We had the good fortune to sit down with Chris Birch, founder of and developer for Modiphius, a tabletop gaming company based out of London. Modiphius is currently developing a Star Trek roleplaying game and Fallout: Wasteland Warfare, a miniatures game set in the Fallout universe. In this first part of the interview, Chris and I discussed the history of his company, some of the wins they’ve had, and the pros and cons of developing tabletop games based on properties with huge fan bases. Later this week, we’ll have the second part of the interview (which you can view here), where we delve into the mechanics of Fallout: Wasteland Warfare and what tabletop gamers can expect when they pick up their copies of the game.
Our questions are in bold. The interview has been edited for clarity.
Thanks for speaking with me today.
No problem, thanks for having me.
First off, tell me a bit about your company, Modiphius. How long have you been around, what are some of your big accomplishments, and what are some of your favorite things you all have done?
We started back in 2012. I had a t-shirt company called Joystick Junkies that I’d been running for about 13 years. We made game-themed clothing – Battlefield and retro, Atari-themed gear. But I’ve always been a gamer. I wrote a roleplaying game called Starblazer Adventures that came out from Cubicle 7, it was about 632 pages, it was insane. That was back in 2003 or 2004 and it took about three years to complete. It was based on an old comic series from the UK called Starblazer that were sort of a forerunner to 2000 AD. They has all this amazing sci-fi art, so we got the rights to it to do a roleplaying game. This was before the days of Kickstarter, so there wasn’t a lot of money in it.
And Kickstarter changed the game for you?
It did. I got bored of making t-shirts after thirteen years, I had met my wife, Rita, during this time, and we were looking for something new to do. A lot of people were launching on Kickstarter at this time, and she’s always liked the ideas of things like demon tanks and Nazi zombies, and I had just discovered HP Lovecraft and the Mountains of Madness book. So we thought, “Wow, what if there were Nazis there?” and immediately dreamt up this universe called Achtung! Cthulhu. We started doing a couple of adventures in PDF, everyone was just working on royalty and helping each other out. It went really well, about 1000 people downloaded it and signed up for the mailing list. We ran a very successful Kickstarter, hoping for about ten grand, and we wound up raising around 180 grand.
Wow, that’s huge. And this was 2012? So the true birth of Modiphius?
2013, but yes. This was such a big hit that I decided to pack in my day job and go into game development full time. We got the rights to Mutant Chronicles, a big love of mine from the 90s. We Kickstarted that to big success. Then we got the rights to Thunderbirds and pitched Matt Leacock.
So cool, I almost pulled the trigger on that one.
It’s great for people who love Pandemic but want a few more moving parts. Matt loved the idea, and that did really well. Then we got the rights to Conan, and that was a big, big hit. We did Infinity, a miniatures game, and last year’s Siege of the Citadel. And we just picked up the rights to do Star Trek, which took us about a year and a half to get the rights to. I can’t believe we’re actually getting to do that one.
And is Star Trek based on a specific series, or is just set in the same universe of Star Trek?
Well, we got the rights to all the films except for the new ones, and all the TV shows, except for the new show and the animated series. But it’s pretty much the original series, Next Generation, and the motion pictures. Which is plenty, because the diehard fanbase is in the Next Generation series and the original series. But we wanted to make sure ours was different than the three previous roleplaying games, we didn’t want to duplicate what had already been done. We’ve also got John Carter coming as well, which I loved as a kid. I’m a big believer of “Don’t do something that you don’t want to be working on Saturday night,” because you will be.
Perfect approach, to bring all your childhood loves back to life and breathe new life into them. I trust Fallout was one of those loves too?
Right, I’ve been a huge fan for ages. The post apocalyptic adventures, robots, monsters, machines, and the iconic design that it has are perfect for a miniatures game. It was a no-brainer, really. The miniatures have just been a dream to do. They’re so familiar and iconic, plus we have loads of games to dive into: Fallout 4, Fallout 3; we’re just slowly working our way backwards. It’s been quite a journey, from me and Rita working in a basement flat in London with some freelancers. As we started adding more people, we had to move into an office or we knew we were going to get a divorce [laughter]. Now we have a huge space: meeting rooms, playtesting rooms, war rooms, and room for about twelve full time people now. We also have ten full time people outside the office and about 100 freelancers working all around the world.
It sounds like your company has made a lot of games based on existing properties. What are the big challenges in adopting something like Fallout that already has such a rich world?
Well, a lot of people think that when you take on a world people love so much, everyone has a memory. I remember playing Fallout – “It wasn’t like that, it was like this,” or “No, no, the costumes don’t look like that.” You have to go through extensive approvals to get things approved. And it’s really a good thing, because there’s so much passion, and that gets people interested. We’re pretty good at being authentic to the universe to keep fans happy, because if you keep fans happy, they’ll buy more of the product [laughter]. It can be hard; there will always be people who are so adamant that “It wasn’t like that.” And you can never please everyone, but we try to make it accessible for as many people as possible.
And is it difficult working with a property that’s still as big as Fallout is currently, especially because they’re still making new things that are a part of that world?
It does restrict you a bit. You can’t just make up something crazy, and the approval process is massive. Every single graphic you see has been through, like, ten days of approval: “Are you happy with it? Is it OK?” It can be frustrating, because even if you know it’s right, you still have to get renders checked because it’s their baby. I’ve got about seventy miniatures approved so far, and only three have had issues. The sentry bot, for example, is a favorite of the main designer, and he just wasn’t quite happy with the way the head looked. So we just have to tweak it a bit, but pretty much everything has sailed straight through. It helps when your team is as great as ours, and as passionate about the product as we are. It does take time, and, when it is your own stuff, you can just say, “I’m going to make up something new today and blow people away. I’m going to do all the artwork and move on.” But you can’t do that with something like Fallout or Star Trek. You have to move at their pace. It can be tricky.
Stay tuned for the second part of our interview (check it out here), where we delve into the mechanics of Fallout: Wasteland Warfare.