Bored of War…

… is the in-retrospect,-not-very-good title I picked for the short talk I am giving at the national conference of the American Popular Culture Association in Seattle next week.

Here is my abstract:

Board wargames, or manual military simulation games, are a form of civilian entertainment that peaked commercially in the 1980s but continue today as a small press, near-DIY activity. They remain one of Western culture’s most complex analog artifacts, rich in their ability to generate narrative and explore historical possibilities.

 However, only a very small number of published civilian wargames address the dominant modes of actual post-World War Two conflict: irregular war and counterinsurgency. This paper will explore the cultural reasons for this absent focus, explain the social and political utility of these games as a means of interrogating and critiquing contemporary conflicts, and present specific games in this field as examples of “critical play” (Flanagan, 2009).

The point I am trying to make is that there are few of these games not just because they are on an icky uncomfortable subject. It’s also because they are subversive – not only of the contextless and fragmented stream of simplified media interpretation of current conflicts, but also of how most board wargames are played.

I find it quite hard to articulate things like this, though I think about them a lot. I want to acknowledge Jeremy Antley, Matt Kirschenbaum and Mary Flanagan for the thoughts and inspiration.

The point may also be lost on the audience – this is a large conference, with a couple of thousand presentations to be made, and the Game Studies area is responsible for about 100 of them. Only a very small number of these are not about video games: a few about tabletop RPGs, someone talking about how the The Game of Life (Milton Bradley 1960) reflected the American Dream, and my thing.

I think they’re going to look at me like I have bugs in my eyebrows.  But it will be experience, and that is cheap at any price, as they say.


Mmm… yeah, probably as illustrated.

Games Without Frontiers 2.0



As part of the University of Victoria’s “Ideafest”, going on this week, there will be a session titled “Games w/o Frontiers: The Social Power of Video (& Other) Games”. This will include a game jam, where participants will be asked to work on creating a game to help resettle refugees or shift Canadian attitudes about the refugee experience.

Quote from

In Ideafest, the refugee experience will become the focus of a “game jam.”

It’s a session where participants brainstorm ideas. Then, with the assistance of two mentors, both experienced game designers, they can come up with ideas for plotting the refugee experience in a game format. It might be a board game, like Monopoly, or a card game or a video game.

But the idea will be to imagine or reconstruct an experience, in this case a refugee experience, to foster positive social change. It might help teach genuine refugees to navigate the Canadian experience. It might sensitize Canadians to what refugees need and would appreciate.

Meanwhile, other sessions in the Ideafest event will include discussions and exploration of issues such as games in education, virtual reality, games for health and games as art.

One of the the “experienced game designers” doing the mentoring is me!

I’ll be there in the morning, then I will be covering a table elsewhere in MacLaurin A-Wing with some of my games for display. Think I’ll set up A Distant Plain and Ukrainian Crisis, and have a few giveaway copies of Guerrilla Checkers ready. Stop by and say hi!

Game w/o Frontiers is on March 12, noon to 4:30 p.m. in the MacLaurin Building.

The Rest of the Story

Back at the end of April the Guardian ran a story written by BGG regular Matt Thrower on political board wargames…

Now, at his personal site, Matt has filled in the bits that his tin-eared editor cut out. Some very interesting commentary from Volko Ruhnke about models in games, players’ access to those models, and the fun n’ learning aspect of living inside the designer’s model, if only for a while.

Properly illustrated with shots of Fire in the Lake, A Distant Plain and Labyrinth too.

Oh, and Colonial Twilight pre-orders are now up to 344!

From YAAH! #2: Thinking About and Through Abstract Games

The second issue of YAAH! magazine is out, containing three abstract games by me (Army of Shadows, Guerrilla Checkers, Uprising). I also wrote a short simple article on the think-value of abstract games, these in particular, hooked to Ben Franklin’s love of chess. It’s partly adapted from a presentation I gave at Connections-UK in 2013.

Hope you find it interesting!


Thinking About and Through Abstract Games

 – by Brian Train

Benjamin Franklin loved Chess. He was always up for a game. In the illustration, the year is 1774 and he is playing with Caroline Howe, sister of Admiral Lord Richard Howe and General William Howe, who would command British forces during the American Revolutionary War.

He loved chess so much that in 1786 he wrote an essay on it, called “The Morals of Chess”:

 “The Game of Chess is not merely an idle amusement; several very valuable qualities of the mind, useful in the course of human life, are to be acquired and strengthened by it, so as to become habits ready on all occasions; for life is a kind of Chess, in which we have often points to gain, and competitors or adversaries to contend with, and in which there is a vast variety of good and ill events, that are, in some degree, the effect of prudence, or the want of it.

By playing at Chess then, we may learn: 1st, Foresight, which looks a little into futurity, and considers the consequences that may attend an action … 2nd, Circumspection, which surveys the whole Chess-board, or scene of action: – the relation of the several Pieces, and their situations; … 3rd, Caution, not to make our moves too hastily….”

In this short piece I would like to talk about Army of Shadows, Guerrilla Checkers and Uprising as examples of abstract games to discuss in light of the points Ben Franklin raised, and their value in developing other skills.

But first, some history: in 2011 I was invited to visit the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) in Monterey, California to discuss a project to develop part of a website that would support the Regional Defense Combating Terrorism Fellowship Program (CTFP). Under the CTFP, officers of foreign militaries attend training and courses, both in their own country or at centres in the United States, to give them the capability to build, manage, and sustain their own counter-terrorism programs.

One challenge with any training is to make it stick with the student, and make the student stick with it. Programs like the CTFP are intended to build an international and constantly developing network, and it is vital to keep alumni talking and in contact with each other. The NPS, as a major centre for delivering training under the CTFP, was developing the Global Education and Collaboration Community Online (GlobalECCO) website, to support students and alumni of the program. Besides print and visual resources on various aspects of combating terrorism, the website would feature a gaming portal. Current and former students and faculty of the CTFP would be able to play strategy games online to foster camaraderie through friendly and competitive play, and broaden and improve specific thinking skills. It would also be a resource for faculty to use to supplement their classes.

The first principle of game-based learning is that the game used should teach simple, basic principles and dynamics quickly, in an interesting way. Everything else is either additional detail or gets in the way of this. In discussing with faculty and staff of the NPS what sort of games to develop for the website, we felt that by providing a combination of simple games with deep strategy, we would have the best chance of creating experiences for the players that would let them get on with the mental contest. We did not want them to struggle with the language of the rules, or a difficult and detailed user interface for an attempted “simulation” that could also be carrying unintended ideological or cultural baggage.

We chose Guerrilla Checkers for the site because it combined two well-known classical games with simple mechanics into something new, with surprisingly deep strategy. I designed this game in 2010. I had been working with some other people on an Afghanistan game, and about oh-dark-I-don’t-want-to-look-at-the-clock one morning I was staring at the ceiling and thinking about the insurgents and counterinsurgents there. Both sides, while occupying the same section of the world at the same time, nevertheless approached the physical terrain (ridges, gullies, roads) and the human terrain (villages, tribes, relationships) in completely different ways. Why not have a game where the two sides are playing with quite different pieces working in quite different ways, but are using the same board with the same ultimate aim of neutralizing the enemy? There are not many abstract games like this, but I liked the idea of asymmetry between players, and Army of Shadows and Uprising would follow on with this concept.

We also agreed we wanted a game for the site that highlighted the essential mismatches between the antagonists in an insurgency: low information vs. high information, and low power vs. high power. I discussed this with Michael Freeman, a faculty member at NPS, and went away to create Army of Shadows and Uprising – two very different design takes on this general idea.

Both games have some common threads between them:

  • First, the concept of the board as an empty symmetrical surface, with the ultimate objective at its centre. The Nexus and Capital represent a concentration or “peak” of power or legitimacy for the State, and so have to be defended; meanwhile, the rebel or insurgent moves in from the political/organizational – not geographical – “hinterland” to occupy it through processes of stealth and growth.
  • Both games are forced to a climax if the Rebel player is to win; in Army of Shadows, he has to dominate the space around the Capital, and in Uprising he must declare the Revolution and dismantle the State (by eliminating all Agents).
  • Both games are “single-blind” games where the Insurgent player can see all and make moves accordingly, and the State player can discover information only through Interrogation and probes.
  • The essential asymmetry of forces – few but unkillable State pieces or Agents (that is, until the Revolution), and numerous but fragile Insurgents – is also emphasized in both games. An uncommon touch is giving the State player a choice of what to do in both games when he captures an Insurgent piece. He can either kill it right away, removing it from the game, or keep it prisoner, which will give him some additional advantages – though there is a slight chance that a prisoner will escape!

Army of Shadows was implemented for the website under the name Asymmetric Warfare. Besides Guerrilla Checkers, the site also features InfoChess (a Chess variant designed by John Arquilla, another faculty member at NPS) and several less abstract games on the spread of ideologies, financing of terrorist networks, and the stability vs. legitimacy dilemma faced by governments confronting domestic insurgencies. Meanwhile, I continued to give away copies of Guerrilla Checkers and Uprising I had made myself, at game conventions and conferences I went to.

Value of abstract games

Now, back to Ben Franklin. He understood that games help us to think about how the world works in new ways, and to change perspectives. Every society plays games; play itself is a universal human experience. This is one reason why games give us so many metaphors in every language.

Games are there not just to amuse; they are used to instruct, teach and otherwise mold brains. Abstract games have been used as teaching tools and intellectual exercises for military students and professional officers, for centuries. And in civil society, developing skill at Chess, Go or other “deep” games was once considered part of a gentleman’s education.

There is an established body of research on cognitive development and improvement through playing Chess and other abstract games. The quote by Benjamin Franklin illustrates three of the abstract thinking and cognitive skills developed by Chess: foresight, circumspection, and caution. The same could be claimed, to a greater or lesser degree, by nearly any abstract strategy game, and to these I would add other skills such as:

  • Strength of memory, pattern recognition, and pattern manipulation. The game of Go is one of the world’s oldest games. It features undifferentiated pieces and an empty board that has pieces placed on it during the course of play. Guerrilla Checkers of course borrows from this for the Guerrilla side, and from Checkers for the mechanics of the COIN player’s movement and multiple-capture ability. To play either of these classic board games well, you have to be able to recognize classical patterns and arrangements of pieces, just as much as you have to learn combinations in Chess. Meanwhile, Army of Shadows requires memory skills on the part of the State player.
  • An ability to create and reason through alternatives, and to take action without complete information. During play of any of these games, there will always be a wide choice of possible moves, and you have to exercise your judgement about which one is optimal. Army of Shadows and Uprising are games where incomplete information is central to play: players must exercise their decision-making skills with this limitation, to discover or deceive the opponent. (Oddly enough, no one seems to have thought of retrofitting the idea of hidden information to classic Chess until “double-blind” Chess, also known as Kriegspiel Chess, was introduced about 1895.)
  • The mental flexibility necessary to appreciate asymmetry in situations, that is, to be able to flip roles mentally and play from another’s perspective. All three of these abstract games rely on an asymmetrical balance of forces at the beginning, and in each game the players win in different ways. The teaching point is to demonstrate that battles are seldom if ever symmetrical, in force structure or objective. They also play quickly enough that within an hour you can play one or more pairs of games where you switch roles.

All of these skills are critical to creative problem solving. What more could you ask of the development of a leader, analyst, or other decision maker – or for that matter, your own brain?

A bit in The Guardian about political board games

Thanks to Rodger MacGowan for the nice C3i banner.

Thanks to Rodger MacGowan for the nice C3i banner.

Games referenced: Labyrinth, Train by Brenda Romero, and A Distant Plain. As you might expect though, the article is illustrated with a stock photo of Risk. The writer, Matt Thrower (“MattDP” on Boardgamegeek), had a long interview with Volko Ruhnke and while I am certain that Volko mentioned it, there is nothing in the article to indicate that ADP was a co-design, still less one with me. The writer also indicated in the comments that he had a lengthy discussion with Volko where he vigorously defended the bipolar political model in Labyrinth, but there was no room for it in the article. Sigh, so it goes… little room for those who think and speak in paragraphs, and so much is left on the cutting room floor by tin-eared editors who think it’s all variations on Risk.

James Kemp ( pops in to the comments to mention megagames, the ones that he and Jim Wallman ( have run are very good examples. The comments also contain this absolute gem by one “Winston Smith”:

“Any 5 year old can create a board game, but the same can not be said of Crusader Kings II, one of the most genius strategy games of all time. I’ve played thousands of board games, and none of them come close to CKII. You have to be a moron, or have some secret agenda to think board games will ever hold up as anything other than a novelty in 20 years. “

Spoke at TableFlip, October 4-5

City Lights Books and the Transamerica Building

City Lights Books and the Transamerica Building

What a great weekend!

I got into San Francisco in the morning, took the BART in from the airport and spent the midday and afternoon looking around – The city was having a heatr wave, it was 95 degrees on Friday and bright-sunny all weekend. Went to City Lights Books (always wanted to go there) through Chinatown (liked the erhu players on the sidewalk), then over to Amoeba Records (great music and video store) via Haight-Ashbury (ehhh), then back downtown for a meetup with the conference organizers, Tim Hwang and Patrick Ewing, and three of the the other speakers at the conference: Volko Ruhnke of course, David Malki, designer of Machine of Death: the Game of Creative Assassination (, and Max Temkin, designer of Cards Against Humanity (

Saturday morning David Malki presented on “theme” in games, and as a quick exploration in that topic the audience played the simple kid’s game War (as we all know, one of the longest and most tedious kids’ card games) then each table came up with twists and rethemes – we imagined a three-player, film-noir theme of the game where one player is an investigator, one a villain who has kidnapped the victim Or Something, and one player is Fate, who trips up one or both of the other two.

C3i banner by Rodger MacGowan

C3i banner by Rodger MacGowan

After lunch it was our turn. I will be the first to admit that though I am willing to speak in public (thanks to my time on the debate team in high school (my sole contribution to School Spirit), and teaching recruits when I was in the military) I am not a particularly good improv speaker, nor even a good lecturer – I am always way too tied to my script. But Volko and I tagged off each other in speaking about what went into the design of the two COIN games, and he’s a much more animated speaker, so I think it went well.

Tableflip Script (this is what I read-said)

Ruhnke-Train Wargaming COIN (these are the slides we showed)

It was great to be with people who were willing to try something that, for many, laid outside their usual gaming frame of reference. Tim and Patrick had prepared some attendees beforehand to learn the rules and be facilitators for the games of Fire in the Lake and A Distant Plain; this helped tremendously. After playing for about three hours, we called everyone back together and had a very good discussion about their experiences, and fielded more questions about why and how the games were designed as they were.


The following morning was Max Temkin’s presentation, a very intelligent excursion on philosophy and/of game design via Wittgenstein (helped by a great clip from the Ricky Gervais Show), Magritte, David Foster Wallace and many others. He spoke about the impact and interest, or rather why the impact and interest, of Humans vs. Zombies (the first game he designed, while a college student), Cards Against Humanity, and Johann Sebastian JOUST (this was a new one on me ( Afterwards people played a similar game, Spaghetti Showdown: people begin by standing in a circle, each hand holding one end of a piece of uncooked spaghetti. The last pair of people holding a piece of unbroken spaghetti wins! Immediately the circle breaks up and people very gingerly (or not) start to attack the Pasta of Others.

Spaghetti Joust

Spaghetti Showdown

The fourth speaker was Matt Leacock, designer of Pandemic and Forbidden Desert. I really wanted to stay for his talk, but had to leave to get to the airport in time for my flight back.

This was a fantastic event, very lively with great conversations and ideas flying everywhere – it will take me a while to unpack it mentally, I think.

Twitter feed:

Short piece in San Francisco Weekly, by Marshall Sandoval:

David Malki’s account of the fun, not only did he try A Distant Plain he played Guerrilla Checkers too:

And a nice review of the event by attendee Richard Esguerra:

Speaking at TableFlip, October 4-5

In a few weeks I’ll be attending TableFlip, a small (limit of only 75 attendees) gathering in San Francisco of and for game designers and the people who love their productsThis is not a game convention: no exhibits, no tournament play, no flea market or panels. Instead, five game designers will speak on the mechanics and processes of one or two games they are best known for, and then attendees will have sessions of group play of these games, attended and advised by the designers.

The designers involved are:

David Malki (designer of Machine of Death and Wondermark) on “Theme vs. Mechanics” followed by Play Session (War)

Volko Ruhnke & Brian Train on “Wargaming Counterinsurgency”, followed by Play Session (Fire in the Lake & A Distant Plain)

Max Temkin (designer of Cards Against Humanity and Tabletop Deathmatch) on “Folk & Physical Tabletop Games”

Matt Leacock (designer of Pandemic and Forbidden Desert) on “Player Autonomy in Forbidden Desert” followed by Play Session (Forbidden Desert)

This is an interesting idea for a gathering, like a really interactive and focused conference, and I’m really looking forward to it.

Also, I’ve never been to San Francisco before! I have only a few hours to look around, though.


Promotional Discount Code

And if anyone reading this is in the San Francisco area, you can get 25% off the ticket price by going to the registration page ( and using this code: ROLL20. 


A Matrix Game: Crimea in Crisis

Tom Mouat, a very clever man associated with the Wargmae Developments crowd, has just made available a matrix-style game on the Crimean situation, called Crimea in Crisis. Free download at:

This game is at the top of a long list of other matrix games Tom has developed; you should look into those as well.

What is a matrix game? I guess in its simplest form it is something like “adjudicated duelling arguments”, which doesn’t tell you much.

This type of participatory game was invented by Chris Engle in 1988, after he became involved with the British experimental wargaming group “Wargame Developments” (

Matrix games are well suited to a Bunch Of Guys Sitting Around A Table (BOGSAT) situation, but also are good for online play (by e-mail, chat room or on a bulletin board system). In either case, the usual flow of play is as follows:

  • Each turn players submit “arguments” to a central referee. An argument is a statement of what the player wants to do or have happen, supported with reasons why he thinks this is so (e.g. based on his known abilities, previous experience, etc..)
  • Counter-arguments can be made by other players if the structure of the game permits it.
  • The referee judges the strength of each argument and counter-argument and determines their success or failure randomly (this is modified by the strength of the argument).
  • Outcomes are then announced back to the players.
  • The next turn begins, and so on until some set of victory conditions or time/turn limit is reached.

There are slightly different methods to do the above, but you get the idea. The basic concept is quite simple but very very flexible, in the right hands. Besides their military applications, matrix games have been used in the areas of: creative writing, scenario development, “thought experiments”, management training, psychotherapy (Engle is a psychiatric social worker) and general education.

The Society of 20th Century Wargamers, a group associated with Wargame Developments, regularly plays matrix games at meetings and conventions. Copies of the Society magazine, The Nugget, can be downloaded for free and contain many descriptions of past matrix games, showing the applicability of the game:


Normally this website gets fewer than five visitors and ten or so views per day.

Monday, March 17 saw 1,011 visitors and 1,826 views. This one day represented almost 25% of all views ever received by this website, in the nearly three years since it’s been created.
Top viewers were from the USA (534), Russian Federation (352) and Ukraine (334), with Canada a distant fourth (130, and some of those were mine).

However, it’s obvious that almost 1,000 of those people saw “Ukrainian Crisis” and “game”, clicked in, discovered that
a) it was a paper game, and
b) that they would have to print it out themselves
and promptly clicked away again.

Anyway, I am happy to report that today traffic is back to near-normal volumes – 44 visitors and 110 views, after Europe has gone to bed – so I now return me to my already scheduled obscurity.

And thanks to the people who have downloaded it, and tried it out!

As I’ve been trying to make clear, for me this was a “game jam” experiment in creativity like the video game people do (only with one man, who felt it necessary to get something out when the situation seemed to be changing hourly, and an invasion seemed very likely).
Perhaps consider it an attempt to conduct amateur journalism in the form of a wargame.
The crisis still isn’t over, though perhaps I am looking silly already – like most journalists do, these days.
But one has to try these things out and see how they go.

Playtesting Dios O Federacion

Spent a great afternoon and evening playtesting Dios o Federacion with the Class Wargames gang and associates:


From left to right, near to far: Kateryna Onyiliogwu, James Moulding, Fabian Tompsett, Richard Parry, Richard Barbrook. Everyone’s so intent on making up stories about what is happening in the game they are ignoring me and my camera!

And Fabian won, by being The Quiet Banker Type Everyone Ignores Until It’s Too Late:


The group was a really quick study, got right into it and had some very valuable suggestions. Thanks everyone!

Later we played a game that James and Kateryna had designed in Richard’s class, Imperialism in Space – by far the easiest chunk of Lenin I ever swallowed.

Having a very busy but great time in the UK!

More later.