Wednesday, May 14, 2014

An Interview with Sam Mustafa of Honour

 About a decade ago, a friend, who happens to own a very well known webstore, gifted me a copy of Grand Armee. Hesitant at first, I read the rules, promising my friend I would give them a shot. He was right and my reluctance proved wrong. The rules were good, gave a reasonable result, and played far more quickly than the rules I had previously used. The author of those rules, Sam Mustafa, made playing the Napoleonic period enjoyable again, and much less the chore it had become. Fortuitously, Sam has written a number of other rules, each equally enjoyable to play.

This post contains my interview with Sam Mustafa, owner of Honour aka Sam Mustafa Publishing.

JP: What caused you to jump into the realm of writing wargames rules? Was this done with eyes open or were you shocked at the beginning?

SM: I've been creating games of one sort or another since I was quite young. I started selling them in my early 20s, back in the days of dot-matrix printers and stapled booklets printed at the local print shop.

Grande Armée in 2002 was the first game I did that began to attract interest around the world and sold a few thousand copies. At that point I began to take it more seriously and what had been a hobby effectively became a second job.

I've become a small business. There are several people who help me with this bit or that, but essentially I'm a one-man show. I do everything, from the writing to the page layout and art, to dealing with printers, distribution to retailers, running the online store, and so on.

JP: How did you get starting wargaming in the first place?

I started as a kid in the 1970s with Avalon Hill and SPI boardgames. I was quite young at the time. By junior high I'd discovered roleplaying, which I enjoyed until my early 20s, at which point I discovered miniatures.

JP: Apart from your own rules, what game have you played most recently and what miniature armies do you collect? Do you paint them yourself or do you shop that job out?

Unfortunately most of my gaming time is devoted now to playtesting. I rarely play anything else. In fact, I don't even "play" my own games; I usually stand there running the playtest, taking notes and analyzing. I didn't play Maurice until after it was published, and I think I've only played it about five times. I can count on the fingers of two hands the number of times I've played Longstreet, as a player, I mean.

About 90% of my collection is painted by me. From time to time I have bought some painted figures, though, including a few last year.

I'm fairly disciplined when it comes to collecting; only about 10% of my figures are unpainted at any time. I try to avoid buying things unless I'm really jazzed on the idea and know I'll have the time for them.

I also "purge" from time to time and usually give away whole collections to friends. In fact, I've given away or sold more figures than I own, by a large margin.

JP: Your rules are all firmly placed within the early modern period, likely due to your profession and education. What do you see down the road, through your "crystal ball" as it were, as being the natural end result of your efforts and interests? Any chance of going back a bit to the Thirty Years War or forward to the Franco-Prussian War or even the British colonial wars?

SM: The horse-n-musket era is what I know best, so it's my comfort zone.

What most people don't know about me, though, is that I've designed all sorts of games for other periods and topics, but for one reason or another they've never been published. In many cases they weren't commercially feasible, or I didn't want to take the risk of investment and time to turn them into a polished commercial product.

I've done modern-era games, WW1 and WW2 at various scales, a Zulu War game, several fantasy and sci-fi games, several naval games, all sorts of oddball little skirmish games, role-playing, and even boardgames. Not all of them are "war" games, either. For example, I once created a boardgame of the political and ideological struggle for control of the Soviet Union in the mid-1920s after the death of Lenin. My old club in Richmond played it many times.

Pretty much everything except Ancients, which is just so far out of my ken that I've never tried.

I'm fairly conservative when it comes to my business, and I don't publish something unless I think it's a sure thing.

JP: You are highly active on perhaps the most utilized wargaming website in the world. As a result, you have gained both adherents and detractors. Why are you so vocal, whereas many, if not most, other authors barely respond to emails? The question is not meant as criticism, but more of an observation of your really putting yourself out there and taking risks, in the public realm, where few others rarely tread to the same degree, if ever.

SM: Are you referring to TMP? I used to try to be available there on a daily basis to answer questions, but in the past year I've just decided that it was taking up too much time. These days I'm there only about once a week.

I always try to answer emails ASAP, and of course I monitor the HONOUR Forum every day.

JP: There are obvious and significant changes between your earlier work and Longstreet. What have you learned about rules writing, since Grande Armee?

SM: The business side of the hobby has changed a great deal in the past 15 years or so. Color printing has become relatively inexpensive, and the internet has matured to the point that electronic documents even of fairly large size and sophistication can be delivered easily anywhere in the world. The days of distributors are gone; I can sell directly to retailers, or directly to the customer. That has changed the way I think about what a "book" is, and how to create and sell game components. For example, fifteen years ago I would not have been able to afford to create a card-based game like Longstreet.

The wargaming economy is divided between very small operations that just sell a PDF very cheaply, and larger operations with several employees who produce entire ranges of figures and boxed games, and so on.

The challenge, for a middling operation like mine, is to stay relevant and competitive. I like to think that my "brand," so to speak, has a sort of consistency that my customers appreciate.

JP: Is there a work of yours that you wish you had written differently? If so, why?

SM: No, not really. Each design is evolutionary, in that it borrows some things from previous games that I wanted to tweak or change, plus new ideas.

JP: I know there is very little you can say about it now, apart from what is already available, but why Blücher? I mean, what drives you to write the game, even after the trouble you've had with its development from a couple of years ago? I can tell you that I am certainly going to be pre-ordering the game. Just from what you've included in the flyer, I WANT it!.

SM: Blücher has been the most difficult project I've ever tried to complete. There are a million reasons for that, from the oddities of that particular scale, to the fact that I was determined not to make "just another big Napoleonic battle game."

All of the HONOUR games have a specific "angle," as it were. Lasalle was the first Napoleonic game to be based around fictional and even ahistorical battles with army building. Maurice and Longstreet featured new concepts for campaign systems that were more like role-playing a character rather than a traditional wargame campaign. Blücher's unique angle is very satisfying to me, but getting there has taken an incredible amount of work.

At this point, I've lost count of the distinct number of playtest versions we've done, in three major periods of work since 2010, but it's probably over 100 different versions.

JP: History, especially military history, is filled with interesting and colorful figures, both heroes and villains. Which figure from the past do you most identify with, or at least the one who has proven to be the most interesting to you?

SM: I tend to identify with rebels and misfits. Not because I want to be them, but simply because I root for the underdog and I'm an inveterate skeptic.

JP: If someone were to get into the industry by writing rules, what do you suggest they pay the most attention to and/or what to avoid?

SM: This is actually a really good time for novice game designers because they can begin by creating games as PDFs and selling them cheaply to attract some attention and interest. You no longer need to take a risk and spend tens of thousands of dollars to print books, store them, ship them, and so on.

My advice would be to limit yourself to electronic publishing until you have a following that allows you to consider bigger and costlier projects. 

Thank you, Sam, for the interview. All the best in your efforts.


  1. Another cracking interview Justin.

    1. Thanks Fran. I've a few more to go. Watch this space closely next week.

  2. Replies
    1. Thanks Ray! I miss your and Fran's more frequent postings, btw,

  3. Very interesting Justin. Sam seems a decent chap and I don't think he deserves even a fraction of the flak he's picked up on TMP over the years.

    1. Gary, I have to agree. I have dealt with Sam a few times, over the years, with issues regarding products, including rules queries and have always found him to be kind and helpful. I guess envy drives many to the opposition.

  4. Great interview, interesting to take a look at the way a game designer approaches his work.

    1. Thanks, Evan. I am certainly gaining a better appreciation for the other side of this wonderful hobby, through these interviews