If there’s anything cooler and geekier than writing science fiction, it’s designing games. I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve been able to do both during the course of my career—I’ve published thirteen novels and over a hundred game products. While I’m probably best known in game circles for my work on the Dungeons & Dragons game and the Forgotten Realms world, there’s one game that is especially near and dear to my heart: Axis & Allies Naval Miniatures.
So here’s the story of how I got to make my favorite game.
I’ve always been a little crazy about battleships. I always loved visiting historical ships as a kid. I read everything I could get my hands on about battleships, I spent many long weekends fighting out battles with cardboard counters and sprawling hex maps. Heck, I even served in the Navy for a few years. When I went to work in the game industry, I remained keenly interested in naval history and wargaming, but I didn’t find many opportunities to combine my naval hobby interest and my game design career. There just isn’t all that much demand for a naval history game. It’s a niche of a niche. (And no, the game Battleship doesn’t count.)
Then in 2006 the opportunity of a lifetime for a battleship geek and game designer fell into my lap: Wizards of the Coast decided to produce a collectible naval miniatures game based on Axis & Allies, a WW2 strategy boardgame. And they assigned me to create the new minis game.
(Seriously. This was a lifelong interest of mine, something I’d dreamed about since I was ten years old, and they asked me to make it my primary job for months and months as we worked up and playtested the game. I would have done that for free, I wanted to do it so much.)
For those of you who don’t know what a collectible miniatures game is, it’s basically a hobby game where you build an “army”—or a fleet, in this case—by collecting miniatures representing different units (or ships). Then you take on your opponent in a tabletop battle that usually involves rolling lots of dice to see who sinks who. In the case of a historically themed miniatures game like Axis & Allies Naval Miniatures, the various units are waterline models of ships that fought in World War 2, such as USS Enterprise or USS Iowa or the German battleship Bismarck or the Japanese battleship Yamato. For our game, we produced sturdy plastic miniatures at the 1/1800 scale—the largest ones we could reasonably afford to manufacture—fully assembled, and then factory-painted in their historical paint schemes.
Not only did I get to design the game that you’d play with these pieces, I also got to choose the ships and planes we’d include in the game, create their game stats, provide a little bit of flavor text about why they were important, and work with the CAD sculptors to make sure they got the pieces as correct as they could given the various manufacturing constraints for making small, detailed game pieces from plastic. In short, it was absolutely the most fun I had in a career built around doing fun things as often as I possibly could.
The game went on to become an unexpected hit, at least by the standards of hobby miniatures games. Wizards of the Coast produced five expansions through 2011, each set introducing dozens of new pieces, and I led the design each time. (I would have done those for free, too.) We produced A&A Naval Miniatures sets until we literally ran out of ships that we hadn’t done models for. Tens of thousands of 6-inch long Yamatos and Iowas are out there in the world now; I’m the guy who figured out a fun game to play with them and made sure they’d look good enough to satisfy all the other battleship geeks out there.
Well, all good things come to an end. In 2011 Wizards brought the Axis & Allies miniatures line to an end, and decided they could no longer afford to retain my services. I moved on to other things. But I’m still just giddy that I had a chance to make the game that I’d wanted to play since I was a little kid, and do a good job of it.
I’m still a battleship geek at heart, but now I’m using that obsession to write military science fiction. The technology of my Sikander North universe winds up favoring space battles that feel just a little bit like the big-gun encounters of Tsushima or Jutland or Ironbottom Sound. They’re railguns instead of naval cannons and Alcubierre drives instead of steam engines, and I suppose that in space you don’t hear the thunder of the salvoes. But the tactics and the tension come to life in much the same way. I still pick up books on naval history whenever I can, and devour them voraciously. They say you should write what you know; guilty as charged.
After all, I’ve always been a little crazy about battleships.
Originally published November 2017.
Richard Baker is a former United States Navy officer, world-renowned game designer, and author who resides thirty minutes south of Seattle, in Pacific, WA. His works include the New York Times bestseller Condemnation and the highly-acclaimed The Last Mythal trilogy. His game design credits include the Alternity Science Fiction Roleplaying Game, and the Axis & Allies Naval Miniatures Game—the best-selling naval war game of all time. His military SF series Breaker of Empires includes Valiant Dust and Restless Lightning, available from Tor Books.