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Interviews by an Optimist # 68 - Martin Wallace
Martin says this about himself...
Born July 1962 in a town near Southampton, southern England. Moved with my parents at age 7 to Salford, near Manchester. Those people who know about Salford may appreciate the degree of culture shock at moving to one of the more deprived areas of the UK. Still, survived and managed to get an education of some sorts. Ended up with a degree in Humanities, (most history), and a teaching certificate. Now work as a supply teacher, (better known as a substitute teacher in the US).
I’ve always enjoyed games, especially board games. I would always look forward to Christmas as that was one of the few times the family could be forced to play Monopoly. I also had a fascination with war, like lots of other boys, and would collect toy soldiers, build model aeroplanes and tanks. I started getting into ‘proper’ games at secondary school, (around the age of 12-13). My science teacher was a keen figure gamer and ran a games club at school – not something that would happen there today! Through him I joined the local figure games club, along with a school friend. At about the same time I took the plunge and bought my first board wargame, SPI’s Starforce. Possibly not the best introductory game but at least it taught me coordinates. For some reason teenagers seem to have more patience with complicated games than adults. At 15 I was playing games like Air War, something I would never dream of doing now.
At college I was introduced to Dungeons and Dragons, the edition with the blue cover. This opened up an incredibly exciting fantasy world. There were very few supplements for D&D then so you had to make up most of it yourself, which was part of the charm of the game. I got a part-time job at Games Workshop, which soon became a full-time job. This was in the days when Games Workshop was a proper games shop, stocking Avalon Hill, SPI, GDW, all sorts of different RPG systems, and a ton of figures. For a while this was fun, would spend most days learning new games. Also picked up a lot of games cheaply, (wish I’d kept them, some are very rare now). Eventually, though, the tedium of shop work took its toll and I moved on.
Dabbled for a year or so in the computer games market. Designed one computer wargame for the Spectrum, mostly written in BASIC! Realised that my skills were not up to what was required to stay in computers, plus the market collapsed after a period of boom. Decided I needed an education so went and did a degree, during which period I stopped gaming.
It was around 1990 that I returned to gaming and for some reason decided that I wanted to design games. At first I worked on wargames, as that was all I knew about. For some reason I thought it would be possible to sell designs to companies like GDW. How little I knew then! Luckily I binned all of my early designs. Eventually I came up with a game that had promise. This was Lords of Creation. With help from a friend at the local games club I printed 50 copies off of a Macintosh. Another friend had introduced me to the Mike Siggin’s Sumo, to whom I sent a review copy. The first review was positive and then the orders started coming in, with a surprising number coming from Germany. This was the first time I had come into contact with the German games market. One thing led to another and in October 1994 I ended up driving to Essen with Tim Cockitt and Simon Bracegirdle in a white van full of badly printed copies of Lords of Creation.
My first Essen was incredibly exhausting but changed my gaming life. Every year since I have gone back, usually with something new. In the early days the games were all DTP, and of an incredibly low standard. However, they sold, and created interest. Warfrog went colour with the help of two Dutch guys, Ron and Erno, who ran a games shop and were fans of my designs. This did not work out the way I expected and to continue the same quality of production I went into partnership with James Hamilton. He had the money, I had the ideas. Since then Warfrog has not looked back. It has also helped that a whole heap of people, like Geoff Brown, Martin Hair, Richard Spilsbury, Gordon Sweeney, Tim Cockitt among others have been willing to pitch in and help at the show.
Essen also brought me into contact with the German game companies. My main contact was Wolfgang Luedtke, through whom I placed designs with Goldsieber, then TM Spiele, and finally Kosmos. Essen was also the place where I met John Bohrer, which is a completely different story. Suffice to say that if I had not met John I would never have designed a railway game.
Tom: Well, those railway games have been some of your most impressive works! Can you tell us a little about the road to Age of Steam (critically acclaimed), and is that the high point of the series?
Martin: John Bohrer asked me to design a railway game for him. This resulted in Ferrocarilles Pampas. Once I had started thinking about railway games all sorts of ideas started milling around my head. I then designed Lancashire Rails. I set it in an area I knew about, Lancashire, and tried to create a sense of what railways were built for, i.e. to move goods and people to various places. LR took the interest of TM Spiele, for whom I made some developments. They released their version as Volldampf. I then got to play my first game of 18xx, which I think was 1870. I liked the track construction but was not impressed by how much forward planning you had to do with very little information, (unless you had played the game umpteen times), and how the game began to drag as players carried out the same income calculations over and over again. I don't like to say that I stole the track laying mechanism from 18xx but I cannot deny it had a major influence on the design of AoS. The cube movement has pretty much stayed the same. The original prototype had Action cards but eventually these were replaced by the Action Boxes. John Bohrer then took my game away and bashed it into a proper rail game. We did not expect the game to do as well as it has, we thought we would be lucky if we sold 2000 copies. As it stands, there are now 6000 copies in circulation.
I think AoS is still my favourite Warfrog game, it's the only Warfrog game I play regularly. It would be fair to say it is my best railway game, which has led to the problem of what to follow it with.
Tom: Well, we know that the follow-up game is Railroad Tycoon, by Eagle Games. What can you tell us about that game?
Martin: I'm not sure what the exact final version will end up like, as Eagle is doing the final development. What I attempted to do is strip AoS down to a more basic, faster moving version. The emphasis is firmly on track building. The auctions and special actions have gone, shares are easier - you get to take them out as you need them. It is designed for a wider audience than the original AoS was.
Tom: So, Warfrog is history now. What were the worst and best parts of it?
Martin: Not quite sure I understand the question - do you have the impression that Warfrog has ended in some manner?
1994, the first year will always be memorable because of the feelings of exhaustion, overnight drive followed by full day at show, yet exhilaration at having made it there.
1996 was a tough year, money was running out, could only make DTP games. Certain folks in the hobby were advising us to give it up. Then, out of the blue and just before the show ended, two Dutch guys offered to put money in. This led to the first full-colour Warfrog game, Lords of Creation.
1997 was bad as a printing problem meant Lords of Creation was not ready in time. However, we survived and had it ready the following year.
1999 was an interesting year, some folks went a little silly with the drinking, with the result that one hobby figure ended up in hospital!
2003 was a good year, won the IGA award for Age of Steam. First time I have won a significant award.
Tom: I'm sorry, I was under the impression that Warfrog had stopped publishing games, focusing on design. Is that correct?
Martin: That was last week. This week I have decided to go back to producing games.
I did think about turning Warfrog into just a design house, with Tempus being the first project. However, after thinking it through it would've meant a loss of control over what games Warfrog would have had to sell at Essen. There will still be one game a year at Essen. This year it will be Byzantium, not sure what it will be next year.
Tom: What can you tell us about Byzantium?
Martin: Byzantium is set around the year 640AD onwards. It focuses on the clash between the Byzantine and Arab empires. Each player has a foot in both camps, having control over Byzantine and Arab forces, and they score victory points for each side separately. At the end of the game the two scores must be within a certain range of each other to both count, so players must keep them balanced. Alternatively a player could go for sudden death victory, which means taking Constantinople.
The mechanics are fairly simple but the game is still complicated, with a range of different strategies that can be explored. It works very well with three and four players, it can even play with two players. I would've liked to have gone to five players but the game cannot handle that number, somebody will get squeezed out very quickly.
Tom: I'm glad you brought that up, as the number of players does greatly affect the play of some games. What do you think the optimal number of players for Age of Steam is? For Liberte? Princes of the Reniassance? Struggle of Empires?
Martin: With AoS it depends on the map, most maps work best with 4/5. Ireland and Scandinavia work better with 3. I designed Southern England to work better with 5/6.
With Struggle I actually prefer playing with 7 as this increases the problems of who to ally with.
Have not played Princes for ages now but think 4 works best.
Also not played Liberte for a long time either, from what I remember 5 is a good number.
Tom: How do you get the ideas for your games? Do you start with a theme, or mechanics?
Martin: I nearly always start with a theme. A lot of my games, especially the Warfrog ones, have historical themes. My usual approach is to read a few books and then try to draw out what the important features were of the period. Then it is a case of coming up with the mechanics. Sometimes the mechanics fit nicely, as with Liberte, other times then can be a bit clunky, which some may say of Princes of the Renaissance. What I do not try to do is make sure all aspects of a period of history are jammed into the game. I think it is more important to give a taste of the period rather than simulate everything. With Struggle of Empires I started with a game that was much more complicated than the final version. There was a much more complicated economic system involving resources and markets. I had also included personalities of the period, such as Frederick the Great. This all was chopped out to make the game play quickly. However, I think the final version still captures the important features of the period.
Tom: What do you think of Conquest of the Empires, with new rules obviously derived from Struggle of Empires?
Martin: No opinion as yet as I have not seen the rules yet. Hopefully I will be pleasantly surprised .
Tom: Martin, where do you get your ideas for your games - the mechanics, I mean? Do you pull them from thin air, or do you "borrow" them from other designer's games?
Martin: I cannot say that all of my ideas are original, a lot owe some debt to other mechanisms by other designers. An example would be Tyros where the map tiles are inspired by Sid Sackson's Acquire. I've already mentioned that AoS owes some of its ideas to 18xx. When I design a new game, I try to think about what I want the players to be experiencing, then come up with mechanisms to create that situation. I'm presently working on a game about ancient Sumeria. The picture I had in my head was players creating city states around the Tigris and Euphrates, building roads, carrying out trade, with a little warfare thrown in. At the same time there are various external empires, such as the Assyrians, Elamites, and Chaldeans, waiting to fall upon the Sumerians. These forces are also controlled by the players. So far the mechanisms are designed to make it worthwhile for players to develop their Sumerian city states for a certain length of time but then switch to backing an external empire. When to switch will hopefully be one of the key questions. The rules do not have any original ideas in them, they have been kept as simple as possible. What I've tried to do is create a situation that you would not normally find in a game, which hopefully makes it worth playing more than once.
You find that when you have been designing for a number of years that there is little mystery left in designing a game. Most German style games fit the same model, you have resources of some kind, you are aiming to convert them into victory points, and you have a set of mechanisms to create decisions in how you convert them. The other common model is the race game. I find I spend most of my time coming up with ways to make players think about how to convert their resources - that's game design in a nutshell!
Tom: Your games are usually fairly complex. Is that rare subset of games (most games produced today are quite light) your favorite to play?
Martin: To be honest I rarely play complex games, mostly due to a lack of time. Developing new designs takes up a lot of my gaming time. I think the last complex game I played was Manifest Destiny, which was OK. My games collection is made up of simple games, such as Bluff, Billabong, and Carcasonne.
Tom: So you don't consider Age of Steam and Struggle of Empires complex?
Martin: Must have crossed wires here. When you asked the question whether I prefer complex games I assumed you did not include my own designs. AoS and SoE are both complex games. I think I might've played SoE once since it was published. AoS I do play more regularly, if it is brought to the table. Given that I know the rules so well I don't find it a difficult game to play.
Tom: What is the state of board gaming in the UK?
Martin: The UK game market is small, of the games Warfrog produces one tenth will be sold into the UK market. The hobby scene is surviving. There are various conventions around the UK which are holding up well. The conventions that I make a point of attending, Baycon, Stabcon, Ramsdencon, are maintaining their popularity. There are a few younger faces coming into the hobby to keep it alive. There are also a number of folks publishing games, such as Richard Breese, Marcus Welbourne of JKLM, Gordon Lamont. I'm certainly seeing more people at conventions who have designed their own games. Despite the growth of internet game shops a number of bricks and mortar shops continue to survive, although not always comfortably. Spirit Games is still going, and now Manchester has two games shops, whereas for years it did not have a single one, (I don't count Games Workshop). It is also interesting to see that more people from the UK are attending Essen - mostly to bring back cheap games.
Tom: Do you feel that Games Workshop stifles board gaming in any way? Or do they help the growth of the industry?
Martin: My opinion is that they have had a negative effect on boardgaming and wargaming. In the days when they used to stock a wide range of games they offered an entry point into the hobby. People would come into the shop looking for Monopoly but then be exposed to rpg and boardgames. I remember spending many hours explaining various games to folks who had never seen such products before. They also imported an awful lot of stuff from America which would otherwise be hard to get hold of. When they started focusing on their own product they cut off this supply and stopped appealing to a wide audience. Today they re-cycle the same systems and keep hitting the latest cohort of 13-14 year olds, parents tend to wait outside. I suppose some of these kids go on to discover more sophisticated games, but personally I've not spotted many of these kids.
Tom: What then, is the best way to get these young kids into gaming?
Martin: Not sure what the best way is. I suppose that a person has to have some interest in games to become involved in the hobby. No amount of time is going to convert somebody who simply does not like games. Boardgaming is always going to be a small hobby, which to my mind is a good thing. Game shops do help. There is a new shop in Manchester, Fanboy Three, which seems to be taking an active approach in encouraging new gamers. The shop has room to play games and stays open late most nights of the week. Most of the business seems to be CCGs but there is the opportunity to expose the same kids to other games. This is the kind of thing that an internet shop cannot do.
Tom: What do you find to be the best way to playtest your games?
Martin: The best playtests are with people who are experienced gamers, who are happy to try a game that might not work, and who are not afraid to say that a game does not work. I'm lucky that I seem to have a large pool of people who are happy to give their honest opinion about a game. I have a core of playtesters that I use during the week. Although I do a lot of playtesting at conventions, it helps if you have a group of people who are already familiar with the game so that you can concentrate on whether there is an optimum strategy. I'm not terribly organised when playtesting - I don't take notes or anything like that. You know if a game is working well or not usually by asking yourself if you are having any fun. If it's not fun then I go away and think of changes that might add that x factor. This is very much a 'suck it and see' approach.
Tom: What other designers and games have influenced you the most, and why?
Martin: I cannot think of any individual designer who has influenced me. Any designer that comes up with an excellent game will nearly always have an effect on other designers. Puerto Rico by Andreas Seyfarth is still a superb game that has raised the bar for all designers. However, Andreas has only designed a small number of games, so you would have to say the game has been more influential than the designer. I suppose Francis Tresham's Civilisation has had some influence on my games, even though I have only played the game once. Slapshot/Phantoms of the Ice was crucial in inspiring the combat system in Empires of the Ancient World. The scoring system in El Grande crops in many games, including Struggle of Empires.
Tom: What would be your advice to aspiring game designers?
Martin: That's a difficult one. Most of the advice given to me over the years has been along the lines of 'don't do it!' If you want to become a full-time game designer then the chances are that you will fail. There are very few people who make a living from designing games, and because they are so well known in the industry it is difficult to move in on their territory. I managed to become better known by publishing my own games through Warfrog. This is a good way to get yourself noticed. The downside is that it can be very expensive. When starting a games company never put in more money that you cannot easily afford to lose. If you really want to be a game designer then you have to be patient, keep at it, don't give in, get used to being rejected 99% of the time, be ready to dump designs that don't quite make the cut, not get too depressed when you feel you've 'run out of ideas', not shocked at how small a royalty cheque can be, be relaxed when the games company changes your game to make it unplayable, learn to smile when they show you the awful cover artwork, and that in the end it's not all that important, they're just games.
Tom: Can you tell us a little about Runebound, and how you attempted to make it different from the glut of other fantasy games in the market?
Martin: I started work on a fantasy boardgame at the request of a German games company. After a number of years I managed to put something like Runebound together, by which time the company no longer was interested. I then showed it to Fantasy Flight, and they grabbed it. Darrell Hardy of Fantasy Flight then put a lot of time and effort developing and adding colour to the game.
Personally I do not care much for fantasy boardgames. I've played Talisman once and would never go near it again, a complete waste of good gaming time. The problem with a fantasy game is that it is all tactical. There is 'you' and you wander around bumping into nasty creatures. It has to be random, otherwise there is no sense of discovery. There is also the problem of very little interaction. These are the characteristics of a fantasy RPG boardgame. If you want strategy, long-term planning, and lots of interaction, then you need to look at a good empire building game.
I wanted a game where there was a sense of a story unfolding. The card encounters were designed to fit in with some background story. Then, by changing the cards, you can plug in a different 'story'. Colour coding the difficulty of adventures goes some way to keeping players out of trouble early on. The dice movement came about as an attempt to frustrate players. If you know it will take 'x' number of movement points to move through the mountains then there is no tension. The dice represent the possibility of getting lost without having a complicated movement system.
I've been surprised at how well the game as been received. I'm glad to see it doing well for FFG and that they have plenty of expansions in the pipeline.
Tom: You mentioned that you don't like fantasy games. How did this affect your enjoyment when designing Runebound? Which of your games did you have the most fun designing?
Martin: The early playtests were hard, my gaming friends liked to make fun of the game. However, even though it was not my type of game I could see that it could be enjoyed by others. I suppose this is a case of professional game design, where you are not designing to meet your own tastes but that of a particular market. I enjoyed designing Struggle of Empires. A gamer friend of mine, Chris Boote, would take great delight in breaking the game within an hour or so. I would redesign the thing then let him try to break it again. We kept this sparring match up for a number of years until I came up with something that could not be broken.
Tom: With Age of Steam, one can follow an "evolution" of sorts - as your games progressed to that point. Is that the way you think games should be designed? Will we see evolutions of any of your other games?
Martin: You can never tell which games will suit an evolutionary development process. AoS has proved to be much more adaptable than I expected. A similar process occurred with my other rail game, Ferrocarilles Pampas, which was developed into Pampas Rails. It may be that rail games are more amenable to development. The next Warfrog game, Byzantium, may lead to some other games using a similar approach. Too early to tell, though. You have to be careful that what you are producing is not too close to something else, otherwise you could be accused of selling the same game twice. With AoS I can honestly say that it and the Railroad Tycoon version are sufficiently different to warrant both games being on the market. If I did another game that was very similar to Byzantium then folks would be justified in complaining.
Tom: Martin, thanks for your tremendous games, and your answers to these questions. Do you have any final thoughts for our readers?
Martin: No deep thoughts to end on. I'm just glad I'm in a hobby that allows you to make friends around the globe.
"Real men play board games."
I didn't know that he was a Supply Teacher, which is the job I do. How does he have the time?
Nice to hear him give a plug for my Local Games store, Spirit Games. It's a great place run by good people.
Very good interview Tom.
I wonder if Martin Wallace would have the time to talk to my friends and me concerning Age of Steam and publishing our maps we showed and played with John Bohrer at the 2005 WBC.
Would be interesting to hear from him.
Yes, another great interview. Thanks very much.
John, your news about Byzantium is very much appreciated. I'm very excited about that one!
Interesting comments Martin. We are closer than I imagined!
That Sumerian game sounds cool-Tom did Martin give any idea when it would come out?