An Interview with Para Bellum Founder Stavros Halkias

Welcome back to our series covering Conquest: The Last Argument of Kings. If you’re new here then check out our first article overviewing what this game is here. Bair and Thanqol sat down this week with Stavros, the mind behind Para Bellum and all things Conquest to ask about his inspiration behind this universe and the games that have come from it. This was conducted over a video call and has been transcribed here. It is much more a conversation between us than an incredibly structured Q and A. 

Credit: instagram – conquest_cz_sk and Facebook – The Spires of Brno

GH: Thank you for your time and sitting down with us for this!

Stavros: No problem, thank you, so how do you guys want to go about this?

GH: We have a few questions of course but just want to let you talk too…

Stavros: (laughs) That’s dangerous. That’s not good.

GH: One of the first questions I wondered while looking at Conquest was “why the larger scale?”.

Stavros: Two reasons. I always wanted to come into mass battle because I felt that that was very neglected after Games Workshop abandoned Fantasy. The issue with mass battle is that the unit has to be big, but then you’re asking somebody to paint 40, 28 millimetre miniatures. I was an avid Warhammer Fantasy player. I have seven armies; that equates to over four and a half thousand models. You have a block of infantry and for it to look good, it had to be about 40 models because they were so small. Now you can achieve the same visual impact with roughly half the models. And then there’s the painting issue, it’s a hell of a lot easier to paint a bigger miniature as well. With 24 miniatures, you have the same footprint than people were used to hordes of 30 or 40 miniatures in Warhammer Fantasy. So it was mostly about the ease of painting and the approachability of not having to paint 30, 40 miniatures to create a unit. Our goal was to make the game less intimidating by bringing down the number and difficulty of miniatures needed to play as much as possible.

GH: As a follow up: the base sizing, because coming from other game systems, the round bases are smaller; is that just because you had a specific footprint in mind of what you wanted them to look like or…?

Stavros: Well again, comes down to two reasons. The main reason is getting them to rank up in something that looks like close order. The other guys can get away with a larger base because they’re mostly, no, not mostly, they’re entirely skirmish games and so there you want to showcase your miniature with as much space around it as possible. When you actually design the game, the base is all you look at, which is what leads to all of these “true line of sight” headaches, because nobody’s really thought about how tall the model is in anything other than an aesthetic sense.

So early on in the design of the game, we really wanted to do close order formations and skirmish formations and we were very strongly discouraged from that by our games designer saying “you need regular shapes to your units.” It’s so abusable when one player is bound to squares and the other is bound to thin lines or something similar; you’re going to see a lot of abuse. I’m talking about the infamous conga lines. So knowing we were limited to block formations, we wanted those to look as tight as possible, thus the smaller base size.

GH: For sure. I think that’s something most wargamers can probably agree on, wanting to have a good looking unit. So going on to the next thing, I just wanted to say how impressed I was with the Spire sculpts. And this is something that I didn’t get from looking at the photography on the website. Because on the website, they’re painted in this two colour scheme and the skin is the same colour as the armour and the robes; or are very similar. The Marksman Clones, they kind of all look like the one colour, but actually paint them in different colours, and just looking at the sculpts up close in my hands for an extended period of time, I fell in love with them. Some of my favourite sculpts in a long time of any models. Conceptually, just seemed like such a cool out there thing, which doesn’t have an analogue anywhere else. Visually, you can see the clear difference between the clones and the monster sides of the army. You can see the weird centre of balances in each unit. I think that’s the main thing that stands out to me. And the lore is fascinating: alien exiles who have entrenched up in these nightmare cities just waiting out the downfall of their own civilization. I love everything about the Spires, and I just want you to talk about them and where they came from.

Stavros: So the Spires actually come from a dream. I was, at the time, an avid WoW player, and I was playing, I don’t know if you remember back in the day, in Silithus. And I remember seeing the art and the environment around that desert, and the creepiness of these little bug troops. And it must have made an impact on me because I went to sleep and I had this dream of these creepy elves, pale elves, who were no better or less alien than the bugs they were fighting. They were elves, but they were actually inimical because they were alien. And that’s literally where it came from. And then the artistic representation was largely in collaboration with one of our lead artists, who basically developed their aesthetics, based on the stories that we would tell. When you’re coming up with a faction, there’s a very strong feedback cycle between your first ideas, the first concept sketches, which refine your ideas further, until you basically chase each other into a centre point and say, “Okay, this is what they are.” So I had the notion of genetically engineered troops.  I don’t know if you remember, there’s a small art of these guys hanging in these weird silken cocoons by their… That was the artist coming up with that idea, based on what I had said of the drive for hyper efficiency. So when I saw that, I kicked it up a notch even further about how ruthless and how creepy that entire process is. 

The socio economic dynamics of the Spires are actually based on the British East India Trading Company. That’s the dynamic between the Sovereign and the Directorate. The Directorate is this powerful entity, but the Sovereign is weaker than the Crown was in our example. I went into history and I said, okay, now let me dress this in creepy, ruthless, cutthroat, alien politics. And it creates a much more realistic environment, because it’s been done. The consequences of it were mapped out. I don’t just tell you, oh, “he did this”. I’ll tell you, “he did this, and that happened, and this, and that, as a result”. And it’s not all out of my head, it’s based on something real.

GH: And the antiseptic bandages they go into battle wrapped in, that was such a perfect image.

Stavros: That was all literally from trying to make it as realistic as possible. My sister is a doctor. And I remember kicking around some ideas to her, like hey, could this work? How could you design a living humanoid using the simplest template possible? Obviously not really, but is the principle of it sound enough that I can make a cool story out of it? And I was like, so what systems could I knock out? And she answered, “Well, if you don’t care about them living long enough or reproducing, its immune and reproductive system, then we went further into how you could streamline the digestive one too…. So it made it very interesting.

Details like these are second nature to me. I remember I used to have a teacher who used to tell me: “;You’re a good writer, but you don’t weave in what you write enough.” And that’s carried with me and I try to weave it in as much as possible now. Little detail that make it come alive. You put in little details that tie into other details, and create enough of these and the whole world comes alive. Which is why, for example, when I was designing the world, I worked off big ideas, and then you write in all of the factions of the world. You don’t need to introduce them all at once, but they all need to exist in your mind so you don’t end up with the obvious retconned: “Oh yeah, these guys were there all along. In that far away place.” There’s a reason why the far away places aren’t in contact, and are eventually going to come into contact on Ea. We wanted everybody to interact with everybody. So that’s why we’ve created the geography that we have created, and we’re going to create this socioeconomic and cultural dynamics as well so that there is this explanation of why pretty much everybody can touch everybody. 

But, coming back to the Spires: the story guided the aesthetics which in turn shaped the stories, which refined the concepts further. And then we ended up with what they are. I am very pleased with some more sculpts coming next year…

GH: And speaking on some of the Spire models, what is the situation with the pricing on the Incarnate Sentinels? They’re three times as much as any other Spires unit.

Stavros: Pricing is a pain, especially with what’s going on now. Talking specifically about the Spire Incarnate Sentines, they are three times the price (actually two times :P) because they are hand crafted resin. And our resin quality doesn’t come cheap. Resin also offers us the opportunity to move quickly with very artisitc pieces. The material allows for beautiful details and our resin is has not bubbles compared with other pieces in the market.Pricing overall is very difficult. We are trying to be as fair as possible and being a small company gives us some advantages in our pricing policy, so we are hoping to shield consumers from the worst price increases. So we’re going to try very hard to be fair on the price increases and they are pretty much 99% going to be driven by inflation. The polystyrene, the plastic that we use use, used to be around 70 cents before COVID. It’s now 2.40. Without getting into logistics or energy costs either. Having said that you will also find in December a plastic version of the Incarnate Sentinels in the market at a new price :), another advantage of our size – we can react quickly and address player concerns.

GH: We’d heard here and there that materials had gotten incredibly expensive, didn’t realise the extremity of it. Moving on though, the next army is City States, right?

Stavros: They’re next. City states are next, but every faction is going to get new sculpts next year too. We try to get every faction at least two releases a year. It’s a challenge. It’s a challenge because the more fleshed out the factions become, the more fleshed out the new faction has to be when it launches, to able to keep up and be table ready. Nobody wants to play a new faction with three troop choices. You got to flesh it out very quickly. That’s a simple thing in skirmish games: You can do just swap out the weapon and suddenly it’s a different troop and it fulfils a different role. We can go far with dual kits, but not that far. The main drive behind the City States is Steam/Tesla Punk meets Ancient Greece. So hoplites with mechanical limb replacements fighting next to minotaurs under the shade of towering Talos colossi. You will see direct lines from the Old Dominion from which they are descended, but they’ve gone a very different route indeed. 

GH: What you’ve done with the army builders, you’ve released what seems to be the goal for the faction, what the faction’s complete roster will look like, and then you’re doing releases to get up to that blueprint. Is the idea to reach the end of that blueprint and then stop?

Stavros: No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. No, no. The dream really, for example, is to have somebody be able to field a full Dweghom ardent army, a full Dweghom Tempered army, a full Dweghom Clan army. It’s only at this stage, when each sub faction within an army is fleshed out to the level of a full army that I might start runnning into some creative issues… I don’t know if this is viable because some units will be so alike by definition. One thought is we might end up making it a resin offering for those guys who want to play a different faction. Here are the models, they play like those models, but are of the right subfaction. But here, if you want to make it a full Tempered army, they would look different and they would be like this or I want to play a Nobility army. Well actually that one you can, but I want to play a full Order army. I want to play a full Church army. It’s pretty obvious, but the churches actually in the Hundred Kingdoms are going to be one of the earliest to get a full new unit, because they are so underrepresented model-wise. They literally only have the Sicarii.

GH: Yeah, I was wondering if that was a deliberate decision to emphasize that these were poor outsiders who didn’t have a lot of military power, and that was intended to be a permanent part of the lore?

Stavros: There is no permanent part of the lore, because we do take the Living World very, very seriously. Engagement with it is growing, and as it grows, we are going to start upping the ante a little bit on what can happen. So the political situation with the Church can change, but the thing is we have to balance it. Because if we tell people, oh, if you vote this way you’re going to see more unit types for the Church, everybody’s going to vote that way, by definition. There’s no real decision. I get more if I vote this way. So the idea is to say, okay, so does the Church grow in power, or does the Nobility grow in power, or does the Imperial… Is there an emperor again? And suddenly the Legions are back, and the Imperial faction gets huge. But if the Emperor comes back, it’s going to be at the expense of the other two. So there’s always going to be that little play. Or they might say, he doesn’t come back and we stick to the status quo and we’re very open to this, but we’re slowly building up to that stage. Right now, it’s more of an introduction. This is what the world looks like. These are the players, these are the factions, and these are some of the themes that we’re working on. To get to the bigger decisions, we’re going to need to update the software behind it to be able to support more voting and a more interactive sort of voting process.

GH: So the Conquest timeline will be moving forwards? It’s not just a snapshot in time like many settings in other games?

Stavros: Yeah. It is going to be moving onwards. Now one of the curious things is that we all want change, but we don’t want the setting to change. But if you make change, the setting changes by definition. I remember a very instrumental interview, and my thought was the poor guys that did Heroes of Might and Magic 4, who got murdered. They’re like, well, but you guys wanted an updated game. “No! We wanted the old game with better graphics!” 

So it’s a delicate balance. It is a very delicate balance on how much change we can introduce and still have the Hundred Kingdoms feel like the Hundred Kingdoms. And how much we can have the Spires feel like the Spires. I always struggled with, for example, campaign settings that had an end to them. I was like, what? Wait, what? Why? I can accept using a setting whose story has been told, but realy want the players to be able to guide this one down their own path. 

instagram credit: irwinrainday

GH:  In fantasy settings, various “orc” races are often coded to represent people of colour. While the W’adrhŭn are unique with the feathers and dinosaurs, there are some elements of the sculpts, in particular the hair, that play into this stereotype. Was this something that was on your mind? Where exactly did your aesthetic choice for them come from?

Stavros: Orcs riding dinosaurs. Pretty much it. Now the truth is the aesthetics that we used for them are Mesoamerican and African. But in no way do we equate them a human racial group. Honestly, that’s fairly insulting if you think about it. Who are the elves then? 

I’m not going to shy away from the fact that yeah, there’s Mesoamerica and there is African tradition, and for a lot of their naming conventions I’ve used Xhosa and Zulu language. But no, that is not in any way, shape or form intended to be a representation of human racial groups. You’re going to see, there’s huge areas of the world that have fascinating, fascinating areas. The Sorcerer Kings that we mentioned, I want them to be Egypt, Middle East, Northern India, and Mongolia all rolled together into one. That’s the aesthetic vibe that we’re going into. It’s just honestly, we use the aesthetics. Nothing else was intended. The cultural structure and everything else was purely fantastic. The main thing that I designed the W’adrhŭn and all of W’adrhŭn society around is this higher calorific intake that they have and how that has shaped their society and forced to adapt and try to survive. And it’s going to be very interesting what happens when they leave the wastelands and enter the more lush areas, how that will develop. The bit that we have tried to focus on is while they have histories and visuals we recognize, each of these factions lives in a different world with different concerns, making them unique and diverse in their own right, regardless of what trappings they inherited from this one. 

GH: Thanks for that, something along similar lines we’ve liked seeing too is the female representation in the W’adrhŭn and Nords, can we expect more of that in future releases?

Stavros: Yeah. I’ll be honest, it’s something that as a typical gamer we didn’t think about it enough early on so there is a definitely male bias. I am lucky enough to work with my sister and she rather quickly pointed out the discrepancy. She’s like, “Stavros.” I’m like, “Yes.” “What’s going on here?” I’m like, “Huh, okay. Yeah, I guess we could be better at that.” Its easy to argue that historically this was always the case, but given that this is fantasy and we already diverge from reality can we not stretch a little and include more female representation?  No, you’re going to see a much more increased representation of female characters in our model lines going forward. So we’re trying to strike a balance. I’m aware that the Nord Valkyries are very aesthetically perfect, very aesthetically appealing, but at the same time, so are almost all of our males. So yeah, we are dealing with idealized presentations. This topic is also always so delicate and so dangerous.

GH: The last question we had planned was just the vast majority of the options and complexity in the list building is in character customization. We’re here for that and love that. It feels very Warhammer Fantasy in customising “your own guy”. The worry that I have is that I will then spend way too many of my army points on just making this one guy incredibly good and then his regiment gets wiped out from a charge and he doesn’t get to do anything! So I’m wondering just how you balance that complexity and that pressure as a game designer?

Stavros: You just mentioned it there. Let’s say, they’re only as tough as the regiment they’re in. This was a huge consideration when we were designing a game. I was very adamant that I do not like hero hammer. I do not the notion of a single hero unaided by some monstrous beast obviously running rampant. If you are going to run it, and I do have a notion of one or two creatures on the planet that could do it. The notion of a guy standing toe to toe against a regiment, it doesn’t go with the realism that we wanted. Now on the other hand, isn’t it a load of fun to customize your character, give him little perks and traits and abilities? So we wanted that, but we didn’t want it to go over the top. And we were told very early on in the game design process, “Design your game first and then we’ll go back and design the characters. Add the complexity later. Don’t add it at the beginning because you’re going to spend more time balancing your characters and you’re going to end up balancing the game.” So we listened to that advice and we gradually increased the complexity of the characters by adding the masteries and the retinues later. It’s fun. Honestly, we did it because it’s fun. It’s the magic. It gets you into the feeling and the mood of the character. The general is very often your little manifestation down there.

GH: How are you dealing with balance changes? Are you paying attention to events that happen globally, win rates of factions, etc?

Stavros: Very closely. Not just rules design, but I mean I used to be a gamer. I hate the notion of how unfair is it when you’ve built, designed this gorgeous army whose aesthetic you like, whose theme you like, and then you’ve got this random nobody who shows up, beats you with an army that’s half painted and then you find out, “Oh, it’s not even his, he borrowed it from his mate?” We really are aiming at trying to get even a 50% win rate for every faction. That is our dream, that is our goal. And there are ways that you can make this easy. One of the guidelines that we use in rules design is that nothing should give more than a plus one to a stat. That ends up being a massive swing that you can’t account for. And where we’re seeing it, we’re going to be paying very close attention to it. Does it really need to be two points? Can’t it be one? And if one point isn’t important enough, then let’s figure out another way to make this important enough.

GH: That’s really great to hear. Very much looking forward to everything that will be coming out and seeing how things get tweaked here and there as a result. The fact that your rules and army builder etc are free to use makes it incredibly easy to keep up with those tweaks too.

Thanks again Stavros for your time today, I think we’ve probably kept you long enough at this point and now have the joy of transcribing this all so it can be read!

Stavros: It’s been a pleasure guys, thanks!

 As always, if you want to get 10% off Conquest products and support Goonhammer, make your purchase by clicking here for US/Canada or here for EU/rest of world. You’ll also need to enter code “goonhammer” at checkout. Look, we don’t make the rules, that’s just how it works!