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.

I’ve just finished playing through Alpha Protocol ‘the espionage RPG’. Straight away I have to wonder why they chose such a meaningless title that a sub-header was needed before anyone would know what the game was about. I suppose they were going for an ‘Ipcress File’/‘Bourne Identity’ kind of vibe, but it just ended up sounding bland. A bad day in the marketing department, and not the only one on this game…

The game has a second subtitle: ‘your weapon is choice’ which in my head can only be followed by “Tea or coffee, sir?” “Ow, no, that hurts!” “Sugar?” “Aaaaaaah!” Fortunately the trailer makes this idea a lot more exciting. It shows the lead character, a standard spy/action hero type named Michael Thorton, interrogating a bad guy by dangling him upside-down off the roof of a tower block, only to spot henchman reinforcements arriving in the road below, followed quickly by the appearance of a helicopter gunship. The trailer runs through the various options available to Thorton: 1. Charge down the stairs and kick the goons in the head. 2. Throw smoke grenades into the air vents, triggering a fire alarm and escaping in the crowd of civilians. 3. Drop the original bad guy to his death, stuffed with grenades, onto the henchmen’s car below. Finally, we go with option 4: the helicopter lands on the roof so the co-pilot can get out and check Original Bad Guy, who is now tied to a chair. Then the gunship takes off – Thorton has his pistol to the pilot’s head, and forces him to fire missiles at the co-pilot and OBG.

It’s a cool trailer. The trouble is, the only one of these choices you actually get to do in the game is kicking people in the head. There’s no dangling people off rooftops, no stealing helicopters, and no civilians anywhere to blend into. Your choices in the main content of the game really boil down to shooting or sneaking. Now don’t get me wrong, it was certainly entertaining enough making these decisions. On the whole I ended up skulking around, taking down guards with my silenced pistol until I got spotted and had to finish off the rest in a fire-fight. There were frequently different routes possible, but this felt like a token effort to give an impression of freedom – they were always small detours to the same chokepoint, keeping you on a fundamentally linear path through each mission. I felt all the more restricted by the fact that there is no way to jump up onto anything, so my elite super-agent was regularly fenced in on the ‘correct’ path by a knee-high cardboard box that a 3 year-old could have got over.

Conversation with other characters is likewise no more full of choice than most RPGs these days, with your options pretty much being nice, nasty or smug. Your interactions lead to gaining different handlers talking in your ear during missions, occasionally different enemies to kill and allies to lend a hand (well, their clothes had changed). However, the missions themselves are never substantially different, and while there is some choice about the order you complete things, it doesn’t seem to have much effect – you play through all the missions eventually.

I wouldn’t want you to think I didn’t like Alpha Protocol. It’s an entertaining spy-thriller romp, with good action and a suitably twisty-turny plot, and I’d recommend it on that basis. No, my gripe is with the marketing that made me expect so much more – a game where you had some genuinely inventive freedom. When the product doesn’t live up to the hype, you are just left feeling a bit disappointed.

Oh, one other little peeve: why, when the main character is sneaking, does he have to look like he desperately needs to urinate? Play it and you’ll see what I mean.

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