Alessio Cavatore is a games design veteran, and has put his mark on the Games Workshop hobby. He wrote the current edition of Warhammer 40,000, as well as the 7th edition of Warhammer, not to mention The current edition of the Lord of the Rings strategy battle game and numerous army books and codexes. You’ll find his name inside almost every current Games Workshop rulebook you pick up. Since leaving Games Workshop earlier this year, Alessio has been concentrating on his own game, Shuuro (and its new expansion Turanga), published by his company River Horse, and has written a new wargames system for Kings of War, published by Mantic Games. I met up with Alessio for breakfast, shortly before he set off on a two-week trip around European toy fairs to promote his wares. We talked about his time at Games Workshop, 8th Ed Warhammer, Dark Eldar, how to win tournaments, Kings of War, Shuuro, Turanga, and more besides. In fact I’ve ended up splitting my write-up of our chat into three parts, to keep things manageable.

How did you get started in Games Development?

I started with Games Workshop as a translator, working on books from the likes of Rick Priestley and Tuomas Pirinen in the Design Studio. As you translate, you have to look at every word in such close detail that you often spot technical rules problems that have been missed. So I built up a good relationship with them, pointing out that this doesn’t work, that doesn’t work. I won the staff tournament that year too, which helped, and I wrote a few stories that got used in the Dogs of War book. And when the position of Games Designer came up they gave it to me!

Who did you learn from? Who were your mentors?

At the beginning it was mostly Tuomas – he was my boss. Also Jervis Johnson, Andy Chambers, Nigel Stillman, Gav Thorpe and Rick Priestley himself.

What is your favourite book that you’ve worked on?

Before Kings of War, I think 40k V – Warhammer 40,000 5th edition – was the best thing I’d done. It’s now the most successful wargame in the world!

In retrospect is there anything you’re not happy about with the game?

I could have been more radical. Some things are still too cumbersome and I wasn’t brave enough to cut the rules back even further. I chopped a lot – the rules are 10,000 words shorter than the previous edition – and at the time it felt very brave. But having now written a new game system for Mantic in just 12 pages, it makes you realise that there’s probably more to cut! [More on this in Part 2.]

What is your least favourite book that you worked on?

From a professional point of view it has to be the Skaven army book (the previous version to the latest edition), even though personally it is one of my favourite armies. It is the most over-powered book I’ve written – they were just far too shooty. There was simply not enough playtesting because we started working on The Two Towers, and Skaven was pushed to the side. So as it turned out, the Warp Lightning spell and the Ratling Gun were way too good.

What are your feelings about the new edition of Warhammer?

Mixed. There are bits that I like and bits I don’t. The book itself is fantastic, full of gravitas – you can feel the years of development that have gone into Warhammer. In terms of the rules, my favourite part is the alteration to the core combat mechanics – something we wanted to change for 7th edition but weren’t allowed. The way that before if you got charged, and your front rank got killed, you got no attacks back – the new version is much more satisfying to play. What I’m less keen on is the random charge – I don’t like the lack of control. Admittedly I’m a control freak. I’m quite happy to play an occasional game where you might lose control of your models because it’s funny, but I don’t want to play like that all the time. Magic may be another problem – because it’s been ‘fluffed up’ a bit, it may have ended up too powerful. Certainly from what I hear of people playing Warhammer tournaments with the new system, the Magic phase is definitely more important – there are battle-winning spells that just mean game-over if you get them off.

And what do you think of the new Dark Eldar codex?

It’s one of those armies that is very difficult to get right because they’re very fragile, but very dangerous. Dark Eldar can do all this amazing stuff – but not if they’re dead! So they’re a tough one to balance correctly. All types of elves have the same problem, and pointing them is always a pain. It’s not at all forgiving for the designer or the player. Any time you’re at the extremes of the system you risk creating a force that is either completely unbeatable or utterly useless. But Phil [Kelly] is good at that, his Eldar book is looking very solid!

How well do you think the current army books handle the conflict, or tension, between serious tournament-style play and the more ‘fluffy’, friendly approach?

There has certainly been a swing recently towards a little more ‘fluffiness’. I think the only way to resolve the two is through simplicity. Simpler rules mean fewer arguments. If the rules are simple and clear enough then arguing about them doesn’t even enter your head – nobody argues when they play chess, for example. Tournaments would become a much more pleasant and relaxed, and simple rules would certainly not hurt your friendly games.

As a keen tournament player and a former Grand Tournament winner, what advice can you give to gamers that want to lift trophies?

Oh, that’s very easy – practise. Play as many games as possible – twice a week as bare minimum, hardcore, competitive games. It literally is training, just like for any sport. The more you play, the more you know your army, how it plays, how to react in different situations. You also need to be playing various opponents and learning about different enemies. You can be the best player in the world, but if you don’t play regularly then you’ll make mistakes and you won’t be able to compete.

Our discussion moved on to the details of Alessio’s new wargame, Kings of War, published by Mantic Games. You can read our chat in Part 2, coming soon!

Sad news this week, as Rick Priestley announced that he is to leave the employ of Games Workshop. Rick has been pivotal in shaping GW as we know it. He wrote or co-wrote the first version of all the major games – Warhammer, 40k and the Lord of the Rings, as well as many of the original army books and codexes, and other games including Warmaster. Over the years he has continued to advise and mentor many grateful staff members, myself included.

It’s not clear exactly how voluntary Rick’s departure was. Certainly Games Workshop has shed quite a few long-standing veterans in recent times. Unfortunately, cutting back on the salary bill is a necessary evil when times are lean, and the needs of the company have to come first. On the other hand, maybe Mr Priestley simply decided it was time to retire.

I’m sure many of us will be looking out to see if Rick carries on writing. Knowing him a little, I have a feeling that he couldn’t stop if he tried. His most recent game was Black Powder, published by Warlord Games, which has been very well received as a refreshingly ‘old-school’ approach to historical wargaming. Warlord is headed by John Stallard, another former GW stalwart, and good friends with Rick, so I wouldn’t be surprised if they team up again on future projects. I’m sure we haven’t seen the last of Rick Priestley.

A lot of gamers seem to expect GW to behave like the governing body of a sport – the FIFA of Warhammer and 40k – issuing statements on the Official way to play, and deciding what is Legal to use on your table-top.  “Dear Jervis/Alessio/Mat/Mail Order Troll, my opponent won’t let me play with Forge World rules/a variant army list from an old White Dwarf/rules I made up for my scratch-built Possessed Ogryn jump-packers/Chaos Dwarfs. Please tell him he’s wrong.”

Now of course any tournament will have to make a ruling on this kind of thing. GW stores may also impose restrictions for customers playing on their gaming tables, but that’s more because they want up-to-date models on display. But in the comfort of your own battlefield, you really should be able to reach an amicable agreement without running to daddy to adjudicate the argument. If you can’t even sort this out yourselves, what hope is there for the rest of the game? As long as you both enjoy the battle, who cares what pieces of plastic/metal/resin/meccano you are pushing around? The hobby police aren’t going to come abseiling through the window, slap you in aquila-adorned handcuffs and confiscate all your models.

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