Since buying and playing A Distant Plain: Insurgency in Afghanistan from GMT Games, I have been very impressed with the design talents of Mr. Brian Train. I truly enjoy his take on the various conflicts he has taken a look at (Interview on Colonial Twilight Part I, Part II, Part III and The Scheldt Campaign) and have come to follow his blog and I occasionally get these great email updates on the games that he is working on. Last week, I received one of these updates from his blog regarding a very interesting and cool pairing of 2 games focused on smaller conflicts that each have a very interesting story. The Little War and Ukrainian Crisis from Hollandspiele are set to come out soon and I thought I would reach out to Brian to get his take on these designs.
Grant: What battle is covered by The Little War board game? What role did it play in the wider conflict of WWII? Why were you interested in designing a game about this small chapter of WWII?
Brian: Well, it’s kind of complicated. After Germany annexed the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia in September 1938, other parts of that country started to fall away. In October, Carpathian Ruthenia and Slovakia declared their autonomy within Czechoslovakia, and Poland took the Zaolzie (Teschen) region. The following month large strips of southern Slovakia and Carpathian Ruthenia, then called “Carpatho-Ukraine”, were ceded to Hungary under the First Vienna Award. On March 14, 1939, the government of Slovakia declared its independence from Czechoslovakia. The following day Germany invaded Bohemia and Moravia, completing the occupation and dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, and the Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine existed for one day before it was invaded and annexed by Hungary. One week after this, on March 23, 1939, Hungary invaded eastern Slovakia with a small force, taking advantage of the political and military confusion and before a treaty of protection between Slovakia and Germany guaranteeing the former’s borders went into effect. The Slovakians were unprepared, as the Czechoslovakian military was in the process of dissolving itself into a mass of Czech, Slovak and Ruthenian individuals. Confused air and ground fighting lasted for several days until Germany imposed a ceasefire on March 31, followed by a peace treaty on April 4 that recognized Hungarian title to the amount of ground they had seized in their initial advance.
This brief border war did not play a great role in the general war that began five months later, though it did place Slovakia firmly under German control. So Slovakia became a co-belligerent against Poland in September 1939, to be rewarded with some Polish territory. Hungary took no action against Poland (and in fact took in large numbers of refugees from the invasion) and, in search of more territory, cooperated first with the Soviet Union to reclaim Transylvania then came firmly under German influence by the end of 1940. At the end of World War II, the annexations of Czechoslovakian territory were reversed (except that Carpatho-Ukraine became part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, and is still part of Ukraine today).
Why was I interested in designing a game on this short, small dust-up of Danubian republics? Well, at the end of October 2015 some of us were goofing around on Consimworld talking about doing a mini-game on the Czech seizure of Teschen (Zaolzie) from Poland in January 1919 (which Poland grabbed back in October 1938). But it wasn’t a very interesting war, though it also lasted only one week – then I had the idea of doing one on this other one-week border war, as a self-imposed challenge, and shortly had put together an order of battle, map and game system to handle it. I mean, doesn’t this happen to people all the time?
Grant: I understand that the game is played using a regular deck of playing cards. How does this work? Where did this inspiration come from? Are there other wargames that replicate this mechanic?
Brian: This idea came from a few sources. Many miniatures wargames sets have used decks of playing cards as randomizing devices, and Paul Rohrbaugh has recently done a series of small Vietnam era games (As Tears Go By, One Shot Away, Bad Moon Rising, etc.) that use a deck of playing cards. But I had done the same in some games I had designed, including one of my earliest designs, Power Play from 1991. When I was working on Ukrainian Crisis in 2014, I designed a near-diceless variant of the game that used a deck of ordinary playing cards as well.
In the game, players draw from a single deck of cards from which the face cards have been removed. The Hungarian player gets the red cards, the Slovakian the black ones. They use the cards to move the units and conduct combat with them during the turn. Face cards are given to the players at the beginning of the game and these can be used at the player’s discretion to: refit damaged and disrupted units; make a reaction move; or raid the enemy’s rear area airfields. Jokers are left in the deck and represent random events.
Grant: What is the sequence of play and can you give a brief explanation of how it works?
Brian: Each Game Turn is organized into the following Phases, performed in order.
- Card Selection Phase. Draw 6 cards from the deck. Hungarian player gets the red cards, Slovakian the black cards.
- Card Play and Resolution Phase. Players play one card each in alternating sequence. Hearts or Clubs are used for movement, Spades and Diamonds are used for combat. The rank of the card (Ace to 10) is the number of units that may be moved or used to attack.
- Final Phase. Check for game end, return air units to Airfield Box, check disrupted or damaged units for spontaneous recovery. Go to next turn.
Grant: So they kinda work like Ops Values in a CDG. Very clever! I like it. How many counters are in the game and what is their force structure? Do you have some pictures of the counters?
Brian: Only 30 counters! Ground units are battalion-equivalents of 300-500 men, except for a unit of light armor that represents 12-15 light armored vehicles. Aircraft counters are 9-10 planes each.
Grant: How are the aircraft counters used and what is the benefit for combat?
Brian: Air units are mostly for ground support. They are committed at the beginning of a battle and after any air-to-air combat with fighters, they add dice to the bucket thrown by the benefitting side.
Grant: I also see that there are aircraft boxes on the map. How are they used? They appear to be off map. Is there a way for them to be attacked or damaged?
Brian: The Airfield boxes represent the off-map airbases used by both sides. As a discretionary Special Action, a player can send his aircraft to raid these and damage or disrupt the enemy aircraft on the ground.
Grant: What area of Slovakia is covered by the game map? How is unit movement handled in the game? Why did you choose area movement?
Brian: The map covers the country around Michalovce, at the very eastern border of Slovakia today. (https://tools.wmflabs.org/geohack/geohack.php?pagename=Michalovce¶ms=48_45_19_N_21_54_48_E_type:city(40027)_region:SK) The map is an area movement map, I chose this over hexes because the usual time and space dilemmas posed by hex-movement maps weren’t important to this conflict. I generally prefer area movement maps anyway, when I am designing games that centre on the C3 issues of the antagonists, and not on counting rifles or the top speed of an armored car. (When it comes right down to it, you could say an area map is a hex map of a kind anyway, just that the hexes are very badly drawn and not always adjacent to six brothers… or vice versa.)
Grant: How many turns are in a game? How long is game play?
Brian: The game is 7 turns long. Each turn represents about a day, as it assumes that Germany imposes a ceasefire after a week of fighting (though there is a random event that shortens the game by one turn). Games take – oh, an hour or so to play but it really depends on how analytic-paralytic, or worse argumentative, your opponent is.
Grant: You addressed this in a previous question but is the game an “I Go You Go” system or are actions alternating?
Brian: Players play one card at a time alternately, but it’s either moving or fighting on each card. Special Action (face) cards can be played in lieu of a card to refit units or launch an airfield raid, or a player can use one to do a reaction move when battle is joined to reinforce his defending units, or call up defensive air support. Players keep playing cards until they have played all they can or want, so because of the random card draw at the beginning of the turn one side might get one or two (and less likely four or five, or rarely even six) more cards than the other player.
Grant: What are each side’s victory conditions? Who has the easier time of meeting them?
Brian: The Hungarians are on the march in this game! There are five areas on the map that are worth a total of 9 victory points, and they are worth more as you penetrate further into Slovakia. At the end of the game, if you are the sole undisrupted occupant of the area you get the points. The Hungarian player wins if he gets 4 or more points, otherwise it’s a draw or a Slovakian win. It may seem that the Slovakian player has the easier time of it because he needs only to defend, with terrain and time on his side. But he also has less combat power overall – the two sides have equal totals of ground combat strength but the Slovakian player doesn’t get all of it right away, and he is outclassed 2:1 in the air.
Grant: How does combat work? Are CRTs used with DRMs?
Brian: Combat is a bucket of dice system. No CRTs, no DRMs. The total number of units that can attack is limited by the rank of the card played, with dice added to the defender for terrain (forest or hills) and to either side for participating aircraft. You hit on a 5 or 6. The player inflicting the hits decides how they are allocated on the enemy units, and depending on the number of hits allocated, a unit can retreat, be disrupted (flipped over to show it can move but cannot attack), or be damaged (it is removed from the map and must be recovered through die rolls or Special Action cards).
Grant: What was the most challenging part to design? What has changed throughout playtesting?
Brian: The basic mechanics fell into place right away and stayed there. In playtesting we tuned some of the combat mechanics.
Grant: Why was this game paired with Ukrainian Crisis, which is a more contemporary game?
Brian: Well, a couple of reasons. I suppose the most important one for the pairing was components. Hollandspiele wanted to publish Ukrainian Crisis, but the free version of the game (then and still available on my website at https://brtrain.wordpress.com/2014/03/16/a-new-pnp-game-ukrainian-crisis/) used 70 counters and 48 cards. Hollandspiele couldn’t source that number of cards cheaply, so we used counters – “chits” – instead and expanded the count of each slightly, but that still left about 30 blanks in the 176 5/8” counter sheet. I said, “Oh hey, I have this game that uses 30 counters and has a small map and short rules; could we fit that in there?” So we did.
The two designs have some other common aspects:
- both conflicts are in the same part of the world generally, though they are separated by 75 years;
- both are border conflicts involving ethnicities divided by artificial demarcations (Hungary’s reason for snapping up parts of Slovakia were claims laid to protect the numbers of ethnic Hungarians living there); and
- both games use a deck of common playing cards (though in Ukrainian Crisis it’s optional).
Grant: What do you hope that players will most enjoy about The Little War?
Brian: I hope they will see it for what it is: a short, simple game that uses some unusual mechanics to give players interesting choices during play.
Grant: Now onto Ukrainian Crisis. When was this game originally designed and how long has it been a PnP? What is changing in the game as it is printed?
Brian: Over the weekend of March 14-16, 2014, the people of the Crimea held a referendum to decide whether they should stay in Ukraine. This came after months of escalating tension, brinkmanship and low-level violence between the Ukrainian and Russian ethnicities inside Ukraine, and between the countries of Ukraine and Russia. This looked like either a solution to the crisis, or an escalation. So, I did what anyone with an interest in current events and a few hours on his hands would do: I took the time over that weekend to create a new game, from scratch, on the Ukraine-Russia crisis.
In general terms, it is a fairly simple “pol-mil” game for two players that concentrates on the buildup and resolution of threatened territorial annexation by Russia. An overt military invasion of Eastern Ukraine is possible but not necessary for the Russian player to win the game. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian player desperately mobilizes to defend himself, suppress internal revolt and build a coalition of allies to support him.
I posted the PnP game files to my website on the evening of March 16. Over the next 24 hours that page got over 1,800 hits from over 1,000 visitors, where up till then my main page would normally get no more than 8 and 3 respectively. But that didn’t last, because almost everyone who clicked in saw that, ohhh, it’s a paper game, and ohhh, I have to print it out and make up the bits, and ohhh, I have to find someone else to play it with… so they clicked away again. Only 32 people on Boardgamegeek.com own up to having a copy of the game, and while I know it’s not a great indicator of actual ownership, I am pretty sure the number of homemade copies is pretty small. But it’s been available as a free PnP from my website ever since, and will continue to be.
The game changed slightly over this time, notably at the end of 2015 when I posted a version that concentrated specifically on the first six months of the crisis, from Yanukovytch’s departure in late February 2014 to the adoption of the first Minsk Protocol in September. This was the period in which a large and overt Russian military intervention might have taken place. Important changes to the game included: game is lengthened to 8 turns from 6, and instead of there being a pre-invasion and invasion phase of the game, either player can declare a Combat turn. This gives players a bit more time to fill out strategies, and fits with the stop-and-start nature of how the crisis played out militarily. The map was also revised slightly and some cards got additional or changed functions. Now in 2017 with its first physical publication and sale, the Hollandspiele version has a slightly larger number of unit counters, the Resource Cards are now chits due to production issues (but there are still 18 Event Cards) and the length of the game is now 9 turns. And of course better graphics and art overall.
Grant: How is it different designing modern wargames versus WWII or other wars?
Brian: Of course, most wargames are about historical events far in the past, with a much smaller number devoted to contemporary or hypothetical near-future topics. But there are a very few examples of board wargames being produced during or very shortly after the conflict itself: for example John Prados’ Year of the Rat (SPI 1972, in Strategy and Tactics #35), Jim Dunnigan’s Sinai (SPI 1973) and Jim Dunnigan and Austin Bay’s Arabian Nightmare: the Kuwait War (3W 1990, in Strategy and Tactics #139). The 1973 Arab-Israeli war occurred just as the Sinai game was published – see and hear Jeremy Antley’s very intelligent and erudite analysis of the game as history and source at http://www.peasantmuse.com/2016/01/analysis-of-sinai-spi-1973.html – and the Kuwait War game is probably one of the first wargames to be assembled literally “on the fly”, through use of the early Internet to send emails, files and playtesters’ comments back and forth.
“People know that I like to work on contemporary and unusual topics. I think that working on games on these topics is a way for me to understand, organize and present my reading and thoughts on them, in a way that other people can pick up and explore, and perhaps tweak for themselves. This is especially true when working on something that hasn’t quite finished happening yet, as was the case with this game and for A Distant Plain…”
People know that I like to work on contemporary and unusual topics. I think that working on games on these topics is a way for me to understand, organize and present my reading and thoughts on them, in a way that other people can pick up and explore, and perhaps tweak for themselves. This is especially true when working on something that hasn’t quite finished happening yet, as was the case with this game and for A Distant Plain (since the Coalition’s exit from Afghanistan was still a year or two in the future). So you’re concerned not with what happened and its impact on everything else that happened, but with what MIGHT happen and what MIGHT have flowed from those events… an “exploration of the problem space”, as some people would put it. This is the kind of thing that is much closer to the spirit of how the professional military approaches wargaming. I think it’s a valuable way to try and make sense of the world we live in right now, and I offer the game as a combination of hypothetical exercise and the product of a one-man “game jam”, as an example of what can be done with a bit of thought and time.
Grant: What are the counters like and what is their force structure? How many counters are there?
Brian: The unit counters are very simple: a graphic (NATO box symbol for a regular or Special Forces unit, an icon for an irregular unit) and a number for the Combat Value. There are 82 unit counters and 10 counters that work as game markers and indicators for the stances of seven potential ally countries.
Grant: How do the Parachute units work? Irregular units? Special forces? How does a unit become Neutralized?
Brian: Airfields are marked on the map. Parachute units take off from areas with these and land anywhere. Irregular units are created in a given area and do not move. The Ukrainian part of the map is divided into pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian ethnic zones; the Ukrainian player can create Irregular units in any area, while the Russian player can only create them in areas in the pro-Russian ethnic zone where there is a Special Forces unit. Meanwhile, Special Forces units can go anywhere and can’t get killed, but their game function is to “spawn” Russian Irregular units.
Units become Neutralized in combat, or can be subject to “information warfare” type attacks outside of any actual combat. A Neutralized unit can move but cannot attack.
Grant: What function do the cards play? Are they events or more CDG? How does the Card Matrix work?
Brian: There are Resource Cards (Chits in the Hollandspiele version) and Event Cards.
Resource Cards are divided into three categories of Minor, Moderate and Maximum Effort. Each one is scarcer than the last and yields larger amounts of Resource Points when played. Each turn each player chooses three Resource Cards from his initial stock of 27; they are not drawn randomly but once you have played them they are gone. One card is placed face-down in each of the three areas of the Card Matrix: Military, Diplomatic and Information. The main action of the turn is in resolving the activity prompted by card play in these three areas, depending on what kind of turn the players are conducting:
Military: mobilize and deploy units on the map
Diplomatic: attempt to move one or more countries on the Foreign Relations Display
Information: reduce enemy’s Prestige or add to own Prestige or attempt to Neutralize deployed enemy units
Military: move, fight and recover units on the map
Diplomatic: attempt to get a Ceasefire (which stops a Combat Turn before it gets started)
Information: attempt to Neutralize enemy units
Meanwhile, each player draws a random Event Card at the beginning of the turn and may play it or not during the turn, depending on its instructions or their inclination.
Grant: Can you give a few examples of some cards and explain how they are used?
Brian: When resolving card play in a given area, players roll 1d6 or 2d6 to see how many Resource Points they get to play with. Minor Effort Resource Cards yield 1-4 points but normally 2 or 3; Moderate Effort cards yield 2-5 but normally 3 or 4; and Maximum Effort cards yield 2d6 and if you get a Critical Incident random event if you roll doubles.
I’ve described above the kinds of things you can do with the derived Resource Points, depending on what kind of a Turn you are playing.
Meanwhile, Event Cards do a number of things such as adding or deducting units from play, determining the attitudes of foreign countries or resolving the status of neighbouring minor countries such as Moldova or Belarus.
My two favourite Event Cards are #UnitedforUkraine (“US State Department spokesperson sends a selfie with a message of support for Ukraine over Twitter; no game effect.”) and “Fuck the EU” (“Each EU country in the Support or Intervention Zones moves one Zone towards Neutral; add Ukrainian Prestige = USA’s Rank multiplied by the RP cost of the Zone the USA counter is in.”)
Grant: What are the Victory Point values on the map and what role do they play? Who is the artist for the map? The colors remind me very much of A Distant Plain.
Brian: Each area on the map is equivalent to an oblast, an administrative division something like a province. The Victory Point values for the map areas in the pro-Russian Ethnic Zone were assigned in rough proportion to the number of people in each oblast, about one per million, adjusted upward for each area in the Zone that has an especially strong (40-80+%) ethnic Russian population. The thinking here is that the avowed casus belli for a Russian military incursion is to protect these people, and not to conquer Ukraine completely – which is why one-third of Ukraine, containing about 11 million people but only a small minority of Russians, was left off the map, and there are no Victory Points awarded for areas in the Ukrainian Ethnic Zone. Similarly, the Ukrainian player is motivated not to accept a partition of his country and therefore to fight for its eastern areas.
Interesting that you note the map reminds you of A Distant Plain. The artist is Tim Allen, who does a lot of work for small press outfits like Victory Point Games and Tiny Battle Publishing, besides Hollandspiele of course. I like his work; nice textures. It’s better than the original map I came up with where I was trying to channel the spirit of Redmond Simonsen as he revealed himself to me one day when I had a bad cold.
Grant: What terrain is identified on the map and what role does it play?
Brian: There is no terrain on the map, except for indicated ports and airfields. The areas are large and varied enough (or featureless enough) that it doesn’t play much of a role, especially in the non-kinetic forms of combat available.
Grant: How does combat work in the game? Or if it comes to combat is the game lost?
Brian: Well, you only have combat if both sides have opted for a Combat Turn (or one side wanted it and the other failed in its attempt to get a Ceasefire). In a Combat Turn, the kinds of cards played by both sides will determine how many Action Segments (mini-turns) within the Combat Turn there will be, and how many units may move or recover from Neutralization during each Action Segment.
There are three kinds of combat: Symbolic, Asymmetric and Kinetic. The player who is attacking in an area organizes the units of both sides in it into groups as he desires. What kind of combat can be used by or against a group depends on whether it is made up of Regular or Irregular units (the majority rules). If a group is attacking a group of the same type it can use Symbolic or Kinetic combat; otherwise, only Symbolic or Asymmetric. Players throw a number of d6 equal to the total Combat Values involved and score hits on 5s or 6s. Hits in Symbolic combat only affect the enemy’s Prestige; hits in Asymmetric combat affect Prestige (if inflicted by an Irregular group) or Neutralize enemy units (if inflicted by a Regular group); hits in Kinetic combat Neutralize or eliminate enemy units.
Grant: What are the victory conditions for each side? Is NATO somehow involved in the conflict? Why or why not?
Brian: The main currency in the game is Prestige, a kind of catch-all concept that encompasses a side’s dominance, stability, resolve, or moral high ground. In the original version of the game I compared it to the concept of having “hand”, from that Seinfeld episode about the Pez dispenser (https://theseinfelddictionary.com/2008/02/22/hand/) but that allusion doesn’t travel well.
The game ends when one side has been reduced to zero Prestige or if it is the end of the 9th turn. At that time the two players compare their Victory Point scores. If no Combat Turns were played during the game, each player’s Victory Points are equal to their current Prestige. If one or more Combat Turns were played, the players’ Victory Points are equal to half of their current Prestige (round up) PLUS the Victory Point value of each area where they are the sole player with non-neutralized units. The amount by which one player is leading determines the scale of his victory: Draw, Tactical or Smashing.
It is possible to play the game to a conclusion without playing any Combat Turns. Both players have an ability to reduce the other’s Prestige to zero, through adroit Chit Play on the Diplomatic and Information fronts while the other’s main effort is spent on mobilizing for war; however, as in the military arena most of the advantages lie with the Russian player, who may also be reverse-provoked into an invasion if he sees the Prestige clock winding down too fast on him.
Is NATO involved in the conflict? Hell, no. In my opinion, it is highly unlikely that troops from any country that is a full member of NATO would be placed in a position where they would potentially be shooting at Russian soldiers. And so far, the governments of NATO’s member countries seem to be firmly of the opinion that while Ukraine should be supported against overt Russian aggression, it is not worth starting World War III over.
Some other games have appeared or will appear on this topic, and they mostly deal with the problems of fighting with large military formations from NATO member countries. So if you want to land Marine Expeditionary units in the Crimea, or have adventures with the German 1st Panzerdivision in Ukraine outside Kiev, just as it did in 1943, then play one of those games…and don’t forget the “vvvrrrmmm” and “pew-pew” noises while you’re at it. [Editor’s note: Hey, have you been watching me play wargames again? What’s wrong with noises…they add ambiance!]
“So if you want to land Marine Expeditionary units in the Crimea, or have adventures with the German 1st Panzerdivision in Ukraine outside Kiev, just as it did in 1943, then play one of those games…and don’t forget the “vvvrrrmmm” and “pew-pew” noises while you’re at it.”
Grant: What role does diplomacy play in the game? How does it mechanically work?
Brian: The Ukrainian player is trying to create an alliance of countries that will support him. There is a Foreign Relations Display on the map that shows the state of each country as Neutral, Support or Intervention. Most countries start at Neutral. The Ukrainian player has to expend Resource Points and not a little Prestige to try and beat a 2d6 dice roll to shove these countries up the slope towards Intervention, while the Russian player expends the same to try and keep or move countries down to Neutral. Countries have Ranks in terms of their ability to affect the situation, so the USA is Rank 3 while Romania is 1. And while the lower rank countries are easier to influence, the rewards of having higher rank countries at Support or Intervention are also good: countries at Support or Intervention either add Prestige equal to their rank to the Ukrainian total at the end of the game turn if it was a Strategic Turn, or subtract it from the Russian total if it was a Combat Turn. Countries at Intervention also yield “at large” Resource Points equal to their Rank at the beginning of the game turn, for the Ukrainian player to use as he pleases.
Grant: How did you model the game after the stop-and-start nature of how the crisis played out militarily?
Brian: Players can opt for a Strategic Turn or a Combat Turn, see above. I figured this was a better way to model things than a simple buildup to and conduct of a one-shot invasion. Either player, not just the Russian, may declare a Combat Turn. The thinking behind this is that the Ukrainian player may want to do this in order to carry out a violent crackdown on a large presence of pro-Russian Irregular units created by Russian SF units (the SF counters do not always literally mean the presence of detachments of Spetsnaz troops, but also represent autonomous pro-Russian groups taking up arms in response to local provocations, Russian propaganda and encouragement, or covert supply of weapons and trainers). This could provoke a near-automatic Russian military response, so beginning an overt invasion of Ukraine itself.
Grant: When is the double game supposed to be available for purchase? What is the MSRP?
Brian: It will be out in mid-March 2017. MSRP has not yet been decided but will probably be in the range of $40 or $45, Hollandspiele’s usual price for a game with these components, with the digital version available from The Wargame Vault for $12.
Grant: Hold on! What about that playing card variant you were talking about?
Brian: Oh yeah, I added a semi-deterministic way to play the game. Take a deck of ordinary playing cards, remove the 10s, face cards and Jokers, and give the remaining red cards to the Russian player and the black ones to the Ukrainian player. During the game, the players can choose which card to play in the different areas in the Card Matrix, and the rank of the card (1 to 9) is the number of Resource Points applied. This will give a higher-powered game as this gives each player at least 120 Points to distribute by choice during the game, versus the average expected total of about 100 from the various random die rolls. Dice are still used for combat. It’s an interesting tweak.
Thanks Brian for your great answers and your time in doing this interview. You always do a great job of painting a picture of the game with your words and I definitely appreciate the details you give us. If you are interested in obtaining a copy of the two game pack, please pay attention to the Hollandspiele website at https://hollandspiele.com/