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Games On The Brain

An Interview With Martin Wallace

Most of this year we've featured interviews with game designers that I know personally, at least to some degree. This time I decided to interview someone whose name has caught my attention, though I previously knew little of him or his games.

With several top sellers at Fair Play such as Age of Steam, Runebound and Princes of the Renaissance, Martin Wallace has proven himself to be a versatile and successful designer. Since most of his games are more complex and quite a bit longer than the games my groups enjoy, I hadn't played a single game from Mr. Wallace until this past summer. A couple months ago Terry and I enjoyed a very tense game of Princes of Renaissance with some friends. I was very impressed with the many choices presented throughout the game. I only wish I had more opportunities to play games like this!

So, intrigued by this single experience, I did some further research into Wallace's games and eventually asked him for an interview. With his new game, Struggle of Empires, looking to be one of the most sought after games released at Essen this month, I took the opportunity to ask him about that game and how he manages to consistently turn out those large, complex games of such high quality.

Mike Petty: First, please tell us a little about yourself.

Martin Wallace: Well, I'm 42, male, two kids. I live in Manchester, work as a substitute teacher, like to have the odd drink, started playing squash in an attempt to not put any more weight on and think about games every day.

MP: When did you design your first game and what was it like?

MW: I think I designed my first game in 1989. It was a space game and it was complete rubbish. Went on to design a few more really bad games. The first design that worked, that people might want to play more than once, was Lords of Creation. I think I designed that in 1992.

MP: Is Warfrog your company?

MW: I am part of Warfrog. James (Hammy) Hamilton is my business partner. I handle the design stuff while he looks after the financial side of the company. There are also a number of folks who are honorary frogs for the amount of work they put in to help get the games published and sold at Essen. Key among these are Geoff Brown, Richard Spilsbury, and Martin Hair.

MP: Do you have time to play games other than your own? If so, what are some of your favorites?

MW: Yes, I get to play a few games that are not my own. Playing a lot of Powergrid recently, but not doing very well at it. Love Puerto Rico and Seven Seals. Older favorites include Bluff, Formel Fun, Billabong, and Vinci.

MP: Judging from the strong theme in your designs, I'd guess you always start with a theme, then develop the mechanics. Is that accurate?

MW: Yes, at least in 99% of games. Sometimes you start with a theme, develop a game, and then end up changing the theme to a different one. This happened with Der Weisse Lotus, which started life set in Southern Italy during the Norman occupation.

MP: How do you usually come up with those initial themes or ideas for your games?

MW: Usually by browsing in bookshops. That's probably why so many of my games have historical themes. Liberté was certainly based on a book I read, as well as the Norman game.

MP: What is the playtesting process for your games like, given many of them are quite complex?

MW: Haphazard at best. With the Warfrog games I like to start with something that sketches out the main ideas, then fill in/change bits as it becomes clear what things are working and what's not working. I don't keep notes. If a game's not working then I'm happy to re-design the whole thing up from scratch. Only when a game has a solid feel do I start tinkering with it, to tighten it up. Some games will be left on the shelf for a year or so and then I'll go back and see if I've had any new ideas.

MP: Generally, how long does it take for you to finish a game and, along those lines, what criteria do you use to determine when it's done?

MW: It varies tremendously. The next Warfrog game, Struggle of Empires, started life 5 years ago. However, for a long time I did nothing with the game, so it has undergone a relaxed development. Some games have to be designed within weeks, such as the Lord of the Rings game I did for Kosmos. As for when a game is done, that also depends. A Warfrog game is only done when we all feel the product is good enough to be published. If it's a game for another company then it's their decision as to whether the game is ready or not.

MP: Please tell us a little more about Struggle of Empires.

MW: I think Joe Casadonte has done a good job of giving an overview of the game. I started this design around 5 years ago, one of my playtesters suggested it as a theme. The first games were horrendously long and complicated. All the development work has been focused on getting rid of rules and mechanisms.

The game attempts to capture that period in European history when every decade there was a war of succession over something. These were limited wars, with the victors often giving back what they had spent so long capturing. It was too difficult designing that facet into the game, but I think I have got some of the flavor of unwilling allies and desultory attacks. The key mechanism is the alliance system which stops allies from attacking each other. This gets 'round the problem of diplomacy type games where you can never be sure when someone is going to stab you in the back.

In Struggle once you are allied with somebody they cannot attack you, although they might not work too hard to help you. Overall the rules are actually simple, but the interactions are complex. One problem I foresee when the game is released is that first time players are going to be unsure as to what to do. As with the other Warfrog games there is a learning curve. However, once you know the rules the game plays very quickly. In one playtest we finished a seven-player game in about three hours, which is not bad for this type of game.

MP: Moving to a lighter game, I see Election USA is a new game with your name on it. What can you tell us about that one?

MW: Election USA is the first game I have designed for a games company called Mongoose. Their standard line is d20 RPG material. They contacted me because they were interested in going into board games. They asked for an election game and that's what I delivered. I cannot claim that the game has any outstanding features. It's a light, humorous, auction game, using many tried and trusted mechanisms from your standard German-style designs. Hopefully Mongoose will be releasing more games in the future.

MP: Which part of the design process, from concept to publication and introduction to the public, do you most enjoy?

MW: The concept is always the best part because you have not had to encounter all the annoying problems that will stop you producing exactly what you had in mind in the first place. It's also cool to see a game just off the press, that means you don't have to do any more work on it.

MP: Looking at the games from Warfrog I see a steady release schedule of a few, strong games. I imagine this is the result of a lot of discipline from everyone involved. Still, I can also imagine you have a number of ideas you'd like to work on at any given moment. Do you ever find it difficult to focus on the projects at hand?

MW: There are times when I take time off from a project and go think about something else. Recently I spent a few weeks concentrating on Byzantium. It's now at a stage where I'm pretty happy with it, so I will take a rest from it for a while and then return to it in a month or so to see how I feel about it. I do have a number of designs going on at any one time, which means if I'm having problems with one I can think about a different one.

MP: Runebound has recently been published by Fantasy Flight Games. Being a fantasy game, it seems sort of out of place with most other games we've seen from you recently. How did that project come about?

MW: A German role-playing company asked me to design a game like Talisman. In the end they decided no to go into boardgames. I then offered it to Fantasy Flight who then developed it.

I'm not into fantasy games although I used to play D&D at college. I don't like Talisman at all and tried to come up with something that made you think a little more. The problem with adventure games is that it's difficult to do more than set up a situation where you travel to a point and then see what's there.

MP: That's an interesting comment. In fact, there are so many games being released every month in all genres it's nearly impossible to find something that feels new. When you're working on any design, do you have a general approach or philosophy that you feel helps your games to stand out?

MW: More and more you have to consider whether a game does something new and fresh compared to what is already on the market. It does feel like there are too many games coming out each year. The problem is that if you want to be a professional designer you have to keep pumping new games out, and some will be better than others.

MP: For you, which of your games has been the most fun to design?

MW: I enjoyed designing Age of Steam because the hex tiles immediately added a whole new dimension to the original, Lancashire Rails. It was also fun trying out different maps.

MP: Do you have any sort of a "dream game"--something you'd love to design but doesn't appear likely in the near future?

MW: I think Age of Steam was my "dream game", a railway game that looks good, doesn't take forever to play, and is fun.

MP: What games can we expect to see in months ahead from Warfrog or from other publishers that you've designed or co-designed?

MW: At Essen we will be releasing Struggle of Empires plus some Age of Steam maps, (Western US, Germany, Korea, Scandinavia). For next year I am working on a Byzantine Empire game. There are a number of other designs in the pipeline but I could not talk about them as they are with other companies.

MP: So, as usual we have much to look forward to! Thank you very much for the time to do this interview with us!

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