Entering the matrix doesn’t mean exiting from #wargames

Over on Rex Brynen’s excellent PAXSIMS website, he posted a link to BEAR RISING, a Matrix game looking at the Baltic in the post-INF Treaty era. As a wargaming professional, I appreciate that Matrix games can be used to explore policy issues and generate greater insight into the issue. Matrix games are a part of wargaming, but apparently some out there want to distance themselves from that connection. Taking a look at BEAR RISING you find this:

What are matrix games? Matrix games are different to normal Wargames. In most of those games you will probably compare lists of statistics and peer at complicated books of rules containing someone else’s idea about what things are important, before making a decision, checking that it is covered by the rules and rolling dice to see if you succeed. It can take a long time, look really complicated and can be very difficult to explain to a newcomer. Instead, in a matrix game you simply use words to describe why something should happen, the Facilitator or the players (or both) decide how likely it is, and you might roll a dice to see if it happens (but equally, in the face of a compelling argument, you might not need to). If you can say “This happens, for the following reasons…” you can play a Matrix Game. The games themselves are not intended to be fiercely competitive, with obvious winner and losers. Instead they operate with the players working to generate a credible narrative. It is from examination of this narrative after the game that the player gain insights to the situation being portrayed. The player roles have objectives that will place them in conflict with other players, but it is perfectly possible for all of the players to achieve at last some of their objectives by the end of the game.

Let’s take a few of these sentences apart:

  • “In most of those games you will probably compare lists of statistics and peer at complicated books of rules containing someone else’s ideas about what things are important before making a decision, checking that it is covered by the rules and rolling dice to see if you succeed.” I guess you have only played wargames like Advanced Squad Leader, right? You totally have missed out on many “light” wargames like Brave Little Belgium or uncountable others? I hope you are consistent in your views and have the same disdain for heavy Eurogames out there and especially for anything designed by Phil Eklund, right?
  • “It can take a really long time, be really complicated and can be very difficult to explain to a newcomer.” I challenge you to try any of the Academy Games Birth of America-series or Commands & Colors (Compass Games or GMT Games) or a Hold the Line game (Worthington Publishing). If those games are too complicated for you and difficult to teach a newcomer then you have no place talking to anybody about a Matrix game.
  • “Instead, in a matrix game you simply use words to describe why something should happen, the Facilitator or the players (or both) decide how likely it is, and you might roll a dice to see if it happens (but equally, in the face of a compelling argument, you might not need to).” But you just disparaged rolling dice above….
  • “The games themselves are not intended to be fiercely competitive, with obvious winner and losers.” Ah…another bias. Wargames “must” be “fiercely competitive.” Let’s not talk anything about the learning that can come from exploring the situation; it’s war and war is automatically evil! To that I say si vis pacem, para bellum.*
  • “Instead they operate with the players working to generate a credible narrative. It is from examination of this narrative after the game that the player gain insights to the situation being portrayed.” I would argue that some of the best wargames, like the new Tank Duel (GMT Games, 2019) or Enemy Coast Ahead: The Doolittle Raid (GMT Games, 2018) generate a “credible” narrative during the game and don’t need a scribe to explain it to the players afterwards.
  • “The player roles have objectives that will place them in conflict with other players, but it is perfectly possible for all of the players to achieve at last some of their objectives by the end of the game.” Is this not the hallmark of a good game design? A good design will see all players work towards their objective, with the end result being a measure of how well they achieved those objectives. The objectives themselves do not have to the same (for example, who controls the most territory) but can be different like in Nights of Fire: Battle of Budapest (Mighty Boards, 2019) where the Revolutionaries try to save civilians while the Soviets try to control the city. Or maybe the designers of BEAR RISING are not familiar with a GMT Games COIN game like Colonial Twilight (see Grant from The Players Aid comments about terror) or the asymmetric Root from Leder Games?

I will repeat what I said before; Matrix games are useful to explore policy issues and generate insight. But they are one tool in the vast kit available to designers. To maximize that insight, I prefer designers and players to have open minds and to avoid/remove as much bias as possible. In the case of the BEAR RISING designers, they show me that they have deep biases that make me doubt the assumptions their game is built on.


* “If you want peace, prepare for war.” In my case I strongly advocate studying warfare to understand – and avoid – military disasters of the past.

Feature image courtesy BEAR RISING.

@Mountain_Navy 2019 half-year #wargame #boardgame stats check-in

Almost a month late, but here are my wargame/boardgame stats for Jan 01 thru June 30, 2019. Compiled thanks to BoardGameGeek and BGGStats.

So, does this make me a better gamer than you? NO! I am just gaming in my own way and enjoying it. I’m not looking to compare myself to others but rather share with all of you the joy gaming has brought to myself and my family. It’s not important if you play one game a month or 100; the important part is to enjoy the hobby!

A Fifth of the Fourth – or – a day late and a bit short; playing Liberty or Death: The American Insurrection (@gmtgames, 2016) #wargame #boardgame #waro

AFTER A VERY FULL DAY OF WARGAMING ON THE FOURTH OF JULY, I was up early again on Friday. Lucky to have the day off, I pulled out Harold Buchanan’s contribution to the COIN-series, Liberty or Death: The American Insurrection (GMT Games, 2016). Knowing that today was going to be a bit busy, I set up the Optional Sprint Scenario of The Southern Campaign. I played the Patriots (of course) and let the ‘bots take the other players.

Earlier this year, I was able to experience Brian Train’s two-player COIN game, Colonial Twilight: The French-Algerian War, 1954-62 (GMT Games, 2017). Although I have played Liberty or Death for several years now, it was not until I played Colonial Twilight that I grokked the relationship of Commands, Limited Commands, and Special Activities. Now that I grok those relationships, it helped make this play of Liberty or Death go much faster and with more meaning as I am now able to better understand how to “pull the levers” of the game.

I don’t pull my COIN games out enough. Glancing at the Rules of Play, I am amazed that the core rules are delivered in the first 22 pages. When it comes right down to it, the mechanics of a COIN game are not very complex. Instead of “mechanical complexity,” COIN has “thematic complexity” as many similar actions are named thematically for each faction which makes it look like there is alot to learn, but in truth they are very similar (though not necessarily identical).

Familiarity with the terminology makes the game go faster; building familiarity demands more plays. I don’t know how I am going to get more plays of COIN to the table but I really need to as each delivers unique insight into the issue it covers.


Feature image GMT Games.

New COIN Dawn with Colonial Twilight: The French-Algerian War, 1954-62 (@gmtgames, 2017) #boardgame #wargame

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Courtesy GMT Games

This weekend, I finally got a real deep dive into designer Brian Train’s installment in the COIN-series entitled Colonial Twilight: The French-Algerian War, 1954-62 (GMT Games, 2017). This is not the first COIN game I have played; I also own (and have played) Harold Buchanan’s highly thematic Liberty or Death: The American Insurrection (GMT Games, 2016). As much as I love Liberty or Death, I found Colonial Twilight a much easier game to digest and get into playing quickly.

All Sides Count

One reason Colonial Twilight is easier to absorb stems in part because it is a two-player game, unlike Liberty or Death which is a two-sided but four-way affair. The four factions in Liberty or Death are highly thematic, but that deep theme comes at the cost of additional rules overhead. Colonial Twilight, being a two-sided affair, is by nature more streamlined.

Rules and Theme

That said, I found the rule book for Colonial Twilight even more thematically connected than the already highly thematic rules for Liberty or Death. For some reason, I was able to very quickly grok the Colonial Twilight rules whereas it always takes a slow refresher for me to assimilate Liberty or Death when I pull it out.

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Colonial Twilight Initiative Track (courtesy GMT Games)

I also have to say that the Initiative Track in Colonial Twilight was a key factor in developing my understanding of the COIN series. This new track opened my eyes to the real beauty of the COIN system. The simple graphical representation is actually the same initiative track found in other COIN games but the layout and shading instantly lets me see the relationship of Events, Operations, and Limited Operations. It just makes so much more intuitive sense to me than the Sequence of Play in Liberty or Death.

I will admit that the hardest part of playing Colonial Twilight is the history and geography. I have great trust in Mr. Train that he has captured many of the key events of the era and every play of the game is educational. It is also challenging because, unlike Liberty or Death where I often “know” what the event is relating, in Colonial Twilight it is much murkier. Sure, the text of the card tells you the effect, but what it “means” is found in the Playbook. Fortunately, the streamlined two-player/faction situation and rules means the “brain burn” is balanced between play and “understanding” the unfolding events.

The Real COIN Payoff

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Colonial Twilight (courtesy BGG.com)

The best side-effect of learning and enjoying Colonial Twilight is that I have a better understanding of the COIN-series writ large. Through Colonial Twilight, I now see (and understand) the core game mechanics of COIN better than I did before. It’s not that it simplified COIN, it’s just streamlined to the core essentials and the rules are matched to theme so well. For example, the Government Operations in Colonial Twilight of Train, Garrison, Sweep, or Assault is actually not that different than the British Commands of Muster, Garrison, March, or Battle in Liberty or Death. I have to smile ruefully when I see that the FLN Operations of Rally, March, Attack, and Terror is not that different from the Patriots Rally, March, Battle, or Rabble-Rousing in Liberty or Death. After playing Colonial Twilight, I have an itch to get Liberty or Death to the table well ahead of my traditional 4th of July gaming event. That said, I think I am going to get a few more games of Colonial Twilight in to better explore the topic of the game and learn COIN better.

More COIN?

I realize I am very late to the COIN party; Andean Abyss (COIN #1) is already seven years old. I also missed out on the GMT Games P500 COIN-fest reprint in late 2018. Not every COIN title appeals to me, but I would have not tried Colonial Twilight except for it being a Brian Train title so I apparently cannot depend solely on the subject as the measure of my interest. That said, I get the feeling that Fire in the Lake: Insurgency in Vietnam (GMT Games, 2014+) may be acquired in the near future….

#Wargame for Train Coups & Nukes – Colonial Twilight: The French-Algerian War, 1954-62 (@GMTGames, 2017)

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Courtesy GMT Games

What do you get when you mix designer Brian Train, COIN in Algeria, and nukes? I’m going to find out soon!

I recently acquired a new-in-shrink copy of Colonial Twilight: The French-Algerian War, 1954-62 (GMT Games, 2017). This is my second COIN-series game (the other being Harold Buchanan’s Liberty or Death: The American Insurrection, GMT Games, 2016). This is also my third owned game by designer Brian Train.

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Event 66

I never really thought I would be interested in the French-Algerian War, but curiosity is sometimes born in unusual places. In my case, it was an article I ran across recently. A “Nuclear Coup”? France, the Algerian War and the April 1961 Nuclear Test is a paper that details the days before an April 1961 French nuclear test in the Algerian desert. The test takes place at the same time there is a coup by French generals in Algeria against DeGaulle. That event is captured on Event Card 66 – Coup d’Etat, and reflects the “General’s Putsch” to seize power. Nuclear tests do not appear in any of the event cards in Colonial Twilight so one cannot play out the scenario of the rebels getting a device. Granted, that situation exceeds the design focus of the game but it’s an interesting thought experiment. Hopefully by playing Colonial Twilight I will get a better sense of the background and the general situation in Algeria during that time.

I also am looking forward to playing this game because of the designer. I always find Brian Train’s games interesting to play and educational. He certainly picks topics that are not the usual. I have played his Reichswehr & Freikorps (Strategy & Tactics, 2012) and more recently his Finnish Civil War (Compass Games, Paper Wars, 2017) – both games of civil wars. I am very happy to finally own Colonial Twilight as I believe Mr. Train is one of the foremost designers on “civil war” and counter-insurgency games and look forward to what his design can teach me. It also doesn’t hurt that Colonial Twilight is also a 2-player version of the COIN-series; a player-count that I want to explore more.

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Courtesy Hollandspiele

I am also looking forward to Mr. Train’s collaboration with Hollandspiele in his new District Commander-series coming this year. As Hollandspiele’s Tom Russell describes it:

“One more series we’re proud to be launching is Brian Train’s District Commander. These four diceless games for two players cover counter-insurgency operations in the twenty and twenty-first century. Our plan is to release the first two games (Maracas and Bin Dinh) in 2019, with the other two games seeing your table in 2020. Brian is one of our favorite designers – there’s a reason why one of his designs got our very first hex number – so we’re very pleased to be working with him on this project.”

(Darn it, Tom! Now I am going to have to get The Scheldt Campaign!)

Wargames; they’re not only for fun, but educational too.