I’ve been meaning to ask Martin Wallace for an interview for ages: I’ve often thought that he’s one of the more innovative designers working today and I love the manner in which his games retain the basic feel of a Euro whilst usually allowing a very high degree of player interaction. And of course, just like me, he’s British and in the US/German-centric world of board gaming us minorities need to stick together! But what finally gave me the impetus to ask was the fact that Brass turned up very high on my latest game ratings article and it seemed an opportune time to ask him some questions about it. To my great pleasure he agreed to take time out of his busy schedule to field my inane queries. I found the answers frank and quite surprising - I hope you do too.
Hi, and thanks for agreeing to do this interview. For the tiny number of people out there who may not be familiar with your work, could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I live in sunny Manchester, England, with two females, eight cats, and fifteen ducks. I’m lucky enough to be married to one of the ladies of the house. When not working I like walking in the hills and the odd game of squash.
You’re one of a vanishingly small number of people who’ve proved talented and tenatious enough to make a career out of game design. Have you got any tips for other budding designers out there?
Tough question. I’ve spent about eighteen years struggling to get where I am today and I’m still dirt poor. As a career path it’s not one that can guarantee a good income. If you really want to be a designer then you just need to keep working at it and be prepared to make financial sacrifices. Get used to rejection and throwing months of work away, and go to Essen. Self-publishing is a good way to get yourself known.
From my point of view it seems to be something of a hallmark of your designs to provide mechanically stripped down and “heavy” Eurogames which, unusually for the genre, feature very high levels of theme and player interaction. Would you agree, and is this something you consciously strive for in your designs?
I would agree and it is something I strive for. I like games to reflect the theme they are supposed to be based on. I get tired of playing games that say they are about ‘x’ but could be about anything and the only connection with the theme is the artwork and title.
Getting a lot of player interaction into a multi-player game without spoiling the balance or pushing the “diplomatic” meta-game too far to the front is a difficult challenge but one many of your games manage to overcome. How do you go about solving it?
My general principle is to avoid rules that allow players to hurt each other too much. If you can do that then you end up with a more balanced game. How I do it depends on the design itself, different solutions for different games. In After the Flood I had to make sure it was difficult for two players to gang up on the third one, so having positions that are reset at the beginning of each turn was the solution. In Struggle of Empires players have the opportunity to ally themselves with the player they think is most likely to hurt them.
Another relatively common feature of your games is that they’re highly competitive, punishing mistakes severely rather than following the common fashion of offering a mechanical hand up to players who fall behind. Is this deliberate? If so, why? What do you think of games like “Power Grid” that do “bootstrap” weaker players?
I do try to build in mechanics to reduce positive feedback. It’s a case of balance, you want to keep all players in contention as long as possible but not make good early play irrelevant. I like the Power Grid makes it harder for the leader to get further ahead, to the degree that good play means positioning yourself for the final push for the line.
How about actual player elimination? Good or bad? Do you think elimination is actually preferable to having to play on from a hopeless position?
I don’t like player elimination. I would like to think that some of my games are still enjoyable to play even if you know you cannot win.
Another common feature of your designs is a root in English and to a lesser extent European history - particularly military and industrial history. Do you feel particularly tied to your national heritage?
I studied history at college and trained as a history teacher. I suppose that means I know a little more about my national heritage than the average person in the street. I would not say I was tied to it but when you are looking for a theme its easier to go for one where there are plenty of books available.
I recall reading somewhere that you’d “disowned” Runebound. Is this true, and if so what does this mean and why do you feel that way?
If you did read this then it was not a quote from myself. Fantasy Flight purchased the license outright from myself as it made sense to do so. It was always my intention to just design the chassis for the game and let somebody much more imaginative than me do all of the content. FFG have done an excellent job of developing the system, something I could never have done on my own. I’m happy with the way the game has turned out and in no way ‘disown’ it.
I’ve always wondered why it was that Glenn Drover of Eagle Games wanted to re-work not one but two of your games for his own range. Do you know why he picked those games? What do you think of the changes he made?
Glenn took the ideas behind Struggle of Empires and applied them to Conquest of Empires to allow for two versions of the game to be included in the box. I’ve never got around to trying the game so cannot comment on the changes. I designed most of Railroad Tycoon and Glenn added the cards. I’m not a big fan of them but others seem to like them enough.
A number of your older games, for example “Princes of the Reneissance” and others, now fetch very high prices second hand. Do you have any plans to reprint any of the older Warfrog games? If not, why?
There are plans to reprint some of the older Warfrog games, but I cannot comment on them as they will be re-issued by other companies.
Come to think of it, why “Warfrog Games”? It’s a great name!
Actually it ws meant to sound stupid, to distinguish the company from all of those serious ones that end up being known by an acronym. The name will soon become history as the company will change its name to Treefrog. The main reason for this is that as we try to expand the company we need a name that sounds a little friendlier in Germany.
I read in a previous interview that your collection includes a goodly percentage of wargames, yet consim-style games are a relatively recent addition to your own designs. Why did you wait to have a crack at designing some yourself?
Very simple, no money in two player wargames. They also take a lot longer to design and develop, especially the type of games that GMT publish. With Treefrog I can put out the types of wargames that other companies might be wary of.
It seems to me that wargaming is one of the few areas left in modern boardgaming where there’s some seriously interesting and innovative design work going on. Would you agree? Why do you think this might be so, and how do you think your own designs relate to that trend?
I’ve not played enough recent wargames to comment knowledgeably. What you do tend to find is that somebody comes up with a great new mechanism and then that leads to a whole new range of games. I actually think that wargames could be more innovative rather than reusing the same ideas.
I’ve seen several people ask you your favourite games overall, but what are your favourite wargames and why?
My favourite wargames are Breakout Normandy, House Divided, and Across Five Aprils. The main reason is that each of them takes an innovative approach to the subject. I love the way that untis become tired in Breakout Normandy. House Divided is an object lesson in how to design a simple but deep game, while Across Five Aprils creates the command snafus that are sadly missing in many other designs
Co-operative games seem to be in fashion at the moment. What do you think of them as a genre? Any plans to produce one yourself?
No. I’ve played the odd one but prefer competitive games.
Worker placement games on the other hand never seem to go out of fashion. What do you think is the reason for their enduring popularity, and have you ever tried to design something similar yourself?
Its a good mechanism to hang a game on. Some might argue that Way Out West is a worker placement game. It’s also a mechanism that can appear in many forms without it necessarily being that obvious.
I read in another interview that you were a fellow fan of “Imperial”. Given that some of my regular readers seem to doubt the brilliance of this design, can you tell us briefly why you think it’s such a great game?
I just love the way the game made Diplomacy into something you can actually play in an evening. It’s a very subtle game that I cannot even begin to pretend to be good at. It’s also got great wooden pieces!
What do you think about the current state of boardgame journalism around the world? Do you think the hobby would benefit from a professionally produced, independent voice? Why have attempts to set up similar projects in the past always failed?
Obviously the internet has completely altered the nature of boardgame journalism. In the good old days you had to wait until Sumo, Perfidious Albion or BRoG dropped through your letter box. These were well written and entertaining and had no real competition. They could also get away with being much more acerbic about games than online reviewers can today. Now that the entry costs into the field have dropped so much its much harder for one individual to stand out. I’m not sure if that’s a good or a bad thing. With BGG everybody gets a chance to have their say.
You have an upcoming release, “Age of Industry” out sometime around June. Could you tell us a little bit more about it?
Age of Industry takes the core system from Brass and allows different maps to be played with the same components. The cards are now keyed to areas rather than named locations, so a light green card will allow you to build in any light green location. Each player has a display which he places his counters on. The display shows the costs of building each counter and the return when it is flipped. This means the counters are much less cluttered than the ones in Brass. The big change is that there is only one period, the railway era. This means that lots of rules to deal with the changeover from canals to railways have disappeared. There is also a new, non-specific industry. On the Germany map this is presumed to be chemicals, while on the New England map it’s shoe factories.
What is it about the highly feted “Brass” that made you feel it needed some development into a new game with a new title?
Well, money was one motivating factor. Brass is a successful game and it seemed to make sense to produce a new version that can be played on different maps, like Steam. It is also the case that a lot of people find Brass a bit intimidating to learn. Age of Industry has far fewer rules but the core concepts are the same, so that it can be used as a stepping stone to Brass.
Any other future plans or releases you’d like to let us know about?
The Essen release will be a game called ‘London’ and is about the growth of the city from 1666 to 1900. It should appeal to all those players who like selecting tiles as it has them in abundance. During the course of the game you construct a profile of your city with a line of tiles. At certain points in the game you will choose to ‘run’ your city, which means executing the powers on the tiles in a certain order, going from left to right. As some tiles have entry costs you have to be careful that the order of the tiles is an efficient one
After that the next two player wargame will be set in North America and deal with the long struggle for dominance between Britain and France. The game will be called ‘A Few Acres of Snow’. I cannot say more about it yet as it is in the early stages of design.