Goonhammer Historicals: An Interview with Firelock Games’ Mike Tuñez

Amid the chaos of GenCon, I got a few minutes to catch up with Mike Tuñez of Firelock Games. The company had a well-staffed and well-stocked booth in the exhibit hall, where they were selling a bunch the new plastic sets from the recent “Raise the Black” expansion for their popular Blood & Plunder line (as well as some of the big starter kits, which Jackie Daytona reviewed recently). Also on offer were demos of Blood & Valor (their WWI skirmish sized tabletop miniatures game), Oak & Iron (their Age of Sail tabletop ship combat game) and War Stories (their new WWII RPG).

A note up-front: I didn’t bother recording this conversation for transcription because it took place in the crowded and cavernous vendor hall during the first day of GenCon. To call that environment “loud” is an understatement, so I knew that my poor phone wouldn’t be able to keep up. As such, any direct quotes are pulled from memory and/or the notes I made immediately after the conversation. Any errors are my own, and hopefully Mike won’t hold them against me!

The Trials and Tribulations of Kickstarter

I started off asking about Raise the Black, which was funded through Kickstarter and finished up delivering to backers this summer. It was extremely successful, but Mike was very candid about the difficulties they encountered along the way. One of the most important lessons learned? “Don’t Kickstart a major release during a global pandemic.” Good tip considering the project launched on 06 October 2020! When pressed for more details about the process, he mentioned that they avoided the worst of the problems caused by lockdowns, but then got caught squarely in the middle of all of the subsequent supply-chain disruptions. More than one bright-eyed Kickstarter has seen its shining hopes dashed on the rocky shore of shipping costs, and Mike mentioned that between getting their initial quote and the time things actually shipped, the transport costs had more than quadrupled! Fortunately they had built in enough margin to cover these overruns and were able to execute successfully despite them. I won’t say he had a “thousand yard stare” when talking about the experience, but I got the distinct impression that he heaved a huge sigh of relief when the campaign had finally closed out.

Firelock Games Blood & Plunder Raise the Black box set
This massive starter kit comes jam-packed with goodies, everything you’ll need to be sailing the high seas and plundering the Spanish Main in no time! (credit: Firelock Games)

And speaking of Raise the Black, this was my first chance to see (and handle!) the new plastic minis (and ships!) up-close. I was extremely impressed by the quality of the minis and blown away by the ships. One of the things I was particularly impressed by with the new plastic sailors is that there are lots of options that are suitable for figures representing sailors of African descent. Numerous period accounts talk about free Africans and those who had escaped enslavement being present on ships plying the Spanish Main and it’s cool to see that reflected in the miniatures. We’re planning to do a more in-depth review of the plastic sailors kit itself, it’s just a question of which of us (myself, Jackie Daytona, or Dan “Zuul the Cat” Rucker) gets to it first!

Upcoming Releases – Blood & Crowns

But what I was really interested in talking to Mike about was getting some sense of what new projects the company had in the works. This was where his eyes lit up, and he had the kind of infectious enthusiasm that I first encountered during a Blood & Plunder demo at GenCon in 2018 (if I recall correctly, my memory of the “Before Times” gets a little fuzzy).

The first project he talked about was “Blood & Crowns,” a skirmish miniatures game set during the 100 Years War. “The rules mechanics will be very familiar to people who play Blood & Plunder. The biggest difference will be the effects of armor.” This stands to reason, as the late-medieval period during which the 100 Years War took place is at the height of the age of chivalry, replete with knights in glorious full-plate armor. Fun historical fact: the term “bullet proof” comes from the dents left in armor by the maker shooting the armor, proof that the plate could resist the musketry of the day.

While many of the existing rulesets detailing the period focus on the large set-piece battles like Agincourt or Verneuil or the Siege of Orleans, Blood & Crowns is focused on smaller actions. After all, the English and their allies were faffing about the French countryside for the better part of 116 years, and there were countless foraging raids, scouting actions, and skirmishes along the way. I love skirmish games as an entry into wargaming a new period, as it’s an easy way to build up a force and get some games under your belt. Mike confirmed that Blood & Crowns will build on the same successful force creation system used in Blood & Plunder, with each player controlling a handful of units organized in groups generally ranging from 4 to 12 models.

Firelock Games Blood & Crowns

When I asked about whether or not Blood & Crowns would include a new range of miniatures, Mike shook his head. “No, the Perrys have that era pretty well covered.” He further allowed that it would be a pretty difficult space to get into now, especially when there are so many established manufacturers doing the era in 28mm. But in many ways this is a huge strength, as players looking to get into the game have loads of different ranges from which to choose.

I found this revelation particularly interesting, as it now really positions Firelock Games squarely in the “historicals” camp for me (and I absolutely mean that as a compliment). There are lots of companies out there trying to do miniatures games, and I always wonder what the margins have to be to make these kinds of companies profitable. This is specially the case in the historicals market where you’re by necessity competing against companies that have existing ranges – in some cases with literal decades of success behind them. Firelock’s initial entry into the pirate milieu was a great one to accompany with a miniatures range because that was an era for which there were almost no existing manufacturers (plus their original line of sculpts were and still are awesome!). But going with a “rules only” release puts Firelock alongside some of my other favorite games developers like Too Fat Lardies or Reisswitz Press – they are spending their energy making great games rather than having to juggle also handling a miniatures release.

And Firelock is always fantastic about giving historical context for its games. As I look at my copy of “No Peace Beyond the Line” (the first expansion for Blood & Plunder) I revel in the 19-page section that’s a detailed timeline stretching from 1620 to 1699. This chapter is fantastic and serves as a real inspiration for loads of scenarios and modeling projects. It is my fervent hope that the new Blood & Crowns rulebook will have a similar section describing the timeline of the 100 Years War in such detail.

The best part: the Kickstarter for Blood & Crowns launched just recently and was fully funded in under an hour. Hell yeah! There’s still time to back this campaign, so if you have any interest whatsoever in late-medieval wargaming I highly encourage you to check it out and hop on board! You’ll be glad you did!

Also as an aside, the recent Issue #125 of Wargames, Soldiers, & Strategy is all about the 100 Years War and has some great scenario ideas and pointers to various HYW miniature ranges inside! Perfect timing!

A Pirate-Themed RPG!

Another project Mike mentioned as being in the works was “Under a Black Sail.” This is a tabletop RPG set during the age of piracy, building on the same Year Zero Engine that powers their recent “War Stories” WW2 RPG.

I’m going to go on an aside for a minute. I love the Age of Sail, have since I was a kid. It probably contributed to me getting a degree in Naval Architecture. My love of this era definitely contributed to me getting into Blood & Plunder, for sure. I vividly remember watching the 1986 made-for-TV mini-series “Return to Treasure Island” and was mentally transported to the Spanish Main. I ate it up. Also, Brian Blessed knocked it out of the fucking park as Long John Silver. Anyway, I had been playing D&D and Star Frontiers for a few years by that point and immediately sat down to start writing my own pirate-themed RPG. But whatever, I was 14 and discovered that writing an RPG is “hard” so I eventually gave up.

Return to Treasure Island (1986)
Look at these sexy bastards! This series utterly captured the imagination of 14-year-old me.

Over the years I’d played a couple of other games with pirate themes, most notably D. Vincent Baker’s game Poison’d (though that one has, uh, a much more adult and gritty theming). But nothing really came close to scratching that itch. I played Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag (which is amazing) with great relish, but that just deepened my desire for a good RPG that covered the period.

But with “Under a Black Sail” it appears that the Firelock team has heard and answered my silent prayers. I am really looking forward to this release (and playing it with my regular RPG group). Given the huge amount of historical research that can be leveraged from their prior work on Blood & Plunder, I think this one is going to be chock full of deliciously atmospheric source material. Mike has been a little coy with whether or not this release will be another Kickstarter campaign or a self-funded endeavor, but it’s definitely one I’ll be awaiting with great interest.

Oh, hell yeah!

The last project in the works that we talked about is called “Port Royal,” and when I asked Mike for the elevator pitch he just said, “Think pirate Mordheim.”

<sound of record scratching>

Wait. Hold the fucking phone. What?!?

He went on to explain that the game is set in Port Royal, Jamaica, which was devastated by a huge earthquake on 7 June 1692. As a result of the quake and the associated tsunami, around two-thirds of the town sank below sea level and much of the town remaining above the waves was destroyed. At the time, Port Royal was one of the busiest (and by extension wealthiest) ports in the Caribbean. And after the tremors subsided, there was a mad scramble to loot the ruins both above and below the waterline.

Port Royal earthquake illustration
A period illustration of some of the devastation of the 1692 Port Royal earthquake. Even buildings still on land partially sank into the sand – sometimes at crazy angles! – due to the phenomenon known as “liquefaction.” Note to self: don’t live in an earthquake zone close to the ocean!

OK, you had me at “pirate Mordheim,” but now you’re telling me this is also a historical game? Yeah, I’m on board. Hook, line, and sinker.

This is intended to be what I have taken to calling a “warband” game – even smaller than skirmish scale – where each player is controlling just a handful of individual figures. Conceptually the game will pull a lot from the kinds of warband games that have come before – Mordheim, Necromunda, etc. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Mike said. The twist here is that like Blood & Plunder it will include rules for seaborne, land-based, and amphibious scenarios. And best of all, it can be played with Firelock’s existing, extensive range of Blood & Plunder minis. The new plastic kits in particular will give loads of customization options for players to build their bands of ruin-scavenging scalawags.

When I expressed concern over what I have come to see as one of the biggest shortcomings of some of the prior go-rounds of these warband-scale games (including Mordheim and Necromunda) – that once you lose a couple of games in a campaign, your warband falls further and further behind – Mike got that gleam in his eye and smiled; “That’s the broken part that we’re fixing.”

Needless to say, I am pretty firmly in “take my money!” mode on this one. Not a lot of further details as yet and no word on a release schedule, but you can be absolutely sure that I’m going to be into this one pretty much as soon as it becomes available.

Big Thanks!

GenCon is a super busy time for anyone involved in the gaming industry and I really appreciate Mike taking the time to talk to me. I’m really excited about what Firelock Games is working on right now and look forward to their upcoming releases with particular relish.

And just a reminder, check out the Kickstarter for Blood & Crowns!

Questions, comments, suggestions? Ideas of where to hide ill-gotten plunder? or leave a comment below