Welcome back to dinner with Shem Phillips, founder of Garphill Games and New Zealand’s preeminent board game designer. Shem is best known for his trilogies of games, the North Sea Trilogy (Shipwrights, Raiders and Explorers) and the West Kingdom Trilogy (Architects, Paladins and Viscounts). Shem and I are just chilling over pies… Mmmm, pies…
DTD: So, when you’re going about design, when you’re working on a game, what sort of process are you taking? Are you starting with mechanism? Because I have to be honest, a lot of your games, especially in the first trilogy, feel mechanism-based.
SP: Yeah, for sure. Yeah, I always loved mechanisms, so even early on in my first few games I was like, “What can I do differently with these cards, or with these dice?” Or, you know, “How can I do something new with these components?” That was always my starting point. So, Shipwrights [of the North Sea] was like, “I wanna make a game about building ships, and I want to have three resources, and maybe card drafting.” And then basically from that, figured out what theme would fit. Found the theme, and then kept designing the game with that in mind. That’s how I usually do it. But with Raiders [of the North Sea] it was different, because I already had that theme set up.
SP: I was like, “It’s going to be about raiding.” So, rather than kind of just having this mechanism while I was working on it, and make a game out of it, I had to… I think I took like eight or nine attempts to make a game that was going to be Raiders, with like… I knew I want crew cards, that they can die, and stuff like that. I didn’t know what the game was… So, I was doing dice-rolling. I was doing all sorts of random stuff, and then kind of stumbled into worker-placement as a mechanism for action taking. So that was, that was the first time I’d done it a little bit different. And I think now, most of our games are going to start with that. So we kind of, we say that they kind of start with the setting, I guess, more.
The three games in the North Sea trilogy have vastly different mechanisms. The first game, Shipwrights, is a card management, resource management type of game. The second, Raiders, is definitely a worker placement game, and Explorers of the North Sea is a tile laying, pick-up-and-deliver game.
SP: So, you’ve got this general setting, maybe a slight story narrative to what the game will be. But then it’s all about the mechanisms, like “How can we make this work?” And make sure the mechanisms don’t feel too abstracted from the theme.
DTD: Sure, but at this point you’ve kind of made yourself the “trilogy guy”. So, there’s an expectation there.
SP: [laughs] Yeah, definitely.
DTD: Yeah, so I think theme is working for you.
The six games in the two trilogies are, without argument, successful. Five out of six sit in the top 1000 games on BGG, with three in the top 100, and there are many award nominations among the games, including Spiel des Jahres for Raiders.
SP: So, we’re now thinking, with the South [trilogy] we’re like, “We’ve got three games that are going to be in the South. What are they going to be? You know, what’s going to stand out?” Because in the in the West [trilogy] we had the virtue systems, and corruption, and debts and deeds. And it was like the kind of the things that made that stand out, whereas the North had Valkyrie, and armor, and strength, and all those kind of feels.
Yup. The next trilogy of games is going to be the South Trilogy. I’m guessing Fromagers of the South Pasture.
SP: We kind of figured out that we’re going to do dice for the third trilogy.
DTD: Oh, cool.
SP: So, all the games will have dice used in some way, and that’s going to be kind of a big focus of those games.
To be clear, the first 6 games did not use dice in any meaningful way.
DTD: And you’re thinking about mechanisms and resources and thematic concepts that can tie all three together, like you were talking about.
SP: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, even in like… So, in our first game, it’s got… You’ve got tokens you can use as influence, to influence cards and tiles and things. So now we’re like, “Oh, how can we use influence as a mechanism in the other two games?” Kind of keeping that in the back of our minds, just because it’s like… It’s like the virtue thing, or the debt thing.
SP: It’s like something that you kind of grab onto.
DTD: No, it’s fantastic. It’s one of the great things about the trilogies, is that they’re held together by these common concepts. Much more so in the West series.
SP: Yeah, we don’t wanna carry them into, across into the other trilogies. We don’t want debts or virtue in these ones. It’s tricky.
DTD: Well, that’s very cool. Do you know what sort of time period you’re talking about with the South Trilogy?
SP: So, we’re… It’s all the same. It’s like, in that kind of, 800 to 1000AD. So, they’re all going to be in that same kind of period. But this one’s set around the city of Baghdad. At that point in history, it was like the biggest city in the world.
DTD: Oh yeah.
It never occurred to me that all of the trilogy games take place in the same time, but in different directions. Epiphany.
SP: Huge, like flourishing of science and mathematics and all sorts. So there’s a lot of cool stuff to dig into there, thematically. Which is fun.
DTD: Oh absolutely, the Islamic empire was really big about going out and exploring, but not so much about colonialism. Not so much invading or taking over. They just would write about it and come home.
SP: Yeah, I mean gathering all these scrolls from different civilizations, and brought them back and translated them. They had a thing called The House of Wisdom, where they basically got all this knowledge from around the world, different religions, different societies, and kind of brought it all together. And then, I guess, just collect it and maybe stewed on it, and they kind of thought how they, how can they make their society better or whatever. But yeah, it’s really interesting diving into that kind of House of Wisdom and all the stuff they did there.
DTD: Oh yeah, I thought it was fascinating. That’s really exciting. I remember reading that… So, there were a lot of explorers from the Islamic Empire that went very, very far and wrote their histories. And they think maybe, that one of these explorers who went and lived with the Vikings may have come across traces of mammoths and Neanderthals that had not quite gone extinct yet.
The famous Islamic historian who around 900AD went and lived with the Rus, or the Volga Vikings, was Ahmad ibn Fadlan, who wrote about some fantastical things. The writings were the basis for the Michael Crichton book, Eaters of the Dead, which was adapted into the movie, The 13th Warrior.
SP: Oh wow.
DTD: Because we know mammoths were around until probably the 16-1700s in certain corners of Norway and places where nobody went. But there’s some Islamic historians who definitely document things like this. And the question is, were they writing fiction or was this real?
I got too excited there – mammoths existing in the 1600s are pretty controversial, and hard evidence does not exist. But pygmy mammoths definitely were around until 1650BC in isolated places like Wrangel Island, between Alaska and Russia.
SP: Yeah. That’s fascinating.
DTD: Yeah. I absolutely love that stuff. That’s very cool.
SP: We wanted to be very careful not to make the South trilogy about camels and trading in the desert.
It may be an overused game theme.
SP: [laughs] It’s just so generic, and it’s so just…it just doesn’t do justice to their civilization, and what they did.
DTD: No, there’s so much history there that is beyond, you know, someone with a turban and a carpet.
SP: Yeah. Totally. Hopefully we are going to showcase some of that, yeah.
DTD: So, I’m glad to hear that. That’s fantastic. But then in the middle of the trilogies, you had a couple games come out that had nothing to do with those. Like Noctiluca, which I don’t know how to pronounce properly.
I awkwardly rhymed it with “Sambuca”.
SP: Yep. Yeah, that was a fun one. You nailed it. That’s how I pronounce it at least.
I pronounced it properly! Or at least, properly within the confines of a thick New Zealand accent…
DTD: All right! I think you make up the rules, so I feel good. No, it’s a lovely light dice game. It’s just fantastic.
Noctiluca is a great game about collecting various colored dice off of a board, filling cards, and delivering sets.
SP: Oh, there’s quite an interesting story behind that one too.
DTD: Oh, please. I was going to ask, you know, was this a break in between [trilogy games]? Because this was while you were going wild with the trilogies.
SP: So yeah, yeah. Yes, at some point after the North kind of finished, I had the idea, like another trilogy with a different compass direction would be cool. And I knew that just staying medieval would work, because you’ve got lots of civilizations around those points. But then, I was like, “What if I did like Wild West and East Dynasty and the South Pacific, or something like that?” Just break it out completely. Change the time period and just change the art maybe. Who knows? So, I started working on a game, the idea was that it would be in the South Pacific in New Zealand. So, the Māori people would be hunting and gathering fish and building their little society, their village. That was what I was going to work with at the time. So, I started making this game about sort of harvesting in the Bush, catching various birds, and then cutting down the Ponga trees, and all sorts of things. And I thought, “What if they were like moving through the Bush and grabbing stuff, and all this?” And as I was making this mechanism for gathering resources, I decided this feels more like you’re kind of jumping off and diving into water, grabbing some stuff and jumping out. And it was like, “This kind of… That sort of feels like… I’ll just bag that game for now”, and then Sam showed me what he had for Architects, and I was like, “Oh, that’s much better for the trilogy style of game.” It was heavier and had lot more things going on in it. So, with this other game I had going, I was like, “Well what’s that gonna be? It feels like an abstract kind of dice game of like picking up things in the water and jumping out.” So that’s how, you know, I ended up making Noctiluca was, I guess, accidentally, I’ll try to make the South Pacific trilogy.
Ponga trees, or silver fern, are very common in New Zealand, and have always been somewhat representative of the country. The extended fern symbol has been a logo for New Zealand for some time, and even was proposed as a new flag for the country.
DTD: Well, playing with ideas in the South Pacific. That’s awesome.
SP: Yeah, yeah. But I guess it’s a good example, like with a theme, sometimes mechanisms don’t work for what you’re trying, so the theme really of that game was based on like, “I’ve got this mechanism. What does it feel like? It feels like you’re diving into water,” so that’s kind of how it came about. And just through research I was like, oh, Noctiluca are quite cool. Little shiny bacteria in the sea. But we kind of made them a bit more fantasy style, and you know, juiced up the story a bit.
Noctiluca, or “Sea Sparkle” are bioluminescent single celled dinoflagellate organisms. The cool thing is, they glow when they are disturbed. So if you splash in water loaded with these critters, the water glows blue.
DTD: Oh, that’s fantastic. I had a really good time with Noctiluca, and it seems so different from other things of yours that I’ve played. So, it was just neat and refreshing, and it’s cool that it was… It was maybe one of the trilogy games. I can see how you’d want to break it out.
SP: It was going to be the basic… Yeah, it was going to be just the resource gathering mechanism of the game, and there would be all this other stuff going on, like building your village, and all sorts of stuff with those resources. Yeah, yeah, it’s interesting, but… Yeah, I actually really enjoy abstract games anyway, so you probably guess that from them unless you played Noctiluca. But yeah, I I’ve always enjoyed just really simple mechanisms in a game, like “Don’t need lots of rules, don’t need lots of art, or interactions or whatever. Just this really nice little puzzle that you can play.”
DTD: Oh sure.
SP: Yeah, still appeals to me quite a bit.
DTD: Well, there’s something kind of magical when you find one of these very simple games that’s just elegant. That all the parts work perfectly; you can explain it in about a minute.
DTD: But it just makes perfect sense when you do it. And those are few and far between. And I think that’s what the industry is selling the hardest nowadays. I think that’s what they’re looking for. There’s so many new board gamers coming into the hobby, that they’re looking for light, maybe abstracted, simple games.
SP: Yep. Yeah, like Azul and things like that.
2017’s Azul from Plan B Games and Michael Kiesling has won numerous awards.
Michael, call me. Let’s go out for sushi.
DTD: Azul, Century Spice Road. They’re always looking for that.
SP: Yeah, that’s true. Everyone is interested, yeah. Century is so abstract, and so like, the maths behind the game is so perfect. There’s no chaos at all in the game, but it doesn’t feel too abstracted when you’re playing it, because it’s like, all pretty and all the card art and stuff. They trick you on that one.
DTD: Well, Emerson is a computer programmer, so he thinks about his algorithms, and I’m sure he worked out exactly what all the cards should be.
SP: Yeah, I remember playing the first one for the first time, and I was looking at how they converted, and was like, “Alright, so… Yep, that’s one. That’s two of those. That’s three of those.” You know, like carries one of these, one or two turns to one, and two of those turn into one. I was like, “Oh! The points are exactly the value of the resources. Like exactly!” So yeah, you see behind the veil.
DTD: [laughs] Oh it’s true!
SP: I see what’s going on.
DTD: Except there’s some people who’ve done mathematical analysis of Century Spice Road, and there are a few cards in there that break the rule, that are better than they should be.
SP: Oh no!
DTD: And people always look for those cards.
SP: Yeah. I always like just a little bit of chaos in games. A little bit of like unknown. Did you play Citadels when it first came out?
SP: Yes, the Dungeon card and the… What is the other one? I was thinking the Dungeon or… the Dragon’s Gate, and the University or something like that. Where it costs 4 coins or 4 gold or 5, or whatever it is. That’s worth two more than what you pay for it. It’s like that moment when the card comes into your hand, you’re like “Gasp! A Dragon Gate!”
DTD: “Oh, I need to do that!” [laughs]
SP: Oh yeah, I love those moments in games. We did that bit with Architects. We have the Dungeon in Architects, which is like worth probably 2 points more than it should be. And it, like, crushes your virtue at the end of the game. But when you see it, you’re like, “Gasp! The Dungeon! I must build this!”, you know.
DTD: I know, you get excited about that. I love reading the analysis and the math behind the game. It’s interesting, you say that you like to have that little bit of chaos, that little bit of breaking the rule in the game. What that always reminds me of is 504, Friedemann Friese’s game.
SP: I have not played that one.
DTD: 504 is an amazing experiment. I am so thrilled it exists and just… I am boggled that someone could make it.
504 is a sandbox for making board games. You can freely select modules, game mechanics, and merge them together into a working game. And the system can create 504 different games covering a wide array of genres and mechanisms.
SP: Yeah, it’s insane.
DTD: But it’s not a great game. [laughs]
SP: I’ve heard people say that like half the games are rubbish, and the other half are OK.
DTD: Well, it’s a kit that lets you design almost every game, but the problem is every game is perfectly designed. There’s no chaos. Everything is mathematically even, and everything is very well balanced. So the games, they can be kind of boring.
SP: Yeah. Makes sense.
DTD: But it’s absolutely incredible that it could be designed at all. It is a proof of concept that is just mind-blowing. But I completely understand what you mean about games having to have that little spark, that little something that’s crazy.
SP: Yeah, I want surprises in the game, things that… Not like massive swings of luck, but just little moments are like, “Ooh, I don’t know what the good choice is. I can’t tell.” It’s not a simple like, this is better than that. No, it’s not that easy to figure out.
DTD: Right, there’s not something obviously better, but every once in a while there’s something that you want to really work towards.
SP: Yeah, it sucks you in.
DTD: The “really expensive, but really good” card. Those are the ones that always get me.
DTD: So, what sort of games are you playing nowadays? Do you get to play other games out there, or do you find yourself always having to play prototypes and iterations and ideas and internal things?
SP: No, we still make time to play. So, I have like a Thursday night group which I almost always go to, but not all the time. But that’s often like… It’s often that the latest game is on the market, because we’ve got three of us who are big collectors, so we all have something to bring each week, usually.
SP: We go back to old ones now and then, which is fun as well. And then Sam [Macdonald] and I, when we’re playtesting our games, which is usually once or twice a week, would usually play at least one game, or two games off the shelf, like at the end. We usually do like three or four hours of playtesting, maybe some brainstorming the middle, then we just finished with some games just to kind of just relax and enjoy.
DTD: Gotta clear your head.
SP: Yeah, and just like take them in, and get inspired for new mechanisms and things.
DTD: Oh absolutely, it’s good to hear that. there’s a lot of designers out there that every time they go out and play they just feel this obligation to work on their game, to work on their playtests, to try to do that next iteration. It does take so many iterations.
SP: It does, yeah, and they can be quite… I mean, it can be a bit of a barrier sometimes, being like “Ugh, now I should make a whole new prototype. [sarcastic] Yaay.” If it’s easy, just cards, that’s easy. But when it’s like I’ve gotta cut out 50 tiles for picks again…yeah. That’s the stuff we’re not so excited about it. Thank God for Game Crafter.
Game Crafter is a fantastic service that provides custom components for board games – meeples, dice, boards, cards, anything.
DTD: The Game Crafter guys are great.
SP: Yep. Save my hands, yeah.
DTD: And then you get that that couple day break before the Game Crafter items show up, where you get a little breather.
SP: Yeah, and then realize that you’ve screwed it up.
DTD: Oh no!
SP: I’ve done that so many times. I’ve had things arrive… When it arrives, you’re like, “Oh that! I don’t need that anymore, because I’ve changed the whole game, so I don’t need that.”
DTD: I always feel this, when I work on something and then submit it, I feel this pressure to not work on it once it’s been submitted somewhere.
DTD: Don’t change it until the feedback comes back, or the prototype comes back.
SP: Yeah, I’m the same with like, when Sam will fire through ideas for changing our games a bit. I’m like, “Well, we haven’t actually tested that part that much yet. Like maybe once or twice. Let’s not change it just yet.” Because we don’t know if… He might think he sees a flaw, or something that needs to be fixed. I’m like, “Well, we don’t know it needs to be fixed yet. Let’s just play a bit more.”
DTD: Well, he’s ready.
SP: Because we want to usually rush, like we love, we love development. That’s their favorite part of the whole process. We love just playing and playing, tweaking and changing and changing.
DTD: Well, that’s what Sharpies are for.
SP: Yeah. We do all our games with like card sleeves, and just chuck paper in behind other cards. That’s how we often do it. And I’ve got a 3D printer now, which is fun for little components, and stuff like that.
DTD: Oh, that’s awesome. How hard was it to get into the 3D printer world?
Asking for a friend. I certainly am not dreaming of 3D printing all new components and organizers for everything I own…
SP: Ah, not too bad. I got a Flashforge adventurer 3, which is basically a… It’s like a desktop printer, really.
SP: It’s all enclosed, and it’s only, [gesturing size] that big, cubed… It’s, you know, not real big. I think it prints, well… in Imperial units it’s 15 centimeter, cubed. So whatever that is in inches, maybe 7 or 8 inches cubed.
15 centimeter is almost 6 inches. To be clear, the Flashforge has a print area 15x15x15 cm, which is 3375 cubic centimeters.
DTD: That sounds great. I’m just intimidated by learning the modeling and the language of how to tell it to do something.
SP: So, I use… I think it’s called tinkercad.com. It’s just a really simple like 3D creation tool. And if you create like a flat shape, like any kind of vector file type thing, export it as a SVG file, put that in there and you can add depth to it, so you can get a meeple shape. Edit, export it as a printable file in this printer.
DTD: And just go.
SP: It’s actually quite simple. Yeah, so that’s how I did most of my stuff. I don’t do like full-on 3D sculpting or anything. I haven’t got those kind of skills, but I can make box inserts, and I can make meeples.
SP: The castle for Viscounts [of the West Kingdom] was the trickiest one I’ve done ever. Because that was like multiple rings and towers and stuff, but it’s basically the same process.
The central piece of Viscounts is a three tier circular “castle” with spaces on each tier for meeples.
DTD: And indents.
And indents that cardboard punch-outs fit into. Thank you, Corey.
SP: Yeah, yeah, it’s just like create it, then cut out some of it, then add some more in. But there’s no…that’s all, like, kind of flat. I guess you’d say “or not flat,” but there’s no kind of beveling or anything going on with the shape.
DTD: Oh sure. So, when you were designing Viscounts you 3D printed versions of that, and played with it as a 3D surface.
SP: Oh yeah. I think I went through about 10 different versions of that Castle, maybe more. I had longer stairways and all sorts of stuff, but it all came down to like, I want it to look cool, but the usability had to be first, so we end up just with a very clean kind of layout, rather than little stairways and stuff, because the meeples would always fall over.
DTD: That’s actually what I like about it, is it is clean. It’s pretty easy. Maybe a little small, but…
SP: Yeah. Yeah, that was… That’s the box size. If I made it any bigger, than the tiles, you start… We lost space between where the card piles are, and where the Viscount sits.
SP: It’s like, it’s such a narrow gap already. If I make it bigger, then I have to push other stuff out there, the towns get too big, so I was working on this like… Basically, like what is the maximum size castle I can put in there to get, without taking away from the rest of the game?
Real estate on the board is very tight in Viscounts.
DTD: So, you’re still stuck on the box size.
All of the North Sea and West Kingdom trilogy games have a very consistent box size. Great for branding.
It’s too small.
SP: Yeah. Always working with those restrictions.
DTD: Well see, now if you do enough expansions, you could just make giant sized boxes for everything.
Yes, bigger boxes. Please. Raiders of the North Sea had enough expansions that a larger box was made to hold them all.
SP: That’s true, yeah.
DTD: Wow. So, what games have you been playing recently that have really just impressed you? It sounds like you’re a mechanism guy. So, has there been a mechanism in a game that’s just really stuck in your head and impressed you recently?
SP: Have you ever played Asara? It’s an older one.
SP: I think it’s Wolfgang Kramer and Kiesling. Kramer and Kiesling. So, it’s an older card game. The action-taking is a kind of worker placement, but it’s with cards, and they’re colored, so you’ll have a hand of cards randomly dealt, like 7 or 8 cards. You’ll play a card to an area, to take the action there, but the color you play determines what everyone else has to play there to take that action. So, “I’m playing a blue here to get a tower piece for my tower. If you want to get a tower piece, you gotta play a blue card, or two face down.” That’s how it kind of works. I have always loved that mechanism, but one day I will do something similar with workers, and do something like that. And then out comes Underwater Cities, and I was like, “That’s exactly, that’s exactly the game I wanted to make.” It’s kind of like Asara. I really enjoy Underwater Cities.
DTD: Oh, it’s a beautiful game.
Underwater Cities by Vladimír Suchý currently sits at #42 on BGG’s ranking of best games.
Vladimir, call me. Let’s go out for street tacos.
SP: That’s the kind of game I would publish.
DTD: That’s a fantastic one.
SP: And I’ve been playing a lot of Kingdom Rush.
Kingdom Rush: Rift in TIme, based on the video game, is a recent release from Lucky Duck Games, and is a tower defense game using polyomino cardboard pieces.
SP: That’s not usually my kind of game, but I’ve been enjoying that. Yeah, just playing it solo, two-handed. I enjoy co-ops. I played, actually played three times through, Journeys in Middle Earth: Lord of the Rings game solo, so it’s good fun. But that’s kind of a different experience for me, its so much like playing a digital game…
Journeys in Middle Earth is the most recent adaptation of the app-driven RPG cooperative game genre from Fantasy Flight Games.
DTD: It’s almost a video game. It’s really… I mean, it’s great. I enjoy it a lot, but it’s it almost begs for its own category of “video game with toys,” or some mixture in there.
There is a debate about how to, or whether to, categorize hybrid board games with a heavy app requirement.
DTD: I personally, I’ve seen a lot of people arguing about app-driven games, and having the heavy app influence on games, but I’m a huge fan of the move that Fantasy Flight has made to take a lot of their one-versus-many games, and make them fully co-op with an intelligent app.
SP: Yeah, I agree.
Descent and Imperial Assault started their lives as one-vs-many board games, with one player taking on the role of all the bad guys. Recently, apps have been created for these games that take on the role of the “one,” turning the games purely cooperative.
SP: Yes, we started with Descent, and we tried it as a three player co-op against the app, but there were so many moments where like, “Where does… Where do they want to go? We’re not sure.” The grid wasn’t quite clear enough on where they should go, that the enemy. So that was a bit frustrating.
DTD: Yeah. They definitely improved it over time.
SP: Yeah, and then Imperial Assault was better. But still, like I felt like that, the units were constantly running up, shooting, and running away. Like there’s a weird kind of mechanism they had. But then Journeys was just like bang-on! There’s never a thing of like, “Where do they move? Not sure. Had to make a decision to play it.” That’s why I think I enjoy it the most. It was just so well integrated.
DTD: It seemed like it was a little harder as well. You couldn’t mess around. You had to race a little bit.
SP: Oh yeah, yeah, the pressure comes on in the end for sure.
DTD: Absolutely. And that was, that is a really fun one.
DTD: Now it seems like so many really interesting ideas and mechanisms have come out. People are doing such bizarre things with different card games. There’s been trick taking games that have been just strange and unusual.
DTD: The Crew was incredible. Because that’s the sort of thing that people who play a lot of trick taking games do all the time. There’s always this communication level going around the table when people are playing Hearts or Spades, or Bridge or any of the traditional trick taking games. They just took that and made it its own game.
SP: Yeah, that’s pretty clever.
Next time, Shem and I really get to the meat of the matter, and talk pies. Pies, pies, pies. There may be brief forays into the upcoming South Trilogy, strange dice mechanisms, Japanese Games, and conventions. But mostly pies.