Dark Horse: How a small-time UK publisher ended up bringing Terminator, My Little Pony and Hunger Games to the tabletop


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23 March 2017
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river-horse-alessio-USE-THIS-83508.jpg Alessio Cavatore in the River Horse office
Alessio Cavatore reveals how River Horse discovered its own unique voice

On an industrial estate in Nottingham, hidden away behind multiple flights of stairs and a winding maze of corridors, in a room no bigger than a bathroom, a British games publisher is busy working on board game adaptations of some of Hollywood's biggest hits.

It isn’t River Horse founder Alessio Cavatore’s first brush with the silver screen. For more than a decade, he contributed to Games Workshop’s Warhammer, Warhammer 40,000 and Lord of the Rings miniature wargames – with the latter earning him an on-screen cameo during the climactic battle of Peter Jackson’s 2003 finale The Return of the King. You can also find him (alongside fellow designers Alan Perry, Michael Perry and Brian Nelson) dressed as a Rohirrim on the base of the miniature title’s War Mûmak of Harad model – albeit in a flatter, deader form.

Cavatore started River Horse (the translated ancient Greek phrase for hippopotamus) as a ‘pet project’ in 2006, while he was still working at Games Workshop. Over the next four years, the company published just one title: Shuuro, a chess variant involving board obstacles and customisable armies. In 2010, after 15 years at the publisher, Cavatore’s relationship with Games Workshop came to an end.

“It was a big moment of decision whether to find another job or set up a business,” he explains. “A friend of mine was a serial entrepreneur. He just went: 'Come on, set up your own business! Be in control! Be the boss!' I said: 'Okay, I'll try, and see if it works.' In the industry, there's a lot of companies that start maybe with one game and after a while fall because gaming can't sustain a company on a single game, unless you're lucky. So I thought: 'Well, I'll try, see if it works.'”

It's this choice to go it alone that Cavatore sees as the true realisation of River Horse.

“At the beginning it was just me, and the idea was to make my own games – design them, produce them and bring them to market,” he recalls. “Like many things, and like a lot of startups, you start to think, 'Well, I'm going to do this,' and then you end up doing something different.”

While he had left with the intention to work on his own creations, Cavatore soon found himself contributing to a number of miniatures titles by local publishers keen to attract the seasoned wargame designer to their projects; Warlord Games’ Bolt Action and Mantic’s Kings of War both bear his name. The titles’ success soon led to further job offers – securing River Horse’s future, but leading it further and further away from Cavatore’s original vision.

“Basically, River Horse, with the idea of making your own games, ended up doing services for other companies,” he summarises. “In the meantime, we always tried to make games for ourselves as well – but we were so busy with other things it was difficult to do.”

In between freelance ventures, Cavatore and his growing team did find time to produce the small card game The Tarot of Loka, as well as a fantasy reimagining of Shuuro, Loka, and a historical wargame commemorating the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, released in 2015. Slowly, River Horse began to regain its independence.

 

 

The gestating publisher’s big break came in 2014, when Cavatore returned to familiar territory: a tabletop wargame based on a hit movie franchise. This time, it was the sci-fi setting of Terminator Genisys, which was turned into miniatures title The War Against the Machines a year later.

“That was our first step, really,” Cavatore recollects. “It was a learning experience about licensing and how it works. It was a steep learning curve.”

Securing the Terminator licence opened the doors for River Horse in Hollywood, and Cavatore soon picked up the rights to another major multi-million-dollar film, The Hunt for Red October. That adaptation was put on hold, however, by the next movie IP to fall into the company’s hands – the licence that would cement it as a major British publishing force and catapult it into mainstream success fewer than five years after it was properly established. That catalyst was Labyrinth, the cult 1986 musical starring David Bowie and a teenage Jennifer Connelly, directed by Muppets creator Jim Henson and written by Monty Python member Terry Jones.

“This took a lot of time and energy and resources, but the outcome has been outstanding,” Cavatore says of the game’s momentum. “It's a different world altogether from anything else – everything else we did before works roughly in the world of the thousands. We were living in the world of the thousands. [Labyrinth] is in the tens of thousands. It was 1,000 units of this, 1,500 units of that – suddenly you're talking about tens of thousands. All you've done is multiplied by ten, which is great, but also very challenging for a small team.”

River Horse’s announcement of Jim Henson's Labyrinth: The Board Game arrived among a flurry of licensed tabletop adaptations, from video games including Dark Souls to fellow movies such as The Evil Dead 2, many of which turned to crowdfunding platform Kickstarter to cash in on the passion of fans. Cavatore and his team opted instead to take a traditional route to market – but that didn’t stop others from capitalising on the cherished label.

 

"We were living in the world of the thousands. Labyrinth is in the tens of thousands. All you've done is multiplied by ten, which is great, but also very challenging for a small team.”

 

“You know, quite a few people have asked the same question: 'When was the Kickstarter?' No, we didn't [do one]!” he exclaims. “[Crowdfunding] seems to be the thing. 

“What we did – the absurd, bizarre thing that happened with this – is we showed the prototype at some shows. We had thousands of people there. Suddenly in the group, people would say: 'I brought your game, thank you very much.' It was like: 'What? How did you buy our game? We haven't made it or started selling it.' They were like: 'eBay.' 'You brought our game on eBay?' What happened is people, just using pictures from Facebook and so on, started putting it on eBay and started selling it, and people were buying it with completely made-up RRPs. We went to [The Jim Henson Company] and said: 'Guys, this is happening. Is it okay if we put it for pre-sale on our site?' They went: 'Sure, yeah. That doesn't count as crowdfunding. Do it.' We sold 5,000 in a couple of weeks directly there. It was like: 'Okay, there is a bit of demand!'”

Not all of the demand was celebrated. After David Bowie passed away from cancer in early January 2016, interest in Labyrinth spiked, as fans revisited the musician and actor’s lifelong body of work. It was a situation that left River Horse feeling uncomfortable with its sudden renown.

“It didn't complicate things in terms of approval because luckily we had already done those bits,” Cavatore clarifies. “The only complication was a little embarrassment, because obviously you have to accept that him passing away has brought you attention, advertised your game and made your game possibly more successful. You think: 'Oh, that's great.' However, it's not great to feel like, 'Oh, cool, he died,' because he was a person who had a family and stuff. It's awkward.”

Contrastingly, Bowie’s death also risked discrediting the years of work invested in Labyrinth, as those unaware of the game’s history and development accused River Horse of exploiting his passing.

“We had the odd conversation where people went, 'Ah, you started this because Bowie died,'” Cavatore says. “'No, no – we started work on this game two years ago. Obviously not.'

“When it happened, I had the awkward conversation with Henson where I asked: 'What do you think we should say? Should we say nothing?' Not to appear that we are cashing in on it. But to say nothing sounds weird and like you're ignoring the fact completely. Henson said, 'It is what it is,' so you just say: 'We heard about the passing of David Bowie, our thoughts are with his family.' So that's what we did. It was awkward. So awkward in a sense, but certainly from a commercial point of view we have to accept that it probably helped.”

 

 

If Labyrinth served as the greatest leap River Horse has taken into mainstream recognition to date, the publisher’s latest project marks its complete mastery of uniting fundamental tabletop genres with universally recognisable worlds – and, like all good ideas, it all began with a group of cartoon ponies.

“As a geek, I played all sorts of games, with my favourites being RPGs,” Cavatore reminisces. “I have a five-, six-year-old daughter and she was watching [My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic] – and as a dad I spent time watching what she was watching. I watched the series and suddenly there's dragons, manticores, spells, energy fields and beams – so I started to pay attention. Actually, the new series that started being aired six years ago, it's D&D. It's a fantasy world where the main characters are ponies, but ponies that have great magical powers and there's an economy, there's politics and magic and big villains. Overall, it's also pervaded with a nice spirit – it's always positive – and it's fun. It's like watching those Pixar films where the grown-ups gets the jokes and the kids get something else out of it and you both enjoy the show. It's very watchable, very enjoyable – good fun, good characters. Basically, it's a very well-written show. I got into it, frankly.”

Cavatore’s captivation by the animated children’s show, based on the popular line of Hasbro toys, led him to invent a roleplaying game inspired by the adventures of Twilight Sparkle and her sister ponies, pun-tastically entitled Tails of Equestria.

“One day I saw the Hasbro booth at a licensing fair and I thought: 'Why not?' So I went and pitched it,” he continues. “I fully expected them to go: 'No, thank you.' But she went: 'Yeah, sounds interesting. Yeah.' What I didn't know at the time is that in 2017 they have a full-length Hollywood-style My Little Pony movie. They went for it, we went for it; we started to work with them.”

The proposal of an RPG starring a herd of cartoon equines aimed at kids is sure to have many adult roleplayers rolling their eyes and dismissing it as a watered-down pretender to the genre. Yet, listening to Cavatore fervently outline his passion project makes it clear that Tails is far more than a slapdash tie-in.

“Princess Luna is a magical creature,” he enthuses. “She has the abilities of the three races of pony: unicorn, pegasi and earth ponies. She's an alicorn, which is the ruling race, which are all three in one. You kind of go: 'Right, I have three classes.' It lends itself very well to an RPG.

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“Part of the game is stuff that already existed. We did get to add some artwork and develop it a bit. We created the three main characters – effectively we have the Indiana Jones-esque rogue type; a sorceress, Galadriel-type; and an Aragon warrior-type. We named them and they're part of the thing.

“The book has the rules, we include equipment and everything. Then you get to the mini adventure. We start with a little cartoony intro and then have a bit for the GM, a bit to read out aloud to the players. It makes it easy to GM.

“Basically, it's a complete roleplaying game, which means it includes a character sheet, you have the dice [on page] which is effectively a D12 you [roll by] just [pointing] at random. If you go from the beginning, it's basically a RPG manual, it's just adapted to a younger audience. It has a lot of illustration from the series.”

 

“I hope there's a lot of people like me that played D&D in their twenties and now they have kids and would like to play D&D with their kids. Tails of Equestria is a step into the world of roleplaying.”

 

As you might expect, adapting staple RPG mechanics to suit children has resulted in Tails adopting a unique approach to elements such as combat. All we’re saying is don’t expect to be leaving Pinkie Pie’s severed head in a bed.

“There is some fighting in the show, but obviously there is no casualties in terms of death or serious injury,” Cavatore explains, adding that battles are referred to – with almost stereotypical British courteousness – as ‘scuffles’. “There's a lot of comedy fighting. People end up knocked out with stars spinning around their heads. Your stamina is a measure of being knocked out physically, but also being depressed and tired – you're losing energy.”

While the tone of the game is understandably softened, Cavatore notes that the dice-driven systems required very little changing to allow kids to understand the central gameplay.

“As much as possible, I use the same dice – all of the classic roleplaying dice – in the same colours throughout [our games],” he observes. “Terminator, Labyrinth and My Little Pony use the same dice in the same colours. There's a mechanic that kind of ties them all together. There's definitely a house style for River Horse which has to do with that.

“We went for the colour-coding for two reasons. Instead of telling a kid, an eight-year-old, 'roll the D10,' you can say: 'Roll the purple die.' The blue die is really strong, it's the best, while the red die is the weakest. That's the mechanic. It's an accessibility thing and a simplicity to colour coding. The reason the colours are the ones they are is that they are elemental; they are what Plato defines as the colours of the four elements, plus extras.”

Avoiding the need to dumb down roleplaying processes familiar to older RPG players means that Tails can be played by adults and children together – in fact, it’s recommended.

“We often have boxes [in the rulebook] which say 'For Grown-ups', where we tend to give advice to the GM who we assume to be a grown-up,” Cavatore explains. As for whether younger fans could learn to run a campaign on their own, he remains less sure.

“We think that you would need at least a teenager to be a GM,” he admits. “If you play with eight-year-olds, there's no way. We are designing a starter set which is a bit more basic where the kid goes straight into it, but this is designed to have an adult or at least a teenager being the GM, keeping order.”

The aim, Cavatore adds, is to create an experience just like he had with his daughter – Dungeons & Dragons stalwarts introducing their own children to the ABCs of roleplaying and sharing the joy of a creating a fantasy universe together.

“I hope there's a lot of people like me that played D&D in their twenties and now they have kids and would like to play D&D with their kids,” he suggests. “This is a step into the world of roleplaying.”

And for the growing number of adults without children who are obsessed with My Little Pony – often referred to both endearingly and disparagingly as ‘bronies’?

“We know the bronies will love this,” Cavatore states confidently. “There are already several unofficial Pony RPGs. It's going to be a hit with bronies, absolutely. It's almost like whatever you do is going to be that.

"But I wanted to play with my daughter and her friends; I wanted to spend time with my daughter because we love this together. You choose your class with special abilities, choose your alignment – the Elements of Harmony – and then you have stats, very simple stats. You have a creative element in that you draw your own pony, you colour it in. The key message of this is all about friendship; it rewards you for being friendly.”

 

 

In a little over six years, River Horse has been propelled from working in the background of other publishers to become a major label producing its own creations tied to some of the best Hollywood has to offer.

That’s not to say that every endeavour is a hit, however; the company was forced to abandon its Hunt for Red October board game after it was unable to raise even half of its $7,000 (£5,700) crowdfunding target on Indiegogo late last year. Still, Cavatore remains assured that even the failures are ultimately for the best.

“We tried our best to promote it, but, in the end, if the demand is not big enough to be worth it, then you don't do it,” he says. “It's a good thing, because the alternative is doing it and not selling it, which is a disaster. Not all products have demand; you cannot create demand if there is no demand. Market test, tried, success? Cool, make it. Not so much demand? Fine, move on, next project. It's a very useful tool.

“Philosophically, there is no reason not to do crowdfunding, in the sense that you put an idea, a project, a product out – if there's no demand, you don't make it. That's the perfect market testing. If there's no demand out there, you save yourself from making something with lots of boxes that you cannot shift.”

It’s this belief and confidence in his work that has led Cavatore and River Horse to emerge from the shadow of work-for-hire and into the spotlight as the movie-adapting firm of the moment. Next on their schedule is a board game based on the massively successful Hunger Games series, which is due out later this year and casts two players as the opposing Capitol Peacekeepers and district rebels as they vie for control of Panem.

“The game is actually a satellite vision [of Panem],” Cavatore details. “Imagine one of those strategy games where you have the map of Panem, the Capitol has the Peacekeepers and then flyers, so you have little plastic toy soldiers and planes on the map. Then you have the rebel resistance springing up with their soldiers and bigger miniatures which are the actual heroes and leaders. Effectively, big map, lots of plastic miniatures of the normal units and bigger miniatures of the actual characters. So if you have Katniss then all your fighters have plus one morale kind of thing.”

With the River Horse’s weight in the industry growing, surely it can’t be long before Cavatore finally reaches his initial dream of releasing completely original games?

“Certainly, I see it as River Horse phase one was small little indie projects and services,” he recapitulates. “We're now really in River Horse [phase] two, which is less services for other people, more own projects, mostly on licences. We're growing the company doing this. I hope, and I plan, one day, to have a phase three, where actually there's more of an own IP development. That will depend on a lot of factors, but ideally we'd like to, yes.

“We have had a few words with [video game developer] Blizzard. Something may come out of that, but we don't know yet. Nothing's been signed or anything. So, yeah, we are talking to video game companies as well as Hollywood stuff. Clearly, we are exploring different solutions for stuff. One day, I hope to maybe put a bit of energy into developing our [own] stuff as well. That would be nice.”

MATT JARVIS

 

This article originally appeared in the February issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here – or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.

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