Inside Pulse 12

Interview with Shawn Carpenter of Ambush Alley Games

Shawn Carpenter, the lead designer of Ambush Alley Games, was kind enough to sit down with me for an interview at the Recruits convention. I would like to thank Shawn for his time.


Chuck Platt: How did you initially get into the hobby?

Shawn Carpenter: I got into gaming in 1977 with the original White Box Dungeons and Dragons, which I ordered from a coupon in an issue of Savage Sword of Conan magazine. In the 80’s, I started playing Battletech and Warhammer 40k. From there, I ended up playing some historical wargames with my brother. In the mid to late 90’s, I stepped away from gaming for real life reasons. In the early 2000s, my brother and I started looking to get back into the hobby. We couldn’t find anything that really tripped our triggers, so we decided to write our own set. We started out with a science fiction setting, but as we worked on it, we realized that our mechanics for insurgents vs. regular troops really reflected the modern warfare we saw on the news. Ambush Alley grew out of that.

Chuck: What separates Tomorrow’s War from other science fiction wargames?

Shawn: Tomorrow’s War, like Force on Force before it, is based on reactions instead of being turn based. The response system makes TW a more fast-paced and fluid game. Instead of the “I go, You go” dynamic, TW keeps all the players engaged – not just through the non-traditional turn sequence, but also through innate mechanics, such as our heavy use of opposed die rolls.

Chuck: So it’s not like Monopoly?

Shawn: Exactly. No one is going to have time to read a book while waiting for their next turn in a game of TW. Tomorrow’s War is also different because it is scenario based instead of points based. TW plays more like a historical wargame than many points based fantasy/SF games do. Points based games allow for evenly matched sides in a battle, but war isn’t symmetrical. The whole point is to take advantage of the enemy, really. Also, real life commanders fight with the forces they have, not the forces they want.

Chuck: How do you make TW enjoyable for the side that is at a disadvantage, then?

Shawn: The scenarios have victory conditions for both sides. So the outgunned side has objectives they can meet, even if they are wiped out. That way both players have the chance to win the game. The defender in an Alamo or Zulu scenario can be killed to a man, but still win if they last a certain number of turns or kill a certain number of enemies. Most of a convoy defense force might get wiped out, but if the two trucks loaded with fusion cells get through, the convoy player wins. Things like that.

Chuck: Tomorrow’s War seems more “mature” than most other science fiction games, for lack of a better word.

Shawn: It’s funny you say that. Other people have called TW “mature.” Our Attribute system in particular has been referred to as “mature and very powerful” in game design terms.

Chuck: I think it is because it is scenario based. Points based games feel more tournament oriented. I think that is an outgrowth from the Collectable Card Game boom of the 90’s.

Shawn: Tomorrow’s War is a game for Big Boys. Instead of using points in a book, two players can come to an agreement about how they want things to work before they start. Big Boys can talk it out instead of trying to use the rules against each other. We get a lot of kick back for that, but the fact of the matter is that it works. Demanding that game designers keep doing what you’re used to so you don’t have to adjust has a stultifying effect on gaming. Gamers tend to complain that everything is derivative of one or two highly successful games – if they really don’t like that, they need to buck the status quo and take a chance on games that break those familiar molds. You’ll never get that critical hit if you don’t roll the dice!

Chuck: Well, Shawn, thanks for your time. I’m going to cede the floor to you so you can tell people why they should take a look at Tomorrow’s War and the rest of Ambush Alley Games’ lineup.

Shawn: All the Ambush Alley Games and companion books have two things in common: Respect for our customers and an appreciation of the reality of modern tabletop gaming. We know that gamers don’t need or necessarily want us to spoon feed them – they want rules that they can take ownership of and turn into THEIR game. Every gamer worth his salt is a hacker. I’ve never played a game with an established group of experienced players who haven’t hacked their favorite rule-sets with house rules. We embrace that in our design philosophy. We give players a consistent and exhaustive set of rules, but in the end those rules are just our suggestions. Once you buy the game, you and your friends can do what you want with it. The Inquisition isn’t going to show up at your door to haul you off to pay for your heresy! We want you to have fun with our games, and only YOU know how you’ll best enjoy them.
Our games are also fast paced and quick to learn. We’ve purposefully adhered to a nearly-universal mechanic for any type of task resolution. Once you learn infantry fire combat, you’ve got the basics down for close assaults, vehicle combat, etc.

Since we’ve focused on the bleeding edge of the battlespace rather than the entire battlefield, you don’t require a huge investment in figures and terrain to play – the game is easily scalable from a 2’x2′ table with a dozen figures per side to a 4’x8′ table with a reinforced platoon per side (and bigger, if you want).

While we’ve got some licensing deals with miniatures manufacturers, we’re not a “miniatures company.” We don’t care what scale or brand of figures you use – you might already have a perfectly suitable force for any of our games before you by your first copy of one of them. We also don’t care how you base them – our games play perfectly well with single or group based figures.

At the risk of tooting our own horn, we also give excellent customer support! Me and the other designers and development team members constantly monitor our forum and answer player questions quickly and courteously. We also regularly post up free downloadable material and playing aids for our games. So, no control freak culture, quick to learn, cheap and fast to play, no “canon” figures and fantastic customer support – what’s not to love?