Obligatory end-of-year review, 2021

goldblum

Ohhhhh….

It’s almost over.

I thought 2020 was not that great, and boy 2021 was not an improvement.

  • My dad died in May 2021 and I spent the rest of the year doing executor duties and seeing his widow back to the UK where she has family. This put a big crimp into everything else, naturally.
  • I did not get back into my office until September 2021.
  • I did get my money back from the airline for my Hawaiian trip that never happened, but no other travel more than a few miles from home. I did participate in a few online events and things but it’s just not the same.
  • The renovations that started in August 2020 are still going on, though I have been promised carpets by Christmas. Doors, lights, kitchen appliances and other amenities will follow, as will the restoration of some game-playing space.

I’m not sorry to see 2021 go, and I know 2022 will not see the complete end of COVID-19, still less the beginnings of the necessary and obvious changes we’re going to have to make in order to flourish in the future. But like many people, I will adjust and carry on as best I can. Maybe next year I will get back to Europe, or Washington DC, or even Tempe AZ. We’ll see.

Game publishing and publicity

February: Posted PDFs of the 12 issues of Strategist magazine I edited in 2000, containing several PnP games in their pages: some WarpGames by Lloyd Krassner; Battle of Seattle by me; and the first appearance of Waterloo 20 by Joe Miranda.

March: Vassal continues to elude me, but after a lot of angst I finally got it together to build a couple of simple Tabletop Simulator modules for two of my abstract games, Guerrilla Checkers and Kashmir Crisis. It wasn’t much fun, but I hope people might try them. Meanwhile, I think I am irretrievably old-school: give this man some cardboard and markers and he’s happy.

April: James Buckley published #2 of his online zine Punched, in which he ran a lot of material related to the GMT COIN system games (published and future), and a very nice review of Brief Border Wars.

June: District Commander: ZNO was released, the fourth and so far final module in the series. District Commander Maracas continues as the free print-and-play module for anyone who wants to try out the system.

November: A 4th printing of A Distant Plain was announced. We’ll see how long it takes them to pull the trigger on this one; perhaps people want to forget about this war once and for all. Also, the International Conference on Games and Learning Alliance (GALA) saw a paper presented on a digital port of Kashmir Crisis. Hans-Wolfgang Loidl, Associate Professor of Computer Science at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, wrote the paper with his student Charlie Murray, who created a digital version of the game.

Game design work and future publication

Work and or testing continued throughout the year on the following. Other projects languished.

Brief Border Wars Quad Volume II: Handed in the files for this to Compass Games in October 2021. The four battles are all pre-1945 titles: Second Balkan War 1913; Teschen 1919; Nomonhan 1939; and Italo-Greek War 1940. No idea when it will actually come out.

China’s War 1937-41: Development screeched to a halt when I lost my gaming space to renos in summer 2020. In the fall of 2021 I developed a 1938 scenario for the game. I recently heard from the GMT developer who also got sidetracked on things, and work will begin again in early 2022. We hope to finish testing and development by the end of summer. Over 1,500 pre-orders now.

O Canada: Now it can be told – this year I got a long way into making a power-politics, non-kinetic adaptation of the COIN system (something I always thought should be done). The situation I chose is a reboot of the old SPI game Canadian Civil War (1976). Four factions (Federalists, Provincial Moderates, Provincial Autonomists, Separatists) with asymmetrical force structures, menus of operations and special activities, and objectives; an Event Deck with jokes in it comprehensible only to Canadians; a Patronage Track that reflects the degeneration of political discourse and influence of foreign agencies; and conflict played out on two levels (one at province level where you have mostly Party structures and voting blocs but still need some Groups of influencers, and one at Issues level where Groups fight for control of intangibles). Quite a way down the road with this one, solo tests are good, work can continue when I have some more space to play the physical copy and maybe engage other people in it… but I strongly doubt anyone will want to publish this for like, money, so likely when I am satisfied with it I will put it out to free pasture, or a modestly priced PnP.

Conventions

Of course, nothing happened, at least nothing physical.

January: Pete Sizer and I spoke to the VCOW (Virtual Conference of Wargamers) on counterinsurgency games. I also spoke to the Cardboard Emperors Virtual Con II on the factions, mechanics and victory conditions of China’s War 1937-41. And a special episode of the No Enemies Here podcast by Dan Pancaldi, connected with the Armchair Dragoons virtual convention; some quite freewheeling conversation in that one.

November: had a nice chat with Harold Buchanan during his SDHistCon event, I would like to make it to the physical version in San Diego one day as I quite liked what I saw of the city that one time.

Conferences and professional wargaming stuff

No physical conferences, of course.

February: I talked to a group of officers at the US Army War College on “The Uses of Simple Games.”

April: As part of Connections-Online 2021, a virtual event with global reach, Mike Markowitz and I did a joint presentation on the practical matters within DIY game design. Mike talked about graphic design and talked about methods of self-publishing. Both were add-ons and developments of the talks we gave to the Georgetown University Wargaming Society in 2020. Also connected with this event, a very pleasant chat with Maurice Fitzpatrick et al on his Whiskey Charlie podcast about the Connections conferences of the past and future, and their enduring value. Shining Path was used with students at the Institute for World Politics (an independent graduate school that trains students for careers in national security and international affairs) in a class on “Counterterrorism and the Democracies“.

Writing and ‘casting

Nothing formally published, just the usual torrent of wise-guy stuff on blogs, sites and social media.

August: several posts on the end of the war in Afghanistan, that proved to be click-worthy (don’t know if they were read).

September: a great episode of Liz Davidson’s Beyond Solitaire podcast, with Volko Ruhnke. Not surprisingly, we mostly talked about A Distant Plain and the sensitivities of designing games on contemporary conflicts.

October: an episode of the History and Games Laboratory podcast, put on by Eduard Gafton at the University of Edinburgh. We talked about the origins of some of my game designs and how I got into game design, and focus on Brief Border Wars and the issues involved in designing games on sensitive and controversial topics (A Distant Plain got a look in, of course). I later wrote a blog post for them that was an abridged version of the chapter I wrote for the EuroWargames anthology about analog game design as a form of citizen journalism. (I handed the files for that in March 2021, and am still not sure when the book will appear – next year, perhaps.)

November: A great international panel on civilian victimization in wargames, as part of a probable series on “wargame ethics” hosted by Fred Serval (France). Other panelists were Javier Romero (Spain), John Poniske (USA) and Tomislav Cipcic (Croatia). I think we really got into it (the topic, not the practice itself). Also, I posted the popular piece “Quads That Never Were“: SPI Quadrigames that were proposed but never published.

Near-meaningless digest of site statistics:

Overall traffic seems to be stable and improved a bit over 2020. I seem to be cruising still at around 1,600 – 1,800 views per month, for a total of about 21,000 views. About 8,000 visitors in all. The five most curious countries were: US (by a very wide margin), UK, Canada, Australia and Japan. One guy clicked in from Bhutan.
Besides the then-current post, popular pages included the perennial favourites Free Games, BTR Games and Scenarios and Variants pages. No surprises there. The two most popular posts were my Afghan War post-mortem pieces “Endgame” and “Some more Afghan post-mortem”, likely due to my posting links to them on Facebook groups.
The most downloaded documents were four items for SPI game variants by Alan Arvold: three for Lost Battles and one for Search and Destroy, either the article itself by Alan or the counter sheets I made for them. The file of FAQ and clarifications/errata for the District Commander series was also popular.

More on the Urban Warfare Planners Course

The US Army’s First Urban Warfare Planners Course

(photo: Modern War Institute website)

A couple of weeks ago I posted a news item on the first ever Urban Warfare Planners Course, run by the staff of the 40th Infantry Division in California. News you can use

The Urban Warfare Project at the US Military Academy, Modern Warfare Institute has posted a very good podcast where they interviewed BG Robert Wooldridge, deputy commanding general for support about this first course – how it came about, what it is intended to do, and where they want it to go. Normally I do not have the time or patience to listen to podcasts but I did this one. You should too!

https://mwi.usma.edu/the-us-armys-first-urban-warfare-planners-course/

Podcast includes just a few tantalizing details of the tabletop exercise they ran, facilitated by LTC Luke Gygax (yes, the son of That Gygax, he serves in the California National Guard) on the adventures of a multinational task force engaging in combat operations in a dense urban area against a peer enemy. Factions included US forces, Allied forces, Civilians, the Enemy, and a Criminal element. Dice were rolled and chaos ensued!

This is inspiring me to return to work on an idea I had a while ago, the Scaleable Urban Combat Kriegsspiel… I had thought about the District Commander system could be useful as a manual system the Army could use for tabletop exercises, and it quite likely is, but perhaps I could work out something even easier to get into than District Commander Maracas. I easily forget how far these manual games lie outside “ordinary” people’s experience and frame of reference.

[ETA: A later post about their thoughts on offering the course, and what they plan to do next: https://mwi.usma.edu/what-we-learned-creating-the-armys-first-urban-planners-course]

SDHistCon, 21-23 May 2021

some image

Coming soon:

SDHistCon 2021: ‘Spring Deployment’! May 21-23, 2021
The San Diego Historical Games Convention (SDHistCon) is an annual event hosted and coordinated by a dedicated cadre of local gamers and friends, led by Harold Buchanan.

This “Spring Deployment” will be held virtually. There will be online historical gaming sessions and demos, seminars, live streams and other wargame community events. Most events will be coordinated using the Discord app (available free to all users).

The link to register is here:

https://tabletop.events/conventions/san-diego-history-con-2021-spring-deployment

Events during the con are free, but you need to get a ticket to attend anything; you also need an attendee’s badge which is a $10 donation (for all three days of the event).

I will be be conducting a session on China’s War 1937-41 at 1600 Sunday 23 May (that’s Pacific time, so UTC -7:00)

https://tabletop.events/conventions/san-diego-history-con-2021-spring-deployment/schedule/36

Only a few tickets are left! (I was surprised about that too.)

I’ll be talking about the history of the war, the different factions in the game, and other bits about game mechanics.

I hope you can make it! And if you can’t see this one, there are dozens and dozens of other events for you to check out:

https://tabletop.events/conventions/san-diego-history-con-2021-spring-deployment/schedule

District Commander: FAQ, errata, clarifications and comments document

DC_FAQetc_12_apr_21

Here and now: a FAQ-so-far, together with collected errata, clarifications and some comments on play on the DC system and the three modules released. Also posted to Boardgamegeek under the DC: Maracas module page and on the Free Games page.

Thanks to James Buckley for his help and editing! James has also written a longer, joined-up example of play for the Maracas module on Boardgamegeek.com for people who want a bit more demonstration on how to put missions together.

Zones of Connection: 21-22 May 2021

goldblum

[EDITED TO ADD: the schedule for the symposium has been roughed in and my panel is on Friday, May 21, 2030-2130 Eastern Time]:

Friday 8:30-9:30 

Room A

Title: The Cold War Gone Hot, Again: Retrofuturism or Futuristic Retro?

Participants: Brian Train

Style: Panel/Roundtable

Blurb:  In the 1980s a number of serious wargames on a hypothetical Third World War were published, exciting some interest at the time. Over the last 10 years or so there has been a second wave of newly designed wargames that study that same subject – the Soviet invasion of Europe in the mid-1980s that never happened. Nostalgia for an actual past that one remembers imperfectly is one thing. But nostalgic game design to commemorate a then-hypothetical future war that is now a fictional past is a strange inversion of historiography indeed, and an additional twist beyond the approach taken by the designers of Twilight Struggle. What kind of retrofuturism is it? Is it even retrofuturism at all?

Also,  the triumvirate behind the Eurowargames anthology will be holding a roundtable on the wargames connection between North American and European cultures.

Friday 1:00-2:00

Room C

Title: Speaking About Wargames, in Different Languages: A Comparison of Experiences as International Wargaming Content Creators

Participants: Jan Heinemann, Riccardo Masini, Fred Serval

Style: Roundtable

Blurb:  Coming from different cultural and national backgrounds, content creators Jan Heinemann (Germany), Riccardo Masini (Italy) and Fred Serval (France) have recently joined their common knowledge to coordinate a collection of essays about wargaming in Europe and its many new design trends all over the world. But what about their different experiences as wargaming content creators on YouTube and other social media, with different approaches and different groups of viewers? Together with other prominent international content creators, this roundtable aims at highlighting the peculiar features of speaking about wargames also to non-English speaking viewers: the related difficulties caused by the language barrier and the different historical heritages, the perks granted by cultural diversity and the related criticalities, the needs of the different publics, the choice of media and style, the most requested contents and the games that prove harder to introduce, sometimes for lack of interest on the topic and sometimes even for their controversial nature in other nations. An engaging and rarely seen comparison and mutual confrontation about what it means to speak about board wargaming, a hobby born in the United States in the 1950s, also to non-US players by non-US content creators in the 2020s. Showing once again how gaming can prove to be an important bridge and connection between different cultures.

Nick Mizer, who I first met in connection with the national conference of the Popular Culture Association several years ago (Bored of War…  and News Paper Games) recently sent me an “Invitation to Collaborate” to the Bradley Tabletop Games Symposium, an online event to be held 21-22 May, 2021.

The Symposium is itself a collaboration between the Interactive Media Department of Bradley University and the Games and Simulation Arts and Sciences Program of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where Nick is currently teaching. First, this event is quite welcome because it focuses on tabletop games; people have heard me often enough moaning about how the academic field of Game Studies is willfully ignorant of its analog past and all it still has to teach. Second, this event is unusual because it is designed to be a collaborative event, a collection of events and sessions between the interdisciplinarian individuals involved in the field without the formal structure of keynote speakers, presentation of prepared papers, or scheduled fun-time events (that is, you’ll have to provide your own wine and charcuterie).

In wargames, a zone of control refers to the area of restricted movement and activity that occurs when two units become adjacent. As a theme for the first of these tabletop symposia “Zones of Connection” expresses our belief that bringing together a diversity of emerging voices and perspectives on tabletop games has much to offer through the connections that can be forged, interpersonally, emotionally, and intellectually.

Have a look at the invitation to collaborate document here Bradley Tabletop Games Symposium – Invitation to Collaborators and note that rather than submitting abstracts, they are asking for ideas for sessions (to be formatted as workshops, roundtables, panels and seminars but with as much audience participation as possible). If you have an idea for something you would like to participate in, let them know at the link in the document. Deadline for submissions is 26 April 2021.

To give you a further idea of what they might want to see, here are some topics of interest:

  • Games as media
  • Games and simulation
  • Games and anti-colonialism
  • Games as resistance
  • Games in/as education
  • Industry studies
  • Cultures of play
  • Board game cafes
  • Hybrid games
  • Ludo-textual analysis
  • Virtual tabletop play
  • Storytelling in tabletop games
  • Legacy and campaign games
  • Games and speculative futures / alternate histories
  • Discourse analysis of play sessions
  • Streaming and actual play podcasts
  • Phenomenology of play
  • Ludic fandom
  • History of tabletop games
  • Gaming and the military industrial complex
  • Games and translation
  • Games and play therapy
  • Board game renaissance
  • Games in the age of the pandemic

There must be something in all this to interest you!

Personally, I was interested in the speculative futures/ alternate histories topic and am considering submitting a suggestion for a session on that, related to this:

One thing that tweaked me while working on the games-as-journalism piece for the Eurowargames anthology was the section on games on hypothetical wars produced in the 80s, mainly on a Third World War. Regardless of whether you thought that was a farfetched event at the time, it did occupy a lot of interest – at the time. But over the last 10 years or so there has been a resurgence of new games coming out that study that same subject – a Soviet invasion of Europe in the mid-1980s (examples include the World at War series (2007 – 2015), Corps Command: Dawn’s Early Light (2010), Red Tide West (2014), Brezhnev’s War (2018), 1985: Under an Iron Sky (2018), Less than 60 Miles (2019), Red Tide South (2019), and The Fulda Gap: the Battle for the Center (2020)).

Nostalgia for an actual past that one remembers imperfectly is one thing. But nostalgic game design to commemorate a then-hypothetical future that is now a fictional past, it seems to me is a strange inversion of historiography indeed, and an additional twist beyond the approach taken by the designers of Twilight Struggle (where the disproved “domino theory” is consciously used in the game as the logic and incentive for players to act, within their roles as world leaders during the Cold War). So it’s a recreation of a hypothetical future from our past, but what kind of “retrofuturism” is it?

  • Dissatisfaction with the complex and quite changed power structures of today, and nostalgia for the bipolar world with its predicted wargasmic collision of the ideologies?
  • A notion that this war (potentially personally involving players then and now) would have been that generation’s “Good War” (per Studs Terkel), a moral exercise of Us vs. Them with clear-cut roles, unlike the troubling conflicts of Korea, Vietnam and half a dozen other interventions? (I do note that practically all of the examples I’ve given have been by American designers.)
  • Simple-minded huffing of nostalgia fumes for the games that these designers played in their youth? (Sure, I played my SPI NATO, Fifth Corps and BAOR like everyone else, but I miss other games from Back In The Day).
  • Rivet-counters looking for neato technical match-ups, and missing the contextual point as they often seem to do?

I can’t decide what it is; like always, it’s probably a little bit of everything, varying with the individual. It’s just something I’ve noticed and find perplexing, and while it’s pretty narrow I wonder if there are similar veins in other types of tabletop games.

Guerrilla Checkers and Kashmir Crisis: new TTS modules!

Over the last couple of months I made sporadic efforts to  learn to make modules of my games for Tabletop Simulator (TTS)  and Vassal. (I got TTS some time ago when it was on sale for $10 and had some ideas of playing some games to pass the lockdown time, except that it turned out I had no spare time!) I had no real success learning Vassal, but I seemed to get on better with TTS as it’s closer to making a physical copy of a game, or it had more useful gizmos, or whatever. Also, development and playtesting for China’s War will start soon and the developer will be doing it over TTS, not Vassal as was the case with Colonial Twilight, so it was time I learned how to use it. Even at that it took me weeks to learn how to build and upload a deck of special cards, and I experienced the full-on tedium of having to make individual .jpg images of absolutely every piece in the game, including separate front and back images for many things. (I understand Vassal is not much different in the tedium department.)

But after all that, I got things to work with a couple of small and simple games (plus a larger game project that I’m not going to talk about just yet, except that I just did!). So how do I share the modules with the world? I was held up again for weeks because when you go to upload a TTS module to their “workshop” to make it available, you need to include the URL of a small thumbnail image for the game. Time and again the upload failed, this problem has been noted with TTS for some time but all the fixes I had read did not work. Finally last night, with the aid of a friend of a friend, I got the darn things uploaded and went public!

So, if you are on Steam and own Tabletop Simulator, you can now go and have a look at the modules I made for Guerrilla Checkers and Kashmir Crisis. These are two of my smallest and simplest games, and they use pre-made game items (checkerboard, deck of ordinary cards etc.) so they were not that hard to make. No fancy fog of war or other mechanisms, though I would like to learn next how to do that in TTS. If you do have a look, please let me know if these worked for you. 

Guerrilla Checkers: https://steamcommunity.com/sharedfiles/filedetails/?id=2421938802

Kashmir Crisis: https://steamcommunity.com/sharedfiles/filedetails/?id=2421971111

Winter Thunder: computer implementation ready for playtesting

Winter Thunder cover

Casey Bruyn has been working on a computer version of Winter Thunder for some time. It will feature an AI, and the possibility of synchronous (hotseat) and asynchronous (via email) play.

Have a look at the development page: http://www.bruinbeargames.com/#winterthunder

He says, “The basic game and email version are at beta test. We are looking for playtesters that know the rules for the game. If interested please contact info@bruinbeargames.com.”

Give him a hand!

Strategist, 2000

orwell_1984

Once upon a time, I edited Strategist, the monthly newsletter of the Strategy Gaming Society. Boardgamegeek.com says that “the American Wargaming Association (AWA) merged with the National Wargaming Alliance (NWA) in 1984. The combined organization was renamed the Strategy Gaming Society (SGS). The AWA’s newsletter was called “The American Wargamer“, issued from 1973 to November 1984. The NWA’s newsletter was called “Kriegsrat“, issued until November 1984. With the December 1984 issue, the combined publication became “Strategist”.

George Phillies, who is still quite active in wargaming, was a central figure in the Society from way back, but I think the Society has been defunct for quite a while now. Anyway, I took over the newsletter after John Kula had had it for a while and edited it for a year before concluding I just did not have the time or energy to keep it going the way I wanted it (I was then still in the process of recovering from getting run over by a car at the end of 1998).

This was all 20 years in the past, and in the interests of oh I don’t know future ludic archaeologists I am putting up those dozen issues, in PDF form, on the Resources page (converted cheaply from their original MS Publisher format, so there might be an oopsy or two somewhere). They give you 3 GB of space here at WordPress and I am not using much of it so far. Game Links and Resources

Here is an index to the contents, nothing really remarkable except that I did publish a few simple games in its pages: Attrition, War Fair, Wolf Pack and Zulu Spears by Lloyd Krassner; Battle of Seattle by me; and the first appearance of Waterloo 20 by Joe Miranda. Another funny thing I ran was a series of “Military Movie Star” bios where I wrote about the star’s service career and the war/action movies they were in later. Did you know James Mason was a pacifist and conscientious objector in World War Two?

STRATEGIST index for 2000

District Commander Maracas: VASSAL module available!

dc_maracas medium

Trevor Lieberman has braved the demons of Vassal and created a module for District Commander Maracas!

Download it here: http://www.vassalengine.org/wiki/Module:District_Commander_Maracas:_Virtualia_2019

It needs a few people to work it and check it over for errors or bugs, so this may not be the final version, but there is the page to find it when it is.

Thanks so much for your work Trevor!

(Honestly, I have tried off and on for the past few weeks to finally get it together to understand Vassal and Tabletop Simulator, and both have thoroughly defeated me except for the simplest things. I did make a functioning version of Guerrilla Checkers on TTS, but have no idea how to distribute it now.)

[ETA: Trevor also made an Excel spreadsheet to automate scoring for Population and LOC Control victory points for the module: https://boardgamegeek.com/filepage/213982/automated-scoring ]

BTR Games available through Wargame Vault

I am making my whole line of “BTR Games” products available for PnP on Wargame Vault.

To produce these games, I would go to the copy shop to have small batches of counter sticker sheets, maps etc. made up. But I’ve been working from home since March 2020 and can’t get near any copy shops, and it is not worth trying to print all this at home, so I have run out of components for most titles. I can’t print 11×17″ maps at home anyway. This also saves any delay in my having to organize a trip to the post office (which was also proving occasionally difficult).

The real value, though, from the customer’s point of view is that they can order Brian Train products drunk at 3 am, as most online purchases are made, and get them right away.

https://www.wargamevault.com/browse/pub/18373/BTR-Games

When things begin to stabilize and I return to my office, I do plan to have physical versions of the games available again for people who do not want to go the PnP route.