The Hard Work Behind The Scenes
An Interview With Kevin Wilson
I first heard of Kevin Wilson when I interviewed Christian
Petersen in 2003. Christian referred to him as a "skilled
craftsman" who was working on the Warcraft boardgame at the
time. Since then I've enjoyed Kevin's work not only on that game,
but also on his titles from the Silver Line--Mutiny! and Arena
Maximus. I started following Kevin's work through his design
notes, rants at the Fantasy Flight Games site and his online
posts in various places. The more I discovered of his previous
games, the more impressed I was with the wide range of games he's
designed or developed. Before coming to Fantasy Flight Games he
worked on several RPG projects for AEG. In that genre his name
appears in the credits of over fifty titles. Now he's working on
some of the hottest licensed products we've seen in years in the
boardgame industry--all this and the guy's not yet 30 years old.
After six months of trying to get an interview with him, I
became well aware of the secret to his success. He's a very busy
man! From April until November it was pretty tricky getting any
correspondence. First deadlines, then the big conventions here in
the U.S. and in Germany occupied much of his time. I'm happy to
say he did eventually agree to the interview once things slowed
down a little. I found it very interesting to get a closer look
at his approach to his work. With his latest project, Doom: The
Boardgame, only weeks from hitting the shelves, I think we're set
to hear lots more about him and his games in the months and years
Mike Petty: Kevin, you've worked on a very wide range of
games so far in your career. I imagine this means there's a broad
range of games that you enjoy. What sort of games did you play
Kevin Wilson: Lots of RPGs, card games, miniatures games,
board games, pretty much whatever my friends played. My main game
was probably D&D, though. I used to DM a bunch, and
I made up some fairly elaborate campaign settings, including a
swashbuckling setting that I ran for years. I also played a lot
of text adventures like Zork and Trinity in
college, even ran a fanzine and an annual contest dedicated to
them and wrote a couple of games myself.
MP: Now that you're working in a successful company in the
industry, do you get any time to do gaming not related to your
work? If so, what sort of things do you play?
KW: I try to roleplay once a week and I also play card and
board games once a week. The RPG is usually d20, but the board
games are all sorts of stuff, including games I've worked on once
in awhile (and the occasional prototype, yeah), but I try to keep
work out of the weekend gaming if I can - when you're in the
gaming industry, you have to make a conscious effort to ensure
that gaming doesn't become work. You scoff, but when you do
something all day long, it's easy to fall into a state of mind
where you just don't want to have anything to do with that thing
in your spare time, even if you love it. You have to treat the
business as business, and the games as games, or you'll burn out
As for board and card games that I play, I'd guess some of my
favorites are Vinci, Guillotine, Coloretto,
Ticket to Ride, and Acquire, but I have a
pretty big collection of board games now, and lots of them have
only been played once or twice. Bruno Faidutti, Tom Jolly, Alan
Moon, and Reiner Knizia are among my favorite designers, along
with my friend Eric Lang. I tend to prefer light, fast games that
we can play several of during our limited gaming time while
chatting about other things, but once in awhile I get a craving
for a big game that I can sink my teeth into. Right now I'm
making plans to try out Paths of Glory for the first
time ever, for instance.
MP: Was it always a goal of yours to work in the game
KW: Not really. Originally, I was going to be a marine
biologist, but I kind of veered away from that later on and
majored in artificial intelligence at Berkeley. There weren't a
whole lot of job openings in the field, so I started working part-time
at a local game store in SoCal (the Adventurer's Guild in
Riverside) and met my friend Steve Hough there. He was the one
who got me into the gaming industry.
MP: Due to my own gaming tastes, I hadn't noticed your
name in credits on games until I saw your early work with Fantasy
Flight. After doing some searching online, though, I found that
your name is actually on many, many games in a variety of genres.
Can you give us a brief overview of your work before you started
with Fantasy Flight?
KW: Well, Steve was working as the graphic designer for
Alderac Entertainment Group at the time, and he got me a line on
an interview. I brought in a photocopied booklet that I'd made
for my home swashbuckling campaign, and they looked at it and
were suitably impressed, so they took me on as an intern on
Shadis magazine, where I worked with some really cool guys named
jim pinto (All lowercase, jim doesn't like capitalization) and
Marcelo Figueroa (the best-connected man in the industry, and a
huge Prince fan). I worked with them on the last two issues of
Shadis before the magazine was forced to fold, mostly because
advertisers weren't paying their bills.
After that, I was transferred over to work on the 7th Sea
RPG with John Wick, Patrick Kapera, and jim.
MP: Yeah, only recently I was looking through the
rulebooklet to 7th Sea CCG and I noticed your name. I
had no idea you worked on that game, which is one of my favorites.
I was also surprised to find out you worked on the background
stories for another Dan Verssen design, the Flagship
card games. In both cases it has been their settings and back
stories that have kept my interest. How much did you have to do
with those settings?
KW: I had a reasonable amount to do with the 7th Sea
storyline, but John (and later Rob) were largely in charge of it.
As for Flagship, I did the initial world design
according to certain specifications Dan had, and then I turned it
over to him and his team for final development, since I was busy
with a day job at the time. I like doing 'fluff' work like that,
but I've always felt that my greatest strength lies in rules
7th Sea was a great learning experience for me. I
wrote about 10,000 words of 7th Sea a week for several
years (Sounds easy? Give it a try sometime) before I got my big
chance heading up Spycraft with Pat. We came up with the
pitch while driving a big white truck filled with books and
miniatures to and from Gencon, and John Zinser liked it. So I
worked on that for awhile, and Spycraft did pretty well
by all accounts. Eventually, though, AEG and I parted ways
amicably. They were restructuring and moving to more of a
freelance writer model, and I couldn't afford the pay cut that
would entail, so it was time for me to move on.
MP: Were you involved in any way with the new Spycraft
KW: I pitched a couple of designs for it, and a couple
elements made it through into the final game, but mostly I wasn't
involved in the CCG.
MP: So where did you start with Fantasy Flight?
KW: I was later contacted about working at Fantasy Flight
Games doing softcover RPG books. I accepted the job and worked on
the Schools of Magic and Lairs lines along with
a small Dragonstar book called Galactic Races.
About that time, I was itching to try something new, so I
designed Magdar in my spare time, pitched it, and made
my move over to the board game department, where I've since done
several small board games (Mutiny! and Arena Maximus),
a couple of big licensed board (Warcraft and Doom),
and a lot of development work.
MP: What's your title now at Fantasy Flight?
KW: I'm a Board and Card Game Developer. That means I babysit
games from the time we receive them to the time they go off to
the printer. I revise rules, write rulebooks, layout
translations, determine what's actually going to go into the box,
solve any component issues, deal with budget limitations, order
art, and give the graphics guys a steaming helping of grief (just
kidding, guys). Once in awhile, I also do some design work.
MP: I always enjoy stopping by the "rants" page
at Fantasy Flight to get an inside view of what's happening there.
The overall theme of the rants seems to be everyone is terribly,
terribly busy! What's a typical day like there for you, assuming
there is such a thing?
KW: Busy, mostly. Typically I get in, read the gaming industry
news sites, check boardgamegeek and our message boards for
serious issues, answer a couple of rules questions, and then I
get on to whatever my current project is. I may be writing rules,
laying out cards, cutting and pasting together prototypes, or
playtesting. Sometimes, I wind up spending the day doing
probability work on a design or mechanic to ensure that it's
going to give me the results I want. There's more math in game
design than a lot of folks think. There are meetings to make sure
everyone knows what they're doing on the current project, and
sometimes I just sit and stare at the computer and pray for
inspiration. It's not always easy being creative on demand. It's
not like a water faucet, you can't just turn it off and on and
get hot- and cold-running brilliance.
MP: I eagerly await each release from the Silver Line
series of games. Can you tell us anything we can expect from
future releases in that line?
KW: Well, we're going to be trying out some larger $29.95
games for the line, and I think we've got a few surprises up our
sleeve for next year that I guarantee you no one will see coming,
but I'm not really at liberty to discuss those yet, as the
details haven't been finalized.
MP: I'm continually amazed by the quality products Fantasy
Flight puts out in so many different genres. And it just keeps
getting better! What do you think has been the key to success
KW: Overtime, mostly. That, and we're all gamers here, so we
have a good idea what folks want.
MP: Do you prefer working on original board and card games
KW: I'd say so. There's a lot less writing, for one thing. I
rarely approach 10,000 words a week any more. Also, I get to cut
and paste cardboard bits together, which is pleasantly
reminiscent of kindergarten. One day, I'm going to make a war
game using nothing but glitter, finger paints, glue, and macaroni.
MP: Let me guess, you're calling it War-Kraft? Craft War?
Of all the games you've worked on, which has been your
KW: I'd say it's a tie right now between Spycraft and
Doom. Spycraft was a very satisfying highlight
to my RPG career, and came out almost exactly how I wanted it. Doom,
on the other hand, was an exciting design challenge, and the
final product is rich in flavor and filled with beautiful little
toys that are by far the coolest components I've gotten to put in
a game. Also, the sheer size and heft of Doom (6.5 lbs.)
makes me all giddy like a schoolgirl.
But the single best moment of my career came when I got to
show my great-grandfather Die Kreuzritter, a 7th Sea
book that I dedicated to him. He was getting pretty old about
that time and he's since passed on, but he was a really great and
devout man, and seeing his eyes light up over that book was worth
every hardship I've ever been through in the industry.
MP: What's been your best selling game to date?
KW: Warcraft: the Board Game, by a long shot. The
power of a good license is really pretty amazing. People scoff at
licensed products, saying they're low quality or unoriginal, but
I haven't found that to necessarily be the case, and man, the
sales are good. I'm really excited to see how well Doom
is going to do.
MP: How does the process work when Fantasy Flight takes on
a licensed product like Warcraft or Doom? Do
you go to them with some initial ideas or do you start by
contacting them and asking how much it's going to cost you?
KW: More or less. We make a pitch, they quote a price if
they're interested, and if it fits into our budget, we make a
MP: Let's say I'm a board game player who's never played
the Doom computer game. What do you think I might like
about the boardgame that will make me pull it off a shelf full of
other great games?
KW: It offers several teamwork mechanics that you don't see on
the market that often, and has what I feel are pretty cool skill
and dice mechanics that offer a lot of replayability. Also, the
design is ideal for a parent with children, as you can play the
more complicated invaders and have the kids play the relatively
simple to explain marines. Since the invader's strengths are
hidden, you can be as mean or as nice as you want without being
obvious about it. Also, 66 plastic 30mm-scale figures.
MP: What sort of timeframe do you have to complete a big
project like Warcraft or Doom?
KW: Usually I get from 1-2 months for design and development,
and then it goes to graphics while I sneak in some more time on
it here and there. It can get pretty tight, but hey, that's the
reality of the business I'm in. Deadlines are always tight, and
you always want a bit more time on every project. You deal with
it or you change jobs.
MP: I'd like to hear a little more about the design
process for these games. First off, let's take something like the
mechanics for combat. How hard is it to come up with something
totally original when so much has already been done? Or maybe
there's a point you keep in mind where it's ok to be similar to
other things, but in other ways you have to be totally original?
KW: An interesting core mechanic is the meat of any game, and
is by far the hardest thing to come up with. Normally, I start
game designs after I get an idea for a mechanic. Magdar
began with the idea of the board being destroyed as you played.
Originally, you were mining asteroids on the edge of a black hole.
However, when designing to spec, I often have to work a bit
backwards and design a mechanic to fit a theme. When that
happens, I make a list of goals for the mechanic and then
brainstorm until I get something that meets those goals. As for
originality, well, it's nice, but you only get so many really
unique ideas in your lifetime. Something like Puerto Rico
or Settlers of Catan doesn't come along that often. Most
of the time you have to settle for being "original enough."
MP: You probably have a particular gamer in mind as you
create these things. What's he like?
KW: He's exactly like me, only filthy rich. Well, no, not
really. I mostly just design for my own tastes.
MP: What sort of balance do you go for between luck and
KW: I try to use luck strictly to provide variety of play.
Pure strategy games like chess can suffer from memorization
issues, where the best players are those who have memorized a
wide library of game situations and the "correct" move
to make in those situations. That sort of thing drives me nuts,
and I try to avoid it.
MP: When I see someone like yourself--very talented, lots
of imagination and obviously someone who loves games, I wonder
how it is to have to deal with creating games within a company
that has to survive in a tricky industry. Is it hard to be
creative as an artist, remember that these things you make have
to be fun and playful, but all the while you know it's ultimately
about making money?
KW: Well, it's tricky. I mean, I've never really considered
myself an 'artiste'. I make entertainment products to be consumed
by the market, and that places some very real and very important
restrictions on what I can do. A lot of gamers just don't
understand that. They don't see why I would choose not to put
text on cards in Warcraft (Answer: international edition
costs and time. We really wanted to get it out for Xmas.) or why
I didn't spot such and such a rules flaw (Answer: I've only got
so much time to playtest, and I'm only human). There are lots of
decisions that go on behind the scenes, and making those
decisions is a lot of what I get paid to do. Playing and
designing games is really only a small part of my job. It's tough
to deal with fans sometimes, because you have to be polite and
professional, and they often aren't. I've gotten everything from
the "We're not worthy" treatment (which is
uncomfortable in its own way) all the way down to "Your
games suck. Get out of the industry, you hack."
MP: You mentioned playtesting. I think it was back with
the first edition of Diskwars that I first heard
complaints that Fantasy Flight didn't do enough playtesting on
their games. There are still things, as you said with Warcraft
for example, that people could point to and say the same thing.
Working with deadlines as you describe, I'm actually surprised
there isn't more evidence of problems! Could you describe the
usual playtesting process for a board or non-collectible card
KW: We try to do a mixture of in-house and outside testing. We
usually catch the biggest problems in-house while the outside
testers help us to catch smaller rules problems and unclear write-ups.
How much testing we do depends on our schedule. Some games get
more testing, some get less, but we always try to put out the
very best games we can.
MP: What's a short-term and a long-term goal you hope to
KW: Short term, I want to keep on with board games. I've done
the legwork getting into them now, and my designs are improving
with each game. I hope to do a couple really excellent games
before I'm done, maybe even win a Spiel des Jahres some day. I
also want to keep improving the quality of our board games at
Fantasy Flight Games. I still see some things that we could work
on, like linen cards and custom trays and such. It's just a
matter of improving processes, chipping out little chunks of time
for it, and making it happen in between everything else. I want
companies like Days of Wonder and Kosmos to have to keep
improving their game quality if they want to keep up with us.
Excellence in design and components is something I really strive
for, and I never let anyone tell me that we can't do something
until we've priced it out. Maybe we can't afford whatever it is I
want to fit in the box, but then again, maybe we can after all.
We'll never know if we don't ask.
In the long run, I'm not sure. The game industry is a tough
place to make a career. The competition is fierce, pay is low,
and creative conflicts are fairly common. You have to walk a
tightrope between pleasing yourself and pleasing your boss, and
it's easy to fall off. But when you walk that tightrope just
right, it's one of the greatest feelings in the world. Not
everyone gets to hold something in their hands that they've made
happen, and board games are very different from a book in that
there's more 'reality' to them at the end - the package is just
more impressive. I still love writing, and I had a great time
doing Spellslinger, for instance, but I really love the
feeling of being a craftsman that I get from a board game at the
end. Watching people play your games, and seeing kids' eyes light
up the way mine did when I opened up my old red box D&D set
is what gets you through the rough spots.
Still, I'd like to take a crack at writing novels one of these
days. I read an insane amount of fantasy and science fiction, and
I've got several years experience writing RPGs, so it seems like
it would be a good fit for me somewhere down the line. I write a
lot in my spare time - nothing that I feel is particularly good
yet, but I'm still growing and learning. If there's one thing
that Spycraft taught me, it's that you grow into your
talents over time. True prodigies are rare, it's usually just
that nobody noticed them practicing for 5 or 10 years before they
got really good.
MP: Are there any projects coming along from Fantasy
Flight Games--expansions, new games, anything--that you can tell
us about or at least hint about that we haven't heard of yet?
KW: Well, we'll be doing some expansions of existing games
this year, a couple of new, big projects, and we'll be bringing
back several classic games that are no longer in print. How's
that for vague and evil hints?
MP: Well, it's exactly as vague and evil as Christian's
hints were when I interviewed him last year! I understand you
guys are always working on things you can't talk about yet, so I
guess we'll just have to wait. The line-up is always entertaining
to say the least. Thank you for taking the time to provide us
with this interview.
KW: No problem. Thanks for chatting with me!