The Goonhammer Interview with James M Hewitt, Part 2: Blood Bowl and Adeptus Titanicus

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. In part 1, James talked to us about his involvement in the launch of Age of Sigmar. In part 2, we discuss the development of the updated edition of Blood Bowl, and the re-launch of Adeptus Titanicus.

Lupe: Why don’t we move on to talking about specialist games? Let’s talk about Blood Bowl – when you were putting the rulebook together and the first expansion, was there any kind of plan about how this would go forwards?

James: Maybe? At that point it was very ad hoc. We were situated in the Forge World studio – the FW studio is very much like the GW studio fifteen years ago. The main Citadel studio has gone very compartmentalised, you have the miniature studio with its own management team, and they hand over finished work to publications which has its own management team, and they hand over things to marketing. 

Forge World, everyone is all in one room. Tony [Cottrell] is the mad king, he runs around spouting proclamations and then things get made or don’t get made. He’s a character to work for. He has a lot of strong opinions about design and things. 

But that was fine because he cared a lot less about rules than about miniatures, so generally we got on with stuff and weren’t interrupted. So we didn’t have things like sculptors had, for example, where they would spend a week sculpting a thing and Tony would go “argh, change it” and they would change it. 

But yes, Specialist Games was part of FW. We were a very small team stuck on the side of FW, a nodule, a small growth. Us and Middle Earth. So we were like a parasite…

Lupe: To be clear though, Specialist Games now makes more money than…

James: There’s been a lot of reshuffling since. As I understand it, FW as it was doesn’t really exist anymore. Because all the 40k and Age of Sigmar stuff has gone upstairs to the citadel team, so FW just does Heresy, Specialist Games and Middle Earth. And of course… Warhammer whatever it is called.

Lupe: The Old World?

James: I’m not going to make a comment on that, but feel free to record my facial expression [James looked exasperated and amused at this point].

But going back, we had a small design team, we had a sculptor, a games designer and a manager. Middle Earth had the same. But then we all used FW’s artists, layout, graphical design. We all shared the same editor, who was a part time editor, who mostly did office management and also did editing as well. The bottleneck was really there, which is why the editing really struggled in the earlier stuff we did.

So we were doing stuff in a very ad hoc way. I don’t know if we had much of a plan going forward,as it was uncharted waters,  but initially the plan was there would be two plastic teams in the Blood Bowl box, Skaven and Dwarves would be plastic boxes after that, and everything else would be resin. Titanicus, which was the second game we designed, was going to be fully resin. The book was going to be in the same format as the Horus Heresy books, and it’d be targeted at the same people who played Heresy. So just aimed at experienced gamers, it would never be sold in the shops, it’s a completely separate product.

Lupe: But that’s an enormous shift from where it ended up, how did that transition happen?

James: To give you a timeline, I joined the Specialist Games team in April I think. Blood Bowl was finished in the first couple of months, it didn’t come out until November. The time between us finishing Blood Bowl, handing it over the layout, and then Blood Bowl coming out was spent working on Titanicus. At this point, no one knew we existed, we were like this bunch of people on the side of Forge World, doing our own thing, and it was lovely. 

So I got to design Titanicus in such a lovely way, in that I got to do a load of research, I got to look at every game that involved giant robots. I looked at Battletech, Heavy Gear, the Mechwarrior video games. How do the Mechwarrior video games handle objectives? And a lot of that played into how objectives worked in Titanicus. Tertiary objectives are almost directly pulled from Mechwarrior.

Lupe: That’s such a luxury as a games designer. 

James: It really is. It never happens. Working on one project at a time for a long period is absolute luxury.

The game went through four or five iterations, like complete tear downs and redos. I built it, we’d play it, eh it’s alright, keep the bits that are good, start again.

At one point it really closely mimicked the turn sequence of first edition Titanicus, where you lay down order tokens for all your different titans. I really wanted to bring the reactor more to the fore, because that was a really popular thing on the Imperator titan in Titan Legions. You had reactor points in that, but I thought it’s such a cool thing, that should be really key to every titan. So we were drawing on a load of different sources for rules, and over that whole time, as far as we were concerned, this was going to be a resin game.

So the level of granularity came from the fact that there would be people who could only afford one titan each. And the game needed to be interesting for them, just as much as people who could afford an army of titans.

Lupe: Which makes sense if they’re all going to be resin…

James: Exactly, which is why when a titan dies it’s a big event. You don’t want someone to have spent £150 on a Warlord titan, paint it up and it dies and, oh well, it’s dead. That sucks. The whole game was written with an ethos of lavishing the player with good feelings about their stuff. 

A titan should feel invincible because a) it’s a titan and b) it’s a resin kit they’ve probably spent a lot of money on. So it needs to feel like a really cool centrepiece. So that was our plan. 

Then Blood Bowl was released and it surpassed all expectations. It made something like 4 million pounds in its opening weekend. None of that came back to us of course!

Lupe: [laughs] No of course not.

James: It was silly, silly big numbers. But don’t quote me exactly. Or do, but..

Lupe: “James is not sure about these numbers”

James: Because it’s Blood Bowl, of course it’s going to make that much money. But it had massively surpassed expectations. So the decision was made to immediately put all the Blood Bowl teams into plastic and produce more expansions. 

So, anyway, Titanicus is all done, it’s been sent to layout and it’s all good.

Lupe: To the point there was something scheduled in White Dwarf, which was pulled at the last minute?

James: There was indeed. So the miniatures had been sculpted. Chris who was my counterpart and the sculptor in the team, he does it all in a drafting program that doesn’t use a mouse. It’s all coordinates, it’s like watching The Matrix.

Lupe: [disbelieving] What, all of the Titans?

James: All of the Ork planes for Aeronautica

Lupe: What?

James: All of it was done with coordinates. He’d tap a thing, lean back and look at the screen, tap a thing and look at the screen. It was insane. 

[Lupe laughs hysterically]

The guy is some form of wizard. He’d spent ages debigulating the titans. The reason the first two things that came out for Titanicus were the Knights and the Warlord is because they were CAD designed kits.

Lupe: So the conversion was miles easier?

James: It still took about three months because you have to scale them down in the software and then amend all the details – detail has to be more prominent on smaller models. The Reaver and Warhound were even bigger jobs – he had a pair of calipers and the 28mm model kits, and would measure every angle and every distance, which as you can imagine took forever. So his job was incredibly intensive. 

[Lupe opens and closes his mouth in astonishment]

In the middle of it he was given the Blood Bowl Deathroller as a palette cleanser. Then went straight back to it. 

So picture the scene, everything’s gone off to the tooling people, everything’s good. And we get a call, Andy our boss gets a call, saying “We’re going to push it back and do it in plastic.”

Lupe: That’s a huge investment.

James: It was a huge decision and it was clearly not an easy decision to make, and White Dwarf had just gone to print. So Andy got to phone Matt Keefe, editor of White Dwarf, and say “Hiiii, you know that issue you’ve got with loads of Titanicus content? Battle report and everything else… Can you pull that please?” So they had to phone the printers. It was April 2017, 2018 whenever it was? The contents page said Titanicus, and then it was just adverts for shops: “Visit GW Retail!”.

I think all the content got reused, although they reshot it so I wasn’t in the photos for the battle report I was playing in, as I’d left at that point, which was weird.. But yeah, it all got pushed back and Chris had to then spend another several months on the kits, because making things on a sprue is very different to resin. So he had to learn how to lay out sprues, which he’s now very good at.

Lupe: And I’d like to say, it’s a well discussed fact that they’re some of the best plastic kits GW has ever made.

James: He’s a good man that Chris, we like him. So that was a whole drama and that’s how it ended up being plastic. For my money it was baffling when they came out and the decision was still made to put the Warlord and the Knights as the first release. The first titan should’ve been the Reaver because it’s an all-rounder, then the Warhound because it’s smaller but still very cool. Then the Warlord comes out and “holy shit it’s a Warlord!” and it shakes up the meta. And you hopefully won’t get people going “but I want the Imperator”. 

Obviously you still will but not as much.

Lupe: I have a number of submitted questions from other Goonhammer authors and one of them is “Do you want to see an Imperator titan as bad as we do?”

James: Eh. i think it would be fine. I’d like to see it. I think the thing is, the Warlord is already an exciting thing, I think it’s a shame it came out first, because it didn’t have the chance to be cool and have an impact… It would be like leading 40k with a Stompa. If the first releases for 40k had been a Stompa and Gretchin. So I think the new box, with Reavers and Warhounds, is great. That’s the box I would have released first.

Lupe: We thoroughly loved that in our review.

James: I would love to see an Imperator, but the problem is where do you go next. It’s the plastic Thunderhawk, once you’ve done a plastic Thunderhawk, what tops that?

Lupe: I have to say, looking at the questions I was given, it seems to be “tiny plastic Stompas”

James: Yeah, people want Eldar and Orks. When I was working on it, what I wanted to do was I wanted to make the game expandable. One of the problems the very first Titanicus had was the way void shields work was when you got hit with a weapon you lost a void shield. They then brought in the Space Marine expansion that brought in infantry, and they didn’t include any rules that said boltguns shouldn’t strip void shields. So infantry were just pulling void shields off titans. So that was always in the back of my mind, we need to learn from the past and make sure this game works for infantry, we need to make sure it works for Orks, Eldar. So we toyed around with lots of other things. The thing is, it might never happen, because to do a range of Imperial stuff and Ork stuff and Eldar stuff, it’s such a huge job.

Lupe: I do notice that Aeronautica Imperialis is in the same scale. 

James: It is.

Lupe: That feels like it might be intentional.

James: To be fair it’s the same thing Mantic did, and I’m sure Mantic just borrowed it from GW, which is Mantic wanted to expand their scifi range, so they brought out a skirmish game so you could put all your elite units out for that. You compartmentalise each part, then you grow your range, and you release it later as all one big thing. So that’s Titanicus in a nutshell.

Lupe: That’s awesome… that’s mad. I have a couple of questions about Titanicus. Which rule do you wish had gone in?

James: Oh without a doubt it’s scale in assault. I posted this as a blog, which I was then asked to remove. I haven’t said this, it hasn’t happened. But obviously by all means pass this on.

[both laugh]

But I was asked very nicely to take it down. I think a couple of people grabbed it before I did. I definitely didn’t tell them to.

Lupe: Obviously, no.

James: And it gets passed around. But basically what happened was during development in the game, the close combat rules were a little bit more complex, in that the maximum scale of the attacker determined where they could hit. The way that worked was that every location on your titan had a scale. So a Warlord was scale 7 at one point, its carapace weapon was at scale 8, it’s arm weapons at 4 or 5 or whatever, the legs were always at zero because they’re on the floor. The rule was you cannot hit a location that is more than 1 scale greater than your titan’s scale. So a Knight is only hitting a Warlord in the legs, which is why Warlords have armoured legs!

Lupe: Makes sense, so Warhounds can take out their knees, but not go for anything higher.

James: A Warhound could take their arms out in combat, but nothing more. A Reaver could uppercut a Warlord in the face. Two problems came up which stopped this, which is what I was talking about in the blog post – the blog post was about compromise in game design. And the big thing was when the command terminals got laid out – and I’d been asking for ages if we could get someone on the design team to do a mockup of the design terminals so I could see if I’ve got the right amount of text on it, and whatever else, and I’d been told yeah yeah, we’ll get round to it. And it didn’t. 

And at the last minute when it had all been fully designed we realised we didn’t have room to put the scales on every single location. And there were a few other things that had to come off. Like where the critical damage stuff is now like… princeps wounded. Each one of those was bespoke to the command terminal, and it had a set of rules written on the command terminal. But there just wasn’t room. So that came off and it had to become more generic, and one of the other things that had to come off was scale.

And the other reason was that during testing everyone kept forgetting that was a rule. Which is usually a sign that’s it’s too complex or it’s not intuitive enough and needs to come out. So I didn’t feel terrible about removing it at the time. But now you have Knights kickflipping Warlords’ heads off, and it just feels weird. It’s not a difficult rule to replicate though, you can put it back in pretty easily if you want to house rule it.

Lupe: So as a flip to that, which rule made it in that you didn’t think you were going to keep?

James: Didn’t think I was going to, or didn’t want to?

Lupe: Either. Both!

James: I would have released Knights as an expansion.

Lupe: Interesting.

James: Everything in that game is about big stompy robots fighting other big stompy robots. The game is designed to put you in the role of princeps senioris, it puts you in control of a battle group, but the game should feel like you’re giving orders to a crew or to other titans’ crews that are then passing that on to the titan. There should be a degree of slippage. It’s one of the few games where I don’t mind there being a ban on pre measuring. Cos normally I think premeasuring should be allowed in game, I’m very vocal about this, I think saying you can’t premeasure things gives you an advantage for guessing distances and that’s not necessarily indicative of the character.

Lupe: But the premeasuring in this was a purposeful thing to represent that difficulty in command.

James: And to represent the difficulty in maneuver, yes.

Lupe: Out of interest would you do that differently now?

James: No, no, I think in this game it’s right. Because it’s you asking your moderati to give you a firing solution and he’s thinking of a thing, and is it definitely correct, and it adds a little slippage which I quite like. That said, the game loses nothing just by including premeasuring. It’s a thematic thing.

But Knights, they’re not a thematic fit for the core game. Knights, very intentionally, have a much simpler set of rules. They don’t act like titans, they’re a skirmishing force, they don’t have reactors, they don’t have void shields, they don’t repair stuff, they don’t deal with the maneuvering issues that titans do. They were written, very intentionally, after the titan rules. And to me they are an expansion.

Lupe: That’s interesting, because… I don’t know how much you’ve followed the game recently…

James: There’s an expansion that’s just about running fully Knight armies and I don’t like it at all. It’s not my call anymore, but that’s my view. People talked about it at the time. Duncan Rhodes, he was testing the game for us and he loves his Knights to bits, and he kept saying “ah, can we have more”, and even he understood that all-Knight armies would be a weird choice.

I think there’s room for an Aeronautica style separate game all about Knights. About Knight banners doing things.

Lupe: I think people would like that.

James: Totally. I think in Titanicus they’re fine, they have a very specific role, but they’re not what the game is about. It’s one of my own quirks, I like to design from the theme first, and in this game the theme is big robots. Knights, they’re big robots but…

Lupe: They’re not big enough robots?

James: No, exactly. So if it were down to me I would have left Knights out of the core game and put them in as an expansion.

That covers Blood Bowl and Adeptus Titanicus, two hugely well-regarded updates of classic games. Tomorrow we talk Necromunda and Robot Fight Club!