Introduction to…Martin Wallace, UK Board Game Designer
I know in the last week I have gained a few followers who are gaming fans,courtesy of my previous blog post, so for you this man will probably not need any introduction. For those of you who aren’t board game geeks, Martin Wallace is from Manchester and is one of just a few full-time independent board game designers in the UK. At the same convention in which I had a wonderful introduction to board gaming, I interviewed Martin about his newDoctor Who card game amongst other things!
Can you tell us a bit about how you got into gaming?
Gaming is something you have to be interested in as a child, I played simple games like Monopoly when I was I child. When I was in school one of the teachers was into war games; he founded the war games club where I learnt about other types of games.When I left school I worked for Games Workshop and then I decided when I was about 30 I would have a go at designing games. I was teaching by that point so it was something I could do alongside my job. In 1993 I published my first game- it was self published and I have been designing games ever since. I went full time in 2008 and I am now only one of about three board game designers who live in the UK.
Explain the first steps you go through to design board games.
MW: A lot of the games have a historical basis- I used to be a history teacher. A lot of it is reading up on subjects and letting ideas float around your head until you have an idea of how you want the game to work. It’s quite difficult to explain if you don’t design games, like writing a book- if people know how they can just do it, but for me writing is a really difficult process.
I like games to tell a story but its not the same as writing a book. A game should allow for stories to be created but everytime you play it’s going to be a subtly different story.
How does the process follow on from ideas? Storyboards?
MW: Well you’ve seen a prototype ,[of his new game] I just create something on the computer, create a prototype and play it, and sit down and think okay these things work, these things don’t, lets see what we can do to change those things- this is the development stage. In writing it would be the part where you give the first draft to the editor and the editor says okay you need to chop this, re-structure that etc.
Some games have to go through a lot of development, other games have only been test-played a handful of times and they just work, so it really depends on how complex the game is.
When you published your first game, where did it go?
MW: The biggest mistake people who go into game publishing make is that if you make a good game, you’ll be able to sell it. Which is not the case you have to understand how distribution works, so in 2008 I deliberately set up the company where it was selling the game direct to the gamer, because I already had a reputation as a games designer I knew my games and so because they were limited editions, they would buy direct from me and then a few would go in the shops. I’ve grown the company from there and now I have a deal with a French company which has a distribution company which goes all around the globe. So you know we distribute in Germany france, Italy, Australia, all the main markets.
You designed the Terry Pratchett Discworld game last year, was the man himself involved in any of it?
MW: He was only involved in the fact that he decided what the characters should look like on the cards. All the artwork was presented to Terry to say yes or no and if there was a charater that they weren’t sure would look like -there are a lot of characters that have never been created by an artist- then Terry would be asked what does the character look like? and Terry would say well a bit like Hatty Jakes or such and such a person and then we would give that to the artist and then he would do something along those lines. But I didn’t personally talk to him! I’ve got to know people who are old friends of Terry’s and they managed all the artwork so it’s all a team effort.
People who buy those games that have Terry’s name etc on them see only the brand don’t they? They might think he created it and not you?
MW: That’s completely irrelevant to me, because if they buy the game then I benefit from it. Terry’s name is so big on the cover because his name is a brand- all his book covers have Terry Pratchett and then the title underneath- that’s what sells. The only reason I put my name on the cover is because there is a German game designers union and they effectively went on strike and said they would not produce designs for companies unless their names went on the cover. It was because in Germany there are people who collect games by games designers, whereas in the UK no-one would have a clue who designed Monopoly.
What was the first ‘big’ game you designed?
MW: I think the first big game which ended in me having a cheque that made me go wow! was Runebound which is a fantasy game. Because back then I’d designed quite a lot of games but that was the first one where I got a royalty cheque where I thought oh my god this is like £17,000! Fantasy sells, it really does. I ended up selling it to Fantasy Flight Games outright actually for a chunk of money, so yeah that’s the first game that did well. Discworld has probably sold over 40,000 copies worldwide so that’s not bad, it’s still not made me rich though- most of the money goes to Terry so I haven’t made as much as I would like. The costs of production are quite high, so we are not making a lot of money from that, it’s a bit of a means to say to another company okay we got the license to do the Discworld game, we distributed it, marketed it, can we now have your license please.
Can you briefly explain what a license is to us?
MW: Getting a license means getting to use something like Discworld, Doctor Who, Star Wars – use a brand. Or the Hobbit for instance, in this case the guy who had the license asked me to design a game based on the Hobbit, an example of a non-licensed game is my own game, my idea, which doesn’t involve a license. The advantage of having a license is if people like that film, book or TV series, then they are more likely to buy the game. It is more likely to get into Waterstones or WH Smith as well. People don’t like the unfamiliar. That’s why Monopoly is so popular.
Why is it that that sort of game sells?
MW: I don’t know how true this is, but I was told that out of all the games sold in a year only 0.5 of them are actually played. Because most games are bought as gifts. They are bought at Christmas and there are certain games where people already know the rules will buy the latest version- Star Wars Monopoly, Simpson’s Monopoly. Hasbro have been going through a process of rejuvenating their existing games. One of the top guys at Hasbro is my friend and has asked me, this is our strategy for the future, what can you do for us kind of thing, and I know they’ve tried doing different games but they’ve fallen flat on their face. They’ve been forced to stick doing the same thing over and over again- new version of Monopoly, new version of Risk. Battleships has been the latest one with the film- the rather bizarre thing of a film tied into a board game rather the other way round. Trying to do something new with the public just doesn’t work. And that’s a big company with loads of money who could potentially do whatever they want to do, but they can’t.
Isn’t that a bad thing for independent games designers like you? If big companies are having to re-do old designs what hope is there for small companies?
MW: For them a game is only worth doing if it makes £100,000. If not it isn’t worth getting out of bed for. Because they have so many staff employed there, if you can’t make £100,000 you can’t pay the wages. There is one of me. My wife also draws a wage, so there are two of us in a tiny company where if we sell 10,000 copies of a game we are happy. That’s the difference. In a small company we are quite happy selling 5,000 to 10,000 copies. So we can make games which appeal to the people you see here (at the convention) and because of the internet you can appeal to the global audience. Big companies can’t do that. Hasbro tried doing it- getting into the small games market and they fell flat. Small companies are the best at doing this type of game. Even the medium size german companies like Aleya they struggle at the minute. Because what is happening is new people come up with really good game designs, they can get them published themselves through things like kickstart and they can get them to the marketplace through the internet.
What’s the difference between a ‘euro’ game and the game designs people in the UK like playing?
MW: The Germans came up with the style of a game based on an English game called the Hare and the Tortoise by David Parlett. For some reason that gave the Germans the gaming bug and in their games there is usually no direct conflict, it’s much more skill and decision making –there is thinking to be done rather than random roll the dice you move. And they are generally shorter- Monopoly can go on for ages and ages, whereas a German game will take you maybe half an hour, 45 minutes. In the 70’s this style of games grew up and kind of exploded in the 80s and 90s where there is now a massive market. The American style are roll the dice, looser design, it’s much more about the theme than the mechanics. German game = clean mechanics, sometimes a dry theme, whereas an American game = dry mechanics, all about the theme.
Let’s talk about your new game then- it’s a Doctor Who card game!
MW: Yeah the Doctor Who game is for 3-4 players and you get to be the doctor and the bad guy. And you have location cards- these are the places that as the doctor you want to defend and you have got your Doctor’s assistant – Amy Pond. It is based on the latest Doctor Who, and you have got the bad guys which you can send to blow up various locations – you have got the Darleks, weeping Angels. When it’s your go you choose how you want to play the cards. And at the end of the game you win by scoring through your location cards. It takes about 15 mins per player so an hour for 4 players.
So it was commissioned work?
MW: There’s a guy at the BBC who works with Cubicle 7 (another games company) and basically the brief was can you do a Doctor Who game that isn’t crap? Basically they were aware that all the Doctor Who games up until that point hadn’t sold very well. Angus knew me and said would you be interested in doing a Doctor Who game. I suggested we do it as a joint production with Cubicle 7 so basically the deal is it’s a co-production where we split the profits so that is why there is two logos on the back of the box – my company TreeFrog and Cubicle 7. I did the design and production management and arranging European Distribution and they’ve sorted out the artwork and they have an American Distributor. The BBC are very strict and everything has to be just right- even the gold strip at the top of the box, the size, the colour so the artwork was very precise.
How much will it cost?
MW: In the UK it’s going to be £20, that may seem a lot but the game costs £3 to produce but then you have to sell it to Distributors, who buy it for about £6.50, they then sell it to the shops and the shops sell it to the public. In that £20 £4 of it is VAT! So that goes to the government, £6 goes to the shop, £4 goes to the Distributor and we get £3 and we still have to give some to the BBC. It’s hard to make money in games! We have gone for a run of 15,000 and we’ve had pre-orders for around 7,000 so far. But if we don’t sell £15,000 then each game that doesn’t sell you have to pay for and that’s a double whammy because you have lost profits and still have to pay for the cost of production.
What about marketing costs?
MW: Not much surprisingly! We advertise on the website boardgamegeek and take it to shows but not TV advertising or anything like that. Hopefully if it is on the shelf at Waterstones at Christmas time some people might pick it up.
The problem with this game is that it is coming out in August and they (big chains) really need to see it in January. All the toy fairs are in January so if you can go to them and say do you like this and they go yeah I like the look of it they will then order it for Christmas. That’s the lead time. If I came with a cracking game in October they wouldn’t look at it.
Have you ever had a game rejected?
MW: Loads of games! I did a game which wasn’t terribly good but I needed a Simpsons license and I went to Hasbro who loved it and I thought if anyone can get me a Simpsons license it will be them. But they went to Fox and they said nope can I have another Monopoly variant please! This is why I publish my own games because at least then I know I can get the game out there, I don’t have to worry about someone saying yes or no.
Do you sell most of your games online then?
Not now no, most of my games go through Distribution. I’m planning to move to New Zealand so I don’t do direct sales any more. I tend to do more commissioned work these days – the Hobbit game for example.
Have you ever won any awards?
MW: I’ve won a few- the international game award three times, Game of the Year in Portugal, I think an award in Costa Rica, I’ve won lots of little awards which mean absolutely nothing. There is only one award worth winning – the Spiel Des Jahres, (Game of the Year) awarded in Germany, if you win that award you will sell a couple of hundred thousand of units which adds up to a lot of money. Every other award is completely meaningless – I’m still working towards that one!
- You can order the Doctor Who Card Game from Treefrog Games now http://www.treefroggames.com/doctor-who-the-card-game
- To find out more about Martin Wallace and his games, visit http://www.boardgamegeek.com
- The next board game convention will be run by G.N.O.M.E (Gamers North of Manchester, England) in Horwich http://www.boltonboardgames.org.uk/All%20dayer.html
Posted on August 22, 2012, in Life, Uncategorized and tagged BBC, Board Games, Discworld, Doctor Who, Doctor Who 2012, Doctor Who card game 2012, game design, Martin Wallace, stoke-on-trent, Terry Pratchett. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.