The Goonhammer Interview with James M Hewitt, Part 1: Age of Sigmar and 40k

James M Hewitt worked for Games Workshop as part of the Citadel studio rules team, before becoming a founding member of the newly created Specialist Games Team. He now operates Needy Cat Games with his partner Sophie, another GW studio veteran. They’ve just launched (and cancelled!) their first completely independent Kickstarter for Robot Fight Club, a tactical robot combat game with customisable fighters. More on that later. Edwin “Lupe” Moriarty sat down with James for our most in-depth interview to date.

Lupe: So, I thought it would be good first of all we could have a quick chat about what you have done in games.

James: Absolutely, where do we start? So a long time ago I started working for Games Workshop’s retail wing around 2002, when Lord of the Rings the Two Towers was happening.

In my interview I said I wanted to be a game designer one day, age 18 I think I was. I ended up working there in various shops until 2008, when I applied for the trainee game designer job at GW head office. I went through six months of interviews for that starting in April, found out just after Games Day in October I sadly hadn’t got the job. 

So eventually, I moved to Nottingham where I managed, through nepotism, to get a job at Mantic games. [laughs] Nepotism for the win! 

My old boss from Games Workshop was now working at Mantic, and they were keen to get a sports game designed which might have been a bit like Blood Bowl but in space. And he knew that I was keen on designing games so I pitched an idea. Long story short I ended up co… well, supporting the design of Dreadball and…

Lupe: Very diplomatic.

James: Isn’t it just. And the full story of that has recently been published [editor: in this article], but let’s not repeat it here again. 

So I worked on Dreadball on a freelance basis. Then when the game was out on Kickstarter, I was doing a lot of answering the comments on Kickstarter and Boardgame Geek and they liked that, so they asked me to come onboard and become their community manager. At that point Mantic had done a couple of successful Kickstarters and they were growing from a very small company to a medium-sized company. So they took me on to answer emails and deal with the community and that sort of thing. 

From there I took the leap to Games Workshop’s rules team where I helped kill the Old World [laughs]. I worked on the last of the End Times books and then of course was involved in the first wave of design for Age of Sigmar. 

Lupe: We’ll circle back into that in a minute.

James: Yeah, no doubt!  I worked there for a couple of years, and managed to design a few standalone boxed games: Betrayal at Calth, Gorechosen, Silver Tower. Then I went down the stairs to the Specialist Games department which was newly opened – it was only three of us at the time. There I took over the work on Blood Bowl.

Lupe: Who did you take that over from?

James: From the team generally. So what had happened was they’d decided that Blood Bowl would be the first big experiment, and while I was working out my notice period [in the publications studio], they were already starting it. 

So what they’d done was they’d taken the CRP edition of the living rulebook, copy and pasted it into a new layout and started just tweaking it – just tweaking the layout of it basically. So then my first job was to come in and go through and make sure we liked it, changed things that needed changing, fuck it up slightly.

Lupe: Obviously!

[Both laugh]

James: Absolutely! Add in some typos to what was already a well-honed document, and then I started working on the first expansion, which was where we started changing a few things. The new league rules, and we added some different team rules. 

And after that I did Titanicus, which got released later, and then Necromunda, which got released sooner. Then I left Games Workshop for a variety of reasons. One of which was that lead Horus Heresy writer Alan Bligh passed away very suddenly and it was a bit of a blow to all of us; it made me realise how short life can be. 

So I set up Needy Cat Games in July 2017, and Sophie joined soon after, and since then we’ve been doing game design for a variety of people: Mantic Games, Steamforged Games, Games Workshop, as well as some other smaller clients. We do game design, rules review, and all that sort of thing. And now we’re doing a game for ourselves. Hooray! 

And that’s it really, up to now.

Lupe: And now you’re here, talking to me.

James: I skipped a few birthdays but other than that.

Lupe: Yeah lovely, that was comprehensive.

James: Wasn’t it just? Good luck transcribing that.

Lupe: This is a wonderfully easy interview to give and a terrible one to write up 

[Both laugh]

Lupe: Thank you very much for that. So why don’t we start with where it began from the GW side, with Age of Sigmar?

James: Mmm yes.

Lupe: And the end of WHFB, So you came in right as that was –

James: So, when I joined the studio, on day one when I went in, they were like, right you’ve signed your confidentiality contract but before you go into the studio, you have to sign this additional piece of paperwork for a project with a code name – I probably can’t even say what the codename was – and you need to understand that this is more secret than the incredibly binding secrecy we already have you under.

Ok… My first thought was… Are they doing another big film license? Like Lord of the Rings or something? I had no idea.

I signed it all, went in and they went “We’re killing the Old World” basically. [laughs] Wasn’t quite as blunt as that but they said yeah, we’ve got this big plan too – it’s called the End Times. At this point that the End Times books hadn’t been released yet. But the first three out of the five had been written. The fourth one was in the process, then number five came later. 

And they said yeah, there’s this big plan, we’re basically going to destroy the Warhammer world and create something new which is much more fit for purpose. Because the thing is, the WHF world had organically grown over a long time and had always had issues as a result. Whenever they wanted to do a big piece of story, half a dozen of the factions were close together, geographically speaking, but as soon as you wanted to include High Elves, Dark Elves, Wood Elves, Lizardmen, Tomb Kings, Ogre Kingdoms – you had to have a reason why they were all in the same place. 

And so it was that stuff always happened in or around the Empire, because that’s where the protagonists were – in the Empire, Bretonnia, something like that. And to have the Lizardmen and the Ogres attacking at the same time had to have some kind of justification for why they are all there.

I remember the Nemesis Crown campaign, where some of the factions were looking for the Nemesis Crown, a relic of great power and then everyone else had these increasingly tenuous reasons for being there. My favourite one was Settra the Imperishable, who was sailing down the Reik in a fleet of barges, reclaiming all the bits that had been nicked by archaeologists over the years. I just love the idea of him rocking up to a wizard’s tower and saying “excuse me, that’s my great grandmother, can I have her back please?” Mummy up against the wall, you know?

Lupe: “I think you’ll find that’s my hat”

[Both laugh]

James: Exactly. And so this whole idea, the idea behind it of shaking things up and making it easier to tell cool stories where all the factions are involved, behind it, I was like “oh that makes total sense”. Also, the narrative hadn’t moved on massively in quite a long time and so it made a lot of sense to make some changes. 

While we were writing the End Times books, watching big characters die was genuinely emotional. I thought, this was really really cool. 

Lupe: I assume you had a long attachment to this, as a setting

James: Yeah! I had worked in GW retail for over a decade chatting to gamers and running campaigns, I’d been playing Warhammer since I was a kid. So I knew, not only how much I cared, but how much the customers cared about all this. All we were thinking about was how exciting this was going to be, people were going to be shocked but actually, we weren’t taking anything away. 

Because there are characters in Warhammer who are historical characters; Gorbad Ironclaw, he was an Orc Warlord who was not contemporary in the setting, his stuff happened way back, there was a whole slew of characters that were non-contemporary characters and they fit just fine. 

So we were like – we’re doing nothing that hasn’t already been done. We’re just changing things up a bit. Yeah, there’s going to be a bit of an outcry about changing the setting, because it’s a beloved setting. But we can replace it with something so much cooler. So at this point…

Lupe: How do you feel about that in retrospect?

[Both laugh]

James: We’ll go into that. So, we all worked on the End Times books, but at the same time we knew that there was work being done behind the scenes, in a locked room, which we were not allowed to go into but could occasionally peek into, where they had a bunch of people like John Blanche, Alan Merrett, we had various higher ups, sculptors, artists, all these people. 

The walls were plastered in John’s concept art for new factions; it was amazing, because what it was doing was taking existing factions and twisting them. So the Fyreslayers, I thought that’s so cool! Because it’s taking dwarves and pulling them away from LOTR and D&D: this is a Warhammer dwarf. 

The goblins suddenly had all spider limbs and things. It was like argh this is cool because this is stuff that exists within the iconography it’s just pulling it to the fore, you know? Turning the Wood Elves into partial tree spirits and things. Having all these giant monsters.

Then there were the Sigmarites, I think Sigmarite was the initial word that was being used for them before they were called the Stormcast, who were like fantasy Space Marines.  

And even that I was like yeah, totally I can see why. Because it’s a cool heroic humanish faction that’s going to have the same kind of impact as Space Marines. Space Marines are really popular because when a new player comes in, and wants to buy a thing and they want to have a go at painting… painting skin is hard. But humans make good PoV characters, as you can hopefully relate to them a bit easier and see the setting through their eyes. It’s a lot of the reason why people’s first army is Space Marines, because they’re easy to paint, they’re very iconic and they’re the “protagonists” – he said with big airquotes because they’re really not – but they are the characters who are the center of the setting and adding something similar to Warhammer was really cool. 

And I knew this from selling the game for however many years. The Empire was a very specific type of human and people would often struggle to paint an Empire army, because “oh I don’t like painting skin” but they didn’t have a human equivalent to go to.

Lupe: And to be fair, having painted Empire armies, they are fiddly, aren’t they?

James: Exactly! And also, Space Marines are an elite army, so it’s quite a small force, Empire is the opposite. The closest equivalent in Warhammer was Chaos. You know, Chaos warriors are easy to paint, drybrush ’em, job’s a goodun and you can do a couple of big units quite quickly. 

So yeah, all of this stuff, felt like it was really exciting. But it wasn’t a thing we were working on at this point, we were working on the End Times books. To give you an idea of the structure, we had background writers and rules writers. The background team would write all the background and we’d go and apply rules to that. So miniatures would get made first, then narrative background gets written and rules would get written to fit the background and miniatures. The rules were very much the last thought in the process, and that was like the microcosm of how it was like at GW at that point. That was the case for everything. 

So then AoS finally left “the room” and came out to us. Jervis Johnson had been working on it in the room, so he headed up the rules design. But he was under a lot of pressure from the other people who had been in that room for a long time where a lot of the decisions had been made about exactly what it was going to be and how it was going to work and what it would have and wouldn’t have, a lot of the decisions had been made above a rules level (remember, it’s miniatures then setting then rules), which then impacted on the rules. 

And as we started working on it there was this whole initial concept that the rules should be simple enough – and remember we were going from the 8th edition WH book here which was a …

Lupe: Tome

James: Yeah, and I remember people coming into the shops and saying “I want to learn Warhammer”, and we said“Cool, here’s the rulebook, but don’t worry you only have to use the first 80 odd pages to learn the game” and then they would start looking over at 40k. Y’know, which wasn’t much better, but it was still – yeah. 

So the design brief was that rules should be simple enough that they fit on four pages. Somewhere along the line that then got twisted around a little bit and what happened was, I think people got quite fraught, quite excited about this in a possibly negative way, as it became increasingly apparent that this was going to be a massive thing, and somehow the “Rules should be simple enough to fit on four pages” thing suddenly mutated into “Rules have to fit on a four page document which can be downloaded”.

At that point, there’s a lot of stuff which you’re going to have to skip. I wasn’t designing the core rules, Jervis was, but we’d all been involved in testing and feeding back and working out the rules for the other armies and things, we kept reassuring ourselves by saying “it’s alright because we’re doing a big hardback rulebook and that is going to have a commentary section”.

This was the thing that was intended, was a book that would have the rules in more detail with commentary. It’s the equivalent of when you get a Fantasy Flight Games board game with the quick start rules and then a detailed rules manual.

Lupe: So to be clear, that four page rulebook – was intended to be the quick start? 

James: Basically yeah? The idea was – it was a downloadable thing so that anyone could play it. One of the big aims of AoS was to remove barriers to entry.

Lupe: Which is a good thing

James: Yeah, and it has happened I think. Someone comes into a GW store and says “I really think that giant is really cool, I want to play a game with that giant”  you no longer have to say “OK that’s fine, so here’s what you need to do, you need to buy the Orc and Goblins army book, the rulebook, you’ll need to buy this, you’ll need two Core units at minimum, three really if you want to take a giant as you need to hit 2000 points, you’ll want a Lord and Hero… ” and you’ve lost them. 

Whereas now you’ll say “You want to play a giant? Cool. Lets buy a giant and I’ll show you how to play, I’ll sit you down and show you how to build it, we’ll get it painted and you can start playing with it” and you can do that in an afternoon. That’s amazing. So it was all about lowering barriers to entry and there was this thing about we’re going to put commentary in the rulebook, there’s going to be a big section of rules commentary. That four page document is still the core rules, you still have to read that, but the commentary section would have loads of examples, diagrams and edge cases and things like that. So the quick start would give you [the ability to] sit down and play it, but if a weird thing comes up we’ll go check the big rulebook. That was always the idea.

At the 11th hour, a lot of stuff got changed. And one of the things that got changed was the rulebook. Someone decided they didn’t want a hardback rulebook, because that felt too much like old Warhammer. So instead they decided to have whatever the first book was called – I think we just called them the Realmwars books? Realmgate wars? The first book was mostly narrative, with scenarios and maybe some battlegroups/battalions, whatever they were called in the end. And that was it and all the stuff that had been put in, I mean, it had been written, I’d seen it, the commentary section was pinned up on the wall and it was done, but it got pulled entirely.

I’ve got a funny feeling that the “Intro AoS magazine” you can get now, with the models on the front, might be a repurposed version of that. Because that often happens, you never throw away parts of the buffalo during game design! Stuff always gets archived and brought back out later. So anyway that’s kind of what happened there and as I say, a lot of things got switched around at the last second. Things that we’d been writing under the assumption of were removed.

For another example,one of the things we had as a big assumption about was how the transition between us killing Warhammer in May or June and Age of Sigmar being released in August – or whatever the dates were – would be handled.. And we kept saying, the rules team up to management, that a fair few people are going to be really pissed off about this, whatever we do. So have we thought about how we are going to communicate this message?

Lupe: They’re going to lose their minds

James: And the answer was – don’t worry, it’s all in hand, it’s going to be handled by marketing, White Dwarf, there’s going to be this whole campaign saying “but it’s not over! There’s something exciting coming!

And that never happened. Instead, the world ended and this was when GW wasn’t using social media.

Lupe: So community team didn’t exist, all that stuff?

James: Nope. There was just a big picture of Sigmar clinging to a comet flying through space, the Warhammer world exploded and there was no word about what came next. And this was bad.

[Both laugh]

Lupe: And then, people burnt their armies on YouTube.

James: Yeah, that’s it, and it suddenly felt quite worrying because, we knew Age of Sigmar was going to be a wild departure from Warhammer, because it was such a different game and what we’d found during development and testing, in people’s first game of it or first glance at it they’d go what the fuck and not be happy. Once they started playing it, they’d go “Oh no this is cool!” and they actually got into it.

Lupe: Presumably that was with the commentary and the expanded stuff?

James: Well it was generally us showing them the game. We got some people who were established WHFB tournament gamers, all different kinds of people – because the whole thing was about the three styles of play: matched play, open play, narrative play – so we got people who epitomised all those different things and even the most hardcore tournament players, once they saw the way the game played they were like “This is so much better for tournament play, this is such an improvement.”

But it all came down to the way you delivered that message.

And what we knew was, people had to play the game, see the game in action to get their heads around it.

Lupe: And there were definitely problems to start with the system.

James: Yes

Lupe: The AoS “battlepile”, have you heard about this?

James: No?

Lupe: So this is a classic trope where all AoS games were said to devolve into a pile of miniatures in the center of the table hitting each other. 

James: Well I think one of the biggest issues with that was the rules were written around the core set. Which was ten, let’s see if we can do this, ten Liberators with hammer and shield or sword and shield, 3 Paladins with big hammery things…

Lupe: So this broke your brain, is what you are saying?

[Both laugh]

James: Oh, completely. Three flying hammer throwy guys and a bunch of, oh Khorne, the Bloodbound stuff

Lupe: Yeah, all with the incredibly heavy metal names 

James: Yes! Everything – all the core rules – was designed, written and tested around that core box. 

Now, when you think about the contents of that core box, it is all infantry, with short range weaponry. The only ranged attack in there is the hammers being thrown, so the rules were written around close up engagement with no ranged combat at all. Because that’s what we were told to do. 

And it got to this point where there was this sudden mad dash. There was this huge long development period, behind closed doors, and then suddenly, it all had to be done yesterday. And so, there was no time to consider questions like: Right, how does ranged combat work? How does a massed ranged army function? What does it do? How are you dealing with different types of units? Y’know, combined arms… That all became… “just get it done”.

Also, there were two or three edicts from on high which impacted the rules in a big way, and one of them was “Bases don’t count, ignore bases”. Which was weird. But that was the thing they wanted to do because they, the people at the top, said not every model has a base, so we can’t say that bases are a thing. And we don’t want to restrict people’s modelling. There was a big drive at that time to pull the game away from the hands of the gamers, so to speak, and make it more about collecting and modelling. 

Lupe: Jewel-like objects of wonder?

James: Yeah, exactly. So the game said to ignore the model’s base and just use the closest part of the model. But then there were still rules being written that assumed there would be bases, because habits are hard to break. The classic example is a spear, if you say that most models have a 1” attack range and you measure from from the base you might give a spear a 2” attack range to represent the extra reach. But a spear can be modeled forwards which gives it the extra range you need if you’re measuring 1” from the end of the spear itself. But still, spears were given a 2″ range, and if they were modelled pointing forward they basically had a range that was more like 4″ from the edge of the base. The spear could attack from way further than it should have been able to. 

There was this weird disconnect between the core design intent and the way the army lists started coming out.

Lupe: And presumably that was impacted further by the “legacy” army lists? [Again, airquotes]

James: Yeah, well this is the thing. So the first thing that was written was the core box, then we wrote the compendiums, so it was literally rules for everything and that’s where I came to the team, so I did the first draft for things like Orcs and Goblins, Skaven, Empire… There were like half a dozen of them I did and it was a case of going through all of the old things, all the old units. We had a conversion chart, here’s our old stats, here’s what that does for stats as a starting point, then we would go and test them – and that’s a decent way to do things. But it was such a crazy number of units to have to design at the same time!

And then, because there was no balancing, because the second of the edicts from on high was that there would be no balancing, no points, when units have different options we had to make sure they were equal but different. 

So, hammer vs sword – this was in the core starting box – 

Hammers hit on 4+, wound on a 3+. Swords hit on a 3+ and wound on a 4+ or something like that. It makes no real difference unless if you end up with a character that buffs hit rolls in which case you go with this one, there was some kind of vague synergy thing there. 

But generally we had to make sure that if there was a unit of say Empire State Troops, we had to make sure that sword, spear and halberd options were all equally good, they just worked differently, because you don’t have balancing.

Lupe: Which is a hell of a design challenge.

James: Especially when then, someone up high then got spooked during that 11th hour dash and said “actually, no. Add in some sudden death mechanics, so that if one side is horribly outnumbered, it has a chance to make a last stand” we said “ok, can we use number of wounds rather than number of models, as one dragon is not outnumbered by three goblins”. “Nope, using wounds is too much like using points, just use number of models”.

And so, our hands were tied. By this very imposing upper team, who had the complete say on everything. 

Lupe: So I have to ask about the legacy thing, because you mentioned Empire, the rules around things like “If -”

James: I know where you are going, yup. “If your moustache is more manlier than your -”

Lupe: Yes! Where did this come from?

James: So we’d written all the compendiums, we’d tested them, we’d had them literally printed out and given around the office, and everyone was testing, playing loads of games, it was all good. We’d been experimenting with rules, particularly me and Jervis as we like this sort of thing, experimenting with rules that changed the way you played a little bit or changed your approach, so it wasn’t just rolling the dice. 

This is the thing you kept seeing in Silver Tower for example, to go on a bit of a tangent. So in Silver Tower, it’s got lots of little things which make you interact with game mechanics in different ways. So an example might be that there’s a challenge where you’re trying to loot a trapped dead body, that’s got an explosive rigged to it and it’s got a magic item, you’re trying to get the magic item out without setting off the explosive. And basically, we included a dexterity game – so you take your treasure deck and flip the top card face up, and stack four dice on top of it. If you can remove that card without knocking the dice off the thing, you can have it. If any of the dice fall off, it explodes. 

And it’s just looking at the thing in a different way and I think, things like adding dexterity elements – I don’t know if I would do it again, because it makes the game less accessible to people who have trouble with that sort of thing, but, the overall idea of using the game in different ways to just rolling to hit and rolling to wound is cool, I quite like that. 

So we’d used a few things like that in the Compendiums. As an example, one of the ones I did was for the Keeper of Secrets. It was all about making games thematic and evoke the background, and to add interesting interactions between the players, so the rule was if after a character within 6” of the Keeper, because y’know six is the number of Slaneesh; if an enemy character within 6” of the Keeper makes an attack roll you can offer them the chance to make more attacks, but if at any point the roll contains three sixes (or whatever it was) their character is slain. 

Lupe: Ok, so that’s really interesting!

James: See?!

Lupe: See, that’s good, because that’s a push your luck mechanic, it’s an interesting social dynamic and interaction… 

James: …and it completely ties into the idea of temptation towards damnation

Lupe: How did that become…?

James: I’m getting there! [Laughs] So we did this, and there were loads of things like this, there was all sorts of little trying-to-be-clever sort of moments, partly because we were working on rules for the entire range of Warhammer and we wanted to write things that were interesting and compelling, that we would care about and enjoy writing, because also we wanted people to read through the compendiums and go “Oh, that’s really characterful. That’s really cool”. The Skaven Screaming Bell having a 13 result on a 2d6 table which means you win the game – 

Lupe: I would point out that did backfire badly, James…

James: Well… it didn’t – only because of a bad wording somewhere else!

Lupe: Yeah that’s fair [both laugh]. 

James: Whatever the case.. We’d gone through and put these rules in which we thought were evocative and interesting. They went up to review…

Lupe: Oh dear, yeah?

James: And they came back. And I think the problem was kind of a… the telephone game. Basically,  to give an example of the problem, a manager on high gets offered a banana and says “I don’t fancy eating that banana”. The next manager, one rung down from them, who wants to be seen to be doing a good job says “oh, my boss does not like eating bananas, so I’ll stop sending bananas his way.” It might have been because that particular banana wasn’t what he wanted, or he wasn’t in the mood for a banana, but it results in all bananas being embargoed. And it carries on. “Top boss doesn’t like fruit!” says the next manager down, “Well, let’s not produce anything with fruit.” Then eventually it’s “So, the manager at the top doesn’t like eating food, never send food his way.” 

It was a tense time, lots of pressure, and everyone was trying to please the person above them a little bit too much. From what I can tell it’s not quite as much of an issue these days. But what it meant was that if Top Manager at the top said “That rule is really colourful, and makes people play the game in a different way that’s not just rolling dice, that’s really cool”, that then trickles down to the rules team being told to add more silly rules, and it ends up with someone in the team going through all the compendiums replacing some rules that were more like “+1 to hit” with “+1 to hit… if it’s raining outside!”.

Obviously, anyone could say this in hindsight, but hand on my heart, at the time I said “I don’t think that will work.” And people can believe me or not, but I was very staunchly… well, I was known in the team as being the difficult person.

So when this came back I was very much opposed to the idea of putting in very silly rules, because it’s devaluing stuff. It adds nothing, and it’s a cheap laugh once.

It’s the reason I don’t think Munchkin is a great bit of game design. Or Cards Against Humanity. They’re games which have funny things on them, but once you’ve seen them, they’re not funny any more. I love funny games, but I love games that generate humour.

Lupe: Yeah, it’s the difference between something funny happening naturally, and being told the same joke five times.

James: Precisely. So, Warhammer Quest Silver Tower, it’s a game where lots of random things and silly events can happen as a result of the gameplay.

Lupe: As is something like Necromunda, really.

James: Yeah, exactly. But if the 12 result on the random events table is “you fart and fall down, ha ha” that’s not funny. Even if it was a really funny result, it happens once and it’s done. 

So that ended up being a thing, and sure enough it was ripped to shreds. And what it really didn’t help with was the credibility of the new system. Because Warhammer Fantasy had always been slightly po-faced (apart from the brief period in 4th Edition where everything was little cartoons). It had always been a little more serious, a little more of a grown up game. People were already upset that rank and flank was replaced with round based skirmishers, and funny rules played into the narrative that GW didn’t give a shit and wanted to make a silly game for kids.

I think what’s interesting is that Age of Sigmar now is a very well respected game, and I actually think it’s a better game than 40k 8th Edition.

Lupe: I’d absolutely concur, and I think many people at Goonhammer would too. It’s interesting to me, because a lot of the things you’re talking about when you’re describing the original intent of this, it feels like General’s Handbook caught up with a lot of that.

James: So General’s Handbook was written after a change of management. I always see it attributed to Tom Kirby leaving, but I always think it was more about the other people who  left around the same time as Tom. Tom was so high up that he didn’t have much of an impact. He was a couple of levels above the Top Boss who said he didn’t want a banana, and he was sitting elsewhere doing other things.

But when he left, several others left about the same time, and new blood came in.  And the great GW pendulum swung as hard as it could to the left and it went from being a game about narrative to being “Oh wait, gamers like playing games, right?”. And so what you ended up with was people like Pete Foley took over the studio, he’s a long-time tournament player, and he pulled it back towards something that would appeal to the gamers. Personally, in my opinion he’s taken it too far that way with 40k 8th edition, but hey, you know, the pendulum swingeth ever onwards.

So what happened was that the General’s Handbook was the first big thing that Pete’s studio worked on. And yes, it put bases back in, it added points values – all the stuff that probably should have been there from the start. I could talk forever about the direction the game has gone in since! I think it’s interesting that the initial concept was keep it simple, but in order to keep selling books they have to write more and more rules. So that’s why you end up with loads of different types of rules… like take the Sylvaneth battletome. I designed the Sylvaneth battletome before I went on paternity leave, then when I came back I found the decision had been made to add loads of army specific rules and different… glade plugins? And magic items and unique spells, because the decision had been made in my absence that was how we’d be doing it from now on. 

I then had to go on Warhammer TV back in the early days of WHTV and do a talk about the Sylvaneth book and why it was exciting, and half of the stuff was stuff I’d never seen before. So on the day I was like “What is this??” But I can see why, because when all the rules for the units were going out in WD and the packaging, they had to say “so how do we still sell codexes and battletomes?” It’s the same reason that 40k armies started getting a full two page spread of army special rules.

The Skitarii and Cult Mechanicus [back in 7th] which should have one combined set of rules, they got two sets of special rules, because otherwise you don’t sell two books of special rules, you sell one.

Lupe: And interestingly they got combined back together in 8th.

James: And they should have been, they always should have been. The reason they were split was because of a logistics thing. It was when White Dwarf was weekly and they could only show one week’s releases at a time, and if you put out an army book in week one then you’ll show off the releases for the next one, and “secrecy is paramount” , you can’t show off the future releases. If you put it out in week two, it looks like the releases in week one were coming out without an army book, and that doesn’t make sense. And it was this whole ridiculous… the tail has often wagged the dog in Games Workshop in different ways, and this was a fantastic example of that.

Lupe: OK, sorry, can I just clarify: the reason that in 7th edition they were two separate armies was publishing requirements of White Dwarf?

James: There you go. It was like the Skitarii didn’t have any characters. I had to write that codex. There were no HQ choices, so how do we do it? We had to make up a new detachment for them. Similarly things like the Skitarii didn’t have any transport options.

Lupe: So you worked on 40k as well?

James: Oh sorry yeah, I did, did I not say that?

Lupe:  [Laughs] No you didn’t mention that at all.

James: The rules team worked on everything, 40k was just ubiquitous. It was always just there in the background. It was probably the least exciting part to me – churning out codexes that are 80% the same as the previous edition of the codex, with a few new bits. The Skitarii book was a rare exception, a chance to do a whole new army from scratch. But yeah, the transports thing. We’d had to come up with this whole thing because they didn’t have any transports. And this comes back to the thing I was saying earlier and how it goes miniatures, then background and then rules. The miniatures stuff is so closed off, we didn’t get to know what was happening in the future. So when the background was written for them, the background stuff was emphasising how they’d walk everywhere. And we wrote rules around the idea of them not having transports. So when I saw the transports come out a couple of years later I went “Oh come on!”, that’s just rewritten a huge chunk of stuff. But hey.

Lupe: Wow that is just bizarre.

James: I forget what question you originally asked me but I’m sure I answered it somewhere in there.

So Ad Mech were split up in 7th edition because of White Dwarf publishing constraints. We’ll close on that bombshell for today – check out tomorrow’s part 2 for an in-depth discussion of Blood Bowl and Adeptus Titanicus, including details of a man who designs Titans in the Notepad text editor.