Welcome to the 100th post on Dice Tower Dish! I am lucky enough to be joined this time around by Shem Phillips, founder of Garphill Games, and best known as the designer of the North Sea and West Kingdom trilogies of games. And for those of you in New Zealand, the designer of Linwood! For dinner, I had to get some hand pies from my local New Zealand Bakery, BurtoNZ Bakery in Windsor, California! Shem assured me that to get the true Kiwi experience, I needed to get a potato top pie and a mince and cheese. Who am I to argue?
DTD: Hello. Hello, how are you? So, can you hear me OK?
SP: I can hear you.
DTD: I’ve got no volume on you. I’ve just turned it up. I can hear you now.
SP: So, bring helps to bring the microphone over I suppose!
DTD: [laughs] Well, I have to tell you I played for hours and hours with my microphone and my speakers and my setup, and had my wife do fake Zoom calls over and over, just to be just to make sure everything worked.
SP: Yeah, yeah, that is always fun.
DTD: Oh yeah, well thank you so much for doing this. This is a blast. I am a huge fan of your games have been since Raiders [of the North Sea], since Shipwrights [of the North Sea], since the beginning. Well, the beginning for me. So thanks so much for joining me for dinner, as it would be.
Little did I know, “the beginning” was a good 5 years earlier than Shipwrights of the North Sea, at least in New Zealand.
SP: [laughs] Yeah, cyber-dinner.
DTD: Cyber-dinner, exactly. I gotta say I’m a little jealous. I was just browsing on the Internet and I’m seeing videos of people in the summer in New Zealand, playing board games. Not too worried about COVID, having a good time.
At this point, New Zealand seems to be handling the pandemic better than my own California. Being an island certainly doesn’t hurt. Plus, whereas I am sitting at the end of winter, New Zealand is having lovely summer weather.
SP: Yeah, we’re pretty privileged at the moment. I think really, life is pretty much “as normal” for us.
DTD: Well, I think you guys did great, so in California we’re more panicky. So yeah, I haven’t been out in a while. So, this [gestures around] is nice.
DTD: And again, thanks for eating an early dinner. You didn’t have to do that, but I’m surprised by how close the time zones are.
SP: Yeah, I know. Yeah.
DTD: It’s really, I thought we’d be a good 12 hours apart for some reason.
Apparently, New Zealand and California are only separated by 3 hours of time zone. Very manageable. Shem is 3 hours earlier, but the next day.
SP: I think it’s when we have summer and you have winter, it gets quite close. And then on six months later, it’s like five hours about, not three.
DTD: I believe it. At one point my parents lived in Sydney, and I lived in California, and that was a pretty good distance for us. We did well at that distance, and I remember the time zones were crazy. It was tough to find a good time to talk.
SP: Yeah, I find it quite difficult, like in the UK. Because they’re always waking up as I’m going to bed, and then vice versa. Yeah, it’s always interesting. Usually, like…I had a chat with…what’s her name? But it was like, it was meant to be from 10 ’till midnight. And then we went into daylight savings. So, it was from 11:00 to 1:00 AM. So, my eyes were starting to just fade a little bit at the end of that one.
DTD: That’s tough. I’ve had that with a couple of the chats I’ve done with people in Germany. California to Germany is a bit of a tough call.
9 hours. I usually have a comfortable afternoon chat, but they are pushing past midnight.
SP: Yeah, that would be. Yeah, true.
DTD: So, I need you to tell me how authentic I might be here. And it’s strange, I moved to a little town in California, and in town there is a New Zealand bakery, which is something I’ve never seen in the United States before.
BurtoNZ Bakery in Windsor! Fantastic New Zealand Fare!
DTD: And so, I have… I don’t know if we can see here.
SP: Potato top pie. That’s good.
DTD: Potato top and I have mince and cheese.
These are the two indispensable pies Shem informed me over EMail I had to get.
DTD: Hey, I went off your recommendations. I also have some sweets. I have an ANZAC biscuit and I have a donut, so…
DTD: That seems about right.
SP: Very good. Do they bring in, do they bring in New Zealand brands for like drinks and sweets and that kind of stuff?
DTD: I didn’t see any. I looked around for things that were branded, but it’s pretty much just a bakery. So, they didn’t have anything else.
DTD: I wouldn’t know a New Zealand brand soda though if it came and bit me on the leg, I don’t think I’d recognize one.
SP: [laughs] I’ve got a few, like L&P, which is what I’m drinking now. That’s actually owned by Coke now, funnily enough, but it’s a New Zealand drink. And then there’s like Foxton fizz, and there’s quite a few kind of, I guess like homebrew kind of style ones, where all local distribution and stuff. Phoenix is one of them I think, but I’ve got… They call them like craft cola and stuff, as opposed to craft beer.
DTD: It’s on my bucket list, but I’ve never been to New Zealand. It’s somewhere I’ve always wanted to visit. Like I said, Sydney is about as close as I got.
I caved. Shortly after my interview with Shem I had all of the goodies Shem talked about shipped to California. L&P has an interesting story. It stands for Lemon and Paeroa. Paeroa is a town in New Zealand known for it’s carbonated mineral water, and L&P is a drink made from combining this water with sweet lemon. L&P is quite good – it tastes like a less sweet 7UP. Or 7UP diluted with club soda.
SP: Yeah, yeah. It’s quite close. It is pretty similar to Australia, really.
DTD: I have heard.
SP: But we are just, we just very condensed. They’re just spread out like crazy.
New Zealand is approximately 3% the land area of Australia.
DTD: We were friends with a lot of people from New Zealand when we were out there [Australia]. Yeah, but it’s still on my list. It’s just such a beautiful country. So, tell me, what is your story? How did you get into board games? I’m just… I’m dying to hear the beginning. I was seeing a whole bunch of little games I had never heard of, with print runs of like tens to hundreds.
SP: Yeah, so I started out… Well basically, I was like in my early 20s. I’d never played any modern board games at all, so my whole experience was Cluedo, Monopoly, Scrabble, card games. And for whatever reason I was like, “I want to make a game.”
In the British influenced side of the world, Clue is known by its original name, Cluedo. The name is a portmanteau of “Clue” and “Ludo,” the Latin root for “game,” or more literally “I play.”
SP: So, I set out to make a game. It was a like a tile laying, kind of roll-and-move, family game. Two to six players you know, like ridiculous. And lots of take-that, lots of stuff that I would never add to games now. But the idea was I want to make this game, so I did what I thought I could do. I bought the cards in in my own town. Got them, like business cards, basically but they were cards.
I believe Shem is describing the first version of the classic game Linwood (2009).
SP: I got tiles from Germany because I couldn’t make them locally. And the dice and the pawns from Germany. I had boxes made about 50 minutes drive South of me, and then I would make them all up, fold them up. Check all the bits and bags and stuff. Would take me like 20 minutes per game to make. I think I ended up selling like 600 of them, I think.
DTD: That’s awesome.
SP: Over 10 years… so it’s funny I get emails like maybe every two or three months from some family in New Zealand saying, “We played Linwood at our friend’s house and we really want it, can we get it?”
DTD: “No. No, you cannot get it. It’s long gone.” [laughs]
SP: It’s gone. I don’t know where they are. Probably no more coming. But then, after that I just kept making little games. I found there’s this white box that I could get, that was all flat. And I could put a sticker on it, fold it up, and then put the cards in it, which I die cut myself. And get the same old template for the rule book. I would make these little runs of like 20-100 copies of some card game that I designed, and sell them to friends, and a few around the world. There were a few faithful followers early on. But yeah, that was just a hobby. I wasn’t looking to make money or anything like that, just fun making games. And then, I kind of… through that, through the first and second game, I discovered our local board game community, which was very small at that time. Yeah, it’s gotta been about 12-13 years, so…
SP: And now it’s a bustling thing in New Zealand.
DTD: So, was it, was it Garphill already at that point?
SP: It was, yeah.
DTD: So, you started with, “I’m going to make a company and I’m going to make games”, and just went full bore.
SP: I figured, you gotta have a brand name on the box for the first game. So, I just [thought], “Well, I’ll just take my dad’s first name and my last name. Gary Phillips, Garphill. That’ll do.” And then I just had a random… I think I had like, one of the tiles from the first game, is the logo of the company.
DTD: That’s fantastic. There’s so many people I’ve talked to who have kind of accidentally gone into the first game, or tried to sell it to a different publisher, and then gone back and done something else. But yeah, it’s fantastic to hear that you know, “Just started out as Garphill Games, and this is, this is where it’s going.”
SP: I get quite a few emails from people around New Zealand, and they say… They’ll see like a newspaper article or something about my games, and they’re like, “Oh I wanna make game,” and they ask for this advice. But they are not part of the board game community. So it’s quite funny, because I’m like, “I know exactly how you feel.” [To] Kind of be in that position, where they want to make a game, but don’t know anything about modern games, or…
SP: You know, the things that we’re used to now, with card drafting or worker placement. All these mechanisms that we’re accustomed to, which they don’t know about. And they don’t know about the community, and how to sell a game. It’s like, I kind of feel for them, because I’m like, “That took me like the last 10 years to figure out, kind of how to do that properly.” I’m still figuring it out.
DTD: And it’s kind of tough, because as someone who’s deeply entrenched in the community, I can kind of see in about 5 seconds – “That person is new to the community, and they’re feeling their way around. But this person has been around the block a few times.”
SP: Yeah, yeah. So yeah, I kind of… I meet those people, and I’m like, “Just play more games. That’s all you need to do. Don’t try to make a game yet, just play more games.”
DTD: Writers have to write. Artists have to draw. Gamers have to play games.
DTD: So, you hadn’t played a lot of modern board games before you started designing?
SP: I hadn’t played any.
SP: Modern to me was Cluedo, which I guess is like 40 or 50 years old already.
DTD: Yeah, 1940s, 50s for Cluedo, I think.
Good guess! Clue (Cluedo, actually) was conceived of in 1943 by Anthony E. Pratt. It was first published in 1949.
SP: I played… So that game Linwood I made, the first game. Then my friend wanted to show me Catan. Because he had Catan, because his family had showed him that a year ago or something. So, he had this copy lying around. And we played that, and I think within… I think that week I rushed out to our toy store locally, and just grabbed Carcassone, just because the box cover looks the same. And then grabbed Family Business because that looked kind of fun. A little mafia card game. And then we just thrashed those games, like every day, twice a day. And then got Ticket to Ride Europe, and then a bunch of other ones. Just kept buying games and playing more games.
DTD: That’s very cool.
SP: But early on, it was so fun, just playing the same game over and over.
SP: You really enjoy them. Now it’s like I’m playing a new game, or 2 or 3 games, every week.
DTD: It seems like that’s where the industry is now, is a good majority of the people who are really into games are playing a different game every single time they play games.
Certainly not me. No, no, no. This is not redirection by any means.
SP: It’s a lot of rules to learn.
DTD: You learn the groups, and you learn the trends, and it ends up being pretty easy. But then I think it would be even harder on your side; if you’re designing a game, do you need to be aware of whether you’re designing a game for somebody to play once? Or something that you allow for people to really learn how to get into it, and learn all the little nuances about it?
SP: Yeah, I’ve heard people… I’m just going to eat my food.
DTD: Please, please eat.
I need to learn in these interviews to allow the other person to eat their food. It’s surprisingly difficult to manage in online interviews.
SP: I’ve heard people saying that, there is all this kind of push for replayability and variability.
DTD: Well, it’s so bizarre, though. People yell and scream that they want replayability. And then they never replay anything.
SP: Yeah, it’s kind of strange.
DTD: So, it’s something you have to have, but you might as well just have it as a blank card saying, “This is the replayability.” Nobody looks at it. [laughs]
SP: [laughs] Yeah. Yeah, apparently most games get played like 1.5 times on average, or something like that. I had someone throw that around at some point. Not sure where that data comes from, but… Maybe BGG? I’m not sure.
DTD: I believe it. It’s kinda crazy, but then you run into that danger, that if your game is overly punishing or difficult, then people will play it once, not enjoy it, never recommend it. And nobody else will play it. So, you kind of have to have something that someone can pick up and play easily, once. And then tell all their friends how great it is.
DTD: Which seems like it would be really difficult, as a designer, to make that.
SP: Yeah, I think it’s uh, we’re trying to focus on… We want to always try to make the best game possible, but…
DTD: Oh Sure.
SP: But there’s a balance between adding more versus making sure the first play is always going to be a good play. There’s always going to be people who just don’t enjoy it. You can’t get around that, but you don’t want those stumbling blocks where people who will enjoy it but give up because they have bad experience, or whatever it is.
DTD: Well, that’s an interesting idea. Do you think that expansions have taken the place of more complex games? At least for me, in the 1980s, when games were big and huge, and had big huge rulebooks and were really complicated, we would spend a lot of plays trying to figure out how to play it. But that’s not a luxury anymore. Nowadays it has to be able to be played once, understood, and that’s it. So, expansions seem like maybe they’re replacing the more complicated ruleset that would impair people from enjoying a onetime play.
Freedom in the Galaxy by Avalon Hill is my gold standard for a big, long and complicated game from my youth.
SP: Yeah, I think of from a publisher’s point of view, I think expansions are a good way to keep your game alive. So, keeps people coming back to the game, playing it more often. Whereas, if you just release one game and never touch it again, within two years, people will have forgotten about it, really. Unless it’s a huge hit. It’s eventually going to drop off though, because you gotta keep kind of feeding the community; they want more from the game and stuff.
DTD: Well, and the industry moves so quickly as well, you know today’s super hot hit gets…it gets old in a month.
SP: Yeah, yeah, and it’s hard to kind of stand out, so I think that’s why with our trilogies we’ve done, and doing expansions to kind of service them, or give them more life, has worked well. Because it’s like these… Architects [of the West Kingdom] came out almost four years ago, or three years ago, and it’s still being played, still rising in the charts and that kind of stuff. So, because we are, you know, putting out more games and other games that follow up that series.
Shem Phillips and Garphill Games are best known for their two trilogies of games. The first trilogy consisted of Shipwrights of the North Sea, Raiders of the North Sea, and Explorers of the North Sea. The follow-up trilogy was made up of Architects of the West Kingdom, Paladins of the West Kingdom, and Viscounts of the West Kingdom.
DTD: But you’ve also been really, really good at branding. Your games look similar. They play similar, they feed off of each other. So they remind people of each other.
DTD: So, I know if I play Paladins [of the West Kingdom], then I sit there, and I think, “You know, it’s been a while since I’ve played Architects…” [laughs]
SP: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And then I think… I wonder how many people will play Paladins, you know, after four months of not playing it, and go, “Oh I really enjoy this. I should try Architects again.” Because they have a, you know, kind of spark there. “Do I like this one more or less? I’m not sure.” You want to play again to figure out. Which is their favorite, or whatever?
DTD: No, it’s brilliant. So, do you think it all became really real, like “Wow, I’m really making a job of designing games non-stop,” when the first trilogy started getting popular? When Raiders [of the North Sea] came out?
SP: With the first Kickstarter. That’s when I… Honestly when I did that first one for Shipwrights [of the North Sea], I was just thinking “This might be my last game, you know.”
The Kickstarter campaign for Shipwrights of the North Sea raised NZ$73,642 in March, 2014. Almost exactly 7 years ago.
SP: “It’s been fun. It’s been a fun hobby, but I might do one last game, try this new thing called Kickstarter, see what it’s like. And just print a small number, and hopefully sell at least half of them.” So, I was… Yeah, I was really shocked at the response. And that kind of made me realize, “Ah well, I can actually keep doing this.”
SP: People want to actually buy my games. So, there’s only so long you can do it for your own satisfaction. You know you want some kind of feedback from people enjoying them.
DTD: You know the secret is, if you want to retire and stop doing something, you need to actually do something terrible.
Apologies for my attempt at humor.
SP: [laughs] Yeah.
DTD: And unfortunately, you know, Shipwrights was good and Raiders was great, so I think you’re stuck now. [laughs] You keep putting out games.
SP: Yeah, that’s definitely a challenge, like trying to keep that level high, that quality. So, especially these kind of medieval games were kind of… We have to live up to our own expectations of that. We can’t just put out like “Oh, it’s just a nice light little game.” You know? Quick easy game. They’ve gotta be these meaty midweight Euro style games now. And we want them to be unique, but you still feel kind of familiar with the iconography, and the components, and that kind of stuff.
DTD: Sure, well I’m an absolute fan. I think they are fantastic games, and I’ve told people over and over. I think that you and your group just do absolutely amazing things with worker placement games. You’ve managed to take a ruleset that is getting familiar, and maybe getting a little old, and just add the tiniest little changes, and make it fresh and wonderful and easy to understand as well. And that’s a really difficult task. I’m surprised when you say that you weren’t playing very many games when you started designing, but at the same time, I can see a freshness, a novelty in there. The changes that you’re doing are things I wouldn’t think of. Well, probably because I’ve played too many worker placement games.
Raiders added the simple idea of workers triggering actions both when they are placed and when they are picked up. Architects made workers cumulative – the more workers that go on an action space, the better the action gets. Paladins turned workers into a resource to be managed. Simple ideas, but brilliant.
SP: [laughs] Maybe, yeah. I don’t know, I think I never want to copy other people’s work. That’s kind of a thing, I guess. I mean, you always do to an extent, but I don’t want to just kind of like “Oh let’s take Lords of Waterdeep, and make my own version of Lords of Waterdeep.” I want it to be something that kind of feels new?
SP: That’s probably why we get that little kind of… I guess a lot of our games have a slight twist or something to them, you know. Let’s take building, plus this. Or placement plus this. Because you want to bring something kind of fresh. Otherwise, I feel like why make games if they’re just, they’re just another game with a new skin on it.
DTD: No, it’s such a, it’s such a neat idea. I think they’ve all just done really, really well. And I’m surprised at how popular they all are. I mean, you’ve had six hits in a row. Not counting expansions and other things like that. And each one is just terrific.
DTD: There’s such neat ideas in them.
SP: I mean, I honestly think I would have probably burned out after Explorers [of the North Sea], but having Sam Macdonald now, co-designing, really helps. Yeah, because he’s fresh. Architects [of the West Kingdom] was his first-ever game design. So, it’s like it kind of keeps that level high. I think if he hadn’t come on board, I don’t know what would have happened. I think we had a few ups and downs probably, but he kind of helped lift the bar higher, and then keep it there as well.
Explorers of the North Sea was the last in the North Sea trilogy, a tile laying, pick up and deliver game.
DTD: It’s always nice when someone is coming in with new ideas, and is excited about stuff. It just inspires you to think and work about new stuff.
SP: Yeah. Definitely.
DTD: Wow. So, is there another trilogy coming on the way? I mean, you’ve kind of predefined that you’re making your games in sets of three. And you know here we are at an even multiple of 3.
SP: We’ve actually already designed the first South Game. Still like tweaking and developing it. I would probably aim for like a March Kickstarter, next year I think. Maybe earlier, who knows. But that one’s, yeah, that one is feeling good. And then now we’re excited to work on the second one for that series.
The next trilogy of games, after the North Sea and West Kingdom trilogies, will be the South Trilogy apparently.
DTD: That’s fantastic! I’m always looking forward to it. I’m always looking for the Kickstarters, and seeing what’s coming up. So, what were you doing with yourself before you started designing games?
SP: So, I actually worked at McDonald’s for three years.
SP: As a shift manager. That was my glory years.
DTD: That was your corporate track.
SP: Yeah! That was a good fun, that was. Different, but although to be fair, that really taught me a lot about working.
DTD: Well, sure, that’s a extremely hard job.
SP: Oh yeah. And then from there I actually went to work in a printing factory, doing T-shirts and hoodies, and all sorts of things. Fabric printing for six years. So, I was the kind of factory manager, or the main manager, I guess. So, it was all like on-demand printing, so you’d have like… People can set up their own web stores, they can make their own designs. Then we would print them on demand, send them out to their customers, and they get a bit of profit. That was the concept behind it. But that wasn’t my business. That was another guy, who kind of took my brother and I on board, to be the creatives behind it, making it all happen. And then after… Yeah, it’s like after six years… Actually, it was like five and a half years later, I went to Essen, I think for the first time, and met some of my publishing partners from France and Germany. And they had teams of three or four, and they’re all working full-time in their businesses. And I was thinking, “If these people can work full-time, doing… Like making games, surely I could do it as one person full-time.” So, it was that, I guess, three or four months later, I kind of decided I’m just going to do it. I mean, we… I guess we had… I’m trying to think now… We had two kids at that point, so that’s still, that’s quite risky, with young kids.
DTD: That’s a big move, yeah.
SP: Yeah, but I kind of, I could see the trend, I could see it growing if I just stepped out. And then I got a few odd jobs that year, like working for Weta Workshop for a bit, doing some design work.
SP: And then that June, I guess it was, May or June, got the Kennerspiel nomination for Raiders [of the North Sea]. That’s where I was like, “OK, I made a good move. That’s good.” Yeah, so it really, really took off from there. If I hadn’t gone full-time that year, I would have been crushed with so much work. So, I was actually putting in full hours of work on the game. So, yeah, it was good. Worked out.
Raiders of the North Sea was nominated for the Kennerspiel des Jahres in 2017.
DTD: Wow. It always surprises me how many game designers are still, you know, doing games on the side, but have a day job, have a regular job.
SP: I think it’s quite hard to live off just design. The royalties aren’t that high, but I’m doing the publishing, the graphic design, the distribution, you know. If you’re wearing all these hats, you can get paid a decent amount to live off at least.
DTD: You get paid for all the jobs.
SP: [laughs] Yeah, yeah. So, you got these you know, lots of little jobs, that don’t pay well. Makes up for one job that pays OK.
DTD: So, you’re saying, pretty soon you’ll be delivering as well. You can come and bring it to my house.
SP: [laughing] Hand delivering them all, yeah.
I am taking Shem at his word. I expect a delivery at my door soon.
DTD: Hand delivered games. Handmade. Sounds perfect. Yeah, there’s a lot of… I think it was Matt Leacock was saying that he just got rid of his day job. He recently started doing designing full time.
SP: Really? Wow. Because he’s… He teaches UX or something, doesn’t he? Something like that, I think.
DTD: He was in computers, I think. IT.
SP: Yeah, I know he did UX stuff. I’m not sure if he’s teaching it, or if he is… I can’t remember.
DTD: Well, it could be.
SP: Because I think, from what I gathered from some interviews, I think he really enjoys his job. So sometimes it’s not a thing you want to quit. You actually really enjoy doing what you do.
DTD: That’s a good point.
SP: Yeah, but he’s someone with those… He has so many hats with Pandemic. Surely those royalties would be trickling in quite quickly.
DTD: I think so. It sounds like, you know, even Pandemic, even though it’s sold very, very well. It’s still a little tough. Like, you know – board games, it’s not the business you go into if you want to make $1,000,000.
The ongoing joke is – How do you make a small fortune in board games?
Start with a large fortune.
SP: No, I know. And if you do, if you ever do get to make that kind of money, you would be working like 80 hours a week. And yeah, be a hard job probably.
DTD: It would be tough. I tried my hand at it, and I wasn’t very good at it.
Come back in about a week for more New Zealand pie. Next time, Shem and I talk about the design process, a fascination with luminescent sea life and the upcoming South trilogy of games. Plus 3D printing, new games we have played and I may have complained a little about those tiny little trilogy boxes.