Brian Train is an indefatigable wargame designer and has over 50 games to his credit on Board Game Geek. I own eight of his designs, including the likes of A Distant Plain, Colonial Twilight, Binh Dinh ’69, Kandahar andWinter Thunderto name a few. He is always either forging ahead with new designs, or tinkering with his old ones, but he always has something going. I am lucky as he also is a right fine chap and very approachable. I have done a dozen of these interviews with him and he never seems to tire of them…well, at least he doesn’t say so to me!
Well, recently, Flying Pig Games announced that they were rereleasing an updated version of one of Brian’s former designs Freikorps (1998) under a new name Strike for Berlin. I wanted to get the scoop and reached out to Brian and of course he was more than pleased to talk with us.
Grant: What made you want to redo Freikorps from Microgame Design Group, originally published in 1998?
Brian: Well, Freikorps was the first in a family of four games I designed using what I call the “Between the Wars” system. In chronological order of design they are Freikorps (1998), War Plan Crimson (2000), Konarmiya (2007) and Finnish Civil War (2009, 2016).
Finnish Civil War, as the last one to be designed, was the first to use a drastic revision of the sequence of play, where a turn was changed from sort of Igo-Yugo into an interleaved set of three Operations Segments for each player, in which a random player got to fight or move. I liked this change, it really shook things up and subsequently Konarmiya got an overhaul to use this system and was published by Tiny Battle Publishing as Red Horde 1920. Along with the upgraded system, it also had a new map, new order of battle research, some new rules and different components, so it really did need a new title too.
I decided Freikorps, as the link game for Konarmiya, would be next to get a similar treatment and an opportunity arose with Tiny Battle. Originally it was also going to be a folio game like Red Horde 1920 but Mark Walker wanted to drop it into Yaah! Magazine #11 instead as Strike for Berlin.
By the way, this left War Plan Crimson as the only one using the old mechanics and sequence of play. There’s nothing I wanted to change in the game’s content, just its mechanics, so a few weeks ago I rewrote the rules to update the game for the new system. Anyone who has that game can get the rules here: https://brtrain.wordpress.com/2018/03/04/war-plan-crimson-mark-ii/ or from the game’s Board Game Geek entry.
Grant: What has changed in the design? Why the change in name to Strike for Berlin?
Brian: Like Red Horde 1920, this game has a new map, new Orders of Battle (OOB), a new sequence of play and new optional rules based on some different assumptions. Not only that, this game has the best map and counter art it will ever have, and double-sided counters too!
All of this makes it essentially a new game, so a new title was needed. I batted a number of names back and forth with Mark; I was partial to Stahlhelm and there was some talk of “eagles this-and-that”, but in the end Strike for Berlin prevailed. I thought it should have been Strike for Berlin 1920 for assonance with Red Horde 1920, and to warn off any dolts who might think it was a 1945 game and buy it by mistake, but anyway….
Grant: What historically are you trying to capture and replicate in this game? Is the design focused more on being a simulation?
Brian: Well, there is no historical result of any degree in this conflict, because it never happened!
In our timeline, the Red Army lost the Battle of Warsaw and withdrew from Poland, to return in 1939. The Point of Departure (as the alt-history people call it) here is that they won the Battle of Warsaw and inflicted a major material and psychological defeat on the Polish nation…and drunk on hubris, they decided to keep going for Berlin.
The “Between the Wars” system I made for the four games in the family portrays the workings of not particularly competent armies that are mostly infantry, with small detachments of armour, aircraft, artillery or armored trains that may have a disproportionate effect in combat. I think this is fairly typical of historical forces that actually existed during this time and have worked changes to each game appropriate to the situation. For example, the rival forces in Finnish Civil War are largely armed mobs, except for the German forces who even then are second-string fighters; War Plan Crimson takes place in the 1930s and includes rules for forming Experimental Mechanized Brigades with uncertain effects; Red Horde 1920 and Strike For Berlin have quite a bit of cavalry; and so on.
Grant: What is the scale of the game and what are the force structures?
Brian: The game has a hex map with a ground scale of about 18 miles (30 km) per hex, each turn is about a week, and the units are kind of loosely brigades and divisions, as they have considerable variation in strength. Players will draw from their respective Force Unit Pools before and during the game, to simulate the essentially random fighting ability of their forces.
The Red player has four forces under command:
- Soviet Red Army: Term used to refer to the land forces of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, also called the “Red Army of Workers and Peasants” at the time. Part of the Red Fleet might show up too.
- Polish Red Army: As I said, the game begins after the hypothetical Red victory in the Battle of Warsaw in the summer of 1920. Poland is now in a state of combined foreign military occupation and civil war. The units of the Polish Red Army are those forces raised by the puppet “PolRevKom” (Polish Revolutionary Committee) government controlled by Feliks Dzierzynski (who founded the CHEKA secret police force). Shown as a set of weak brigades.
- Spartacist: Refers to the party militias of the various Socialist, Communist, and Anarchist movements that flourished in Germany at the end of WWI and afterwards. In “our” timeline many of these forces were decisively crushed when they rose in revolt just after the end of World War I, but for this game they live to fight another day. They appear in cities that revolt during the game due to random events, as weak brigades.
- Konarmiya: The First Red Cavalry Army, led by General Semyon Budyonny: a large, highly motivated, and very mobile force that had been used to smash the gates of Warsaw and win the war with Poland.
And the White player has up to five forces under command:
- Reichswehr: The ten-division standing army allowed Germany under the Versailles Treaty is represented in the game as a force separate from the Freikorps, as it was made up of higher quality, better equipped and uniformly organized not-yet-demobilized veterans.
- Freikorps: Collective term used for the numerous ‘private armies’ made up of demobilized German veterans or volunteers forming paramilitary combat units that operated throughout Germany and Eastern Europe between 1918 and 1923. These are shown at brigade strength.
- Polish National Army: Some remnants of the army that defended Poland are shown at brigade strength, led by Jozef Pilsudski (represented in the game by a headquarters unit with his name and image).
- Entente: Collective term used for the British and French troops that garrisoned Germany after the war or could have been sent to resist the advance of the Soviet forces. These forces may be used in the game, or not, depending on your take on the situation. Two French and two British divisions are included, and a portion of the Royal Navy may show up in the Baltic.
- Volunteer Legions: These optional units represent ad hoc formations of volunteer veterans who might have joined in the fight against Bolshevism, despite the attitude or preoccupations of their national governments (just as thousands of men volunteered in the International Brigades to fight against Fascism in the Spanish Civil War, more than 15 years later). Brigades from Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Italy may appear if and when White Morale gets quite low, as a desperation reinforcement.
Grant: In my reading on the subject and the game, I’m very interested in your design thoughts and take on the Soviet Union’s “Red Army of Workers and Peasants”. How did you capture the workers and peasants as combatants?
Brian: That title was more or less an honourific, as the Bolsheviks were conscripting men wherever they could find them at that point, after almost three years of continuous conflict. By this time the Reds were getting the upper hand in the Civil War though it was still possible for the Whites to mount some strong offensives.
But there is an optional rule in the game, called “Conscription on the March”, where the Red player (only) can “sweep” towns and cities he currently occupies for conscripts, gaining replacement steps. Each town or city hex may be “swept” only once during the game, and if it is ever left empty later in the game, or it comes under White control, it automatically Revolts for the White player.
This rule was inspired both by historical example from the Civil War, and by Tukhachevsky’s theory of the continual offensive. He held that in a class war (which he distinguished from a national war between countries), recruits could be mobilized by an attacking army as it advanced, because classes sympathetic to the revolution would willingly join the revolutionary army as it liberated them…so the Revolution would be its own recruiter.
Grant: What system is used in the design to drive the game? How did you make the choice of that system to accurately capture the conflict? What challenges were there?
Brian: The system is shown through the Sequence of Play but is a take on the Chit Pull System that I have used in several of my other designs:
- Events Phase: Players determine what random event, if any, occurs this turn. Then players will place up to six Operations Chits in the Operations Chit Randomizer, to control the action during the upcoming Operations Phase. Normally a player has three Chits but it is reduced to two if they have low Morale.
- Reinforcement/Replacement Phase: Both players simultaneously receive reinforcement and replacement points, “spend” them to draw units and Assets from those available, and place them on the map
- Operations Phase: One player (it doesn’t matter who) draws one random Operations Chit from the Randomizer. The indicated player will conduct the first Operations Segment. When he is finished, then another Chit will be drawn to see who will conduct the second Operations Segment, and so on until all the Chits have been drawn.
- Operations Segments: The player indicated by the draw of the Operations Chit chooses to do one of three things for all of his units to do:
- Overland Movement – hex to hex movement on the map; OR
- Railroad Movement – faster movement along railway lines already under his control; OR
- Recovery Phase: Units belonging to both players that were disrupted as a result of combat may now attempt to recover (see (9.0).
The idea of having three randomly assigned operations segments for each player during a turn is to both reflect the somewhat chaotic nature of the campaign and to allow players to, in a limited sense, script the kind of turn they want to have and to respond to emerging threats. The choice of which type of movement to have, and when to have combat, is there to give players some flexibility.
For example, a player’s objective in his turn may be to take an important town that is garrisoned by the enemy. He may have moved forces into contact the previous turn, and so in his first Operations Segment might start with Combat – hoping to eliminate the enemy, take the town, and follow up with Overland Movement, then Railroad, to exploit the gap he has created. Or, if he starts the Operations Phase out of contact, he may move some extra forces up by Railroad Movement (first segment), move into contact and outflank the town with Overland Movement (second segment), and then conduct Combat to take the town. Or, if he is besieging a heavily defended town or city, he could even have Combat – Combat – Combat.
Grant: What different types of random events are used in the design? What is the quirkiest of those chosen? You know how I like your random events!
Brian: Aha, I thought you would ask that! Most of my games feature a random events table where occasionally I practice my weak sense of humour. Usually Event 66 (the one you get when you roll a double six) is reserved for this, and in this game the event is:
“Artistic Event in Berlin. Somebody, probably a Dadaist, fires a goldfish from an arquebus as an act of public protest. Both players lose 1 Morale point due to aesthetic dismay over this lackluster gesture.”
What’s life without a little Dada, even derivative Dada….
Grant: When you do these historic games where do you tend to do research to find such things as the OOBs? Do you try to include as much history as possible without sacrificing game play?
Brian: Well, even for an alt-history game there are historical OOBs to work from. The Red Army’s OOB from the Polish-Soviet War is known, at least at the division level – though what might have actually been contained in that “division” was highly variable. So the Soviet Red Army forces appearing in the game are largely those that fought in the Northwest Front, under Tukhachevsky’s command, in the historical war that precedes the game by one week, as well as the Konarmiya, sent north from the fighting around Lvov.
Similarly, we do know the structure and locations of the ten German Reichswehr divisions (seven infantry and three cavalry) permitted under the Treaty of Versailles. However, in the summer of 1920, these units were still forming from the Ubergangsheer or “Transitional Army” that was formed in September 1919 as a collection of brigades, so there is an optional rule where the White player has to build these divisions up from Freikorps brigades during the game – a bit like assembling an airplane while you are flying it!
The units in the other forces are just guesses. There were literally hundreds of small Freikorps units of all sizes, it was far from certain that Allied forces would have thrown in with the Germans to defend their country, and the Polish National Army had just been smashed to bits.
Grant: How do you handle combat in the redesign?
Brian: Combat is one thing that didn’t change in the game’s various forms. It’s nothing really radical: odds-based combat, with column shifts for troop quality and terrain, and die roll modifiers for use of Assets (detachments of armoured vehicles, artillery, aircraft or armoured trains).
There are two Combat Results Tables: if you have enough “shock-capable” troops attacking (these include: Konarmiya divisions, Soviet Red Army cavalry divisions, Reichswehr infantry divisions, and Armor Assets), you can roll on this other CRT. It is bloodier and features a Defender Panics! result at high odds, which will rip a hole in your defensive line as the stricken units desert and there is a massive retreat.
Combat losses are usually on both sides and are taken in steps: brigades have one, divisions have two, and it is difficult for you to replace a division once it has been eliminated. Units that retreat to reduce their losses are disrupted and may take a while to recover.
Grant: What are the counters like? Do you have a few examples that you can show us.
Brian: The counters, like the map, were done by the very capable John Cooper who also did the art for Red Horde 1920 and Winter Thunder.
Grant: What has changed with the map? What different scale does it use from the original 1998 version?
Brian: The map scale is slightly different from the game’s earlier editions (18 miles instead of 15) and is based on better research, especially of the rail net and river system. This kind of stuff is much easier to find on the Internet than it was 20 years ago.
Grant: How is morale handled and what are its effects on the units?
Brian: Each player has a Morale Level, from 0 to 20, generally reflective of the fighting spirit and efficiency of his troops and their leaders. Morale will fluctuate up and down during the game, usually through taking or losing towns and cities or losing large battles.
Generally good things happen to a player if he has high Morale: his attacks get a favourable odds column shift, and his units have an increased chance of recovering from Disruption, and he will recover a larger proportion of combat losses to become replacement steps (to reanimate brigades or replenish divisions). If his Morale is low all kinds of bad things will happen: he will place only two Operations Chits in the Randomizer at the beginning of the turn; his attacks will have an unfavourable column shift; it is less likely his units will recover from Disruption; and his units will Desert (be removed from the game) in combat.
Grant: What are each side’s victory conditions?
Brian: The game is ten turns long and at the end of the tenth turn (the end of October 1920) players count the number of urban hexes they control. Whoever controls more wins, with the degree of victory determined by how many more they control.
A Sudden Death victory is also possible if the Red player seizes all city hexes in Germany, or if the White player takes Warsaw with German or Entente units.
Grant: What new optional rules are included in the game? How do they change the basic experience?
Brian: Most of the optional rules from Freikorps are still in the game, but I added some new ones. We got: Armoured Trains; the Trotsky Train; the Soviet Baltic Fleet; Tactical Doctrines; Pilsudski; Volunteer Legions, Entente units; the Virus of Revolt; Reichswehr variable deployment and construction; options for the Free City of Danzig; and Conscription on the March.
Grant: How can Red Horde 1920 and this game be merged together to make one large campaign?
Brian: It’s pretty simple. Lay the maps out (there is a slight overlap) and play a game of Red Horde 1920 until Warsaw falls. When it does, set up the Reichswehr and Freikorps forces in Germany and the whole of the map is now open for business. (If Warsaw never falls, the White player is congratulated for saving Western civilization from the bloody claws of Godless Bolshevism, or something, and you can go play something else.) The Red player also starts using a Reinforcement chart that is a bit less generous, that reflects the increasing logistical strain on the Red Army as the fighting moves further away from Russia.
Grant: What changes did you need to make in the design when the game was announced as a pack-in magazine game? How does this change your design process?
Brian: When Mark told me that the game would be in the magazine and not in a folio, it didn’t matter to the design process at all – the game was already finished, and the components are identical except that the rules are bound into the magazine instead of a separate booklet.
Issues of the magazine are more expensive than the folio would be, $38 instead of the usual folio price of $25 or so, but you also get a pretty thick and very nicely printed magazine full of reviews and variants of recent games. I’m hopeful that sales of Red Horde 1920 will benefit as subscribers want to try the link game, and also that people who enjoyed Red Horde 1920 would be motivated to pick up this “sequel”.
But right now you can pre-order it for $35 at the following link: https://flyingpiggames.com/products/yaah-magazine-issue-11
The item is also available in PnP form from wargameVault. For the next few days at least, the PnP version of the magazine and game are available now (in advance of the physical product, don’t know if that is typical), for just $15, down from $19.
Thanks as always for your great answers to my questions Brian. You are truly an officer and a gentleman. I look forward to adding this remake to my growing “Brian Train” collection.