From The River Horse’s Mouth: Talking With Alessio Cavatore

Originally posted on in 2020.

Alessio in tournament action! Kashiwa, Tokyo

Born in Turin, Italy in 1972, Alessio Cavatore is a name synonymous with wargaming. A wargames enthusiast from a young age, Alessio began his career with Games Workshop in the mid-1990’s, working on a multitude of games and supplements which included the company’s ‘big three’ of Warhammer, Warhammer 40,000 and Lord of the Rings. Following a fifteen-year stint with Games Workshop, in 2010 Alessio set up his own enterprise, River Horse, a games design company which has worked with Warlord GamesManticFantasy Flight GamesFireforge GamesPara Bellum and many others, in addition to collaborating with the likes of Jim Henson, Lionsgate and Hasbro, and producing its own range of games too. I was delighted when Alessio agreed to discussing with me his entry into the wonderful world of wargames and his subsequent career in the industry.

From The River Horse’s Mouth: Talking With Alessio Cavatore. Part 1.

Alessio Cavatore: My first contact with wargaming came from a series of books called Battlegame Books by Andrew McNeil. Initially I found them in a library, then I bought a copy, then my granddad gave me one. So, I collected the series, The Wild West, Knights At War, Galactic War, World War II, and so on. These are beautiful hardback books, not very thick, but each book features a particular period of history. The first half of each book usually has these gorgeous spreads of fantastic illustrations, plus supporting information. For example, in Knights At War there is a picture of a castle that lists all the different parts, there would be details on sieges, another section covers the suits of armour. In the middle of each book is a cardboard section which has rules and playing pieces, which in theory you could cut out, but really it was better to photocopy them and make the pieces. Finally, in the second half of the book there are four games, each of which has a double page spread of a map, extra details, and rules to use. That was my basic entry into wargames, I just thought it was amazing, “Wow, look at this!”

I had already been collecting toy soldiers, such as the Airfix H0 range. I would love to spend time at the beach, build a fort, put the soldiers in position and start lobbing little stones at them. You would see the soldiers falling over, the explosions with the sand, and this would turn into a game. I would make a fort and put my Americans in, my friend would make his fort and put his Japanese in, we’d each lob over stones to knock down all the soldiers to win. It was fantastic, I still play this today! Playing these games with my toy soldiers and reading the Battlegame Books led to me thinking, “Wait, I have a square motif on my bedroom floor. How about I change the rules to suit my toy soldiers and my bedroom floor…” I’d adapt the rules and set up these huge armies, the house cat would then walk in and destroy everything! But that was the beginning of writing wargames rules.

As part of his education curriculum, Alessio studied English throughout primary and secondary schools. He described though that he learned a lot more about the English language from reading wargaming rules and fantasy and science fiction literature, with JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings serving as his ‘bible’.

Alessio Cavatore: I read Lord of the Rings in English, I had to read it in the original language and not someone else’s translation. I learned a lot of my English through games and English literature. I read a lot of fantasy and science fiction literature, the ‘golden age’ of Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, and so on. This is the core of my geek culture. I love Tolkien. If someone asks me what’s my favourite book, I always say Lord of the Rings. It’s my favourite film too. Basically, I’m agnostic, I’m not religious, but Tolkien is the closest I have to a religion. I can quote names and passages, I’ve read it every year for years and years. I have the maps that were once on my bedroom walls framed and in my home now.

  • Isaac Asimov was a biochemistry professor and prolific science fiction writer. He also wrote many books in the fantasy and mystery genres, in addition to scientific and other non-fiction pieces, short stories and articles. A fan of science fiction pulps from a young age, Asimov was inspired to begin writing his own stories aged eleven. Initially underappreciated, in his teens and early-twenties he wrote many stories but struggled to make any money and contemplated focussing solely on his science career. With popularity for the science fiction genre growing in the late-1940’s into the 1950’s, Asimov gradually began to receive the recognition he deserved. Often considered to be some of his best work are his Foundation, Galactic Empire, and Robot series of books. His works have also inspired the films I, Robot, Bicentennial Man, Nightfall, and The End Of Eternity, among others.

Noted for their wonderful and evocative illustrations of JRR Tolkien’s worlds and characters, artists John Howe and Alan Lee are two of Alessio’s favourite artists.

  • Since the release of Faeries by Brian Froud and Alan Lee in 1978 , Alan Lee has worked on dozens of different books, notably including The Treason of Isengard, The War of the Ring, The Atlas of Middle-earth, Sauron Defeated, The Children of Hurin, Tales from the Perilous Realm, Beren and Luthien, The Fall of Gondolin, and Unfinished Tales of Numenor and Middle-earth.
  • Discovering the artwork of Frank Frazetta, Barry Smith and Ernie Wrightson as a youngster, John Howe is an illustrator noted for his work in providing visual definitions to the worlds of JRR Tolkien, Beowulf, and The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe. Along with Alan Lee, John Howe played a key role in providing conceptual designs and guidance for Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings film trilogy and The Hobbit series of films. A much sought-after artist, Howe has also illustrated cards for the highly popular Magic: The Gathering collectible card game. In addition to his interests in fantasy, Howe is an enthusiastic medieval aficionado.

Alessio Cavatore: John Howe and Alan Lee, with the work they’ve done on the Lord of the Rings, are my favourite illustrators. Every year, when I was growing up, I would get a Lord of the Rings calendar illustrated by one of them. To my great joy, many years later I actually met John Howe and was able to hang around with him when I was working on Lord of the Rings. I was actually invited to stay at his house and had a great time playing Warhammer with his son. There was a funny time when John was invited to a Games Day one year in England, I was showing him around and all these customers were gathering around us. These guys were all going, “You’re Alessio Cavatore! Can we have your signature, please?!” I was like, “Do you not know who this guy is? You want his signature, not mine!

Following his Battlegame Books, Alessio chanced upon the games of Avalon Hill and International Team, he also discovered the world of Dungeons & Dragons, his love of fantasy RPG’s leading to his discovery of Warhammer.

Alessio Cavatore: I then discovered Avalon Hill and their games, such as Afrika Korps, Starship Troopers, various Napoleonic games. I also discovered an Italian company called International Team, who made fantastic boardgames, they usually had hex maps or square maps, different playing pieces. Some of their games were absolutely amazing in terms of production quality. Being a young lad in Italy, playing games which were written in English, I often played these games on my own. Occasionally I would find an opponent to play against, though. What came next for me was Dungeons & Dragons and I really got into that and playing RPG’s. One day, at one of these RPG clubs, I noticed a couple of guys playing this huge game between Empire and Skaven, it was Warhammer. It was the early days of Games Workshop and in Italy it was very difficult to find stuff, you had to go to specialised stores, again the games were all in English. I went to London for a holiday with my family and came back with a very heavy suitcase!

So, I went to Warhammer and Warhammer 40K, leading up to 1995 when I won the Italian Warhammer tournament, which was really a tiny affair with perhaps only twenty people! It was still my moment of glory! More importantly though, the year after I’d won, I was defending my title, Games Workshop were beginning to probe Europe as they were looking for entries to selling their products, I met John-Paul Brisigotti. At the time, John was working for Games Workshop, now he’s the boss of Battlefront, the Flames of War guys. He was setting up Games Workshop Italy, we started to talk, and I got a job as a translator. I had been about to finish my university studies but moved to England to take the job instead. You can imagine how my parents felt, dropping my studies to go to England to work on games!

Mordheim. Copyright: Games Workshop.

Initially working for Games Workshop as a translator, Alessio responded to an internal advert for an assistant games designer and was soon working on the fantasy warband game Mordheim, along with various different Warhammer supplements. Providing much relief to his parents, while working for Games Workshop, Alessio also enrolled in the Open University and completed his degree in biology.

I worked for about a year and a half in Nottingham, translating Warhammer into Italian, Warhammer 40K into Italian. It was a fantastic time, I was in the studio with Rick Priestley, Jervis Johnson, Andy Chambers, all the people that I’d only seen in pictures before… Translating the work, I had a lot of questions but also knew a lot about rules. I won a couple of staff tournaments at Games Workshop because I was a bit of a hard-core power player back then. I’m much better now, much nicer to play against, I went to rehab!

A position of Assistant Games Developer became available in the studio, I applied and got the job. So, I went from being a translator to being a games developer and started working with Tuomas Pirinen, he was my first boss. So, started my career.

From The River Horse’s Mouth: Talking With Alessio Cavatore. Part 2.

Alessio Cavatore: In 2010 my relationship with Games Workshop came to an end. I had a bit of a name at the time, I was at the apex of my career. When I left Games Workshop, all three rulebooks for their games of Warhammer, Warhammer 40,000 and Lord of the Rings were written by myself, I was the lead writer. I’m very grateful for my time at Games Workshop, all the training they provided and working with people like Rick Priestley, Jervis Johnson, and Andy Chambers. So, the moment I left Games Workshop quite a few people got in touch, looking for me to do designs, companies such as ManticWarlord GamesFantasy Flight. Initially River Horse was subcontracted to design games systems for these companies, sometimes just the rules, sometimes the rules and the rulebook layout too.

On the other hand, the aim with River Horse was to make our own games and sell them. We had Shuuro as the first one. But the first few years were definitely centred around services to other companies, such as Kings of War for Mantic and Bolt Action for Warlord GamesDeus Vult for FireforgeDeus Vult, a game of medieval warfare, that project is an example of River Horse writing the rules and making the entire book. There were also other games for other companies, some of which (due to different reasons) never saw the light of day.

Alessio Cavatore: Our first licensed game was the Terminator Genysis Miniatures Game. We did this in tandem with Warlord Games. This was our first foray into making licensed games. After that we did Loka, our own game. Then Waterloo Quelle Affaire, the board game, another game of our own. Then we struck gold. I was at an event in London, the Brand Licensing Europe. I walked in front of the Jim Henson stand. I looked and thought, “Oh, wow, Jim Henson! It would be fantastic to do a Labyrinth board game”, the whole thing is like a board game already. So, I went to talk to them, they thought the idea was great. River Horse had the advantage of having already done the Terminator game, showing that we could actually do a licensed game, we weren’t just talk.

I am a huge Jim Henson fan and Labyrinth was a major thing for us. The aim was to produce a family boardgame, a game is which grown-ups who enjoyed the film could also enjoy the game with their kids. I think that film is superb. At the time too, in the 1980s, it was not usual for a lead character to be a strong female, someone that did not need to be rescued by knights. I think it’s a film about coming of age too, Sarah is someone that develops from a girl to a woman over the course of the film. Funnily enough, I didn’t know David Bowie at the time, Queen have always been may favourite when it comes to music. I do have the Labyrinth soundtrack album though!

A special Collector’s Edition of Jim Henson’s Labyrinth The Adventure Game will be released by River Horse on 30th November 2020. Pre-orders are being taken HERE.

Read my review of Jim Henson’s Labyrinth The Adventure Game HERE.

In this hardback book (Approx. 280+ full-colour pages) you will find:

  • A full-length adventure with over 100 varied scenes
  • Full rules for creating characters and adventuring in the labyrinth
  • Two custom dice included INSIDE the book!
  • Written by renowned RPG writer Ben Milton, with guest scenes by Alessio Cavatore, Jack Caesar, Patrick Stuart, & Matt Ward
  • Amazing Artwork by Ralph Horsley, Johnny Fraser-Allen & Brian Froud!
  • Tools and tables for creating your own adventures within the Labyrinth
  • Three colored ribbon markers for tracking progress through the adventure
  • Full-color bookmark with rules references and tips
  • High-quality cloth cover, the perfect addition to any collector’s bookshelf
Jim Henson’s Labyrinth The Adventure Game. Copyright: River Horse/ The Jim Henson Company.

During his time on the set of the 2003 Lord of the Rings film, Return of the King, where along with Alan Perry, Michael Perry and Brian Nelson, he makes a brief cameo appearance, Alessio met conceptual designer and figure sculptor Johnny Fraser-Allen.

Left – right: Alessio Cavatore, Alan Perry, Brian Nelson, Michael Perry.

Alessio Cavatore: When Johnny Fraser-Allen, from Weta Workshop, found out that River Horse were doing a Labyrinth game he immediately wanted to be involved. He designed the figures for the game as well as all of the artwork too. He’s a very talented guy, slightly mad, but a really nice guy. He did the miniatures and artwork for our Labyrinth and Dark Crystal game, another Jim Henson project.

Following Terminator Genisys and Labyrinth The Board GameRiver Horse produced The Hunger Games: MockingJay – The Board Game for Lionsgate. An unlikely game came next, one that was based on miniature equestrian characters that would prove hugely successful.

Alessio Cavatore: One day I was were sitting with my young daughter, we were watching My Little Pony together. I remembered My Little Pony from the 1980s and I hated it, this hobby where you collect plastic horses with manes that you could comb… no, not for me! But then watching this new show, Friendship Is Magic, I sat astonished. It was fantastic. There were forests and dragons and manticores and spells, it was like Dungeons and Dragons, fantasy! The characters were cute but also funny. In Disney style, there would be some jokes that went over the heads of the children watching but the adults get. I really enjoyed the show. I thought to myself, “I think I’d like to write up a game for my daughter, an RPG style system.” We pitched it to Hasbro as an idea and they went for it. So, Tails Of Equestria, the My Little Pony RPG was created. It was really cool. There was a moment a few years ago when Tails Of Equestria was the second-best selling RPG in the UK, after Dungeons and Dragons. The game was even more successful that the Star Wars RPG at the time, which was third!

Tails of Equestria: The Storytelling Game. Copyright: River Horse/ Hasbro.

A slew of other licensed games followed for River Horse, with Pacific Rim: ExtinctionHighlander, and Dark Crystal; all released during a period of prolific creativity. Alessio and his River Horse team also worked with wargame newcomers Para Bellum to create their rank and file fantasy game Conquest. Alessio commented, “If you believe in what you do then it comes across in the games you make.”

  • Para Bellum Wargames Ltd is a game developer, headquartered in Cyprus with offices in Greece and the USA and are part of substantial conglomerate with interests in shipping, real estate, agriculture and technology. We operate on a global basis and are led by a seasoned team of gaming professionals with deep industry know-how, who draw on the extensive corporate, legal and financial resources of our wider group. We have teamed up with Riverhorse studios to bring you the game we call Conquest.” Pera Bellum

Alessio is a lifelong wargamer and RPG player, and an enthusiast of boardgames and computer games. Over the years he has found himself increasingly preferring historical game systems to fantasy or science fiction ones. One of his most successful rulesets is Warlord Games’ award-winning Bolt Action, a game centred around the conflict of World War II. However, it was Waterloo Quelle Affaire that served as Alessio’s, and River Horse’s, first historical wargame.

Alessio Cavatore: I think living in Nottingham, being friends with the Perry twins, John StallardRick Priestley, you are constantly immersed in historical wargames. All the uniforms, colours, they’ve always fascinated me. I’d played wargames and computer games for different periods of time. I’ve been to the battlefield of Waterloo, and the museum underneath. If I’m taking part in the Perrys’ historical wargame campaigns, I really enjoy researching the time of the conflict, reading books, watching movies. I find it really interesting and it obviously gives you a much greater insight.

I love historical research, I find it very, very enjoyable. With Waterloo Quelle Affaire I had lots of friends that I could visit and borrow books from, I bought others too. I highly recommend The Waterloo Companion by Mark Adkin, that is the book for researching Waterloo.

  • Read Designing Waterloo, Quelle Affaire! by Alessio Cavatore HERE.
Waterloo Quelle-Affaire! Copyright: River Horse.

When it came to the Waterloo game, there were decisions to make over the type of game I wanted, the size and the game mechanics involved. I really enjoyed the process, playtesting with people like Rick Priestley and John StallardJohn is a big supporter of a Waterloo trust too; he knows a great deal about this period of time. The cover artwork is by Peter Dennis, who has provided works for OspreyWarlord GamesPerry Miniatures.

These days I much prefer historical wargames over fantasy, I’m told that this is part of turning into an old guy! That it’s a tradition of fantasy wargamers to get more and more into historical games as they get older. I think it’s something to do with real people, real events. The last stand of Space Marines against a horde of ravening aliens, that’s heroic, but not as much as historical events, like the British against the Zulus at Rorke’s Drift. Though, of course, I still love elves and dwarves.

This is the final part of my blog feature on Alessio Cavatore and his River Horse company. Being a long time wargamer and hobbyist (fantasy especially), it has been an honour to communicate with Alessio and I have enjoyed greatly working on this two-piece feature. Wonderfully open and always enthusiastic, I would like to thank Alessio for his time and contributions. Thank you!

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