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Developer Interview: Chainsaw Warrior Part 1

Brad Cummings
United States
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Tomas Rowlings reached out to me about the following interview he conducted with designer Stephen Hand, and I jumped at the opportunity. It is a pretty great read and I hope you enjoy it. - Brad

Chainsaw Warrior Generations: Developer of New Digital Version Interviews Designer of Original 1987 Version. (Part 1)

The Chainsaw Warrior boardgame designed by Stephen Hand in 1986 and published by Games Workshop the following year. The game sees the player trying to save New York from dire peril as twisted forces spewing from a spatial rift attempt to rip the city from this reality into theirs. The fate of the city rests solely in the hands of a lone cybernetic solider known as the 'Chainsaw Warrior'. As the eponymous hero, the player must battle through a zombie infested Manhattan tenement in order to locate the controlling intelligence behind the dark army swarming from the spatial rift. Chainsaw Warrior is an interesting game in the history of board games for a number of reasons. It is a solo board game – solo being much more common in card games and rare in board games. It also had a reputation as a challenging game to win; there were lots of ways to die and lots of enemy cards hoping to kill the player! The game was recently converted into a digital format (on mobile and PC) by Auroch Digital. Auroch Digital's Tomas Rawlings recently got the chance to interview its creator, Stephen Hand, and this is the result of that chat! (Part 1...)

From gallery of thequietpunk

Tomas: Some have said that Chainsaw Warrior is like a first-person shooter as a boardgame - it pre-dates Doom by 6 years - how does this assertion fit your view of the game?

Stephen: Of course the FPS label didn’t exist in 1986 but you only have to look at the game to see that’s exactly what it is. The paradigm videogamers are now so familiar with: first person involvement, arming the character, exploring a deadly environment, the Boss villain, the BFG, the distribution and diversity of enemies, fight after bloody fight against horrific creatures, even the transition from day to night -- Chainsaw Warrior is practically the template. A number of people in the industry have commented that the influence of Chainsaw Warrior has long gone unrecognised. And if you look at all the video and boardgames that appeared both before and after the publication of Chainsaw Warrior, it’s inarguable that Chainsaw Warrior was one of the first, if not the first, titles in the FPS genre. How many previous games even featured a chainsaw as a hand-to-hand combat weapon? That said, I am actually very wary of suggesting influence when the reality may well be coincidence; precedence and similarity do not equal imitation. But if you simply locate Chainsaw Warrior in a timeline of games, it’s pretty suggestive. I think in my Designer’s Notes I called it a video game without electricity.
A more curious comparison than “Doom” is “Wolfenstein - Spear of Destiny” which, released a few years after Chainsaw Warrior, featured some of the same key story elements I used in the unpublished “Chainsaw Warrior 2: Death’s Head” and which I alluded to in the Designer Notes of the Chainsaw Warrior rulebook.

From gallery of thequietpunk

Tomas: One of the things fans seem to like is the 80s vibe about the game; what other media and games at the time influenced your creative process?

Stephen: Zombies? Hello! Other than the graphics, I don’t see anything 80s about Chainsaw Warrior at all. Hollywood’s entire output is made up of zombies, Marvel comics from the 1960s, Tolkien from decades earlier, and remakes of 70s and 80s horror movies. It’s nearly impossible to see a film now that doesn’t feature Chainsaw Warrior’s combination of comicbook plot and cartoon violence. And what else is the Meat Machine if not a Saw/Human Centipede hybrid? In fact, if anything, the themes of Chainsaw Warrior are far more mainstream now than they were in 1986. Four of my five published boardgames have been remade or adapted in the last few years and it’s because they’ve lost none of their cultural currency. There’s nothing about stuffing a chainsaw into a zombie’s screaming face that modern game players can’t relate to. Though I guess one way you can tell Chainsaw Warrior isn’t a 2013 game is that the main character isn’t a clichéd, hot, kick- boxing, ‘empowered’ heroine in a fetish costume.

Providing a full list of influences on Chainsaw Warrior is impossible. Books, comics, movies, games -- they all went into the soup: “Alien”, John Carpenter’s remake of “The Thing”, the original “Dawn of the Dead” and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, the books of HP Lovecraft and Michael Moorcock and many more. I’ll take full credit for The Meat Machine and the Slime. The violent tone of the game was fuelled by the quite brilliant “Action” comic, though there are also a few hints of “2000 AD” in there -- thanks to Chainsaw Warrior, I got to meet Brett Ewins whose work I greatly admired. We were slated to work on a Chainsaw Warrior comic together.

From gallery of thequietpunk

Tomas: This is a single player boardgame - a rare thing - what this what you set out to create? Where there other games that influenced it?

Stephen: In direct contrast to the evolution of videogames, the solo boardgame was a neglected beast. You had Solitaire (which I knew as Patience) and that was it. Some multiplayer games did contain variant rules for solo players but these were generally unsatisfying. So Chainsaw Warrior was a conscious effort to try to fill the void. I knew there were many players like me who, at those frustrating times when you couldn’t find another player, would have use for a solo game if only as a stopgap. I also felt, believe it or not, that solo play gave Chainsaw Warrior a sense of distinction. During the creation of the game, people would ask me how many players the game was for, and would do a double-take when I answered ‘one’. Hilarious when you think about it now. And, of course, I always felt there was a dearth of good horror games. So from day one, my explicit goal for Chainsaw Warrior was to make a solo horror boardgame with a cutting edge theme. I didn’t ‘fall’ into the concept, the concept preceded the detailed design.

From gallery of thequietpunk

No single game had a direct influence on Chainsaw Warrior. It may sound pompous but a lifetime of playing and designing games had made me fluent with techniques and concepts almost in the way a musician learns their instrument. In a sense every game you make is influenced by every game you play. However one major area of influence came in deciding to construct the building from a pack of cards. Very early on I’d ruled out a traditional board because this would have made the game feel knowable and finite in a way that I didn’t want -- which is also partly why I split the deck in two so that you could never know just when Darkness might appear. A number of other games had solved this problem by using cardboard geomorphic tiles. The idea is that, turn by turn, you’d lay out the tiles in front of you to build up a map. I used to play a game called “The Sorcerer’s Cave” whose tiles were so large that they ended up covering the entire floor... especially when you used the expansion kit! So I ruled this system out; I wanted Chainsaw Warrior to be playable on a table. It was only some years later I realised that my card system is actually just a lateral shift in terms of function from “The Sorcerer’s Caves” tiles; but this did not occur to me at the time, and I was quite pleased with my ‘radically different’ solution (though there do remain some subtle but important differences from how “The Sorcerer’s Cave” tiles could constrain perceived freedom of movement in a way Chainsaw Warrior does not. Also “The Sorcerer’s Cave” tiles were completely independent of their content, so there was no way the player could learn or take risks based on specific tiles -- a concept I developed much further in Chainsaw Warrior 2). Another of Chainsaw Warrior’s parents was a game called “Up Front”. This world war II squad based wargame was designed to be played almost entirely using cards and it really opened my mind in terms of reassessing how cards could be made fundamental to a game rather than merely as some kind of adjunct or randomiser as, say, the Community Chest cards are in Monopoly. “Up Front” showed me that instead of cards being a component WITHIN a game they could, in fact, BE the game. Don’t forget this was years before CCGs (one of which I designed before CCG’s even existed). But if any one game can be said to be the true grandparent of Chainsaw Warrior, it’s good
old Patience, the original solo card game. It would be fascinating to obtain a global total of all the hours people have spent playing Solitaire on their computers over the last ten years. I used to play Patience all the time but felt it was a bit lightweight and over too quickly. If anything, Chainsaw Warrior was a conscious evolution of that game. Chainsaw Warrior is Patience with a dark and bloody twist.

Part 2 coming soon!
The digital Chainsaw Warrior is out now on PC and mobile and the original version can still be found for sale second hand if you hunt for it!
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