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Tabletop Game Design Company Needy Cat on Creating the Official Hellboy Board Game and Their First In-House Release

6 February 20 words: Emily Thursfield
illustrations: Alex Vine

Tabletop games studio Needy Cat are the fast-paced, sharp minds behind some of the most exciting board games on the market. Working with household-name franchises as well as other small creators, they have one aim: to get as many people playing games as possible. We spoke to them about their work, as they gear up to launch their first, completely in-house designed game, Robot Fight Club… 

“We always joke that if people are coming to Nottingham to work, they’ve either got a job at Boots, Experian or in the gaming industry,” laughs James Hewitt, one half of Needy Cat, a Notts-based tabletop design studio specialising in board games, card and roleplaying games. There’s not a hint of rivalry here though; I soon learn the gaming industry is full of nothing but love: “We’ve all got our own little niches within the niche, and we’re all fans of each other's work.” 

It became clear almost as soon as I’d entered the Needy Cat office that James and his partner, Sophie Williams, make a great team; the sort that you’d fear to come up against in a friendly game of Pictionary, or that could read each other’s minds during Articulate. Based in a small unit in Basford, together they’ve built their own gaming empire and work with world-renowned companies, thanks to their twenty years of experience in the tabletop industry. 

“We design games for clients. People come to us with intellectual property, like a licence to a film or a range of models, and we help them create a game,” says James. “I was working at Games Workshop’s head office designing games for about five years, and then one of my colleagues passed away suddenly. I was in my mid-thirties, and it was a real wake up call that life is short. I’d always wanted to do something for myself so I took that chance.” 

We’re able to think ‘What would be cool? Guys riding giant chickens with fists that punch you? Let’s put it in!’”

After their amicable departure from Games Workshop, the company immediately hired Needy Cat to work on a game that would be distributed in more accessible gaming channels, such as Barnes and Noble stores in the US. “The initial plan was for Sophie to help me out with the project management side of things, but we soon had so much work on that Sophie now designs games full-time too,” says James. Maybe we should think about getting someone else to do all that other stuff now...”

From there, Needy Cat worked with Manchester-based studio Steamforged Games on a tabletop adaptation of the latest Devil May Cry video game – a project so secretive they were sent an encrypted hard drive of the installment, hand-delivered by courier.  

One of the most intricate projects to date was their collaboration with James’ ex-employers, Bulwell-based Mantic Games, on a board game for the Hellboy comic book series. The game’s Kickstarter raised $1.5 million, and James and Sophie soon had a big challenge on their hands. “I’d always been the one roped into testing his games, so taking on Hellboy was a natural step forward for me,” says Sophie. “I basically spent six months writing everything – there were lots of moving parts and it was a mind-boggling experience working out how all the content interacted with each other. While games might appear easy to learn for the player, there’s a lot of complexity designing them that you don't see in the final experience.” 

It’s the freedom of creativity that keeps them going, though. “There’s this chap called Dan who makes beautiful resin models. He used to work for Disney as a VFX artist, and now he’s a one-man business in Lincolnshire called Atlantic Miniatures,” says James. “I personally think they’re some of the best miniatures on the market,” chimes in Sophie. “He wanted to make a tabletop game so came to us for a chat. It’s been fun working with him as it’s very distilled creativity – there’s no commercial concerns so it’s very open. We’re able to think ‘What would be cool? Guys riding giant chickens with fists that punch you? Let’s put it in!’” 

The revival of board games shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone; in a world inundated with screens and digital distraction, it’s no wonder people are taking a break by clearing the dust off Monopoly or locking themselves in rooms to escape. James reckons there’s a primal need in all of us: “Every culture in history has had board games in one form or another. There are games that are older than the pyramids that have been discovered.” 

As games-fanatics themselves, Sophie and James do everything they can to enable as many folk as possible to get a leg-up into the industry. As well as a rule review service for other games, Needy Cat also runs a podcast interviewing industry professionals, and offers workshops and courses, both locally and on their patreon account, to help anyone launch their own game. They are also the founding members of the Nottingham Tabletop Gaming Collective, who meet twice a month to socialise, share tips and offer emotional support. Support, it seems, is the biggest thing the gaming community offers each other. Sophie likens it to buying clothes: you can never own enough t-shirts. 

When I ask what makes a good game, they almost shout in unison “Decisions!” Sophie says: “Because they can be almost semi-cooperative, they force dialogue around the table. One of my favourite gaming experiences is Pandemic Legacy. It’s like playing a game where you’re a character in the TV series 24 or something, such high pressure.” 

“Didn’t we play it when we were on parental leave?” laughs James. Sophie rolls her eyes: “We kept playing games in the middle of the night while I was having braxton hicks. We had to be on high alert so we thought ‘what shall we do? Let’s play a game!’” James looks at me, “Thankfully, we get along.” 

As well as working on a host of projects, including what they believe to be the first game/novel crossover of its kind with literary series Newbury and Hobbes, Needy Cat are gearing up for their most exciting venture yet – the launch of their own tabletop game, Robot Fight Club, with the Kickstarter going live at the end of February. The two-player game is different from anything they’ve worked on before, and they’ve collaborated with students from Confetti on the game’s artwork. “This is where we want to be heading in the future – doing more for ourselves,” says James. 

Before I leave, I have to ask about the needy cat. “He’s the worst,” sighs Sophie. “Helo is gigantic and incredibly needy. He just sits on top of our games, batting the pieces and swishing his tail around like ‘Oh no, everything is ruined.’” It’s nice to see a few misplaced pawns haven’t stopped this pair from succeeding. 

Needy Cat will demo their upcoming Kickstater, Robot Fight Club at The Dice Cup on Saturday 8 February.

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