In the August Monthly Update email, two new additions to the COIN Series family were announced with the Fall of Saigon Expansion and Brian Train’s newest addition in Volume XII China’s War: 1937-1941. I was excited about it as always, one being that I love the COIN Series and two that I have always found Brian’s designs to be very interesting and well done. Earlier this month, I contacted Brian and asked if he could squeeze me into his busy schedule for an interview and like the true kind and accommodating Canadian that he is he heartily agreed!
Grant: What inspired you to do a design on this period of history?
Brian: From the time I started playing wargames, I noticed that the China theatre was one that was scarcely reflected at all in games…there were lots of Pacific War games but China was just a big blank space on the map. Soon after I started designing wargames, I worked out a strategic political-military system that I used in Arriba Espana, a game on the Spanish Civil War. This came out in 1995 and had a couple of later editions with other publishers. A few years later I used much the same system for the 1937-41 war in China, and it was first published in 1999 by the Microgame Design Group as Battle for China, along with More Battle for China, an expansion kit that allowed players to play beyond 1941 and also to play out the 1947-49 Civil War. All of this came out in time for the 50th anniversary of the People’s Republic, not that anyone but me noticed. In later years Battle for China was published in issue #42 of the Japanese edition of Command Magazine (in 2002, one of the first games they published that was neither a reprint nor something designed by a Japanese), by Fiery Dragon Publishing (2004 – 2009, in several editions with increasingly good components and packaging), and finally by Decision Games in Strategy and Tactics #259 (2009).
Why did I go there? Well, I had always been interested in this neglected theatre of war, though the “China Incident” was the reason for all those other Pacific War games that had been published. It seemed to offer an opportunity to right a bit of that neglect and for me to understand its place in the general history of World War Two, and to appreciate how the Chinese Civil War was fought and ended…which had its place in the general history of Asian conflict for the next 30 years.
Grant: How much did your previous design Battle for China help in this effort?
Brian: Quite a bit, because I had done all of the basic research required for the earlier game, and in 2009 I wrote it up as a lead article to the Decision Games magazine issue that included the game’s final edition. However, in the last ten years there has been a lot of good writing coming out about wartime China; one recently written source I used, Forgotten Ally by Rana Mitter, had some interesting commentary in it about the recently changed historiography and popular image of Jiang Jieshi in the People’s Republic – almost a rehabilitation.
Grant: Are you going to make a Civil War expansion kit for this game?
Brian: No. By 1947 there was nothing to negotiate, no political points to bargain with, this was the ending to a civil war that was only suspended in 1937 and would now see the termination of one system or the other. Also, by 1947 the Red Army had transformed itself from a strictly guerrilla force into a people in arms, with a collection of large but low-tech field armies. The Huaihai campaign was the last of the three major campaigns of the Civil War and was one of the largest ground campaigns of the Twentieth Century; it was fought largely by regular forces on both sides. I thought, and think, a different system from the COIN system would be a lot more appropriate – though there are still very few games on the Civil War, more are appearing and many of them are by Chinese designers, which I welcome.
Grant: Why did you feel it was a good conflict to fit in the parameters of the COIN Series?
Brian: It wasn’t hard to suss out the asymmetries between the four antagonistic factions (though three of them are ostensibly on the same side!) and what they sought out of the conflict, at least in the 1937-41 period. And while the mechanical Operations among the three non-insurgent factions are the same, their decisions and limitations in conducting them are different and their Special Activities are also quite different. The highly variable quality of fighting forces engaged over time and the large time/space scale also seemed to nudge the game away from anything using a hex map, rigid turn-time scales or a highly detailed Order of Battle with counters with number ratings on them. (For those who are interested in that kind of treatment, the GR/D game War of Resistance has been available since 1998: with 20 map sections and over 2,200 counters you’d think that would be enough. But recently TKC Games is offering for pre-sale a game with 25 maps and close to 5,000 counters, though not all of them will be in use at the same time!)
Grant: What are the main differences in this installment of the COIN Series?
Brian: The general situation is that one faction is invading China – while the remaining three factions are opposing the invader although they all have their own agendas. So they are mutually hostile but can’t overtly attack each other.
Also notably, where Andean Abyss had three insurgent and one conventional (non-insurgent) factions, this one is the reverse.
Lines of Communication (LoCs) are very important in this game. I’ve noticed that a lot of people, when they begin playing COIN games, tend to ignore LoCs and treat them like borders – so they are playing a strictly area-movement game. Only later do they figure out what LoCs are for and what they can do, and it becomes a different kind of game when that light goes on. In this game you have to have that light switched on from the beginning. For the Japanese faction, LoCs are the only things that matter to them and while the other factions can pay attention to them or not, if they ignore them completely they will lose the game. Also, there are no City spaces; cities only terminate LoC segments. Each Population value point is about 10 million people (by far the largest scale of any COIN game), and China’s population was overwhelmingly rural at the time.
Grant: How does the feel of the game differ from the existing COIN volumes?
Brian: Well, “existing COIN volumes” now number 10 with the imminent release of All Bridges Burning, and they cover all kinds of historical periods and situations. This is the first one to deal with any theatre of World War Two. It’s also a bit different in that it begins with a foreign invasion, where most of the other volumes deal with internal civil conflicts or insurgencies, or resistance to pre-existing foreign occupations.
Grant: A few years ago you told me the game would be called Thunder Out of China. What changed in regards to the name and why?
Brian: Yes, Thunder Out of China was the original title, but that is the name of a famous book on the war that came out in the late 40s and is tied in with the “Who lost China?” debacle in American politics; as such, it is “of its time” and is unduly harsh towards Jiang Jieshi. Recent scholarship has been a lot more balanced about the conflict, on all three sides.
So I decided to change it to China’s War because China was fighting several conflicts at the same time – which I have tried to reflect in the dynamics of the game:
- against foreign intervention and manipulation (Japanese as well as the unequal treaties, also the obvious point that only China was actively resisting Japanese imperialism until 1941),
- against its feudal past and general backwardness (which both the KMT and CCP wanted to leave behind but which persisted, especially in the recalcitrance of the Warlords), and
- over its future development (the struggle between KMT and CCP that was only interrupted, not ended by the Japanese invasion).
Some people have already commented that it’s not interesting, but the title says what I want it to say, without being willfully obscure. I also have concluded I don’t like naming games with titles that have already been used for books or movies. And finally, I think that using some form of translated Chinese “poetic” title as some suggested (or worse, something that seems like it could have been translated but wasn’t) verges on Sinophilia or just pointless exoticism.
Grant: Could you tell us a little about the factions, their abilities and victory conditions?
Brian: There are three conventional factions and one insurgent faction.
Japanese: the Imperial Japanese Army and a bit of the Imperial Japanese Navy. Troop cubes, with a limited number of Police cubes that represent collaborator and rear-area security forces (think Wang Jingwei and others who tried to play ball with the Empire).
Nationalists: The Nationalist Party and Nationalist Revolutionary Army, largely the factions and armies under the direct control of Jiang Jieshi (oka Chiang Kai-shek). Cubes plus some guerrillas that can be organized behind enemy lines.
Warlords: Regional forces and armies within the National Revolutionary Army that are nominally part of the government and answerable to Jiang Jieshi, but whose leaders still desire autonomy and would contend with him for ultimate power if they had the chance. Historically there were dozens of these, of all sizes and predilections, but for simplicity here they are treated as one colour of cubes, with a limited number of spaces to conduct operations in.
CCP (Chinese Communist Party): Mao and friends. An all-Guerrilla force.
Conventional Faction Operations
The conventional factions choose from Recruit, Patrol, Sweep, and Assault Operations. The exact procedures for each Faction vary.
Recruiting augments Nationalist and Warlord faction’s forces; the Nationalist can also convert cubes to Bases and Pacify/build Support. Japanese can recruit Police.
Patrolling protects/contests LoCs by moving cubes onto and along them, and optionally exposing Guerrillas there and/or Assaulting enemy forces. Because of the ground scale (about 45 miles to the inch on the map) forces move only into adjacent LoC segments.
Sweep Operations move cubes into adjacent spaces and also can Activate Guerrillas. The Nationalist player may take Warlord cubes “along for the ride” (at an extra cost) since they are nominally under command of the National Revolutionary Army.
Assaults eliminate enemy forces. There is a simple combat procedure where both sides roll 1d6 and try to score below their total combat value. The Nationalist player may include Warlord cubes already in the selected space in an Assault (at an extra cost).
Insurgent Faction Operations
The CCP chooses from Rally, March, Attack, and Agitate Operations.
Build Guerrillas and/or convert them into Bases. Similar to other modern COIN system games.
March Operations move Guerrillas into adjacent spaces. Guerrillas may move again if Province is at Oppose.
Attack Operations seek to eliminate Japanese forces. Like other COIN system games, CCP activates all CCP Guerrillas and rolls 1d6.
Agitate Operations erode Support for the Nationalist, Sabotage LoCs or contend for Control of a Province.
There is quite a bit more variation here among factions.
Japanese: choose from Deploy, Transport, or Anti-Bandit Action.
This moves JPN Troops into, around or out of China via sea movement. It may accompany any Operation and may take place in up to 3 Coastal Provinces. This reflects the Japanese command of the sea and the ability to shift numbers of Troops quickly along the coast, or to bring in new forces from the Home Islands.
Transport moves Troops rapidly. It may accompany any Operation. Similar to Transport in other modern COIN system games.
Anti-Bandit Action (ABA).
An ABA destroys exposed Guerrillas (Nationalist or CCP) and Terrorizes and neutralizes the population. The Japanese player may conduct this Special Activity in a Province even if there are no actual Guerrillas there, as a way of destroying Support or Opposition (and suppressing further Recruit/Rally activity by Terrorizing the civilian population).
One additional chromy thing the Japanese player can do is “Operation Go-Go”: once per campaign, whenever the Japanese player is eligible to act, they may choose to play the “Operation Go-Go” marker, with the following effects:
- regardless of the player’s options available, they may execute a full Operation with a Special Activity instead;
- the Operation with Special Activity does not cost any Resources, but the Japanese player must subtract 2 Commitment;
- if the JPN player was 1st Eligible, they remain eligible.
This reflects the Japanese ability to conduct a rapid offensive and, if well timed, retain the initiative. It generally costs the Japanese player 3 Resources to do anything vs. 1 for the Chinese factions so they can get a lot done, but losing 2 points of Commitment can be a rather stiff price.
Nationalist: choose from Govern, Transport, or Partisan Action.
Governing adds Resources or Patronage or reduces the power of competing political groups. Add Resources in Provinces with Nationalist Bases OR remove 1 CCP or Warlord Base OR If the Province is at Support, transfer its Population Value to Resources or Patronage (any combination) and set the Province to Neutral.
Transport can move Nationalist cubes long distances along LoCs. Similar to other games.
Place or conceal Nationalist Guerrillas, or use them to Sabotage adjacent LoCs. Nationalist Guerrillas do not move or attack, they only Sabotage (and if Activated will interfere with Warlord Control of a Province).
Warlords: may choose from Extort, Suborn or Organize.
The WLD player may select up to 3 Provinces with a WLD Base and add 1 Resource per WLD Base.
Suborn removes or replaces Japanese Police or any Nationalist pieces, or shifts a Province to Neutral by paying Resources. There is also a Capability card where CCP Guerrillas may also be Suborned.
(Japanese Police cubes represent collaborationist “puppet troops” who in many cases had been former warlord troops themselves, or mercenaries. Sub-factions within the Nationalist Central Army were also potentially disloyal, via both ethnic ties and corruption.)
Place a total of up to 2 Bases in Provinces that are Neutral and not Nationalist-Controlled.
CCP: may choose from Tax, Subvert, or Ambush.
Similar to other modern COIN system games. Activate 1 Underground CCP Guerrilla there, add 1 Resource.
Remove a total of 2 pieces of other factions (Nationalist or Warlord pieces, or Japanese Police) from all selected spaces, or replace a total of 1 piece in only 1 space with an Underground Guerrilla.
Similar to other modern COIN system games, this ensures the success of up to 2 Attacks but with fewer losses.
Japanese: (Economic Value of all LoCs occupied only by Japanese forces + Commitment) exceeds 40.
Nationalist: (Total Support + Patronage) exceeds 40.
Warlord: (Total Warlord-controlled Population + Bases) exceeds Patronage.
CCP: (Total Opposition + Bases) exceeds 20.
Grant: The Warlord victory condition is a bit different from other entries. What was the reason for this different lien?
Brian: Yes, players experienced with other COIN system games may find the Warlord victory condition a bit different. What this is meant to represent is a situation where the Warlord faction has enough political and organizational strength (shown by a combination of controlled population and administration represented by Bases) to overcome Jiang Jieshi’s claim to be the head of the Republic of China’s legitimate government and depose him. In the case of a Warlord victory the war will likely continue, but with someone else running the show.
Grant: Do the insurgents really have a chance of winning standing against three conventional powers? What happened to the insurgent historically?
Brian: This game is not about a counter-insurgency; it is more of a counter-invasion game. The Communist agenda is much like the Taliban in A Distant Plain and the FLN in Colonial Twilight; they want to arouse people against the Nationalist government (so total Oppose) and grow their own organization (number of Bases). Their combined victory level number is the lowest, so you might think it is easy for them to win, but they are starting from a weak and isolated base so they have a long way to go. They win if they come out of the game with a considerably stronger and more geographically diverse position; in game terms historically the CCP did not win, but they were secure enough to be confident in playing the long game.
Grant: How much thought goes into the colors for each faction’s pieces? What are the colors you used for the various factions and why?
Brian: Unlike other games, the faction colours did not require a lot of thought beyond avoiding yellow, lest we be accused of racism.
blue Nationalists, in imitation of their blue-gray uniforms;
red CCP, because Communists;
khaki Japanese, again in imitation of their uniforms;
white collaborationist Japanese Police (white is associated with death and mourning in Chinese culture; I felt that would be a good condemnatory colour); and
green Warlords, because there always has to be a green faction for people to grizzle about. (Well, at the beginning of testing the Warlords were actually three different colours (green, pink and black) representing three major sub-factions, and the Warlord player would have to choose one of the three to conduct operations with. Gene Billingsley saw this and suggested gently that three extra colours were too much for people to keep mental track of; I had to agree with him because sometimes the map did rather look like a six-bean salad. So we went to just green for the Warlords, but limited their actions to a fixed number of spaces.)
Grant: What new tracks are used in the design and what do they represent?
Brian: No new tracks but two semi-new concepts to track during play: Patronage and Commitment.
“Patronage”: Jiang Jieshi, as leader of the Nationalist party, governed China and directed its armed forces through a delicate network of former warlords and lesser party factions. The concept of Patronage generally represents his reserves of political, social and military “capital” to keep this network functioning, with him and his associates at the top. Patronage is gained through Events, Governing, transfers of Foreign Aid and fighting battles where there are large numbers of Japanese casualties. Patronage is lost through Events, having pieces replaced by Communist or Warlord subversion or suborning, destruction of Bases, or large military disasters.
“Commitment”: Commitment generally represents the willingness of the Japanese home government in Tokyo to support the war effort in China, as balanced against the preparations and pressures for military effort against the Soviet Union (the “strike North” faction) or into the central and south Pacific (the “strike South” faction). Commitment limits the number of Japanese Troops that may be used in China and determines the number of Resources the Japanese faction gets (further reduced by any Sabotage on the map). It is lost or gained by Events, taking or avoiding large numbers of casualties, etc..
Grant: How is American intervention modeled and why did you feel this to be appropriate? Flying Tigers make an appearance?
Brian: No American intervention, at least nothing so plain as that. The Nationalist player wants to get as much Foreign Aid as he can; he gets that in the Propaganda Rounds where it can be converted into Resources or more often Patronage. There is a small amount coming in each Round, plus an amount equal to one-third of the Japanese Troop cube losses during the preceding campaign. The idea here is that the more losses Japan suffers, the more willing the USSR and Western Allies will be to provide China with loans and equipment to carry on (prior to 1941, Soviet aid far outweighed what other countries sent or lent). This is an incentive for the Nationalist player to fight, if possible using Warlord cubes to help him do it! (And no, no Flying Tigers, not even a card: they were too small, too fleeting, and arrived too late in the day.)
Grant: What does the proposed board look like and what is special about the configuration?
Brian: The board runs north-south from Manzhouguo to French Indochina (about 1,500 miles), and east-west from Shanghai to Chongqing (about 900 miles). The map names and tracks are oriented so that North is on the left hand map edge, which seems to throw some literal-minded folks.
A choice I made early on in the design was to use the Pinyin system of Romanization for Chinese place names, as opposed to the antiquated Wade-Giles system used at the time of the conflict…hence “Jiang Jieshi”, not “Chiang Kai-shek”; “Fuzhou”, not “Foochow” and so on. I chose this because Pinyin gives something closer to how a name is actually pronounced in Mandarin Chinese, which I thought was more respectful; also because the newer histories coming out use this system.
But so simple a choice has wrinkles of its own. Apparently the old Wade-Giles system is still often used in English-language documents produced in Taiwan (that is, the official Republic of China) and using the Pinyin system is taken by some as showing sympathy to the government of the People’s Republic of China. Well, I chose what I chose for the reasons above and no ideological favouritism is implied.
But never fear, as I usually do I will supply a pronunciation guide in the Playbook, as well as a table to compare the old and new names for people relying on the older history books.
Grant: What role do LoCs play in the design and why did you feel this fit the history?
Brian: The LoCs are the key to Japanese victory. This models the “dot and line” nature of the historical Japanese occupation, where they only occupied the cities and industrial/resource centres, and dominated the river and railway lines that connected them. They would occasionally go and sweep through the countryside, but basically if you were more than a few miles from a railroad junction, city or large town you wouldn’t see much of the Japanese Army.
In the game, the Japanese will want to descend upon the countryside from time to time to wipe out large concentrations of guerrillas or field armies, but only after they seize and hold uncontested as large a network of LoCs as they can. There is a total LoC Economic value of 28, and their total victory level is 40, so the margins are pretty thin.
Grant: I understand there is but one scenario with 4 turns. Why was this decided?
Brian: There is one scenario, beginning in July, 1937. There are four Propaganda Rounds but no victory check on the first, so only three chances to win the game outright. The first two campaign rounds represent about 6-9 months of action, to take players to about early 1939; the final two are a year or more in length.
Grant: How long does a game typically take?
Brian: Probably three to four hours, unless Mr. Analysis Paralysis has come to play (why did you let him come over?).
Grant: Any changes with the end of round cards? New abilities? What do you call them?
Brian: Propaganda Round cards (kept the terminology) and they have a familiar sequence:
- Victory Phase: check for victory (but not on the first Propaganda Card).
- Resources Phase: each faction gets resources.
- Support Phase: Nationalists and CCP spend resources to build Support and Opposition.
- Redeploy Phase: each faction must or may move certain forces; forces located on LoCs don’t have to redeploy.
- Aid and Commitment Phase: Nationalist player gains Foreign Aid and Japanese player may gain or lose Commitment; in either case the number of Japanese Troop cubes taken as casualties in the campaign matters.
- Reset Phase: forces move to Available or Out of Play; Sabotage and Terror markers go away; other housekeeping tasks.
Grant: Can you share the text of a few of the Event Cards with us? Do you have any graphics laid out?
Brian: There are 48 Event Cards and four Propaganda Round cards. Some Event Card titles include:
- Soong Sisters (Meiling goes abroad for +2 Foreign Aid, or Qingling opposes Jiang Jieshi at home for -2 Patronage);
- New Fourth Army Incident (until Propaganda Round, Nationalist and Warlords may Assault Activated CCP Guerrillas, but Province where Assault occurred shifts to Oppose);
- Unit 731 (capability – Chinese defender does not get defensive terrain bonus, or Anti-Bandit Action does not place Terror);
- Nomonhan Campaign (border incident – Japanese loses or regains Troops to/from Casualties);
- Blue Shirts Society (adjustment of loyalties among Warlords);
- War Weariness (All factions except the executing one remove 3 pieces from map to Available).
No graphics laid out yet except for the Propaganda Round cards, which feature contemporary propaganda posters as seen above.
Grant: How closely did your idea in design adhere to the actual historical timeline and can you give an example?
Brian: In broad terms, many of the test games I have run follow history in that the first two campaigns see a lot of action while the final two feature more scrapping around specific areas or zones of occupation. If the Japanese player doesn’t win outright in the first victory check (which is the second Propaganda Round) it’s likely that he will not win, unless the Chinese factions quarrel too much amongst themselves – so there’s no reason for him to give up. This broadly follows history I think, in that there were more than a few Japanese generals who realized by 1939 that the Chinese front had become a quagmire, but there was no way to extricate themselves from it except by slapping down the Chinese efforts to drive them out and squeezing what they could out of what land and resources they had taken already.
In game terms, the historical result would be the game running all four Propaganda Rounds with no clear winner at the end, but the Nationalist faction would be closest to its Victory Level.
Grant: How has China’s War changed through the play test process? Can you give any specific examples?
Brian: I actually got this game to about the 50% done point in 2015, while I was working on Colonial Twilight, but I had to shelve it in order to finish Colonial Twilight off properly. The main mechanics and victory conditions have been largely the same since then. Except for the colour change for the Warlords noted above, I’ve gone back and forth on a couple of limitations on where to do operations, and the exact number of pieces in a faction or Victory level totals, but that is mostly it. However, the Event Cards have been a lot of work and refining and tuning, as they usually are in creating a COIN system game.
Grant: What has changed in the way you approach the design process for the COIN system since A Distant Plain and Colonial Twilight? Any changed thoughts on insurgency, support or opposition?
Brian: The sole insurgent faction is not that different from other modern COIN era games, except that their ability to change the alignment of a Province is conflated with their ability to Sabotage LoCs, in the overall “Agitate” operation.
Like the other COIN system games I have designed, there is only one level of Support or Opposition. At this time over 90% of the population of China lived in villages and their politics were not terribly sophisticated, so there was no great degree of commitment they were prepared to give either side.
Grant: What are you most pleased with about the design?
Brian: I joked early on that this might be a good game for four passive-aggressive types to play. The Japanese player is concerned only with the LoCs which have relatively little value for the Chinese factions, but these factions collectively must fight the Japanese without losing too much of themselves in the process.
I think the game has a lot of potential for crafty multi-player play, as the three Chinese factions try to negotiate, strong-arm or betray each other into “wasting” effort fighting the Japanese at greater cost to their rivals. There is a tension between competition and cooperation here, and it has to be maintained. If they play cooperatively they can defeat Japan but victory will go to the most unscrupulous…but if they play in the simple-minded “bucket of crabs” style among themselves, concerned only with who among them is closest to winning, they will find the Japanese player waltzing to victory over them.
Grant: What other games are you working on?
Brian: Besides this one I am hoping to make some progress on the following ones in 2020:
Civil Power: This is a tactical “sandbox” game on urban riots and violence. It was one of the first games I ever designed (1991-92) and revising it after 25 years is proving almost as much work as doing a new one, though the global situation seems to call for it. Like the original version, this will have a lot of new scenarios based on contemporary headlines: Hong Kong 2019, dueling mobs in Caracas, Violent Demo USA, etc.. Coming from Conflict Simulations LLC in early 2020.
District Commander series, from Hollandspiele: Maracas module is out, Binh Dinh (Vietnam 1969) is coming next in early 2020; the Kandahar module (Afghanistan 2009) might be out in 2020, or maybe not. Meanwhile, the ZNO (Algeria 1959) module is currently available for free PnP from my website. There may be minor tweaks to the final two but I think the system is about how I want it. Time permitting, I may be able to start work on District Commander Kashmir module, with scenarios covering the development of the insurgency there over the years.
Semi-abstract urban counterinsurgency games: I have been working on two of these for some time now, can’t get time to finish them off. Will likely put them up for free PnP on my website as few people seem interested in this kind of thing.
Strongman: an extensive rework of Caudillo (card game about power vacuums in a generic Latin American country) that may be a while coming, and publisher not completely confirmed. Really need to spend some time on this but it needs multiple people to play it.
As always my thanks to Brian for his tireless efforts in the realm of counter insurgency warfare. I also am very thankful for his sense of humor (some might call it dry) but it really speaks to me and I have never NOT enjoyed one of his games or any of our online interactions. Maybe I will finally get to meet him sometime in 2020 as we are considering a trip to Consimworld Expo in Tempe, Arizona.
If you are interested in China’s War: 1937-1941 you can pre-order a copy on the GMT Games website at the following link: https://www.gmtgames.com/p-830-chinas-war-1937-1941.aspx