You know that we love the COIN Series from GMT Games and any type of irregular warfare and recently I became aware of a new game coming out that is COIN Series inspired but deals with a future United States civil war called 2040: An American Insurgency from Compass Games. As the game is currently on Kickstarter, I reached out to the designer Edward Castronova to see if he could provide us with some additional information. He was more than willing and provided us with the following.

If you are interested in 2040: An American Insurgency, you can back the project on the Kickstarter page at the following link:

Grant: First off Edward please tell us a little about yourself. What are your hobbies? What’s your day job?

Edward: I’m a Catholic, husband, dad. Work: Professor at Indiana University. I teach in the game design program. My hobby is playing and designing board games. I love history games the most.

Grant: What motivated you to break into game design? What have you enjoyed most about the experience thus far?

Edward: Well, all the other teachers at my school actually make games, but I came into the program as more of an academic type, teaching *about* games. I figured I had to develop some chops. I chose to try making board games because I have been playing since the 70’s, starting with Panzerblitz.

Grant: What “historical period” does 2040: An American Insurgency cover? What is the narrative chain of events that has led to this fictitious civil war?

Edward: The chain of events are happening around us right now. It startled me when, around 2017 or so, people started talking about arresting their political opponents. There was also a lot of this talk around the 2020 election and it is going on now. Not taking sides here, it’s just what I keep hearing. If you’ve studied revolutions around the world, you know that using physical power in the political game is extremely dangerous. Once people start thinking that’s how it’s going to go, it becomes a race to see who gets the jump on the other side and starts the mass arrests first.

The game doesn’t tell this backstory, it begins when the shooting starts. But the backstory would be that one side or the other, red or blue, gets a lockhold on government, whether it be through information control, narrative dominance, legal and physical threats, arrests, what have you. The point is, the *other* side thinks it A) has the sympathy of much of the population, but B) cannot make that sympathy show up in election results. That gives the motive for seeking power through some means other than elections.

Grant: What inspiration did you draw from other Insurgency focused game series?

Edward: My original thought was a COIN-type game, but then I was advised that the market was flooded with those. So I cut it down to 2-player. These situations are basically bi-polar, center vs. periphery. I relied heavily on COIN-type mechanics though.

Grant: What research did you do to get the details correct? What one must read source would you recommend?

Edward: How to get real about civil war in the 21st century…. A book like Nightcap at Dawn in Iraq gives the government soldier’s perspective. But that’s not adequate. I was at a DARPA briefing at one point and the presenter showed a picture of a guy with a camel and an AK-47, the caption was “The 21st century warrior.” It’s a system, not a narrative. There are factions that get in each other’s way and no one can achieve any of their objectives. There’s no winning, there’s just going on or stopping. It can’t be explained, it has to be experienced. In the end, I’d recommend “reading” Andean Abyss, playing it over and over to really feel what a quagmire is like. The design process was really just taking what we know about insurgencies from these games, and applying it in the American context using, well, what we all know about America. Our quirks, like our suburbs, our powerful Supreme Court, our mountains and coasts, things like that. And what we know about the 21st century. Media, internet, all that.

Grant: What are the two sides in this fictitious civil war? Do they have unique abilities, advantages and disadvantages?

Edward: The two sides are Federals and Rebels. Federals are blue, Rebels are red. The colors are taken from military simulation practice, NOT politics. There are two scenarios which differ in terms of *where* the revolution breaks out. In one scenario, it is out in the countryside. In the other, it is in urban areas. Given the geolocation of American political affiliation, the scenarios can be viewed as {Rural Right vs Government Left} and {Urban Left vs Government Right}. And that looks pretty political. But that framing is left to the player. The game itself says nothing about it. Indeed, players could come up with scenarios reflecting a north-south conflict, or east-west, or coast-heartland. You could do Texas vs Everybody. The system is not tied to contemporary issues and can represent a wide variety of future conflicts. That’s why the game is called 2040 – who knows what we will be fighting about by then.

The Federals and the Rebels have very different resources and abilities. The Federals have more brute force, but the Rebels can pop up anywhere. The major mechanic difference is in the Rebellion Power (RP) Track, which ranges from 0 to 4. As with most card-driven games, each card has an Ops value that indicates how powerful the card is. For the Rebels, the power of the card is the Ops value PLUS the Rebellion Power number. Rebel actions are balanced so that an action supported by a power of 0 or 1 is generally ineffective, and a total power of 5 or 6 can be devastating. Since most cards are 1s, 2s, and 3s, this means that the Rebel actions are very strong when the RP is high, and very weak when it is not. Whereas, Federal actions have about the same power regardless of the RP. This induces a metagame about the RP, which is where you get into the internet, media, etc.

The overall win/loss condition is the same for both sides. The map is divided into regions and cities, and each one has a population value. The population is in one of four states: Order – Anger – Defiance – Revolt. Federal VP’s equal the population in Order. Rebel VP’s equal the population in Revolt. Ultimately the game comes down to shifting key cities and regions into Order or Revolt as the case may be.

Grant: How have tried to avoid making political statements?

Edward: First, by having both rural and urban scenarios. Second, neutral language on cards. For example, there is the Race card. This is America, so there has to be the Race card, right? But it doesn’t say anything. From the standpoint of the mechanics of American civil conflict, it really doesn’t matter what is being said about race. It only matters that some political actor or other has decided to bring up the race issue. We all know that political actors of all stripes can make hay from the race issue. The power projection enabled by America’s racial issues is all the game cares about. So the card says nothing.

In other cases, there may be a slight political angle but I tried to have fun with it. The Flying J card talks about information networks among truckers. I really don’t think that’s a big deal, but it’s one of those only-in-America aspects.

Grant: What new mechanics have you added to deal with the influence of the internet and social media?

Edward: Media and the internet affect Rebellion Power, described above. Players can manipulate the “news” so that pro- or anti-rebel stories magically occupy the nation’s attention. They can also fight for something called the “Social Media Edge” (SME) which is hard to get but hard to lose. Once you have the SME there’s a number of mechanics that open up. And lastly, players can hack each other’s HQ, costing the other side money.

But the most important effect is that almost all Rebel operations occur through the internet. This has some major implications. A) The Rebel generally has a hard time *targeting* what he is doing. When you send something out on the internet, you don’t know where it’s going to land. If the Rebs send out an internet call for militia uprisings, they don’t know if they will happen in Vermont or Arizona. The effects could be completely random. There are tables for randomly choosing locations, weighted by populations. The Rebs can do things to gain more leverage than this, and do better targeting, and that can really impact the effectiveness of Rebel operations. If they are dependent on the whims of the internet, though, and everything is random, it could be bad. B) The general culture of the country, pro or anti-Rebellion, has a big effect on Rebel power. Again, because of the internet. On the internet, nothing is true or false, it is simply a story. If that story goes against the Rebellion, no amount of on-the-ground success will change it.

Grant: How does the News Cycle Display work work this aspect?

Edward: At any point in time there are a number of stories lined up that can become “the” story of the day. Each story has a numerical rating for how viral it is and how friendly it is to the Rebels. There is no actual content to the stories – they’re just good or bad for the rebellion, and more or less likely to spread. If players do nothing, the more viral stories make the news, and their rebellion factors determine the overall RP for the Rebel player. But players can take actions to spike stories that are on the way up (which corresponds to “stopping misinformation” in today’s lingo) or put other stories ahead of them in the queue (“establishing counter-narratives”).

Grant: What interesting challenges and opportunities for both factions do these communications tools provide?

Edward: The basic strategic problem is whether to commit resources to the immediate situation on the ground – militia, combat, bases, etc. – or try to change the cultural environment by pushing the RP one way or the other. Short term vs long term. In playtesting, players could go the whole game without touching RP at all. But if one player makes an effort to push it, the other has to respond. Both players have to ask themselves whether they are more worried about atoms or bits.

Grant: How does the game use cards?

Edward: Standard card-driven game, like Twilight Struggle or Labyrinth. Cards have Ops or Events. If you play your opponent’s event, you get the Ops but he gets the event. Social media activity is the “space race” where you ditch awful cards.

Grant: What different types of cards are included? How do they each enable gameplay?

Edward: The cards are Rebel, Federal, and Neutral. There’s a huge variety of events. They operate as described above. If the Rebel plays a Rebel Event Card or a Neutral, he chooses Ops or Event. If he plays a Federal-aligned card, he gets the Ops but the Fed gets the Event.

Grant: Can you show us a few examples of Event Cards and explain their anatomy and uses?

Edward: This is a Rebel Event Card (red, crossed AR-15s). It is worth 2 Ops, meaning it could be used by either player to perform an action of power 2, such as, raise forces, move forces, attack; spike or promote media stories; change the SME; raise funds, etc. The event describes Social Security running out of money and old people becoming poor. This would discredit the central government badly, of course, so it helps the rebel cause. The event allows the rebels to shift one region in their direction – toward Revolt. The possible regions are South or Mesa (basically the Southwest including southern Cal). The card affects these regions because I predict that older Americans will continue concentrating in the warmth as they have been doing for decades. This could be a fairly significant card because it is hard to shift spaces and this card lets you do it directly. On the other hand, most population is in cities, not regions. The card is situational and so has a moderate Ops value of 2.

This is a Neutral Event Card. It’s powerful, with 3 Ops. But the Event is a big deal: It says that some kind of nanotechnology accident happens and swarms of nanobots escape a lab and start eating everything in their path. This is known as the “gray goo” problem, what if nanobots get out of control and start treating everything as a decomposable material that they can use for energy? It’s not clear whether this would help Federals or Rebels, so the political effect is 50-50. However, there is definitely a material effect: Somebody’s bases get eaten. That can be a big deal, because bases are important for raising troops and are difficult and costly to place. Where it says “Choose a city or suburb,” it means the player gets to pick the location. Note also that 2040 distinguishes between Cities and Suburbs. I felt this was a critical distinction to include in the game to help establish the friction because of the way America’s urban areas have developed overt the past 30 years, such that the politics of the inner city are usually very different from those of the countryside around it. As a result of this distinction, the suburbs are the real battleground in many ways, and also hold a ton of the nation’s population.

A Federal Event Card (blue with star). This card says that if the cultural atmosphere is friendly to the rebellion (RP > 2), the Federals can “move the news along” so as to change things. This process is called “cycling the news” and involves getting rid of old stories and replacing them with new ones. Here the Fed is allowed to do it twice. By examining the pool of potential stories, he can determine whether pushing old narratives off the board will improve things or not. If there’s a bunch of anti-government stories waiting in the wings, then probably not. However, with the RP being large, it indicates that the current media environment already has lots of pro-Rebel stories, so, getting rid of old stories might not be a bad idea. It makes sense, even if the upcoming stories are only so-so. The card is named “Moderate Voices” because here the Feds can improve things just by putting moderate ideas forward – anything but the pro-Rebel ideas currently in vogue.

Here is another Federal Event Card, showing a longer-lasting effect that will stay around for while effecting the costs of various actions for a short period (“Momentum”). For the Fed, Pacifying and Securing areas is the main mechanic for shifting them toward Order. This card cuts the dollar cost of those actions roughly in half. That could be a big deal if played at the right time and allow the Federal player to make up some ground on the Rebel player. These kind of Event Cards are very important to take advantage of as they allow greater action for lesser costs.

Finally, here is a Neutral Event Card intended to lighten the atmosphere a little. It’s just a catch-up card, allowing the losing player to take two (presumably nasty) Event Cards from the discard pile and drop them on their opponent. A double-edged sword, of course, because you are giving your opponent two more plays. On the other hand, they would presumably be your events and they would have to let you use them. The card opens up some interesting possibilities too because there are a couple of high-impact cards (“Declaration of Independence,” “Designer Babies”) that might have been ditched on purpose by the opposition to avoid their negative effects. The card mechanic is a good one, but when thinking about a name for a catch-up provision in an American game, “Underdogs” came to mind. Because, you know, Americans do tend to root for the little guy.

Grant: Can you also show us a few examples of Story Cards and explain how they work?

Edward: Story Cards have only a headline for content, and this has no game effect – it’s just for flavor. The two numbers on the card are what counts. The first number is the Viral Factor and the second is the Rebellion Factor. First some examples, then a description of the mechanics.

0 – 0 “Consumer Confidence Rises.” This story is boring, so its Viral Factor is zero. It also does nothing to support the power of the rebellion, so its Rebellion Factor is also zero.

2 – 3 “Government Base Overrun.” This news of a big Federal defeat is pretty likely to spread around – Viral Factor of 2 – and great news for the Rebels — Rebellion Factor 3. Note that this story has no relation whatsoever to the situation on the map. No actual government base has been overrun. The news mechanic involves stories only, things that are made up. Events on the ground have their own effects, which are substantial. The media mechanic involves stories that come from nowhere, and yet affect popular perceptions. As we all know, the “news” that something has happened no longer requires that that thing has actually occurred. It’s only the story that counts. 

3 – 0 “Actress Criticizes Rebellion.” Now, this is a highly viral story, because future Americans will be just like current ones, that is, really super duper interested in what the future version of Taylor Swift thinks about politics. But she is criticizing the Rebellion, which really puts a damper on things.

Here’s how the Media mechanic works. Let’s say that the first two cards are next up in the line to become “the news,” but the third card comes later. The 0 – 0 card is not good for the Rebels – it does not raise the Rebellion Power track at all, and the Rebel lives and dies off the RP value. However, when the time to cycle the news comes, the 0 – 0 card will not get into the news cycle. Why not? Because it will be beaten out by the 2 – 3 card. The 2 – 3 card has a higher Viral Factor (2 vs 0) so it will be moved into the current news ahead of the 0 – 0 card. This makes sense: Imagine that the news broke today that Kiev had fallen in the Russia-Ukraine war, and also the consumer confidence had risen. Nobody would be talking about consumer confidence, they’d be talking about Kiev. So here, everybody is talking about a government defeat. And that is great for the Rebels, because this story adds +3 to their RP!

However, the fun does not last. In the next news cycle, Taylor Swift’s comments come to the fore. Her Viral Factor (3) beats the story about the Federal defeat (Viral Factor 2), so that story goes away. RP goes down by 3. As the Taylor Swift card takes its place, the RP does not go up again because the Rebellion Factor of the Swift story is only 0.

As stories cycle through like this, the ones that are naturally “hotter” will take precedence. However, players can use their resources to push boring stories to the front, or spike hot stories and keep them from coming up. Whether it makes sense to do that depends on the Rebellion Factors of the stories in the pipeline.

Grant: What is the purpose of SCOTUS themed cards involving the Second Amendment? How important are these cards to the narrative?

Edward: I think it is overwhelmingly likely that now and into the future, any government effort to violate the Second Amendment will backfire, and that is what the card describes. It is a Rebel Event Card that is used only in the rural-uprising scenario. When the Rebel plays it, a significant amount of anti-government unrest breaks out and some Federal agents “go away.” Maybe it was because of fighting, but there may also have been mass resignations by federal agents, or widespread passive resistance to enforcing the law. I don’t know if people agree that these are likely outcomes, but from what I know of law-abiding gun-owners in this country, it just seems obvious to me that the dynamic of federal agents going door-to-door to get guns just can’t end well for the government in any reasonable scenario.

Grant: What does the game board look like?

Edward: The Game board is a map of the continental US, with several regions. In the regions, major cities are shown surrounded by their suburbs. Interstates connecting the cities, with the feature that it is not possible to move into a city without passing through its suburb. Plus some tables and charts and things.

Grant: How do players utilize the highways and roads? How can they be controlled?

Edward: Highways allow unlimited movement, however, passing through spaces that have enemy pieces has a cost. The Feds have to pay money for convoy protection. The Rebs actually lose militia to checkpoint arrests, etc.

Grant: What is the General Sequence of Play?

Edward: Each side has a hand of 7-9 cards. Rebs go first, then Feds, playing one card at a time. When the cards are done, administration: New funds, news cycle, and a new hand. Repeat.

Grant: What are the different uses of Operations points from cards?

Edward: Everything from Raise forces, to move forces, attack, raise money, shift space allegiance, social media, hacking, etc.

Grant: What different scenarios are included?

Edward: Just two: A rural rebellion and an urban rebellion. Playtesting suggests that an urban rebellion is easier to put down, because rebel forces are concentrated in cities, where they are easier to access. 

Grant: How is victory achieved?

Edward: As discussed earlier, spaces have a certain population and the player VP’s equal the total population that is allied with them. For Feds, spaces in Order give them VP’s, for Rebs it is spaces in Revolt.

Grant: What are you most pleased about with the design?

Edward: Volko Ruhnke in an email exchange said something like “I wish someone would do something with internet and media that’s more than just a +1.” It would be cool if the design accomplished that!

Grant: What has been the response of playtesters?

Edward: Grim faces mixed with laughter. On the one hand, this is a horrible situation and you need a thick skin to get into it. On the other, once you are playing, the dark comedy just jumps out. “OK, I arrest a bunch of rebels at the Starbucks in Phoenix.”

Grant: What other designs are you working on?

Edward: Academy Games is publishing Western Twilight, which simulates the international tensions that led to World War I.

I did a game about Alcoholics Anonymous, it’s available at cost from Game Crafter. Zero-profit, just a gift to the AA community.

I have a game about the Holy Roman Empire in the middle ages – the weird way they used to elect their kings. It’s a cross between Levy and Campaign and Kingmaker. It’s in a late-prototype stage, starting to look for publishers on that one.

On the back burner, a game about the French Revolution, the Committee of Public Safety, and the guillotine. It’s done but needs polish / playtest / submission. It’s like the old game Kremlin but lots cleaner.

My next project is about Hitler’s rise to power. Not sure I’ll do any more games after that. Nothing on my mind at the moment.

Thank you for the opportunity to interview!

Thank you Edward for your great responses and good answers to our questions. This is a game that I have been tracking now for a few years since seeing some early pictures on social media.

If you are interested in 2040: An American Insurgency, you can back the project on the Kickstarter page at the following link: