Wednesday 10 January 2018

Interview: James M Hewitt

James M Hewitt is the man behind Needy Cat Games and certainly a veteran of the games design scene. From his work with Mantic and Games Workshop working on games such as Dreadball, Necromunda and Blood Bowl, James has now gone freelance under Needy Cat Games where his valued skills can be hired. Being a huge fan of much of his work I was honoured to be able to ask him some questions! 

First of all, thank you for your time in answering some questions! What got you into the tabletop hobby initially?
Good question! Like a lot of people, it was a slippery slope. I was lucky enough to be more-or-less the right age when Hero Quest came out, and my dad picked it up for me for my birthday. I think I was only five or six, but it absolutely grabbed my imagination – suddenly, there was this whole world of heroes and monsters and swords and magic, and there was a board game that was intricate and complicated but so deep and interesting. I mean, don’t get me wrong – I was way younger than the recommended age, but I was already a big reader, and I got right into it. I’ve still got that copy up in the loft, loads of character sheets filled out with tiny-James writing (or the sheets I made my dad fill out when I forced him to play with me – “Dad the Barbarian”, that sort of thing). I got Space Crusade, too, when it came out a couple of years later. Problem was, I didn’t have any friends who were interested in playing, so the games ended up going on the shelf after a while, and it wasn’t until several years later when a copy of White Dwarf magazine was being passed around at school (issue 169, with the infamous card bunkers) when I remembered how much I’d loved it all, and a lifelong love was reborn. The first WD I bought was 174, when the Death Zone supplement for Blood Bowl was released, and I’ve still got it. One of the most exciting pages was the catalogue at the back with its Mail Order form, which I filled in with gusto even though I never sent it off – in fact, here, have a photo!

I didn’t know what a codex was, but at a tenner it was one of the cheapest things available. The Razorback ended up being the first kit I actually bought, and I’ve still got it – painfully daubed in thick enamel paint, the detail straining to be seen. I got the Ork Dreadnought too, but the Eldar bits never quite materialised.
So yeah, that’s how I got started in the tabletop hobby in a rather rambly nutshell. 

What games would you list as your absolute favourites?
Ooh, now, there’s a question. In recent years I’ve been doing a lot more board gaming than wargaming – I’ve got a two-year-old who makes it very difficult to find time to build and paint armies, and I’ve been dealing with a bit of what I think might be carpal tunnel syndrome, which has meant I can’t hold a paintbrush for more than half an hour without my wrist aching (insert jokes here, everyone). That said, Mordheim’s got to be up there somewhere – it was basically Necromunda 2.0 but in an incredibly compelling setting. I think a lot of the weirdness that came to the fore in Warhammer’s later years can be attributed to Mordheim.
Other games I love include a board game called Stronghold (it’s a two-player siege simulator, little wooden cubes everywhere but incredibly tense and rewarding), Netrunner (a fantastic asymmetrical card game from Fantasy Flight, which has got away from me a bit in recent years but which I still adore), Blades in the Dark (a tabletop roleplaying game which does some very clever things indeed and is another example of a fantastic setting) and Galaxy Trucker (a game about building rickety spaceships out of parts and racing them around space… this is the game that convinced me you can write humour into rulebooks). 

That’s by no means an exhaustive list, but off the top of my head it’ll do. It’s a bit like asking a parent to name their favourite child. Ask me again in a month and you’ll get all new answers!

Following on from fave games, what about your favourite games mechanics that you've played and written?
Ooh! Great question. I mentioned Stronghold a minute ago – one of the cleverest mechanics in that game is its resource management and asymmetry. When you’re the attacker, the turn is broken into a number of stages. In the first stage, you gather resources; in the second you build catapults and other siege equipment; in the next stage you outfit your troops; and so on. However, each thing you do gives a ‘time’ token to the defender, and after each stage they get to spend those tokens on doing anything they like within the castle walls. So you have this delicious decision to make, as the attacker – do you spend time preparing, giving yourself better odds of getting over the wall and winning the game, or do you rush the walls as quickly as possible, knowing that the defender won’t have much time to react? The game’s full of little decisions like that, all of which add up to a really visceral experience. Seriously, look it up and give it a go!
As for mechanics I’ve written… I think Gorechosen is one of my favourite designs, because it’s so pure. It was written to first draft in about a week and a half, which is insanely quick, but that’s because the brief was so simple - it’s a pit-fighting game, with a bunch of Khornate champions. I wanted to put emphasis on movement and positioning (I’ve played a few pit fighting games that are just “roll dice until someone’s dead”, which is dull as anything) and I’m dead chuffed with the way the “Kill Zones” do this. For anyone who hasn’t played the game, it’s based on a hex grid, and each character has certain hexes which it can target. For example, one character just has short-ranged hand weapons, so they can target the three hexes in their front arc, while another character has a big anvil on a chain, so he’s most effective when he’s a couple of squares away. It means characters are always jostling for position, trying to get their enemy in their sweet spot while avoiding the opposite from happening. It makes the game pretty tense, and I like that!
When did you decide you wanted to break into games design, and how did you go about this process?
Great question, and I’m not entirely sure! Throughout school, whatever I was playing, I was usually the one reading the rulebooks and teaching people how things worked. When I was twelve or thirteen I teamed up with my mate Oli and wrote a load of extra rules for 40k, including some stuff that covered fighting in tunnels (which I think was because we had a copy of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, with its paper dungeon map, and we wanted to put it to use). This evolved into us having a stab at writing a couple of games from scratch when we were fifteen or sixteen, and I actually sent one off to Games Workshop to see if they’d publish it (ahh, youth). I’ve still got the very polite letter from Andy Chambers saying “thanks but no thanks”.
I left school and half-heartedly started a degree in Linguistics, but my heart wasn’t in it, and I dropped out after a term. I moved back home and realised I needed a job, so I applied to the local Games Workshop store (Maidstone in Kent). Gary, the store manager (who was there when I was a kid, and is still there to this day – I’m half convinced that the shop, possibly even the town itself, was built around him) took me for an interview in the local pub, because times were different then, and asked me what my eventual goal was in working there. I remember saying that one day I wanted to write games for a living. I’m not sure if I ever thought it would happen!
I ended up spending the next decade working in GW retail, where I learned a hell of a lot about what gamers like, what works, what doesn’t, how to run campaigns, and so on. And, of course, I got to know a lot of people who ended up rising through the ranks and getting into the games industry; I can think of half a dozen games companies off the top of my head who are managed (or, at the very least, staffed) by people I was a retail store manager with. Eventually, when I was sick of retail hours, I was lucky enough to get offered some writing work. One of my old area managers was working for Mantic, who were looking for someone to write a sci-fi sports game. He knew I was keen, he put me in touch, and it’s been a bit of a rollercoaster ever since!

While at Mantic, the company seemed to take off with a lot of success. What were the key factors during that period and what was it like being part of the company as Mantic grew?
It was a real period of growth. I joined the company properly between the DreadBall and Deadzone Kickstarters; DreadBall had made a frankly insane amount of money (Kickstarter was new, and Mantic was one of the first tabletop games companies to really take advantage) and Ronnie was really keen to invest in the company’s future. When I joined, I think there were about twelve staff – but within a year it was about twice that. Suddenly there was an in-house painter, a sculptor, a graphic designer, a full-time photographer, I was doing community management but also writing and editing… it was a really exciting time. We all had a load of creative input into anything that got made. We hit a lot of hurdles, and I worked more hours than any healthy person should work, but it was such a rewarding experience, and I learned so much. These days there are even more staff there, and more levels of seniority – if I’d stayed, who knows how high up the ladder I’d be now?
When Games Workshop announced the return of Specialist Games, the community welcomed the decision with open arms. What was it like moving to GW and having the opportunity to work on some classic cult games? The reboot of Blood Bowl seems to have gone down incredibly well, it was the game that got me into tabletop gaming and I absolutely love the new edition. Necromunda too seems to be following suit.
I initially went from Mantic to Games Workshop because, even though there were little opportunities to be involved in game design while I was at Mantic, I really wanted to be able to sink my teeth into some big projects. Of course, that was a couple of years before Specialist Games was announced, and I was part of the main Citadel Rules Team – that’s the guys responsible for 40k, Age of Sigmar, anything big and shiny that uses the main range models. As such, I didn’t touch any classic cult games for quite a while! That said, I did get to make Warhammer Quest: Silver Tower, which was sort of like revitalising a classic. Interestingly, when I was first briefed, it didn’t have the Warhammer Quest name attached to it – it was going to just be a Tzeentch themed dungeon crawler – but regardless of what was on the box, I knew it had to measure up to WQ. After all, when GW puts out a dungeon crawler, what are people immediately going to compare it to? 

For me, though, it was a delight. Warhammer Quest was one of my favourite games growing up, and the specialist games always held a place in my heart. I never had too much to spend on wargaming, so big armies were often a challenge, which meant I focussed more on Necromunda, Mordheim and Inquisitor. I didn’t get into Blood Bowl until I was in my twenties, but once I did I knew how special it was. So when Specialist Games was announced, I got very excited and decided to apply for whatever roles came up. Sure enough I got the job, and had a great time reimagining the games I’d loved so much in my youth. 
Having worked on some of the boxed games, what challenges did you face taking wargames that are normally quite large scale battles into a board game setting?
With a tabletop wargame like Warhammer 40,000, the rules are huge in scope – they have to be, in order to cover the wide range of factions, models and settings. Unfortunately that means that, to a degree, they have to be quite homogenous. There’s a lot of abstraction, and a lot of detail is omitted to keep the game flowing smoothly. By comparison, each standalone boxed game is a chance to zoom right in and look at a faction, or even just some particular models, in great detail. Take Assassinorum: Execution Force, for example (I didn’t design it, but I was part of the team that was involved in its production). In 40k, Assassins are deadly dangerous characters who excel at killing enemy models in a particular way, but there are limits to how you can portray that. When you think of the kind of stories you see in the narrative about assassins, they do a lot of their fighting away from the battlefield. You can’t see that in a 40k game, but in that boxed game there was the chance to build the game mechanics around the idea of being sneaky and stealthy, taking down guards and acting as a team of very specialised individuals to achieve a goal. That’s the other thing you can’t do in 40k – the nature of the game is that it’s adversarial, two (or more) players in direct opposition, but with Execution Force or Silver Tower you’re working together against the game, which is a very different player experience. 
So that’s the goodpart, but you asked about the challenges! Betrayal at Calth is a good example to use. It was the first time GW had released plastic Horus Heresy era Marines, which meant it was going to fly off the shelves. This had a few consequences. First up, I had a bit of pressure from above to not worry too much about the design of the game – “it’ll sell either way, so there’s no need to make the game fantastic”. While I can see the financial / workflow benefit in spending only a week on the design rather than a couple of months, I still really struggle with producing something half-hearted. That was the first challenge, definitely – if I’d been designing a pure board game, which didn’t use miniatures from an existing range, that wouldn’t have been an issue! Another related challenge was the fact that we knew a lot of customers were going to be ignoring the game components completely, but some were going to want to play the game but then add the minis to their army. That influenced the game design – as the miniatures were multi-part kits with several different weapon options, we didn’t want to say “you must build the Ultramarines squad with a flamer and a missile launcher if you want to play the game” as that could easily clash with what the player wanted to put into their army. This led to the idea that all weapons are pretty much equal in that game – boltguns were the default, but they couldn’t be boring or useless! The idea was that you could put your squad together however you like, and it would just influence your strategy rather than making it easier or harder to do well in the game.

So yeah, there were plenty of challenges! But challenges often lead to better design. It would have been dead easy to say “boltguns don’t have any special rules”, which would have been lame when two thirds of your models are exclusively equipped with them. It’s actually influenced the way I work now; I tend to set myself artificial limitations, so I challenge my assumptions about my own designs and the end product hopefully ends up better. We’ll see if that works!

You have since left Games Workshop and gone freelance. What are your aspirations for Needy Cat Games?
So far, I’ve been doing lots of freelance work for other companies. Business is good, I’m getting to work with several old friends I’ve known for a long time as well as making some great new contacts – it’s good to be busy! However, eventually, I’d like to be publishing my own games, expanding the “studio” and getting some staff in (if nothing else, maybe a junior game designer to help with the workload!). The industry’s in a great place for that kind of thing, with little studios popping up left, right and centre, and crowdfunding makes it a real possibility. I’m lucky enough to be able to say I’m supporting my family with my work, which is a great feeling, but I’m not quite at the point where things are comfortable enough to not have the occasional worry. That’s the real dream, isn’t it? Doing what you love, and making enough money not to worry about the bills. One day!
What would be the one game you would love to create, if money was no boundary? Would it be based on an already existing IP? Would you want to create a world from the ground up?
Much as I love wargames, I’ve got a real hankering to work on something more abstract. I’m a big fan of Euro-style board games – little wooden cubes, serious faces all round, multiple paths to victory, all that – and I’d love to really sink my teeth into designing one of those. I think it’s human nature, isn’t it? You spend a few years working on one thing and it just makes you want to work on something that’s entirely the opposite! 

There are a few topics I’d love to cover in games, though. Zulu was one of my favourite films growing up, but I’ve not seen a self-contained board game that doesn’t approach it in a really dry, painfully-historically-accurate fashion. I’d love to take a more cinematic approach to it!  

If you had to recommend 3 games of any kind to a budding games designer to play and learn from, what would you suggest?
 Oh blimey. Good question! The first thing I’d suggest is “hey, there’s no way you’re gonna learn enough from three games, so this is just a starting point!” Then I’d tell them to play three games that will challenge their assumptions, because if they want to design games they almost certainly already play them, and they’ll have a lot of ideas about what designing a game means. I’d start with Hanabi.
If you’ve not encountered it, Hanabi is a little card game about putting on a fireworks display, but the theme’s barely relevant beyond an excuse for pretty pictures on the cards. Mechanically it’s dead simple – there’s a deck of cards, containing five sets of cards (red, yellow, white, green, blue). Each set contains cards numbered 1 to 5. Players each get a hand of cards and on their turn they can play a card from their hand to the centre of the table – with the group as a whole attempting to complete a full 1-5 run of each colour. So, if White 1 is on the table, you could play White 2.
So far, so pedestrian, yeah? This could be any number of basic play-it-with-your-nan-on-a-caravan-holiday card games. But there are two twists…
1.    If you play a card out of order – in the example above, you play White 1, 3, 4 or 5 – the players collectively lose a life. Three lives and it’s game over.
2.    You hold your hand of cards backwards, so you can only see the backs. At no point are you allowed to look at the cards in your hand. Any cards you play are played blind – you don’t see what they are until after you’ve played them. Argh! Clever! 
 Basically, when it’s your turn you can either tell someone limited information about the cards in their hand, you can play a card from your hand, or you can discard one. It becomes an exercise in both memory and teamwork, and is a frankly brilliant bit of design innovation. Yeah, there are some holes, and you can only play it so many times before you start figuring out an obvious winning strategy, but I’d definitely suggest Hanabi as a game to play if you want to learn about challenging your assumptions about a design (things like “when you hold a hand of cards, you can see what they are”). 

Next up is a big one – Pandemic Legacy. This has been covered to death elsewhere (check out Shut Up & Sit Down’s spoiler-free review), but in short it’s a game which has a limited number of plays in it. You’re a bunch of experts trying to stop a series of deadly viruses from wiping out the world, and you play through one year. Each month features up to two games, meaning you’ll only play the game between 12 and 24 times… but each game you play has irreversible consequences on the next. You’ll be tearing up cards, drawing on the board, sticking stickers to things, opening sealed boxes and finding new components… it’s fantastic. Again, it challenges an assumption – this time, that when you put away a game at the end of a session it’s the same as it was when you took it out – but it also teaches some good lessons about economical storytelling and how to evoke emotional responses from players through clever use of components. 

Finally, I’d get them to play Captain Sonar, if they can find seven other people to play with! Two teams of four are each in control of a submarine, and they’re hunting each other across a Battleship-style map grid. Everyone has their own responsibilities – one player shouting directions, another player loading torpedoes, and so on – and in one of my most favourite bits, each team has a ‘radio operator’ whose job it is to track the other sub’s shouted directions, plotting a course on a sheet of acetate until they think they know where the enemy might be. Oh, and again, there’s a twist – the game is played in real-time. No turns, no order, just madness as eight players talk over each other, captains sweating bullets as they can tell the other team are getting closer to figuring out where they are… until someone shouts FIRE and it all stops so you can work out if anyone got hit. It’s a good game for breaking assumptions about how players interact – the real-time nature of the game, as well as the way you’re listening in on what the other team’s saying, made this game really stand out when it was released.
There you go, I managed to think of three games. But there are so many more! My biggest piece of advice to aspiring designers is always to play as many games as possible. This is especially true of wargames designers – you might not realise it, but board games have a lot to borrow from! If you restrict yourself to only playing what other designers in your field have designed, you’re much less likely to innovate.
 Thank you very much for answering if theres anything else you'd like to say or give a brief description on Needy Cat Games then please feel free!
Thank you for letting me ramble on! All I’ll say is that you can find out more about NGC by visiting, and if you are looking at designing your own games I offer an affordable consultancy / guidance service for new designers and indie startups. Drop me a line!
Huge thank you to Mr Hewitt for taking the time to answer these questions, that we both started with issue 174 White Dwarf is crazy! Again, for any more info
is your place to visit if you want to know what James is currently doing or if you'd like to talk to him about helping develop games! 

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