The Evolution of a Game

Original source

Being account of how the esteemed author and his inestimable colleague conquered the Everest of gaming – getting published.


Thanks go to Kev Dallimore for the photo, Paul Baker for the scenery and 4Ground for the buildings.

It is a couple of months now since IHMN was first seen in public at Salute 2013. For many that was the beginning of the journey, but for us it was the just another step in a long and arduous expedition. So let me take you back a couple of years…

I was first approached by Phil Smith of Osprey in the autumn of 2011. He had been following the work of the Forge of War Development Group and its publishing site, Gawd ‘elp Us Games. He liked ‘In The Emperor’s Name’ (ItEN), a W40K skirmish game that I had originally penned in 2010, but that the Group had taken up as a community project and expanded massively.

We had already published the Forge of War SF Battle rules and the immensely successful FUBAR, one page, small unit action system. Now FUBAR has dozens of genre variants, many written by group members, one of which is VSF. On the forum someone had asked me if I was going to write a VSF/Steampunk version of ItEN, and I had replied ‘no’ as I was working on the first draft of a generic SF version called ‘Blaster!‘. However, I did set up a thread for this idea, and promptly forgot all about it.

So along came Phil, full of boy-ish enthusiasm, and suggested that Osprey might be interested in publishing a Steampunk skirmish game along similar lines to ItEN. My initial thought again was no, I am committed to amateur publishing, but then I thought why the hell not? I chatted to a few of the chaps all of whom encouraged me to go for it. I asked if any would be interested in taking part and one stepped forwards.  Unfortunately for him his life took a different turn shortly afterwards and he withdrew from the project.

Meanwhile Phil was talking contracts and timescales and I was about to change jobs from one in Derby to one in Basingstoke (for you colonials that is the other end of the country in British terms). By the way I actually live in mid-Wales, so I’m what is commonly referred to as a ‘weekend warrior’, commuting to the job on Monday and coming home on a Friday.

Looking at the projected workload, and knowing my fondness for Douglas Adams’ saying “I love deadlines, I like the sound they make as they whizz by”, I knew I needed another lifelong gamer, who liked the period, a man I could trust and who’s day job was getting twerps like me to produce stuff on time and to budget. There could be only one such chap, so I called Charles. Conveniently he lived within a reasonable distance of my new job, such are the workings of destiny I am given to understand.

Our initial discussions revolved around the central theme of the project. We were both old enough to have been brought up on the works of the classic Victorian science romance authors and their contemporaries. We share a love of Arthur Conan Doyle in particular, and in reality he is very much Holmes to my Watson.

The decision we made affected the whole enterprise as we decided to pretty much ignore the current fashion of steampunk and create a work that reflected the science romances and attitudes of the late Victorian period. This was helped along a bit by the feel that Guy Ritchie managed to inject into his excellent Sherlock Holmes movies. Victorian London had never looked so grimy and exciting.

Now don’t get me wrong I do like steampunk. I find its adherents inventive and delightful, but whatever it is they are aiming at it is not really the late 19th century. ‘Fantasy with steam and cogs’ is how one writer put it and I concur. However, the market is awash with steampunk games and figures, and we felt that one more steampunk game would just get lost in the noise.

So, back to the plot, Phil had set a manuscript delivery date of June 2012. Easy I thought, just take ItEN and dress it up in Victoriana. One must remember that I had become quite accomplished at genre dressing while churning out variations of FUBAR, so what could possibly go wrong? Charles very quickly disabused me of that nonsensical notion. He had not read ItEN up to that point and when he did he came back at me with ego-crushing lucidity. What was worse is that he was right.

So after a complete rewrite of the core rules, masses of period research and Prussian discipline regarding the KISS principle, we were close to having something we could present. We corresponded daily, and every line went through rewrite after rewrite.  I finally began to sympathise with all those rules writers who went before me and admire their perseverance.

Then came the points system. Very early on we had decided we wanted to create system that was designed for gamers, i.e. one they could take part in, not just have presented to them with the ‘like it or leave it’ attitude of some games companies. This is part of what the Forge of War group is about and we wished to carry this philosophy forwards. So to essentially ‘open source’ the points system and allow gamers to use it to design their own stuff was something we wished to encourage. After all the 22,500 words restriction meant that there was no way we could ever cover all the possible companies in one book and there was no guarantee we would ever be allowed to write another.

The points system though very nearly killed us. It had to have a rational internal logic, and relate carefully to the power and effectiveness of troops and their equipment in game terms against the variable range of a ten-sided die. We went through a number of evolutions of this. Each one requiring us to go back through the company lists, the reference sheets,  and in some cases the examples. We calculated and recalculated costs of everything several times over a period of months.

We were also by then creating balanced lists for North Star so that they could create boxed sets for four of the companies in support of the game. As well as adding new troop types, weapons and various other fun stuff during the writing process itself. For example we spent most of an evening just trying to apply KISS to grenades, machine guns and flamethrowers.

Well, long story short, some of our calculations went awry between versions. Even with Phil’s invaluable editorial input, and feedback from Nick at North Star we didn’t find them all (and there’s probably a few more to be found – so kudos to anyone who does).

So after all of this we delivered the manuscript in July with a sigh and lots of mutual back-slapping… job’s a good ‘un we thought. Then the professional editing began and the autumn was spent answering various questions, clarifying sections of the rules, rewriting the examples and, of course, recalculating points costs.

As you can imagine Charles and I both have full time and engaging jobs, family, friends and other interests. Much of the non-job stuff had to go on hold as we beavered away at the project. A warning to all you would-be games-writers out there, it will take over your life. Writing amateur stuff is so very different to writing for a company that hopes to make a profit from your endeavours.

I have calculated that to produce even a fairly short game like this requires 20 hours a week for over a year.  Charles and I are approaching the deadline for the supplement so that commitment has not stopped. To create 22,500 usable words requires that you write at least five times as many.

Again back to the plot. Final edited drafts went into Osprey in November and were then sent out to China to be typeset and printed. All through the previous twelve months Phil had been sending us sketches and then finished artwork. One of these added a whole section to the rules – Jesse McGibney’s mechanical walker. His chinese street scene added the infamous Yeti. Others had us checking to see if they matched our vision of the period. Then North Star started sending us photographs of the figures, painted by no less a man than Kev Dallimore (I just love name-dropping, he-he).

When the first photographs came in I opened them and lost a couple of hours just staring at them. There may even have been a manly tear. After all how many of us gamers have dreamed about having miniatures sculpted to order and then painted by one of the best in the business? And here I was, an amateur gamer, looking at just such a vision. I think that is when my wife realised just how big a deal this project was to me and, I expect, to Charles also.

Christmas came and went and by now, because Amazon and other distributors need advance notice, the cat was well and truly out of the bag. Although Osprey had a year earlier mentioned IHMN in their schedules only a handful of people had really noticed and they mostly forgot about it because it was so distant. North Star started advertising the figure ranges and then began their successful Nickstarter campaign.

This, as you probably remember, kicked off a lot of debate on Lead Adventure and TMP which I, being the ‘net-savvy’ member of the dynamic duo, got stuck into. My main focus then switched from writing to marketing and I began blog-patrolling, setting up the IHMN blog itself and taking part in the various forum threads.

At the same time the BBC ran their phenomenal series ‘Ripper Street’ set slap bang in the middle of the period we were covering in IHMN. This is called ‘serendipity’ or fortuitous happenstance. I strenuously deny the rumours that say I paid the BBC to do this…

It was about then that Phil picked up a baseball bat marked ‘supplement’ and lay about us with it. We had always wanted to write more, but we barely had time to relax for two weeks over Christmas and the whole cycle began again. It’s my fault really. I had shared the original companies’ brainstorm with its 100+ companies listed on it with Phil way back when, and he’d never forgotten it.

It soon became apparent that the game might actually do quite well and that Osprey had almost run out of stock. The 3,000 copies they had originally printed was dedicated to its distributors and pre-orders were exceeding the supply. Apparently this had not happened before in their wargames range and for which Charles and I would really like to thank you all. They are now expecting another 3,000 to become available in July and have released a PDF copy in the meantime. Note that since the supplement was announced it too has been receiving pre-orders on Amazon and in other places, so we may now be looking to do a second supplement.

North Star meanwhile have released a fifth company starter set and are sculpting a sixth. We hope that they will continue when the supplement is released.

So here we are, still doing 20+ hours per week, and spending time at weekends travelling up and down the country to shows. We’re under three weeks from the deadline for Heroes, Villains and Fiends. To complicate matters next week I start a new job that is just about commutable from home, but is 175 miles away from Charles.

So why put ourselves through this you might well ask? It certainly isn’t for the money, if and when we ever receive any (eh Phil?). Charles and I both have what could be termed as ‘managerial’ jobs and earn far more per diem than anything we could get from writing rules. We might make enough to buy some decent terrain and few figures for working 20 hours a week for 18 months I we’re lucky.

Well honestly, when all is said and done, it has been great fun and an excellent learning experience to boot. As veteran gamers we have realised a lifelong dream that many of you no doubt share – published rules and free figures! What more could you ask for?

So where to now? Well we have a supplement to deliver, and plans for a second on the blocks. After that who knows? We’ve both been bitten by the writing bug now, for which I understand there is no cure,  and have acquired some useful experience and skills. We shall continue to contribute to the IHMN community, and I to the Forge of War Development Group. We are chucking various ideas around for new projects after IHMN, so watch this space Ladies and Gentlemen, watch this space.