Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Brian Train: Game Designer & Interview

In addition to answering my questions concerning matrix games, game designer Brian Train was good to sit for an interview and discuss current events in Venezuela and his thoughts on insurgency themed games and game design.

Brian's blog is here while information on many of his games is here, many of which are free. Check out Maracas for an urban counterinsurgency game taking place in the capital of fictional Virtualia.

This link will give you an idea of what he gets up to participating in professional wargaming conferences and joining in and sometimes helping to design and administer "megagames".

I have been running a series of post on the happenings in Venezuela and using some items from Brian's game Caudillo to explore both the game and current events.

Q&A - 5 March 2019

Scott Cole:  Please give me your view on what is happening in Venezuela today.

Brian Train: The situation changes daily, and I admit I have not been following it in depth, so I offer no predictions beyond more uncertainty, misery and violence. Those always seem to be safe bets.

I largely subscribe to what Greg Palast writes here, how what’s going on is the latest racist backlash.
The race angle is not played up in the media here at all, instead they talk about Guaido coming from nowhere and about the humanitarian aid problems…

The promptitude with which he was endorsed by other countries as the real President is almost sinister: Canada's foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, was actually sharing a stage with Brazil’s Bolsonaro when she announced Canada’s support.

Whatever happens, good or bad, the government of my country had its hands wrist-deep in it before the fact.

Diplomatically it also seems we are in a bit of a fix, as unlike the United States we have always had good relations with Cuba… but this has now been tested because of Cuba’s support of Maduro (since cheap Venezuelan oil sent there by Chavez in the 1990's saved their country, when exports from the collapsed USSR vanished).

SC:  Palast raises an interesting point when he mentions the media’s coverage of events. Despite being highly critical of the Trump Administration at home, they are fully on board with the attempted overthrow of the Maduro regime. Reminds me of a passage from one of Orwell’s essays which I’ll paraphrase:

“When one thinks of all the people who support the Guaidó coup, one stands amazed at their diversity. What a crew! Think of a programme which at any rate for a while could bring Trump, the New York Times, Elliott Abrams, the foreign minister of a Liberal Canadian government, CNN, Richard Branson, John Bolton and etc. & etc., all into the same boat! “

BT: Orwell is always worth quoting.

I don’t know if he is always worth paraphrasing according to usages 70 years after his death.

But I do take your point.

Scott Cole:  Let’s say you are playing a simulation as Maduro in a Guaidó / humanitarian aid scenario. What is your game strategy?  

Unfortunately, we are using the “Aquí No Se Rinde Nadie” optional rule so you cannot make a deal to retire with your personal gold stash to Aruba.

Brian Train:

Why didn’t we hear about any aid convoys before Guaido popped onto the stage? People were certainly hungry and short of supplies before.

Eh, anyway…

SC:  OK, the Maduro side has played the "Life isn't Fair card" but rolled low on the dice and does not garner any extra international support.  What does the Maduro player do now?

BT:  The most prudent course of action: shore up and hang on.

So far there have been only a few defections from the security forces, so it appears possible for him to do this in the short term.

The long term question, though, is just how much the outside world wants Maduro out of power, and Guaido in power, or the opposite, and how much profit and loss that involves. Not long ago it seemed that Russia and China were prepared to back Maduro up, as a Latin American proxy and counterweight to American pressure, but now I am not so sure they want to make that material and political investment.So you’re right, he rolled low.

But Guaido also needs external assistance and reassurance to advance (note his recent meetings with Vice-President Pence and others) and claim power, so the issue here is how much of a quid pro quo can he offer for that support… a change in government in Venezuela will not greatly affect the world price of oil, which was the major problem at first.

Perhaps we could view this as one more example of “disaster capitalism”, where one or more American corporations (Koch et al) swoop in and scoop up what remains of Venezuela’s petroleum industry at fire-sale prices, while life doesn’t change at all for the Venezuelan people.

If this is the case, and the issue is forced, then Maduro has already lost any game that might be afoot. It’s likely he could find personal exile somewhere (Cuba?), without his gold stash maybe he could go back to driving a bus.

But my larger concern is that there will continue to be a great deal of disorder and violence in Venezuela, no matter who is in charge… there are large amounts of military-grade weapons on the streets already, little chance of a new regime recovering them, and a lot of people with pent-up grievances and the will to use them.

Letting humanitarian aid in won’t stop that flywheel of violence: and at current oil prices there is slim to no chance of a Latin American analogue of a Marshall Plan to rebuild the economy, bring the economic refugees home, feed everyone and make the streets safe again.

SC:  I’ve been looking into Caudillo and while you have taken pains to stress that it was never designed to simulate actual events I have to ask that if you intended to design a game simulating contemporary Venezuela, what would be your general organizing principles?

BT: Caudillo was never meant to simulate Venezuela, but when I set out to design it in 2013 it was inspired by what a post-Chavez regime might look like.

The main point of the game is to stress the pressures between building up a large and durable personal power base, which gives large rewards a few times during the game, and having to cooperate with other players in defeating the socio-economic crises that keep popping out of the deck - which gives smaller rewards,more often… Having that big power base gives you more resources to contribute, but if you leave it too late the whole country will collapse, and so on.

In designing a game on contemporary Venezuela, I would think carefully about what part of that big tamale I’d want to cut off and chew on… there’s no way to simulate completely an entire country facing a situation like this, it’s far too complex.

So what I would do is look at some aspects of what’s going on… maybe some form of game on subversion, power struggles, and maneuvering within the security forces, or a study of the various political factions within either the Guaido camp or the Maduro regimes.

What would be really interesting - and this is something that is almost never done in games - is something on the reconciliation, readjustment and reabsorption processes after a conflict, after a transfer of power.

SC:  I came across your game on the Uruguayan Tupamaro urban guerrillas and read this game related interview. You discussed Che Guevara and Regis Debray’s “foco” revolutionary model.  For readers, this model consisted of three main tenets:

  • Popular forces can always defeat a regular army in a guerrilla war;
  • the main arena of action will be the countryside; and
  • It is not necessary that all conditions for making a successful revolution exist: the professional revolutionary cadre group (foco), can either create these conditions or simply do without them.

Besides what can only be described as wishful thinking what struck me was the comparison between Debray’s expectation that the countryside would be the focus of revolution but it was only in urban areas that long running insurgencies took root while the old Bolsheviks and Mensheviks expected the revolution would arise from the exploited proletariat of urban Europe and were taken by surprise (but did not hesitate to exploit) revolutionary conditions arising in comparatively undeveloped Russia.

BT: The long answer to this is in my article on urban guerrilla warfare, the first piece I had published in Strategy and Tactics, back in 1993.

The foco model didn’t work, and in retrospect was rather silly.

There are good examples of long-lived, insurgencies that sustained themselves in the boondocks... the Sendero Luminoso of Peru and the Nepalese Civil War are two (also the Moro Wars, from which American English gets the term “boondocks”!).

But it’s always risky to generalize; Mao may have said that a revolution is not a dinner party, but don’t show up at next weekend’s barbecue in black tie either.

There are good reasons for there to be urban-based insurgencies too, and they are becoming increasingly unavoidable, simply because more and more people are living in such areas… two good books to consult here are David Kilcullen’s Out Of The Mountains and Mike Davis’ Planet of Slums.

SC:  Are you thinking of releasing Virtualia (Game on urban insurgency in fictionalized post-Chavez Venezuela. Amplification of Tupamaro system)?

BT:  As of this weekend I have started working on a cards-and-cubes variation on that design. Some parts of that game helped me to make further modifications to the 4-box system, like the chit system in EOKA. But this one will be a bit streamlined and free-form from that, and I hope to use it to show some of the dilemmas in pursuing different kinds of actions.

Sorry that sounds unhelpful and nebulous but I am not done yet.

I might just release it with a choice of free PnP, or a priced homemade copy, like I did with Caudillo.

SC: In your essay on South American urban guerrilla movements, The Terror War you stated that it was politically impossible for the guerrilla groups to overthrow their governments as true revolutionary situations did not exist.

My thought after reading the article was these groups attempted to use terrorism to create the revolutionary situations but they failed at great cost to themselves and the societies they were ostensibly fighting for.

At that time and place (1960 - 1980’s Latin America), were other tactics available to these groups beyond terrorism? In a recent lecture you stated that an insurgent movement works to “out-indoctrinate the government or re-occupy a physical or mental space where the government’s writ does not run”.

I’m guessing there was a spectrum of options from total non-violence (e.g. a community service type strategy) up to the IRA / Sinn Féin model?

BT: Armed guerrilla movements are not “politics as usual”, and they arise when politics as usual is not working… if it was, then you wouldn’t have these spasms of violence, doomed as they seemed to be.

Few of these movements started with violence right out of the gate; one exception is the Sendero Luminoso, which began the conflict with a bang after nearly ten years of covert organization and planning (but Sendero is an exceptional movement in many senses of the word).

Most of them went to violent methods after being shut out of normal political processes, or through state overreaction to the non-kinetic methods they did try.
More often though, they became violent through having to resort to crime to raise resources (even Stalin got his start as a bank robber) or a conscious decision to provoke the state into further overreaction.

The Tupamaros did belatedly create a united political front with a legitimate party and contested elections, but there had been too much violence for them to get away with it. And shortly after those elections, the whole table of democratic process got kicked over by the military so there wasn’t even a question of carrying on with that…But I think it gave a lot of people a bit of a tickle when Jose Mujica, former Tupamaro and prisoner of the military for 13 years, became President of Uruguay in 2009.

The real victory is in outlasting your opponent.

Mujica said as much in a speech in 2014:
“Life can set us a lot of snares, a lot of bumps, we can fail a thousand times, in life, in love, in the social struggle, but if we search for it we'll have the strength to get up again and start over. The most beautiful thing about the day is that it dawns. There is always a dawn after the night has passed. Don't forget it, kids. The only losers are the ones who stop fighting.”

SC:  Do you know of any insurgency themed games that are personality based? I think revolutions and counter-insurgency themes lend themselves to strong characters affecting game play, I just don’t know of any.

 Besides the clandestine nature of the conflicts and a dearth of publicly available information on most characters involved do you think a insurgency themed game with a personality driven game system is feasible?

BT: I don’t subscribe to the Great Man theory of history; historical personages exist of course and did affect the events of their day, but the Cuban Revolution did not stand or fall because Che and Fidel in particular lived and breathed.

There was nothing magical about these men; if conditions are right for rebellion, someone else would have emerged and led it. I think there is too much of a tendency to “personalize” history, though it seems to help people to understand it.

I’d sooner subscribe to the Great Schmuck theory of history, which explains the catalog of missed opportunities, failed conversions, own goals and other disasters caused by the hesitancy, control-freakiness, incompetence or malice of the personality in charge at the time.

I don’t know of any serious insurgency games that are personality based.
It would be possible to make one, I guess, perhaps as some kind of role-playing game (where your Charisma score would be pretty important!).

SC: You have an impressive resume of insurgency/civil war themed games from 1848  to games on the Greek Civil War; an extensive collection of South American titles and the American War in Afghanistan.

Looking upon your experience are there any common themes in game design that keep coming up?

Also based on the research required to produce insurgency/civil war games from diverse historical periods do any common themes emerge about the nature of revolution and civil unrest?

BT: About half of my output is games on insurgencies/irregular war and the like (which means the other half isn’t, but it doesn’t get as much attention!).

Over the years I have derived several different systems to reflect this form of conflict: I’ve also done one-off games, and the games in each system have each undergone considerable modification to allow for their particular circumstances (civil conflict or not, colonial, foreign occupation, etc.).

However, general themes and principles emerge only with the broadest of brushstrokes… I am reduced to truisms like:

  • Many are called, and few choose themselves. Only a small fraction of a population in conflict is driven to direct action, generally with the support of a somewhat larger fraction of sympathizers. Hence many of my games draw a distinction between small “mobile” units of dedicated fighters drawn from larger static mass organizations.Both are necessary, and complement each other.
  • Same arena, different rules. Guerrilla warfare has been called the “warfare of the weak”, but in any struggle for power the antagonists are always far from symmetrical or equal in terms of means, motive and opportunity. This needs to be reflected in a game by maximal asymmetry in mechanics, objectives and force structures. The simplest expression of this is found in my game Guerrilla Checkers, the idea for which came to me one night while I was lying awake thinking about Afghanistan. It’s the simplest idea I have ever had and I wish I had more of them.


  1. Good ideas about Venezuelan crisis... Don't forget the Cuban forces inside that country since long...

    1. Thank you. Please see this post on the Cubans:


      Information may be outdated.


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