Brian Train is one of the more prolific board game designers I have seen, seemingly releasing new titles every few months, if not more often. I follow him closely as his games are really good and well designed and always have a very different take on the subject than expected. I am still awaiting my copy of Colonial Twilight from GMT Games designed by Brian but absolutely have enjoyed my plays of A Distant Plain. When I saw the news about Red Horde 1920, I immediately reached out to Brian (I am sure that he was awaiting a contact from me as he knows me too well!) for the scoop on this interesting looking game. Here is our interview:
Grant: Thanks for your time Brian. I always know that you will respond quickly to my requests and I appreciate it, as do our readers. What made you want to redo Konarmiya Year of the Red Tide from Fiery Dragon Productions originally published in 2007?
Brian: Back in 2014, when Mark Walker first launched Flying Pig Games, he approached me for any designs I might have available for him to publish. Konarmiya was one of almost 20 titles I mentioned to him that were available; ones that had either never been published, or had been published but still belonged to me (due to licensing agreements running out, or game going out of print, or company going out of business). He later created Tiny Battle Publishing, which brought out folio-style games, and this is the third title of mine off that list we would publish: Winter Thunder, War Plan Crimson, and now Red Horde 1920.
Konarmiya has a history, both as an individual game and as part of a game system. In the summer of 1998, I designed Freikorps, an alternate-history game that supposed that the Soviets won the Battle of Warsaw in the summer of 1920, and kept on marching to the ultimate objective of Berlin. It stressed the value of headquarters units, troop quality and overall force morale, and featured a mostly Igo-Yugo turn structure, with a limited ability for the other side to respond within the opponent’s turn. This was published in DTP format (laser printed map, mount your own counters, comic book bag) by Microgame Design Group in 1999, and it sold well enough. In 2004 or so, when MDG went into suspended animation (the publisher, Kerry Anderson, went to work on getting his doctorate), I shopped the design to Fiery Dragon Productions, a small-press outfit in Toronto that was getting into publishing wargames in small boxes (they no longer publish wargames but still produce material for role-playing games, mostly d20 system stuff). They improved the physical presentation and packaging of the game (larger, better map art, die-cut but single-sided counters, and a small tin box that was later replaced by a slightly larger cardboard box) and brought it out in 2005. It sold even better.
I thought about doing a historical prequel to Freikorps, using the same system and covering the four months leading up to the battle before Warsaw in September 1920. In early 2007, I had worked it out, under the title Konarmiya (“Cavalry Army”) and in due course that one came out too from Fiery Dragon. I don’t think more than a couple of hundred copies were printed, and the licensing agreement with them ran out after a few years. Meanwhile, I liked the system used for these “between the wars” games (another one using the system was War Plan Crimson) and continued to work on it. In 2009, I had batted out Finnish Civil War, using a development of the system that featured three operational segments within each turn instead of the Igo–Yugo structure, and offered it for free PnP on my website since it was such an obscure topic. In 2012, Compass Games offered to publish this one (though it did not materialize until early 2017) and, to come full circle, when Mark expressed an interest in publishing Konarmiya, I wanted to get the game back into print but also upgrade the system to its most recent iteration.
Grant: What has changed in the design? Why the change in name to Red Horde 1920?
Brian: New map, drawn to a different ground scale. New counters, double-sided which allowed some modification of combat results. New order of battle, less “impressionistic” than the first one and with revised combat and movement values. New rules, featuring the three-segment player turn structure. Some of the chrome remains or has been only slightly changed, as do some more important features of the system: use of Headquarters units as conduits of supply and coordination; troop quality and “shock-capable” units; and overall morale of the force. Still, it seemed like essentially a new game on the same topic, with revisions even more extensive than those done for Winter Thunder (my Battle of the Bulge which we renamed from Autumn Mist), so it seemed to merit a new name. We renamed it Red Horde 1920.
Grant: What has it been like working with Tiny Battle Publishing and Mark H. Walker?
Brian: Great! Mark H. Walker is a very very busy man, his two companies Flying Pig Games and Tiny Battle Publishing have cranked out a total of at least 50 titles in the last 2-3 years, counting expansion kits, etc. which is phenomenal. His personal design work tends to modern tactical level and science fiction but he is very open-minded about other historical periods and treatments – he definitely respects the designer’s work.
Grant: What historically are you trying to capture and replicate in this game? Is the design focused more on being a simulation or is there some flexibility for players to come up with a different than historical result?
Brian: This is a somewhat more historical, or rather less impressionistic, treatment of the war than its predecessor. Both sides get to attack, and there is plenty of movement as they chase each other around trying to bring the enemy to battle. The randomized nature of how both sides are reinforced and rebuilt during play can also make for some tense times. I like this situation because it pays for both sides to be aggressive: the Soviets come on strong in the first few turns, but they get stretched out and that invites Polish counterpunches (hope you kept a reserve for this). Many games do climax with a massive battle for Warsaw, about on historical schedule, that can go either way.
Grant: What is the scale of the game and what are the force structures?
Brian: Ground scale: 18 miles per hex; unit scale: brigades and divisions; time scale: about one week per turn.
There are two players, the Red and the White, with the following forces:
Red: Soviet Red Army (standard Red Army troops); Konarmiya (First Cavalry Army, mounted and motorized troops); Polish Red Army (renegade puppet Poles); and Lithuanian (opportunists)
White: Polish National Army (standard national troops); Polish Legion (higher quality troops, veterans of the fighting in France); Polish Militia (low quality, hastily mobilized semi-civilians); Ukrainian and Hungarian optional units.
Unit types are infantry, cavalry, Headquarters and militia. There are also Asset Points, shown by generic markers that represent small detachments of aircraft, tanks/armoured cars, armoured trains, and heavy artillery.
Grant: What system is used in the design? How did you make the choice of that system to accurately capture the conflict? What challenges were there?
Brian: As I alluded above, the system used in the game is something I first designed in 1998 and have been working on intermittently since. It appears in five of my games now, all on conflicts that took place between the World Wars. It seems to work well to show the clash of forces that are largely infantry, not too sophisticated, with small detachments of supporting arms that have an important but limited additional effect. There are a few other ideas I have for this system so I am not done with it yet.
Here is the sequence of play for a game turn:
Random Events Phase
- roll for a random event and implement result
- place Operations Chits in randomizer: each side normally has 3, and they are drawn randomly one by one during the turn
- Both sides get reinforcement steps based on their current Morale and the force involved. For example, if White has a Morale of 14, he gets 2 Polish National Army steps and 1 Polish Legion step. A division is 2 steps, a brigade is 1. Reinforcement steps may be accumulated, and can be used to undeplete divisions or enter new brigades, or buy Asset Points or Headquarters units.
- Both sides get replacement steps gained from the total Attack Factors of units lost in the previous turn, it is geared off current Morale as well (so if White lost 18 factors in the previous turn and has a current Morale of 14, he gains 2 replacement steps. These steps may not be accumulated, and may only be used to undeplete Polish National Army or Soviet Red Army divisions, or enter new brigades.
- What units do appear are chosen randomly from the group of similar units available. Where units appear depends on what force they belong to.
First Operations Segment
- One player draws a random Operations Chit. The indicated player chooses from Overland Movement (usual wargame movement), Railroad Movement (a limited number of units move an unlimited distance along controlled railways), or Combat (boom, bang, crash, ratatatat).
Second Third, Fourth etc. Operations Segments
- As above; continue until all Operations Chits have been drawn.
- Each disrupted unit rolls for recovery, reset any used Air Assets, loop back to Random Events Phase until Sudden Death Victory or end of last game-turn, then judge victory (12.0).
The Operations Chit mechanism allows a player, to a limited extent, to script the kind of turn they want to have – they can choose what they want to do depending on circumstances; for example, if a player is laying siege to an important city, they could choose three Combat segments. But the randomized nature of their appearance does not always let them choose when they want to do it – also, they may need to derail their plans in order to react to what the enemy just did. I think this reflects the overall chaotic nature of the conflict, and it adds some suspense.
Grant: How did you capture the fierceness of the Russian forces, especially those brutal Cossacks in the famous 1st Cavalry Army, in the design of the game?
Brian: The First Cavalry Army or Konarmiya is shown as a separate force in the Red player’s array. They have a higher cadre level and all combat units are shock-capable cavalry. Consequently they are very powerful but once they take losses, their sharp edge is blunted and they are difficult to rebuild.
Grant: Where did you have to do research to find the OOBs? Was this a difficult task?
Brian: I drew on online sources, magazine articles and the OOB portrayed in Red Star/ White Eagle (both the book by Norman Davies and the game by Dave Williams). The sources generally agreed on numbers and designations of divisions, but below that level things were a bit chaotic, especially in terms of their combat power. This is what I wanted to reflect in the original version of the game where there are no unit identifiers and there is a wide variation in combat strengths among divisions and brigades, making for a rather random game in terms of force balance. Redoing this design let me rationalize things a bit (I also had to cut down on the unit counters a bit, as I was limited to a 176 counter sheet this time) but still, when a new unit is created, it is drawn randomly from the pile of available units. The point is not to get hung up on individual unit ID numbers and their ratings but to realize that what happened historically was just one alignment of force organization and powers among many that were possible.
Grant: I read in the game description the following: Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Hungarians and even a unit of Red Polish renegades swirl in and out of the chaos too. How did you make this happen within the confines of the game?
Brian: This was comparatively easy chrome to introduce. Most of the forces deployed by the players are ethnically Russian or Polish. However, each side includes military brigades from other nationalities that may join or leave the game depending on events.
- Two brigades of Ukrainians start the game on the south half of the map and operate as normal White units, except that they desert if the Red take both Lvov and Kiev.
- Two brigades of Lithuanians appear after the Reds take Grodno, and are confined to the north half of the map (they were mostly interested in regaining territory Poland had claimed earlier).
- Up to three brigades of Hungarian cavalry can show up when White morale hits crisis level: historically, 10,000 Hungarian troops were offered to Poland after the revolutionary government under Bela Kun was overthrown, but Czechoslovakia would not permit them to transit the country.
- And finally, there is one Polish Red Army brigade: this represents forces raised by the Soviet puppet ‘PolRevKom’ (Polish Revolutionary Committee) government controlled by Feliks Dzierzynski (who was also famous for creating the Cheka, the Bolshevik secret police). This unit enters the game when Red morale is high enough, and operates as a normal but weak Red Army unit. The unit actually existed but was very small and did not take a role in the fighting.
Grant: How is combat handled?
Brian: Combat is voluntary and is permitted when a player elects to conduct a Combat segment. The CRT is odds-based with shifts left and right for troop quality, terrain and force morale, and die roll modifiers for the participation of Assets. Combat losses are a combination of steps and retreats. Units that retreat are disrupted (no attack, defend at half strength, cannot take reinforcements or replacements). There is an “escalating bloodbath” result that can permit the attacker, generally at greater cost to himself, to force the defender into a series of exchanges until he breaks off or ceases to exist. There is also a required losses rule which specifies that part of any losses you suffer must come from units or assets used to claim favourable shifts or modifiers; this way your better troops and toys do wear down with constant use. And if you have very low morale, your units lost in combat will desert instead – they are removed from the game completely.
There are two different CRTs, standard and Shock. The latter is used when half or more of the attacking force’s steps are “shock-capable”: this category includes all Polish Legion and Konarmiya units, Soviet and Polish cavalry divisions, armour assets and armoured trains. This CRT has more decisive results and fewer Bloodbath results. At high odds you can also get a Defender Panics! result, in which all defending units in the battle desert, all defender units that were adjacent to the deserting units retreat and are disrupted, and if the battle was large enough in scale, the defender loses one morale point. This can rip a huge hole in a defensive line.
Grant: What are the counters like?
Brian: The counters are by John Cooper and are quite clear and bold in their presentation. As I did with Finnish Civil War and War Plan Crimson, I picked the colour scheme so that the colours would still be distinguishable for red-green colour-blind folks (which apparently is about 8% of the male population) and we still have one side (the Whites) on the “blue” end of the spectrum and the other on the “red”. Personally I do not like the watermarks in the backgrounds of counters, but Mark overruled me – no biggie though.
Grant: What has changed with the map? What different scale does it use from the original 2007 version? Who is the artist?
Brian: John Cooper did the fancy version of the map, after my homemade map. The new map is drawn at 18 miles (30 km) per hex, significantly different from the earlier map which was 15 miles (25 km), with a revised terrain and rail line analysis.
Grant: What random events are included in the game and how do they occur?
Brian: Oh, I know you like my random events. Players roll on a table at the beginning of each game turn; two thirds of the time there will be a random event. Most of them are adjustments in morale or temporary limitations on your forces. There is one, “Wrangel”, where the Red player must remove part of the Konarmiya to deal with a White Russian counter-offensive underway in the Crimea, and another, “Wings over Poland”, where Sir Winston Churchill (then Secretary of State for War) allows a detachment of volunteer Royal Air Force pilots to aid the Poles in their crusade against Bolshevism.
Actually, there is a sort of funny story attached to that last one. Back in 2008 when I was preparing Konarmiya for Fiery Dragon Productions, I thought I would put in some “Canadian content” and wrote this version of that random event: Event 66 – It’s Him Again. RAF Major B*rtholomew Wolfe B*ndy, of Beamington, Ontario, is dispatched with his squadron by Winston Churchill (then Secretary of State for War and Air) to aid the Poles in their crusade against Bolshevism. The White player receives one Air Asset Point [represents a detachment of fighter and bomber aircraft]. If this event is rolled again, one previously eliminated White Air AP returns to the game (Major B*ndy may be only intermittently effective against the enemy, but he is effectively immortal). The “*” stands for a vowel, but I am Google-proofing it for reasons I am about to explain.
This was a sort of in-joke, a homage to the hours I’d spent reading the books by somewhat funny Canadian writer Donald J*ck detailing the adventures of his fictional character B*ndy, who is a sort of anti-Biggles (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biggles). I happened to mention this joke on my personal blog and soon got an email from someone I had never heard of, asking if the game really did feature B*rtholomew Wolfe B*ndy. I said yes, and described how, thinking that this was from a fan. Well it was, kind of, for next day I got a message saying he was the literary executor of Donald J*ck’s estate. After some pompous argle-bargle on his part and a couple emails more, he essentially tried to soak me for a free copy of the game:
“…I’ll send along a formal agreement once I get the text prepared. The gist of it will be that you can have a non-exclusive use of the name B*rtholomew Wolfe B*ndy in the game, restricted to the appearance in the paragraph that you cited, and that in return you will include the above acknowledgement in each copy of the game, and will send one copy of the finished game to us upon publication.” Seriously, I can’t incorporate one mention in passing of the name of a fictional character into my own fictional narrative? Good job I didn’t have Godzilla show up, then I’d have to tussle with Toho Studios….I rewrote the event so it still featured Winston Churchill, who after all was a real person so I didn’t need anyone’s permission to use his name. And that was that, and I kept it so for this version of the game.
Yeah, yeah – I know enough about copyright to know that it’s important but I also have a sense of proportion. (Also, in 2008 Canadian copyright law, unlike U.S. law, did not explicitly mention fair dealing for parodic or satirical purpose, which would have covered this – though it was used all the time back then, and does explicitly mention it now.) For somebody to have tracked such a well-intentioned yet feeble gesture down in an obscure corner of the Web (which just shows how far Google reaches) and then made a fuss about it, is an even greater waste than the time I spent sticking a reference to this character in the game in the first place.
He was concerned that I, or someone, would profit off the use of the character’s name. Perhaps I should have offered to share my “profit” with him, on a proportionate basis: the random event was 86 words out of a total of about 7,750 words in the rules and charts or 1.1% of the overall semantic content. I was paid a flat $250 for a three-year license to Fiery Dragon to produce the game, in any number of copies that would sell. Now, if I counted all of the hours and effort I spent thinking about the design, doing research, drawing maps and counters, testing and developing it, etc. as worth exactly nothing, that would have entitled the Estate of Donald J*ck to $2.77. Once. This also presupposed that the use of the character’s name would have generated any additional sales, something I seriously doubt: the one person who picked up on the name was the guy who wanted a free game (which, by the way, was selling for $22.95 a copy!).
Anyway, take a hint, friends: if you’re going to talk about people and things that don’t exist, make up new ones yourself to avoid disrupting tiny minds.
Grant: Sorry for hitting a sore spot but I appreciate you sharing with us that experience. It is odd how people perceive various ventures they have no experience with though and how he thought you were going to get rich off the name. I will now have to forever include questions in my interviews dealing with copyright issues as apparently there are good stories there! Back to the design questions. How is morale handled and what are its effects on the units?
Brian: Each player has a Morale Level generally reflective of the fighting spirit and efficiency of his troops and their leaders. Morale runs from 0 to 20, and each side records its level independently of the other player at all times during the game. Morale goes up and down for a number of reasons: the most common is capturing or losing towns and cities. Losing Headquarters units, or the optional Pilsudski or Trotsky leader units, also damages Morale.
Generally good things happen if a player has high morale, and the opposite if his morale is low. In the Reinforcement/Replacement Phase, a player’s current Morale will determine what kind of reinforcements he will get, and what portion of his combat losses from the previous turn may be recovered.
If a player’s Morale is low (4 or less):
- he will get only 2 Operations segments;
- all his attacks on the Combat Results Table (CRT) have a l-column leftward shift;
- it is less likely his units will recover from Disruption;
- his units will Desert in combat situations;
- if using the optional rules, the White player may receive some Hungarian volunteer units.
If his Morale is high (16 or more):
- all his attacks on the CRT gain a 1-column rightward shift;
- his units have an increased chance of recovering from Disruption;
- if using the optional rules, the Red player will receive the Polish Red Army unit as a reinforcement.
Grant: What are each side’s victory conditions?
Brian: Both sides are looking to control the largest number of town and city hexes at the end of twelve turns (end of September 1920). Red can win a sudden death victory if he simultaneously controls all city and town hexes on the map, and White can do the same if he eliminates all Red HQ units (so making their effort collapse).
This game also has an optional three-player version, to reflect the logistical and geographical factors, as well as personal rivalries and command styles, that forced a division of the Soviet effort into two fronts, the Northwest and Southwest.
The game may be played with one White and two Red players. The two Red players represent the Northwest and Southwest Front commanders, and are responsible for the North and South halves of the map respectively. They make all decisions concerning movement and combat in their respective sectors and must agree what kind of Operations Segment they are going to jointly have. To determine which of the three players wins, at the end of the game players first determine whether there is a Red or White victory. If there is a Red victory, the two players compare the totals of controlled town and city hexes in their sectors as if they were rival players. The ultimate winner is the Red player with the higher score. If they manage to tie, the Southwest Front commander wins (in this case Stalin, then political commissar to the Southwest Front, influences Lenin and the Central Committee to purge Tukhachevsky, the Northwest Front commander, 17 years before he historically got around to doing it himself).
Grant: How long does a game typically last?
Brian: Two to three hours.
Grant: Where can people get a copy and for how much? Is that Canadian or American dollars?
Brian: Buy from Tiny Battle Publishing itself: physical copies are $24 U.S. right now, regular price $30. Tiny Battle also usually makes Print and Play versions of the games available too, usually for around $12, so if you have some spare time and crafty talent, you can save yourself some cash and postage charges.
Saddle up, comrades! Glory waits down the road!
Thanks as always Brian. Your thoroughness in answers always gives great insight into not only the mechanics and choices in the design, but I personally always learn something from your musings! Now quit wasting time on these interviews and get back to designing.