Martin is a renowned board game designer who is consistently ranked among the Top 25 designers in the world. Here you can find the stories behind his origin, his design approach, and the depth of insight gained from surviving through the waves of changes that have passed through the board game industry over the past decades.
Hey Martin, thank you for making your time! First up, could you tell us a bit about yourself?
My pleasure. OK, born in 1962 in Hampshire, UK. Moved to Manchester in 1969, where I lived until 2013 when I moved to New Zealand. Since October 2017 I have been resident in Australia, living just south of Brisbane.
I started gaming properly when I was 14, cutting my teeth on wargames from companies such as SPI and Avalon Hill. I was introduced to D&D at Sixth Form college in 1978. One of my first jobs was working as a sales assistant for Games Workshop at their Manchester shop.
I started designing games around 1990. I self-published my first design in 1993, which was Lords of Creation. I first visited the Spiel in Essen in 1994, with a reprint of this game. Since then I have been churning out games every year, including Age of Steam/Steam, A Few Acres of Snow, Discworld Ankh-Morpork and Brass. I used to run my own games company, Warfrog Games, which then morphed into Treefrog Games. Now I focus on licensing games to other companies.
For anyone who might not be familiar with your games, could you describe what makes up a signature Martin Wallace game?
I like to think I design a wide range of games but most people know me for my heavier designs, such as Brass and Age of Steam. My aim has always been to blend the elegance of the Euro style of design with the thematic emersion that you find in American games. For me theme comes before mechanisms.
Which American game have you played that particularly stands out for its theme?
Apart from role-playing most of my early gaming involved wargames, which by definition have to be closely based on their subject material. Particular games that stand out are Advanced Squad Leader, Breakout Normandy and Across Five Aprils. Having more free time we could also fit in games such as Empires of the Middle Ages, which is pretty much mostly theme as you a really along for the ride.
Your games tend to feature a variety of historical settings. Is historical theme your favorite? and is there a certain timeline that you want to try and incorporate in the future?
I find it easier to design a game around a clearly defined story, whether this be from history or a work of fiction. History is so rich in interesting stories that there is no end to the games you could come up with. At the moment I’m doing a lot of reading on ancient history. I have an itch to design a good civilization game. A lot of those on the market strike me as being far too abstract in design. I want to create something that feels a lot closer to the actual history of the period.
What is your favorite mechanic and how do you think it relates to your personality?
I’m not sure I have a favourite mechanic, as generally I try not to think in those terms. A lot of my games employ a simple two-action per turn format. I think it is important to present players with simple choices that have complex consequences.
What was the first board game you had published? Looking back on it now, how would you rate the game vs. your more recent games?
My first board game was Lords of Creation, which I self-published in 2003. Compared to my more recent games this would be considered rather simple fare. It is a cut above Risk in terms of complexity. The first game I had published by another company was Und Tchuss, by Goldsieber in 1998.
What is one of your lesser known works that you'd love to see get more attention? Could you tell us a bit about that game?
I feel that A Study in Emerald, in both its versions, has not really gained the attention that I thought it deserved. The game riffs off of a short story by Neil Gaiman and blends the fantasy of H.P. Lovecraft with literary figures such as Sherlock Holmes and real persons from history, such as Bismarck and Prince Kropotkin. Players are either fighting for the good guys or the Old Ones and must both try to identify who they are fighting against as well as who is on their side.
As someone who's been around a while, what are some of the major industry shifts you experienced? Is there another game changer that has been on your radar?
The major shift would be Kickstarter. It has massively transformed the industry and its effects are ongoing. It’s very difficult to accurately predict future changes. I’m not convinced that traditional board games are ever going to be successfully integrated with computer technology. My own feelings about the future is that mechanisms will take second place to story-telling. You can already see that happening with the number of Legacy games on the market.
In what ways did you have to adapt to these changes in order to survive in the industry? Have you had to make any changes to your design process, networking, marketing, selection of theme/art, etc?
I have certainly had to adapt by carefully choosing which types of games I design. Fortunately for me it is now possible to design heavier games and have them be financially profitable, Brass being a good example of this. Kickstarter means you can bring games to the market which would not normally work through traditional channels. Marketing and networking are far more important than they used to be, which from my point of view means I need to work with others who have those skill sets.
To what would you attribute the current heyday of the board game industry?
I think the explosion we have seen in board game publishing is due to the combined effects of Kickstarter, changes in print technology that have reduced the costs of production, and the internet for allowing access to a world market.
Would you say that Kickstarter has leveled the playing field for everyone? Does this make it easier or harder for the amateur designer?
I would agree that it has made it easier for an individual to bring their design to the market. Gloomhaven is proof of that, a design that could never have been published under the old system. I’m not sure the situation is harder for the amateur designer, more of a case that you have to work a lot harder on the social side of things now. The fact remains that there is now a body of known game designers who have built their reputations on games they themselves have produced and presented via Kickstarter.
Could you expand a bit more on what you mentioned about the "old system"? What has changed that makes a game like Gloomhaven more viable/marketable today?
Kickstarter is all about direct sales. The production costs of a game like Gloomhaven would make it uneconomic if you simply sold via the normal distribution path. Now, I know that shops do sell Gloomhaven, but that has only been after it proved itself through successful direct sales. Generally your MSRP is six or seven times your production cost, so a game retailing for $70 has to come in at around $10 production price. Without Kickstarter I do not think any publisher would have taken a chance on Gloomhaven as the final MSRP would have been far too high.
Do you think that the quality of artwork can make or break the success of a game?
Today yes, in the old days no. With so many games on the market first glance impression is more significant than ever. When I first started there were so few gamers and games around that you did not need decent artwork, if any at all. Now you must focus as much on the presentation of a game as the mechanisms within it.
Even as a veteran, are there same struggles that never seem to go away?
Still struggling with making a living, so no changes there! You still have the same issues of how to make the market aware of your product, just a lot more noise to cut through now.
If you don't mind, could you expand a bit more on the realities of making a living as a board game designer? What would you say to all of the amateur designers out there who are dying to transition into game design full-time?
I cannot speak for other game designers but the reality of my existence is that I have to keep coming up with new, fresh designs knowing that the majority of them may only make me a few thousand dollars. Generally an advance is in the region of $3000. You then have to wait for a few years before you receive further royalties. If a game is not reprinted then you are looking at making possibly $5000 from a design. If you work out the hours it takes to create a new game then the average game designer is working for less than minimum wage. On top of that you have to pay to attend various trade events, without which you simply cannot do business. I have to fly to Europe at least once a year, for the Spiel, and now the US, for Gen Con. I also need to attend smaller conventions in Australia to get playtesting done. It all adds up to a lot of outgoings. The majority of designers who make good money are those that have an evergreen that brings in a steady amount of money.
For those wishing to break in to the market then I would advise the path that such designers such as Jamey Stegmaier, Ryan Laukat and Isaac Childres have taken, which is the KS path. However, to be successful you have to be prepared to put an awful lot of work in. You also have to have some sort of talent to design, which not all folks have. It really is not as easy as it looks. My final piece of advice would be not to give up the day job.
What is your favorite part of being a board game designer that never gets old?
I love that I get to have an idea, then shape it and eventually see something tangible enter the world. There is something highly satisfying in a defined beginning, middle and end to a process.
What do you think is a good mark of success and what sort of milestone would you like to achieve in the near future?
I think the thing most designers aspire to is to create an evergreen game, one that folks will be playing for many years from now. I almost had one with Discworld until I lost the license. That still remains my main goal, to create a game or system that takes on a life of its own.
Lastly, are there any exciting developments in the works that you'd like to share with us?
I always have to be careful when answering questions like these as now all of my work is for other companies, and they like to keep things under wrap until ready to go public. What I can say is that I am working on a number of major games that are tied to computer game licenses. I also have another design which may be my evergreen, but not sure yet. The unusual thing about this game is that it is not a board game, it’s a role playing game.
Thanks for inviting me to take part in this interview.
Thanks Martin for taking your time to share your story and your insights!
Readers, please feel free to leave comments below with any of your questions/comments for Martin or for any of the games mentioned! I am always open for feedback on these interviews and for suggestions on who I should interview in the future!
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