Issue: 32

An Interview With ... Thane Morgan of Thane's Games

Keeping with the American theme of this issues, this time around we cross the Atlantic to interview the CEO of an American company! However rather than listen to the boring platitudes of the large US companies we opted for Thane Morgan of a small new rules publishers Thane's Games. As SFSFW Email List members will know, Thane is not afraid to voice an opinion!

Rag: When and why did you set up Thane's Games?

Thane: Thane's Games came into existence because of how well Armies of Arcana had been recieved locally, and because of the improbability of getting a reputable miniature company to pick it up/license/buy it outright. I think I cast the die around September of 1998. I started selling the game in December of 1998.

Rag: What experience did you have in the games industry prior to this and how did it influence your decision to set Thanes Games up?

Thane: I had always been into wargames, and had a close group of friends throughout high school with whom I played many a game of Titan, Talisman, Illuminati, Kings and Things, Hacker, Arkam Horror and several others. I've always been into game writing as well, and can remember making games with my uncle (1 year older than me) back when we were 7 or 8. Nothing fancy, but the desire was always there.

I didn't get into miniature games until 1995 - I transitioned out of Magic to play Epic. A friend owned a game store, and I became a sort of honorary employee. I got to hear a lot of the gossip and ins and outs of the industry, especially about what bastards a certain game company was. But lets not get into that :)

Basically, though, I knew almost nothing of the gaming industry when I started Thane's Games. By that point I knew there was a large population of disgruntled WHFB players, and that there were no viable alternatives, and that AoA was a great system. I knew the distributor network was messed up, so I'd have to sell it directly from the web. I worked under several naive assumptions about the willingness of gamestores to pick up new products and promote alternatives to a company that would ultimately try to put them out of business - most store owners still think it can't happen to them. I also assumed it would be easy to reach gamers over the web - a LOT of gamers don't surf, and often those that do don't know even to look for other game systems. The NG's are often dominated by jerks, and the type of level headed gamer I'm trying to appeal to often won't stick around long on them.

Just as well I went in with naive assumptions, because I was on the edge when deciding to create Thane's Games, and I would have missed all this fun :-)

Rag: Thanes Game's first entry into the wargames rules market was Armies of Arcana, a set of high fantasy wargames rules. Given the overkill in this market genre why did you do this and was it a sensible move?

Thane: The market really didn't have overkill - I don't consider FR!, DBF, HOTT or any of the others of that genre as close competition - they are a different style of game entirely. The only games I felt I was competing with was WHFB (a game that had already pissed off many of its players) and Chronopia ( a game that bogged down with 30 or more figures per side). Apocalypse plays more like the FR! genre, in spite of being singly based. The other single based games had been panned by most who played them, though I did see a decent number of Raven players last year at Origins. I saw it as an opportunity - there are so many figure makers for the genre with no real game to make people want to use them.

In any event, I originally wrote AoA for me, and those I was playing WHFB with. It was the popularity of the system with people locally that convinced me to try to get it published. I approached Reaper about buying the game outright (as it had been playtested mostly with their 15mm miniatures), but they had just released Apocalypse and had another large commitment, and decided not to. I bear them no ill will - they have been incredibly helpful with their miniatures, are about to expand their 15mm line, and I would have missed all this fun!

Rag: You supply miniatures from other manufacturers for Armies of Arcana. Have you plans to do your own or a licenced range?

Thane: I would like to, but only if I can offer quality items that aren't being offered by others. There are a good number of army lists that I would like to make for AoA that have no figures, but it will be at last a year before I can invest the money needed for even one army's worth of figures to be sculpted. I would certainly have another company do the casting, using the Armies of Arcana name.

Rag: Why are you pushing AoA as a 15mm game rather than the world popular 28mm?

Thane: Actually, I try to encourage players to use their 28's - I have a decent army of Wood Elves from WHFB which was used in the initial playtesting. The only reason I even got into 15's was because a store went out of business locally and had a massive amount of figures from Reaper's Shadow Corp line. Build a 200 man army for $40? Oh yeah!

The funny thing is, most people who play with 15mm figures LIKE them better (at least for playing). The range scales make more sense, and you have more room to manuever. Then they find out they are 1/4 to 1/10 the price - well, that's about it. Some players do use 28mm figures to play with, and I am more than happy to do it myself - AoA has just allowed players to realized how good 15mm can be.

Rag: On your website you state that gamers won't have to pay for rules updates and supplements for Thanes Games products. As most companies do this isn't this a niave business practice losing you valuable income?

Thane: No, I think its a weakness to exploit. GW became successful with this strategy because there was no other game in town. No other company following this tactic has succeeded, even with better games (though there are lots of other reasons for this). Truth is, the tactic breeds hostility towards the company. If you want to play WHFB with two armies, you must spend $70 for fantasy rules WITHOUT A MAGIC SYSTEM!!!!! Then you spend $40 for the magic system. Then $50 for two army books, whose rules often conflict with the other rules and each other. You've spent $160 for the rules for a game, plus you'll need to buy future supplements for corrections/scenarios/new armies. As a recent AoA convert pointed out, when WHFB6 comes out, he'd have to spend $140 just for the new Army books (he had five armies), even if he was lucky enough to have all of them published before WHFB7 came out.He bought two 15mm armies for that!

The assumption that I work under is that the money is in the miniatures. If the game is good, players will gladly buy one or two extra armies worth of miniatures with the money they otherwise would have spent on rule books. After all, you can never have too many miniatures! So, you get the same money, the players get more miniatures, and everyone is happy. Of course, this means I'm mostly working for other companies right now, as I have no figures of my own to sell - one of the current benefits to the popularity of 15mm with new AoA players is that I can sell other companies' products not readily available in most stores. Hopefully by the time stores start supporting more 15mm figures, I'll be able to put out some of my own.

Not only that, but by putting new stuff on the website, I can instantly add or change whatever needs it. I'm in touch with hundreds of potential playtesters, background writers, and artists. I don't have to spend money getting background or art made to fluff up a book just because I want to put out a new army list. Players don't have to spend money buying the fluff. Best of all, players can contribute to the game with new scenarios and armies (or background or fiction or art, if they wanted to) - there are four armies in development by various players - a Native American-esque list, Ice Witch and Goblins lists for the Demon World line, and demonic list that I suspect utilizes the Inferno figure line. Some players have suggested using some Epic Tyranids for lists, other the baby Vor Growlers.

Rag: You have posted a full playtest variant of your SF game Xenocide up on the web. Is such public airing of the system at such a formative stage a wise move?

Thane: Haha, I have no idea! It is copyright protected, so if anyone steals it too literally, I can sue them (the sole benfit of having lawyer friends :-). If they steal it with the sense to avoid to avoid infringement, I can mock them and use the slogan "Games so good they get stolen!". The openess establishes a position so that any referee can call charging if I get touched (yes, March Madness was in full tilt at the time of the interview:)

I like getting the feedback from playtesters. I like being able to discuss mechanics with a lot of interested parties. I like not feeling paranoid about it:-)

Rag: What future plans have you got for rules releases beyond AoA and Xenocide?

Thane: Well, GSCII is up and running, though I don't get enough time to add all the things I want to. The hard part right now is I'm full of ideas, without the time or capital to invest in them. AoA is just starting to reach critical mass with players, but for now I still love to play it, and have lots of new players to play it with every month. So the other games often must wait for those reasons, as well.

I do have a fantasy board game, probably called Empires of Arcana, which is more or less a high fantasy empire builder similar to the Battle Master series of games. It is practicaly finished, in terms of rules. I wanted to make it available for playtesting on the web, but the logistics of the mapboard and peices escapes me. I hope to have it released by summer, using plastic pieces.

I toy with a RP system from time to time - I unfortunately lost the majority of notes at a con, so I'm having to start over with it. Mostly I'm working on the combat/experience system, as that would have lots of applications fo skirmish mini games.

There are several other miniature style games I would like to make, but since pieces don't exist for them, and I have more than enough on my plate for now, they will have to wait.

Rag: What do you think of the current state of the hobby?

Thane: I think the hobby has a lot of issues. A few large companies are almost in posistion to close out the smaller companies altogether, merely by eliminating the independant stores that offer those other games. It is possible that the games will survive through the internet, but games propogate best when they are being played at the stores. Sadly, the independants still work under the assumption it won't happen to them, or maybe want to get bought out and retire. I am astounded when stores run GW only nights at the same time GW is opening a store just a few minutes away from them.

On the other hand, I think the hobby is poised to reach the mainstream, and is just waiting for a company or association of companies to gather the resources to do it. The advent of Magic and Pokemon really have energized social gaming at a time when computer games looked unstoppable. Mini gamers need to lose some of their elitism directed against card players and instead bring them into the fold.

In terms of my business, I see a lot of opportunity this year to make converts, and hopefully get some more stores to carry AoA. With yet another WHFB edition, the number of disgruntled players will be enourmous.

Rag: What do you think about the hobby's future development?

Thane: Obviously, I have high hopes - I wouldn't be doing this otherwise. It needs to make itself more mainstream, and I think it would benefit society as a whole to do so. Mini gaming encourages reading and math skills, history often follows, as does science. It spurs creativity through painting and terrain, when we are encouraged to think that creativity is expressed by fashion and car color. Most of all, it gets people into a recreation that puts you face to face with other people, instead of staring at a computer screen.

The danger is monopoly (not the game!), as it can only breed lousy games at high prices.

I hope to talk to some other of the smaller companies in the near future about how to do this. I certainly won't have the resources to do it myself for several more years, but with some allies.... (yep, business is like a wargame!)

Rag: What periods interest you/do you play, outside of your business?

Thane: Sadly, almost none. I play AoA for enjoyment, as the system really lets me do almost anything I could want. About 3/4 of my games are against experienced players in Albuquerque, with the other 1/4 as demo games or learning games. When I play other games, they are one of the other three on my playtesting plate - I generally try to do at least one playtest game a week, and one recreational game with AoA. I would like to do a game a night, but my marriage and regular job would suffer...

That being said, their are many games I am otherwise interested in playing. I like Full Thrust, but wrote GSC because I wanted more variety of ships, a simpler movement system, and a combat system where ships started losing systems immediately. I would gladly play Full Thrust with good group of players.

I like FR!, but the scope of battle (the multibased stand = 100 or 1000 men) doesn't capture my imagination enough to want to play it often. I want to play Vor a few times, but no one I know is all that interested, and instead are pushing me to hurry Xenocide up. A friend has some microarmor WWII rules he wants me to try, and that will likely happen in the next few weeks. I also play some computer games - HOMMIII and Alpha Centauri are current favorites, and I play Everquest as well.

Rag: What was the last game you played? Did you win?

Thane: A new friend came down from Denver (7 hours!) with a massive Wood Elf terrain set he had made for WHFB, and now wants to use for AoA. We got several more players locally to play a 12000 point per side giant/goblin assault on it, with medievals and halflings defending (sylvab elves were at the beach, I guess), on a 6X8 board. Unfortunately, a brush fire 200 miles away killed New Mexico's power grid, and we had to stop after maybe 8 turns (about 3 hours of actual playing) because the town was blacked out! Still, we had a blast and learned a lot about how to run the scenario - I hope to play it again at Tacticon in Denver in September.

The running joke here is that I make games so I can win. Truthfully, I've probably lost more of my games than any other companies', but as the maker it is always fun to tell an opponent "Cavalry movement is halved when charging goblins now" in the middle of the game! No, it never works....