Interviews with Ameri-Titans, Volume 2: Roberto Di Meglio and Francesco Nepitello

Interviews with Ameri-Titans, Volume 2: Roberto Di Meglio and Francesco Nepitello

Ken B.     
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For many of us, Roberto Di Meglio and Francesco Nepitello probably need no introduction--they're two of the three designers for Nexus' and Fantasy Flight's massively popular War of the Ring, a game unabashedly old school in its complexity as well as featuring some of the most drop-dead gorgeous components imaginable, rivaling and surpassing the Gamemaster line of the 80s that all of our young eyes glazed over in our youth.

War of the Ring has been a massive success, and currently stands ranked at #14 on Boardgamegeek.com. It was one of the first games I picked up after getting back into the hobby in early 2005, and I was thrilled that Roberto and Francesco agreed to do an interview for us. So, without further ado...



____________________________________________________

F:AT:
First off, thank you Roberto and Francesco for agreeing to do the interview. As is our standard, could you each give us some info on your gaming backgrounds?

Roberto: Since I was a kid, I had a knack for crafting un-necessary complex rules to play with toy soldiers together with my elder brother, Ugo. So we were in for being easily converted when, after the usual fare of Risk and Monopoly, we were introduced by a friend to our first wargame, AH's "Cesar's Legions", back in 1979 (I was 13 then).

More AH's and SPI's titles followed, then our gaming group was stormed by the arrival of D&D in Italy. Over the year, I mantained my taste for games which are strongly themed and simulation-oriented. Getting older and dumber, I can't manage the monster rulebooks I could when I was young, so I am now drifting towards simpler games, and unavoidably euro/family games - I also have two kids, 9 and 6, to play with!

Francesco:
My gaming background is pretty similar to Roberto's. I also started as many others by playing with my elder brother, Giuliano, who was in charge of running every game we did together, and who compiled notebooks with detailed rules for everything, from toy soldier games to games using lego, and so on (thinking about it, I shall try to dig up those notebooks, sooner or later...).

With such an approach to games, it was completely natural for us to get involved in simulation games when we first spotted them. So, our parent's house still has shelves full of AH, SPI, GDW and similar brand's titles. Eventually, we got in touch with role-playing games, about when I started to cement my friendship with my current designing partner, Marco Maggi. I think that the love for simulation and rpgs has left a strong interest in blending rules and theme strongly together.



F:AT:
How did you come into the world of game design?

Roberto:
From a professional point of view, I started writing "Crom!", one of the earliest gaming fanzines in Italy, in 1987.

I soon "graduated" to founding the first widely circulated gaming magazine in Italy, "Kaos", in 1991. In 1993, Nexus Editrice was founded, initially most to publish our magazine (which we bought from the original publisher) and role-playing games. Working on the magazines, I started creating some small games which were published with the magazine, but I was too deeply involved in being the publisher to properly develop an activity as a designer in the proper sense. Until I got involved with "War of the Ring"...

Francesco:
After a very brief attempt to write (for cinema and novels), me and Marco decided that we could try to apply our love for games to create something. It was probably in the late eighties that the interest in D&D fortuitously put us in touch with Leo Colovini and the studio soon to be known as 'Venice Connection'.

This way, we spent a few years learning about Euro games by masters like Alex Randolph and Dario De Toffoli, discovering a new world made of elegant and concise mechanics. Together with Leo Colovini and Dario De Toffoli we finally debuted in '93 with our first title, 'Lex Arcana', a fantasy rpg set in a fictional Roman Empire that learned to use magic...



F:AT:
In a time where many European designers were striving towards cleaner and more simplistic rulesets, you guys obviously came at theme and complex mechanisms with gusto. Was this due to a love for more complex gaming, or a feeling that the games you were working on deserved it? Sort of a "chicken or the egg" type question.

Roberto:
First of all, I approach game design trying to create games which I'd personally like to play. For me, theme and rules must go together, and sometime a little bit of additional complexity may be necessary to recreate the proper atmosphere. I like simple games, but I think you can only go so far in creating a game which is very simple AND thematic.

So the point is trying to get the right balance, without being scared of one rule too much. On top of that, we got to work on licenses, such as Lord of the Rings and Marvel, which had seen lot of simple, "cut-and-paste your mechanic here", games. We wanted to create games which could provide a good experience to fans of these settings, not another mass-market product or euro-style mildly-flavored product.

Francesco:
In general, we start to design a game because we are attracted by a theme, or subject, and we try to portray it in the game as faithfully as possible. If this is compatible with simplicity, the better, but if it's not...



F:AT:
In 2004, War of the Ring took the gaming world by storm, becoming a smash success and a favorite of a lot of gamers. How did you guys become involved with that project?

Roberto:
Well, the story has been told a few times. For years, we were just waiting someone to publish a game like War of the Ring, to play it. What was around at the time was not exactly to our taste! Then we waited, and waited, and it did not appear.

So we started thinking how it should be, drafting some rules, and before we knew it, we were designing it. Halfway through, we realized that after all we WERE a games publisher, why don't try to get the license? And we did, and found out that several other companies were exactly at the same time trying to get the same license...

And in the end the licensee (Sophisticated Games, which holds the master license for LotR board games) decided that our project was the best one.

Francesco:
I remember a trip to Nurnberg when Roberto was showing me and Marco a very first draft of the map for the game, to discuss the set-up of forces. We were very tired, for driving late in the evening, but Roberto was relentless (as he usually is), so we ended up laying the map on a bed and talked into the night. What is funny that me and Marco were doing it mostly simply to keep Roberto happy, as we were certain that he was delusional in thinking that we could really get the license!



F:AT:
It's obvious by your attention to detail that either you're huge Tolkien fans or did a lot of research in the development of the game. Did you have a complexity level in mind when designing it, or did the evolution of the game itself come more naturally?

Roberto: I think both statements are true for me - I am a huge Tolkien fan (even if I forfeited the History of Middle Earth halfway through the first volume!) but we also did a lot of research and re-read many things.

We can say that the game "evolved" to its current complexity level during the early design stages, then remained more or less stable after that. Initially it was simpler, but gradually we realized that certain things could not be simplified too much or we would lose "realism".

A small example is the "Stop in a Shadow Stronghold rule" when the Fellowship is revealed. This rule is a small additional rule which at one point we added to the design because it was just not right that you could get through Moria without caring too much...

Francesco: I think that the complexity level of War of the Ring was mostly set by the subject from the very beginning. We knew what we, as fans, would have liked to find opening that box, and we didn't spare ourselves. When we disclosed the design to playtesters, the general consensus told us that we were right, so we only needed to make everything work together.

Sometimes this meant to add new rules, sometimes we were able to simplify, but only when we felt that the 'unity of effect' we sought was being lost in the minutiae.



F:AT:
One of the most intriguing mechanisms in the game is the action dice system. How early did this concept enter into the main game?

Roberto:
Since the very beginning. We wanted to limit the choice of players' actions just like many other modern strategy games do, and wanted an original mechanic to create this limitation. The funny thing is that initially I thought of using this system, then I immediately realized that Francesco and Marco were already using an action-dice mechanic in another game we published a few years before: X-Bugs! (X-Bugs is going to be released in a new and improved format this year, under the name originally used in France, "Micro Mutants". )

Francesco:
It's one of the many things we immediately agreed upon, as it was exactly what we were looking for.



F:AT:
One thing that was shocking to me was opening that box for the first time and seeing such a lavish production, especially for a game that retailed for $60. What was the secret in getting all those bits in there at a relatively affordable cost?

Roberto:
Two answers: I am very bad in trying to make a profit from our games, and we had a very large initial print run!

Francesco:
Roberto said it best...



F:AT:
One of the criticisms of the game was a perceived lack of balance between the sides; this of course makes sense given the story of Tolkien's novels. Did you intentionally set out to portray this imbalance? How did you feel about those criticisms of the game?

Roberto:
A certain level of imbalance was deliberate. The Free Peoples player must suffer and struggle to win, that's just as it should be. And I am still not convinced that the game is imbalanced as some people think...

But I always play to have fun, while clearly some people are really obsessed with finding the "perfect strategy"... Still, apparently they must have fun if they continue to play despite how imbalanced the game is, isn't it?

In the end, I think that minimal changes may be done by players with house rules if they find that they have a little more imbalance than they are comfortable with. I don't see War of the Ring as a tournament game, but I think that the choice of sides with a bid on corruption is perfectly ok as a balancing system for tournaments, without changing any rules.

Francesco:
The game is asymmetrical, as the conflict in the stories was portrayed as such. Then, when we were balancing the game, making changes that alternately favored the Shadow or the Free People, we felt that we could afford a slight imbalance in favor of the Shadow, as it makes sense, storywise, while an edge in favor for the Free People would have been less accepted. So, when we found the right mix, we froze it, hoping that the larger number of games played would not uncover weaknesses in the design (something you do for every game you design - you can't playtest forever). As Roberto said, I think the jury is still out regarding balance, so we don't think the game needs any fixing.



F:AT: The expansion Battles of the Third Age was equally well-received; I had my first chance to try it several weeks ago and was really impressed with how the tweaks to the main game really enhanced it. How did the development of this expansion come about? Did you guys have the idea for the more detailed battle games, and took the opportunity to tweak the base game a bit?

Roberto:
When we first created "War of the Ring", we did not deliberately left anything out for the expansion... So when we decided that doing an expansion was a good idea, given the success of the game, adding a separate game looked like a good idea to make sure that the expansion was interesting. And of course we very much looked forward to re-telling the epic battles for Rohan and Gondor in a game format.

In the end, there was a LOT of work in adding the new "Twilight of the Third Age" rules, and probably they were interesting enough to be an expansion on their own. So, once again... I think that there is enough in Battles of Third Age that other companies would have done 3 products out of it!

Francesco:
With the expansion we had the time to play with new stuff, without the production limits imposed by the basic box (very few, but of course there were limits). So, we could add things we thought could be interesting and fun. Additional miniatures are always fun, and the new characters and units add simply something more to what we already had.

I look at the basic game plus expansion as the 'extended edition' of the game. It is a product aimed to the basic game enthusiast, something that you can do without, but that is very fun to add. Moreover, I like very much the operational games, and I look forward expanding that game system to other battles.



F:AT:
Marvel Heroes had the unenviable task of being the follow-up to War of the Ring. How did you guys become involved with the development of that? Are you guys comic fans?

Roberto:
Personally, I took a back seat in this project because I am not a big fan of superhero stories. I've read a few, seen all the movies... But my personal collections of Marvel comics are all non-superhero stories, like Conan and Punisher!

It was very funny how we got the license, because the meeting with Bruno Maglione, at the time president of Marvel International in London, at the Nuremberg Toy fair, really happened at the right moment, and was completely by chance. But when the president of Marvel says, "Well, you should really do something in this style (pointing at the War of the Ring prototype) for our characters" - you can't really say "I am not interested"!

Francesco:
I have been a comic fan for all my life, switching my interest from character to character, from genre to genre. Currently for example I am a very big Mike Mignola fan, and I really would like to make a good horror Hellboy game, or a horror game featuring Mike Mignola's art (I have a prototype with his art for a card game in my closet...). So, when Roberto presented us the chance to do a Marvel game, we jumped at the opportunity.



F:AT:
Was it your goal to "pull back" from the action in the game, as opposed to a street-level skirmish game? In keeping with the shorter playing time, what sort of abstractions became necessary?

Roberto:
I leave Francesco alone in answering this one!

Francesco:
We wanted to stay away from everything that was already been done about Marvel, so the first choice was to forget the tactical aspect. At the same time, we thought that what interested us in comics was not the fighting aspect, but the storytelling.

So, we thought it was better to take a step back, to look at how the stories came together, composed as mosaics by several fighting scenes and events. The 'bigger scale' enforced many abstractions, like for example tactical movement, and the interaction between large numbers of characters (allies in the game).



F:AT:
I think the game is quite fun and captures the spirit of an ongoing comic series very well in a game that plays in 2 hours or less. Are there plans to expand on the game with new teams, villains, and scenarios?

Roberto:
We've lot of ideas, and have the rough plan for the first two expansions. But until we get proper approval from Marvel on these new products, I can't really say anything!

F:AT:
Your next release appears to be Age of Conan, a game that many of us are anticipating, but details have been precious and few. Can you give us any Fortress: Ameritrash "exclusive" details about what to expect from that?



Roberto:
We are now getting closer and closer to opening the "beta" testing, so I think we can tell something.

Age of Conan will be a game for 2 to 5 players, with players taking control of a major power of the Hyborian Age: Aquilonia, Nemedia, Turan, Stygia, Hyperborea. As a ruler, you will have two main type of units under your control: armies, which you use to crush your enemy, and emissaries, which you use to create alliances and treaties, or to wrestle the alliances of your opponents.

The game is set between the youth of Conan and the time he becomes king, so this is not really a time for an all-out war, world-conquest style. The nations of Hyboria have their own "agenda" for becoming a stronger power, but none of them is set to conquer the other nations. This is reflected by a dual system, where you can either develop your power through military conquest - but this is of course a bloody and costly effort - or using more subtle and treacherous ways.

We are using many elements of War of the Ring as "building blocks", so people who are familiar with War of the Ring will catch up with Age of Conan fairly easily, but all mechanics have been re-visited with many original twists.

Francesco:
With Age of Conan, we are trying to blend the adventures of Conan and the political and military efforts of the kingdoms of the Hyborian Age, as we were able to reproduce the progress of the Fellowship and the military events of the Lord of the Rings on the same level in War of the Ring.
You guide your kingdom's rise to power, as Conan forges his myth across the Hyborian kingdoms. From time to time the two paths cross, as Conan fights in your armies, or raids your subjects. You generally try to benefit from his intervention, but the barbarian is dangerous as a double-edged sword...



F:AT:
What other sorts of games do you guys see yourselves working on in the future? Do you see yourselves wanting to create even more involved designs, or perhaps try lighter fare?

Roberto:
I think that - in the Nexus' catalog of games - War of the Ring will probably remain our most complex game, even if as a company we are working on a project which is quite close in complexity, which is our Battles of Napoleon game system (it's worth noticing that my brother Ugo is involved, so may be all that time spent inventing rules to play with toy figures was not wasted after all...).


Battles of Napoleon will also be close to the heart of Ameritrash fans: big box, lot of figures, good gameplay, strong coherence with the theme. It is definitely more simulation-oriented than the Commands & Colors system. I think a closer comparison - in style and level of complexity, not in game play - maybe Tide of Iron.


We envision Battles of Napoleon as a series of games, just like we did with Wings of War. Every game will be a stand-alone product but all of them will complement each other. This is a formula which I like lot and I am really surprised it has not been widely copied yet!


Wings of War is also evolving as a miniature game and is absorbing a lot of our energy...
We are also working on lighter projects, however: I designed a game which I took maybe two hours to invent and has one page of rules, which may be played by a 4-years old and which will be our first family games product.


It will also be released by our friends FFG in the USA, which incidentally also did their first family game this year, Penguin... It's called "Rattle Jungle" but I think that in the USA it will be called "Rattle Snakes" instead. I don't know if I will ever do another game in this style, but it has been a nice change from the year-long agony which is the design of our "big" games.
Next year (2008) Nexus will also start - very carefully! - to do a few more mainstream Euro games... We have to start to compete to win the Spiel des Jahres, you know! Hopefully, however, even here we will try to add some originality to the category.


And then there's Micro Mutants of course...

Francesco:
I like to think that the complexity level of my designs will be always forced upon the game by its theme. And generally, I am attracted by complex stories...
But sometimes it happens that we fall in love with some clever mechanic, as in the case with Micro Mutants, that is basically a dexterity game (think about tiddlywinks with special powered creatures). So, I cannot fairly predict our future design directions.



F:AT:
Again, I can't thank you guys enough for doing the interview; you've got a lot of fans on Fortress: Ameritrash, myself included. We're looking forward to more of your games, keep them coming!

Roberto and Francesco:
Thank you for welcoming us Italians in the Ameritrash category! We will try to deserve to be here!


(All images used in this article are courtesy of BoardgameGeek.com).
Interviews with Ameri-Titans, Volume 2: Roberto Di Meglio and Francesco Nepitello There Will Be Games
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