In a previous life, I wrote for a now defunct retail website, Infinity Games (aka IGUK). Their site and my content is sadly long gone and no longer accessible, but I have been able to retrieve an interview with Charlie Catino, the designer of one of my all time favourite board games, Nexus Ops.

It’s this interview that I present to you today; note that since this article was published, the original version of Nexus Ops has been out of print, but it was revamped and re-released by Fantasy Flight Games in 2012. Even that edition is unfortunately long out of print and unavailable. Fingers crossed that someone, somewhere sees this and is able to bring Nexus Ops back in some form – it definitely deserves more time in the spotlight!

Without further ado, here’s my 2005 interview with Charlie Catino!

MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 26, 2005

Charlie Catino Interview – Avalon Hill

Avalon Hill has existed in one form or another since 1958. Created by Charles S. Roberts, Avalon Hill first specialised in war games, pioneering many of the characteristics still seen in the genre today. Branching out into different types of game in the 1970s and 1980s – including computer games for classic machines such as the Commodore VIC-20 – Avalon Hill became well known as a company that produced deep, involving ‘gamers games’.

Nexus Ops is part of the range of ‘new’ Avalon Hill games. The Avalon Hill name and back catalogue has been owned by Hasbro since 1998, and since then the range has built up a reputation for high production values and aesthetically interesting games that occupy a middle ground between light German style games and more complex ‘classic Avalon Hill’ style games. Nexus Ops is the brainchild of Charlie Catino, a game developer at Wizards of the Coast (also owned by Hasbro).

Hi Charlie. Firstly, can you tell me a bit about yourself – how you got involved in designing games and what kind of interests you have outside of games, for example?

I grew up in a household that loved to play board games and card games. At an early age, I would modify games to make them play better. As a teen and into college, I played in numerous chess and bridge tournaments. In and after college, I really got into ‘gamers games’ – like Axis and Allies, Titan, Acquire, Cosmic Encounter, etc. Then I met Richard Garfield who was at the time creating Magic: The Gathering. I became one of his early playtesters and loved the game. Eventually that turned into a career in R&D; at Wizards of the Coast as a game developer. Outside of games, I like to play sports – especially softball, golf, and bowling.

Who would you say are your main influences with regards to game designers?

I have a ton of respect for Richard Garfield, and I know I learned a lot from him about games. I also learned a lot interacting with Paul Randles (designer of Pirate’s Cove). Also, all the people here in WotC R&D have influenced me quite a bit in the 10+ years I have worked here.

What are your favourite games aside from your own designs or other Avalon Hill products? How often do you play games?

I have many favourite games. I mentioned the Avalon Hill games above, and I am also a big fan of Magic: The Gathering, Starcraft [the computer game], Settlers of Catan, the 18xx train games, and a lot of German board games. Since I now have a job and a family, I don’t get to play games as much as I used to, but I still find plenty of time to do so.

One of the perks of working at WotC is that I do get to playtest, so part of my job is to play DuelMasters, Hecatomb, Magic, and the new Avalon Hill games.

Would you say that the Avalon Hill range has a ‘house style’ in terms of aesthetics and mechanics? If so, how do you see Nexus Ops fitting into that style, if at all?

Personally, when I think of Avalon Hill, I think of great games for real gamers. They didn’t seem to me to have any other unifying theme, but I thought that they were all deep games that were great no matter how many times you played them. That is what I have always loved most about Avalon Hill.

With Nexus Ops, which came first, the concept or the game mechanics?

The game mechanic definitely came first, as I was intending to create a ‘king of the hill’ battle game. I had turned it in with a different theme, but the Avalon Hill team wanted to add a science fiction theme to it, and I think they did an awesome job with that.

I have a funny story about the creation of the game. I was on a business trip in Japan, and was travelling the subway quite a bit visiting with our different partners. The trips were quite long, and all of a sudden the concept for the game came to me.

I borrowed paper and pencil from a colleague, and quickly wrote up the concept and simple rules to the game. When I got home, I did quite a bit of spreadsheet calculations to figure out the correct costs and attack values for the various units and tested them in various combinations. I tried it out a little with my wife, and it seemed like a good design, so I submitted it to the R&D lead for Avalon Hill – Bill McQuillan.

He liked the game enough to do it, and after many playtests he and I decided to add the victory point system of secret missions (before the object of the game was to try to control one of your opponent’s home hexes). He and the rest of his team came up with the theme of the game and were able to incorporate it into the game design quite well.

Who do you see as your main audience for Nexus Ops? Is it consciously aimed at a particular age group or certain type of player?

I hope that gamers like this game – I wanted to make a game that had a good amount of depth and replay value, but that was not excessively lengthy.

How has the response to Nexus Ops been so far?

Personally I have had many positive responses to the game, and I am very encouraged by the reactions of the players after they learned and played the game for the first time.

Nexus Ops seems to be designed to be able to support numerous expansions – different units, different sets of secret missions and energize cards, different terrain – is that something you are considering?

We don’t have any specific plans for expansions at this time, but if the game sells well enough we will definitely consider the idea.

The presentation of Nexus Ops creates a real sense of an alien environment, which greatly adds to the feel of the game. Who was responsible for the overall look of the product? Was the graphic design something that was decided very early on, or was it something that evolved organically during the design process?

The Avalon Hill production team did a great job of creating a cool science fiction feel to the game and matching it to the mechanics. The overall look of the game came from the collaboration between art director Pete Whitley and graphic designer Scott Okumura.

Both of them were involved in early playtests of the game, so their design and illustrations were able to evolve organically during the process.

The brightly coloured aliens are a very refreshing change from the normal plain plastic miniatures that are normally included with a game, which again brings a very otherworldly and unique feel to Nexus Ops. Was it decided from very early on that the aliens should have a strikingly different look?

As soon as we settled on the science fiction theme, the art director envisioned this different plastic treatment. His hope was that the bright translucent plastic would both stand out from other games on the market and also evoke an “alien” feel for the game. We’re happy with the result.

Nexus Ops plays very much like a board game translation of a computer RTS game (the unit production, fast paced play etc) – was that a conscious design decision?

I like that type of game, so I am sure it unconsciously steered me in that direction a little. I have always liked games that balanced economic and military strategies.

Finally, do you have any games in the pipeline that you can tell us about? Is there anything that fans of Nexus Ops can look forward to?

I am afraid you don’t have clearance for that information! Seriously though, I can say that while I am not the designer of Avalon Hill’s next game – Vegas Showdown – I was a very avid playtester, am looking forward to its release, and want to let everyone know that it’s a fun game.

I’ll be sure to look out for Vegas Showdown! Charlie, many thanks for your time.

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