In 2012, Brian Train's game Summer Lightning came on my radar. If you haven't played it, it's a game focused on the German invasion of Poland, and as you might expect, it's a tough game for the Poles to win. This, along with the unusual combat system, fascinated me, and I put it on a list of games I was interested in playing. I mentioned that I had heard that the game took an extraordinary amount of time to set-up. Brian stepped in to let me know that this was not true. Shortly thereafter, we arranged a trade by which I got an autographed copy of Summer Lightning in exchange for a copy of my magazine game Blood on the Alma and a prototype copy of Supply Lines.
I exchanged a handful of messages with Brian on BGG over the next couple of years. Mostly I asked him questions about game design, and about what it was like to work with this publisher or that one. I was a young designer struggling to find homes for my games, whereas he had by that time had roughly half-a-bajillion different designs on the market. I greatly appreciated his advice, and as it became increasingly clear that I wasn't really going to make it as a eurogame designer, but that I should instead focus my attention and energy on wargames, I saw Brian's career as one worth emulating. Here's a prolific designer who tackles a wide variety of sometimes very obscure topics. At the core of each of his designs is an Idea - simple, elegant, pure, and clever, often fiendishly so - which animates the entire game and gives it life.
I didn't get a chance to work with Brian until 2015, when two of his designs were published in the magazine I was editing. There were two things Brian insisted on at the outset. The first was that he retain the rights to his games. Which sounds like a common sense thing - and it is, after all, how Hollandspiele operates - but isn't necessarily the standard in the industry. (It should be!)
The second was that he wanted to make sure he was kept in the loop about any changes to the game. This too probably sounds like common sense, and like it should be an industry standard. But I knew from experience with one of my own designs that this sadly isn't always the case. I told Brian that I couldn't promise that there'd be no changes, but that I would keep him in the loop, and that in the end he would have "final cut".
Here's the whole story of the development of those two games, in a sentence apiece. Uprising revolved around hidden units, and at the suggestion of my playtest partner (hi Mary!), we added a hidden unit display and a second set of counters, but that didn't change the substance of the game at all, only the user interface. And then we changed the title of the second game, Asymmetric Warfare, to Army of Shadows. And that was it.
The designs were that clean, the vision that clear and crystallized. Nothing needed to be added nor subtracted. The same was true of his game Winter Thunder, a revision of his earlier Autumn Mist, and his invasion-of-Canada game War Plan Crimson, both of which Mary worked on.
Every time, Brian gave us a design that was clean, clear, interesting, and nuanced. Not every designer (even established designers) can do this. Every time, Brian was pleasant and charming and witty and fun to work with. This also is not true of every designer (even established designers!).
So, when we were starting up Hollandspiele, the question wasn't if we would work with Brian, but when. We approached him early in 2016. He was amenable to working with us, but was concerned that many of his games might not sell well in a boxed format. And it's true that not every one of his designs is going to find a large audience. But man, every single one of them is Interesting and alive. I sometimes think (and I hope he takes this as a compliment, as it's meant as one) that he is in some ways "a designer's designer", in the same vein as "a writer's writer" or "a director's director". At any rate, Brian pointed us in the direction of the game most likely to be a commercial success, about the clearing of the Scheldt estuary in World War II. We agreed, and Hollandspiele began work on the second edition of The Scheldt Campaign.
The heart of the game is Brian's riff on Joe Miranda's "Staff Card" system. Players have a hand of these cards which are selected non-randomly. Play of a G-1 (Administration) card will allow units to regroup, recover, or come in as reinforcements. G-2 (Intelligence) cards peer behind the fog of war, while G-3 (Operations) cards allow for movement or combat. G-4 (Logistics) cards allow for strategic movement and the support of attacks. So over the course of your turn, you're playing cards from your hand one at a time to take the appropriate actions. At the end of your turn, you non-randomly create a new hand of cards that not only has to see you through your opponent's turn, but through your next turn as well. You might find that the hand of cards that you thought you'd need is precisely what you didn't need, forcing you to make do with the resources on hand. Each side not only has a different hand limit, but a different mix of cards to choose from, nimbly reflecting differences in resources and doctrine. The combat system is a variation on "buckets of dice" but with some very nice, and very subtle interactions between differing unit types and a step-loss system that models the gradual, attritional loss of units as they go through the grinder. Smaller "tactical" units are organized into larger Task Forces, which allows you to experiment a bit with your command structure.
Really, a wonderful and robust design that gives you a lot of decisions in both the short-term and long-term. The German position is tricky - they're inescapably on the defense, and have to choose their counterattacks very carefully - but with skillful play they can frustrate Allied attempts to clear the estuary, making for a very close game.
We did not make any changes to the substance of the game and its mechanisms. Like all the other games of Brian's that we had worked on, it was already all there and all working very smoothly. Due to production limitations, we weren't able to actually use cards, which necessitated the switch to Staff Markers, which were mechanically the same. Now that we've grown to the point where cards are feasible, we're looking at whether or not there might be interest in an "upgrade pack" with cards, and/or using cards in future printings of the game. (Unlike the rest of our game bits, the cards must be ordered ahead of time and in bulk, so we need to gauge interest before deciding if it's economically feasible at this stage.)
By the time we had hired Ilya Kudriashov to do the map art for Scheldt, Mary and I had already completed work on The Grunwald Swords, House of Normandy, and Agricola, Master of Britain, and so it might have made sense to release one of those first, and slot Scheldt later in the line-up. But Mary and I decided to open our doors with Scheldt, and there were a couple reasons for that.
First, it was, after all, a double-ya double-ya two game, and given the perennial nature of the topic, we figured it would sell better than a medieval battle game or some weird solitaire game that probably four people would play (boy, was I glad to be wrong about that one!). I actually don't know if WW2 is as evergreen as all that, but I can say that The Scheldt Campaign opened with some very strong sales.
Part of that however might be the second reason to start with Scheldt - it was a Brian Train game. Most gamers didn't know me from Adam, and opening our doors with one of my own designs might smack too much of a "vanity press", especially given my relative anonymity. Brian, on the other hand, had a following and a reputation that we could trade on. (Thanks for that, Brian!)
And I think that worked. A year ago today, we released the game and people took it, and us as its publisher, seriously right from the get-go. It helped us put our best foot forward so to speak, which enabled us to continue to publish games, and to move from strength-to-strength. For that reason, it's a design that holds a special place in our hearts as publishers, and we still get excited when someone orders a copy of our very first game.