Old School Tactical from Flying Pig Games

GrogHeads Interviews Tom Russell of Yaah! Magazine

Flying Pig Games is launching their new quarterly gaming magazine, Yaah! Magazine.  Their editor, Tom Russell, took some time out of his busy schedule to chat with us about the launch of the magazine, and what to expect from the next few issues.

click to enlarge images; images courtesy of Tom Russell

Sum up Yaah! Magazine for us in 5 words. Go!

That’s really hard. “Full-color quarterly print gaming magazine” gets across what it’s about, but not how it’s about it, if you know what I mean. But we’ll go with that.

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OK, so more details – fill in these blanks for us:
If you love _____, you’re going to love Yaah! Magazine, but if _____ isn’t your cup of tea, you probably want to read something else.

If you love games about conflict, you’re gonna love Yaah! If games about conflict aren’t your cup of tea, then I’m not sure why you’re reading this interview. In all seriousness– I can’t imagine someone with a wargaming background not loving the magazine, but admittedly this is really a recurring problem I have. I get so excited about what I’m working on, and who I’m working with, and how much I’m digging it that I can’t fathom why someone else wouldn’t dig it. It’s like that bit from one of Woody Allen’s films, I can’t quite recall which one, in which they ask his character (who is a filmmaker) who he sees as the target demographic. And he says, “This will appeal to adults, teenagers, young adults, and kids, adolescents, toddlers, I imagine. Newborns.”

I guess looking at it slightly more seriously, the focus of the magazine is pretty broad in some respects, as we’re looking at conflict-based hobby gaming. So it’s not, strictly speaking, a wargaming magazine, in the sense of historical wargames, though wargames are a big part of it. We’re also going to cover fantasy and science fiction gaming, horror, really anything with combat or other forms of direct conflict. So I guess there are people who would turn their nose up at it for that reason, because they’d really want something focused squarely on historical wargames. But really, I think there’s enough “real wargame”-related content in the magazine that it will appeal to those people, and they might look at some of the other stuff and say, “Oh, that looks neat; maybe I’ll try that.”

Tell us a bit about yourself – your gaming and journalism background, and how you got roped into running a game magazine.

Well, to start with the most easily-dispensed part of your question, I don’t have a journalism background. Never even worked for the school paper. I’ve been writing, writing for a long time, both fiction and non-fiction, but have never made anything near a living at it.

Gaming is a little easier to answer. I stumbled into modern board games in 2010, quite by accident– I hit “random page” on Wikipedia, and an article came up on the 18xx series of train games. I got into wargames a few months after that thanks to my local library’s copy of Dunnigan’s book. I started designing games in 2010 as well, mostly Euro-style games, and I have had a damn difficult time getting anywhere with those. I’m not counting train games as Euro-style games, mind you: those I’ve done pretty well with. I had a game in the 2013 Winsome Games Essen Set called Northern Pacific, which was pretty divisive– people either really love it or really hate it, no in-between– and a game in last year’s Essen Set called Irish Gauge that was much better received.

But outside of the train games, the only place I had any real luck is wargaming. Mark Walker– who runs Flying Pig Games, which publishes Yaah!– published my first wargame, heck, my first game, period, in 2012. I had deals with other publishers for other games, but that was the only one of those deals that actually went through. And that game was Blood on the Alma, about the Crimea. Mark liked that one so much that he asked me to design a couple more using a similar same system, and I did, another one set in Crimea, and one set in the American Civil War. There was a period when I was working on the ACW game, which is about the Seven Days Battles, where I basically spent a year of my life in those seven days, every free moment.

yaah-mag-1And really, I think it was those two games in the Alma style that got me involved in the magazine. Because while I was designing those games, and after, I was keeping in touch with Mark. Well, more like, “strategic pestering.” There’s an art to bugging someone to look at your games, or your film, or whatever; if you don’t do it often enough, they forget about you, but if you do it too often, they remember you for the wrong reasons. I guess I did it just right, because Mark remembered me. He remembered that I was a writer and designer, that I was dependable and that I was energetic. And I would imagine those were the qualities he was looking for in an editor.

 

Whose idea was the magazine, and how did the initial pitch go between you and Mark?  How did the original plan evolve into what it is today, and how did it become a ‘broad-based’ magazine and not just a ‘house’ magazine?

That was Mark, all Mark. How it started is he sent me an email, one sentence, which read, Do you want to be editor of a magazine? And I immediately said yes. We had a phone call later that afternoon, and Mark already had several of the essentials in place: quarterly, print, full-color, not a house organ, all kinds of conflict gaming. He wanted articles about games, scenarios for games, and a game with every issue. Only wanted to focus on games people love– no slams or hatchet-jobs, which I wasn’t really interested in either. And he wanted to focus on “the new and the now”. The rest he kinda left up to me, but generally, Mark is very clear and very direct with regards to what he wants and what he expects.

 

What are some of your favorite articles that we should be looking out for in the first 2-3 issues?

Resisting the urge to say “all of them”, there’s a great piece by Ania Ziolkowska in our first number about Commands and Colors: Napoleonics. She packs a lot of detail about the mechanisms, the play experience, even what scenarios are best-suited for different players, all in a very short space.

Our second issue has a couple of pieces that stretch the form a little. By this I mean rather than just reviewing a game, exactly, they take a different approach to it, something more personal and more personable, and written in a different emotional register than a standard review. I think these kind of pieces are the things that will stick out and stay with a reader. And I want that because I think that one of the two main reasons people buy a gaming magazine is because the writing contained therein gives them pleasure. So, let me touch on that with a couple examples from our second number, which is coming out in May.

I did the cover feature for that one, which is about the zombie game Dead of Winter, and it’s more… I don’t want to say literary, exactly, but it’s certainly a more digressive approach, tying the game to other experiences and mediums, and trying to wrestle with the things it does, and the things it tries to do, with regards to narrative in board games. I’m going to be interested in seeing what everyone thinks of it.

In the same number, Wendell Albright has a piece about World in Flames, which he has been playing for twenty-five years, and the piece is about the time he’s spent with it, personally, and why it’s a game he loves. And, I mean, he absolutely loves this game. His handle on BGG has WIF in it, that’s how much he loves it.

Really, this is a trick I learned when we were putting the first issue together. Basically, after we had announced the cover feature, Rivet Wars, the guy who was going to do the cover feature couldn’t do it. And I needed to scramble at the last minute to try and find someone, anyone, who could fill that void and on short notice. I managed to find Nathan Powell, who is a super-fan of Rivet Wars. Dedicated to the game, passionate. And that piece turned out really great. And I thought, well, I should do that; I should try to find people who really, really love a game, people who are that game’s biggest fan, and see if they’ll write about that game for us. That’s how I got Wendell to write the WIF piece in our next issue. That’s also how I got a number of the scenarios we’re running in our next two issues.

 

What’s the thing you most want to improve from the first couple of issues as you guys move forward with Yaah! ?  What are you guys planning to do to work on it?

Oh, this is an easy question, it’s the scenarios, no question. Because if the quality and distinctiveness of the writing is one of the two reasons to buy a gaming magazine, the games and scenarios is the other. Our first issue had only three scenarios in it, which is really slim. One of those scenarios is a D&D/Pathfinder module that I used to run for my players. Mark and I both recognized that we need to really build up that scenario section, and focus more heavily on the wargaming side of the equation. Our second issue is going to have six or seven scenarios, which is already twice as many as we had the first time around. We’re going to have Rivet Wars, Dust Tactics, Heroes of the Gap, Heroes of Normandie, possibly C&C Napoleonics. Several of the scenario designers are super-fans of the game in question, like I was talking about before, and might be able to give us scenarios for that game on a regular basis. At the same time, we want a variety of scenarios, not the same thing every issue.

What I’m having the hardest time finding are scenarios for the king of the heap, ASL. Now, my general rule is that when I can’t find someone to do something, I’ll do it myself, but that three-ring binder is really scary. [laughs] It’s not really my scale of gaming. I think we might have more luck with this as we go along, and as the magazine picks up some word of mouth, some fan-base.

 

One of the concerns we’ve brought up a few times here at GrogHeads World Domination HQ™ is that there seems to be no shortage of gaming magazines in the marketplace, in varying stages of health – S&T, Battles, C3i, Paper Wars, Line of Fire, Ares, World at War, Against The Odds, Modern War, and Armchair General, just off the top of the head.  How does Yaah! stick out in that marketplace and how do you keep Yaah!’s momentum beyond the fourth or fifth issue when the initially ‘banked’ material starts dry up?

Okay, I’ll start with the marketplace. For starters, our magazine has an exclamation point in the title. Secondly, it’s a quarterly magazine that’s actually going to come out quarterly.

To approach this a little more seriously– the purview of the magazine is broader than many of those other magazines, for one thing, because we’re not just doing historical wargames. We’re also not getting into history articles, or “art of game design”, or any of that– we’re focused on play. On games that we play, and what it feels like to play them, and on giving players more games to play and more ways to play them. I talked above about wanting to have room for unusual and distinctive approaches in the writing, because I think that’s ultimately what’s going to stand out. Good writing is good writing is good writing.

The second part, regarding keeping momentum up after our initial materials dry up. Well, here’s the fun part: beyond the games, we don’t have anything “banked”. Like I said, like Mark’s said, our focus is on the new and the now. Can’t really write about the new and the now too far ahead of time.

The way it works is that while one issue is going through its layouts, I’m talking with the regular writers about what they want to write about for the next issue and soliciting pieces from guest writers. Their deadline is four or five weeks hence. While they’re writing, I’m going over the final layouts with Mark and with Gabriel Gendron, the Art Director. By the time that issue comes out, I’ve gotten and made corrections to almost all of the pieces for the next issue. They then go to a copy editor, then back to me, then to Gabriel.

Over the course of the next couple of months, Gabriel will do the layouts for the magazine. One thing we realized with our first issue is that we hadn’t really given him enough time to do the layouts, which is why it ended up coming out now instead of in January as initially planned. Now that we have a better idea of how long it will take and how much is involved, we’re making sure he has the time he needs to layout the magazine, do the counters and maps for the game, etc. And while he’s working on that, again, I’m talking with the writers about our next issue.

So, it’s a process with a schedule, a cyclical process. I don’t really anticipate us flagging in momentum because there’s always going to be games to write about, and our writers are a passionate bunch who love writing about games, and it’s unlikely anyone’s going to get burned out on writing one article every three months. I don’t anticipate getting burned out myself because that’s not really in my nature, frankly.

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Can you give us a preview of some of the included games that will be coming up in issue #3 and beyond?  What should we start salivating over now?

Well, you should start salivating over the games in number two, because it hasn’t come out yet, and we have two or three games from Brian Train. I say “two or three” because two of them are full games, complete with maps and counters, while for the third game, Guerilla Checkers, we just give you his rules. All three of them are slightly related, but cover counter-insurgency and asymmetrical warfare– as many know, this is Brian’s special area of expertise– from different angles.

Issue 3 has a fantasy skirmish game, Shadows in the Weald, which I designed. I also designed the two games in our first issue, which are very simple, introductory wargames. How simple? The counters have one stat, that’s how simple. Shadows is much more complex, and each player controls a party of named Heroes and disposable Hirelings trying to clobber the other side’s Heroes. There’s a lot of nice bells and whistles, and the character art is being done by a talented artist named Alex Krumwiede.

Our fourth issue has a more traditional hex-and-counter game on Operation Winter Storm (German attempt to break Soviet encirclement of Sixth Army). We are working with designers right now developing three other games– one fantasy, one science-fiction, and one historical– and I have another historical design of my own in the works. I’m not going to be designing a whole bunch of games for the magazine myself– editing puts enough on my plate as it is!– but like I said, my job is to make sure there’s a new issue of the magazine, with at least one full game, every three months. So it makes sense to have a tested and well-developed game ready in case we need it.

So, we definitely know what games are coming out this year, and we have a pretty good idea of what games might come out next year.

 

Who has been your favorite writer to work with so far, and what’s made it such a good partnership?  Who would you like to work with in the future that you’re still trying to rope into working on Yaah! ?

The first one’s a good question, but it’s not one I’m going to answer, because I honestly can’t choose. Everyone brings something different, something unique to the table.

As for the second– well, everyone I’ve asked has said yes other than ASL scenario designers. I guess one of those. I’ve been very lucky otherwise. I’m even going to get to work with one of my all-time favorite designers, though I’m sworn to secrecy at the moment.

Thanks for taking the time to chat with us!  


 

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One Response to GrogHeads Interviews Tom Russell of Yaah! Magazine

  1. […] Pig’s new magazine is out there.  We’ve already interviewed the editor.  Now see what Vance thinks about the finished […]

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