Meeting of Minds – James Hewitt

One of my core aims with The Giant Brain is to promote designers, creators and publishers in the UK gaming scene. This series of articles interviews various folks from across the UK tabletop gaming scene to get an insight into their games, their thoughts on current events in the industry and anything else that pops into my head. I hope you enjoy it.

James Hewitt, former Games Workshop game designer, worked on the revival of Warhammer Quest, Adeptus Titanicus, Hellboy for Mantic Games, Devil May Cry: the Bloody Palace for Steamforged Games, and took Robot Fight Club to Kickstarter at the start of last year. James and his partner Sophie also run a meetup for designers, a discord to chat about the industry, started Needy Cat Games, and have run a number of games design courses, both in person and online. James was good enough to chat with us about his work, his current projects, and the intricacies behind designing miniature games.

How did you get started in game design?

I suppose I’ve sort of always designed games. As long as I’ve been playing with them, even at a young age, I’ve tinkered with them – but I think that’s normal in kids, right? We’ve got a five year old and she has very little regard for playing board games by the rules; she always wants to add in new things to make it fit better with her idea of what’s going on. So yeah, it’s normal for kids to do it, and I think at some point we settle down and get used to the idea of Doing Things Properly. But apparently I skipped that part!

The earliest game I’ve got evidence of having made from scratch is one based on the movie Gremlins, which I was obsessed with when I was little. I found it when I was clearing out my old room at my mum’s house a few years ago. It was a roll-and-move-around-a-track type game, of course, but I was actually surprised at some of the ideas that had gone into it. Like, you played as mogwai – the little furry creatures from the movie, not the band – and you had to try to turn into gremlins by eating after midnight, then go around and cause havoc. Is it weird that I clearly sympathised with the nasty, spiteful monsters, and didn’t make a game about trying to stop them? But yeah, the board had sections for night and sections for day, and you had to move around it in different ways… it was surprisingly non-linear.

I suppose the better answer to this question is when I started designing games professionally, which is a bit easier to track. I worked in Games Workshop retail for about a decade, and in that time I ran a lot of narrative campaigns (where games are linked together and there’s a set of meta-rules which players can interact with in various ways), which became increasingly intricate because I never wanted to run the same thing twice. That’s been a common thread throughout my game design career; I’m always horrified by the idea of re-treading the same ground, or doing the obvious thing, and although that’s led to an awful lot of stress over the years, I think it’s also something that’s helped me build a decent reputation as a designer.

So yeah, I was doing all these narrative campaigns, which were getting more and more involved, and then I started designing little mini-games to tie in with big release days. It was sort of a reaction to the default “Saturday mega-game” that had been played in Games Workshop stores for years, where a dozen players would turn up, each with a chunk of an army, and you’d set up for a game that had something vaguely to do with whatever was being released that weekend. You’d then have a staff member tied to that game for the next three or four hours (at least), trying to maintain the attention and excitement of a bunch of increasingly bored and frustrated customers as they played through a game that was very much designed to be played between two people.

I thought there had to be a better way of doing it, so I started coming up with little mini-games which used the Warhammer rules as a basis, but tweaked them. The Ogre Kingdoms army book came out, so I created a pit-fighting game where people could come in, buy an ogre model, build it in the store by themselves, then take part in a multiplayer participation game. The game would last about twenty minutes, and we had a ladder league running throughout the day, and the winner took home the fighting pit terrain piece we’d made. Suddenly it wasn’t this soupy morass of an afternoon, it was exciting and dynamic and fun.

Eventually I decided that I wanted to move on from retail, and an opportunity came up when my former boss got in touch to say that he’d taken a job with Mantic Games, and they were after someone to design a sci-fi sports game. (“Blood Bowl but in space”, as the phone call went.) He knew that I’d been putting games together for use in the shops, and that I wanted to move into doing more of that, so he put a good word in for me, and six months later I found myself pitching a game to Mantic. In hindsight, I’d focused on all the wrong things, I’d spent ages trying to make it look pretty and not enough time honing the game engine, so it’s no surprise that it wasn’t an immediate “yes”.

Ronnie (Renton, CEO of Mantic Games) liked it, but he wanted a more experienced hand on the tiller; I ended up collaborating with designer Jake Thornton on DreadBall, which was Mantic’s first big Kickstarter success. That got me a foot in the door with Mantic, and a short while later I took a job with them as a Community Manager, which gave me a more thorough look behind the scenes at how games are made. After a year I left to take a job at Games Workshop, working in their rules team, which felt like I’d come full circle. It was actually the sixth or seventh time I’d applied for that exact job; I’d made several attempts over the years, but now I had industry experience and a design credit to my name, I was in a much stronger position. And I’ve been designing games full-time ever since!

What’s the game you’ve designed that you are most proud of and why?

That’s a horrible question to ask! They’re all my babies, and I love them all equally.

A couple of them stand out for different reasons, though. When I was at Games Workshop I designed a small boxed game called Gorechosen, which is an utterly over-the-top silly name if you’re not familiar with their output. It’s a 2-4 player arena combat game, and I’m mostly proud of it because I designed it in two weeks, and I think it really holds up. As was usually the case with GW, the brief was “design something that can be sold as a game so we can put together a bundle of these specific miniatures”.

As it happened, I’d toyed around with designing a gladiatorial combat game about ten years prior, so I already had some ideas; then I spent two or three days immersing myself in relevant media (historical accounts, documentaries, movies), knocked out a first draft in a day, and spent the next week and a half testing and refining. I knew I was onto something when I’d roped in a few people for a test session in our little tiny playtest room, and the studio manager came in and asked us to keep it down because everyone was laughing too much. I still get people mentioning Gorechosen in particular when they tell me they enjoy games I’ve written, so yeah, I’m dead proud of that considering how quick the turnaround was. (Side note – it’s also the basis of my favourite fan creation based on my work. Someone on boardgamegeek has done a total conversion of the game, based around mecha / kaiju fights, scaled up so it uses action figures. Simply incredible!

So yeah, that’s one. There’s also Hellboy, which I’m proud of because it was the first thing that was published with the Needy Cat Games logo on it, and also the first time I directly collaborated on a game with Sophie. We’ve worked together almost the whole time we’ve known each other – we were both in Games Workshop retail together, she was managing artists in the design studio when I was making games, so when Hellboy did amazingly well on Kickstarter and I suddenly realised how much work I had to do, it was a no-brainer for her to come aboard with Needy Cat. I’d worked out the game’s core engine and a couple of scenarios, but she came on and wrote the rest of them, then designed all but one of the expansions. Since then we’ve always collaborated on games – sometimes one of us takes the lead, sometimes it’s the other, but we’ve found that we collaborate really well. Sophie’s got a much better brain for looking at the big picture and coming up with wacky ideas that I’d never think of in a million years, while I’m better at intricate, delicate details and designing fun interactions.

Hellboy the board game contents shot
Hellboy

Oh, and of course, Robot Fight Club! That was the first game we designed as a 100% solo effort from Needy Cat Games, and we took it to Kickstarter early last year… right as COVID-19 hit. We let the campaign run for a few days, but as things started looking increasingly bleak, we made the decision to pull it. It didn’t feel right to be pushing our game when people were hoarding toilet paper and worrying about whether they’d lose their jobs. Also, in hindsight, although we were really happy with the gameplay, we had a real shoestring budget from a production point of view, and I think we got ahead of ourselves, promising more than we were going to be able to comfortably deliver. The good news is that we’ve been quietly reworking the game over the past year, and you never know, it might be making a return in a new, snazzier form…

How has Needy Cat Games adapted to the last year?

I won’t lie, it’s been tough! When the pandemic hit we’d been pouring every spare minute into the Kickstarter lead-up, so we’d been letting various bits and pieces fall by the wayside; as soon as we cancelled it, we realised how much we had to catch up with. And that was only the start.

We normally work from a small office not far from our house, and I suddenly had to box it up so I could take everything home and squeeze some kind of office space into our box room. Sophie does lino printing as a hobby, and she’d just managed to set up a lovely little crafting area – which we had to shove aside to get a computer in place. While I was doing that, Sophie was watching our daughter, who’d been in full-time childcare at a preschool that was now closed.

The next few months were really strange. With Lily old enough to need constant attention and want to play all the time, but just too young to have started school, we had no structure whatsoever with her. The playparks were closed, she couldn’t see friends, and she was cooped up in the house with just the two of us. I mean, everyone was in the same boat, so I doubt this will be surprising to anyone! It’s just weird to look back on it now and remember how stressful those first few weeks were. We were juggling childcare duties – I’d take her some days, Sophie would take her others, depending on what we were working on and which deadlines were approaching next. We spent several months working on one particular game which the client decided to cancel at the last minute, which was utterly frustrating; we still got paid, but the fact that we’d been working on it while on half capacity, when we could have been keeping up with other things and not having to work late nights and weekends, was utterly disheartening.

Also, the lack of space was a nightmare. Board game design isn’t something that happens on a screen; we always work with physical prototypes first and foremost, and suddenly we didn’t have a dedicated space for doing that.

Eventually we more or less caught up with ourselves, and when the schools opened in September, we managed to both get back into the office. We still had challenges – we’re only just starting to be able to playtest games properly again, instead of only running tests on Tabletop Simulator – but all in all we’re just about back on top of things.

Have you been using digital tabletop platforms much over lockdown? Asmodee has recently bought Boardgame Arena, a move that seems to say there is a future in these platforms. Do you see them being a fundamental part of the scene in the future?

At the start of lockdown, I had a few goes at playing games over Boardgame Arena(BGA) and Tabletop Simulator(TTS), and it was fun enough. I particularly liked how BGA simplified things and did some of the heavy lifting. It feels more like an app version of the game, than a digital version of the board game. However, as time wore on I found myself less and less inclined to do so – probably because we were doing a load of testing with TTS, so it felt a bit too much like work! As such, the only games I’ve played in the last eight or nine months have been two-player games with Sophie; our go-to pile has been Patchwork, Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion, Ganz Schön Clever, Beasts of Balance, Klask and, recently, MicroMacro: Crime City. (Oh, and we played through Mythos Tales with Sophie’s brother over Zoom.)

We do have several friends who are still using TTS and BGA to play games regularly, so I think there’s definitely space for digital board games going forward. One group is enjoying playing asynchronous games of Terra Mystica on Boardgame Arena, similar to how I remember one of my university friends playing chess remotely. I know people who have formed gaming groups with people who are nowhere near them, geographically; in the same way that lockdown has led a lot of people to embrace video calling who otherwise might not have done so, I think it’s left an indelible imprint on how people approach games.

You’ve done a lot of online courses about game design. What made you want to share your ideas and what have you got up coming?

From the moment I began to entertain the notion of starting up a games company, I was excited about the idea of being able to do whatever I wanted with it. Coming up through Games Workshop, I was always working on whatever projects I was told to work on, and I was very aware of just being a cog in the machine. Something I’d loved at Mantic Games was wearing many hats; I was a community manager, but I was also a copywriter, an editor, an event organiser, a content creator and half a dozen other things. I was so excited to get back to that, so the first year or so of Needy Cat Games was an exercise in trying out all sorts of things. We did a few YouTube videos, we started a podcast, we put together the Nottingham Tabletop Industry Collective… we never wanted to just be game designers.

So that’s the broader context. On top of that, we started getting regular emails from people who wanted advice on designing their first game. We’d been gradually developing a specific process with carefully defined stages, mainly so that we had a structure that we could use when discussing work with our clients, and I started using this as a basis for the replies I sent to those emails. I was astonished by the response – it all felt really intuitive to me, but the feedback made it clear that most people hadn’t thought of breaking down “designing a game” into little chunks and tackling them in small, manageable steps. I started to wonder if there might be mileage in teaching the process to wannabe game designers.

Around this time, Sophie had been running lino cutting workshops with our friend Tory, and when we started chatting about it over dinner one day, she suggested that we could do the same thing for tabletop game design. We were far too busy to do anything about it at the time, and the idea sat with us for a while. It wasn’t until we had a particularly lean month and needed a cashflow injection that we decided to actually go for it!

We found a venue in Nottingham, did some planning, and launched “An Introduction to Tabletop Game Design”. We pitched it as a series of three one-day events, each a month apart; the first was about the process of starting a game design project, the second was about refining it, and the third was about finishing it and getting it out into the world. For each one, there was a morning of theory and an afternoon of practice, whether that was making a game, or playtesting, or speaking to industry guests we’d invited along. The sessions were designed to be self-contained but connected, so that people could do all three, or just dip into one or two.

When we launched, we had no idea whether it would be popular – but sure enough, we sold out, and they were incredibly rewarding to run. We ended up running a second course later in the year; since then, several of the people who came through the course have put games on Kickstarter, which is seriously gratifying.

When lockdown started, and things were suddenly looking a bit uncertain (due to projects being cancelled or pushed back, and our reduced capacity) we thought it’d be a good opportunity to run the course again – but this time, do it online. I rewrote it as six one-hour seminars, and ran it weekly; again, people could buy the whole lot, or just come along for the parts that interested them. In place of the practical work from the in-person sessions, I set homework tasks and gave people access to our Discord server for follow-up questions and support. “Game Design Online” was another success, and we ended up putting the recordings on our website as a bundle for people to pick up and enjoy at their own pace. I’ve added to this over the past couple of months, running two additional seminars that focus on the specific challenges in designing and developing successful miniature wargames, recordings of which are also available at our site.

We haven’t currently got any more seminars planned, and we’re going through another busy patch at the moment, but we’d love to do some more later this year – and maybe even look at returning to full-day workshops in person once it feels safe to do so. If people have any specific topics they’d like to see a seminar on, they can reach out to us at this address.

What game are you most excited for this year?

You know, between the amount of work we’ve been doing and the fact that we’ve barely played board games over the past year, I feel like I’ve drifted out of touch with what’s happening in board games. I keep seeing new games being announced, and I feel so incredibly out of the loop. (Can you recommend a good board game news site that I could maybe keep an eye on in future? Any suggestions? Hmm?)

One thing that I definitely want to check out is Descent: Legends of the Dark. The price tag makes my blood run cold, and I can’t see us actually getting it, but I love the look of it. Sophie and I love a good co-operative dungeon crawler and the production quality of this one looks second to none. The art looks great, the miniatures look great, and the 3D card scenery is inspirational. The bar’s been raised!

Links:

Needy Cat Games Twitter

James Hewitt on Twitter

game design seminar recordings

Sophie’s ko-fi tip jar

EVENT: On the 22nd of June at 8pm BST we will have a live interview with James in the Giant Brain Discord. Do please come and join us and take part in the Q&A.

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Author: Iain McAllister

Tabletop games reviewer and podcaster based in Dalkeith, Scotland.

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