Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Industry Talk: Hendrik Mell Freebooter Miniatures


Right then, given as though the last month has been a pretty busy time for the chaps and chapesses at Freebooter Miniatures and their game Freebooter's Fate I thought I'd try to get to interview one of them. I tried for Werner at first, but apparently he really is kept chained to a desk... although whether this has anything to do with his working practices or just for fun was never actually fully explained... any way... moving on, Hendrik Mell decided to step into the breach, or was more likely volunteered because he forgot to turn up to an office meeting or something. So I put my questions about Freebooter's Fate, The Cult (not the band but the faction) and their Indiegogo campaign to him, and he was nice enough to give me some answers...

Frontline Gamer: As is always the case can I say thank you Hendrik for agreeing to do this interview with me. Especially as you’ve had to step into the breach given my quip about Werner being chained to his desk turned out to be quite prophetic!

Hendrik Mell: No worries. Well, we had to, given how much stuff he has to do. But he’s got his own little room in the basement and every so often we collect the greens from the little drawer and drop in a few sammies in return. And refill his water bottle, of course.

FLG: So It’s been a busy few months I guess for you guys over in Germany, since I saw you at Salute 2012 in London. The most interesting thing for me is your Indiegogo crowd-funding campaign for the Freebooter’s Fate Legends. How do you think the campaign is going so far, as it enters the final week?

HM: It’s going extremely well. We are really rather gobsmacked at the level of support we have received from our fans. I’m not gonna do a “you really like us”, but let me just say a big thank you to everybody who has pledged some money and to everybody who is still going to. We’re dead chuffed and extremely appreciative. You’ve pledged yourself, haven’t you? Seriously though, if we’re talking actual figures, we would love to be able to say that Reaper is a realistic benchmark for us, but I think Otherworld’s most recent campaign is more our level.

The splendid looking Green for Raven, aka Mistress of Shadows...

FLG: I might have pledged, but I’m not telling! Obviously the Legends Miniatures are a celebration of sorts for the fact that Freebooter Miniatures have been going now for a decade. That’s some achievement not only in this industry, but also in this economic environment. Why do you think you’ve been so successful and sustainable as a company?

HM: Hmm. Well, I still have a bit of an outsider’s perspective because I haven’t been part of the core team for that long and so can still remember being a mere customer. I think it is a combination of four things: humility and/or realistic expectations, a modicum of common business sense, enthusiasm and just being nice people, even if we say so ourselves. I think that is our winning combination, which is not going to see us dethrone Games Workshop but, which is going to see the name “Freebooter Miniatures” around for some time to come.

...and here she is fully painted by Jen Haley and looking resplendent!

FLG: I know you’re not supposed to have favorites when you are involved with a project, but I know pretty much everyone in the industry does, even if they don’t admit it. So of the current Legends miniatures in your campaign, which one is your favourite and why?
HM: That would have to be Cerebro, the mad goblin inventor. Just because he is rather silly. I prefer well-made silly over cool these days, really. I guess it’s an age thing. He is closely followed by Ixchelcoatl, the Amazon priestess. Because she is a half-naked woman with a big snake. And, er, I like the Blade Runner reference. Yeah, that’s so totally the reason. <grins>

FLG: Yeah the Goblin dude is cool, and I know the Cursed is a fan. Personally I think Calamite clinches it for me. I know the reason why you’re doing the crowd-funding campaign, your ten year anniversary, but why did you as a company choose to go down the crowd funding root?

HM: The main advantage of crowd-funding for a company like Freebooter is that people tell you in advance what they want and give you money for, which proves they actually want it. We could never have done what we did in the campaign, using our traditional business model. Certainly not at that price. And people giving you money is the most reliable indicator on what they actually want to buy. Anybody running a company like ours will be able to tell you about the gap between Internet enthusiasm and actual purchases. This way, that gap doesn’t exist. So we can plan better, optimize production cost and thus optimize price for the customer, and everybody is happy. So when McVey and Reaper gave crowd-funding the aura of respectability for established companies in our industry, we decided to launch a campaign to do things, which because of the risk of doing 'normally' we couldn’t have afforded otherwise.

The Goblin dude Hendrik was on about!

FLG: Yep, I guess that is a key benefit of crowd-funding, at least you know you have a market for it, and if you don’t it hasn’t cost you anything but your time. As your campaign draws to a close, where do you think you’ll end up in terms of funding?

HM: I think that our loyal and generous fans will see us with a “6”, maybe even a “7” as the leading digit of the final figure. Although I’m happy to be proven too conservative in my estimate.

FLG: I’ll be interested to see how close you get to £60K or £70K, as you can never really tell how these sorts of campaigns will end. Do you think crowd-funding is something Freebooter Miniatures might look to use again at some point in the future?

HM: Given the enormous success of the current campaign, I’m sure we’ll consider it for similar projects in the future. I don’t think we’d ever use it to fund an extension to an established product, mind, but for something new or something out of the ordinary, yeah, totally. But, let’s also wait for the look on Werner’s face after the taxman has been through the treasure chest, and once the perks have actually been sent out.

FLG: You’ve also recently announced the Cult faction for Freebooter’s Fate, bringing the total number of factions up to a pleasing sounding six. What is the theme behind this faction, not only in terms of play mechanics but also background?

HM: Well, we hinted at them from the very start in the introductory story of the basic rulebook. And of course with stuff like my own personal favourite character trait, the shadow run. There is something supernatural afoot, something powerful, something more than can be explained by the Imperial scientists with their rational philosophy. So naturally, the Empire suppresses this. Rather viciously. As you do, when you’re an Empire. But now the Empire is gone, and so they’re all coming out of the woodwork again. From the peasants who took their various skin complaints to the bent old crone round the corner, to those very crones who turn out to actually look a lot younger than they can possibly be and whose powers stretch far beyond wart removal and pile treatments. They’ve got candles, and are really rather sexy indeed.

In terms of mechanics, there will be an additional card mechanic with a new set of cards for invoking loas. It is still very much based on bluffing but is different enough to give it a whole new feel. On the other hand, it doesn’t affect game flow, because it is in essence just a very specialized ranged attack made by the mystic and the basic principle is easy to grasp.

FLG: Now I remember having a chat with you a while back now where you said Werner didn’t want to do just the stereotypical zombie pirate faction, because it wasn’t anything new. So what’s new about the Cult? I’ve seen people say they’re a voodoo and zombie faction online. So spill the beans, did Werner have a change of heart or are the rumours slightly misplaced?

HM: Wow, did you push a button there. You’ve managed to pose that question to the team’s staunchest anti-zombieist, so to speak. So, first off: the Cult is based on two pillars, if you want. There are the cultists and there are the, um, other ones. Now, the cultists are the ones we have included in the beta starter. They’ve taken a page out of the goblin’s book, you know, the one headed “strength of numbers”. They are collectively strong but individually weak. The second pillar of the cult. Now. They most definitely are not zombies. They may look a bit like zombies to the uninitiated at first glance, but they definitely are not. Zombies are not unknown in the world of Freebooter’s Fate, but much like dirty nukes, nobody in their right mind uses them anymore. Far too dangerous for everybody. As is illustrated in the book in a scenario. With zombies. Well, almost zombies, but not as you may expect. That confusing enough for you? <laughs>

The closeness of the finished miniatures to the concept sketches is brilliant

FLG: Obviously we’ve seen some of the greens for the faction in the announcement and a stunningly well-painted puppeteer and marionette. Plus there’s the artwork for Calamite in the Indiegogo campaign. But, what else can we expect from the faction?

HM: Well, it wouldn’t be Freebooter if there wasn’t the odd scantily-clad woman, so there are going to be a few more of those. As the beta package suggests, some pirates seem to have become involved, so there is that. And yes, a few clichés will be in there as well, next to our original stuff. There may be the odd top hat. And chooks (chickens).

FLG: By the way who was responsible for the paint job on the puppeteer miniature?

HM: That was Sascha Bernhardt, who has painted all the Cult miniatures so far. He does a lot of stuff for us, and he produces lovely smooth blending work which you can zoom up on the website without seeing any stripes. I’d plug his website but I can’t remember him having one.

The first fully painted miniature from the Cult faction.

FLG: Yeah, very neat work. Obviously you are entering a playtesting period for the Cult faction right now. Can you give us an idea of how you want them to play in the game, and what new they’ll be bringing to the mix? Will we see a core rules update like we did with the Amazons?

HM: The Cult is supposed to be a faction which, is very much based on teamwork. They don’t have a super tank like Romerto or Malo, which pounds everything into a fine paste, and they don’t have the firepower of, say, the Armada. The loas of the mystics are not going to be killers. You have to use them and then exploit the effect with other crew members. The other troops definitely need the loas as support so you need to select carefully, which ones of your own to boost. If you send them off on their own, expecting them to carry the field individually, they are going to get shot, mashed and chewed to pieces. It’s not going to be a crew for tabletop newbies, but very rewarding for veterans. The core rules may receive some clarification if I have my way, but nothing major in the way of updates. The new loas invocation mechanic is enough, I think.

FLG: How long do you think the playtesting will take? And when do you envisage the Cult faction being widely available for purchase and public consumption?

HM: Well, since we always value quality of the final product over adherence to deadlines, I usually answer questions like this with “when we’re ready”, but I would say that Salute 2013 is a reasonable date at which to expect the new book and crew to be available.

FLG: And you should always value quality of expedience, but Salute 2013 isn’t too far away when you think about it. Talking about the game in general now, how do you guys see Freebooter’s Fate developing in the future? Obviously there’s the new faction and this Indiegogo campaign, but it feels to me that the game is starting mature now. You released the Equipment cards earlier this year, which are fun by the way. So where do you go from here with the game?

HM: Well, now that we have the fantasy-ish angle covered, we’ll develop a second game set in the far future, which is set in kinda the same world but not quite and introduce a requirement for more and more miniatures per side plus enormous monsters the size of a real-life kitten... um, wait, that’s not us, is it? Er… No, seriously, we still have any amount of what we think are fresh ideas for the game. And the next stage is going to involve closing a slightly obvious gap, which we couldn’t have covered from the start. I can’t tell you more than that, I’m afraid, but I am sure it is going to please a lot of people.

FLG: You see, now that’s just going to get people emailing me because they’ll assume you’ve told me and I’m not spilling the beans. Did you do that on purpose?

HM: Moi? Might have. <grins> No seriously, if this were on telly I'd be looking straight into the camera right now with my sincerest honest puppy look and pointing at you. "See that chap? He knows nooothing. Nothing, I tells you." There, that should get you off the hook, shouldn't it? Of course I haven't told you anything. How could I? Like we'd know what we'll be doing next. Well, we do, but honestly, I haven't told you anything beyond what I just said a minute ago. You've got no beans to spill. You're beanless. <grins>

FLG: Now that’s just going to make it worse, and I think you know it will. You and me might have a falling out buddy! Any way, speaking of emails, I’ve had a few people email me from various corners of the globe and tell me they’d like to play Freebooter’s Fate, and they would if they could buy the product locally. Is that the biggest challenge facing you, and well any other small company trying to push a game? Actually getting it into peoples hands?

HM: No, I honestly don’t think so. Now that we have the Internet and halfway decent ways of paying securely, that has ceased to be problem number one, I think. The problem, to my mind, is not that people want to buy it but can’t, but that people don’t know whether they want to buy it. I mean, how many independent local shops do we have left, anyway? Over here, it’s maybe one, possibly two per city if it’s a university town or city. And some of those, which carry our product do a really splendid job, no doubt about that. But I think it’s not so much getting hold of the game, it’s getting hold of other players that is the actual concern for most people who are looking for local support.

FLG: That’s a fair point, it does take two to tango, and I guess all new games need evangelists. So, how difficult is it for you to turn what is in my humble opinion a pretty solid and fun game, into something that has a thriving global community? I mean how is Freebooter’s Fate doing in its native Germany?

HM: That is the tricky bit. Getting people into the game, showing them how much fun it really is. There is a very effective way of solving that problem, which is to get them to actually play it. I mean, that’s how I got into it. That is why we are so successful in Germany. To answer your question: we are, as far as I know, the most successful originally German-produced tabletop game in Germany – which smacks a bit of defining your niche until you are the top player in it. <grins> However, we are doing very well indeed in Germany, because we are on location, so to speak, we can take people by the hand and show them the game. Table-toppers can be an extremely conservative bunch – you wouldn’t believe how many people are put off by the fact that it doesn’t use dice – but once they have played their first few combats, especially against a mate or, my personal favourite for demo games, their partner, they are hooked 9 times out of 10.

FLG: So how do you convert this success at home into success abroad? Is it just about plugging away and trying to get people to try your product? Is that part of the reason for the Indiegogo campaign, to try and raise the profile of the game a bit more?
HM: It’s not just about raising awareness of the game, although that is a necessary first step. Mostly, though, it’s about getting it across to people just how much fun this game really is once you get into it. We’ll have to work on that, I think. I think people see the game and think “meh, it doesn’t have proper dice” or “meh, it’s not a proper tabletop, there’s not a single table in the rules” or “meh, I’ll never find an opponent for this”. Those are the hurdles we’ll have to overcome. Just plugging away as before is not going to cut it, I think, like with any business, you’ll have to put some special effort into it. Most importantly, however, we have to watch that we don’t overextend ourselves because that seems one of the most common root causes for failure in our industry.

FLG: I have to ask because a number of people did ask me to put this question to you, are there any plans to do a French or Spanish version of the Freebooter’s Fate rules?

HM: I don’t think so, for two very important reasons, both of them based on our desire to do things properly or not at all. First of all there is the financial effort. If we want to do it properly, we have to translate the supporting material as well. The character cards, the website, the advertising, otherwise you get a second-class customer who doesn’t get the full enjoyment. We are having enough problems keeping our forum even vaguely bilingual, for example. That would be a serious amount of money to invest, which would put prices up to unsustainable levels, even if we were to go into e-publishing for these languages. Even more important is quality, however. None of the team speak French or Spanish to any degree which, would allow us to check a translation for accuracy, style, and flair. There are enough horrible translations out there already, we don’t have to add to that. We take great care that the English translation is absolutely spot on – sometimes even better than the German original, because there is no better way of proofreading a text than translating it, I find. But, we can only do that because our gold standard translator is a native Australian, a professional translator and a great fan of the game. And she also happens to be my wife. <grins>

FLG: Well that is handy I guess. Moving away from the business questions as it were, and onto a far less serious note, what faction do you play the most and why?

HM: Since we have to play absolutely oodles of test games with very specific setups, I play whichever faction is currently most in need of tweaking and/or testing. So, recently I have played Cult and Amazons an awful lot. However, my heart is most in it when I get to play pirates. Arrr! and so forth. They are the embodiment of the game’s spirit for me.

FLG: I’m terrible; I play as Amazons, Brotherhood and Pirates! I’ve never really been able to settle on one faction for any game I play, at a push I’d probably go Pirates. Right lets have a bit more fun! Thinking about your colleagues at Freebooter Miniatures for a moment, their personalities and how they are, which Freebooter’s Fate characters are they most like and why?

HM: Ha! That’s a very dangerous question. I don’t think they are like any of the characters because they are just too bloody nice. Except for Franz who can be a right devious bastard indeed. <grins> So I honestly don’t think there are any Freebooter team members who are like characters from the game. However, since I have by now written the lion’s share of the stories, I can tell you about some significant inspirations I’ve had from team members. They mostly tend to be supporting characters, though. I think it is fair to say that there is a lot of Werner in Javier, the character which binds the background story together. Although I should point out for the sake of his relationship that he is not in the habit of chasing after strange women he only saw once in a pub. As far as I know. <grins> Franz was the inspiration for the Blackbeard story, simply for his larger-than-life rogueish appearance at shows, Christian seems to sometimes claim Chulo Bulo for himself - let’s not go into that, shall we? – and I would be lying if I were to claim that Regicide’s story wasn’t inspired by certain interludes at the Mell household, albeit exaggerated for comic effect. Red-headed Australian women have a low tolerance threshold when it comes to inanimate objects being recalcitrant. Sort of like Fonzie, but without the joie de vivre or possibility of subsequent repair. <grins>

FLG: I think you chickened out there a bit, but what about yourself? Which character are you most like?

HM: There’s not really a single character I identify with. Or would publicly own up to identifying with, anyway. I have to say that there is a lot of me in the pirate from the mini campaign in Deep Jungle, who is made to talk to Qualani initially, because of his language skills. That had flashbacks to my youth, that story.

FLG: Right I guess I’m running out of interesting things to ask you now, and I’m sure you need to get back and check that Werner is still chained to his desk. Could you give us a sales pitch in your own words as to why people should give Freebooter’s Fate a try?

HM: People should give it a go because it’s fun and fast and easy to learn, but hard to forget. It’s simple but not simplistic, you can out bluff your opponent and you can kick opponents in the squishy bits.

FLG: Excellent, I guess all that’s left to say is thank you for taking the time to answer my questions, especially as I know how busy you are right now. Also I wish you the best of luck with your Indiegogo campaign.

Right just so you all know the Freebooter Legends campaign on Indiegogo still has roughly six days left to run. It currently stands at some $45,000US, so it's chugging along quite nicely and from the $100 perk upwards there are already a nice amount of extra bits and bobs. They've also recently added a $250 perk called 'long John Silver, which will net you the Goblin Captain Ragg cast in pure silver. I'd be tempted if I was still in full-time employment, just for the bling value, however I'm not that mad. You though might be, if you are you'd better hurry because they only made ten recently available and three have already been sold. If any of you guys are interested in learning more about Freebooter's Fate you can pop along to the Official Website, or read my own articles on it here. I am a self confessed fan and think it's great fun to play... but I would because I'm crazy in the coconut for pirates. Peace out!


  1. Seems like good things are coming for Freebooter's Fate! The Cult looks great and if I'm honest, so does the rest of the game. There's no faction I would mind owning and I've read your gameplay reviews more than a few times.

    Might need to get a second codex pledge to get the expansion and equipment cards. Are those important to have in your opinion?

    1. Hmm...

      Good question. Are the equipment cards important to have? You know what I actually don't know!!! I've been using them and I haven't once thought are these things pivotal to the game. For me they've given me a few nice extra options and added a nice layer to an already pretty fun game. I don't think you need them to enjoy the game, and I'd suggest learning the game first without them. Once you've got down how you like to play, and the rules I'd then consider adding them to your game. They're definitely worth owning if you end up playing the game quite a bit.

    2. No problem, that's sort of what I'm here for.