The First Four Steps: Designer’s Notes For The New Line Of OSS Folio Games

frontier wars 728x90 KS

Brian Train, 22 April 2015

Game Theorist and Designer Brian Train joins us for a look inside the design of his new folio games with One Small Step games.

Ed Note:  We’ve already reviewed Shining Path here at GrogHeads.

At the beginning of 2015, One Small Step Games began to publish a series of new “folio games,” small format wargames on a variety of subjects at a reasonable price. At least eight will be released during this year: four by me, two Civil War titles by Richard Dengel (Lone Jack, Middle Creek) that use the Rebel Yell! tactical system, and two strategic World War Two games by Gary Graber (Battle of the Atlantic, Fall of Berlin).

The four titles by me are all modern-era, from 1956 Budapest to 2010 Afghanistan. Most of the game designs (I’ve published (30+ and counting) are post World War Two: for me, this is an area full of ungamed topics, grimy and nasty irregular wars which inform and shape the world we live in today. I was always interested in guerilla war/ irregular war/ low-intensity conflict, whatever it was being called at the time. I’ve been designing for about 25 years, and near the beginning of my career I was one of a very few people “ploughing in the COINfield”, as it were (I’m happy to say I have more company now).

Step One: Shining Path

This was one of my earliest designs, and one of the first titles put out under the Microgame Design Group imprint that Kerry Anderson and I started in the mid-90s. This was a non-profit (by design, not by outcome) that existed to produce and distribute DTP format games (11×17” map, mount your own counters), in order to bring aspiring designers to the notice of larger publishers, or just to get their ideas oot and aboot (since we were a Canadian outfit). Several prolific designers had some of their first titles come out through the MDG: Kerry Anderson (though he had already been published back in the 80s by 3W, Task Force Games and Yaquinto), Bruce Costello, Paul Rohrbaugh and me.


In 1995 I designed a small game called Tupamaro, on (what else) the Tupamaro urban guerillas in Uruguay 1968-72. This guerilla movement was remarkable in that it grew, flourished and died almost entirely within the capital Montevideo, a city about the size of Phoenix. This setting allowed me to dispense with the time, space and movement dilemmas that challenge new game designers, and try some new things like a non-representational map and non-specific turn lengths. The game did what I wanted it to, so a year and a bit later I used many of the game’s mechanics in a larger-scale, longer-term conflict: the conflict with the Sendero Luminoso or “Shining Path” guerillas of Peru, from 1980 to – well, 35 years later Sendero guerrillas are still attacking the odd police station or robbing convoys.


This time I went to a representational map, with the entire country of Peru divided into urban, agricultural and rural areas. Each area had a set of boxes within it to govern how and when units engaged in different missions, with each side having very different “menus” of missions they could do. The main currency in the game was Political Support: many actions in the game raised or lowered this for one or both sides, and when one side’s support zeroed out, the game was over. I added some particular chrome such as organizational morale, the cocaine trade and the corruption it brought, a rival guerilla movement, and so forth – the Government player also had the challenge of not running the nation’s economy into the ground through an overly large and expensive security establishment.


I went on to use many of these mechanics in subsequent games: Algeria (1954-62), Andartes (Greek Civil War 1947-49), EOKA (Cyprus 1955-59), and Kandahar Afghanistan 2009-10). To my mind they populate a “family” but do not quite constitute a rigid system, since each game is tailored to the specifics of each historical conflict.


MDG’s first phase lasted eight years and produced 40 titles. Shining Path was one of the first to be offered. It sold consistently but in small numbers (200-300 in all); after the Group went on hiatus in 2004 I sold copies myself, either copies of the MDG version or produced with revised rules and artwork under my own imprint of BTR Games . The 2015 OSS Games folio edition is the nicest art of all, with a larger 17×22” map, and of course the 140 backprinted, die-cut counters shatter the last barrier between my thoughts and respectability.


Step Two: Green Beret

It’s debatable whether American popular culture is more violent than explicitly militaristic, or vice versa, but it is certain that it is full of military heroes who are examples of both. In the early 1960s the World War Two GI-dogface, Everyman hero was replaced by the jut-jawed, triple-volunteer, near-superhuman Special Forces member, the Green Beret. There were Green Beret comic books, toy sets, and action stories and novels galore, not least the famous 1965 work “The Green Berets” by Robin Moore. Like many, I read this book when I was a teenager, and the chapter I liked most was the one where a Special Forces Major, working for the CIA, equips and trains a group of Meo tribesmen to fight the Pathet Lao.


These “White Star” training teams in Laos were the predecessors of the Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) program that operated in Vietnam from 1961. I’ve always found the “advisory” phase of the Vietnam War to be the most interesting one, and I wanted to design a game about the “Sidgees.” So it was in 1996 that I did design it, at a level of focus that took in the entire Central Highlands region in 1964-65. But I did it as a card game – stacks of cards moved around and within a matrix of terrain cards that formed the map. I did this as an experiment, and while it did work, I never found it really satisfactory.


Since the MDG didn’t do card games, and not knowing any better, I shopped it to Wizards of the Coast, who even undertook to try and play it before turning it down as far too complicated and detailed for their players. Perhaps if I’d found a way of incorporating busty pixies into the game’s artwork… but no, instead I had used early-1960s images from comic books, book covers, magazines and Pop Art paintings. Anyway, Randy Moorehead of Simulations Workshop picked it up and sold all of 65 copies. I have one, I traded another with a guy for a copy of the CD version of the album “Ballads of the Green Berets,” and a third copy I donated to the library of the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg. Who knows where the other 62 are.


In 2007 I revised the game to be a more standard map-and-counter exercise, while keeping most of the game’s original mechanics. I was a lot more pleased with the result and several times the game was taken up by publishers as a possible title, only to be dropped or shelved each time. In 2014 I released a DTP version under my BTR Games imprint and OSS Games then picked it up. Again, the nicer art, full colour and larger map, and diecut counters give this edition the edge.


Step Three: Kandahar

In 2008-10, I started work on some ambitious expansions and additions to the “family” of Shining Path, Algeria and Andartes. The point of central interest in these games was the notion of the Political Support Level, in short the level of support, legitimacy, commitment or patience the non-military people involved in the conflict were willing to extend to the forces commanded by the players.


As I worked on the design, I also started thinking about the nature of the conflict in Afghanistan. It seemed to me that the main dynamic of the conflict was not that of fighting for the allegiance of the civilian population, with one side representing the recognized and legitimated administration of the country as a whole and the other side a guerrilla movement with an ideological, or at any rate basically political, grudge. I felt that after thirty years of constant internal violence abetted by frequent foreign interventions, with the addition of great social dislocation and rampant crime, the civilian population could no longer relate to its government in the same way as it did in my game models of conflicts in South America or the Mediterranean. Even more to the point, traditionally the Afghan people have never accepted an obtrusive and controlling central government for long, and no more than a small fraction of Afghans are willing to return to the 1990s when the Taliban held power in the country. Finally, my aim was to present only part of the larger and longer conflict for Afghanistan, where the other games had been models of complete struggles for Peru, Algeria or Greece.


I therefore thought it appropriate to drop the idea of the Political Support Level, replacing the main unit of game currency with the Support Point (SP). To the players, who now play the role of regional commanders and not national-level decision makers, SP are an abstraction of the amount of support the higher authorities to which the players are responsible are prepared to provide, representing both material and intangible resources. Players use SP to earn Victory Points, which are granted in accordance with objectives set them by the same higher authorities that provide them with those SP. Players will frequently find themselves in the position of having, if they wish to continue to get high levels of support, to follow courses of action that are not the most effective in opposing the enemy but are more valued by their superiors. Therefore, the Objective Cards contain some seemingly perverse incentives, where engaging the enemy in kinetic operations may actually take second place (especially for the Government player). However, there is an Appeal to Authority mechanism where you can plead your case and hope to engineer a change in objectives.


I should also mention that the Insurgent player in the game is, obviously, the putative leader of the forces of the Quetta Shura Taliban; however, the Government player is in the role of the regional commander of the Afghan National Security Forces, not the Western, NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which I am sure is what some people expected. ISAF forces are represented in the game of course, and they are quite powerful, but they are prone to occasionally not doing what you want them to.


The game also has representation of two factions or forces that are present in most modern conflicts but rarely appear in war games: organized crime and Non-State Militias (NSM). In the game, Criminal units appear in Terrorized areas without any government Police presence. They will seek to accumulate Victory Points (representing money, goods, influence within the organizations maintained by the other players, or the “muscle” to operate illegal networks for distribution and sale of narcotics or human beings), from either player or directly from the civilian population. The Criminal VP level will affect the other players’ VP levels at the end of the game: too many Criminal VP and Kandahar becomes a “failed province”. Meanwhile, the NSM units are tribal defence groups, vigilantes, private security contractors and other semi-organized violence-prone types who may oppose the insurgency, but are not under government control. They enter the game in response to Areas being Terrorized.


Other chromy bits in the game include: organizational Morale (which places limits on what the player may do), separate menus of kinetic and non-kinetic missions, an intelligence/deception sub-system, the periodic opium harvest, and an architecture of corruption mechanisms for both sides. It may seem cynical to have rules for Government graft, and to allow Government forces to conduct Expropriation missions, along with the Criminal and Insurgent forces. However, it’s a fact of life: documentation and examples of Afghan Army and Police units selling equipment, taking kickbacks and bribes, and shaking down the local populace are one quick Google search away. And what about the opium harvest? It’s no secret that both sides profit enormously from it, as do the peasants who plant and harvest the poppies, and so have at least as great an incentive to let it continue as the criminal gangs do. Players can consider the SP gained from this game feature as not only personal enrichment by the personnel involved, but also the tacit encouragement by higher echelons to let it continue, as they profit from it too. Yet this comes at a price, reflected in the loss of Morale by players.


Unlike other games in the family, Kandahar can end in several ways: at a fixed point in time, or if one player has demonstrated a significant and sustained lead in Victory Points, or when either player’s SP level reaches zero. In the last case it is assumed that some crisis or decision point has been reached, play stops and players compare their respective totals of Victory Points (VP) to determine a winner. In truth, the war (and game) would go on, in the latter case with a different commander replacing the one who had exhausted the patience and resources of his superiors.


A few copies of Kandahar were sold under the BTR Games imprint; other than that the game has not been published before. It joins the very short lineup of operational-scale Afghanistan games.


Step Four: Operation Whirlwind

This game on the 1956 battle in the streets of Budapest was my entry in the 2002 Microgame Design Contest, an occasional event that takes place on I had been thinking about doing a game on this subject for some time but it was the imminent submission deadline that set me to finally carry out the project. I won, too!


The game was briefly available as a free print-and-play, then it was offered through the Microgame Design Group, then in 2007 it was picked up by Fiery Dragon Productions, a Canadian publisher, which gave it a box, evocative cover art and die-cut counters. As with the others, OSS Games’ production with a larger map and double-sided counters is the nicest yet.


This is a fairly straightforward military game, on intense urban combat – another subject I find interesting but which doesn’t get the focus I feel it should in wargames. There are some non-military considerations in it as well – for example, there can be inadvertent massacres of civilians, the selection of geographical objectives on the map is based more on symbolism than military logic, and so forth. The game also features the optional “Musical Accompaniment” rule: the Hungarian player may play a recording of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture over and over again, very loudly, while he occupies a map objective that is a radio station. This was something the insurgents did in the actual battle, to broadcast to the world that their resistance continued; I ran across mention of it in my reading and thought this was a fun way to give the game some atmosphere (and hopefully rattle the Soviet player a bit: the Overture is almost nine minutes long, so he might have to listen to it eight or nine times before the Radio Station finally falls).


American intervention, from arms drops to Special Forces teams to the 101st Airborne Division, is another option in the game. This is one of the few games, perhaps the first, to show an American division organized along the odd and briefly adopted “Pentomic” pattern of the 1950s. In the fall of 1956 the 101st had just been reorganized into the five-battle-group model. However, it is a stripped-down version of the division, because it has had to fly high over neutral Austrian airspace to get to Hungary. Only mortars and light engineer assets have been incorporated into each battle group, and an anti-tank battalion replaces a “Little John” surface-to-surface missile unit which would have been useless inside the city.


I had also originally planned to include an abstract Political Game, in which the Hungarian player (representing the new revolutionary government, committed to political reform) attempts to reduce or eliminate the domination of Hungary by the Soviet Union diplomatically. My reading showed me that this was the only way for the Hungarian player to win a real (i.e. bloodless) victory, through securing some kind of “separate but equal” status inside the Warsaw Pact for his country – something similar to that enjoyed by Yugoslavia. This was not an impossible goal, but if and when negotiations failed, the Hungarian leader Nagy could try to win a moral victory of sorts in the Military Game by fighting the Soviet Army in the streets of Budapest, and the stances of the players in the Political Game at the point where the Soviet player intervened militarily would set up the conditions of the Military Game. Unfortunately, there was neither enough time to develop it, nor space to include it. I liked the idea, though, and may return to it one day.

Many thanks to Brian Train for guesting at GrogHeads this week and sharing.

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