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Developer Interview: Chainsaw Warrior Part 2

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. Read Part 1 here - Brad

Chainsaw Warrior Generations: Developer of New Digital Version Interviews Designer of Original 1987 Version. (Part 2)
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 2...)

From gallery of thequietpunk

Tomas: Lots of interesting and cool boardgames were coming out in the 80s, Chainsaw Warrior being a great example, were you aware you were part of a larger boom in that market?

Stephen: From the early 1970s there was a huge growth in what was then called ‘hobby gaming’ not only in terms of the number of (mostly English and American) publishers but also in the number of game shops, and in the variety of games and gaming subjects. There was a shift from the traditional family boardgame to the hardcore 200-page rulebook simulation of Stalingrad and then to more accessible but still challenging games about spaceship combat, sword & sorcery adventure, role playing and all the rest. Games Workshop was a part of this boom. It may be difficult to understand now but back then gaming was a niche hobby that most people were either oblivious of or condescending towards in a way that would now be unthinkable. For me, however, the 70s and 80s was an exciting time to be buying and playing board games and, of course, I was delighted to eventually be able to contribute.

From gallery of thequietpunk

Tomas: The game is hard! It's a real signature of it's design but it can have a 'Marmite' thing about it - people either love it or hate that (I loved it!) how much was that key in the original design?

Stephen: Thanks for the love. Horror setting aside, the difficulty of the game is everything. Chainsaw Warrior is a fun, imaginative expansion on a game of Patience. If you could beat the game on your first attempt, it would have been a waste of money. For the solo player in any game there are only three kinds of opponents: (1) Pre-scripted, like “Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective” which has the limitation of being playable just once; (2) Purely random, like all the solo card games and Cluedo; (3) A rudimentary artificial intelligence, or the impression of a rudimentary artificial intelligence. Chainsaw Warrior opts for the third choice. Whichever way you dress up the AI of a solo game, it all comes down to charts, tables, logic trees, probabilities and dice rolls. Chainsaw Warrior presents a simple version of this configuration, simple because I wanted the rhythm of the game to be the rhythm of the story in the player’s mind. “Kick down the door. BOOM. Shoot the monster. BOOM.” I didn’t want players groping for voluminous charts (which SPI and TSR were fond of) to check the wind strength on the weather table, to see if the cold affected muscle strength which affected the player’s hand-to-hand combat stats and so on and so on only to find out it still only boils down to whether you can roll a 6. And if many videogamers don’t believe that this sort of stuff still goes on in the hidden algorithms of videogames, they’re kidding themselves. The sound and fury of a videogame can hide what a boardgame cannot, which is why so many boardgame designers later got snapped up by the videogames industry. I’ve seen code of incredibly complex neural networks capable of learning that still “throw dice” somewhere in their decision making.

You also have to think about what Chainsaw Warrior is trying to achieve. It’s trying to tell a story that progresses differently and has a different outcome each and every time you play, and it’s trying to do this via a set of relatively simple, interlocking rules and just a deck of cards and a few counters. Think about that and the challenge it poses. By contrast, the horror RPG PC game I co- designed for MicroProse, “The Legacy” was relatively trivial. Chainsaw Warrior is the kind of game that would be very easy to design badly, and whatever you think of the game there’s no denying that it is unique in form.

I don’t know if people loved or hated Chainsaw Warrior expressly because of its difficulty. No one makes a game in the hope that people will dislike it, but on the other hand the target audience for almost all my games was always me. On release Chainsaw was incredibly popular: it sold well over a good period of time, it landed me a relatively high volume of fan mail and it had considerable recognition among gamers -- even now it’s one of the titles people who meet me remember me for. Chainsaw Warrior was enjoyed not because it was “Civilisations” but because it was, dare I say it, fun. Perhaps the box should have replaced “60 Minutes To Save New York” with “Not A Bad Way To Kill 10 Minutes”. Chainsaw Warrior was also pre-internet which apparently has not been too kind to the game. In relation to the current vogue for European titles which, on the whole, offer strategic puzzles with a theme bolted on, Chainsaw Warrior is sometimes criticised for being too random. There are casinos with thousands of players playing games hinging entirely on chance and enjoying them. I’m a huge fan of the French dice game 421 and I still dig out the “Owzat” cricket game from time to time, but dice rolling doesn’t sit well with ‘ludologists’ unless they can trace the origins of a game back to ancient Greece. With the release of the Chainsaw Warrior app, the game is now finding new players who are discovering it for themselves and are simply having fun with it: the pre-video videogame. Chainsaw Warrior 2 would have seen the start of a planned title-by-title increase in the complexity and strategic gameplay of the system, in just the same way that I had intended to create a massive universe of specialist decks for Chaos Marauders.

From gallery of thequietpunk

Tomas: What do you feel Chainsaw Warrior adds to the ongoing history of boardgames?

Stephen: Prior to the appearance of the app and now this interview I haven’t thought about Chainsaw Warrior for the best part of twenty years. Certainly the history of boardgames is not something I’ve ever thought about. I know the detailed history of my games, why I made them and so on but I can’t speak for the history of boardgames per se and don’t see my work as consciously falling into any kind of lineage -- that’s for other people to retrofit. On those occasions when I’ve seen what people have written about my games they usually get their ‘facts’ wrong. You write the history, I’ll make the games.

From gallery of thequietpunk

Tomas: There is a real renaissance of interest in boardgames both as real objects and adaptations (like ours!) - why do you think this is?

Stephen: It doesn’t matter if it’s hewn from Neolithic stone, a good game is a good game. But this isn’t a question about games, it’s a question about people. The fact that people now want to remake Chainsaw Warrior, replay it, redefine it says more about fashion than about the game itself. And if I knew how to nudge fashion, I’d be rich.

Though not my first game, Chainsaw Warrior was my first professional publication. It has been out there for close to thirty years, never changing regardless of what labels people have since attached to it, and it is a genuine surprise that people are now getting pleasure from it a second time around. The original expectation was that it would go to one, maybe two print runs, then vanish into peoples’ dusty old games collections. It’s very rewarding to work in one of the few professions that actually brings some pleasure into people’s lives.

From gallery of thequietpunk

Tomas: Thanks for your time Stephen!

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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