By Scott Parrino 19 Dec 2003 0


The British development house Slitherine Studios is perhaps best known for its enthusiasm for ancient historical strategy games, as exemplified in their the turn-based games, Legion and Chariots of War.  Both games do much more than simply pay history lip service: historical authenticity is a critical design element in all of Slitherine's games.  Their next game, Spartan, should follow that historical mold closely as it recreates the world of Greek city-states during the golden era of Greek history.  To learn more about Spartan, we spoke with Slitherine's J.D. McNeil, the marketing manager for the company and the father to lead programmer Iain McNeil.

The Interview

The Wargamer (WG): Iain has an interesting background in tabletop wargaming. Could you tell us a bit about that hobby?

J.D. McNeil (JDM): We first discovered tabletop wargaming when I took Iain to the Model Engineers Exhibition at Wembley Stadium for his sixth birthday. I ought to explain, as well as the Business and Marketing manager here at Slitherine, I am also Iain's father. My intention was to buy some model aeroplane kits, I loved these as a kid, but Iain's attention was drawn to some guys recreating the battle of Rourkes Drift, I'm sure you remember the movie, its where a small detachment of British soldiers held out against an overwhelming Zulu force. You can imagine the scene, hundreds of expertly painted Zulu warriors charging the British Redcoats cowering behind walls of mealie bags. Well we were hooked and we left the show with some Napoleonic soldiers. Eventually I managed to paint these, and we found a local club at Reigate where they played these games. It came as a bit of a surprise to us, when I proudly presented our figures to the group, only to be told it was the Paris Fire Brigade! But we've learned a lot since then.

It's been a pretty absorbing interest over the years and we've made many good friends all over the World. The World Championships, which Iain has been fortunate enough to win twice, rotates to a different country each year and last year it was in New Orleans and where we managed to time it to coincide with Mardi Gras. We have also had our fair share of success at home and as a team we have won the British Doubles Championships seven out of the last ten years, and have had the privilege of representing the Great Britain team all over the globe. Internationally wargaming is now pretty popular and here in the UK there are tournaments being held somewhere on just about every weekend.

The best way to illustrate figure wargaming is to think about it as a sort of three dimensional chess, its all about maneuver and moral, both the players and his army, psychology plays a big part. You can play these games in just about any period of history but the most popular; at least in tournament play is undoubtedly the ancient era. If you've ever played scissors-paper-stone you will understand the concepts better. Every type of unit has advantages and disadvantages against different opponents and the trick is to get your best units in overwhelming numbers against the weakest part of your opponent's line. After the implementation of gunpowder warfare changed markedly and different aspects became important, but these underlying principles remain and it is these concepts that we try to replicate in our battle engine.

WG: I'd like to start by asking you about your first two titles, Legion and Chariots of War. How have those fared for you? What have you learned about the market for strategy games?

JDM: The turn-based strategy ("TBS") market still accounts for a sizeable chunk of the market and it most definitely has its own fan base, there are still a lot of people out there who prefer this genre to the frenetic real-time strategy ("RTS") clickfest. Of course there is no argument that RTS is well suited to branded products and its hugely popular with the marketing guys, but the sector is swamped and arguably game play has been down graded in importance. The fact that we are privately funded allows us the freedom to generate our own ideas and at present this is soundly based in the TBS genre. Also as our games start to gain some recognition, it gets a little easier to persuade publishers that our products are a worthwhile alternative. Our research seems to indicate that the average TBS player is older and probably from a higher income bracket than the standard RTS fan, and at present, for whatever reason, they are not being adequately catered for, and we think that this represents an opportunity in the marketplace.

It's been an exciting challenge bringing our first games to the market and without the talent and enthusiasm of the team it simply would not have been possible, but it gets easier with each new game. Its like the 'space race', each version allows us to build on the last taking the best and dumping what we don't like, so as you might imagine Spartan has a whole heap of new game features. Legion has sold well over 100,000 copies and believe it or not its still selling, even after nearly two years. We are only now starting to get the figures for Chariots of War, but at present it is well on course. So as you can imagine we are expecting Spartan to be reasonably well received.

WG: For those unfamiliar with the Legion/Chariots of War/Spartan series, could you describe what games they resemble and what type of gamer would be interested in your titles?

JDM: So far we have selected those periods from history that are of wide general interest and we know that as a result of this we have picked up some new gamers. We also know that the games appeal to hard-core wargaming and strategy fans, but we recognise that to really break into the big time we need to achieve some mass-market appeal. However without a major marketing spend we realise that this will take time. We are in for the long haul and know that we have to rely mainly on word of mouth and reputation. 

Clearly our games fit into the classic empire building mode, and without doubt we draw inspiration from many sources not least the greats like Civilization and Masters of Might and Magic but there are many significant and fundamental differences to our games. As I have said we are strongly rooted in history and so accuracy and feel for the era are important to us. We try to encapsulate the essence of the period and reflect this in the game play, but we never forget that this is a game and it must be fun! A significant difference from other empire building games is our battle engine, it's a game within the game and its completely different from anything the competition has to offer. We are all keen gamers ourselves and one of the things that has always frustrated us is the way battles are resolved, somehow a couple of icons bumping into one another on the campaign map always seemed like a bit of an anti climax. So we set out to create a different method that would enhance the whole experience. In Spartan our battles involve huge armies and you control this sort of like a tabletop wargame, it looks pretty spectacular and provides an exciting interlude to the main action.



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