One Small Step Games

Recently, I have discovered this great game company called One Small Step Games. Their website is at the following link: and they do this line of smaller games called their Folio Series and currently they are taking preorders for No. 13 in the series which is called Tupamaro designed by Brian Train. I reached out to Brian to see if he could give us some insight into this new game through an interview and here are his comments.

Grant: What is the struggle that Tupamaro covers?

Tupamaro Flag

Brian: Historical prologue: After the success of the revolution in Cuba, Ernesto “Che” Guevara looked for a way to export revolution to other countries, based on a selective understanding of what had happened. Guevara and his friend Regis Debray, a French philosopher then working at the University of Havana, worked on a model of revolutionary warfare with three basic assumptions:

  • that popular forces can always defeat a regular army in a guerrilla war;
  • that the main arena of action will be the countryside; and
  • that it is not necessary that all conditions for making a successful revolution exist: the professional revolutionary cadre group, called a cell or foco, can either create these conditions itself or simply do without them.

From 1959 to 1966, Guevara tried to launch revolutions in Guatemala, Venezuela, Peru, Colombia and Bolivia using this “foco” theory. It failed in each country, and in the final case Guevara himself was killed by security forces in Bolivia in 1967. However, from 1968 to 1976 various revolutionary organizations throughout South America tried to put an altered version of the foco theory into practice in the cities, in response to the rapid urbanization happening across the continent at that time. The earliest examples were the Tupamaros of Uruguay, who were most active between 1968 and 1972, followed by the Montoneros of Argentina and the Action for National Liberation (ALN) of Brazil.

Tupamrus Graffiti

Briefly, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Uruguay was the most liberal and tolerant country in South America, with a strong tradition of democracy. An economic downturn weakened the government and placed severe strains on the social fabric of the nation that the Tupamaros were careful to exploit. Although they won some popular support at first, and even scored a number of tactical victories over the inexperienced security forces, their chance of success waned as people tired of the violence. A coup d’etat in all but name by the revamped Uruguayan military in 1972 smashed the Tupamaros but demolished the structure of democracy in Uruguay in the process.

Eventually democracy returned to Uruguay in 1985 and individual members of the Tupamaro movement returned to respectability, to the point where a former member who had been kept prisoner by the government for 14 years, Jose Mujica, served as President of Uruguay from 2010 to 2015. VICE magazine called him the “world’s chillest and most badass head of state” so he must have been doing something right, though I think they were just referring to his decision to legalize marijuana ( .

For more narrative on the Tupamaros, refer to which is part of an article I wrote for Strategy and Tactics magazine in 1993 (issue #166, February 1994). For a wider context, the entire article is at .

Grant: Why were you interested in designing a game around this struggle? What design challenges did it offer? 

Brian: Well, you know that I am interested in political-military games and games on guerrilla war. I was especially interested in the theory of “urban guerrilla warfare” that emerged in the 1960s, in response to the great urbanization going on in the Third World at the time and in contrast to the Maoist theory of a progression of revolt and liberation from the country to the city. That led me to write the article for S&T – it was the first of about two dozen long and short articles I would write for that magazine over 23 years – and in researching it I found the Tupamaros, and their adroit use of terrorism, made an interesting case study. Oh, and long ago I had read a proposal for a Tupamaros game in the Feedback section of an old issue of S&T from 1972 and it had stuck in my mind. (I think it was 1972, they had so many interesting proposals for games back then that never came to anything.) So, I made a game of it.

Grant: As it is a counter insurgency game, how has your experience with designing previous struggles (such as in A Distant Plain) helped you with this design?

Brian: It’s the other way around. I designed this game in 1994, it was one of my first designs and was the progenitor of the “4 box” system I developed for the subsequent games Shining Path, Algeria, Andartes and Kandahar.

Grant: I understand the struggle takes place inside of the limits of one city, Montevideo. How did you capture this spatially?

Brian: The first thing I had to do was make a few decisions around the game’s basic dimensions of “Time”, “Space” and “Action” (which I think of as “Entities x Resources”).

The Time scale I left deliberately vague, so a turn can represent anything from a few days to a few months. It’s an old saying that 90% of a war is spent waiting around for the other 10% to happen, but there’s no reason to incorporate that ratio into the game.

Similarly for Space, all of the action took place inside Montevideo, the capital city where more than half the population of the country lived (about 1.5 million people at the time, or about the size of Phoenix, Arizona). The conflict was as close to a pure war of class interests as one could get at the time – there were no ethnic, religious or linguistic schisms to exploit. Therefore, both sides were fighting not for domination of a physical space but for the allegiance of certain social groups. So, I abandoned the whole idea of a map of the actual ground where the action took place, and used the concept of a non-representational map of Social Sector Areas (SSAs).

As for Action, Tupamaro is a turn-based game, and the heart of each turn is the interactive Operations Phase. A decision cycle is run repeatedly during the Phase, until players run out of resources or prefer not to continue. The Tupamaro player is the one with control at the top of every cycle: he decides whether he or the Government player will conduct the next mission. This reflects that in an insurgency, it is normally the rebelling side that has the tactical initiative and the best choice of targets. Meanwhile, the Government player always has an opportunity to react to the mission just conducted.

Each side has resources called Administrative Points or AP. (Hey, this was one of my earlier designs and I wasn’t very good at snappy names. I guess that’s still true.) Administrative Points represent different things at different times during the game. For the Tupamaro player, it is mostly a measure of time spent planning an operation, money, or expenditure of material resources like ammunition, explosives, etc. For the Government player, it is mostly a measure of staff efficiency or in the case of Build/Train missions, time and money spent training troops or raising new forces.

Grant: The map appears to be made up of different districts or SSAs such as Downtown, University, Shops, etc. Do these districts represent those different socioeconomic groups in the City?  What is the reason for using the map of attitudes of the people and how does it make the game playable? What difficulties were there in this approach?

Tupamoro Board

Brian: Inside each SSA on the map is a display of boxes and tracks. The five-space track records the current leanings of the SSA, leftwards for the Tupamaro and rightwards for the Government. Having an SSA favourably inclined towards your side has numerous benefits. Before the Operations Phase the Tupamaro player will deploy his units face-down to the Underground box, in preparation for conducting missions later, whereupon they will go to the Operations Completed box. Meanwhile, the Government player may deploy some of his units on Guard missions (that is, place them in the Patrol box), which will interfere with the Tupamaro player’s activities.

I found this approach quite liberating. This conflict that took place fitfully over a long time in a very small area, so the usual space, time and position dilemmas that preoccupy wargames didn’t matter in this case. What was more important was the timing, content and conduct of actions; that is, building, maintaining and expending resources and entities to accomplish long-term objectives.

Some players had difficulty with the non-spatial concept, though. For example, one feature of each turn is that at the end of each turn all the mobile pieces on both sides are recovered to their respective reserve or safe areas, to be deployed again next turn. People wondered why they couldn’t retain control of the “territory” they had seized.

Grant: Speaking of the Patrol boxes in each district. How are these used by the Government? What effect do they have on the district?

Brian: At the beginning of each turn the Government player may deploy his units on Guard missions in the Patrol boxes. This represents deployment or army or police to guard installations and public figures, aggressive patrolling and investigations, and so forth. The effect of having units doing this is to interfere with Tupamaro Robbery, Kidnap, Prison Break and Eliminate Informer missions by giving them a disadvantageous die roll modifier. Also, if the Tupamaro player conducts a mission in an SSA where a unit is on Guard, it may React for free to that mission (but then it’s not on Guard anymore).

Grant: How do Robbery and Kidnap operations work in the districts?

Brian: SSAs on the map are coded for whether these missions can be conducted there. A Robbery gains Administrative Points (AP) for the Tupamaro. A successful Kidnap captures a Public Figure piece which is then treated like an inverted Dummy unit on the map (so the Government player can search for it), and it costs the Government Political Support on capture. If you Kidnapped a Politician, it also damages the Morale of that organization (making a political crisis more likely).

Grant: What are the subtle strategies used by the guerilla player? How does the Government player react to these strategies?

Brian: I like to present players with a large range of choices, the more agonizing the better. The changing combinations of missions a player can concoct to form a successful general strategy, and the effects these missions have on the various subsystems of the game, constitutes the main challenge and interest of this system.

Historically, the Tupamaros took advantage of the points of stress or outright fracture in Uruguayan society to attack the government, and I tried to model this in choice of missions available to players in the game:

  • Political support and legitimacy – The Tupamaros can conduct Propaganda missions; the government can also cost itself support in the game by using untrained troops to react to insurgent missions. The Tupamaros can also do things like engineer prison breaks and kidnap public officials, which make the government look impotent and cost them further support.
  • The economy – The Tupamaros also organized frequent riots or strikes to interfere with the operation of the economy. This diverted police resources (in the game, the government must react to a riot/strike or suffer a considerable political penalty) and affects the ability of the government to support the counterinsurgency fight through undisturbed taxation.
  • Morale of social groups and organizations – I mentioned how positive attitudes on the part of social sectors on the map are helpful to players. There are three governmental organizations in the game as well: the Army, the Police and the Politicians. In the game, the Tupamaros can conduct political Kidnapping and Intimidation missions to affect the morale of these organizations, as they did historically (for example, there was a concerted cop-killing campaign to the point where the police went on strike in July 1970 to demand higher pay and the right to work in civilian clothes so they would be less conspicuous).

For his part, the Government player can Build and Train his forces. Training takes time and resources but upgraded troops are more effective and avoid the Political Support penalty for using untrained recruits. The government player can divide his security forces between a passive role of Guarding the streets, and an active role of Cordon and Search missions to capture or eliminate insurgents and possibly rescue kidnapped Public Figures. He can also fight a semi-covert campaign of placing Informers and running Intelligence missions to reveal Tupamaro units and eliminate Infiltrators.

Grant: How does the Government player train their security forces?  What are the different levels of the forces as shown on the counters (including informer, recruit, elite and line)? How do they operate differently?

Tupamoro Counters

Brian: Government forces are divided into Police and Army. Units are Recruit, Line and Elite grade. Every unit starts at Recruit, and must be withdrawn for a short period and have AP spent on it in order to raise its grade. Recruit units cost the Government Political Support when used, because they are inept, while Elite units are better at searching for Tupamaro units, and Reacting when they do something.

Grant: How are dummy counters used?

Brian: Like in most other games, these move around inverted on the map with the other units and are used to fake out the Government.

Grant: How does the Government raise funds (Administrative Points)? What effect does taxation have on their support?

Brian: Taxation. The Government sets a Tax Rate, from 5% to 25%, and derives resources from the Economy Level. This Level is affected by Strikes and by the Government keeping too large of a security establishment. High taxation does not directly cost the Government support, in fact the Government can use points from the Economy Level to “bribe” SSAs onto his side, and improve the Morale of the Police or Army; however, it is much easier to run the Economy down in this way than to build it up again (through adding leftover AP back into the Economy).

Grant: How does the guerilla player raise funds (Administrative Points)?

Brian: Robbery missions, and having a large number of Fireteams built. He could also do things like ransom a kidnapped Public Figure for resources, or cause a crisis in Army Morale (which can net him considerable AP).

Grant: How does morale effect the troops and police? How can it increase or decrease?

Brian: The Politicians, Police and Army all have Morale levels independently of each other. The Tupamaro player can directly attack the Morale of these organizations through Intimidation missions. Lowered morale for the Army or Police makes them less efficient: the Morale Level is the maximum number of units that can be placed in the “Ready” area of the Reserve Pool, and sent on missions. Their Morale can be improved by capturing Tupamaro units, or being bribed with Economy points. Politician Morale is a bit more volatile: it is badly affected by Kidnapped Public Figures, and goes up or down depending on the balance of pro- or anti-Government attitudes of the SSAs.

A crisis occurs each time an organization’s Morale falls below a certain point: the Government player will always lose resources, with some additional “cascade” effects – for example in the case of a Police crisis, they might go on strike, making all police units useless for the rest of the turn. Intimidation is a powerful tactic for the Tupamaro player but it is expensive in terms of resources. And if the Tupamaro player causes too many Crises, he will provoke a declaration of Internal War, which backlash will put him at a significant tactical disadvantage.

Tupamoro Boxes

Grant: What are the victory conditions?

Brian: The game-quantifiable result of the interaction of people and action in the game is usually the gain or loss of Political Support. This is measured by a Political Support Level (PSL) that ranges from 0 to 99. It generally represents the level of support, commitment or legitimacy the mass of the civilian population is prepared to give one side or the other. During the game, each player maintains a PSL independently of the other – by showing this in a non-zero-sum fashion, we can model simply a highly polarized and committed society (where both sides would have a high PSL) or one overrun by fatigue, confusion or apathy (where both sides would have a low PSL), or something in between.

There is only one way to win the game – one player will win by forcing his opponent’s Political Support Level to zero, which represents a point of catastrophic collapse for the organization.

Grant: What do you hope that players get out of the experience of playing Tupamoro?

Brian: As always, I hope people will learn something about this nearly-forgotten conflict, and find something interesting in how I’ve modeled it. I did use the system of this game as the basis for four more games on insurgency, one of which partly inspired the creation of the GMT COIN system.

State of Siege Movie PosterAnd if they don’t want to pick up a book about the conflict, or read my article, they can watch the 1972 movie “State of Siege”, directed by Costa-Gavras – the movie is not a documentary but is based on the actual case of the Tupamaro kidnapping and murder in 1970 of Dan Mitrione, an American sent under cover as an “agricultural expert” to advise the Uruguayan police and armed forces on methods of counterinsurgency. Starring Yves Montand!

Grant: What is the timeline for this game? What is the MSRP?

Brian: It’s available from One Small Step Games for pre-order right now as lucky #13 in their line of Folio games:

Pre-order price is $19.95, retail price later will be $24.95.

Previously, this game was available in four other configurations: twice as a supplement in the pages of magazines (Strategist #287 (1996) and Simulacrum #29 (2009) and twice as a DTP mount-your-own-counters effort (Schutze Games (2000) and BTR Games (2014)).  This version offers larger maps and die-cut counters, all with nice-looking art by Ania B. Ziolkowska!

Grant: Thanks for doing this interview Brian. We are always excited to look at what concoctions your terrific mind has created. You are the best!

Brian: Shucks, tweren’t nothin’….

Tupamoro Game Back