Last year, GMT Games announced a very cool looking game designed by Paul Daniels covering the Soviet-Afghan War from 1979-1989 called Bear Trap. The game was described as a block wargame that used a similar system to what was used in the design for Sekigahara: The Unification of Japan. I was intrigued and was able to setup this interview through the Developer for the game Joe Dewhurst. Paul was more than willing to provide information for us on the game and how it was put together and I hope you find this interview helpful.
*Note: The components shown in this interview, as well as the art and any text associated with Strategy Cards or from the rules are still just the prototype versions which is only intended for playtesting purposes and the design and card effects and text as well as rules might still change prior to final development and publication.
Grant: First off Paul please tell us a little about yourself. What are your hobbies? What’s your day job?
Paul: Beyond boardgaming, I’m into digital photography. I used to do a fair bit of surfing, but haven’t had the bandwidth for it since becoming a parent. Like a lot of people, I enjoy a good book (I favour hard sci-fi).
For the last few years, I’ve been working in research management—these days I’m focused on enabling university researchers to utilize cloud computing and machine learning. I used to do some lecturing, mostly business ethics and military ethics, but haven’t taught any courses for a while.
Grant: What motivated you to break into game design? What have you enjoyed most about the experience thus far?
Paul: Boardgaming has been my principal hobby for the last 15 years or so, and I’m very much an exploratory gamer who is always up for trying new games.
My slide into game design has been gradual—first coming up with variants, then fan-made print-and-play expansions, for published games.
There are parallels between game design and academic publications, and I enjoyed my time as an active researcher. Both have creative, collaborative, and iterative elements. I also very much enjoy seeing people enjoy my designs.
Grant: What designers have influenced your style?
Paul: For Bear Trap, Matt Calkins was certainly influential. More generally, Bowen Simmons for breaking new ground in exciting directions. And Martin Wallace for his knack of coming up with efficient designs (although he’s gotten away from wargame design in recent years)
Grant: What historical event does Bear Trap cover?
Paul: Bear Trap covers the Soviet-Afghan War from 1979 through to the withdrawal and collapse of Berlin Wall in 1989. Insurgent groups—including the mujahedeen—fought a guerrilla war against the Soviet 40th Army and the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DRA) government. The game begins shortly after “Operation Storm-333” was executed at the end of 1979—in this coup, Hafizullah Amin (General Secretary of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan) was killed, and Babrak Karmal, a Soviet loyalist, replaced him. By putting the Brezhnev Doctrine into practice, the Soviets sought to prop up the sympathetic local government and “solve the Russian Ice-lock Problem” while the Insurgents sought to expel the secularist government and foreign invaders.
Grant: What from the history of the Soviet-Afghan War did you want to model in the design? What are you most pleased about with the design?
Paul: More than anything else, the defections and the asymmetry of the war.
During the war, the armed forces of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (the Soviets’ local allies) suffered high defection and desertion rates. For many, the DRA army offered a mere paycheck, and they were often not well motivated to fight against their fellow Afghans. And, there were cases where conscripts in the Soviet Army defected to the Mujahideen (e.g. Kazbek Hudalov). Meanwhile, the Soviets and DRA would try to persuade locals to betray the freedom fighters through direct threats, propaganda, and an assortment of promises.
On top of that, the Soviets are trying to fight a conventional war, since that’s the kind of conflict their forces had been preparing for. However, they instead found themselves having to manage a counter-insurgency. The Insurgents were unable to wage a conventional war against the Soviets, so they instead resorted to guerrilla warfare. In game terms, this means the Insurgents are better suited to create traps – situations the Soviets have to engage with, but wherein the Insurgents will have an advantage. They do so by harassing Soviet forces and through ambushes. In contrast, the Soviets try and rely on their sheer numbers and their greater fire power to attack and eliminate the enemy as best they can.
Bear Trap does a great job of capturing the strengths and weaknesses of the two sides.
Grant: I understand that the game Sekigahara is an influence on your design. What elements from that design did you use in yours and how did that help tell this story?
Paul: The loyalty challenges mechanism is a great element in Sekigahara and it’s well-suited to capture the abovementioned defection issues in the Soviet-Afghan War. Both Sekigahara and Bear Trap are block wargames, although the way blocks are used in the two games is quite different. The two games share a similar turn structure, and in both games the two sides have their own decks of cards which correspond to their own force pool (blocks)—this system allows for a nice flexibility in design, and helped me convey the asymmetry of the Soviet-Afghan war.
Grant: I see that the map is area based rather than the point to point used in Sekigahara. Why did you feel this change was necessary?
Paul: Freedom of movement, most specifically when it comes to retreating after combat, was a key driving force behind why Bear Trap is area based. The area based map gives players more strategic options for how to pursue the war—threats can be engineered in different ways. But the game is also designed in such a way to allow units to disperse more widely when retreating after combat.
Grant: What asymmetry have you introduced to the design to represent the different sides?
Paul: Bear Trap has evolved to be quite asymmetric in feel. Both sides use the same rules, so it’s not a game where each side has their own unique rule set or fundamentally different things that can be done in a turn. While there are a few exceptions that apply to one side or the other, the fact that each side has its own set of forces (with different strengths and weaknesses), its own deck of cards with a unique composition, and strategy cards allows for emergent asymmetry without requiring players to learn rules for one side and different rules for the other side.
The effect of this is that someone who knows how to play the game can play either side, but what an effective strategy looks like for one side is completely different than for the other.
Grant: How are the combat units represented in the design?
Paul: By blocks. Unlike Sekigahara, Bear Trap uses traditional wargaming blocks, albeit in a different way.
Grant: What are the different unit types available to players? How do they operate differently?
Paul: The Insurgent player has access to Mujahideen, Lashkar (untrained local fighters), and Captured Artillery (which is used in the game as a kind of shorthand for better equipped insurgent veterans).
The Soviet player has access to Soviet Infantry, Soviet Armor, and DRAF (the local Democratic Republic of Afghanistan Armed Forces). The Soviets also have access to Soviet air power and special forces (Spetsnaz) via their strategy cards.
Both sides also have rumor ‘decoy’ blocks.
The Insurgent blocks are, generally, weaker than the Soviet blocks. And the Soviet units are better when attacking. In contrast, the Insurgents have advantages when defending and are well suited to laying traps for the Soviets. It’s also easier for the Insurgents to bring blocks into play during the game.
Grant: How does a block’s orientation dictate its battle readiness?
Paul: One of the innovative things about Bear Trap is the way blocks are used. Traditionally, the different sides of a block represent its strength or remaining hit points. So, in virtue of the way it’s orientated, it’ll roll more or less dice and be able to take more or less hits before being removed from play. This isn’t how blocks work in Bear Trap (and there are no dice in Bear Trap either).
In Bear Trap, the orientation of the block dictates whether or not it can be activated (Disordered blocks cannot be), if it recently moved (after a block moves it becomes Mobilized), and how it performs in combat—not only in terms of which battles it can participate in, but also in terms of its strength or impact value in combat. The different orientations a block has ties into the time and resources invested in getting it prepared for a certain kind of offensive or defensive action.
Grant: Can you show us an example of the unit cards, and explain how they are used to effect battles and the move units?
Paul: Like with Sekigahara, in Bear Trap, unit cards are used in combat to commit matching unit blocks. For instance, the Insurgent player can play a Mujahideen card to commit a matching Mujahideen block in combat. That said, the two games do diverge here: while you will normally be required to play a matching card from your hand to commit a block (e.g. to commit a DRAF block in combat the Soviet player must play a DRAF card), some blocks can be committed without use of a card (e.g. if its orientation was Fire Support). And some blocks can even be committed to a battle from an adjacent area if it has the right orientation (e.g. Ambush).
And, in another parallel with Sekigahara, one of the things players can do on their turn is discard cards to activate blocks in order to move them from one area to another.
Grant: What are the strategy cards and how are they used?
Paul: Each player has a set of 16 special strategy cards (8 pairs each). These start the game set aside, but when a player reshuffles their deck, they’ll add 2 cards to their own deck, enabling them to adapt their strategy to the developing situation as the game plays out.
Some strategy cards are reactionary—played “for free” out of turn in reaction to certain triggers. But in most cases, a player will use their entire turn to play and resolve 1 of these powerful cards from their hand.
It’s also worth noting that, during setup, each player will remove a random pair of strategy cards from the game. This means that a player cannot ever really fully rely on one pair of strategy cards to be a staple of their approach to the game, as it won’t necessarily be available to them in one playthrough to the next.
Grant: What does these Strategy Cards represent from history?
Paul: These powerful cards represent paradigm shifts that the sides make in their strategic approach to fighting the war. For instance, the Soviets used their air power throughout the war but if a Soviet player opts to draft the ‘Soviet Air Strikes’ card, they’re opting to escalate their focus and reliance on it (relative to other changes to their overarching strategy they could make instead). So when the Soviets play the Soviet Air Strike card, it isn’t representing the one time over a year or two that an air strike occurred—instead it’s representing a noteworthy major air action with a potentially significant impact on the course of the war. Similarly with Spetsnaz, CIA Intervention, etc. And the Insurgent Tribal Warlord strategy card, represents well equipped, independently funded, forces fighting the Soviets who were motivated—more than anything else—to carve out their own realm of control.
Grant: Can you also show us some examples of these Strategy Cards?
Paul: Note that these sample strategy cards are playtest components and don’t feature final art.
Grant: What are the different win conditions? What is the difference between decisive and minor victory conditions?
Paul: Each side has its own victory condition.
The Insurgent player immediately wins if they control Kabul at any point or if they accumulate 9 points of Soviet fatigue. The Insurgent victory condition simulates the limits of the USSR—as a political entity and as a populace—to endure Soviet losses and setbacks as part of the Brezhnev Doctrine.
The Soviet player immediately wins if there are no Insurgent blocks in any Afghan areas. They also win if the Soviets control every city, and can trace a path from the USSR to each city through only highway borders, when a reshuffle occurs—3 times. This represents the Soviets’ efforts to establish a ‘new status quo’ of control and authority over a sufficient period—i.e. the notion that, if the Soviets could hold the key cities and passageways for a sufficient period, the Soviets could claim ‘Mission Accomplished’ as a new normal exists within Afghanistan (even if pockets of the country remain rebel held).
The game originally had a division between decisive and minor victory conditions, but this has been dropped in the latest iteration of the game. (The minor victory conditions were, more than anything else, an endgame tiebreaker.)
Grant: What is the Sequence of Play and the options during player turns?
Paul: On their turn, a player will do 1 of 3 things: Play 1 Strategy Card to resolve its effect, resupply (to replenish their hand of cards and bring more blocks into play), or activate areas and the blocks in them by discarding 0-2 cards. Combat is resolved in the last step of every player turn.
Grant: How does combat work and how is it resolved?
Paul: Combat is resolved at the end of every player turn, in every area where there are blocks from both sides.
At the start of combat, any Rumor (i.e. decoy) blocks in the area are removed with 0 “impact”—the way we measure who’s winning that combat. Starting with the attacker, players will play cards to commit blocks in order to generate impact, the combat victory being determined by who generates the most impact (with ties going to the Soviets).
After the attacker commits that initial block, play rests with the player who’s currently losing (has less impact). That player will continue to commit blocks until they’re either not losing (in which case the other player gets the opportunity to commit more blocks) or pass (in which case combat ends).
As mentioned, once the player with the initiative passes combat ends. The player who lost must take casualties equal to the difference in impact—e.g. if the Soviets had 5 impact and the Insurgents 2, the Insurgents would lose, and would have to take 3 casualties. Each block can absorb casualties up to its current impact value. For instance, a Lashkar with Fortified as its current orientation has an impact value of 2, and could thereby absorb up to 2 casualties. Any block which absorbs at least 1 casualty is eliminated. The player who lost the battle must also retreat any remaining blocks out of the area, and these retreating blocks become Disordered. If the Insurgents won, they may replace a Lashkar with a Captured Artillery.
Finally, as the last step, both players discard all cards played during combat and then may draw up to that number of cards (i.e. if a player played 5 cards, they could draw up to 5 cards). For each block of yours that was eliminated during combat, you may also draw an additional card.
Grant: What is the concept of Loyalty Challenges and what does this represent from history?
Paul: Loyalty Challenges are an important feature of combat. Each time you commit a block, your opponent has the opportunity to play a Loyalty Challenge Card—Defectors, in the case of the insurgents, or KhAD in the case of the soviets. If your opponent plays a Loyalty Challenge Card during combat, you must reveal an additional card from your hand that could commit that block. If you cannot, the block you were committing is eliminated and your opponent gets to add a new block to play and commit it (the forces effectively switching sides).
The Insurgents have 3 copies of their Loyalty Challenge Card, Defectors, because the DRAF suffered from a high defection rate. Meanwhile, the Soviets—through the Afghan secret police, known as Khadamat-e Aetla’at-e Dawlati (KhAD)—would try to persuade locals to betray the freedom fighters through threats, propaganda, and an assortment of promises. In Bear Trap, these actions are represented through the Soviets Loyalty Challenge Card, KhAD. The Soviets only have one copy of this card.
Grant: What has been the experience of your playtesters?
Paul: We have a great group of active playtesters at the moment (others are welcome to join still, if anyone is keen). It’s hard for me to speak on their behalf, but engaging with them so far has been a very positive experience.
This is a second cohort of playtesters—back when I was living in Melbourne, Australia, I had set up an initial playtest group who provided invaluable initial feedback. One of them has kindly written a playtest review of the game, over on BGG.
Grant: What other designs are you contemplating or already working on?
Paul: I have a number of other projects I’m working on. The one which is furthest along in its development is a low-complexity quick-playing components-light 2-player CDG about the North American fur trade in the late 17th century.
Thanks for your time in answering our questions Paul. I had a bit of trouble getting the concept of this one straight in my mind to ask good questions so I really appreciate your detail in answering my questions, but also in giving additional information that you felt I was looking for but hadn’t specifically addressed.
If you are interested in Bear Trap: The Soviet-Afghan War, 1979-1989, you can pre-order a copy for $59.00 from the GMT Games website at the following link: https://www.gmtgames.com/p-955-bear-trap-the-soviet-afghan-war-1979-1989.aspx