29 January, 2013
Interview with Warwick Kinrade
This interview originally appeared in The Gazebo. Warwick Kinrade is the author of BattleGroup Kursk (BGK), reviewed elsewhere in issue #3.
DMC: Can you tell us a little bit about your background as a gamer? What early wargames influenced you or even inspired you to write your own rules?
WK: Early gaming for me was World War II and Napoleonics using Airfix and Matchbox kits, mostly on the bedroom floor. They were the first games with toy soldiers we had rules and dice for, before that we rolled marbles at each other’s men. Like many back in the 70s, most of my boyhood toys were army related, like Action Man, and mostly WWII too.
As I got a bit older I bought the first Warhammer rules, and we started playing them. Collecting actual army’s developed from there, and I was pretty much a fantasy only player throughout the late 80’s. I rediscovered World War II in the mid-nineties, with the first Rapid Fire, and we played them a lot. I started really collecting seriously then, boards, terrain, models, tonnes of stuff. That led me back into the wider world of historical gaming again, back to my youth, and I started collecting for other periods too, but WW2 always remained my main passion.
I don’t think I’d call it inspiration, but it was dissatisfaction with most of the WW2 rules available (and I tried most of them), that led me to write my own. Like many people, I figured it was the only way to get the game I wanted to play.
DMC: Before Kampfgruppe Normandy I think it’s fair to say not many historical wargamers would have heard your name – can you give us an idea of how you got into writing gaming material professionally?
WK: Well of course not, if you work for GW for 15 years then that is bound to be the case. I was also a games writer, in my teens I wrote many role-playing games, boardgames and house rules for everything. In some ways I think I preferred it to actually playing. I was taken on by GW after I left university (you know, when you suddenly have to get a job), so I applied with some of my own material, got an interview, did it and got a job as a trainee. After that I worked for GW in all sorts of writing and book production related roles, on White Dwarf, for the Black Library, etc. In the end I was Forgeworld’s main writer for 10 years. I guess there something inside that just needs to get out, given free time I often start noting down ideas of new games, I have hundreds of them. Some may someday see the light of day.
DMC: Is there any aspect or mechanic that you find yourself returning to across different games? Is there a common thread running through Warwick Kinrade material?
WK: Despite writing for 15 years, I haven’t actually designed many game systems. GW doesn’t do many anymore, so the opportunities were rare, but I do have certain things which I always consider when designing a game. After 30 year’s experience my ideas of what makes for a fun tabletop miniatures game don’t change much these days.
One important element, often overlooked, is that priority has to go to a gamer’s miniatures collection. Playing games is just part of the hobby, collecting is another big one, and I what to write games that encourage collecting, and give a reason and direction to it. For example, non-combat units like ambulances or radio teams. I wanted one (not loads just one of each) in my WW2 armies, and I also want them to do something in the game too, other than just look pretty. It doesn’t have to be much, just a little something useful. I’m not interested in making stuff powerful on the tabletop which, in my experience, is usually a fairly cynical attempt to boost miniatures sales and shows no respect to the players. Believe me it happens a lot, and there is a lot of ‘sales’ pressure, especially in the corporate world. I believe in the end, if the game plays well and is fun, people will want to buy the models anyway, you won’t need to twist their arms (by twisting the game). But you need to design a game from the ground up with collecting in mind, not shoehorn it in afterwards.
Another important aspect of wargames which I’ve come to love more and more is unpredictability and ‘chaos’ (not the spiky men). Games that roll ‘buckets of dice’ are quite predictable, because the more die you roll the closer you’ll get to the predictably average result. In my opinion, rolling 1 or 2 D6 is inherently more exciting than rolling 20, because the result is so much more random. There is nothing better than needing a 6 and getting it!
DMC: Looking at BGK, it’s clear that you’ve put a lot of thought into both points systems and scenarios. There seems to be great dispute between those two camps in gaming – what’s your take on the debate?
WK: My take is that both are valuable and valid. I do both. For years I was a purist, no points, only historical scenarios, I wanted a backstory and unbalanced but ‘correct’ forces, but I think this was because the points systems were overly simplistic and in striving for balance made the games dull. BGK points system exists to facilitate quick, evening gaming (because that’s what many players can do – including me), and the game doesn’t balance solely on points. More important is the Battle Rating system which works alongside it, it this system on which the game really balances. I also think the introduction of better, more historical-based and characterful army lists helps a lot to improve points-based games. You can have it both ways!
DMC: If all new sets of rules fulfil a need, what will BattleGroup Kursk (BGK) provide that other rules do not?
WK: A tenser, more dramatic and ultimately more fun game, which retains a good feel for the theatre or period! Subjective opinion I know, but I really think it provides a better feel for WW2 battles, and the character of the fighting in that theatre (here Kursk), than generic rules which provide effectively the same battles put with different model tanks. Of course, you can play like that, but I strive to give the games a characterful edge, a feel for the theatre and period, so battles in 1943 at Kursk feel different to those say, during the invasion of Germany in 1945. Not just the equipment has moved on, but the tactics, and the strategic situation too, I like to get a little of that influence into the army lists too. Subtle changes sometimes result in a very different feel and approach by players. It gentle encouragement though, not brow-beating.
DMC: Can you give us an example of how the German and Russian forces work differently?
WK: Well, the Germans are the all-rounders, a forgiving army to play, they don’t really lack for anything. Their infantry is good to very good, there artillery likewise, their tanks are good to superb, they have descent air support. All the elements are in place, and with good command and control they are a formidable outfit. Really, they were the easy part to deal with. It won’t be so in the 1945 supplement.
The Russians were the headache - now to make the Russian army fight more like a Russian army with its very different tactical doctrines? Obviously their equipment is cheaper, and their infantry is generally poor (but again very cheap). They have a lot of artillery, but it is inflexible, lots of guns, but can you get them in the right place at the right time. But it is command and control that they suffer most. Finding the balance took a while, but I think we cracked it.
Historically the Germans achieved about an 8-1 tank kill ratio at Kursk, and lost! But I don’t think you can write that game, who wants to lose that badly every game. But you can write a game were a 2-1 or 3-1 is the norm, it feels right, and yet the Russians can still win despite those heavy losses.
DMC: How do you handle the challenge of maintaining historical accuracy and playability at the same time?
WK: Basically, playability is always the priority, without it you have nothing. All the accuracy in the world doesn’t make for a better game. When designing you can take a few licences sometimes, as long as it improves the game play and retains the right feel. So, if a vehicle doesn’t have exactly the right move distance it won’t matter too much, as long as it still feels fast or slow.
That said, I try to get things right, and do a lot of reading and research. I’ve read everything I could get my hands on about Kursk. Most of it isn’t much use in games design, but it all feeds in on one level or another. Mostly, I want the tanks to have the right guns and armour.
DMC: I’ve described as ‘striking gold’ situations where rules reward historical tactics with success – do you have any good examples of this from playtests of BGK?
WK: Many. Too many to list. I’d like to think the entire reason for creating the game was to get closer to this, and I think we have succeeded (but that’s probably for others to judge). The number of reckless Russian T-34 charges that have had the German players cursing and sweating, only for a single Tiger to reap havoc and save what looked like a lost cause, or for a swirling melee to come out in the German favour, I’ve lost count of. Such asymmetry in a game is a tough one to balance; most games don’t even try and fudge it instead.
The game is inherently unpredictable, but it does encourage ‘realistic’ play. Note ‘encourages’, it doesn’t dictate it, I hate that, games and army lists with only one plan, based on what units you take, rather than how you fight with what you have.
DMC: I understand that you’re planning on doing Normandy ’44 and the Fall of the Reich ’45 next. What plans do you have for 2014 and beyond?
WK: Vague. The whole war (and beyond it too) are up for grabs. Obviously North Africa looms large, and there are many early war gamers I’d love to get something out there for. Blitzkrieg 39-40 isn’t my personal bag, but it will be high on the list. Best not to get too far ahead of yourself though, I try to stay focussed on the project in hand, pour all my efforts into that. I can say we won’t be dealing with the niche theatres and conflicts before we’ve covered the big ones. So there will be no Battlegroup ‘Norway’ or Battlegroup ‘Greece’, before I have covered early, mid and late war on the east and west fronts, North Africa and the Pacific. That’s a lot of work already. Spreading beyond WW2 is also on the cards, eventually.
DMC: Will these theatre-level books have the rules in them? How do you deal with comments about obliging people to buy the Kursk book to play with entirely different armies?
WK: The rules won’t be in every book, only the lists, scenarios, special rules etc. In effect, when you buy Battle Group Kursk you are buying the core rulebook and the Eastern Front 1943 supplement in one volume (which is not bad for £30). Soon(ish) (but don’t hold me too it), I’ll look at getting a smaller core rulebook available. But for now it’s Kursk, and I choose it because, as far as I’m concerned, the appeal of WWII wargaming is playing battles with the tanks (at its heart). So where else to start but at the largest tank battle ever?