Ares Games is famous for its excellent board games, my favorite of which is War of the Ring. After a meeting at Gencon between Roberto and the Pundak, we had the opportunity to interview Roberto De Meglio about his games and Ares Games in general. The interview was performed by Itamar Parann.
חברת Ares Games ידועה במשחקי הלוח המצויינים שלהם, כולל מלחמת הטבעת. ראיון זה נערך לאחר מפגש בין רוברטו, האחראי על פיתוח משחקים בחברה, לבין הפונדק בכנס ג'נקון. הראיון עוסק בתהליכי פיתוח משחקים, ותוכניות עתידיות של החברה. הראיון נערך באנגלית ומפורסם ככזה.
First I would like to Thank Roberto for doing this interview for the Pundak [the word means 'inn' in Hebrew].
IP: How did you get into game designing?
RDM: Just like most game designers, I started very early, when I was a kid, to develop "rules" for our games together with my older brother - rules to play with toy soldiers, toy cars... No big surprise here! When I started roleplaying, I almost immediately started to design scenarios and rules material... It was a natural thing to do for me! But this were just a boy's pastimes..
My professional life in the gaming industry actually started in a different direction, while I was still in my university years - I started first to edit magazines, then to publish magazines and games - and designing always took a backseat. I designed small games and rules included in some of the magazines I published. Most of them had to do with war gaming - I always had a preference for thematic games, conflict-based, and nice figures to play with! These early designs never got translated into other languages, though, and most of them were never sold outside the magazines, except "Sand splatters," a SF-skirmish miniature game, the setting a sort of a crossbreed between "Starship Troopers" and "Tremors"...
IP: What were the major mile stones in your career to date?
RDM: If I look at my professional career in the gaming industry in its entirety, I'd say the very first milestone is founding KAOS magazine, in 1991. Until it closed more than 10 years and 75 issues later, KAOS was the most important gaming magazine in Italy, and helped to "create" a whole generation of gamers. It was also the founding stone of Nexus, the gaming company I created in 1993, together with 3 friends and in partnership with a publisher which was one of the most important comic publishers in Italy at the time.
After that, I would fast-forward to 1998, when, thanks to re-discovering the original molds of the Atlantic toy soldiers, I first stepped forward to an international market, and we started to develop games with the international audience in mind - "X-Bugs", then a little airplane combat game called "Wings of War", you may have heard about it...
The big step forward in my career, both as a publisher and a designer, was of course "War of the Ring" in 2004. As a company, it was our first real international success, and for me personally a life-dream coming true.
Another milestone for me as a designer is "Rattlesnake", in 2007 - a little children game, but it was the first foray for me in a new territory as a designer, after designing mostly complex, thematic games, and after many games co-designed (especially with Francesco and Marco), my first international success designed entirely by myself.
Then, what I'd consider the next milestone is co-founding Ares Games in 2011, the company which is now the publisher of all my games, and of many other games by renowned authors like Andrea Angiolino, Leo Colovini, Maggi & Nepitello, with a very strong focus on the international market - even if we're based in Italy, we publish and distribute our games in English language, for worldwide distribution.
IP: What are your personal favorite game themes?
RDM: As a player, I really like games with a strong theme - history, fantasy and science-fiction are all good, as long as the game is faithful to the theme. It must not be necessarily a very complex simulation, but I want to "feel" the theme. As historical themes, I especially like WW2, ancient and medieval history.
IP: What are your personal favorite game mechanics/engines?
RDM: Generally speaking, I like games that engage the players in a tense conflict, more than purely co-operative games, or games with only indirect interaction between the players.
I like card-driven games, as you can see from my own designs - one of my favorite games in the genre is "Hannibal", for example. I like the limited control and thematic depth that card-driven games may provide.
I also like bidding/auctioning mechanics (that may come from many games as a children with my family playing "Mercante in Fiera", a traditional Italian game), betting and bluffing (possibly, also coming from traditional card games). I also like a lot games with hidden roles, for the bluffing element and the tension they provide.
IP: What are your favorite non-Ares Games games, and why?
RDM: Let's see - three games I'd never say "no" to playing include an ‘old favorite’, "Space Hulk" - in spite of the simple mechanics, incredibly thematic and fun; "Citadels", a great game where the role selection mechanics merges well with a finely crafted development engine; and "Ticket to Ride", a game you can play with almost everyone, simple and deep - and always fun even if it does not match any of what "normally" my preferences are. Which says a lot!
You can see I did not "fall in love" with any game recently, not because there are not very good games available - maybe the opposite, because there are too many! One of my latest favorites is "Mysterium", which I like for the dream-like atmosphere it creates.
Now let’s focus a bit on Ares Games...
IP: Ares Games has been around for about 5 years now, and I understand that in a sense it rose from the ashes of a previous company, Nexus, the publisher of the War of the Ring 1st edition and Collector Edition. Can you tell us a bit about what happened there, and what assets were brought into Ares Games from Nexus?
RDM: It's a complex story - in short, Nexus was split into two branches during 2006-2007, one distribution branch and one publishing branch, in an attempt to reorganize the company and make it more focused and profitable in each of its activities. From the distribution branch, through subsequent merges and changes of shareholders, was born Giochi Uniti, an important Italian publisher and distributor. The activities of the publishing branch were sold to Italeri, and a new company was formed, NG International.
For several reasons, NG was not successful - we had several customers with big financial problems in the early days of the company, damaging our cash-flow; and moreover the company was not strong enough commercially, at an international level. It relied completely on international partnerships, like the one with Fantasy Flight Games for the English-language market. So NG had big development costs, but not enough profit on its products, due to commercial weakness. When we realized the issue, and we addressed with the majority shareholders the necessity of changing the business model, the owners already had lost confidence. There were a few attempts to sell the company, but no agreement was found with potentially interested buyers, and NG ceased its activity.
Fortunately, we were able to find new investors who had confidence in the new business model and in the industry experience of the Nexus' team, and Ares was launched. As NG had lost its contracts with authors and licensors when it ceased, so Ares was able to establish new agreements with some key authors and licensors, and get the "old" games back on the market, while starting to develop new ones.
IP: As you mentioned already, Ares Games is based in Italy but markets successfully world-wide. What are the main challenges involved in that - language, different laws, maybe something else entirely?
RDM: I'd say that the challenge is not as big as we thought it could be. Our major market, the USA, still has a very strong layer of independent distributors; instant communication through the Internet; crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter... I don't think if we were in an out-of-the-way place in the US things would be so different. I think language is still a problem, we have English-speaking editors and proofreaders, of course, but a lot of small daily things also require a good grasp of the English language, and we're not "born" into that!
IP: Your game lines are quite different from each other - Wings of Glory is completely different from WotR, and the upcoming Sword & Sorcery and Odyssey games are again something else completely. What sort of work is involved in the invention of these games' engines and in deciding what would work and what would not?
RDM: I think that the strong point of our games is that the development of their game engine is always tightly connected to their theme. Mechanics and theme are developed together, and this applies both to our most complex games and to the simpler ones.
Sometimes, we realize that a game engine can be adapted to other themes - Wings and Sails, WotR and Conan - but as you can see by comparing these games, we don't just "cut and paste" mechanics and apply a new theme - we use some elements of the engine, but we develop a lot of new elements to properly represent the theme or achieve some other design goal.
IP: So I gather you would describe Ares’ area of expertise as deeply thematic, story-heavy games. Care to set me straight on this issue?
RDM: Correct. In different ways, I think that both Wings and WotR are good examples of our core philosophy - to create beautiful thematic games. In terms of complexity, they may represent opposite end of a spectrum, and also as product ranges - Wings is a broad range of products, continually extended, while WotR is extended very slowly and gradually with a few releases. But they both represent well what most people associate with our brand.
While this type of games is our core business, we also decided to extend our reach to family and lighter games - represented in our catalog by games such as Dino Race, Inkognito or, recently Odyssey. We realize that the gamers interested in our "core business" are only a small fraction of the gaming public, and we try to reach a broader audience with our other games. We still keep our essential values - creating beautiful games, providing a fun and immersive experience to the players.
Lets talk a little about your different gaming lines...
IP: I don't have personal experience with Wings of Glory, nor with Sails of Glory. Can you tell us about these games and what is their target audience? In what way are the two game similar to each other, and where are the main differences? What makes them unique in the gaming melee?
RDM: Wings of Glory and Sails of Glory have a great strength - their mechanics are simple, but they provide a game experience and a simulation which is deep enough to satisfy veteran war gamers, who are our "alpha" players. These players also appreciate the level of historical accuracy and the careful research visible in our pre-painted miniatures. At the same time, the simplicity of the gameplay, and the beautiful miniatures, make it easy to involve younger players, and players not so deep into wargames. The game are very suitable to getting several generations of gamers at the same table, they can be played well with two people, but also with a massive number of players. They scale well from smaller engagements to day-long battles--- These are all great virtues, and together with our beautiful range of airplanes and ships, make these games quite unique in the market.
In terms of game mechanics, the main similarity between Wings and Sails is the maneuver deck system: the capabilities of a plane or ship, its speed, maneuverability, and so on, are all defined by the deck of cards used to move them- This makes the system realistic, and easy to play at the same time.
There are many differences, to simulate the different type of battles, of course. For example, ships in Sails are quite more complicated than an airplane in Wings, with variable stats as they take damage; their maneuvering relies on the wind, etc.
IP: As for Age of Conan - when originally published by FFG, this game was a very mild success; why did you decide to purchase the game from FFG, and publish an expansion? And in what way do you expect the expansion to change the gaming experience of people who play the game? What can you tell us about how the game was developed and received initially, and of your decision to revisit it?
RDM: I think that Age of Conan is a great strategy game, and it was somehow under-rated when it came out, for some reasons which are difficult to fathom. It definitely had things which could have been done better, but I think that people were mostly just expecting a different kind of game - people were expecting an adventure game, rather than a strategy game, and this fundamental misunderstanding made many buyers unhappy.
Our goal in designing Conan was to re-create the struggle of the Hyborian Kingdoms during the lifetime of Conan, not to portray the adventures of Conan himself. We wanted Age of Conan to be a multi-player experience (War of the Ring, which is its mechanical predecessor, being mostly 2-players, or 2-teams), and to be faster and more streamlined than War of the Ring. I think that these goals were achieved well, and the game, while not a big commercial success, definitely earned a good number of fans.
There were a few areas of the game which could be improved, I don't deny that, and small issues we realized could be fixed by an expansion (for example, not enough player interaction during certain phases of the game).
Some elements of the game were streamlined to keep the complexity of the game under control. In retrospect, the game mechanics for Conan were probably too streamlined - he was important in the game, but lacking flavor. Adventures in Hyboria was supposed to round-up the game, with an acceptable increase in complexity - but the crisis of NG prevented this expansion to be published.
When Ares was up and running, I realized that there was a way to understand if people wanted the game to come back or not - using Kickstarter to assess the interest in the game expansion. We loved the game, but there was enough people out there who loved it as much as we did? The result was a resounding "yes", as Adventures in Hyboria, at the time, became our Kickstarter with more backers!
IP: What can you tell us about soon-to-be-released Odyssey? It is featured as a Euro game - and those are usually somewhat weak on theme and very strong on elegant and luck-less gaming systems. Is that true regarding this upcoming game?
RDM: Odyssey is a game we immediately fell in love with after the first play! It's not as thematic as most games in our range, but its theme is indeed a perfect match to the game mechanics.
Four of the players are navigators, trying to bring their ship to the sacred island, while Poseidon tries to get them off-course, throwing one storm every round. The storm moves one or more ships from their current position, but the navigators don't know exactly where. They must try to guess their actual position, using information they get from Poseidon after they move ("you are in deep water and see two islands close to you...") to figure out where they are on the game board. The game is played on two identical boards - the navigators’ board shows where they think they are, while Poseidon's board shows the actual position of the ships.
It's a pure deduction game - Colovini is a true master of the genre. Rules are simple and there is no luck element, and the deduction in the game can be kept to a reasonably simple level, or you can make it very hard. The thing I really like about Odyssey is that it's much more social than most deduction games, as all navigators play together against Poseidon. Another thing we love in Odyssey is that scales well from 2 to 5 players, but it's also very fun for the onlookers... Poseidon does not see the navigators' board, so he does not know if they are guessing right or wrong; and the navigators of course cannot see Poseidon's board, either.... so onlookers can have fun because they're the ones who get the full picture of what's going on.
IP: Sword & Sorcery - this seems like a dive into the same realm as Descent and other miniature-quest/adventure games. While the minis you are manufacturing for the game are beautiful in and of themselves, what are the true gaming strong points of S&S, and what makes it unique?
RDM: Most dungeon crawlers are either very simple games - like the D&D series - or they require a game master-type player. Sword & Sorcery is maybe a little more complex than most dungeon crawlers, but the designers wanted to provide a game experience much more immersive and challenging than other games in the category.
Sword & Sorcery is very ambitious because it uses a very sophisticated A.I. system, and a very strongly narrative approach to scenarios, to create a game experience which is deep strategically, very engaging from a narrative point, but requires no GM and can be played in a purely cooperative way. I don't think that such a combination is out there in the market, and together with the production quality of the game - really at the top level in term of sculpting and everything else - I think that the game can gather a good following even in a crowded market, as our Kickstarter proved.Before talking about the WotR line of games, I do have two other general question -
IP: Why choose Kickstarter? Ares is an established company, and the idea of Kickstarter is usually thought of as 'breaking out' business-model?
RDM: People may think we are big looking at our games, but we are not that big, really! Games like the ones we do are very expensive to manufacture and they require very big investments in artwork, sculpting, and tooling upfront. The way we developed in 5 years, without the support of Kickstarter, probably would have required 10 years or more, as we could start developing a new game only after the previous one released, and only if it proved to be very profitable. For example, in 2013 we were able to develop Sails of Glory, Galaxy Defenders, and Battle of Five Armies, releasing all these games in 2014. This would not be possible for a company our size without Kickstarter.
Kickstarter is also a way to generate attention and interest in our games, which also helps us to develop as a company and to make our games successful.
IP: Delays! Ares does not seem to be all that great in regard to time estimates: I think it would be fair to say that more than half the time you wind up fixing your launch estimates by several weeks to several months. What is up with that?
RDM: Ouch! This question hurts ;-) I will try to give you an honest answer anyway. We create games which are very complex to make - games with pre-painted miniatures, licensed-based games.... There are a lot of big and small things which can go wrong in the design, pre-production and production process. Even a small thing, like getting a tray done the way we want it done, can add weeks or even months to the production time!
Trying to correctly assess the development time, months in advance, is always tricky. We also have a painful attention to quality, we cannot really accept compromises on that front.
But I think we are improving, even if not as fast as I would like, and estimates on our latest projects are getting better... In the meantime, I can just hope our backers, in the end, think that what they get is well worth the wait (and fortunately, until now, they do...)
And for a few War of the Ring questions...
[For those who live under a rock - WotR is the War of the Ring line of games; the first edition was published by Nexus, a company that no longer exists; the same company published the Collector's Edition (CE) - the same basic game but with more than a few additions, a huge board, painted miniatures, larger cards and everything wrapped up in a beautiful, huge book-like wooden case; Nexus went under, and later on, Ares got the rights to WotR, and published a somewhat revised 2nd edition that got wild and wide acclamation].
IP: WotR is an amazing game. Can you tell us more about the development process of the game?
RDM: War of the Ring was a labor of love. When I, Francesco and Marco started its design, was because we were afraid that nobody was ever going to try to produce a game which recreated the "real" experience of the War of the Ring. At the time, Lord of the Rings was a mass-market IP, and most games were very simple, family-oriented. We wanted something which could give us, as players, a full immersion in the LotR Trilogy, with all the details.
Soon after we started to work on the design, we realized we had to try to get the game published - and we found out, in fact, that three other companies were trying to create the same type of game!
In the end, the license was given to us because the owner of the LotR boardgame license – the British company Sophisticated Games - appreciated the game for two reasons: even as a prototype, WotR was great to play; and we shared the same vision about the type of game to create - a beautiful game, full of miniatures, blessed by the visuals created by an artist like John Howe.
Nexus was the smallest company between the four competitors, but apparently the licensor made the right choice, looking at the success of the game!
We invested a lot of time and effort to make the design of the game what it is - we were our "target audience", so we had a very clear idea of what we wanted to achieve! The main design was over in about 4 months, but after that, we went through about 1 year of intense playtesting and development.
Talking about the design... Since the start, we decided to create a feeling similar to card-driven games through a dual system composed of action dice and event cards.
Another key feature of the game - the original system used to move the Fellowship - started as a "crazy idea" in one of the earliest brainstorming sessions, which was immediately embraced by all the three designers. We had a very tough challenge to achieve to provide a "realistic" experience. In the books, Sauron has no clue about the fact that the Free Peoples want to destroy the Ring - in the game, the Sauron player knows this perfectly well! How to deal with such a contradiction, and at the same time create a good simulation of the books?
This was achieved through the combination of the Hunt system, the Fellowship movement system, and the action dice system in general. Sauron cannot "attack" the Fellowship - he can just "hunt for the Ring" and decide how much attention is given to that, and how much attention to the war - allocating Hunt dice. But he is obsessed by the Ring - so he does not have perfect control of this choice. And the hidden movement system (somebody says it's the Schrödinger’s Fellowship - you never know where it is, until you find it) makes the Fellowship somewhat "out of sight" for both players.
Overall, the game was very innovative, and faithful to the literary origin, and I think that most players recognize this. The price to pay, it's not a very simple game to learn. But once you learn it, it's much easier than most people think it is!
IP: I expect all the people involved in the development process were avid fans of Tolkien's work, but even so - I think every event card title refers to some quote from the books - how did you manage it?
RDM: You read the books a lot... then you read and re-read them, looking for quotes :-)
IP: Playing WotR feels as if you are re-imagining Tolkien's work with each game - which is great, of course; how do you compare the experience of WotR in respect to the many other Tolkien-based games out there?
RDM: Honestly, I think it's really unique. There are LotR games I like and played a lot - The Confrontation, or the old CCG by Decipher. They are good games with LotR flavor. But playing WotR is re-enacting the events (or possible events) of the trilogy in a way no other board game based on the books, until now, could achieve - it was designed to do that, and we did not accept any compromise.... For example, if a little rule was to be added to make it possible for something that happened in the book to happen in the game... we added the rule, if we could not find another way to meld into the existing design. The rule for additional damage when going through a Shadow stronghold is an example - it was added because we wanted the Free People player to "feel" the danger of places like Moria.
IP: You used a variant of the WotR system in your more recent game, Battle of the Five Armies. To my mind the most amazing thing is that the same basic system [the games even use the same action dice symbols] manages to produce an entirely different feel - WotR is a thematic/strategic game, while BotFA is a fast-paced tactical game. Were these changes something new, or did you have the idea for the tactical game in the works all along while WotR was developing?
RDM: In the beginning, it was not our idea to design a "generic" engine- the development of the rules for WotR was done specifically for that game. The idea to use the WotR system for tactical games came to us when developing the first expansion to WotR 1st edition, Battles of the Third Age - we realized that, adding some elements and removing other ones, we could model "operational"-level (using war gaming terminology) games, and we designed the Rohan and Gondor games included in that expansion. In BotFA we made the system even more tactical, adding a greater role to characters and additional details to the units, even if the core system remain very close to the one we used for Rohan and Gondor.
IP: I'm guessing that the Hobbit films had a lot to do with the decision to release BotFA - is that so?
RDM: Yes and no... We wanted to do a game based on the Hobbit since the day after we completed War of the Ring! But the licensor was not so convinced about the idea, until a few years later - when WotR 2nd Edition proved to be successful, and the Hobbit movies appeared on the horizon. Then, the project got a green-light, and we were very happy to have a chance to do it!
IP: And do you think the game will hold its own in a couple of years when the films slink away from public memory?
RDM: We definitely hope so! The Hobbit is a literary masterpiece, 80 years old, and BotFA is a very fun game, faithful to the literary work. Possibly, the movies (and bad licensed items coming with them) did hurt us a little bit!
IP: Are you thinking of expansions for BotFA - maybe other battles?
RDM: We would like to do them... But we have many things in the pipeline, so don't hold your breath on them!
IP: You decided on a 10th anniversary WotR edition, with painted miniatures and a special board - which does tend to remind people of the CE, even though there are many differences. And I was wondering - how do you plan to handle the WotR expansion in regards to special editions? Lords of Middle Earth already has a collector's version [painted minis and such]. Will you do the same with every expansion?
RDM: Warriors of Middle-earth is going to have a painted edition. And we are planning a third - and final - expansion after that, and we want it to have a painted version, too. After that, I like the idea of getting everything together in one box - but maybe such a "monster edition" will be impossible to create and sell, so that's far from a sure thing.
IP: What exciting information are you willing to share about the upcoming Warriors of Middle Earth expansion [due to hit this spring]?
RDM: We are going to publish a few preview articles on aresgames.eu, so I won't spill the beans too early :-) The core idea of the expansion is to give a greater role in the game to several of the contenders who are not fully featured in the core game. We focused on three "factions" for the Free Peoples - Ents, Eagles, and Dead Men of Dunharrow - and three for the Shadow - Corsairs, Dunlendings and Giant Spiders, and took them in the spotlight, representing them with figures and specific rules.
Some of these factions were already present in the first edition expansion, but they have been completely re-designed here, with more consistent mechanics between them, and developing a specific game engine, composed of a faction die and a faction deck for each player to make sure they get an appropriate role in the war.
IP: Roberto, thanks for doing this the interview with us! :-)
RDM: Thank you for the very interesting questions, and thanks to everybody who got to the end without falling asleep!