UPDATE: The game is now available for pre-order here: https://www.compassgames.com/product/the-troubles-shadow-war-in-northern-ireland-pay-later/. Enjoy!

The Troubles by Compass Games is a COIN inspired, multi-faction treatment of the over 30-year’s conflict in Norther Ireland. I had a privilege to provide more information about the game as well as some of the artwork in may previous article: About the The Troubles – Shadow War in Northern Ireland 1964-1998.

Today I would like to present my interview with Hugh O’Donnell, designer of this soon-to-hit the Kickstarter game. We can learn more about the game, its mechanics as well as assumptions which were a groundwork for some of the game concepts. And what is also important, Hugh pretty openly and directly addresses the question about the game topic which might seem disturbing for some of the potential players.

Michal: Please tell us a little about yourself Hugh. What do you do for a living, what games do you play?

Hugh: I teach Secondary English. I enjoy mountain biking and reading – oh, and I occasionally find time to enjoy games. I love Advanced Squad Leader (and we have a small club at the school, which is on hiatus due to the current pandemic) but mostly I enjoy games with a narrative; we have had several groups playing DnD 5th Edition, Elite Dangerous, Traveller, Tales from the Loop, Numenera…

MichalNow, as for the game, what inspired “The Troubles”?

Hugh: The game found me; I was not looking for this particular context: I had been involved in discussions with Volko Ruhnke about his approaches to the narrative context of ‘A Distant Plain’, and the period of time in which the Troubles took place has a very special, but complex narrative that I felt belonged to the COIN series, although no longer formally classified as a member of the COIN family, scheduled to be published by Compass Games.

Michal: What are the key components of the game?

Hugh: For me, it has to be two key elements: the 250+ Narrative Event Cards, each with substantial supporting contextualization: deploying the narrative is – for me – the most important feature of this title. Secondly, the Political Factions – they weave the necessary complexities of ideology, international relations, and sectarianism; the politics permeate the urban and rural landscape, reminding us that this significant period of unrest lasted for four decades, and saw the British Army undertake its longest deployment in its history – and on its own streets.

Michal: Can you elaborate a little about the game mechanics?

Hugh: The Troubles is a 1- to 6-player board game depicting Paramilitary and Security Force conflict against the foreground of political affairs in Northern Ireland. Each player takes the role of a Faction seeking to guide Northern Irish affairs: the British Forces (including the UDR), the Royal Ulster Constabulary (the RUC was the Government security force), the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA), the Loyalist Paramilitaries (LOY), the Nationalist (NAT) politicians or the Unionist (UNI) politicians.

Using military, political, and economic actions and exploiting various events, players build and manoeuvre forces to influence or control the electorate, or otherwise achieve their Faction’s aims. A deck of cards regulates turn order, events, victory checks, and other processes. The rules can run non-player Factions, enabling solitaire, 2-player, or multi-player games.

The Troubles—unlike many card-assisted war games—does not use hands of cards. Instead, cards are played from the deck one at time, with one card ahead revealed to all players. Each Event card depicts a historical event and shows the order in which the Factions become Eligible to choose between the card’s Event or one of a menu of Operations and Special Activities. Executing an Event or Operation carries the penalty of rendering that Faction Ineligible to do so on the next card.

General Election cards mixed in with the Event Cards provide periodic opportunities for instant wins and for activities such as collecting resources and influencing popular sympathies.

Michal: How do players determine victory?

Hugh: There are clear Victory Conditions (VCs); however, as history has demonstrated, VCs are malleable and there are multiple dependencies across Factions. For example: the Unionist Faction may seek support from their political opposition, the Nationalist Faction, when Direct Rule is being threatened by Great Britain as a result of increasing civil disorder. Joining forces with the Unionists would see the Nationalists achieve one of its VCs, Power-Sharing (participating in Government), but they would then share the VC of the UNI Faction: eradication of both the LOY and IRA factions, or bring them to Peace. The IRA, ideologically aligned with the NAT Faction, would now view them as a potential enemy, as well as one less funding source upon which to draw.

There are many similarly fascinating permutations that are historical and ahistorical.

Michal: Now, as for ”Troubles” itself, what makes this game unique?

Hugh: The context. What sets this game apart are the moral and intellectual demands placed on participants. We have the issue with timing. We have the issue of proximity – it being ‘too close to home’. These objections open avenues for real and critical discourse as to the use of games beyond them offering light touches in historical storytelling, and player expediency in ‘wars of attrition’.

This is the first simulation about the conflict in Northern Ireland, and it comes with significant demands on its approach to the subject matter: I has to be analogous in its representation of actual events, as well as the key organisations that participated over four decades of suffering.

Michal: What would you answer to the people who might thought that the topic is too fresh and disturbing to create a boardgame about it?

Hugh: My imprimatur – is my educational track record in research, design, and implementation of games-based learning to support the educational experiences and outcomes of learners; ‘The Troubles’ has been undertaking with complete probity and sensitivity towards the subject matter and the people affected directly or indirectly.  If CDG games and simulations and are engaging and interactive, why shouldn’t these mediums be sensitively used to study such important historical events, given the significant coverage already in the more passive mediums of print and film? Surely they too are worthy of simulation?

How long is long enough? And who decides which events do we confine to history? If we continually opt out when faced with uncomfortable situations or events, there would be very little history that we would wish to study.  We should be wary of confining to history events that we – subjectively – find uncomfortable or difficult – as Professor Joe Smith posits, the function of the subject of History is “to encourage rigorous and critical thinking about the past” (History and Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence, British Educational Research Association, 2017)

Many afflicted by the conflict are still seeking justice and are challenging the established narrative; a narrative which begins peacefully, featuring a movement that began in 1964 and was highly influenced by MLK and the Civil Rights movement in the US; and one that ends in democratically elected governance – and Peace.

Leave too much time, and the more high profile events often obscure the more innocuous, but no less important, as time coalesces; what remains is a single and less nuanced narrative that is constantly being rewritten by either participant.  The subtleties are lost. And the perpetrators of illegality evade moral judgement, even if they continue to evade justice.

The Troubles hopes to allow players to explore the How and Why of the conflict, and to foreground the motivations and contexts of others very different to ourselves; understanding does not mean agreement.  Exploring an important epoch of the 20th century through two political factions, two military factions and two paramilitary factions, offers a richer experience than the atypical cardboard wars of attrition.

The Troubles forces participants to consider the consequences of military engagement in urban contexts first and foremost in terms of the moral implications, not primarily expediency in achieving a VC (which change and are interdependent). Analogous with the reality of the situation, ‘Victory’ is collaboration, cooperation, and Peace.  As Butler states: “In the physical environment, it is impossible for students to evade the consequences of off-kilter ethics” (Butler, p.110).

A set of 250+ Narrative Event Cards paint and foreground a more nuanced narrative of what was a political, socioeconomic, ideological and international conflict spanning four decades. And one which laid bare the bankruptcy of terrorism, and a successful demonstration of international cooperation in achieving peace and democracy.

Michal: What are the future plans for you? Any new designs / games in preparation?

Hugh: ‘1912: Hope or History’ is the working title for a prequel. I am undertaking readings in and around Ireland and Great Britain between the years 1885 and 1921/22.

Currently, I am preparing several papers and talks for academic purposes – this is my key objective for ‘The Troubles’: to develop a platform for researching the educational gains that such games/simulations can provide across a variety of academic disciplines: History, Literacy, Numeracy, Modern Studies, Politics…

Michal: Thank you very much for comprehensive information and good luck in your current and future plans!

Hugh: A privilege.


Butler, Joy. (2013). Situating Ethics in Games Education. Canadian Journal of Education, v36 n4 p93-114 2013

Joseph Smith (2016): What remains of history? Historical epistemology and historical understanding in Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence, The Curriculum Journal, DOI: 10.1080/09585176.2016.1197138

You can find more info about the game on Authors webpage. Enjoy!