Euro-ish Mechanics in a Retro Looking Wargame ~
RockyMountainNavy, 2 July 2020
Retro on the outside with new-age wargame mechanics on the inside. Each game in the series is a unique card-driven conflict that uses the same 54 cards and a simple set of system rules, few optional & special rules, and special action cards with different effects. The end result is a series of games sharing many of the same mechanics but with enough differentiating chrome to make each war play in a similar fashion yet still feel very different each other.
click images to enlarge
Brief Border Wars by designer Brian Train and published by Compass Games is an interesting mix of old and new. From the outside, the game package harkens back to the days of old SPI Quad games in no small part because Brief Border Wars is, literally, four small games in one box. However, the games inside the box are anything but retro. Indeed, the game mechanics of Brief Border Wars are the real strength of the title and what makes this throwback looking package fresh and interesting.
Brief Border Wars is four games, each focused on a short border conflict since the 1960’s. The four conflicts are:
- The Football War – El Salvador vs. Honduras, 1969
- Operation Attila – The Turkish invasion of Cyprus, 1974
- The Third Indochina War – China vs. Vietnam, 1979
- Second Lebanon War – Israel vs. Hezbollah, southern Lebanon, 2006
Brief Border Wars consists of four maps, 176 counters, one 4-page set of series System Rules, four Exclusive Rules (one for each war, each at 4-pages), one Player Aid Card, a deck of 54 cards, and two 2d6 dice. The time scale varies in each scenario from between one day to one week.
The area movement map and unit sizing is also variable in scale.
From the outside, Brief Border Wars looks like a retro wargame. The box package, designed by Brien Miller, is evocative of old SPI quad game titles. The subdued colors and layout seemingly draws from the color palette and style of days-gone SPI.
The counters themselves are not exactly retro, but they are nothing special. ‘Simple’ is probably the best description. Most counters have a NATO symbol or silhouette, some sort of unit identification, and a combat value. Combat units also have a size mark (again, NATO style) although it has no bearing on game play. Special units often have additional markings.
Strangely, the extra mark is often an exclusive rules reference number. Although it helps for ease of reference, it also breaks some of the ‘immersion’ of play. I mean, I can easily look at the counter and see something like a Hizbollah Rocket Unit but the ‘9.4’very blatantly reminds me this is a war GAME. I understand why designer Mr. Train put the reference there, I’m just not a fan of the second-order impact of that graphic choice. Lastly, and least importantly, as I’ve said before and will say again, you need to corner clip Compass Games counters. They’re not the worst in the hobby but they do need some TLC. Optionally, for that real retro-look, don’t clip and play with corner tufts!
The maps in Brief Border Wars are likewise functional. Although the box back says there are four maps on two back-printed sheets, my copy shipped with four separate 22”x17” maps. Each map, regardless of the conflict, has four areas. First are the Battle Areas representing the location of the conflict. Second, each side has a Rear Area where units are often staged before entering the battle. Each side also has a Damage Box the doesn’t necessarily represent damage but can also be used to depict the time and distance needed to mobilize a unit from outside the conflict zone. Finally, each map has a Turn Track.
Interestingly, the terrain shown on the map doesn’t really matter as each area has symbology showing the victory point value and relevant modifiers for terrain. For instance, an area with a dark circle at the top and a mountain and tree is a +4 defense modifier (Dark Circle = Urban +2, +1 for each Woods or Mountain). Roads don’t matter in all scenarios so you are just as likely to see them as you won’t. The end result is a simple map that shows relative positions and approaches/access for battle areas.
PLAY THE HAND YOU’RE DEALT
The heart of Brief Border Wars is the card-driven game design. The deck of 54 cards is divided between ‘White’ and ‘Gray’ cards, both sets of which are identical. Most cards have two values; a combat value and a movement value. For play, each player gets six ‘Special Cards’ and the other 42 are shuffled into a common draw deck. At the start of each turn, the top six cards are drawn and given to their owning player depending on their color. The player with the most cards in their hand now plays a card first. Play alternates between players until all cards are exhausted or both players pass consecutively. Play then proceeds to a final phase and the next turn begins with a new set of six cards dealt. Every game is seven (7) turns long meaning all the cards in the draw deck will be used.
As mentioned before, most cards have two values, combat and movement. When played, a player can ‘activate’ a number of units in different areas up to the value of the card for the chosen action. If a COMBAT-3 is played, then you can only activate three units for combat. If a MOVEMENT-4 is played, only four units can move. Every turn becomes a series of decisions; when to move and when to fight, if you even can because you may not have the right card in your hand to both move forces and fight them.
Seeing as Brief Border Wars only comes with two dice I highly recommend getting extra d6s for play.
When it is their turn, players can alternatively play a ‘Special Card’ from their hand if they have any left. In Brief Border Wars the special cards have different effects depending on the scenario exclusive rules. In almost every case they can be used to refit or to make a reaction move (played as part of the combat resolution phase). Sometimes they activate a special ability, like ‘Enemy Rear Area Raid’ in The Football War. There are also two random events cards in the deck. When drawn, players refer to the Random Events Chart in the exclusive rules to find the event that could be beneficial – or detrimental – to their effort.
Combat resolution in Brief Border Wars is a variant of the ‘Yahtzee Bucket-o-Dice’ mechanic. After a ‘Pre-Combat Step’ to determine participants in a battle, both players roll a number of d6 equal to the combat value of all units fighting on their side. Hits are scored for every 5 or 6 rolled. After making a comparison of the number of hits versus a units combat value, possible outcomes range from ‘Disrupted’ (flipped, or if already flipped then damaged) to ‘Damaged’ (removed to damage box) or in rare cases eliminated (removed from game). Seeing as Brief Border Wars only comes with two dice I highly recommend getting extra d6s for play. Retreat and advance after combat is possible under the rules but there are limitations.
SAME, BUT DIFFERENT
Every game of Brief Border Wars uses the same four-page system rules with modifications found in exclusive rules for each individual war. Exclusive rules can change parts of the game. For example, in The Football War, each ‘Hit’ in the rear area forces a player to discard one of their drawn cards. Or it could change movement like allowing units to leave an area even if an undisrupted enemy unit is present (not allowed under the system rules).
The sequence of play in Brief Border Wars is relatively straight-forward. First is the ‘Card Selection Phase’ where those top six cards are drawn. Next is the ‘Card Play and Resolution Phase’ which includes movement and combat. When both players have played or and discarded all cards or special action cards they want to play, or when both players pass successively, play moves to a ‘Final Phase’ where units reset, have the chance to recover from disruption or damage, and move into the rear area from the damage box.
The system rules for Brief Border Wars include rules for air units although they don’t appear in every game. Maybe it was easier, and a more efficient use of space, to put the air rules in the system rules once rather than repeat them across several exclusive rules set?
What really sets apart each set of exclusive rules in Brief Border Wars is the optional and special rules. The most important of these are the four optional rules related to the cards. Rule 9.11 ‘Organizational Ability’ can reduce the number of special action cards a player starts with. Rule 9.12 ‘Formation Agility’ may make it impossible to execute reaction moves to respond to enemy actions. Rule 9.13 ‘Intelligence Advantage’ can make players play with their cards face up. However, Rule 9.14 ‘Poorly Trained Staff’ may be the most impactful. If your side has a poorly trained staff, cards can only be played for their larger value. So, if you have a MOVEMENT-5 / COMBAT-2 card, it can only be played for movement.
In each of the exclusive rules of Brief Border Wars there are special units that have abilities outside the normal units found in the system rules. These few special units, implemented using a very simple set of rules, add chrome to the game and help make each war different from one another.
RETRO LOOK + NEW MECHANICS = DEEP DECISIONS
Indeed, the most (pleasantly) surprising part of playing Brief Border Wars is how a simple set of system rules, only slightly tweaked by exclusive rules, and with different abilities as described for special action cards, makes each game simultaneously familiar to play yet each a unique experience. For instance, in The Football War both players try to use their airpower to support forces and interrupt supply lines. In Operation Attila the Turkish player must establish and advance from a beachhead. In the Third Indochina War the Chinese player must overcome a divided command structure to fight a guerrilla Vietnamese player. Finally, the Israeli player in the Second Lebanon War must seek out and destroy Hezbollah rockets raining destruction.
BRIEF WARS = BRIEF KNOWLEDGE
If there is a drawback to Brief Border Wars, it is the lack of insight into the conflicts that one derives from playing the game. Each set of exclusive rules has some background material, but each is necessarily short due to space constraints. There is enough there to tell you ‘why’ the war happened, but not enough to understand why achieving a certain level of victory points is actually a win – or not. Here is where the simplicity of Brief Border Wars works against the design. Brian Train delivers a sleek set of rules that can be applied against a wide variety of conflicts with the selection of random events, special action cards abilities, and special units making each unique. At the end of the day, though, it is unclear what ‘message’ Brief Border Wars delivers outside of a common set of (tweakable) mechanics. The ad copy for Brief Border Wars states the game uses, “a card-driven system that models the chaotic, stop-and-start nature of these impromptu wars.” In that respect Brief Border Wars is a success.
Because Brief Border Wars is a very simple system to learn, I think it best acts as a sort of ‘filler game’ in many collections. Here you have four choices of a game to play that should take around two hours to teach AND play. The common set of rules makes learning (and teaching) easy, and the few exclusive rules are not so complex they cannot be learned on the fly.
A MILITARY EURO?
I dare say Brief Border Wars, using its special version of the card-driven game mechanic, could be a ‘crossover’ title playable by both wargamers and hobby boardgamers alike. In this case, very simple and streamlined rules set, area movement and use of cards instead of classic hex & counter and a Combat Results Table makes the game feel simple-fresh and not very “wargame-y.” At the risk of raising many a grognard’s ire, I think the emphasis on mechanics over theme in Brief Border Wars actually makes it very Eurogame-like. When Brain Train co-designed Nights of Fire: Battle of Budapest (Mighty Boards, 2019) he called that game a ‘militarized Eurogame.” Brief Border Wars, with a focus on non-classic wargame mechanics over theme, is in many ways a “Euroized wargame.”
And that’s not a bad thing.
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