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Subject: BGG Wargame Designer Of The Month: Brian Train rss

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Hunga Dunga
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This month's BGG Wargame Designer of the Month is Brian Train. Mr. Train started designing wargames in 1990, and has over 30 games to his credit. He became interested in wargames in 1979 when he received Tactics II as a Christmas present.

What sets Mr. Train apart from most other wargame designers is that he is very interested in "irregular warfare", such as civil disorder and civil or guerrilla conflicts, and wargames that have significant political elements to them. He is probably best known for "Arriba Espana!", published in World at War magazine. He has also designed campaign studies for the Battle of the Bulge and the 1939 invasion of Poland.

In 1995, Mr. Train started Microgame Design Group with Kerry Anderson.



Mr. Train has agreed to spend some time with us over a few beer and some fried chicken.

Please join me in giving Mr. Train a warm, BGG-Wargame-Sub-Domain welcome!
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Jon
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Great choice Hunga.

Brian, first of all thank you for the book recommendations you provided me some time ago when I was looking for titles on the French Algerian War. I heard your interview on the "I've Been Diced" podcast and thought it was riveting.

May I ask what is it that interests you about irregular warfare?

Furthermore, what are the common challenges such conflicts often present to the design of a game? I would imagine the asymmetry often found between the belligerents would be high on that list.

Thanks!
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"L'état, c'est moi."
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Welcome Brian! I look forward to hearing some of your design thoughts this month.
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Pete Belli
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Brian is an extremely talented designer and he has a congenial personality -- a rare combination in the wargame hobby.
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Cpl. Fields
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I'm embarrassed to say that I've yet to play any of your designs, so my question is: which do you consider your best, and why?
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Charles Vasey
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pete belli wrote:
Brian is an extremely talented designer and he has a congenial personality -- a rare combination in the wargame hobby.


No Christmas cards for you!
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Lance McMillan
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Congrats on a well deserved honor, Brian.

Question: Which of your designs are you proudest of, and why?
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Sam I Am
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Great choice Mr Dunga!

I'm a big fan of your designs Brian, and glad that there are designers out there tackling some of the more obscure subjects.

What draws you to irregular warfare and insurgency? What made you decide to include the political aspects into most of your wargames?

What future projects are you working on?

Thanks for taking the time to participate here!
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Tom Grant
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And he's both a gentleman and a scholar...

http://ivebeendiced.blogspot.com/2011/07/ive-been-diced-epis...
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Brian Train
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Gosh, it's been just a few hours and I think I'm going to explode from all this ego-stroking... many thanks Mr. Dunga for selecting me! Two years ago about this time I was Geek of the Week, now I'm Wargame Designer of the Month, I don't know what could top this....

I just got here, so i will answer everyone's questions at once:

Jon, you're welcome on the book recommendations and thank your for listening to the I've Been Diced podcast. That podcast gave me a chance to think a bit more coherently about what I've been doing and how I go about it. No Grand Unified Theory of Game Design yet, probably never, and certainly no guarantee of continued coherency on the topic either!

What interests me about irregular warfare - certainly the politics, and the asymmetry as well.

I've been interested in military stuff since I was a little kid, and I was reading military history before I knew there was such a thing as board wargames. One thing you learn when reading history books is that alongside the "1st Panzer Army went here and did that" narrative, the political whys and wherefores of the particular conflict are set out, also (depending on the work) the social and economic underpinnings and so forth.

I read about World War Two and 19th century warfare, but what I always found more interesting were the more recent wars or the ones that were still going on - my father served in Korea, Vietnam was winding down as I was growing up, the Middle East and the Third Great War in Euope that in the end wasn't - these were more urgent to me and imparted more than reading about Waterloo (exciting as that was).

So when I started playing wargames, which were mostly at the "they went over there and did that other thing" level, I realized straight away that these games depicted only part of the picture. Now with a tactical or operational conventional warfare game this usually makes sense, but countries don't go to war to test out weapon systems or whether motor pools are a good idea. and it was the intangibles that do drive them to war that interested me more. Certainly in what we call irregular warfare now (which has been called unconventional warfare, guerrilla warfare, low-intensity conflict, etc. etc. over the years, without much thought to shades of meaning therein) the politics is really the driving force, at all levels of the conflict.

And here is where the asymmetries kick in, in terms of motivations, resources, methods, and results by the adversaries - and that's the design challenge.

Pete, thanks for the compliment on my designs and my personality - high praise indeed!

CPL Fields, and Lance: It's hard to say which of my designs I consider my best, or am most proud of. All I can say is that, like children, some disappoint less than others. About 20 of the 30+ games I have designed belong to one or another of five different "systems" of rules I've developed (though with extensive differences between individual designs), but another ten or twelve use systems I've never used before or since. I'm proud of the systems I've worked out, but I'm also proud of my experiments.

CPL Fields, I would recommend you play whichever of my designs has a historical topic or subject that interests you. I've done a lot of irregular warfare games, but also some conventional war designs too. By sneaking in your profile you seem to be all over the place with era and scale preferences, so I don't know what to suggest. You might like ¡Arriba España! or Battle for China (first edition), as they are conventional wars with mucho politics.

No card for you either, Mr. Vasey! (snicker)

Thanks Sam, I have some projects on the cook:

- EOKA: a game on the Cyprus Emergency, 1955-59. Somewhat complex but would be familiar to players of Algeria etc. family of games. Rules to cover lasting effects of kinetic operations and requirements for government to maintain civic infrastructure. I’ve also introduced a simple intelligence/counterintelligence subsystem, where the counterinsurgent seeks to identify the insurgent forces and anticipate
their actions, while the insurgent does his best to evade and cloak his presence. Lastly, solitaire play rules are included for a semi-randomized British player that will allow players to learn the game alone.
- Third Lebanon War: on a hypothetical near-future invasion of southern Lebanon by the Israeli military to stamp out Hezbollah once and for all (again). Shows asymmetry between a high-speed, high-firepower hierarchical system vs. a spongy but no less sophisticated irregular enemy. Includes a 2006 scenario too.
- The Scheldt: clearing of the said estuary by the First Canadian Army in October-November 1944. This is usually a sidelight of your typ[ical NW Europe game and I wanted to do something focusing strictly on this arduous but very necessary campaign.
- reworkings of Power Play and Green Beret. These were two of my ealry designs and I woudl like to revisit the subjects.
- District Commander: a counterinsurgency game in a generic Red vs. Blue setting but quite tweakable to approximate situations. Based on the "clear, hold and build" operation outlined in modern US Army manuals. I'm actually working on the third version of it - the original game was somewhat complex and detailed, but the game got simpler and less detailed over time.
- Kandahar: game using the framework of the situation in that province of Afghanistan 2009-10. substantial tweak to the Algeria, etc. system. Players are regional commanders (Afghan military (not NATO!) and Taliban) scrabbling for the resources to allow them to earn Victory Points, which are granted in accordance with objectives set them by the same higher authorities that provide them with those resources. Players will find themselves in the position of having, if they wish to continue to get high levels of support, to follow courses of action that are not the most effective in opposing the enemy but are more valued by their superiors, and which themselves change from time to time during the game. When you run out of support, the game ends - the war continues but with a different commander! Comes in three versions so players can add complexity as they go.
- Virtualia: Game on urban insurgency in city of "Maracas", capital city of a fictionalized post-Chavez Venezuela. Amplification of Tupamaro system. Features up to five different factions.

Thanks Tom! It was great fun doing that podcast, thank you so much for the invitation.

Brian
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Brian Train
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By the way, I've recently started a mostly-on-game-design blog at

http://brtrain.wordpress.com/

If you want to drop in and have a look at my infrequent posts and reminiscings there.

Brian
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Walter OHara
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Well deserved, sir. I have always apprediated your unflagging support for small format, or "micro" designs. It seems to me that these are making a comeback of sorts, and wondered what your thoughts are on the subject.

V/R,
Walt OHara
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Brian Train
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Thanks Walt!
I got my start playing small wargames - I loved those old Metagaming Microgames and the SPI quad and capsule games, as well as the magazine games that got turned out by the handful.

When Kerry Anderson and I started the Microgame Co-op (later, Microgame Design Group), we were constrained to an 11x17" map, one sheet of counters (usually 280 half-inchers) and a modest amount of rules. I still make up a lot of my games to fit these parameters, on the thesis that it's harder to write an affecting short story than a novel.

The smallest wargame I've made yet has 50 counters and an 8x11" map! Working on getting that down to 40 - don't think I can get all the way down to Victory Point Games' 20-counter size yet. (I was the first person to publish Waterloo 20 back in June 2000, when I edited Strategist for a year.)

I think we'll continue to see more of these small games, now that print n' play is here to stay as a category, and ever-flagging attention spans and stores of available time don't seem to improve much either. I've never thought that a physically small game was necessarily an imcomplete or trivial game - sure, there have been bad micros but most of them I have seen have been interesting explorations on a theme.

And everlasting thanks to you for keeping up the Microgame Museum for all these years, and your great reviews of small games as "Mr. Nizz" on your blog!

Brian
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Jon
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Thanks for the answers Brian. I did not know you were in Victoria. I've got relatives from one end of the island to the other...

I have often seen irregular warfare portrayed as a battle for the hearts and minds of the populace. I am sure every individual conflict varies considerably, but in your studies have you found that the battle for the support of the people is normally the key to victory?

Some conflicts deal with some very vile acts against unarmed civilians or captured foes. Algeria is a good example. If I am not mistaken, such actions can be deliberate and part of the overall strategy of one side or the other. Have you found such stratagems difficult to design into a game for one reason or the other?

You have read much on the subject of irregular warfare and designed many games around such. Have you gained any insight as to how a modern army can fight such a war? That is, is it feasible to win one of these things as a foreign power projecting itself into a distant land? They strike me as something that would be very difficult to pull off as the locals they are fighting have time on their side (often anyway).

On a more gamey note..... what games other than your own would you list as personal favourites? Do you have favourite designers?

Thanks!
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Brian Train
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Hi Jon,

Yes, I have lived in Victoria off and on since 1976, with short spells outside for Army and offshore work. I have lived all over Canada (my dad was a Mountie and we got transferred a lot when I was a kic) but this is the best place IMO. I never want to leave!

Hearts and minds - well, the conventional wisdom today (e.g. the Army FM 3-24) on counterinsurgency is population-centric: you have to have the support of the people to succeed. I'd generally agree with that, and go further to say that you need at least their apathy or acquiescence, that's often good enough. The point is that in most societies only a minority of people are politically active, and fewer still to the point of organized violence for or against the state. Of course that's a political situation - when you have an ethnic, nationalist, religious or tribal conflict, you can get situations where the violence sustains itself for extremely long periods of time in a continual cycle of revenge - Ireland for example, or Somalia. The conventional wisdom of FM 3-24 doesn't hold that well here. (An interesting book you might want to look up, if you are near a university library, is Stathis Kalyvas' "The Logic of Violence in Civil War" - an early version of what grew into this book is on the Net too.)

Atrocities - many of my games are operational-strategic in level and so don't treat of individual atrocities. Nor do they or allow it as a deliberate policy but that is due more to my choice of subject - Ben Madison touched on this in Liberia: Descent Into Hell – The Liberian Civil War 1989-1996 (and got a bollocking for it here on BGG as people accused him of engaging in an exercise in sensationalism and poor taste; however, he had history and research on his side). I think in certain conflicts you'd have to acknowledge it, eg. in the recently concluded conflict against the Tamils in Sri Lanka. The government forces had a deliberate policy of targeting civilian populations and uprooting people to remove them from the conflict zone. This was not an example of population-centric COIN; it was almost the pyramid-of-skulls kind. You don't have to worry about securing hearts and minds when one has been physically separated from the other. Anyway, my more recent designs treat this topic in a bit more depth - starting with Greek Civil War, Virtualia, and continuing on with Kandahar, EOKA and District Commander, players who engage in overly enthusiastic and deliberate violence have to deal with the aftereffects of "kinetic" operations through the loss of popular support, movement of popular attitudes to the other side, the progressive difficulty of operations for both sides in "terrorized" areas, and so on. Wargames are telescoped, bloodless consequence-free models of protracted, bloody, and atavistic human actions; players almost never deal with the fallout of what they've done. (A lot of players would tell me loudly that this isn't the point of wargaming; if they wanted to wallow in man's inhumanity to man, they'd watch Holocaust movies for a hobby. I'mnot going to bother with the argument.)

How can a modern army fight this kind of war... well, I don't have the Magic Bullet solution, after so many game designs on the topic I appreciate more and more how elusive such a solution is.

First thing, since you asked, I am not sure it is possible for a power projecting itself into a foreign land to "win" the conflict, short of genocide or definitive displacement of the indigenous population. Sitting here, I can't think of an example of a successful COIN that didn't involve this... hmmm... Malaya 1948 is often pointed out, but the struggle was in the context of eventual self-determination and British withdrawal... Philippines 1900? no, horrible massacres, bring on Bolos and Krags: The Philippine American War 1899-1902 for an illustration of this. The Banana Wars? those were interesting exercises in muscle-flexing, but IMO led to accommodations and co-opting of the rebels by the host nation government. Perhaps that's a sort of win; of course you have to define "win", and as we've seen over the last ten years, that's a term with a very mobile definition.

I think the key, or at least an important part of the key, is good government by the afflicted nation. Of course, if there were good government to begin with there wouldn't be a civil conflict (unless it was something being instigated from outside the country, but these situations are hard to sustain). People don't seek to overturn their own society if they feel they have a stake in how things are, or that they can affect the social order peaceably. No one was or is interested in fighting for the palpably corrupt regimes of South Vietnam or Afghanistan, unless against an external threat or if they were or are part of the problem that engendered the conflict in the first place.

Personal favourite games: Mostly those from my favourite two designers, James Dunnigan and Joe Miranda. Ones I enjoy include Minuteman: The Second American Revolution, The Plot to Assassinate Hitler, Nicaragua, Crisis 2020... you get the idea. I'm sure I'll think of others later; I have amassed a considerable collection over the years but, like so many other guys, have little time to play.

Brian
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Neal Durando
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Greetings Brian,

As wargame designers go, you are by far my favorite inhabitant of what I call the "qualitative valley" (which is of course everything that the philosophy of Jim Dunnigan hasn't had the time or energy to dream of). You're also one of the few designers I turn to before digging in to topics I mean to research. "Algeria" in particular oriented me to the particulars of that protracted and complex conflict when I was researching US COIN practice, and the origins thereof, for a briefing to the French army (which in turn led to my translation of Grégor Mathias's [geekurl=http://www.amazon.com/Galula-Algeria-Counterinsurgency-Practice-International/dp/0313395756]Galula in Algeria[/geekurl].

Having invoked FM 3-24 and, more importantly, having brought a game designer's eye to asymmetric conflict since before it was penned, I wonder what your thoughts are now that the deficiencies of the doctrine are becoming more fully expressed by events. Another way of putting it would be to ask whether you have yet found an answer to the question "How many schoolbooks is enough to win hearts and minds?" And will you tell us if you find one?
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Brian Train
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Oh gee Neal, you slather me with all those compliments and then, whoops, there's the Very Good Question slipped in there like a thumbtack on my seat!

Just kidding, I appreciate your appreciation very much and I'm glad that BGG has brought us into conversation. Are you still working on that Auvergne game?

I started work on asymmetrical warfare designs 20 years ago, trailing Joe Miranda whose Nicaraguagame was published in 1988. This game was the first serious study of "pure" counterinsurgency I'd seen in wargame form (later, as my collection grew, I would acquire earlier but far rarer examples such as Gamescience's Viet Nam). Very few games on the subject were published in the 1980s - Nick Karp's Vietnam 1965-1975 (1984) was and is a very good design but mostly centred on the military operations, and Central America, which made a big splash in 1987, managed to evade politics altogether. A few other games followed, like Karsten Engelmann's Crisis Games: Colombia in 1990, but again, it was largely a neglected field that I ploughed.

This makes me sound like the neglected genius toiling in lonely obscurity, but the only true word in that phrase is "obscurity". The short answer is that after all these years, I don't have the be-all and end-all answer to "how much X will win the hearts and minds of the Y people". If I ever find it, I'll let you know on my way to the Beltway to claim my fame and riches, because obviously a lot of other brains have preceded me there with the wrong answer.

I think more has been written on terrorism and irregular warfare generally in the ten years since 9/11 than in the 30 years preceding, but as in most things, Sturgeon's Law applies - most of it is crap. We need time to sort the gold nuggets (okay, maybe the semiprecious stones and chunks of amber) from the crap, and we don't have enough distance in time from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to analyze them properly. We study the past to learn about the future, that's what serious wargaming is all about, and certainly the people who wrote FM 3-24 drew on the past - Malaya, Vietnam, and especially Algeria.

FM 3-24 is not crap. In fact, I think it's a remarkable achievement that it was published at all - it required a remarkable amount of analysis and research and thought (I recall reading somewhere that it was the first Army field manual to include a bibliography!), and represented a triumph over military intellectual conservatism. But it's not completely correct either, and certainly the situations where the US military has tried to apply its teachings have been, well, not great testbeds. A while ago I found a short set of notes on FM 3-24 written by LCOL Brendan McBreen, USMC (sorry, I don't have the URL handy) that set the problem out concisely:

Quote:
The ideas contained in FM 3-24, no matter how well-executed, cannot fully defeat an insurgency and cannot compensate for US Government (USG) deficiencies. We need interagency doctrine, we need USG agencies with expeditionary capabilities, and we need national will to prosecute a successful counterinsurgency campaign.


Add to this my earlier remarks about the need for legitimate and effective host nation government (often, lack thereof is the root cause of the insurgency to begin with!), and you can see why things fell apart in IQ and AF.

If the experiments fail to prove the soundness of the hypothesis, is the hypothesis wrong, or were the experiments badly done? That's the debate that is going on right now, though my fear is that it will become another problem that will lie unresolved. Indications are that the US military has had quite enough of COIN after ten years, and is now decisively turning its thoughts back to conventional operations as it develops its AirSea Battle doctrine. So, back to the plough....

Brian
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Brian Train
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Hi Michael, thanks for your page on MDG (and thank you for your canadiansoldiers.com site as a whole, it's great!). It's correct as far as I can see.

Well, Kerry and I started the Microgame Co-op together in the mid-90s. We both provided the game titles, and Kerry did the artwork, production and distribution. The first few titles included Smokejumpers, MacArthur's War , ¡Arriba España!, Land of the Free and Shining Path: The Struggle for Peru. Altogether there were over 30 titles.

The purpose of the Microgame Design Group (we had to change the name to that when the Alberta provincial government challenged our use of the name "co-op", because that word in the Prairies refers to agricultural co-operative businesses, a sort of kolkhoz I guess) was to both scratch our frustrated creative itches and to bring our work to the attention of larger publishers, with the hope of making it not necessarily big-time, but larger-time. With several designers in the stable this came true: Paul Rohrbaugh, Bruce Costello, and Hjalmar Gerber all published early designs with us, I've had a few come out myself, as has Kerry.

The MDG was a non-profit operation by design, not by outcome. Products were priced for what it cost to make and mail them. Any profit got plowed back into the operation - some new equipment, paper, copying and printing costs, that sort of thing. And we gave ourselves the freedom to do wargames on any subject, as we wished - we touched topics no one else did (well, we once did turn down a game someone proposed to us on the topic of combative lawn care!).

The MDG had a very good run, and Kerry suspended activity in order to go back to school for his doctorate (he's a meteorologist for the Canadian forest service). He's still very active in gaming and is still working on designs, both overhauls of previous designs and new projects. You may see a few items come out under the MDG mark yet.

Brian

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There seems to be a sort of asymetrical warfare or COIN "wargaming revival" of sorts going on at the moment with the recent publication of Labyrinth: The War on Terror, 2001 - ? and the upcoming Andean Abyss and Cuba Libre. Do you think there is growing interest for these topics in wargaming, or is it just a passing fad?

When delving into the murky world of politics, how hard is it for designers to not get caught up in giving the games an ideological slant? Is it even possible, or important, to have a form of "design objectivity" when tackling these subjects?

I recently traded away Labyrinth, I was disappointed in the game because it seemed way too ideological for me, with a very simplistic and manichean world view. I have to admit that translating the intricacies and shades of political factions, insurgent groups, government and business interests into a game must be quite a challenge.
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Brian Train
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Well Sam, the revival you are referring to is largely the work of one man: Volko Ruhnke, as he applies and adapts his "COIN system" to Peru and Cuba. Volko is a highly intelligent and clever designer and I like his work. In getting Labyrinth published by GMT, he has certainly brought a lot more attention to this neglected corner of game design (and no, I'm not jealous at all!).

I think there's always been this slight tension in "hobby" wargaming about making games on current or near-current events. Some people condemn it all as bad taste, as I mentioned upstream about the reaction to Liberia: Descent Into Hell – The Liberian Civil War 1989-1996. Others complain about how a game on an event that is still unfolding like the Global War on Terror (GWOT) cannot be validated, therefore it's worthless. Still others say they play for escape, not to reread or relive the headlines in today's paper. As for me, I've always been interested in contemporary, future and near-future or hypothetical topics in games - it helps me to learn and understand about what's going on in the world now, or what went on in its recent past, since reality is complicated enough.

Ideological slant: some people have accused me of a left-wing bias in my games - I don't see it myself, or how it would come out, except in some of the language I use in rules or graphics I choose for counters. This is mostly done for comedic effect. But one of the largest and most militant disadvantaged groups in our society is the humour-impaired, so I can see where that's coming from!

I think instead of the term "design objectivity", I would use "sense of proportion" or perhaps "materiality". In doing research for a game, we read a lot of history, much of which is based on personal anecdote or seizes on one or more themes at the expense of others. This reflects the editorial choices and biases of the historian/writer, and you can't help that - it's part of the creative process. And when a game designer adds his creative processes on top of that research he's done, he also exercises some choices and makes decisions. I try to cling to a sense of trying to model "what really matters, or mattered at the time" - it's not easy.

As the recipient of your traded-off copy of Labyrinth: The War on Terror, 2001 - ?, I have to agree that Volko had to make an awful lot of simplifications and abstractions in order to try and even approximate the complexity of the GWOT, in a way that non-professional wargamers could appreciate and enjoy. I don't know if personal ideology helped to shape some of these design decisions; you'd have to ask Volko, and he might not even know (since what we call ideology tends to be internalized by many peopel to the point where it's invisible).

Thanks for the thoughtful question (and I just noticed you're a Pynchon fan too!).

Brian
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Hunga Dunga
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Wargames » Forums » General
Re: BGG Wargame Designer Of The Month: Brian Train
Mr. Trian, have you ever designed a game for miniatures?
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Brian Train
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No, I never have. I like miniatures, but don't have enough time or space to play them anymore - when I got started in gaming I played with Peter Young's rules found in Charge! or How to Play War Games, and later even tried Tractics, though that was too much detail for me. I have a box or two of minis lying around, but never get around to painting them up properly.

I will confess that I collect miniatures rules sets - I have studied many rule sets for ideas, and even raided a few concepts from them. An example would be some parts of Civil Power, one of my earliest designs. It was a tactical game on riots and other civil disturbances, which in my view tended to resemble medieval melees.

My interest and favourite scale is 20th century operational level - I like the ideas in sets like AK47 Republic, Square Bashing 1914-1918 and Megablitz.

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ltmurnau wrote:
But one of the largest and most militant disadvantaged groups in our society is the humour-impaired, so I can see where that's coming from!


That quote is pure gold, there is something very pynchonesque in it...
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Michael Peck
United States
Corvallis
Oregon
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As a patriotic American, I am very concerned at how the Canadians are taking over political-military gaming. We see Brian Train, Rex Brynen and God knows what other northern intruders taking over the quintessentially American art of kriegspiel.

First, it was Tim Horton's. Now it's pol-mil gaming. What's next? Canadian football takes over the NFL?

Michael
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Brian Train
Canada
Victoria
British Columbia
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Well, I don't think you have much to worry about Michael - it's a lot like Hollywood. There may be a few Canadians working there, but the overwhelming majority of consumers of the product are still American!
So sit back and enjoy the show....

(snicker)
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