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, and in part 2, we discussed the development of the updated edition of Blood Bowl, and the re-launch of Adeptus Titanicus. Part 3 covers the new edition of Necromunda, and James’ move into running his own company, Needy Cat Games.
Lupe: OK. Let’s move onto Necromunda. So, it came out first but was written after Titanicus?
James: Well, as everyone knows, I half wrote it, then kicked the door down, lept out the window screaming fuck you and…
Lupe: That sounds exactly like you [James laughs]. The entire time I’ve known you that’s how you’ve always left a room.
James: AND ON THAT NOTE… [both laugh] Tell you what, I’ll let you ask a question before I answer it [both laugh].
Lupe: Well, I was going to ask about where your involvement in necromunda started and stopped.
James: Cool, yes. Well, Necromunda was… so at this point the team was me, Chris and Andy within Forgeworld, and after Titanicus had been written, we were told the next thing we’d be doing was Necromunda. To carry the time line on from before, we had the thing where we suddenly shifted from resin to plastic, and that meant that Titanicus was no longer able to be released in the slot we needed it to be released in, the 2017, whenever it was, release slot. Which was quite funny because Titanicus 2018 is a facebook group, I think previously it was Titanicus 2016, then changed its name to Titanicus 2017…
Lupe: Just keep pushing that forwards, yeah
James: Well we demoed it at the Horus Heresy weekender in the big floor wars game-
Lupe Yes! I was there!
James: Yeah, it was really good fun! But that was in February I said “Are you sure? This is way before it’s coming out. It’s not due to come out ‘til November”. “Yeah nah we’re fine. We’re gonna do it.” “Alright.” That was a weird week where I got to find out where you buy 60 feet of canvas to make the board. It was a weird week at work.
Lupe: [laughs] I imagine it was! It was pretty weird being there honestly.
James: I was speaking to the camping or sailing supplies shop and got them to send us some. But anyway, so we had to make a game that would fit into the November release slot. Now, the prices of getting a game manufactured, remember that this is all manufactured in China. Specialist Games stuff was all done, I don’t know if it still is now, but it was all done in China because there was no capacity in the factory at GW.
Lupe: So all the plastic sprues and stuff were done in China?
James: Yes, it was another company that was kind of seconded and they were really high quality and made really good stuff. They were the one company to do things to GW standard and they were given a contract to do [the specialist games releases]. So the price of doing that, getting on a boat back to the UK, getting it into our warehouses to be distributed across the world in time for release day means that you need a good solid six months between the game being released and the game being manufactured and done.
Basically, I was told in December “you’re starting [necromunda] at the end of December, and it needs to be done by April. It needs to go to the manufacturers in April.”
James: Yeah, so I was cagey about this…
Lupe: I bet you were!
James: So I sent an email just covering up my back saying “I’m sending you this email just to make it clear that I’ve got a record that I’ve told you that this is a bad idea and it won’t be as good as it could be” At this point, this was after we’d lost Alan, and I was already feeling a bit like “aw come on, this is getting silly” and I sort of made the – I think I made a point in my head that this wasn’t where I wanted to be, cause I’d been saying for a long time “We need another writer. I cannot keep up with this pace” cause it’s exponential. I was still writing stuff for Blood Bowl. Not just supplements, but White Dwarf articles, Blitzmania, the big global league, I had to do a lot of writing for that. Titanicus, I was writing stuff for that. Necromunda, it was gonna be, and it was just this… nothing went away. You’re always writing for all three systems. And I kept saying “We need a second writer. Or can I have a pay rise?” [both laugh]
Lupe: One or the other seems reasonable to me
James: Yeah, cause the salary I was on was actually the same salary I was on as a store manager. In fact, slightly less than a store manager in London, which just felt like, I mean I’m designing games that are being well received, I should maybe be getting a little bit more money than that.
Lupe: 4 million pounds in the first week, yeah.
James: Not wanting to sound like a mercenary dickhead, but it’s possible to not be exploited, you know?
Lupe: And yeah, I don’t know if we want to talk about this, but I know that low pay at Games Workshop has been a problem in the past
James: Absolutely. And I think after I left they had a pay review – not as a result of me leaving, but they had a big initiative. So they increased a lot of pay for a lot of people, so it’s not as bad as it was, but at this point, when the whole Necromunda thing was coming up I was like “This is just not enough time to design a game of this scope.”
Because Necromunda was my favorite game growing up. That was without a doubt. There was one issue of White Dwarf where they previewed it – they showed people playing it, and they had the mockups of the cardboard scenery and it mentioned Gang Warfare and I was like “I’m in. Whatever this is, I am totally in.” It just seemed to fit a niche I hadn’t known I wanted to be filled. And then the artwork first came out with the Goliath and the…
Lupe: Yeah, that very iconic…
James: …the crotch-thrusting Goliath with his crazy BDSM gear. It was fantastic! I was like “Yeah this is amazing!” So the chance to work on it had always been my dream. I had rewritten Necromunda’s campaign system in my spare time, several years previously when I was working for the council between my stints at GW..
Lupe: Intriguingly, one of the questions I’ve been given to ask you is “Did you ever have any plans for future in-book Necromunda campaign systems?”
James: Oh absolutely. I really wanted to have a system where… the whole thing is a blur, I actually can’t remember what went into the Gang War supplement. But what I wanted was to have was a system where your gang had turf, because gangs have turf and territory. The idea that you are tied in to the area you are in. You’re not just a bunch of randos wandering around and fighting. This is your turf, this is your territory, people here like you because you keep them safe. Or at least, that’s the point you get to. Initially, the locals might be hostile towards you and you’re dealing with that. You have a reputation. As you are seen to protect them from outsiders, from scavvies, mutants, whatever else you get to the point where when you’re fighting on your home turf, there’s a chance that random bystanders would join in, that NPC miniatures could pick up guns and start and you know…
Lupe: You kinda wanted to reflect the social role of gangs in this setting?
James: Yes, exactly. What basically happened, the thing that kicked it all off back in 2008 or whenever it was, was I played Saints Row. Which is a very silly game that got increasingly sillier as the series went on. But it had a lovely thing where gangs had territory, and when you started a fight in an area, you got attacked by people that were friendly to that gang. And it was like “Oooh that’s compelling!” And you get territories that have special uses. “We’ve now got a weaponsmith in our territory who gives us this bonus.” I was like “why isn’t Necromunda like that? I want grimdark that.” I think some very watered down version of that went into the gang war supplement, but we didn’t have time to do anything too crazy.
I’ve always wanted that to be a thing where it feels like you’re carving out a turf, similar to things like Blades in the Dark, role playing games where it’s like turf and territory and control, that’s what I wanted Necromunda to feel like.
Lupe: So when did the decision happen to split Necromunda into the board game with the 2D offering and the 3D through the expansion?
James: So initially there was a directive. This was another one of those things that was quite frustrating. We had about three or four directives which were all quite contradictory. One voice saying “This game needs to feel like old-school Rogue Trader. Bring back Rogue Trader characteristics and go for the old-school vibe and that sort of thing.” Which is why Necromunda characters have got Intelligence, Willpower, Cool, and Leadership, which are terrible stats because they’re all kind of the same thing. [Laughs] There’s no clear delineation between them. That was an edict, and had to be that.
Similarly, another voice was saying that the game needed to fit into a box and be sold as a box game because the trade sales team wanted to have a product they could sell on the shelves as a standalone box game. Okay, but that’s not really Necromunda though is it? Oh, but you also need to do separate rules for doing 3D combat. Okay that’s more like Necromunda, but that feels like a different version of the same thing.
So I initially wrote the rulebook, which treated the core box as a self-contained board game. There’s a set of line of sight rules that are abstractions, because you can’t use true line of sight on a 2D board, because walls get in the way. And you can’t expect players to just pretend the wall is there. In an ideal world the rules for 2D walls would say “just pretend the walls are there and use true line of sight” but that’s never quite gonna work, so instead there’s a set of rules about the way line of sight works.
Then I wrote the Gang War supplement, which was this big 128 page thing, which had the 3D rules, the campaign rules, and the 6 gangs. The “proper Necromunda experience”, if you will. The problem was that because of the tight deadlines, the book had already been ordered with the printers, and they’d used Death Zone or something as a guide, so basically they could only do a 60-odd page book. And so it got split into Gang War 1 and Gang War 2. The problem is that a lot of Gang War 1 is administrative stuff that should’ve been in the rule book anyway, i.e. the rules for 3D games and the full gang lists. So, Gang War 1 as it went onto the shelf, to my mind, is not a very good value book, because it’s all stuff that should’ve been in the core book anyway.
Lupe: Yeah, and people suddenly felt that there was this big uptick and it was a huge improvement from Gang War 1
James: Yeah, Gang War 2 was all the fun stuff which we put in and there was hazardous terrain and things. That was all put in to make the Gang War supplement feel more exciting, because otherwise what you’re getting was just dull stuff. The core rulebook though, the core box game, that was written as it came out, because that the brief was for a standalone product.
So one thing I’ve seen people point out is that the points values, the credit costs of things are very wildly different between the core box and Gang War, and the justification we used at the time was that the ones in the standalone box game are there for standalone one-off games, the ones in Gang War are for campaigns. The possibly more honest answer is we had literally zero testing time for the ones in the core box – I only just managed to come up with the system and type up the document The costs in Gang War came later, and were the result of some testing after the core box had already been sent to print. Even then we had no real idea, because Gang War 1 was still part of that crazy, four month dash.
Lupe: So there’s almost no valuable testing time in that bit?
James: Yeah exactly. I mean, when you compare it to Titanicus, which we tested endlessly, we had regular weekly testing sessions… Necromunda was a game that we tested when we could. Like whenever a couple of us could get together we would do it. And we had none because I didn’t have time, I was writing the frigging thing!
Lupe: And you had quite a young child at this point as well.
James: Yes, during my paternity leave when I was up at the main studio we had Lily… obviously, that’s why paternity leave normally happens [both laugh]. At this point, Lily would’ve been about one, so I wasn’t getting a lot of sleep, didn’t have much spare time, but as I say, I was trying to write this game which was trying to be three or four different contradictory things, while also being the game that I wanted Necromunda to be.
And trying to make considerations for how people might actually play the game, i.e. once you’ve painted a model, you’re less likely to convert it, so the fact you have it split between your leader-style characters and your follower-style characters, where your followers don’t really get new weapons or upgrades, they are a thing you buy and paint them once, and your leader characters, you could have different equipment loadouts, so you could have 3 or 4 different miniatures of the same character with different stuff. All of that stuff came from me running Necromunda campaigns over the years and thinking about what happens in a campaign. But as I said I was doing that while also trying to fulfill three or four different briefs that were completely contradictory.
Lupe: And supporting Titanicus, and supporting Blood Bowl, and having a one year old.
James: And that’s one of the reasons why I left to start Needy Cat Games! I certainly couldn’t be any more stressed or less well paid, so what had I got to lose?
Lupe: Was that true?
James: Uhh, yeah. Well, I’m stressed to hell and constantly broke, but I’m doing it on my termsthese days which is a whole other thing.
Lupe: So I have one last open ended question, and then I want to talk about your kickstarter. If you are able to write, in any warhammer setting that Games Workshop owns, using any rules you wanted with complete creative control, a small scale boxed set about any conflict, what would you write?
James: [laughs] The first answer that’s going through my head is gonna sound like a complete fanservice pandering answer: Gorkamorka. Come on. Again, so Necromunda was my game, but [Gorkamorka] was the go-to after Necromunda. I loved it to bits. I adored Gorkamorka. Problem is, you can’t do it with the current miniatures range… there’s so much you’d have to change. I see people trying to play the game with the current miniatures and they’re too big, the vehicles would have to be massive. hey used to have their silly little bases, and you know…
Lupe: I played it back in 2nd Edition where the carrying capacity of a trukk was as many orks as you can balance on it…
James: Yep, that’s it.
Lupe: It’s a very different ethos.
James: Yes, completely. But what I’d love to see is a game, maybe not even Gorkamorka, but something that’s basically Mad Max the game, so vehicular combat. Speed Freeks is a thing, I haven’t played it, but it looks like it’s alright.
I love the idea of a game where you are playing gangs engaging in Mad Max style vehicle to vehicle combat. With the old rolling road mechanic like a car chase with lots of outmaneuvering. I love games where positioning is really important. Like, Gorechosen is an arena combat game, and it’s not just about hitting each other, it’s about getting into a good position to do the most damage. Every character in Gorechosen is very deliberately good at having the enemy in a different place, so you’re jockeying to be in the best position. You’ve got one with the big anvil where he hits the hardest when the enemy’s two hexes away. You’ve got one that hits everything in its front arc, so if he’s facing off against anvil guy he wants to get in close whereas the anvil guy wants to back away. That all came from watching loads of fight scenes in films and watching every gladiator-style fight scene. And it’s all about movement.
At no point in an decent action film do you get a scene where two characters are just stood side by side hitting each other. Think the Princess Bride, the sword fight in that, which goes through different interesting pieces of terrain. So positioning was really key in Gorechosen. I think a game which uses that same level of interesting positioning but about high speed moving car combat, yes please. Whatever that is. Whether that is Ash Wastes…
Lupe: Ash Wastes is what I was thinking about, yeah.
James: An Ash Wastes combat game, I’d be all over that.
Lupe: Ash Wastes Vehicular Combat game, there we go.
James: Problem is, the reason I think that would never happen, and the reason that that would never happen when I was there, even if I had that sort of power, was to do it right, you’d probably want to go down to 15mm scale, which is bigger than titanicus but smaller than 40k. Really you’d want a car to be about matchbox car sized.
Lupe: I’ll be honest here, I’m all over this. You know me, I like my tiny guys. [Both laugh]
James: I should have done it on the kickstarter shouldn’t I?
Lupe: Next one round!
James: The other thing I wanted to do when we were first getting started as Needy Cat and we were making games for ourselves, we really wanted to pitch a game ot the GW licensing department when they’d just split up from Fantasy Flight and they were accepting board games from all over, I wanted to do a necromunda board gamewhere each player plays one of the houses, and you play on basically two levels. You’re playing the noble houses and the underhive, all your machinations and intrigue at the top is being reinforced and effecting what happens down below…
Lupe: This is an idea we’ve talked about before, and I think we both love this idea of controlling this kind of thing from the top level.
James: Absolutely. Because this is the kind of thing we tried to introduce into this version of necromunda, where the gangs in the underhive are influenced, maybe in ways they don’t always necessarily realise, by what’s happening up above. They get told you need take this bit of territory form this escher gang. They don’t realise that’s because there’s been a feud and some escher has done something to piss off some goliath up in the spire, they’re doing it because in their mind it’s about grabbing territory or whatever else. I love the idea of pulling back and seeing the strings.
Lupe: that’s really interesting as well, because of the connections they’re bringing in now to the guilds. I don’t know if you’ve seen this?
James: I’ve seen nothing. The sad part is, as much as I love necromunda, the whole process really soured it for me and I’ve not looked at anything that’s come out for it since.
Lupe: That’s understandable. Well, the guilds in the background, what they’ve done in this new series of books where they’ve started creating strong ties between a guild and a gang, and bring them in as additional models and background assistants and so on.
James: Ah yeah, makes sense. Cool.
Lupe: I feel like a lot of the conceptual stuff, a lot of the philosophical stuff that you’re described has lived on in it.
James: Fantastic. Oh, that’s what was in gang war 2! We had the hired guns and the non combatant characters. I’ve seen the models have started to come out for those like the halfling [slopper]. And that’s all playing into the concept of your territory, that’s a character you wouldn’t take out with you but when you get attacked on your turf he should be there. And therefore you should have a miniature for him.
Lupe: So, obviously, you left Games Workshop, and you set up Needy Cat Games, and Needy Cat has done some pretty successful things it’s fair to say. So some brief highlights?
James: The first thing out of the door was Blitz Bowl, which was agreed before I left GW. They needed a stand alone blood bowl style game, which could be sold in Barnes and Noble in the US, be a nice little gateway, and reuse as many assets from Blood Bowl as possible to make it as easyas possible to produce. When we were designing blood bowl, before I had the job even, I was considering what I would change. And the problem was… I’m glad we did what we did. If we had changed it, I wouldn’t want to call it Blood Bowl. I’d have wanted to call it blood bowl colon something else, so you’re not saying “this replaces blood bowl,” This is a thing in addition to.
Same way Silver Tower is not Warhammer Quest. It’s still got the warhammer quest at the top, but it’s a different game.
So I wanted to do that with Blood Bowl. So Blitz Bowl used a lot of the ideas that I wanted to use, things like making the game less punitive, less unpleasant for new players, fewer dice rolls…
Lupe: Because it is an event, playing Blood bowl is a whole evening.
Lupe: Whereas Blitz Bowl is quick and fun
James: Yeah you can play it in half an hour. So that was the first thing we did. Then we did Hellboy for Mantic games, which, uhh… you’re familiar with Hellboy right?
Lupe: I don’t know. I think I might have played once or twice [both laugh] [editor: Lupe wrote the Hellboy in Mexico expansion for Hellboy: the Board Game]
James: Devil May Cry for steamforged games. Another project for a different company that got cancelled, which was annoying because we already handed it over, but hey you know, we got paid for it, but it’s never going to see the light of day.
Lupe: I think I worked on that as well [laughs]
James: You were involved in that, yep. And then various bits and pieces for other people, League of Infamy which is a game for Mantic games as well. We’re doing a skirmish game for Atlantis games which is going to be shown off at Salute, if Salute goes ahead… [editor: it won’t be!]
Lupe: If people have not seen Atlantis Miniatures…
James: They are lovely.
Lupe: I will happily stan for Dan here and say they are beyond gorgeous.
James: Some of the most characterful faces, I think.
Lupe: Phenomenal sculpting, and I cannot wait to see what you’ve done with the rules beside that. I think it’s going to be phenomenal.
James: It’s an interesting one, because Dan is not a gamer at all. He loves the idea of it, but he’s never been into it. He’s an artist and sculptor, so we’ve had to make a game that he can play. But at the same time…
So we were showing off at Tabletop Gaming Live and I had two games in a row, one with 2 eleven-year old kids who loved it because it was really cinematic and cool, and then with two guys, who I knew from my Forge World days, who came out to all the events, who are hardcore organized play tournament gamers, and within a round they were like “oooh okay!” and they got the strategy and depth.
Lupe: And now, you’re doing something very exciting.
James: Now we’re doing a game for ourselves which is the first time we’ve done this. Normally we design games for other people. We hand it over to them and they publish it and sell it. We’ve decided that that sounds like the fun part, so we’ve decided to do all of that instead.
Lupe: [laughs] For some reason.
James: We’ve designed a game and now we’re going to figure out how to sell the thing.
Lupe: And that game is…
James: Robot Fight Club! Which is a 2-4 player game, two players in the core game, up to 4 in the expansion. It’s arena combat in a fun sci-fi setting with customizable robots that you build a team of before a game. And it’s interesting. It’s very wargame-y while also not being. Whenever we’ve taken it around the country on a demo tour, whenever we find wargamers, they make that same noise as the Atlantis game “Oooh!” They get the strategy and the crunch. It’s a very simple game. The core gameplay loop is simple. If you’ve played Gorechosen, this is a game you will like, because it’s a thing where you’re controlling a fighter, it’s an arena combat, you’re using cards to control your character, or your characters in this case, you’re making tough decisions about how and when you use those cards, and then you’re fighting until the first falls. As soon as one robot gets knocked out, the bout is over and you play the best of three bouts.
You don’t have downtime. So Gorechosen does a thing where a character can get knocked out and you make a dice roll whenever it’s your turn to see how you can influence the game, which is fine, but in hindsight I would’ve made it either first person to kill someone wins, or you make it so that once one person is out things escalate really quickly. I don’t mind player elimination as long as there’s a maximum of 10 minutes of gameplay afterwards. Whereas in Gorechosen, unfortunately, if you’re at the very end of the bell curve, you can be killed very early on.
Lupe: So it’s kind of that tactical card based combat from Gorechosen married with your love of big stompy robots.
James: Exactly, yeah! It’s like customizable robots, a bit like Titanicus, you’ve got different loadouts so you can equip your robots for ranged combat, close up combat , you’ve got directional armor which is again a bit titanicus, you’re cracking armor on different locations.
Lupe: So there’s a lot of positioning there again. Your love of positioning comes through.
James: Yeah absolutely. You’ve got some robots who like to be up close and punchy, some who like to be further away. If you lost all the armor on your left side… did you ever play Car Wars back in the day? Where you lose armor on one side and suddenly you’re driving so that you’re keeping your less armored side away from your opponent. Exactly the same thing happens here.
Lupe: So like that but not appallingly crunchy to the point where I wanna cry.
Lupe: And also, obviously I’m familiar with the game and one of the things I love about it is that I love the narrative that comes out of it because you have the controllers of the robots and they all have their own personalities as well. That to me feels quite Necromundish in some ways, that flavor of different approaches.
James: Yeah, you pick a character and they have a thing they can do that suits a certain playstyle. One of the things well be doing on the kickstarter is let people for one of the higher pledges put the art of themselves on one of the character cards. So they can pick the one that suits their style best and that’s now theirs.
Lupe: Oh that’s cool.
James: We’ve taken it around and people are loving playing it and to me it fits the same sort of niche as blitz bowl in that it’s a game that takes half-an-hour to 45 minutes, to an hour maybe if you take your time looking over it, start to finish. You can sit down and play it while you’re waiting for some other people to turn up and play a game. The 3-4 player mode is a bit wacky and a bit crazy, and you have a pint and enjoy it.
Lupe: One of the things I really like about it is, because it doesn’t have miniatures in it, I think that actually it is an advantage because first of all, it’s cheaper. The other thing about it, is that it makes it much more portable. And I don’t know about you, but I’ve got a lot of stuff in my backlog for painting. [both laugh]
James: We had considered the possibility of attempting a resin miniatures addon and it’s still a thing that we’d like to do down the road but we have to fund the game first. [laughs] Because the cost of doing that…
Lupe: There you go, if you want lovely resin miniatures…
James: If everyone reading this goes and backs us with a tenner when we launch I think we’d probably have resin miniatures.
Lupe: I think it’s a fascinating culmination, to a certain extent, of a lot of the threads that have gone through your games.
James: There’s a lot of design DNA. When you look at Hellboy, you can see bits of Silver Tower. When you look at Devil May Cry, you can see elements of Gorechosen. This is like if Gorechosen, Devil May Cry, Titanicus and Necromunda had a baby. You end up with this.
Lupe: James, thank you so much for your time.
James: Thank you.
Addendum: Since this interview, James and Sophie decided to cancel the Robot Fight Club Kickstarter, due to a number of reasons. You can read it about it here. It will be coming back, so if you’re interested, sign up to the Needy Cat Games newsletter for updates about its return to Kickstarter!
That concludes our interview with James. We hope you’ve enjoyed the series, and learnt a little about some of your favourite games. As ever, if you have any questions, comments, or feedback, then hit us up in the comments below, on Facebook, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org