We have had a long and very fruitful relationship with Brian Train here at The Players’ Aid Blog. He was the 2nd designer that I ever reached out to for one of our Designer Interviews and he was very accommodating of our request even though he didn’t know us and didn’t have any knowledge about our blog as we were very new at that time. Since that time, we have completed 9 interviews and now embark on our 10th. We appreciate Brian and his very interesting and well thought out designs on counterinsurgency, revolution and just eclectic types of battles. His newest upcoming design is a quadrigame from Compass Games called Brief Border Wars and takes a look at four very short modern frontier conflicts.
Grant: What is this new quad you have been working on with Compass Games called Brief Border Wars?
Brian: It’s a set of four small games on, well, modern frontier conflicts that weren’t very long! I started work on these designs in mid-2017 or so, all designs were completed by the beginning of 2018 and they are finally coming out soon from Compass Games.
Grant: What games or past designs inspired your thoughts on this quad?
Brian: I thought one of the best ideas old SPI came up with was the “Quadrigame” concept of a set of basic rules framed to model a particular set or type of conflicts, or historical period, with smaller sets of rules exclusive to each battle to show its peculiarities. They published 16 Quads between 1975 and 1979, for a total of 64 games ranging from Alexander’s Siege of Tyre to a still-hypothetical Second Korean War. I wrote an article some time ago for John Kula’s magazine Simulacrum that listed another 25 or so that were proposed in S&T or MOVES feedback sections, but were never published (at least not quite in the form they were proposed). So, I wanted to try the idea of publishing a quad of my own, with four games in one box, and Compass Games bit on that hook. (I have done something along the same lines with the District Commander Series of games from Hollandspiele, which so far has four modules with exclusive rules hanging off a set of basic rules and concepts, but they are publishing them as four separate games.)
More directly, though, the game system was inspired by how well The Little War seemed to work. This was a game I designed in 2015-16 on the short but spirited one-week border war between Slovakia and Hungary in March 1939. Hollandspiele published it as part of a two-fer with Ukrainian Crisis. The game system seemed to offer some potential to model other somewhat similar conflicts in a simple way, so I chose four short border wars (from many possibilities!) and got to work.
Grant: What are the advantages of doing wargames in this quad format?
Brian: These are not very complex games, but there is still an advantage to laying out the core concepts and mechanisms in a base set of rules people can learn, then as they explore the other games in the system there remains only a bit left to learn to reflect the particular circumstances of each situation. The basic rules are 4 pages long and each set of exclusive rules is 2-3 pages, including tables.
Grant: What are the four different battles you chose for this quad? Why did you choose these specific conflicts?
Brian: I thought about many, many possible conflicts from the last 75 years. My main criteria were that each conflict be: short (days to weeks instead of months to years) with a definite beginning and end to the historical fighting, be confined to a particular geographical area and set of restraints by the antagonists, and that historically the end state be either the status quo antebellum or a stable readjustment of boundaries. And yet, there should be enough asymmetry between the two sides to make for an interesting match-up.
The four battles I chose are:
The Football War
El Salvador vs. Honduras, 1969. This is one of history’s shortest wars, clocking in at about 100 hours. People often joke that this was was provoked by one side losing a soccer match: in fact, like most wars, the war was the climax of years of political and economic pressure. In the game, both forces are largely similar – El Salvador has a slightly larger ground force, while Honduras has a bit more airpower – and both must contend with rugged terrain and poor roads in their efforts to seize or defend Honduran territory.
The Turkish invasion of Cyprus, 1974. Greeks and Turks have co-existed uneasily on the island of Cyprus since Classical times. In 1974 a coup d’etat overthrew the Cypriot government and was the trigger for the Turkish military to intervene, ostensibly to guarantee the safety of Turkish Cypriots living in small enclaves across the island. In the game, the Turkish player has a small number of professional units to seize and dominate as much of the island as possible, opposed by a larger number of Cypriot irregular forces.
Third Indochina War
China vs. Vietnam, 1979. The Chinese government claimed that this brief war, purposely limited in its aims, was launched to “teach Vietnam a lesson”. The conduct of the war exposed many severe problems of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, which had not fought a war for 30 years. The Army performed very poorly against the determined Vietnamese People’s Army, then one of the largest and most battle-experienced military forces in the world, backed up with a large force of determined local militia and guerrillas. Particularly galling for the Chinese player is having to contend with two widely separated, non-communicating battle fronts.
Second Lebanon War
Israel vs. Hezbollah, southern Lebanon, 2006. The Second Lebanon War began in July, 2006 after a long series of provocations and retaliations between Israel and the Hezbollah (Party of God) movement, on the border between Israel and Lebanon. The Israeli player’s main objective is to seek out and destroy the Hezbollah rocket and missile units raining destruction on their territory, while balancing the need to avoid mobilizing too many reserve forces.
Grant: The games use a card driven system. How does this system drive the action and how are the cards used?
Brian: The “hook” with The Little War was that its action was driven by a deck of ordinary playing cards. Players drew from a single deck of cards from which the face cards had been removed. Someone would draw 6 cards: the Hungarian player got the red cards, the Slovakian the black ones. This meant often one side would get more cards than the other but because the totals of red and black are the same in the deck, which side got more changed constantly. I thought this worked well to reflect the confused, badly coordinated actions on both sides.
Players used the cards to move the units and conduct combat with them during the turn, by playing one card each in alternating sequence. Hearts or Clubs were used for movement, Spades and Diamonds were used for combat. The value of the card (Ace to 10) was the number of units that could be moved or used to attack. Meanwhile, all the face cards had been given to the players at the beginning of the game and these were used at the player’s discretion to do things like quickly refit damaged and disrupted units, make a reaction move, or raid the enemy’s rear area airfields. Two Jokers were left in the deck and represented random events that were played out as the card came to light.
This is how I started with the four battles in the Quad, but after a bit of further testing and development, there was one important change to the game. It still uses a deck of 54 cards, but instead of linear values and one suit being used for only one thing (movement or combat), each card may be used for either purpose (though it’s much more efficient to use it for one than the other: higher values range from 4 to 8, while lower values are from 1 to 3) and card values were “normed” along a curve (so instead of “Ace to 10”, values range from 4 to 8, with 6 as the most common value).
I stayed with a total of 54 cards because each side gets 20 cards drawn during play, plus 6 Special Action cards. Adding 2 Random Events to the 40 action cards makes 42, and drawing 6 at a time makes for exactly 7 Game-turns, a decently short game considering each side has 25 or fewer units to work with…games are playable in an hour or so.
And of course players can still optionally go retrograde and use a deck of ordinary playing cards for the game too!
Here are a couple of sample cards.
Grant: How do Special Action Cards work and why did you include this in the design?
Brian: Special Action Cards are there to give the players a bit of control and discretion over things they may want to do other than move or fight. Once they are used they are discarded. In all four games they may be used to repair or refit disrupted or damaged ground or air units, or to conduct a reaction move to reinforce an area that is under attack. Each game also has particular functions exclusive to that conflict: for example, in the Cyprus and Lebanon games the Turkish and Israeli players use the cards to do amphibious invasion moves, and in the Honduras game either player may raid the enemy’s rear area to disrupt his logistical arrangements or airfields.
Grant: As you mentioned, there are Random Event Cards in the decks as well. When played how are they resolved?
Brian: Each game has an exclusive Random Events table (I love these things). When one of the cards comes out of the deck, one player will roll a die and implement the result immediately. Examples include:
“Doctrinal Disaster: this turn only, Israeli commanders are confounded by staff officer jargon about “systems operational design” and “effects-based operations”. The Israeli player may not designate more than one attacking ground unit in any given battle (that is, his brigades may not combine in the same attack).”
“US/OAS pressure for ceasefire: Game is shortened by one turn; remove the next 6 cards from the deck and discard without looking at them. Game ends at end of Final Phase of 6th turn (roll again if this is the 6th or 7th turn).”
Grant: What is the scale of these four games units? What type of force composition does each have?
Brian: Each game varies widely in terms of represented time, space and scale of combatants.
El Salvador-Honduras: both sides use battalions, and groups of 12 or fewer aircraft.
Cyprus: Turkish brigades against composite “regiments” of irregular troops or hastily assembled Greek and Cypriot regular troops, groups of 36 aircraft.
China-Vietnam: divisions of 7-12,000 men each, no aircraft (neither side used their air force).
Lebanon: Israeli brigades and aircraft groups of 36 aircraft against Hezbollah units of indeterminate size, from groups of several dozen rocket specialists to company-size units of 100-150 fighters.
Grant: How does combat work?
Brian: Ground combat is an undemanding bucket-of-dice system. The total number of units that can attack amongst all of your forces is limited by the “combat” value of the card played. Battle is joined between opposing units that occupy the same area. In a battle you roll a number of d6 equal to the total Combat Values involved (this ranges from “1” for a small or depleted unit, to “5” for a good quality Vietnamese main force division), with dice added to the defender’s total for terrain (forest or hills) and to either side for participating aircraft. You hit on a 5 or 6. The player inflicting the hits decides how they are allocated on the enemy units, and depending on a unit’s Combat Value and the number of hits allocated to it, a unit can retreat, be disrupted (flipped over to show it can move but cannot attack), or be damaged (it is removed from the map and must be recovered through die rolls or Special Action cards).
Air-to-air combat is much the same, though there is only one game of the four where there is a genuine struggle for control of the air (El Salvador-Honduras; in the Cyprus game, it is possible but not probable that some fighters from the Greek Air Force will show up to contest Turkish air superiority).
Grant: What are some examples of the exclusive rules for the different quads? What different elements were you trying to model in each conflict and how well did you succeed?
Brian: The basic rules include a set of systemic options to change the balance of the game or to show one side’s superiority or inferiority in command ability, combat skills, organization or intelligence resources. These include:
General organizational ability: Have one side or the other start with fewer than 6 Special Action Cards, with a victory point consolation to the deprived player.
Formation agility: Only one or neither side may make Reaction Moves, to reinforce against an attack.
Intelligence Advantage: Have one player place their hand of Action Cards face up, so the other player knows what kind of cards they have, but not necessarily what order they will be played.
Poorly Trained Staff: A player affected by this rule may use Action Cards normally, but only for the larger of the two values marked on the card. This would mean that occasionally a player will be able only to move when they would like to fight, or only fight when they would also like to move.
Skilled Guerrillas: All of the games include Irregular troops. If all attacking units in a battle are Irregulars, and all designated defending units are non-Irregulars, then the Defender does not add dice for terrain symbols in the Battle area.
Each game comes with suggestions of which systemic optional rules should be used, as well as special rules for units or constraints to reflect the conflict’s peculiarities.
El Salvador-Honduras: Air raids on the enemy’s rear area airfields or Main Supply Route; El Salvadoran special units (the Tigres del Norte (guerrilla troops), an armoured cavalry squadron (of improvised armour-plated trucks and World War II surplus Stuart M5A1 light tanks) and a parachute squadron (a company of airborne troops that was never dropped).
Turkey-Cyprus: Turkish air and sea landings (to establish and defend a beachhead); possible intervention by the Greek Air Force.
China-Vietnam: Poor coordination between two Chinese Fronts; ad hoc Chinese mechanized and artillery groups; large amounts of Vietnamese Local Forces (guerrillas) that pop up in the rear areas. The game also includes an alternate scenario based on an early Chinese plan for rapid and deep penetration at several points, instead of the broader front strategy that was actually used.
Israel-Hezbollah: Israel has a large and powerful air force, but an only partly mobilized ground force (with a penalty for mobilizing too many brigades); amphibious flanking moves and air mobility; Hezbollah has rocket units that attack Israeli territory, and which cannot be engaged unless and until all Hezbollah Irregular units have been removed.
Grant: Can you show us a few of the maps? How was it working with Mark Mahaffey?
Brian: Working with Mark was quite pleasant and professional. I had a good idea of how I wanted things to look and Mark made that happen, except in cases where he convinced me he had a better idea. An example of the former is the look of the box cover, which I specifically wanted to recall the design template SPI used for its old Quadrigames. An example of the latter is the look of the counters in each game: each side has roughly similar colour schemes, but one side has white backgrounds and the other has coloured. Mark sold me on this idea and it seems to work quite well.
It may look odd on the countersheet but it’s easier to print (less worry about misalignment and bleed) and once you punch out the counters and put them individually on the map, it is quite easy to tell them apart. This arrangement also makes it easier for a colour-blind persons to be able to tell the two sides apart, something I am trying to reflect in my colour schemes.
Grant: What do you feel the system does well in each of the conflicts?
Brian: I think as a whole, the system works well to show the chaotic, stop-and-start nature of fighting between two forces that are not quite competent or prepared for war, or are unsure of how hard or far they should press for victory, whatever that might be worked out by their respective governments.
Grant: When is the quad being released?
Brian: Compass Games website says February 14, 2020, so now!
As always Brian thank you for your time and effort in your designs and in answering our many questions about them. With this being our 10th Designer Interview you are officially the king of the interview here on TPA and as such you gain nothing, other than exposure for your great designs and our undying gratitude. Thank you.
In case you are wondering, here are links to our previous 9 interviews with Brian:
Colonial Twilight Part I, Part II and Part III.
The Little War & Ukrainian Crisis
If you are interested in Brief Border Wars you can order a copy for $69.00 from the Compass Games website at the following link: https://www.compassgames.com/preorders/brief-border-wars.html
Wow, thanks Grant!
I didn’t think it had been 10 interviews but so it is.
I’ll keep designing them, you keep up with the good questions….
As always, a pleasure to read an interview with the king of interviews (and pope of pol-mil conflict games)!
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I find it unacceptable for such a good designer of historical games and for a publisher to believe that the Turks existed during the classical era! Although the extruding mistake, I will support this new game
You’re right, “Classical” is the wrong word to use to refer to the era. Late Middle Ages or early Renaissance, I suppose, from the collapse of the Byzantine empire to the invasion of 1570 which marked more than Ottoman influence but actual immigration.
Oh, and Compass Games advises that the new date for this game to come out is some time in May. 2020, that is.