Interviews with Ameri-Titans, Volume 3: Kevin Wilson

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What better way to launch the site than with a genuine treat--an interview with one of the best designers at FFG, Kevin Wilson.  He's the mind behind some of FFG's best and most high-profile titles, including Arkham Horror, Doom, Fury of Dracula, Descent, and more.

It took a lot of effort for Kevin and I to wrap this interview up, but the results are definitely worth it.  Read on as Kevin dishes dirt on his early game experiences and designs, and gives us some great tidbits on some of his upcoming products, including Descent: Road to Legend and Arkham Horror: Kingsport Horror.  Enjoy!

Fortress:Ameritrash: First of all Kevin, thanks for agreeing to the interview; can you give our readers a short intro on your gaming background?

Kevin Wilson: Sure thing! I got into gaming when I bought the old D&D red box set from JC Penney’s when I was 8 years old. Growing up, I was mostly into RPGs and computer games. I tended to play a friend’s C64 after school with him, and we spent a lot of hours making our way through Ultima 4 – still one of my favorite games ever. My other fondest gaming memory is playing a D&D (not advanced, but the old school version from the Rules Cyclopedia) campaign from 1st to 36th level, and retiring the characters as gods, during college. My character was Nanok the Barbarian. Those who get the joke may feel free to groan, and some of you may recognize the name from Descent, where he had a cameo.

F:AT: Most of us are pretty big FFG fans, to say the least. How did you come to work for the company?

KW: Well, after I left Alderac Entertainment Group, I got out of the game industry for a year and did some computer programming for awhile. Rapid prototyping of oil field truck simulators, specifically. Yeah, thrilling, I know. After about a year of that and a 2 1/2 hour commute (each way) through LA traffic, I felt it was time to get back into game design. Banking on my earlier RPG design work, I posted a note on EN World that I was looking (it was very kind of them to let me do that) and FFG dropped me an email within the hour, much to my astonishment. They hired me on to work on their small Legends and Lairs books, so I did that for about a year or so. Around that time, I felt that the d20 bubble was starting to burst, so I decided to try and get transferred over to the board game department, and here I am.

F:AT:Your first two games released by FFG were Mutiny! and Arena Maximus. Were these two ideas that you were kicking around before you joined FFG?

KW: Actually, my very first board game was Magdar, the game of digging too deep. It was the game that convinced Chris to give me a shot at designing board games. I had the idea of a board that was destroying itself as you played the game, although originally the theme was going to be spaceships mining asteroids near a black hole, but I changed it to a fantasy theme after looking at FFG’s game line-up and seeing Delta V.

As for Arena Maximus, there was a cover illustration that FFG had laying around without a game design, so I tried my hand at a fantasy chariot race. I had this idea that your hand size should shrink as you accelerated, simulating that you were getting increasingly out of control the faster you went. In many ways I still think it’s the most successful of my early designs.

Finally, for Mutiny!, I wanted to do a pirate game (I loves me some pirates, yarr) and Bruno Faidutti’s Fist of Dragonstones inspired me to try out a blind bidding mechanic where you have recurring (doubloons) and one-shot (rum) money to bid. The very talented Don Maitz sold us second printing rights to some of his wonderful pirate art for Mutiny!, much to my delight. Don is a well-known artist, after all, and has even painted Captain Morgan for Captain Morgan’s rum. It was also around then that we came across Anders Finer for the first time. He painted the cover for Mutiny! and has since done many excellent illustrations for us.

F:AT:Not long following that was your release of Warcraft: The Board Game. Were you a big Warcraft fan? What was involved in putting that together, and what were your goals for representing the license?

KW: I’d played a fair amount of Warcraft when it came out, but I wasn’t really an RTS fiend or anything. Still, I liked the setting, and when they sent me a copy of Warcraft 3, I played the heck out of it. My main memory of the project is staying late many nights taking zoomed-in screenshots of the units and buildings in Warcraft 3 to make the graphics with, since Blizzard didn’t have any high-resolution graphics for us to use. That was a lot of overtime, believe me. Also, I remember that the rulebook file went bad, and I had to redo a lot of it. It was a difficult project, but it has done very well for us over the years since then.

I wanted a simple game that could easily be played by fans of the video game, which is one reason we went with the wooden pieces we used in the game. We didn’t want to have a million different unit types with special abilities, and I think that the upgrade system accomplished that goal pretty well. Not every game can or should be complicated.

F:AT:Is it more difficult to work with a licensed property, especially in consideration of meeting the expectations of the fans?

KW: Yeah. There’s more pressure when working on a familiar license like Warcraft, since you know the fans want certain things from it. Also, it can be a bit like having two bosses, since you have to please both your regular boss and the licensor with the design, and that can be rough sometimes. Still, the rewards are greater for the company thanks to the name recognition that a good license brings to the table, so it’s often worth it.

F:AT:Your next release was Doom, which brought back memories of the bits-filled sci-fi releases of old such as Space Hulk. Was your design at all influenced by that?

KW: Sure. Chris really wanted the 3D doors like Space Hulk had, along with the configurable map pieces. I had to agree that it made for a really impressive-looking game. But that’s really as far as the intentional similarities go. The action system in Doom was inspired a bit by how characters take actions in Spycraft, a d20 RPG I worked on earlier. The system was greatly simplified for board game use, of course. The custom dice in Doom were an original idea of mine and were what sold Chris on the design. Of course, each weapon in the game originally had its own die, but that proved cost prohibitive and we later moved to the colored dice you see in the final version.

F:AT: Doom was eventually followed by its younger sibling, Descent. Doom was sometimes criticized for how difficult it was for the Marines; was this a concern for you in the development of Descent?

KW: To some extent, yes. With Descent, I wanted a game that was slanted a bit more in favor of the heroes. With that in mind, I made the earlier quests simpler for the heroes, gradually ramping up the difficulty to ease the players into the game.

F:AT:There seems to have been a recent resurgence in the interest in plastic-filled "Ameritrash" games as of late. What is your take on this?

KW: People – even grown men and women – like toys. A boardgame filled with plastic toys is sort of an excuse to play army men again, only this time with rules to avoid the whole “I hit!” “No you didn’t!” arguments that kids get in. In addition, a beautiful game filled with enticing bits has the ability to draw in bystanders and get them to play, and gamers are always drawn to games that they think their friends will play.

F:AT: Several of your games have been just absolutely jam-packed with plastic figures; Doom in particular is filled to the brim with them. How do such lavish productions add to the development challenge?

KW: The main thing is that plastic figures must be sculpted, which is sometimes really easy, and sometimes like pulling teeth. It can also be really expensive to make the molds that are used to manufacture the plastic pieces, so only games with a substantial print run can really afford the expense. My favorite plastic sculpting experience is still Doom the boardgame, because Bob Nesmith was a real joy to work with, and the 3D computer models that id gave us were excellent.

F:AT: You've been the man behind a few or FFG's more recent remakes, including the Arkham Horror and the excellent Fury of Dracula. Can you give us some details on what was involved in getting those projects moving, and what your goals were for them?

KW: Well, I’ve told the story of the Arkham Horror reprint a bunch of times by now, but the short version is that I played Richard Launius’s revised Arkham at Origins in the breezeway and mentioned that I thought we should get the rights to it and do a new version. One in-house revision with Richard later and here we are. As for Fury of Dracula, Chris made a deal with Games Workshop for us to do a new edition. His main requirement for me was to remove the “DM screen” that Dracula used, since it was easy to cheat (and easier to accidentally cheat than was acceptable). He gave me the idea for the card trail, and then I just had to get everything to work. There was an excellent internet variant that let a player play Mina Harker, and I really wanted to include her, so I worked out a version of her, added Dracula’s powers to tweak the balance of having an extra hunter, added a timer to the game, and generally poked and prodded at the other parts of the game until I was pretty happy with it. Dan Clark contributed most of the flavor text on the cards, which I felt really helped bring the story in the game to life. He really nailed the “feel” of Bram Stoker’s writing style.

F:AT: I know that you're working on Descent: The Road to Legend, and the anticipation for that is insane as it’s promising to bring a lot of elements to Descent that gamers have been looking forward to. What can you tell me about what's going on with this one? Any tidbits you can lay on us?

KW: There’s a ton of stuff I’m excited about in Road to Legend, so it’s a bit hard to decide what to talk about. Basically, it adds an aboveground kingdom map to the game, as a sort of “shell” wrapped around the various dungeon crawls, tying them together into one continuous story. The Overlord gets a persona of his own, not to mention the ability to grow in power over the course of the campaign, just as the heroes do.

Perhaps one of the most interesting parts of Road to Legend is that I was able to give each city on the overland map a flavor all its own. For example, the city of Forge is a town largely populated by dwarves, so when the heroes shop there, they are able to take advantage of the dwarven smiths in the town and have a good chance of finding a useful weapon, shield or armor for sale. Additionally, skills that you’d expect to be taught by dwarves can be learned in Forge, such as toughness. Finally, depending on what the Overlord’s evil plot is, Forge might close its gates until the trouble blows over. Taken all together, I feel like I was able to pack a surprising amount of character into the various towns.

I was also able to put some unusual locations on the map that aren’t towns or ordinary dungeons. There are secret masters and legendary areas. When they make their way to the secret masters, the heroes can learn incredibly potent skills, or even permanently increase their maximum wounds or fatigue. Legendary areas, on the other hand, are fixed adventures on the map, such as facing the Gemstone dragon in the Caverns of Thuul. Although individual dungeon levels are randomly generated in Road to Legend, the legendary areas serve as what I like to call a “touchstone”, or a point of similarity for every player who plays the campaign, in the same way that most people went through the old “Keep on the Borderlands” module for D&D back in the day. I find it’s nice to have points of reference like that that you can talk about with other gamers.

F:AT: What can you tell us about the upcoming Kingsport Horror?

KW: Well, as I’ve mentioned before in other interviews, Kingsport Horror is a “city” expansion for Arkham Horror, like Dunwich Horror was. This means that it comes with an extra board, new investigators, new Ancient Ones, and a ton of new cards and monsters. Instead of having new unstable locations like Dunwich did, Kingsport adds in the possibility of rifts opening in Arkham based on monster movement. Once these rifts are open, they spew out extra monsters and can raise the doom level, so the players have to keep exploring Kingsport in order to keep them closed.

Kingsport also has a ton of new Allies, including a cat named Foolishness and a young Zoog, which are two of my favorites. Players may also be interested in guest appearances from Dr. Herbert West and Asenath Waite, among others. Finally, the last tidbit that I’m going to give out is that players will find a number of new uses for their focus points in Kingsport other than just moving their skill sliders around.

F:AT: Kevin, I really appreciate your taking the time to speak with us. We're looking forward to more of your work from FFG!

KW: Hey, no problem. It was fun talking to you. I’m just sorry I took so long getting this all written up. It has been one hectic year for me, mostly due to Road to Legend, and I’m still recovering. Next year looks like it’s going to be terrific, what with the new edition of Cosmic Encounter that I’m going to get to work on, and a couple of other surprises that I can’t talk about just yet. I’ll just say that I’m extremely excited by them and leave it at that.
There Will Be Games Ken B.InterviewFFGKevin Wilson
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