then just shook your head and thought, “damn, I wish I had a game that good…” ?

There are loads of good ideas out there, and you know in this business there is a lot of very sincere flattery and homage involved in stealing them for one’s own. So one I would choose in this category is Joe Miranda’s “Staff Card” system, first seen in his Bulge 20 game. I adapted that one heavily in two different directions, for The Scheldt Campaign and Third Lebanon War, and was very pleased with both. It’s that good and flexible a system, and I intend to do more with it.

Another is the COIN system designed by Volko Ruhnke. I participated in the playtesting of Andean Abyss at Consimworld Expo back in 2010, and I could see right away he was onto something really good. It wasn’t until I met Volko in person a year or two later that I realized my work had partly inspired him! Volko is so generous with his time, attention and encouragement of other designers; he’s really an incredible person and I am very glad to know him. Working with him on A Distant Plain was great.

 

Knowing that we’re about to open up the interview to a list that’ll rival any ‘thank you’ speech from the Oscars, what are the next couple of games off of your desk, and where are we going to find them?

The next couple that are out of the gate are:

  • Colonial Twilight: the French Algerian War, 1954-62 from GMT Games in June 2017. This is the first version of the COIN system for two players, I have been working on it for nearly three years and am very pleased with how it came out.
  • Red Horde, from Tiny Battles Publishing in folio format some time later this summer. This is an extensive revision of my 2007 game Konarmiya, on the second phase of the Russo-Polish War (spring and summer 1920). New map, new OOB, very very revised rules… it’s really almost a new game. The first one has been out of print for a long time so no effective comparison, really.

At the moment I am working on the following, as time and inclination allow:

  • Chile ’73: multiplayer small-format game on “the other 9/11”, the coup that toppled Allende.
  • District Commander system: I have two installments of this system I’ve developed for operational-level counterinsurgency games, featuring diceless resolution and asymmetric menus: Kandahar 2009 and Binh Dinh 1969. Actually not working on them much, just looking for the time to finish off the graphics and publish them myself since there seems to be little appetite for a formal release of these. Probably follow it up with an Algeria 1959 one for good measure.
  • Thunder Out of China: Four-player COIN system game on China, 1937-41. I have worked out the basic mechanics and half filled out the Event Deck, but haven’t had the time to do much more than that, due to spending so much time on Colonial Twilight and other things.
  • Nights of Fire: 2-3 player game on street fighting in Budapest, November 4-7 1956. This is new, and a thematic sequel to Days of Ire, the multiplayer game by Cloud Island on the Hungarian Revolution that’s turning a lot of heads. A light wargame or a heavy war-themed Euro, can’t decide what it is. But it’s interesting.

 

Besides asking you about your favorite Hasil Adkins song, what should we have asked that we forgot to ask?

Toss-up between “No More Hot Dogs” and “She Said”. Whoo! Eeee! Ah! Ah!

 

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