The Kickstarter campaign for Martin Wallace’s latest game A Study in Emerald recently launched. So this seemed to be a good time for another interview with Mr. Wallace.
Kris: Congratulations on achieving your Kickstarter goal for A Study in Emerald in just a few days
Let’s hope that orders keep rolling in so we can get those wooden zombie meeples. Can you give us an overview of A Study in Emerald?
Martin: Thanks Kris, I’m keeping my fingers crossed.
A Study in Emerald mashes up two literary genres, a bunch of historical figures, topped off with deck building. The story mixes Sherlock Holmes with H.P. Lovecraft. The Old Ones have been running the world for over seven hundred years and now a resistance movement is struggling to place mankind back in charge. What I have done is add various anarchists and secret agents who were around at about the same time in the ‘real world.’ Each player has a secret identity, being either Loyalist (on the side of the Old Ones) or Restorationist (fighting to free mankind). What you need to do to win depends on which side you are on.
However, there is an extra twist where how well people on the same side as you can affect your chances of winning. More specifically, if you have the most points at the end of the game but another player on the same side is in last place, you will lose. The upshot is you need to work out who is who.
The deck building element involves bidding for cards with influence cubes. What I like about this mechanic is that you cannot complain that you did not have a chance to take a card. If you want it then bid for it. There is a lot more going on in the game, don’t want to go on for too long. What I can say is that this is my most complex game for a long time.
Kris: How did you encounter the story A Study in Emerald, and did it immediately occur to you that it could be a game? I first read it in a collection of short stories, and what struck me was the surprise ending. It never would have occurred to me that it could be a game (which is probably why you are a game designer and I am not).
Martin: After reading all of the Discworld novels (at least those published up until then) I decided to move on to Neil Gaiman, as the two had co-written a novel, Good Omens. I then started reading other Gaiman stories, including Sandman. I’m always looking for ideas for a new game and initially I thought Neverwhere was the best place to start – empire building in a fantasy underground London. The idea for Emerald actually came from another book, called ‘The World That Never Was’, a history of anarchism at the end of the 19th century by Alex Butterworth. The book is wonderful, creating a picture of desperate assassins, revolutionaries, and secret agents.
My initial thought was to attempt to make a game around this theme. The problem was that I thought the Americans would not want to buy into a game where you spend most of your time blowing up people–too many parallels with modern life. The solution was to make the targets into monsters–given that they seem to have no rights whatsoever. As I had recently read A Study in Emerald that gave me the ‘in’ to create a slightly different universe. The background to the game is firmly rooted in Neil’s work, but many of the characters populating this alternative reality are actual historical figures.
I find it much easier to design a game when there is a lot of ‘content’ available to build on, whether it be historical or fiction. I like games that create a story rather than simply reward the efficient conversion of one resource into another. ‘A Study in Emerald’ allows for the creation of different story lines, one example being when a player gained control of Professor Moriarty and then turned him into a vampire. He mentioned that he had actually read a story where the premise was exactly this situation, a vampire Moriarty. I have no idea what other story lines exist in the game, it all depends on what cards come up and how players interact with them.
Kris: As a native of Rhode Island I was almost obliged to become a Lovecraft fan, and I’ve often walked the streets of Providence where old H.P. once walked. But unless you are a horror story fan, Lovecraft can be a pretty obscure literary figure. How familiar were you with Lovecraft’s work before you encountered Neil Gaiman’s story?
Martin: As somebody who used to play D&D at college I had read some of Lovecraft’s books. I reread some of them while researching the book. However, I am far from being an expert. Fortunately one of my gaming friends seems to know everything about the genre and has acted as a consultant to make sure I get the names right.
Kris: I’m curious how Neil Gaiman reacted when you approached him about turning his story into a boardgame. Was he amused? Bemused?
Martin: Actually, I did not approach Neil. I contacted his agent who said yes on his behalf. I have no idea how Neil feels about the game. Hopefully he is aware that I have produced a game on Terry Pratchett’s books, which may be of some assurance to him that the game is not going to be awful.
Kris: After reading the rules for A Study in Emerald it seems to me that the game of yours that it most closely resembles is Moongha Invaders. Both game boards feature spaces that represent cities, both center on Sci-Fi monsters trying to dominate or destroy the earth, and both games give players secret agendas. Did it seem to you that Emerald would be a sister game to Moongha?
Martin: I can see the surface similarities but in actual play the games are very different. A Study in Emerald is much deeper than Moongha, and offers a lot more variety as the game varies depending on which cards are in play.
Kris: You’ve made a print and play version of A Study in Emerald available on the Treefrog Games website (www.Treefroggames.com). Why do this? Aren’t you undercutting your own Kickstarter sales?
Martin: I wanted to give people the chance to play the game before pledging. I don’t think pnp games impact significantly on sales. Hopefully it is the reverse, somebody plays it and likes it, thus spreading the word.
Kris: In looking over the print and play cards, I noticed that there seemed to be a lot more cards that allow players to assassinate alien royalty than cards that allow players to hide and protect alien royalty. Does this mean that the Loyalists have a tougher job than the Restorationists, or is assassinating one of the Old Ones more difficult than I am assuming?
Martin: The card set is not the final one, the latest one actually adds an extra Hide Royalty card. Having said that the Loyalists do not have as many ways to score points as the Restorationists. There are compensatory factors, such as not being bothered about dying and the fact the War track will ratchet up every time a deck of cards is exhausted (I don’t think the pnp version has this rule in).
Kris: After A Study in Emerald, it looks like your next game will be The Witches, another game based on Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. Can you give us an overview of this game?
Martin: The Witches is almost ready to go to the printers. I can state quite honestly that I don’t think the game will hold much appeal to experienced gamers. It’s a simple board rpg game, where each player takes the role of a trainee witch and has to solve problems (instead of killing monsters). You feed up on the simple problems before you take on the hard ones. It can be played co operatively, which is a first for me. What I can say is that I think it is the only game in existence where players have to meet up for tea. I’ve done my best to make the game fit the characters and situations in the books. This does not always make for a great game. I’m hoping the fans of the books will like it as it is more of an experiential game.
Kris: What else are you working on?
Martin: I’m working on a variety of projects at the moment. Some are commissions, so I cannot talk about them at the moment. I can mention that I am planning on releasing a two player card game linked to the Field of Glory figures game. Essentially this is a two player ancients battle game. It plays quickly and has an element of deck customization, so you can attempt to outwit your opponent with the units you decide to employ. Personally I really like the game as it has more depth to it than is obvious from the first play. I’m also hoping it can be adapted for other themes.
I’ve actually just put together another design which I think could work very well but I cannot test it until my wooden pieces arrive–they are still on the way to New Zealand!
Kris: You recently moved from England to New Zealand. Are you a fanatical Peter Jackson fan, or just a sucker for marvelous scenery?
Martin: Initially Julia and I were hoping to move to Australia. Unfortunately we could not meet the requirements so went for New Zealand instead. I have to say that so far we are having a great time and plan to stay here permanently. There is a real sense of community here, both locally and nationally. There are many talented artists and programmers, as well as a number of budding game designers. The gamers I have met so far have been incredibly friendly and supportive. I’m really looking forward to seeing what ideas I can come up with in my new home. I already have a few ideas for a New Zealand themed game.
Kris: A New Zealand themed game? Would this be a nation-building game?
Martin: As for the New Zealand game I cannot really say that much at the moment, still working on the general structure of the game. What I can tell you is that it will not be a standard historical treatment of New Zealand’s history. What I have in mind is a different take, with hopefully some original ideas thrown in, plus a whole lot of stolen mechanics!
Kris: I look forward to seeing it. Thanks for the interview.