As an avid tabletop gamer and sci-fi fan, I’m always excited to see new developments on both fronts. As such, when I the news that Assault Publishing would be releasing rules for a new game called PMC 2640 I reached out to see if I could have a chat.
Marcin Gerkowicz, owner of the company responded and we talked about everything from self publishing to his thoughts on the industry. At the same time, he also kindly gave me a few details on his new game. Check it out below!
Interviewers note: English isn’t Marcin’s first language and a lot of the time we talked during his coffee breaks, so he didn’t have time to check his spelling and grammar. As such, he asked me to spell and grammar check his responses. I’ve run this past him before it goes out and I hope nothing valuable has been lost.
We talked back and forth for well over a week, so this interview may be a bit longer than usual!
Reece Morris Jones: Hi Marcin, could you introduce yourself and Assault Publishing? What would gamer’s best know you for?
Marcin Gerkowicz: My name is Marcin Gerkowicz and I come from Lublin in eastern Poland. At the moment I’m 32 years, which makes me one of the youngest professional (or rather semi-professional) wargame designers and probably the youngest publisher in the World. I’ve started when I was 30, but I started making rule sets a few years earlier.
Assault Publishing is a small company established in 2011 and it is run in addition to my daily job and family life (I have wife and two daughters). So far main goal of AP is financing my next, crazy project! I’m one of these weird, independent authors/publishers, who enjoy the freedom of creating games, without a book keeper, marketing guy and big-boss telling me how my game should looks like. My own company is the goal for it and gives big possibilities in it.
So far I’ve published two wargames under Assault Publishing brand: Hind Commander and “Arm Weapons and Climb Solo: Gulf War” (AWACS: Gulf War). I also released Sturmovik Commander between 2008 and 2010 and second edition will be published by AP.
But my first big project was the “Book of Nemesis” expansion for Battlefleet Gothic, published in December 2007 issue of Fanatic Online by Specialist Games.
My next wargame goes to the printing within a few weeks.
RMJ: You mentioned having worked published with Fanatic*. How did that come about?
MG: In 2005 or 2006 my submission was accepted and I’ve got “my” semi-official Heretic class Chaos light cruiser. It was the first, tiny step in my author “career”.
Later I’ve started working on the Book of Nemesis – a big, fan-made supplement for Battlefleet Gothic based on my Cypra Probatii website content, events and community activity. I even got the permission to use Games Workshop illustrations in it. It took us many, many months to complete it (60 pages, fully formatted in BFG style, with history of sector, campaigns, scenarios, stuff and extra fleet and ships). I remember I was very proud of it. Unfortunately after a couple of months I found the info that SG page is going to be closed and Fanatic Online cancelled and removed from GW pages. We felt a bit, let’s say, “irritated” and dishearted and I decided to make my later projects on my own.
RMJ: I can understand that, I was around when Jervis Johnson was running Fanatic and it was a great time. Sadly, it was probably the last time a part of GW tried to engage with its customers.
Anyway, you have obviously tried to move on from then. Though you say you work on your own, I’ve noticed a few of your games were made in collaboration with another company. Can you go into any details about the processes involved? Do you still enjoy working with others?
MG: No company can act in a void and cooperation is quite often desired. From the beginning, I would cooperate with Oddział Ósmy but this cooperation is more or less closer depending on the project. They make miniature sets for Hind Commander, but AWACS: Gulf War was common project under two brands, as their contribution to the game is much greater. On the other hand the cooperation during PMC2640 development is rather loose. They have 15mm Sci-Fi miniature range which fits very well to the game, but it isn’t “official” in any way.
In the meantime I’m making the ruleset (just a ruleset, no army lists nor fluff) for a game which will be published by a Polish company. As they going to publish it for free and I’m doing it also for free as brain training. I’m not the designer for hire. I’m too independent. For me partnership and cooperation – yes. Working for someone – no.
RMJ: Fair enough. So what brought about the idea of making a science fiction wargame?
MG: I always wanted to do it. I think there is a moment in the life of every wargame designer that they decide they want to do a sci-fi wargame. Now it’s my turn. 😀
But seriously, I’ve never founda sci-fi game which fully satisfied me.
RMJ: What have you disliked about sci-fi games in the past then and what do you feel PMC 2640 brings to the tabletop that other games don’t?
MG: Simply I haven’t found the ruleset which combines the all things I wish to find it. There are a few really cool sci-fi games on the market (mainly skirmish-size). On the other side I meet a lot which are made in style of 80′ (a lot of details, concentration on single models etc.), even if they are technically correct. The miniature wargames need to evolve into the new century with a new approach. We live in crazy times, people have less and less time and I think its dawning on some people in the industry there is a strong competition from the computer games, which are easier and quicker classic wargames.
IHMO the wargames made nowadays have to be from one side quick to learn and start playing and from the other have to be really challenging, smart and offer top-class fun.
PMC 2640 is designed as ‘true company scale’, which allows to play big, 1:1 scale battles with a few dozen of units per size in relatively reasonable time, without being abstractive. Most of “company scale” wargames I meet is barely playable with more than 10-15 teams per side. But in PMC 2640, small battles (or rather skirmishes) with 4-8 units per side can be played and are also very cool. It was one of the leading ideas during the development.
To be honest I do not like the general mood of many sci-fi wargames, which very quickly turn the battles into mindless bloodbaths, (in practice dice rolling competitions) with the whole army disappearing in 3 or 4 turns. In PMC 2640 I tried to focus on movement, gaining the better tactical position, morale breaking, suppressive effect of fire, flanking, combined arms and using small advantages to win. The quick rules allows to make the game, which have e.g. 20 turns per battle, which is very important, as allows to use real tactics, such as retreating, regrouping, counter-attacks, slowing down enemy and many others. To make the things more interesting the statistic is rather “hard”, based on a few important rolls which makes the game a bit more random, but forces the players to be flexible and always to have “the plan B” if something goes wrong. I was surprised how nice the system works despite the simplicity or the rules and limiting the unit’s parameters. In this case the less means more.
The general appearance of the game things may seem a little Spartan. There are no sophisticated special rules or long paragraphs explaining commonly known things and so on. No flounces, just added value. It’s like rare steak, glass of fine frozen vodka or strong, aromatic coffee.
I know that not everybody will like this approach, but I cannot make the game for everyone. I like the minimalistic, military climate a lot and I tried to put it in the game.
RMJ: It does seem to be the case that there are two ends of the gaming spectrum at the moment, those games bogged down by special rules (noticeably GW, PP) and those at the other end like DBA, which simplify things and yet still provide a great experience.
Can you go into details about the setting of the game (as that is what most sci-fi wargamers care about ;D)? Or it is the case you just want to rules to stand on their own and let players create a setting of their own?
MG: I would not want to create artificial borders or categorize the other games. I simply wish to create the good game and I’m not paid for making the text as long as possible to put it in the army book. I just do my job without looking at other authors.
And yes, I’ve written the setting for PMC 2640. Its grim and pessimistic, but I tried to avoid the drab. Generally I dislike the space-opera themes, as there are too many of them and they tend to be very close to the triteness, so I moved to classical sci-fi, closer to Alien universe than Star Wars or some techno-fantasy.
I wrote the brief “history” from 22 to 27 century with the crucial moments. In short: the far future the known planets are ruled by all-mighty corporations and corrupted, soulless bureaucracies. The most valuable goods are energy-rich substances imported to Earth from the colonies, which are controlled mostly by corporations. The players act as the commanders of mercenary forces in corporate service, which are one of the most important military powers in these times. Nothing very original, but at least it allows one of those to be the ‘bad guy’, not another humanity savior/prince on white horse/the last hope and so one… these are not the times for heroes and I’ve just noticed that I haven’t included any heroes both in the story and the game itself!
Overall I want to avoid a flat and dull story. To make the universe more realistic and convincing, I added some extra technical information about the space travels, terraforming, cross-section of space ships and statistical data, but also some anecdotes, voice records from battlefields (forgot about the political correctness, soldiers under fire use a lot of “Latin”), even a drinking song….
In the game there are space bugs, but they are not the evil aliens which want to devour the juicy colonists for the dinner, but they are rather some kind of technology out-of-control (I have MSc in biotechnology degree, so I couldn’t refuse myself putting some bio-tech motives it the game). But they are not the normal fraction/army in the game, but like the rebels, are intended as OpFor in solitary/cooperative games.
RMJ: So as a self publisher, do you do all your own artwork as well?
MG: Please do not overestimate me! I can design a wargame, make the layouts, deal with computer graphic elements like covers, test the game, make the marketing, run the company and many other things, but I completely lack any artistic gift!
This time I’ve hired Łukasz Marko – the talented guy, who runs his own drawing studio. He does it as the hobby – like me, which made working together very smooth and successful, despite some delays. His independent, rough style fits perfectly to the PMC 2640. I feel like I may ask him to make the illustrations for next project…
RMJ: Haha. No, I was just curious as the artwork that has been previewed so far is very impressive and sets the tone nicely.
So how do you usually design a game? What inspires you and how do your games change through development?
MG: I think it is very individual. Personally I have a plenty of ideas, which come from historical campaign, movies, miniatures, paintings, discussions or whatever. When I fix on one of these ideas, I start to develop it in my head, invent rules and consider it during the driving to my work and back. Quite often something clicks in my head and suddenly these loose pieces link together like a puzzles and within a few minutes I have ready sketch of the wargame.
Within a few days I write down a basic rules and I leave it alone for some time (days or weeks) to decide if it was just the single impulse or I really want to make this project. If I decide to continue (usually I don’t – I have 15 or 20 project sketches on my pen drive!) within a couple of days I have a clear vision for I wish the wargame to look like. From this moment on the real work starts…
Later it gets only harder: writing down the rules, making a starter units, first playtests and of course recruiting the “inner circle” of the project. Later there is more writing, countess corrections and e-mails, designing a layout and so on. The worse moment for me is in the middle of the project, you made a lot of work, you start to be tired, but the finish is far, far away. When I pass this crisis it’s much better. But generally it’s much closer to work of an engineer than artist.
If you think that designing the good game is mostly playing with minis and making notes you are completely wrong. You should be rather prepared for red eyes, pain in the back and swollen fingers. It is really long way to see your rulebook printed, but for me the satisfaction of a good wargame is something fantastic and worth all the toil!
My projects changes a little during development. I use my CONASS method. First you have to have a real good CONcept and later you need to sit a long time on your ASS. For every project I try to gather a small group of playtesters, who will find the gaps and errors in your project. They only get the new versions. Most changes are eliminating rules without added value and simplifying the remaining ones. IMHO if you cannot write the rule simple and clear you cannot make it at all.
English is not my mother tongue, which is my curse and blessing in one. Sometimes you cannot find a good word or make a proper sentence, but from the other side I use simple, international English without overdone grammar constructions, jargon, idioms and always try to remember about people how are not native speakers. English is the perfect for writing the rules: simple, elegant and unequivocal. I think that I couldn’t translate my games to Polish as well!
To keep my morale high I always try to find some Sabbaton song for the project (e.g. “The Price of the Mile” in case of the PMC 2640 and “Back in Control” in case of Hind Commander) and design the logo as early as possible.
To summarize: I think that if you wish to be independent wargame designer you need to be, let’s say, a little eccentric (OK, you have to have completely fucked-up in your head!). On your own request you work a year or two on a self-invented project, which ruins your health, consumes most of your spare time, to finally you spend a pile of money for printing and pray for the results. It is definitely not normal! 😀
RMJ: Well whoever said wargamers were normal folks ;). Now, you’ve mentioned you recruit play testers for your project, how do you go about this? Are the playtest groups made up of friends or colleagues from local gaming groups, or have you used the internet to facilitate a bit more of a wide spread of players geographically?
Also, do you have a native English speaker proofread your rules to make sure they work well?
MG: I do not have any system of selecting playtesters. From experience I know that the best practice is to keep an “inner circle” limited to a few people, normally from 3 to 6. These people need not be fanatically engaged in the game: I prefer to get a few good, valuable comments instead of spamming my e-mail with vague impressions. Generally there is no place for democracy in wargame designing, as the game has to be as consistent as possible and it is very important to filter the information you get from playtesters. I need to separate the comments about the quality of the rules (clarity, simplicity, errors, conflicts etc.) from the personal preferences which are not always the same as mine.
I’ve always wanted to have one playtester here in Lublin. Normally I ask some proven people if they are interested in the project. I need somebody to look at my English and proof-read, but generally there are no geographic borders in selecting the persons to cooperate with. I’m very glad that some of them write to me with their ideas and they start they own projects. I would like to act also as the publisher not only the author-publisher.
RMJ: So to any aspiring games writers then, what would be your words of wisdom? What would it take to be a published author for Assault Publishing?
MG: C’mon, I’m not so important to pass any “wisdom”. But remember, that some projects are crazy enough to be successful!
RMJ: Haha, true! Hard work does pay off. How do you juggle the work/life/work balance? You must have very understanding employers!
MG: I promised myself that AP doesn’t have any negative impact on my work and family. It’s the matter of good time planning. Of course you need to be physically and mentally hard, but you need not to be superhuman. Simply I never start doing something if I do not know that exactly I want to do. My employers know that my hobby is limited to checking e-mail during coffee break. My wife understands my hobby and knows that I need to go to some con or to meet somebody, but it’s still within the sensible limits. And anyway she knows if I do not have something to do I am unbearable and I grouch all time! On the other side sometimes if my publisher activity goes wrong (e.g. I have a month with poor sales or ineffective writing) I’m even worse! 😀
RMJ: Thats a very sensible attitude. Have you ever thought of making it your primary source of income, or do you think you would lose something by making it a ‘job’ rather that a side project/hobby as it is now?
MG: Yep, I’m quite sensible madcap 😉
It would be great to live from something you love, but I think in this case it wouldn’t be a good idea. If you do something for a living and have a family, you need more-or-less stable and sure income. I would be hypocrite if I say money doesn’t matter. In every business it is about money – the matter is what to do with it. Running AP gives me great possibilities in the hobby field which would be impossible without it. If you have any money it’s good, but normally I prefer to invest in my next, crazy project. You cannot live from publishing wargames (especially niche ones), without entering in trade/manufacturing miniatures. I count the rulesets are my primary products and I wish not to change it. But regardless, Assault Publishing is my achievement and my pride.
RMJ: So how do feel you have developed as a writer and producer of tabletop games since your first forte into it? Do you ever look back at previous games and think you would like to change a part them?
MG: Yes, indeed. I think nearly all architects/developers/writers/painters/artists/etc. have this syndrome. But I have the general rule: no project can be worse than previous one. I learn on my own mistakes and draw conclusions from them. That’s my quality system.
RMJ: Thats a very healthy to take. So after the books get sent to the printers in May, what are your plans? Are you going to expand on any of your existing game systems, or has inspiration taken you elsewhere?
MG: Rest, rest and rest! After printing there will be a crazy period, with pre-orders and initial sales. Projects such like wargames can overwhelm even the toughest man and it ruins the health. I know at a glance it sounds funny, but I estimate that PMC2640 took me from 500 to 800 working hours within one and half years, not counting playtests and mini.
After a day at work you return home and you still have housework and a family and in the evening you sit down and deal with the company: papers, shipments, orders, restocking and of course game development. Very often you finish in late night, but life is going on and you have to get up at 6:30 AM to be at work at 8:00 AM… One day, week or even month is OK, but after a couple of months you start to be really tired. In addition, the closer project is to completion, the more you are stressed about the project’s success. It’s not only the matter of invested money. The game is a big part of your life. But the passion of creating and very interesting development process (much more complicated and difficult than most people claim) is something really worth all these difficulties.
Thanks for talking to me Marcin, it’s been a pleasure.
*Editors Note: Fanatic was a wing of Games Workshop run by Jervis Johnson that focused of the “Specialist Games” range of games produced by Games Workshop. It released magazines and then web content aimed at providing support for the games and interacting with the community, before ultimately being disbanded in 2008.