10 June 2012

Q&A with Nigel Atkinson, writer of Empire of the Dead

I’m very happy to expand this segment of my blog with yet another great Q&A based interview. This time around I sent a bunch of questions to Nigel Atkinson, one of the writers of the new Empire of the Dead miniature skirmish game. Hope you guys enjoy this :- )


Background/backstory

Q: Tell us a little about your background and how you ended up in the miniature wargaming hobby?
A: I am in my mid 40's, married with two children, my eldest has just finished her first year at university.  I work full time as does Sam, so rules design is done in our spare time. I started wargaming at school, one of the teachers ran a club for the pupils.  My first army was WW2 British, we used 1/72nd scale airfix kits and figures, as these were the easiest to get hold of.

Q: What's your earliest miniature wargaming related memory?
A: The big eye opener for me was buying the magazine Military modelling each month, and reading the table top teasers.  These were battle reports, one month it would be a Viking raid on a Saxon village , the next a Naval scenario, based on the battle of the River Nile, the variety was endless.  My first trade convention, Northern Militare was also something special, as I got to see the figures I was buying before I bought them.  In those days it was all mail order, no internet, manufacturers catalogs were just lists of descriptions with a catalog number next to them.

Q: How did you come into contact with West Wind?
A: Both Sam & I got to know Westwind through SOTR.  A friend of ours Dave had painted one of the US, Sarge (Big Chief) Mecha.  Andy and Wendy loved it that much they put it in their cabinet for the day at the show.  We were all asked if we could paint up SOTR miniatures for their internet store, so we did.  Later we volunteered to run the SOTR tournament and the relationship has progressed from there.

Q: How do you and your co-author of EotD Sam Catterall know each other?
A: Sam and I met at the local Games Workshop store veterans night.  Sam and a friend were looking for someone to play Warmaster against, a couple of us were playing the game, that was c15 years ago.

Q:  I know West Wind had a game called Vampire Wars a couple of years ago until it disappeared off the radar. What’s the story behind EotD, what sparked a renewal of interest in the Gothic Horror universe?
A;  As we got to know Westwind, they mentioned that their Vampire Wars miniatures were popular, in fact the first models I bought from Westwind were the children victim and street vendor packs, for use on the Space 1889, RPG I was running.  Westwind were looking to re-create the Vampire Wars rules, and I wanted to try my hand at writing a set of rules.  I was given a set of the old Vampire wars rules, but I quickly realised that they were overly complicated, but rigid in their design, they were only designed for the use of specific miniatures in specific scenarios.  With EOTD we wanted a set of rules that were easy to pick up and run with, but had the capacity to give more experienced players different layers into which they could delve. In games like EOTD people like to use their imagination, take ownership of the game.  The rule set has a whole including the background and the ability to progress your faction is our way of allowing players to do just that.  If they want to set their campaign in the old west or in darkest Africa, they can. We have designed the rules to allow players to put their own interpretation on the EOTD universe. That is why we have used generic  terms such as Holy symbol instead of Cross.  By doing so a Holy order faction can be from any religious background not just the Christian one referred to in the rule book.

Q:  You and Sam were both involved in beta testing the expansion for Secrets of the Third Reich, ”Doomsday”. What did that experience bring to the table when you and Sam were working on EotD?
A: Beta testing Doomsday and Incursion before it, gave us insight into how to develop ideas.  If a particular part of the rules does not give you what you want, how do you change it?  Our group beta tested by testing the rules to breaking point.  If we had concerns or inconsistencies we would report them back, but with suggestions to clear up the issue.  This created a dialog between the games designers and ourselves giving us an idea as to what the rules designers wanted from the rules. As such the suggestions became more focused and relevant.

Q: How long have you and Sam been working on this set of rules?
A: The rules took two years to complete, the initial rule set took only a few months, the rest of the time was spent play testing.  Throughout the two years it took to produce EOTD, each member of the play testing team brought their ideas to each aspect of the game thereby giving the game its personality.

Q:  Imo, there are a number of ”universe’s” that people tend to love and which always generate interest. Gothic Horror is one such universe which I think has always seemed to generate awesome stories, movies and timeless ideas for games.  What do you think the world of EotD has to offer, what is the essence that should get people excited?
A: For me the EOTD universe is unique, as it cuts across two genre, Gothic horror and VSF.  This blend came about due to the different interests Sam and I have.  Sam is very much into the Gothic horror with my bent being VSF. The rules we created gives people interested in both genre an entry point into the game. Infernium powered weapons and devices combined with the ramifications of their use . Oh and lots of supernatural creatures, vampires, werewolves and zombies.  We like zombies!


Manufacturing/production


Q:  The last couple of West Wind rulebooks that I own went from black/white in Secrets of the third Reich to full color in the expansion Doomsday. Empire of the Dead is both full color as well as hardback. Was there a concept about the rulebook from the start or did you guys write the rules first
A: Westwind wanted EOTD to be the best game they have produced to date, both as a set of rules, but also visually.  Full colour was always on the agenda, the use of a hardback book came later, once the costs had been factored in.  There was no point producing a rule book at too high a price.  The production finish on the rules is very high, a hard back book with high quality paper, stitched in, it looks and feels it is worth the asking price.

Q:  EotD has just released, it’s a couple of weeks old at this moment. Already we have the PDF expansion with the ”Gentlemen & Jackanapes” which adds both supernatural villains as well as characters such as Jack the Ripper and Sherlock Homes and Dr. Watson.  The Gothic Horror universe seem to be full of characters, are we going to see more familiar faces adapted into the game?
Maybe a headless horseman (hinting at the miniature in the West Wind range) :-D ?
A:  As you say the Gothic horror genre is huge with great potential, but this is not our only source of inspiration. You have the novels of Jules Verne, HG Wells and Michael Moorcock to name a few authors, but also the Victorian period itself is also awash with ideas we can tap into.

Q: On a related subject, I think I saw a teaser with a piece of artwork for EotD with an old fashioned diving suit and the title said ”Nemonians”.  Can we assume that the game will be expanded with more factions in the future?
A: Very much so, we are looking to expand list of factions and special characters.  The two factions we have done the most work on so far are The Peelers (Supernatural Branch) and criminal gangs.  There are affiliations within the criminal gangs faction, done in a similar way to the Gentleman's Club.

Q: I’ve seen a couple of disappointed posts, and not only about EotD but about other games as well, where some gamers for various really want a downloadable PDF version of the rules. Do you have any indication if West Wind will provide such a version in the future?
A: Unfortunately, I am not aware of plans to have a downloadable version of the rules.  Long-term this may change, but it is a decision for Westwind.

Q:  Are there any legal restrictions as to what you can write and print? For instance if you wanted to make a special character based on a famous Victorian novel to be included in the rules, would that pose a legal problem or is the universe open without book and other game publishers having dibs on specific  subjects?
A: Copyright is an issue, fortunately most of the Victorian novels such as Bram Stokers Dracula are now out of copyright, due to their age, that is why you can get them free on your Kindle or other ebook devices.

Q:  Andy Cooper who did the sculpting has done a great job on the latest batch of miniatures. I always loved the Gothic Horror/Vampire Wars range. How does it work when you work with Andy, do artwork/miniatures come first or do you guys write the universe and rules first?
A: Initial discussions with Westwind defined what they wanted from the game and how we planned to execute this , after that we work separate from Andy as we needed the rules to work from a purely mechanical point of view.  There was a continuous dialog with Andy. He was e-mailing us sketches of possible miniatures and ideas for background, he literally has three or four A3 pads on the go.  Half the special characters for EOTD are Andy's ideas, we saw sketches, then the sculpts.  I have a great deal of respect for Andy, he is a true artist, with a mass of ideas.


Rules of Empire of the Dead

Q: How would you best describe the core idea of playing Empire of the Dead. I refer to it as a heavily campaign focused skirmish game. What are players to expect when playing EotD?
A: As you say the game is a skirmish game with a campaign focus.  The campaign aspect allows for the development of a player's faction, allowing the player to take ownership of their faction.  The table top rules do allow for one off games if players do not want to follow the campaign aspect.  We have five scenarios which can be set in multiple locations and with various deployments creating a myriad of possibilities.

Q: How did you guys settle on the D10, (something that got me very excited and enthusiastic very early on when the game was just announced last year)?
A:  The use of the D10 was core to the game on day one.  It has been a discussion point within our gaming group for some time that using a D6 can limit your options or create the need to use very clunky game mechanics to cover the shortcomings.  Using the D10 is much more flexible, you can pit David against Goliath, using one dice roll. 

Q: What made you guys settle on the IGOUGO system?
A: We debated this for some time, as we like both IGOUGO and alternate activation as the basis for games we have played in the past.  The choice is a very personal one for most people.  In general IGOUGO allows for faster play and a greater variation of faction types.  Close combat based factions such as The Lycaon work better using IGOUGO as it allows them to put pressure on their opponent, but also when they hit they get their payback for all the pain they suffer and they close with their opponent.  Players will find that the difference between the two activation types is marginal when playing EOTD, compared to other games where the ability to pulverise an opponent on turn one can be a problem.  We have mitigated the issues with a combination of rules design, scenarios types and table top conditions.

Q:  Me and a friend dabbled a very briefly with “alternate activation” during one of our games  one of my blog readers asked for this play style. It seemed doable though it needed close combat and watch & shoot to be reworked a bit. However do you think there will be an official “modification” for players who want to use the rules but to play them with alternate activation?
A: I think this is unlikely, however, if people want to experiment with this then I see no reason why not.  I am with a friend, working on house rules for using SOTR as the basis for a VSF game (army verses army), because we know the rules well and they will give us the basis of what we want.

Q: Both you and Sam play Secrets of the third Reich as well, and there is a hint of SoTR in the close combat rules.  Care to share with us what games served as inspiration for EotD?
A: Sam and I have a combined wargaming history of over 60 years this includes both table top and RPG games.  The rules are a real mixture with no specific games used as a focus. We also included ideas we wanted or thought other games would have benefitted from.  The most fundamental was the use of the D10.

Q:  Will we see some kind of vehicle rules in the future? The Gothic Horror aspect seems very well covered, I’m just thinking about all the Steampunk weirdness that you could bring onto the table (the included Gyrocopter already hinting at what could be done).
A: Vehicle rules are a distinct possibility, we have ideas for rules to allow carriages into the general mix, but also to have something like the carriage chase and fight from Van Helsing and other films to be played on the table top .  The use of Infernium as a power source adds an extra dimension, exploding steam engines, etc.

Q:  Something of a follow up questions I suppose, but the story of the game talks about ”infernium” powered “mechanical man servants” being used in the world of EotD . Will the ”infernium” angle be fleshed out in the future and if so what kind of ”infernium” related stuff could we be expecting?
A: The use of Infernium and its ramifications is an aspect of the game we definitely want to explore.  The butler in the picture on page 74 is a mechanical manservant .  One aspect of the background we want to explore is what happens to the Infernium powered devices such as these, how they are altered by their contact with the mineral, sentient machines, etc.

Q: At the moment the core rules, where the factions are regarded, feel very tight. You have but a few  factions and those have but a few units. I feel that the game is more about developing these basic characters into unique individuals than showering players with a plethora of unique units from the start.  Do you think about things like faction balance a lot, and do you think it will be hard to keep that balance if future factions are added to the game?
A: The  desire to built histories and personalities  for the miniatures is one we took from RPGs. Balancing the factions is a constant concern, other games we have played in the past suffer from power creep.  This is something we wanted to avoid. The limited number of factions at this time is purely a logistical one.  From a commercial point of view we wanted to have the starter sets for the factions ready at the same time as the rules.

Q: Another game that I play is Malifaux, that’s a game that pretty much covered every single category and universe – in the end I felt as if it lost itself a bit too much by covering everything and overwhelmed me as a player. Do you think adding more factions to the game pose a risk of watering down the concept of Empire of the Dead and the Gothic Horror/Steampunk setting?
A: Not if we are careful, The EOTD universe is based on an alternate, historical Victorian period, any of the new factions need to fit into this reality, some will expand on the background we have at this time, but in a way that has continuity with what has gone before.

Q: EotD includes a lot of familiar campaign features which players of Legends of the Old West, Mordheim etc are all familiar with. I do however like the added twists and functions to the campaign system that you guys have added. For instance being able to pay for an upgrade roll, unusual occurrences, day/night features, becoming  ”unhinged” to mention a few. Was is hard to come up with new stuff or was it mostly things that you and Sam thought was missing from other campaign systems?
A: A lot of the ideas we included in the rules were things we had always wanted in games we had played before.  The unusual occurrences were actually an answer to a request from Andy Cooper, he wanted power ups similar to those on computer games to be included in the game play.  We decided to use an out of sequence mechanic that allowed the players to alter the nature of the table top environment, so pea soupers, solar eclipses etc were devised.

Q: The core rules include half a dozen of scenarios that cover the basic needs of a campaign. Are there any plans on making new scenarios for PDF releases on the West Wind forum or to release a ”scenario generator”  to make it easier for players to come up with new adventures?
A: Yes we do plan to release additional scenarios, we have a few in the pipeline. Timescales are sketchy as we need to play test them.

Q:  The core rules include ”Sewers” as the location that stands out the most I think in terms of gameplay and experience.  What other unique locations do you think players will see in the future?
A: At the moment we are working on new factions and vehicles rules, so new locations will have to wait a while.  I do accept that unique locations will enhance the gaming experience, so these will come in time, roof tops, deserts and jungles are all potential options.

Q: One of the comments about the rules that I have seen was the liking of you guys including ”the public” into the game scenarios.  This is something that is absent in many games. And I almost wish there were more scenarios and features in the rules that involve the blissful ignorance of the local bystanders. Any such plans?
A: It is early days, but we are looking at a carriage race scenario, it amazing how often the public gets in the way of a carriage at full speed. If players want to include the public in the scenarios that already exist, my suggestion would be to use the rules for their movement out of the Blissful ignorance scenario.  This use of moving terrain would add an additional layer, but also allow people who have limited terrain to fill a table slightly better.  Our Ripper scenario table has carriages on it as terrain, these break up the lines of sight down the streets, but also creates a level of realism and detail on the board.

Q: The unusual occurrences is also a nice twist as which add a cinematic feel to the game, vampires forcing the time of day to change and so on. Was it hard to come up with the ”unusual occurrences” featured in the book and was there a worry about any potential balance issues?
A: A cinematic feel is just what we wanted from the unusual occurrences, the film and TV media has had a big impact on the way in which people see their world.  The hard part was deciding how they would fit into the game, balance issues being the major concern.  The ideas themselves were relatively simple to come up with.  The best way to describe our intent is the game; paper, scissor stone, each occurrence  has its counter thereby creating a balance within the unusual occurrences themselves.

Q: What I liked about the game is that the story covers a large chunk of Europe and the gameplay includes locations that go outside of the ”town/business area” locations. I must say I was a bit concerned about how city centered the game would be before I got the rules since the demo rules were centered on a town area and  I don’t own any terrain for that kind of games. Will we see more locations that cover the European mainland mentioned in the stories featured in the rulebook? Eastern European rural areas, dark forests etc?
A: Due to the generic nature of the locations, this is less of an issue than you would suspect.  The countryside, could be wheat fields in England,  the Russian steppes or the Black forest in Germany. An industrial location could be the mills of Lancashire, a railway yard in the US or the docks of Alexandria.  Players only need to use their imagination, in this regard and alter the terrain mix to suit.  What we want to do is expand on the different types of locations available.  The roof tops of a city, jungles or swamps could be new locations as they have their own unique aspects compared to the current locations on offer.

Q: One thing I was thinking about yesterday was how well old fairy tales like Red Riding Hood would mix with the Gothic Horror universe. If you gave Red Riding hood a dark twist you could almost have her being a Werewolf hunter. Were you guys giving the fairy tale angle any thought during the development of EotD?
A: I agree this is an area which we can expand into in the future.  It did not come up during the development period as the initial factions really chose themselves, as they are the classic groups everyone can associate with.


Future projects

Q: As the rules have just been released, are there any other projects related to EotD in the pipeline or are you guys focusing on straightening out quirks and compiling FAQ/Errata documents before adding more content?
A: As mentioned earlier we have a lot in the pipeline, but FAQs and Errata are part of this.  If people have rules queries the best place is the Westwind forum.  Sam and I are answering questions there.  Any FAQ and errata will be put on there also.

Q: Anything else planned for the future, other projects you and Sam may be working on?
A: Not at the moment, EOTD is our main focus.


A few quick and short questions

Q: Your personal favorite faction in Empire of the Dead?
A:  I do not have a favourite faction, but it is always interesting to see what others think of the various factions.

Q: Favorite movie?
A: This changes on a regular basis, but I do keep going back to the Hellboy movies and Apocalypse Now.  One of my favourite scenes is in Hellboy 2 when Hellboy and Abe are singing along to Barry Manalow. An opposite is the Air cav attack in Apocalypse Now which is just superb, it made Wagner cool.  One of the most thought provocing movie I have seen is Saving private Ryan, I could not sleeep after seeing it, such was the impact of the first 20 minutes.

Q: Favorite boardgame?
A: Junta, the only board game I have played where the board is pointless.

Q:  What other miniature wargames do you play?
A: Far too many especially if you talk to my wife, it is the ongoing joke of our gaming group (MDK) that we have a bigger appetite for games than we do time. Recent games include Warhammer 40k, Full Thrust,  Saga, Lord of the Rings (strategy and War of the Rings} and SOTR.


Last question

Q: Is there anything else you might want to tell the readers out there that have not already been asked or mentioned?
A: I would like to take this opportunity to say thank you to the main play testers of EOTD, Rick Lloyd and Dave Meller, fellow members of MDK.  They spent two years  working on EOTD, without their input and child like delight at breaking the rules Sam and I devised EOTD would not be as good as it is.  The look of horror on our faces when Rick devised a way to have a gunship helicopter, Gatling gun and all was a priceless moment (Sorry we fixed that).


Big thanks for taking the time to answer these questions and satisfying our curiosity!

6 comments:

  1. Nice interview! Good read! Our group has been getting into the game and I've really been enjoying it

    ReplyDelete
  2. Wish I could get the rules to try them,
    Thanks for asking about the PDF,
    I expect if they do release it will be at full price as the
    publisher seems to really dislike the idea.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Odd Logged in but it sets me as anon?
    Lee

    ReplyDelete
  4. Very strange with the log-in problem Lee, maybe a Blogspot hickup?

    ReplyDelete

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