The Coaches’ Corner is an in-depth interview with DreadBall Coaches, Commissioners, and Creators. A game is fourteen Rushes, and the interview is fourteen questions.
This interview is important. Very important. It’s not just a series of Q&A. It’s not just an opportunity for some terrible puns, double entendres, and strings of alliteration.
This interview is educational. It’s a history lesson. It’s a design lesson. It’s a business lesson. It’s all thanks to the mind of James Hewitt. His paws have touched your favorite, and soon-to-be favorite, games; DreadBall, Blitz Bowl, Goreschosen, The Silver Tower, Hellboy, League of Infamy, and Robot Fight Club to name a few. Let’s find out why.
James Hewitt. Desiger. Cat Herder. Funniest guy in the room.
…It’s great to be here.
1. DreadBall’s original design is credited to Jake Thornton. However, there is legend that you played an integral part in the game development. What can you share about DreadBall’s origin?
Ha! Straight out the gate with the big questions, eh? It’s a long and complicated story, and I can only tell you what happened from my perspective, and with a gap of nearly a decade (dear God) since it all happened. Details might be vague, I might have a few things in the wrong order, and I’m certain that there’s a whole other story to be told from the other side!
The short answer is: I was involved in the earliest stages of the core DreadBall engine design, but everything after that was Jake.
I first started interacting with Mantic when my former boss from Games Workshop retail (who was Mantic’s trade sales manager at the time) heard that Ronnie Renton was looking for someone to design a sci-fi sports game. He knew that I was really keen to design games for a living – I’d been doing it in my spare time for years – so he hooked me up with a meeting. I came up with a game called Razordisc, which was basically brutal sci-fi ultimate frisbee. (I actually did a walkthrough of Razordisc on the Needy Cat Games patreon page – www.patreon.com/needycatgames
– if anyone’s interested.)
I worked on it for several months, figuring out what worked and what didn’t – I had a while as they’d only been talking about it in vague terms, and weren’t ready for a pitch meeting or anything for quite a while. Eventually I took it to Mantic and showed it to Ronnie and the gang; in hindsight, knowing what I know now as a professional game designer, I wince a bit when I think about how much time I spent worrying about laying out the rulebook and mocking up prototypes. I think it was very clear that I was an amateur punching above my weight!
Despite my hindsight misgivings they really liked the game, but they were appropriately cagey about handing a big project to someone so fresh-faced and new. To give some context, this was before Mantic started using Kickstarter – it was around the time that Project Pandora came out – so they weren’t at the point where they wanted to be taking big risks. Ronnie’s suggestion was that he’d bring Jake onto the project and we’d work on it together. We’d be credited as co-designers, and so on – it would be a collaboration, developing Razordisc and making a sellable product.
Jake and I got on fine, but he was very keen to scrap the game and start again from scratch, as he obviously had plenty of ideas of his own. At the time he told me he never ever got around to reading Razordisc, but I’ve never been sure, because there are definitely a lot of similarities between that and the early drafts of DreadBall. So once a week I’d go over to his place and we’d work on stuff, testing out ideas and figuring out what the game would look like, debating the finer points of rules, and so on. The fact that it was a sports game played on a hex grid with dice pools (just like Razordisc) meant I had several months’ headstart when it came to knowing what our potential pitfalls would be, and I felt like I was really helping shape the core game. Also, Jake seemed very keen to borrow elements from Blood Bowl (which he’d been in charge of for a while during his time at GW). I argued quite strongly against at every opportunity, because I felt like this was a chance to make something fresh and different.
As time went by I got the feeling that Jake was less keen to have me on the project. He started standing his ground more and more firmly and shooting down any feedback I offered, and being more cagey about sharing rules documentation with me. I gradually got less and less involved – I was working full time, and where we’d previously been having meetings at Mantic on days when I could take a long lunch or something, that stopped being a consideration, and Jake started having solo meetings with them. In the end I was barely working on it at all, just writing bits and pieces of fiction or helping run playtest events.
There’s actually a pretty clear demarcation between the stuff I worked on and the stuff I didn’t; the core rules (not the ref, and not the cards) and the Corporation and Marauder teams were done by the two of us working together, and everything after that was Jake working on his own. (Back when the first edition “Kick Off” boxed set was released, I could very easily point at it and say ‘I was involved in everything in there!’) Eventually, when he handed over the manuscript, he’d credited me as “Lead Playtester”; the Mantic guys disagreed and changed it to Supporting Developer without asking him. The whole situation was pretty sour, and felt like it caused a lot of bad blood that I’d never wanted – it was especially awkward when I ended up working at Mantic full-time, and had to work on things with Jake! Because the ‘official line’ was that Jake designed the game by himself, I wasn’t in a position to say anything about my involvement, which is why it’s probably become some weird urban legend. These days I don’t mind being a bit more open about it!
In the intervening years we’ve bumped into each other at shows, and we always have a nice catch-up, so I hope it’s all water under the bridge.
2. What were your reactions during the first DreadBall Kickstarter campaign, and were there any memorable challenges or opportunities during that crowd-sourcing effort?
It was mad! By that point I wasn’t heavily involved with the game any more, but Chris from Mantic got in touch to ask if I wanted to help out by answering some comments on BoardGameGeek and the like. I was more than happy to – despite the slight awkwardness I was incredibly proud of the game, so I was dashing around answering questions in loads of places (which eventually led to me being offered the community manager job). Kickstarter back then was the wild west! No one really knew what worked, or how big things could get. It was Mantic’s second Kickstarter and the first one that really took off, so the biggest challenge was figuring out what would come next. Obviously the game ended up having a huge pile of stretch goals – from my perspective, it was a challenge to keep up with everything so I could answer questions!
3. Your designs at Games Workshop are impressive (thank you for Gorechosen). In particular, you developed the rules for the Blood Bowl (2016). Did your work with DreadBall influence that other sports game?
Not Blood Bowl, because that was a cut-and-paste job. We just took the existing living rules document and laid it out into a book. But Blitz Bowl (the spinoff game which is currently only available in Barnes and Noble in the US, and certain stores in Germany) was very much influenced by what we’d done with DreadBall. It addressed a lot of the same issues – how do you take a game like Blood Bowl and distil it down into something that’s fun and challenging in a 30-45 minute play time? Smaller teams, fewer punitive rules and multiple ways to score are all common themes between the two games.
4. Follow up; how would you compare DreadBall to Blood Bowl?
I like them both but in very different ways. Blood Bowl is a commitment. Each game can be an absolute slog. It’s also horribly punishing; it has a nasty learning curve that goes out of its way to make new players cry, and you can find yourself playing for two hours after you’ve realised that you can’t win. But the league rules are incredibly deep and the fanbase has to be seen to be believed. They have regular events with 500+ attendees. It’s madness. DreadBall, on the other hand, is fun and light and entertaining. It’s always surprising, it rewards risky play and it’s regularly hilarious to watch.
5. Hilarious.. I”ll get back to that in a moment. Mantic Entertainment and Games Workshop are on your resume. Recently, you began your own game company – Needy Cat Games! What drove you in this independent direction?
Several things! I’ve always wanted to design games for myself. I’d been hanging around GW for about four years, designing rules for games, and it was increasingly apparent to me that I wasn’t a good fit. There was too much work to do everything to a good standard, and I hated the idea of doing what I saw as a sub-par job, so I was working myself to the bone. There was also a constant pressure from different managers, all pulling in different directions, and sometimes it felt like I was screaming into the void. Then a colleague passed away unexpectedly in his early forties, and I realised that life is short and you sometimes need to take a leap of faith if you’re not happy somewhere.
So I did!
Sophie (Significant other) was helping out part-time at first, then came on full-time within the first six months (she ended up doing most of the heavy lifting on Hellboy, after I’d designed the core rules). We haven’t looked back. It’s terrifying sometimes (this is our only income – and we have a mortgage and a four year old daughter) but it’s constantly rewarding, and we’re free to drive in the direction we want. We always end up doing way too much work, but it all looks like it’s starting to pay off!
6. Robot Fight Club is an upcoming title from Needy Cat Games. Can you offer our Coaches a compelling pitch?
Why yes, I could! 😉
Robot Fight Club – coming to Kickstarter soon! – is a two-player arena combat game in which each player builds a pair of customisable robots and sends them into battle against their opponent’s team. Gameplay is fast and tactical – you’re playing cards from a limited selection to active one of your robots each turn, trying to second-guess which robot your opponent will be activating based on the board state and the cards that you know they’ve already played. A bout lasts about 15-20 minutes, and you play to the best of three, so a full game usually takes less than an hour. There are a lot of parallels with DreadBall – two players, short play time, lots of interesting decisions and a game engine that rewards risk-taking! If you want to know more, check out www.needycatgames.com
or find us on social media.
7. Reddit is technically a social media site, though arguably it’s more akin to a cesspool of scumbags, criminals, and perverts. You have countered the site’s trend of negativity with some positive contributions. Specifically, a 2018 thread of Q&A. You generously answered dozens of grognard head-scratchers. One of your remarks has lingered with this BreadDoll editor; the difference between a “good game” and a “good enough to sell” game. Can you elaborate on that observation?
Ha! I’ve been on reddit for about 11 years, and I find that the trick is to tailor the subreddits that you read. The default subs are pretty dreadful. Reddit lets anyone create as many anonymous accounts as they want, and we all know what anonymity leads to online! Still, if you find some decent subreddits that are a bit off the beaten track, you’ll find some incredible, friendly communities. /r/boardgames is great, as is /r/tabletopgamedesign – in fact, most of the tabletop games related subs are pretty awesome. I imagine any of the ones that are tied to a special interest are gonna be pretty good.
Anyway! That wasn’t the question.
To expand on the observation you mentioned, there are different reasons that games get designed. If an indie publisher puts out their very first board game, and they haven’t got a license or any big names tied to it, the game will sell entirely on its own merits, so the game design has to be good. And it probably will be, because it’s probably been designed for the same reason George Mallory climbed Everest. (Many game designers can’t imagine not designing games.)
However, once you step outside that, you get games which are made for more ‘corporate’ reasons. I don’t say that as a bad thing, I just use the word to describe games that are designed to support a product or meet a business need. For example, a company has a gap in their release schedule, or they have a range of miniatures that needs an accompanying rule set, or they need a £15 game that fits in a small box and can be sold as an entry-level product. Or whatever. That’s where freelance designers like us come in – companies come to us with a game need, we go away and work on a pitch, and if it all goes ahead we’ll make a game which fits their brief. It’s also how the vast majority of companies with in-house designers operate.
The problem is, “be an awesome game” is rarely a business need, so as a designer you have to find the balance between the awesome game you want to design and the one that fits the brief and is achievable in the time frame. At Needy Cat we take a lot of pride in always designing our games to a high standard, but when you get games designed by in-house designers who are never gonna be credited anyway, I absolutely understand why they might let their standards slide, especially when their managers tell them that the only thing that matters is that they have “a game” to sell, regardless of whether it’s any good. I can’t remember if I told this anecdote on reddit – I probably did – but at GW I was once told by a manager that I was working too hard and making a game “good” instead of “good enough”. From his point of view, he’d already ticked the box he had to tick – yes, we have a product which contains miniatures and rules and which can be sold for £90 as a game – so he didn’t understand why I was so keen to keep working past that point. From my point of view I was designing a game that people would have fun playing, so it had to be good.
And that’s the difference.
8. Back to hilarity. You have some professional experience in comedy. How important is humor in game development?
I wonder what you’ve been reading! Yeah, I come from a family of musicians and entertainers. My uncle’s a fairly well-known comedian in the UK, and in my early twenties I spent several months working on his UK tour, setting up props and doing silly walk-on parts and generally seeing how the entertainment industry functions.
I think it very much depends on the game. I think the best games are ones which a) give the players meaningful decisions and b) make the players feel something. That might mean making players laugh, or making them feel tense, or excited, or sad, or anything else. Gaming can be incredibly cathartic – we’ve all felt the rush of endorphins when we’ve committed to a risky play in DreadBall and it’s paid off and we’ve scored big. So games that can make people laugh are a big winner, as far as I’m concerned – as long as they’re laughing with the game and not at it, and as long as it fits the theme. If a game’s meant to be creepy and scary, a nervous laugh is a good thing, but a belly laugh because something is ridiculous is less good. We look at all of this stuff when we test our games!
One side note, I think a game that generates ’emergent humour’ – fun moments that arise from the gameplay – will always be better than one which goes out of its way to be funny with silly card names or the like. Those silly card names will get old after you’ve played two or three times, so you’d better hope there’s a good game underneath them…
9. And now back to the Galaxy’s greatest sport! What was your level of involvement with DreadBall’s second edition, and what excited you the most about returning to the pitch?
I didn’t have anything to do with the actual development, but the timing was such that I was just starting up Needy Cat as it was about to go to print, so I was asked to give it a rules review / editorial pass. It was really fun to come back to the game after several years away, and look at it with fresh eyes. I really like the changes that came about, especially the ones that make Jacks more interesting and the changes to the stat-line. The original engine was definitely creaking once all the different teams had been added, and the new edition seemed to address a lot of those issues on a fundamental level.
That said, I’ve hardly played it since the new edition! I’ve played precisely one game of it, at a Mantic open day just after it came out, against Stewart Gibbs (who led the development of the new edition). Stew is a really solid player and he was using his Teratons, who I remembered as being pretty nasty. I took my old Corporation team and managed to get a landslide, which made me really happy! Normally, when I work on a game, I utterly suck at it, but that doesn’t always seem to be the case with DB.
10. So how do you primarily play DreadBall [One-off, league, tournament, Xtreme, Ultimate], and why?
Well, as I said, I haven’t played in far too long! When I used to play it was mostly one-off games, but I really enjoy a league. We used to have a Mantic studio league which we did away from the studio – we’d all go out to the pub on a Monday night and play some DreadBall. Those were good times!
11. Ah, the memories… What is your favorite DreadBall team?
Boring answer, but it’s gotta be the Corporation. I love my Corp team – they’re vanilla, but they don’t suck at anything. People used to underestimate them, and I really enjoyed proving them wrong.
12. Describe your most memorable DreadBall Rush.
See, now you’re asking me to reach back through the mists of time and recall something from a long time ago! I don’t think I can recall any real details, so here’s a general answer. One of my favourite moments when showing someone the game (and this goes back to those first, pre-release demos) is when they realise just how much you can get away with in your turn if you’re willing to play dangerously. When you show them how they can set up an action chain and pad their odds with some coaching dice, multiplying their available actions and pulling off a mad passing play that turns a hopeless defence into a 4-point Strike. To me, that’s the heart of DreadBall.
So… a rush where that happened. There you go. 😉