Alessio Cavatore’s own game, published last year, is called Shuuro. The tag line for the game is ‘Creative Chess’, because it uses a simple points system to allow you to pick your army of chess pieces. I asked Alessio why he refers to it as a wargame rather than a board game.

It’s an abstract wargame. Chess is a wargame, and so is Go. Go is the ultimate abstract wargame. Chess is a tiny step more realistic – the pieces at least have shape and evoke a battlefield. So if Go is the ultimate ‘zen’ abstract wargame, and Chess is one step further in, Shuuro is another step beyond that. The sides and the set up don’t have to be identical, and there is abstract terrain to deal with.

And you have a new expansion for Shuuro just coming out, called Turanga?

Turanga is our first expansion which turns Shuuro into a four-player game. It uses a system like the card game Bridge, where you play with a partner sitting opposite you around the table, but you can’t discuss your tactics during the game.

How do the different versions of Shuuro feel when compared to a normal Chess game?

The main Shuuro set includes Mini Shuuro, which you use for quick games and tournaments. It feels a bit like a strange Chess puzzle. You have the unusual combinations of playing pieces, but it’s small enough that you can analyse and ponder your moves, just as in a normal Chess game. The full game of Shuuro feels much more like a wargame – there’s far too much going on to even attempt keeping all the possibilities in your head (at least it’s too much for my head!). Rather you do things like making an attack down one flank, exchanging a few pieces, and then perhaps the opponent counter-attacks, or you redeploy. Turanga then makes the game a four-player experience, which is a bit more like a board game. In fact if you have both sets, Shuuro and Turanga, then there are five different versions of the game you can play.

Do you have further expansions in the pipeline?

The next expansion is called Yuddah, and it introduces a combat system that can be layered on top of any of the other ways to play. Each piece has a number of D12 dice, from one for a pawn up to four for a queen. When you try to take an opponent’s piece, it doesn’t work automatically – both sides roll the number of dice their piece allows, plus one if they ‘charged’ (attacked), and one each for every other piece threatening that square. So your pieces can provide support both in attack and defence.

The following expansion will be called Loka and it will introduce extra terrain for the board. At the moment we are planning forests, lakes, swamps and elemental gates. These last ones develop the elemental theme that is first hinted at in Turanga, where each of the players has the colours and symbols of one of the classic four elements.

Finally, do you have any advice for budding games designers?

Play lots of different games of course. Write stuff – lots of people think they could be a games designer, but you don’t really know until you try to put something on paper! If you want to do it professionally, first get a job at a games company – any job – don’t wait to be hired as a games designer without any experience, that’s very rare. You have a much better chance if you’re on the inside.                                                                          

You’ve just finished Kings of War, a new game for Mantic Games. What brief did you write to, or set yourself?

The first step was to look at the Kings of War model range. It’s vital that the rules service the models. That’s one of the first things we say when River Horse [Alessio’s company] helps you with your game system is: do you have an existing range? It seems to surprise people when you start like that – they just expect you to write a set of rules, rather than rules that are designed for their models.

The other key aspect was the packaging, the way they sell their models – they sell them in tens, twenties and forties. A ten is called a Troop, twenty is called a Regiment and forty is a Horde. So the next question was: do you want a model-based game or a unit-based game? In other words, should the smallest element in the game be the individual models, who can be removed and killed, or should the unit as a whole have a stat line?

And what was the decision?

Because of the way the models are sold, I recommended unit-based. I’m also doing some work for Warlord Games on their coming expansions for Black Powder, which is unit-based, and it’s a method I really like. So what came out was a game that has elements of Black Powder, has elements of Warhammer, has elements of other games. In fact I had never written a new system completely from scratch, and I started thinking as I wrote: oh, this rule is a bit like that rule in that other system – maybe I shouldn’t use it. I was killing myself trying to write original mechanics that had never been used anywhere, and it got me nowhere. In the end I realised that with so many people dealing with the same problems, you’re going to end up with some similar solutions. So I decided not to worry about it, and just write rules that seemed to work well. Bizarrely, when I stopped worrying about it, I came out with quite a few original mechanics, that, mixed with some solidly established principles, that I’ve taken from other games I love, make for an interesting blend of newfangled and familiar, I think. But of course I’d say so!

So how does it differ from Warhammer? How do they compare?

When a Kings of War game starts, with the units deployed, it does inevitably look a lot like a Warhammer battle. However, once the game is underway it actually has very little to do with Warhammer. The biggest difference is: each unit has a profile – there is no removing of models as casualties – instead you put down markers to indicate damage, psychological as well as physical. And when enough damage has been done the unit breaks and is removed – there are no fleeing units. All of this means the game is much shorter than the equivalent Warhammer game.

How does the turn system work?

The system is: I move, I shoot, I attack your models in combat, then you do the same. It’s written so that I do everything in my turn, you do everything in yours, So in this game, if I do enough damage, I get to roll against your bravery or courage – I called it Nerve – and hopefully break your unit.

The interesting thing about this is that, if you want, you can decide to play the entire game with a chess clock or a timer. So in a tournament, or if you just like to experience the pressure of ‘real battle’, you can add in this time factor. Obviously you couldn’t do that in Warhammer because you do stuff in my turn. If you’re playing with a timer, you agree a time limit, say one or two hours, and when your time runs out your entire army breaks and runs – losing the game.

That’s quite novel for a full wargame.

I thought intellectually it would be an interesting thing to have, but there’s a big difference between writing a rule and playing it, and when I tried it out, it was very revealing. I’ve written a new system, it’s simple, it works, but it still feels like playing a tabletop wargame – Warhammer, Flames of War, whatever – the rules are different but it’s the same fundamental experience, one that I’m very familiar with. However, the moment we started using the chess clock, it was a different, new experience – you do different things, you feel different things. Almost like the difference between playing a turn-based computer game and a real time strategy game – there’s an element of genuine panic!

And you’ve kept the system short and sweet?

Yes. It’s very simple. The entire Kings of War rules are just 12 pages long, including all the special rules, the scenario, rules for alliances, timed games. I’ve been asked a few times when we’re bringing out the full version – people assume this is just the quick play summary sheet! But no, this is the entire game. We also made it quite humorous, particularly in the special rules with things like the Elven Sabretoothed Pussycat and the Dwarf Throwing Mastiff.

Is there anything to stop me using my Warhammer models to try Kings of War?

Not at all. Mantic’s models are considerably cheaper than GW’s, so a lot of people buy them to bulk out their Warhammer armies. If gamers go the other way and use their Warhammer models to try out Kings of War, then I’ll be very chuffed. I’m told that fans on the forum have already started creating their own army lists for races that Mantic don’t yet produce – I hear there’s one for ‘Lizard-kin’ for example.

And how is the game being sold by Mantic?

They don’t sell it. It’s a free game that will be put inside boxed sets from Regiment size upwards and later on will be posted up as a free download. Then we will publish updates every year or so, to keep the rules polished and fresh.

From here, our chat turned to Shuuro – the game Alessio has designed and published through his own company, River Horse. We talked about the new supplement, Turanga, and his plans for the future. That will all be in the third and final part of the interview – coming soon!

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!

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