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!

Space Marines and Orks. Which is the most reliable and which is the most random? Surely the bold and courageous Space Marines are the most reliable, and the battle-crazed Orks are random as hell, right? Wrong! It’s all about the dice…

Picture a small, elite Space Marine army, full of expensive troops like Terminators – perhaps it’s a Deathwing or Grey Knights force – probably numbering only 30 or so models for your 1,500 points. Then picture an Ork army, full of Boyz – maybe there’s a hundred models in the army. Now the key thing with dice, is that the more you roll, the more the results will average out. For example, if you rolled 50 dice, you’d never expect them all (or even half) to come up 6s – no, you can pretty much rely on a roughly even spread. On the other hand, if you roll just 5 dice then getting four or even five 6s is not nearly so rare – I’m sure we’ve all seen it on occasions, perhaps when an Ork player takes his 6+ saves (followed by a little dance to celebrate his good fortune). Which brings me back to the Space Marines and the greenskins. The fact is, a big Ork army will roll far more dice during a game, and all those extra rolls make the outcome far more predictable – luck becomes less of a issue.

Another factor is the effect of an extreme dice result. If the Orks roll five 6s to pass their saves, they’ve been lucky, sure, but it’s no big deal to either side. If the Space Marines roll five 1s (exactly the same probability) to fail their Terminator saves, it’s game changing. The elite army is far more susceptible to bad luck, and because they are rolling less dice, they are more likely to suffer unusual dice results. And it’s this double whammy makes the Emperor’s finest a surprisingly random army to play.

Those of us with longish memories remember a time when things were a little different in the 41st Millennium and the Warhammer world. A time when things developed, when things changed. Cities fell, new races rose up, mighty heroes died and, well, stayed dead. In other words, the timeline progressed.

This phenomenon was created under the rule of then-Games Development supremo Andy Chambers. There were broad, sweeping storylines that could be discerned from stories and background text published in White Dwarf, new army books, supplements and the major web-based campaigns that GW ran.

For Warhammer, the Ogre race started its migration into the Old World, the mad count Maruis Leitdorf was slain, the Supreme Patriarch of the Colleges of Magic was replaced, Eltharion was blinded – and then there was the Storm of Chaos. This, the last of the history-changing worldwide campaigns, saw Archaon launch the next major incursion, rivalling the Great War Against Chaos. The Grand Theogonist got himself captured by Daemons, Sigmar’s heir (allegedly) appeared in the form of Valten, and it all culminated in the siege of Middenheim. In theory the city could have actually fallen, had the bad guys’ battle results not been so rubbish.

In 40k Ghazghkull invaded Armageddon for the second time, Captain Tycho was killed, the entire Necron race awakened (heralded in subtle ways in the Gorkamorka supplement), and the Tau Empire came to power suspiciously quickly. The Eye of Terror campaign saw Eldrad Ulthuan slain, and had the potential for a major shake-up – the introduction article in White Dwarf claimed that a big win for Abaddon could see Chaos gain territory in the heart of the Imperium, while the opposite might result in a new age of expansion for the Imperium. As it turned out, the results were fairly even - not a massive surprise, statistically speaking, but the possibilities were huge and far-reaching.

More recent years have seen a much more conservative approach. The summer campaigns, while perfectly entertaining, have been ring-fenced or limited in scope, so that no ongoing consequences were possible – not fundamentally different to the campaign a large club might invent and run. In fact, a lot of the ‘progress’ I’ve mentioned has been back-tracked or ignored. Tycho seems remarkably well in the new Blood Angels codex and the current Empire Armies book scarcely mentions the events of the Storm of Chaos.  The background of both games now presents an unchanging snapshot – a moment in time.

So why the new approach? There are two main reasons that I can envisage. Firstly, the static method means you’ll get the same worlds to play in whether you start gaming now or in ten years’ time. Because there’s always the danger that a new storyline may not be as good as the old one – a new age of expansion for the Imperium may seem superficially tantalising, but is it really as dramatic as the Imperium approaching destruction? Look at any long-running TV show – series 5 is never anywhere near as good as the early days, as the producers struggle to keep things fresh, integrate new cast-members and new ideas, but still keep the spirit of the original show alive. The frozen time method is more like remaking a classic film – the effects get better, but the essential story remains unchanged.

The other obvious advantage with keeping time still is that they don’t invalidate older books and models. Of course you’d never have expected them to kill off an entire army or anything, but imagine how disheartening an introduction to the hobby it would be to collect an Empire army, paint it blue and white following the Army book, only to find out that “Sorry, Middenheim got destroyed.”

I understand both these sensible reasons. Yet like it or not, there is something undeniably appealing about change. World of Warcraft is doing it in a big way with Cataclysm – a massive sweeping change that will get existing and lapsed players excited, and no doubt net quite a few new ones too. Of course it’s not a trick you can pull very often (there’s only so many times you can nearly destroy the world), but I do wonder if, some time in the future, that Games Workshop will be tempted to stage their own cataclysm?

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