You may not know this, but I have a little bit of an obsession with games designed by the Great Canuck Brian Train. He does wargames and has been busy over the past 20+ years designing games including such well known classics as A Distant Plain: Insurgency in Afghanistan, BCT Command: Kandahar, The Scheldt Campaignand The Little War/Ukrainian Crisis among others. One of the main reasons that I love his designs is that they are well thought out and include so much history from the conflicts depicted that I feel that I am learning. I also love that he has a knack for injecting a great deal of theme and atmosphere from the subject covered and this forces you as a player to “experience” the pertinent emotions and difficulties of those involved. He is simply an artist and really good at his chosen craft….and he is a pretty nice guy as well!
In this edition of our Best 3 Games with…, I am going to take a look at the three designs from Brian Train that I have enjoyed the most. I have yet to play all of his designs but have played quite a few and own many. You have to remember, this is my opinion on his best and you may or may not agree. Onto the games:
3. Winter Thunder: The Battle of the Bulge from Tiny Battle Publishing
One of the most gamed subjects out of World War II, the Battle of the Bulge draws me in as I am always very interested in figuring out how the Germans could have possibly succeeded with their planned counter attack in December 1944, when the war was all but over. In Winter Thunder, Brian uses some familiar mechanics that I have seen in other Bulge games, such as Chit-Pull for activation of HQs that allow for the player to control their troops, as well as various DRMs that are provided to the Allies based upon the weather during any given turn. But, his brilliant stroke of design in this game that allows it to grab the 3rd place spot is the use of the Mission Matrix Table.
When a combat is initiated, each player will secretly choose a chit from among those aligning with their posture, either from the red colored Attack Mission chits or the blue Defend Mission chits. The Attack Mission chits include actions such as Balanced Attack, Infiltrate, Blitz and Frontal Attack. The Defend Mission chits include actions such as Stand Fast, Balanced Defense, Defend in Depth, Counter Attack, Delay and Withdraw. These drawn chits are revealed and then located on the Mission Matrix Table and DRMs are given for attack and defend actions and whether one side or both will take casualties. Notice that sometimes, neither side will take casualties. This is very strategic as you must choose an action that has a realm of outcomes that you can live with after your attack. The worst thing is to choose an action chit only to find out that you chose poorly and lost a few steps, that you will be unable to recover only to gain one hex. Choose wisely! Each action chosen should be chosen for a specific purpose in mind and can go along with the strategy needed to win the game.
I found this element to be a really refreshing take on this battle which added a lot of required thought and strategy to the process. I really liked the design because as the game follows the historical narrative pretty closely, the Americans seem to do a lot of early tactical withdrawal and retreat and don’t really have a great opportunity to perform counter attacks…but the opportunities do present themselves later when the reinforcements begin to show up, including the famous 101st Airborne and 82nd Airborne Divisions. This design has some really interesting choices that kept my attention and made me want to come back for me. Great job with this game Brian!
2. Binh Dinh Vietnam 1969 from One Small Step Games
One of his smaller designs, as it is a folio game and ships in a poly-bag, is Binh Dinh Vietnam 1969 (or Binh Dinh ’69 for short). This game is set after the events of the Tet Offensive are over, but the Communist insurgency on the Central Coast has not yet been defeated. The South Vietnamese 22nd Division, the Republic of Korea’s Capital Division, and the American 173rd Airborne Brigade face off against mixed National Liberation Front forces and elements of the North Vietnamese 18th Regiment. The goal of the game is for both sides to obtain and keep the control that has been so hard fought over for both the ground and people in the Binh Dinh province while also defeating the enemy. The game focuses on counter insurgency, which is something that Brian does a great job with, and includes all the elements you would expect, such as the raw power and force concentration of the Government player against the less powerful but slippery insurgents that use ambush, subterfuge and dispersion to stay one step ahead. The game also focuses on the propaganda side of the war in its see-saw struggle over the battle for control of the “hearts and minds” of the people as opposed to the more draconian efforts of the insurgents who tend to use terrorism to commit atrocities targeting the government but that end up being against the people as a part of collateral damage. As always seems to be the case, Brian makes the elements of the insurgents feel real and they evoke a fear in the larger, more powerful Government player with all their resources. This is a game that I want to explore further but it is definitely one of his best designs.
One interesting note about the origin of the game is that it was originally designed for use in a university history course on 20th Century violence. I have also been very much interested in another game in this same line of games from One Small Step and designed by Brian called Green Beret, which takes place one province to the west and 5 years earlier.
1. Colonial Twilight: The French-Algerian War, 1954-62 from GMT Games
Now to the top spot in this list. Colonial Twilight was a game that initially I was really only interested in because it was a COIN Series game and it shook up that system by having a new 2-player only Sequence of Play that introduced new strategies and struggles for both players. The theme was not one that I had an interest in. But, after playing, I realized that the subject of the theme didn’t necessarily matter, it only mattered how well the theme was integrated into the gameplay that made this a great game.
Colonial Twilight is the most recent game in the COIN Series from GMT Games. The game covers the struggle between the insurgent Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN), who are seeking independence from France, and the French Government using locally trained Algerian Troops and Police to keep the peace and try desperately to hold onto one of their colonies. The game is very much asymmetric, with each side having very different approaches to their differing victory conditions as well as different abilities in the form of Operations and Special Activities.
As I have played Colonial Twilight, I couldn’t help but appreciate the effort that the designer Brian Train has put into the game in an attempt to model the approach of each of the protagonists. The Government, with their massive amounts of resources and the power of legal, if not authoritative, control over the local populace is more heavy handed in their methods, utilizing trained Troops to Sweep and Assault insurgent strongholds, moving around the board with great ease utilizing Troop Lift and Deploy. Once they have found and exposed insurgent pieces on the board, they can utilize Neutralize to simply remove them while gaining control of various sectors in order to build Support. In the end, the Government earns victory by keeping the Commitment level of the French people high while increasing support in heavy populated cities and regions.
The FLN is a little more subtle in their methods as they don’t have the power to simply overrun defenses in the country but have to bide their time, building up their presence in key areas by Rallying support for their cause through the establishment of bases from which they can train forces. They then must move unnoticed from region to region Ambushing unsuspecting Algerian Troops, Subverting Algerian Troops and Police over to their cause, and raising the capital needed to fund a protracted war through Extortion. The FLN also utilize darker and more sinister methods, as bombings, assassinations and kidnapping are all on the menu through the use of Terror. They want their freedom from tyranny and are willing to destroy their own country rather than let the French hang on to it for even one more second. In the end, the FLN will win if they can build bases, and protect those bases from the Government, as well as build Opposition in key population centers around the country.
I simply love CT, and feel that it is Brian’s finest design as he was able to do so many things well with integrating the theme, that after playing, I could actually feel the pain involved with this fight for freedom from the FLN and attempt to hold onto power by the French. If a designer can do that with cardboard, wood embossed pieces and some cards, he can do anything.
I hope that you have enjoyed my look at a few of my favorite designs from Brian Train. I must admit that I have really only played about 6 of his games, but I have been impressed with each and every one of them. I am really looking forward to what he brings out in 2018 and am eagerly awaiting titles such as Tupamaro, Nights of Fire(follow up to Days of Ire), Strike for Berlin and Chile ’73. Let me know what games from Brian Train are your favorites.