Ciudad Autonoma de Buenos Aires
England is a country with a lot of history and a lot of very important cultural exponents. Curiously there aren’t many representatives when it comes to board games. Anyhow there’s a designer, that publishing his own games, has managed to generate an english style of games.
Geek Out o en la versión en español de este mismo blog.
Today: Martin Wallace
* He was born in England.
* Currently lives in New Zealand.
* Founded his own board games publishing company, Treefrog Games.
* Designed 3 of the most renowned train games.
* Designed games based on the fictional universes of Tolkien, Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman and Doctor Who.
Prominent games: Brass, Steam, Age of Steam, A Few Acres of Snow, London, Discworld: Ankh Morpork, A Study in Emerald
Matías: What games did you played as a kid?
Martin: All the standard games, like Monopoly and Clue. When I reached my teens I started checking our wargames and joined the school games club. At High School I was introduced to D&D and other role-playing games. One of my first jobs was working for Games Workshop when they opened a store in Manchester.
M: We don’t have games club at school here in Argentina, could you tell us more about it?
MW: In this case it was a lunch time club. The teacher was also a member of a local figure gaming club, so a friend and I started attending that as well.
M: Did your job at Games Workshop gave you any valuable insight on the games industry to be used when you started Treefrog?
MW: Not really. I worked at Games Workshop in the 1980s, when games were very different from the ones now (on the whole). It did allow me to get to know a wide range of games, which can come in handy. There are a lot of new designers who are not necessarily aware that some of their ideas are similar to those from older games. However, it’s very hard to play those old games now as they are not always freely available, as well as there not being enough time to play the old stuff.
M: What made you start designing games?
MW: Not sure really. I did not actively start designing games until I reach 30. For some reason I decided it was something I wanted to pursue. At first I worked on wargames, as this was my background in gaming. However, that was also the time that German games were beginning to creep into the UK, which exposed me to a whole new way of designing games.
M: What is the best part of being a game designer?
MW: Apart from being able to lie in in the morning I like that you can have an idea, develop it and reach a final product. There are many jobs where all you do is process things with no final product.
M: When you say that games were something you wanted to pursue, was your desire to make a living of designing games?
MW: I had wanted to go full-time game designing for a long time, but only really achieved this in 2007. Up until then I had worked as a teacher.
M: After reaching your dream, did you found any part of designing games that wasn’t as you imagined?
MW: It’s hard to make a living. I also hate writing rule books.
M: How is your game design process? Where do you usually get the ideas for your games and how do you transform that idea to a published game?
MW: I normally start with a theme. I then do as much research as I can, as usually I work on historical themes. Ideas can come from all over the place but most come from books. Aeroplanes and Automobile were inspired by books with colourful images of planes/cars. I wanted to create a game with the imagery in it. Increasingly my ideas now come from literature rather than history. I like the idea of combining fiction with real-life characters, such as A Study in Emerald.
M: In your own opinion as a gamer, what makes a good game?
MW: The key thing is that a game should be fun. If you are not enjoying yourself then what’s the point. I find that fun tends to come from player interaction, so a good design will have players having to compete with each other in a way that generates tension and humour.
M: It is said that is harder to make people laugh than to make them cry, I assume that it's even harder to add humour to a game. Do you have some technique or process to do that?
MW: The trick is not to be obviously funny. Cards with ‘humorous’ text on are funny once, then become irritating. The objective is to create tense situations where the humour then comes out. Humour comes from players finding themselves in a silly situation.
M: I think Anhk Morpork is a clear example of a very humorous game. I'm a big Terry Pratchett fan and was very sad to hear that the third game set in Discworld would never exist. I love those games, could you share some experience or conclusion from your work on Anhk Morpork and The Witches?
MW: Yes, it was a shame as the third design was ready to go. I think the nice thing is I still get a lot of people saying to me how much they love Ankh Morpork (it is the better game of the two). For me it was a successful attempt to design a game around a license that was not just simply a version of Monopoly or Risk. It is an approach I intend to use in the future, where possible.
M: Which differences do you find between working from history books and novels?
MW: To be honest, not a lot. Fictional characters are very much like historical ones, just the fictional ones get to use magic.
M: Are there any author or universe that you would like to work with?
MW: There are a few games in the pipeline that are based on novels, but I cannot say which. I sometimes think it would be nice to do a game set in Michael Moorcock’s multiverse, but that would be very ambitious and I’m not sure whether people still read his stuff. I would love to do a Game of Thrones game, but I think Fantasy Flight Games have got that wrapped up.
M: Other than the historical themes, do you find similarities, some kind of author signature in your games?
MW: There are a number of my games that have common elements. I have obviously designed a lot of train games, which have certain common mechanics. I have used the ideas in Brass in a number of other designs, such as Age of Industry and Via Nebula.
M: Are trains something that you like a lot, or it's just a theme that fits well in the mechanics that you want to use?
MW: I only started designing train games when John Bohrer, of Winsome Games, asked me. Up until then I think the only train game I had played was Railway Rivals. Once I got into train games I realised that it is a great theme for games – empire building, route planning, upgrading technology etc.
Left John Bohrer, right Martin Wallace
M: Some of your games have different editions and some games like Age of Steam, Steam and Railways of the World seem like evolutions of a same concept, do you keep thinking about your games once they're published, in order to find ways to improve them?
MW: I sometimes find myself thinking about how I could improve some of my older designs. With Age of Steam and Railways of the World it was more the case that I was asked to adapt the system to make a simpler game. I’m presently working on some designs that can be linked to A Study in Emerald but are more streamlined. I think it is good when you can reduced the number of rules in a game.
M: Is right to say that your games usually represent your country? Not just your historical themed games, but you also worked with novels from english writers. Is something that you actively seek, or just a consequence of your roots?
MW: Well, I have designed games on French, Polish, Greek and other histories. However, it is true that a lot of my games have a British theme to them. As far as novels go, well, it’s much easier to contact an English novelist than an American one. To be honest, a lot of the games I have designed have been things that have just come my way, without any conscious decision making. For instance, it was not my idea to do a Doctor Who game, that came about when another company approached me.
M: What kind of experience do you try to generate to the players with your games?
MW: If the game has a historical theme then players should be presented with the same problems as the persons of that time faced. Thus, in Struggle of Empires, you have to think carefully about who you will ally with. Brass has players deciding where the best returns will be made from different industries. If possible I think it is good if you can generate a feeling of pressure and tension.
M: Do you consider your games “simulations” of some theme or historical period?
MW: No, not really. The most I aim for is to capture some element of truth about the period, but they are not simulations. A simulation would be much more detailed.
M: Why did you decided to start your own publisher company with Treefrog Games?
MW: Self-publishing is the only way to go if you want control over which of your games are published. A lot of the games published by Treefrog might not have been published by other companies.
M: What is your vision about the present of the games industry?
MW: At the moment things are crazy. There are too many games being published and with Kick Starter there are too many game coming on to the market that are not properly designed or developed. Its great if you want to get published but a lot tougher if you want to make a living. I think the medium sized companies are really struggling to compete, as the shelf life of games is now measured in weeks.
M: What do you think the future of the industry would be like in a couple of years?
MW: I don’t see things really changing that much in the future. There will continue to be too many games produced each year. Kick Starter does not seem to be a fad that is about to die anytime, it seems to have become the normal way for many games to be financed now. I don’t think technology will really make as big an impact on games as some would expect. Games with apps are very short-lived. proper board games have been around for thousands of years, I see no reason why that will change in the future.
M: Is there some game in the making that you could tell us something about?
MW: Tough one. I’m working on a number of new games but as I am no longer publishing them I have to be careful, as they will be published by other companies. I have been trying to move away from my normal games and try to design games with a higher story content. I’ve been working on a sequel to A Study in Emerald. The game has nothing mechanically in common with the original, but tries to envisage what might happen 50 years on from the events in the game.
M: Thank you very much for your time and answers!
In this blog I'll share interviews that I made to famous game designers and other personalities of the board gaming world. Bear in mind that english is not my native language and it isn't for most of the interviewed people either. So don't be afraid of the orthography or gramatical horrors you may find in the texts.
- [+] Dice rolls