Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Interview for HOP-BigJim

I wrote a series of articles about designing better games for House of Paincakes over the past 2 months or so. While I was working on the process and developing material for the series, I conducted a good number of interviews with various people across the internet, as well as some real life folks.

Next, I have a real treat for you: an in-depth interview with BigJim from Adventures in Wargaming. BigJim has been kind enough to talk shop with me about 40K and much more, and I really hope you'll enjoy it. 

Lo: Would you mind telling me when and how you came up with the idea for Killzone?

BigJim: It was during the summer of 2010, I was a little burnt out on regular 40k. So I had been looking to get back into Battlefleet Gothic or maybe Necromunda, then I remembered that GW updated Killteams in the battle missions books. I got really excited only to have my hopes dashed as it seems that the design team phoned this version in.

As a fan of skirmish gaming, having played scads of systems in my long career of wargaming I decided that I would write a better version of killteams and share it with the web.

I named it Special Operations Killzone so nobody would confuse my version of Killteams with GW’s. I had originally planned to make it a real in-depth skirmish game, but so many people liked the idea and wanted to play in organized “competition” that I decided to release two versions of the game. A basic version that used the 40k mechanics for the most part and a true skirmish game using modern game design.

Unfortunately the true skirmish game got lost somewhere in the mix after my buddy Brian approached Adepticon about running Killzone in place of their planned Killteams event. The event at Adepticon was well received and helped us figure out a few weak points of the system. So we have worked hard to shore up those points for the 2012 event.

We fully intend to revisit the true skirmish system in 2012.

Lo: What inspires you most in designing?

BigJim:I have been gaming for well over 35 years and the thing I love the most about game design is the freedom that it offers. I can make a game play the way I want, using creative rules and common sense.

So what inspires me most in game design are rules that make sense. That is where I run into most of my issues with 40k, RAW a lot of the time does not match what makes sense as RAI would present. I will say it now as I have in the past I certainly do not play 40k for the rules cause they are weak and antiquated. I play 40k for the background of 40k, you’ll not find another sci-fi game with an extensive background to match.

I don’t play a lot of the current modern thinking skirmish games because they do not have worlds that inspire me, but I really appreciate the game design used by the systems as I watch games being played. I think all the time down at the game store, ah that is a great idea that would work great for X.

Lo:With a true skirmish game on the horizon, and ideas of worlds that inspire you- are you creating your own worlds, or continuing your project using existing GW/40K material?

BigJim: For now I will be sticking with 40K, but you never know where a good game system will go in the future. I have often thought of reviving Warzone or Starship Troopers through some home grown rules. Each can actually be a different product built off the same design engine, but let's not get too far ahead of where I am at. Otherwise I'll never get the true skirmish for 40K done!

Lo:Why 40K over any other as your starting point?  Why not use another system? Is it purely the setting/"feel" of the world? You mentioned before that there are not many games with worlds that appeal to you. What makes 40K special?

BigJim:I have 20+ years invested into the 40K Lore and I believe it to be the best Lore for any sci-fi wargame out there; nothing compares in my opinion. Now I did jump on the Warzone and Starship Troopers bandwagons when they were out for various reasons, and enjoyed each system a lot.

Now I could bolt 40K onto either one of those games, but I would rather pick the best things (both had issues, but what game does not) and combine them into a game of their own.

The 40K setting is so has so much depth and an expansive galaxy you can create your own factions, worlds, campaigns, stories and characters without impacting the actual cannon of the Lore.

For example, I could set Killzone in a small sector of space out on the far easten fringe. Then I could write up specific forces with names characters and forces, but not effect the overall arc of the cannon 40K Lore. My sector would just be another needle in the pile of needles that is 40K.

Lo: I personally don't know a lot about the lore or galaxy of 40K, but I love the game for exactly what you described; the ability to do nearly anything in it. The freedom to make clans or factions as you like is exceptionally powerful for a creative person. Do you feel this freedom for creativity is relative to 40K's popularity?

BigJim:I would say yes to a very large extent, but also some comes down to game exposure. A lot of 40K gamers have had GW games as their only exposure to wargaming. So they have nothing to compare game to, because if they did a bunch would jump ship.

I am going to get into a subject that I don't usually throw out there because it almost always starts an internet debate. As a wargamer that has gamed for 30+ years I would not touch 40K from a purely for the game perspective, because so many games are just downright better; having modern design and clear rules. Now those other "better" games do not interest me because their Lore is just not that good (which when they are in 20 years it may be) in my honest opinion.

Lo: Is this only because of gameplay? What do you think makes 40K worth mentioning as an example of a game without "modern design and clear rules"?  What makes a rules set clear? What's your personal favorite example of a clearly written game?

BigJim: 40K is a pure turn counter turn game that uses D6 and nearly unmodified descending probability charts for resolution. The turns are not even truly phased with in the turn move/move shoot/shoot etc. Those are just a few of the many examples of very old (as in 40-50 years old, you could even say so old they have their birth in HG Wells "Little Wars" system) mechanics. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but through the poor execution of GW's editing of the rules it hurts more than it helps. Especially when gamers are trying to play tournaments with the rules, GW knows this so it really is their bad.

What I do like about 40k the most is the speed of the game; meaning I can get a 2k game done in around 2-2.5 hours or so.

Beyond that, what 40k needs is clearly written rules usually utilize lots and lots of diagrams within the structure of the rules. Effectively telling you how the game is supposed to be played in a very visual way.

If I had to pick my favorite example of a clearly written set of rules, I’d have to leave the Sci-fi genre. Flames of War is in my opinion the most clearly written playable in a decent amount of time wargame on the market. Heck its' heritage is based on 3rd ed 40k, but fixed the appalling parts of the system to create a unique wargame of its own. (Before anyone chimes in with FOW is nothing like 40k, I want you to be aware I was involved in the early playtesting)

Another great thing about FOW is the willingness of the writers to interact with the fan base and fix anything unclear very quickly.

In fact I don't play much of what would be considered normal 40K, since my game group makes extensive use of house rules to make the game better. The only times I play the game of 40k as written in the BRB is when I a: got to a tournament or b: go meet up with a friend or fan from outside my oldschool game group.

Lo: Some see 40K much like D&D- the originator that all others follow, adjust, tinker and twist more to the liking of the writer or audience in mind. What are your thoughts on that?

BigJim: I am old school, I remember when all the rulebooks used to tell you to change the rules if you want to because they are merely a guideline to get you started. So yes I do see it very much like that. I see the Lore and the rules of 40k as a paint by numbers canvas they you are free to make additions or changes to your liking.

Lo: Here, it seems obvious that you find the Lore of 40K superior to other game systems. Was this GW's making, or a happy accident? I mean, the Black Library and Eisnhorn books are in my mind, similar to many of the "prequel" books written for Star Wars- they add a lot of flavor, but not "official" in any way. Does this help or hurt GW's product, to you?

BigJim: I guess since I have been playing since the first release of 40k and gaming through the fleshing out of the Lore, I would have to admit it was both GW's making and a happy accident. In my opinion all those Black Library books are official cannon to the 40k universe. I really wish that GW would get off the fence with all the novels and make them official cannon like they have with the BL Horus Heresy novels, but it is a start. To me it does not hurt the game at all other than the occasional internet forum disagreement.

 In the new year I should put up a PDF of my groups house rules on Galaxy in Flames just as an example of how you can use 40k as you canvas for your imagination.

Lo: You seem very intent on writing skirmish rules that are fun and appealing for your style of play. What is "Skirmish level" to you, and why do you find it so enchanting?

BigJim: I am indeed, "skirmish level" gaming usually involves very small forces ranging anywhere from 10-50 miniatures total for both sides on the tabletop. This level of play really tests your tactical skills, because every miniature counts and plays fast even with more in-depth rules; such as throwing grenades and overwatch. It also allows you to easily create really cool missions and story lines thus pushing the narrative gaming side of things to the forefront; which is one of my favorite aspects of gaming.

Lo: You've been around a long time. What difference do you see between a 'strategy' game and a 'tactics' game? What's your preference?

BigJim: That is a tough question as one pertains to the other, but I will attempt to give you a game type breakdown.

I have always thought of this as a useful way of thinking about it:

When you look at an army and or game, think of it in terms of its smallest maneuver unit.
If that maneuver units models act independently it is a tactical skirmish game. Even if the unit activates as a whole but allows the models to do their own things ie shoot at different targets. 

Models are affected by things individually not as a whole unit. (Killzone, Necromunda)

Then if you are in fact using the army via its smallest maneuver unit that does not fall into single model action skirmish the game is a tactical wargame. Units are affected by things not individual models.  (WFB and WH 40k)

If you maneuver and fight with a combination of those units it is a grand tactical wargame (Epic 40K, Warmaster)

If you are moving units on a map that covers an entire theater of war it is a strategic wargame (Horus Heresy game from FFG)

So 40K is supposed to be a tactical wargame but is actually a skirmish game that pretends to be a tactical game while using some of the worse mechanics for both.

Lo: Also, did you ever play Confrontation? if so, what are your thoughts on the game and its gameplay mechanics?

BigJim: I never did get into Confrontation, while the minis are fantastic the prices made GW minis seem cheap.

Lo: I noticed one of the updates for Killzone is unit activation.

I'll admit that I don't understand this idea or game mechanic. To me, if you are in a battle/fight/combat/whatever, your guys are already "active" and don't need to be "turned on" in order to do things.

Am I missing the point of unit activation? If so, could you explain things a little more fully/clearly?

BigJim: Well in a Phased movement system you activate your units/models one at a time; alternating between players. Depending on how granular the system is activated units/models may do a preset number of predetermined "actions" like with 40k move, shoot assault. Other systems are more granular, allowing activated models to do a number of preset actions from a long list of possibilities. This more granular system allows more realistic combat for example a model could move out from behind a building, then shoot, and finally move back behind the building.

Lo:To you, is the point of a skirmish game the ability to have very personal and indepth encounters, better realism for person-to-person fighting, or a combination of both?

BigJim: Really it is a combination of both.


  1. Boy howdy, I do ramble on a bit here! Thanks for taking the time to get my opinions on things, it was a lot of fun.