Political-military board game design, with Brian Train

Board games have been a tool for us to understand and hone political-military power since ancient times.

From Chess and Go to Kreigsspiel in 1870s Prussia to modern “Wargaming Fight Clubs” practiced by Imperialist army officers today, abstracting out the principles of how you apply military force to impose political power has long been an effective way to learn and teach.

The dialectician and general Von Clausewitz compared war to a wrestling match. The guerrilla leader and philosopher Mao Zedong said that “you fight your way, and we’ll fight ours” when describing the conflict with the imperialist and fascist armies.

They understood the asymmetric rules and abilities of sides in a war, which are reflected in the type of games we design and play to mimic this.

One board game designer who is studying and applying these principles in a fun, realistic and engaging way is Brian Train. Brian has been making political games based on real examples of revolutions and insurgencies for several decades.

His website gives many examples:

We did an interview with Brian via text. Please see it below – we hope you find it interesting and try out some of the games he has made.

1. Tell us a bit about your inspiration and ideation on what games to make.

I got into wargaming in the late 1970s. Before that, I played much the same games as other kids, but I liked military-themed ones – RISK, Chess and so forth. But in 1978 when I was 15, my favourite uncle gave me a copy of Avalon Hill’s Tactics II for Christmas, and I was off! I don’t think my parents ever forgave him.

The late 70s and early 80s were the first great peak of board wargaming. I lived in a small city and didn’t have much pocket money, so it was hard to find the games on subjects I wanted to play, that is if those games had even been designed. I began to think of designing my own and my first efforts were truly primitive: maps with hand-drawn hexes, counters made from shirt cardboard, and so on.

Years later, in 1990, I found myself in Japan teaching English, and most of my game collection was on the other side of the ocean. So again, I wanted to play games, but none were available – but this time I had a computer and a printer.

The first two games I designed were Power Play, about a coup d’etat in an imaginary country, and Civil Power, a tactical game about making and breaking urban riots. Funnily enough, the first was inspired by an old movie with Peter O’Toole and David Hemmings, the second by an essay by Hunter S. Thompson. I started designing games because no one was designing the sort of games I wanted to play, on the sort of conflicts I wanted to see.

I design mostly on modern or contemporary conflicts because of my personal interest in learning more about them, by researching and building models of them; then I publish them in the hopes that people will try my model and learn a bit about the world around them (or possibly disagree with me enough to go and do some independent reading and designing of their own!).

Besides the first two I mentioned, my next few games were on topics like the Tupamaro urban guerrillas in Uruguay, the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerrillas in Peru, and the Somalia intervention. At that time, I was one of a very few people “ploughing in the COINfield”, as it were. I’m happy to say I have more company now, but this is still a very underserved area of game design.

I don’t care very much about whether a game will sell well, just that it explores an interesting problem in a way that players find absorbing. Games don’t have to be finely balanced to be enjoyable, and a lot of simulations are not interesting enough when they are modelled too literally. But at the same time you want your players to learn something about the historical situation, so you cannot turn it into too much of a game – so I guess playability is more important, but it can be taken too far. This is of course a greater threat in games produced for the civilian market, which generally don’t have the same level of intent or content for serious analysis that a professional would need.

2. Could you walk us through your game design process?

I start by doing some rough research (if I haven’t done it already) on a conflict to help me decide whether I want to spend a fair amount of my future (and unpaid) spare time working on a game about it… was there some kind of form or shape to the conflict? Did it have particular circumstances or phases that came and went that made it interesting? What was its ultimate effect on the region or people involved?

Then I start to think about mechanics that can be used to show these important points or aspects of the conflict to best advantage. As I detail below, sometimes I will use an adaptation of something I have already used in another game, or sometimes I will come up with something quite new.

3. What are the game mechanics and storyline developments that you tend towards, and why?

So far I have published, or at least completed, around 60 designs. About half of them belong to one or another of a set of “families” or systems I have derived for exploring particular types of conflicts, though each one in the system can have great distance between it and others, depending on the situation. The other half use systems I never used before or since (though sometimes they do get incorporated into other families). For example, the “4-box” system is something I put together for operational/strategic irregular warfare where political support for the antagonists involved is very important (you lose the game when support for your side zeroes out).

So far that system has five games in it, on 1940s Greece, 1950s Algeria, 1950s Cyprus, 1980s-90s Peru, and 2000s Afghanistan. Each one has the same basic mechanics, but each one plays differently because of what was dictated by the politics, methods and geography of the antagonists – e.g. whether the insurgent had a foreign sanctuary, etc..

Another approach I have taken with two systems is to have a core rules system that covers the basic mechanics, and “module” games that depend on that core armature but are altered less than they would be in the 4-box system, but enough to give the game a different feel.

Therefore the rules to these games are written as a set of exceptions, alterations and additions to the core rules, This general approach is like what Simulations Publications Inc., the original large-volume wargame publisher, did in the 1970s with their “Quadrigame” concept of four small games that depended on a set of standard rules.

I took this approach most literally in Brief Border Wars, in which the four games (on the Football War 1969, the Turkish invasion of Cyprus 1974, the Third Indochina War 1979, and the Second Lebanon War 2006) were all sold in one box.

Four volumes of the District Commander series of boxed games on operational level counterinsurgency using diceless resolution systems were released individually over 2020-2021 and used some common components among them as well as common rules (modules released were on Algeria 1959, Vietnam 1969, Afghanistan 2009, and Fictional Large City 2019)

4. How have you seen people using your games? Do they use them to teach for example, and if so what?

As I said, I started designing games back in the 1990s but it was mostly to please me. After a couple of years of that a friend and I started the Microgame Co-op (later renamed the Microgame Design Group, because my friend lived in a grain-growing province and “co-op” means you’d better be producing wheat and paying taxes on it), which existed to produce our and others’ wargame designs cheaply with very low production values (early colour laser printing and photocopies) and sell them for about what it cost to produce them.

This made us the first game publishing company to be non-profit by design, rather than outcome! So, this started as a bit of an ego exercise, but two of my games attracted some official interest – at the end of 2007 I learned that some “Beltway bandits” (members of that large community of military analysts who work in the US Department of Defense, or more commonly for companies and consultancies that supply analysis to the Department) had been using my games on Sendero Luminoso and Algeria as the basis for games of their own modelling insurgencies in Iraq and other places.

This brought me into contact with the American Military Operations Research Society, which gave me introductions to other people in the community who were hobby gamers themselves and had played my games on topics they were professionally or privately interested in.

It was very flattering to have my work treated with some respect, and to get in touch with some like-minded people, but honestly this did not translate into any kind of enduring work or consultancy fees for me! In succeeding years I went to a number of conferences on professional wargaming to present my ideas on games and topics that were still minority interests, even among the professional community.

After A Distant Plain (on Afghanistan 2001-14) was released in 2013 and Colonial Twilight (on Algeria 1954-62) in 2017, I got even more attention and learned second-hand that some military schools and unit commanders had been using my games as professional development exercises.

I’ve also heard from teachers and professors who have used my games. I don’t expect this semi-official attention to continue. The American military establishment has now turned away from counterinsurgency and now expects to have full-on conflicts with “near-peer adversaries” like China and Russia, with tank divisions and fleets banging back and forth…

I think they will be surprised. Some people are thinking and writing about asymmetric conflict and “hybrid war” which in my view is much more likely as well as the insurgencies we have seen over the last 50 years, and I tried an essay along these lines with my free game Ukrainian Crisis, designed over the weekend in March 2014 when the Crimean referendum was held and an overt Russian invasion seemed quite possible.

In any event, these games are not meant to be predictive exercises, they never were. In my view they have value in allowing the players to explore problems and derive ways a conflict could work out or have worked out, not the way it did work out. And their greatest value can lie in simply informing people of how complex and multilayered all conflicts can be, regardless of how the other media they consume may simplify it.

5. What kinds of political-military conflicts translate well into board games in your opinion, and why?

Almost anything can be made into a board game. I have used many different systems to handle levels and aspects of conflict from abstract games, to card-based games, to large and complex tabletop games with lots of components with numbers on them.

However, the board games that can be made are not always interesting or engrossing for people to play, and their peculiar tastes. One example of such a polarizing game I made a while ago is Red Guard, on the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China.

It is a very chaotic game in many aspects – I ditched the map and instead pieces from six different factions in the Chinese Communist Party fight for control of Tiles, which represent large, immobile social or administrative structures such as government ministries, cities, factories or peasant communes. Players divide units into offensive and defensive teams, to either guard the Tiles they control or to wrest control of a Tile from another. Units are People’s Liberation Army, Party cadre, Red Guard activists, and workers with a different mix of these for each faction (Lin, Deng, Jiang Qing etc.). Combat (by ideological Subversion or more violent Purge) increases the Chaos Index, especially when players get too Purgey. If Chaos reaches 100 the country collapses into civil war and everyone loses. A rather facetious touch is the use of a Chairman Mao counter in the game: you put him on top of a Tile to “freeze” everyone on it, and the Tile is also proof against attack. But if you freeze someone else’s tile, they get control of Mao now. One way to end the game is if Chairman Mao dies. Also, there are some Chairman Mao random events.

Anyway, the game is purposely very chaotic, with factions falling in and out of alliances and semi-random reinforcements popping in and out, to the point where some players noted their dislike of not having complete control of events. Meanwhile, other players seemed to enjoy the whirlwind they were riding. My intention was to create such a mental atmosphere of chaos in player’s minds, and perhaps I was too successful.

6. Do you have any tips for people looking to try designing games as tools?

I have three pieces of advice for aspirant game designers, and they come originally from James Dunnigan, my favourite wargame designer of all time.

He said: “If you can play them, you can design them.” “Keep it simple.” “Plagiarize.”

The longer form of these three points can be found in his book The Complete Wargames Handbook, available free at

7. Any other board game design topics that you like to expand upon? Please do!

COVID-19 and other life events have put a crimp in my time and ability to work on new designs, but the ideas are still coming.

One topic that I think about a lot right now is irregular warfare in urban areas, as the global population continues to move into large littoral cities and face increasingly severe challenges due to climate change, among other things. Few people are working in this area in terms of playable games but I have done some work on it and think it is of particularly urgent interest.

Links Personal game design website:


Free games, including District Commander Maracas (latest game on urban irregular warfare that I have published):

Links to all of my published games via Boardgamegeek:

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