I can say a lot of bad stuff about this past year, but one positive is that I have learned to reach out and visit with people from all over the world. And New Zealand designer Shem Phillips is a great example of someone I may not have ordinarily had the opportunity to dine and hang out with. And I am so much better off for having done it. Shem and I are in the middle of a lovely dinner involving pie, dice games, pie, drumming, pie, music theory, and pie. Needless to say, I ate a lot of pie during this interview. And I regret nothing.
DTD: I thought that was fantastic. This food is very good, by the way. This is, I think, my first foray into potato top pie. [laughs]
SP: This is, as far as I’m aware… In North America pies are usually sweet, right?
DTD: Almost always.
SP: Like pumpkin pie and apple pie.
DTD: If you say “pie”, people will assume it is a dessert, it is a sweet pie. If you say pot pie, then it’s going to be savory. It’s going to have meat in it.
So 4 and 20 blackbirds baked in a pie. In the US, I assume the birds became accidentally stuck in some sort of sweet fruit pie. Maybe it was too sticky. In the original British thinking, it is a bird pie. The birds were put in there, on purpose, to be consumed. Epiphany.
DTD: That’s the difference.
SP: I think we get more, I think we get our meat pies from the UK. I think they’re quite big on like, they have… What’s it called? Shepherd’s Pie, and things like that. I think that’s where that kind of comes from for New Zealand.
I remember Shepherd’s Pie from school lunches. I never considered it a pie. It was a pile of ground meat and potato. It was actually quite confusing that “pie” was in the title.
SP: But we’re the kind of… Like if you go to a service station to get your petrol for your car, you can buy a meat pie. It’s just common. That’s the kind of culture we have.
DTD: OK, yeah.
In California, I think the humble burrito has taken on that same role at gas stations.
SP: It’s like, “Go out there, get a pie”, you know. Have a drink.
DTD: So, if you were just sitting around, and someone said, “Let’s go get a pie”, this [pointing to my pie] is what it would be.
SP: Yeah, definitely. Whereas like for a sweet pie, it would be… It’s kind of a strange occasion, like “Let’s get an apple pie for dessert.” It’s just not very common.
DTD: It’s fantastic. It’s very, very good. We’ve got… There’s a couple little regional things out here. And they usually use a different word. They usually don’t call them a pie. They will call them like a “pasty”.
SP: Oh yeah, yeah.
DTD: So, there’s a couple towns in California that are kind of known for Cornish pasties. And you go there for that. And then, if you’re not in that town, nobody knows what you’re talking about.
Grass Valley, California in particular is known for hand pies, or Cornish pasties.
SP: [laughs] Yeah.
DTD: But this is excellent. I love this bakery. Ever since I discovered it near the house, I go there all the time for… often sweet things.
Once again, shout out to BurtoNZ Bakery in Windsor, California. The New Zealand pies are extraordinary. My favorite is mushroom and goat cheese.
DTD: They’ve got pies for every occasion, I’ve just discovered.
SP: Are they, are they actually…are the owners Kiwi?
SP: Yeah, they obviously moved there, and thought “Let’s make a bakery.”
DTD: I think he was a baker before, a very friendly guy. I’ve talked to him before. He moved to California, and he was a baker. So he’s he started a bakery, and I just never realized a national standard for New Zealand food. It never occurred to me.
SP: Yeah, yeah, we inherit a lot, like Kiwis love roast, but like, a roast to me is very British. You know, like Sunday roast. I guess it’s world wide, I guess. Most people have roasts. And also like, we love our Indian food, so that’s a huge thing in New Zealand, your biryanis or butter chickens, or tandooris.
A very wise people after my own heart.
DTD: This bakery had a chicken tikka pie.
SP: Oh yeah, that’s good.
DTD: I may have eaten one of those yesterday…
DTD: Yeah, yeah, I’m not gonna say how many pies I’ve gone through and tried, in anticipation of dinner today. You know, you gotta make sure that they’re OK. [laughs]
SP: [laughs] Yeah, totally. Market research.
DTD: Very cool. So, the South trilogy. I’m excited. So, it’s going to be dice, but one of the hallmarks I’ve seen in your other trilogies is that you’ll usually take one of these mechanisms we’re used to, and do it very differently. So, Raiders [of the North Sea], you know was the first time I had seen actions on putting down a worker, but then also actions on picking up. And in Paladins [of the West Kingdom], it’s a worker placement game, but the workers are resources. You know, so you have to think about it. Like, what resources do I need to play all my stuff, and how can I regain and earn resources, to make my turn last longer? So, with dice, are you looking at drafting, rolling, moving? There’s so much that’s been done with dice. Or is it too early to say?
Just to recap – Shem has done two complete trilogies of games, the North Sea Trilogy, featuring Vikings, and the West Kingdom Trilogy, focusing on middle age Europe. And now Shem has said the next trilogy from Garphill Games will be the South Trilogy, taking its theme from the golden age of the Islamic Empire around Baghdad.
SP: Yeah, that’s a challenge. Well, we’ve got like a massive list of potential mechanisms, and we’re always throwing back new ideas about how we can do different things. Because we don’t want it to be just like a luck factor, as such. Just light chaos in your decision space, kind of like Castles of Burgundy, the way it’s played. Maybe too extreme with luck, but you know, this kind of limits your choices rather than just all-out luck. So the first game is a bag building game with dice.
SP: But there’s yeah… the mitigation is really easy, so it’s like, you can use a worker to change the dice color or change it to any value. There’s no up and down one, or flip, or they just… It’s really easy to mitigate the luck, yes. But you’re kind of building your bag for the colors more than anything else. So, you get lots of white dice, your bag’s just terrible and boring, and you’ve got to use other things to color it, but if you got lots of colorful dice, then your actions are really easy to achieve, and things like that. So yeah, it’s got some really cool things going on. The game was very much like a, I guess…it came from Sam [Macdonald], most of it really. So here, this whole concept of the story and everything behind it, that was… That design took like three or four months, which is bizarre for us. Like we’ve never been this far ahead of schedule for our games, so it’s quite strange.
Sam [SJ] Macdonald is co-designer on the West Kingdom series of games and their expansions.
SP: And then for the second game we are… I’m trying to think now, using the dice maybe like a rondel with dice. We’re not sure yet. We’re still gonna play around. We might make color a plot thing. Yeah, there’s so many different ideas. Like, drafting has been done a million times, and then dice placement has been done a million times, so we don’t want to just do something because it works. Gonna try and find something kind of fresh.
DTD: Well, at the same time, dice placement is really hot right now. People are actively playing with ways to do dice placement.
SP: Yeah, yeah.
DTD: And bag building I think is an underutilized mechanism. It’s always just been such fun. I enjoy dice…and I enjoy bag building games immensely.
SP: Yeah, like Roll for the Galaxy is probably the only one I think of, of dice bag building, but there’s probably other ones out there. I think it’s because it doesn’t usually work, because you’ve got two luck factors; you got the dice roll and the dice draw. Just like two chaotic things, which usually make for this insane randomness. I think we’ve designed in a way, that it doesn’t feel random.
DTD: Have you played Nokosu Dice?
DTD: This is bringing it kind of around again, it’s a dice, with a bag, trick taking game. So you have a hand… It’s a standard trick taking game with suits, which are the colors, and you need to follow suit. If somebody leads with green, you need to play green if you have it.
Well, not really a bag building game. Just a trick taking game I am really enamored with.
DTD: You’re only allowed to play your trump if you don’t have it. All the standard trick taking rules. But your hand that you’re working with is a hand of cards and a set of dice, that are in front of you.
SP: All right.
DTD: And a green die that’s a five, is the same as having a 5 green in your hand. So, you have private cards, that people don’t know what you have, but public dice and people can see, “If I play red, he has to play that red die, at least.”
SP: Yeah, that’s cool.
DTD: So, it’s an interesting twist on the trick taking. But it starts with a random draw of random dice out of the bag, the colors that are available. So it is incredibly random, which colors and what numbers show up.
SP: Yeah, but then I guess the card system helps to balance that of the… I suppose gives you some perfect information that you know is not going to change in your hand, so yeah.
DTD: It’s that really neat mixture of both known and unknown. The other thing that I liked about that one is you play… The round lasts through all of your cards, and all but one of your dice. And the one die that’s left at the end of the round is your target number of tricks you want to win.
DTD: So, if you leave yourself a 3 after everything was done, you get bonus points if you have won exactly 3 tricks.
SP: That’s tricky.
Ha! Tricky! And it’s a trick-taking game!
DTD: So, you can see how many tricks people have won, and what dice are left in front of them, so you can mess with their target.
SP: Oh yeah, yeah. So, is it quite a new game or is it an older one?
DTD: It’s a few years old, it’s a Japanese game. It had a little bit, it had limited entrance into the gaming market, but it’s talked about with the trick taking people, Tichu crazy people. I forget who told me about it, but it really impressed me. It was a really interesting, bizarre, dice-driven game.
SP: There’s some really cool games coming out of the East Asia area that don’t always get the reach. But yeah, we played one. I think it’s Japanese. Played it a couple years ago in Sydney when we were there, it’s just called Dice Fishing. But you can’t find it on BGG or anything. Dice Fishing, but I think it had Japanese characters rather than the name. But it was so fun, but so weird, and like had those moments when you are just laughing. Just because the luck was so against you, but it was fun because it was just crazy. It was as simple as… I think a card got revealed, and it had like a target number, like a sum that you want on your dice. And there might have been some rules, like you had to use at least two dice or three dice or such and such. Each player had I think maybe four or five D6’s, a D8 and a D12 I think.
DTD: Uh huh.
Tom actually did a review of Dish Fishing in 2018.
SP: You could only use the two high ones on alternating turns. You couldn’t use them all the time. But basically, you have to like, in your hand hide the dice you think you can achieve the dice roll with, and everyone reveals. and whoever’s got the least amount dice in front of them goes first. So they try to roll to hit that sum, you know to get the number.
DTD: Following this complex set of rules.
SP: Yeah, we’re all trying to catch the same fish, but if you try and go first, you might have fewer dice to use basically.
DTD: So, it could be more difficult for you to get it. That’s awesome.
SP: Yeah, if you just put all your dice in the bag, you go last, but you will have more chance of getting that number. So, it’s just funny and chaotic, but I always have fun memories of playing it.
DTD: So that’s very cool. Like you said, there’s a lot of Japanese companies that are making some really strange games that are just really neat. Right now, I think Oink Games has a Kickstarter going on. And they’ve traditionally made the rectangular box, pastel color games. And they’re offering a whole bunch of their games that have not been available before on this Kickstarter, so it’s bad for a collector like me.
SP: [laughs] And so, are those the ones with like 3 letters in the names, was it, or four letters?
The Pack O Games games by Perplext are packages of small games, each with 3 letters in their name, and each about the size of a pack of gum. Currently there are 2 sets, each containing 8 games and a case.
SP: Oh, that’s right.
Both Insider (2016) and Werewords (2017) are party games that take use same general mechanism. A group of players is prompted to guess a word using some variation of twenty questions. However, one of the group already knows the word, and is trying to get the group to guess correctly. The group is trying to figure out who the “insider” is.
SP: Oh yeah, that one, yeah.
DTD: They were all cute and really clever. They’ve been a favorite company for Japanese games for me for a while. And Itten Games.
SP: Oh yeah?
DTD: They do… Tokyo Highway was their big one.
SP: Oh yeah, I haven’t played it but I’ve seen it.
DTD: With the popsicle sticks and… But they’ve done some really bizarre ones. They have Crash Octopus is their newest one. Which has a bunch of wooden pieces all scattered out on a table, with a dome in the middle. And you drop pieces onto the dome, trying to get them to hit the dome, bounce off and get near other targets.
DTD: Oh, Itten has done some very strange things. They had a game whose central component was an enormous pendulum you mounted on your ceiling.
SP: Oh yeah, I remember seeing that one. That’s crazy.
DTD: It was called… Stonehenge and the Sun was the name of the game.
SP: Yeah! Did you get to play it or..?
DTD: I saw it, but I have not played it. I am the sort of person who would buy it, but I’m not the sort of person who would ever get around to hooking up the giant pendulum, so…
An unfortunate combination of impulsiveness and laziness.
SP: [laughs] yeah. Oh, that’s a pretty big commitment there. Drill a hole in your ceiling, I don’t know.
DTD: Ah, it is. It’s tricky. So, do you end up going to a lot of the conventions now that you’re a big time trilogy board game maker?
SP: I haven’t been for a few years actually, and probably won’t now I guess with COVID.
In retrospect, not a good question. When I’m chatting and having fun, I tend to forget that we are in the middle of a global pandemic that restricts all activities…
DTD: Well, I guess that’s a loaded question nowadays.
SP: I’ve been to Essen twice and GenCon once. I’ve been to Sydney, to the LFG [Looking for Games] convention, twice and it was really cool, but that’s about it. We have a few ones in New Zealand. They go from anywhere from like 200 to 600 people, but they are mainly just playing games non-stop. Which is cool.
DTD: That’s the best kind.
There’s something to be said for conventions with open gaming space and large libraries. GenCon and Essen are great for networking and seeing new unreleased games, but nothing beats an all-out game playing weekend fête.
SP: We have little booths now then, but usually it’s like… Well, most of the people there, I already know them, and they probably bought my game on Kickstarter. So, demoing my games at that those things isn’t really worthwhile, because no one wants to play them, because they’ve already got them and have been playing them for six months. So yeah, so we just go there and play games. That’s what we usually do.
DTD: [laughs] You go, you bring business cards. If somebody says, “Oh I need this,” then you just hand it to them.
SP: Yeah, yeah. It’s a good community, though.
DTD: That’s fantastic. I’m really missing the conventions and the community, it’s…ah, it’s tough. We’re not as good about dealing with COVID as the smart Kiwis are.
SP: We’re a small little island, so it’s a bit easier, I guess.
DTD: Easy to close the borders and stay isolated.
DTD: Yeah, well, from what I hear, Essen is going to happen. They have full plans of doing a real physical Essen this year.
Essen did announce a true Essen convention happening this year October 14-17.
SP: Yeah, I saw that. I think I got an Email about it, saying like, they are confident in the like in the, you know, what are they called, the injections…
DTD: Oh, the vaccines. The vaccine schedule and all that.
SP: Vaccines, that’s the magic word. Yeah, so they’re confident that it’s going to be fine, so we’ll see. I think their numbers will be down a bit, though.
DTD: They kind of have to be, but I noticed at the end of the press release they did say, “Of course, we’re also ready to have a digital online version.” So, they have everything fully in place if, if it does not work out.
SP: We’ll see.
DTD: But it’s been, it’s been a very long time. I think when COVID really hit home for me, was at… Was a year ago was at the GAMA Convention. So, and that has come full circle, they’ve had the next GAMA convention, so it’s been a full year now, of sitting around in my closed little room wondering what’s happening in the outside world. See, I have to live vicariously through you. I have to pretend that it’s summer, and daylight.
GAMA Expo Online 2021 is happening pretty much now, March 16-23, 2021.
SP: [laughs] Yeah. I’m definitely looking forward to traveling again. This might be nice. I have usually only gone by myself for those, for the previous ones. So, might actually be nice to go with Sam Macdonald or go with others to Essen. Make a bit more a thing out of it, rather than… Usually, it would be like me showing up by myself, and then just visiting the German stall or the French stall, and like demoing my games a little bit, or playtesting our expansions that we are working on, or something like that. But then I go back to my hotel and just wait for the next day to start, and not sleep, and then go back again.
DTD: [laughing] I think, when I first traveled to Australia, there was a very loud, very friendly Australian man sitting next to me, and he told me that the secret to traveling that far, was “don’t sleep.” His strategy for me was, “When you arrive, just stay awake the whole time. Don’t go to sleep until you see everyone else go to sleep. Stay up like 36 hours and then just crash.”
He actually told me to accept coffee on the plane every time it was offered, and to stay awake for upwards of 2 days. I don’t remember the first few days of that trip.
SP: That’s pretty much how it would shock me anyway, and it doesn’t work. I think I barely ever sleep on the airplane, so that’s like 2 days almost.
DTD: No, I can’t do that. That’s tough. I’m too excited usually.
SP: Yeah. It’s too noisy is all.
DTD: I get too excited on the way out there and too brain-dead on the way back.
SP: Yeah, I had a weird thing coming back from Essen last time. I was so tired; I think I was sitting in the waiting lounge, or whatever it’s called, the boarding room thing. And I was trying to watch, I think I was watching Brooklyn Nine-Nine on my laptop, and just nodding off slowly. Just waiting to make sure I’m awake for the boarding. And I got on. And I think I was waiting so long for the person… I was on the aisle, as there’s two seats next to me, I was waiting so long for them to come on, because I just wanted to go to sleep. And they finally came on, like last, and then I must’ve drifted straight off, and I woke up to this guy looking at me like, “What the heck are you doing?” I don’t know what happened, but I think I had probably falling my head on him and was snoring.
Ah, the inevitable “fall asleep on a stranger’s shoulder” airplane moment.
SP: I just don’t know. I was just so tired at that point. I just had no idea what I was doing.
DTD: Just collapsed.
SP: So apparently every time I come home, my wife says I snore the loudest I’ve ever snored in my whole life, and sleep for like 10 hours or 12 hours straight.
DTD: [laughs] That just means you had a good convention.
SP: Yeah, exactly. Yeah.
DTD: Whenever I go to one of those conventions, I just, I end up getting up much too early, out of excitement, and then going to bed much too late, because I’ve been playing games or visiting with friends the whole time. So, at the end, I crash. I crash hard as soon as I get back home. And I miss it! it’s been much, much too long.
DTD: So how did you run into Sam [Macdonald]? I’m assuming Sam is now part of Garphill.
SP: So yeah, he’s going to actually come on full-time as employee in April.
DTD: Oh cool.
SP: He’s been, he’s been just a sole trader, working on his own for the last, I guess, two years. He was a pastor for a couple years and did like work at the local school as well. So, he’s done a bit of stuff.
Sam is also the designer of Circadians: First Light.
DTD: So, he’s local to you?
SP: He’s about 50 minutes’ drive. Yeah, fifty, five zero. I actually was in a band with him years ago. Yeah, of all the weird things you could be doing together. So, we yeah, we played in the band for five years, wrote songs, and did gigs and stuff. So that’s why I knew that, when he showed me the game ideas, it was like, “Well, I know I can work with him creatively.” You know, I know that we get along. We can both take criticism from each other. And so yeah, it’s been a really easy relationship the last three or four years because we had that five years of like working together anyway.
DTD: That’s awesome. Those are always the best, is someone that you know already, and you know that you can bounce ideas off of. As long as neither of you is the drummer, then everything’s good.
SP: He’s the drummer. [laughs]
DTD: Oh man! So, you don’t, you don’t go and tell me things like that.
SP: He’s a good drummer, though. He’s a very creative drummer.
DTD: Oh my goodness, so you know that he can juggle a lot of things at the same time in completely different ways.
SP: Yep, he’s always… Yyou know anything about music at all?
DTD: Oh yeah.
Classically trained since the age of 5. And completely out of practice now.
SP: With polyrhythms and things like that?
DTD: Oh yeah. Hemiolas and polyrhythms and…
SP: He loved writing polyrhythms to the point that our bass player would just be like, “I can’t handle this anymore, playing this. You’re making rhythms that I can’t follow. I don’t know when to change the chords because the rhythm is changing and the notes aren’t.” That’s hilarious, but he just loved being outside the box, and just trying things that shouldn’t work, but do work, and stuff like that.
DTD: Oh, I’ve always been fascinated with doing 2-hand and 3-hand polyrhythms, and hearing the resonance speed up and slow down between the two. Oh, it’s fascinating.
SP: Yeah yeah, yeah he loves that stuff. He’s a big maths nerd too, so it’s like, it’s all about fractions and things.
DTD: It is!
SP: I think that’s why enjoys it, yeah?
DTD: I did a lot of music as a kid, mostly classical, and took a lot of theory, so we’d have to, in theory classes, we’d have to listen to rhythms, and then write down the rhythms, and be able to figure out the timings of everything.
SP: Ah, cool.
DTD: It was, it was tough. In a past life. Yeah, I was one of those strange kids who went to music camp, and you know, did it full time.
SP: Yeah, wow.
DTD: Not so much anymore. Yeah, I always found it fascinating the really strange rhythms, because they sound so good when they’re done well. But almost nobody uses them, so you can list on one hand the number of popular songs that are in 5/4, 7/4. And in a strange prime number, you know, rhythm.
The time signature of a musical piece has two numbers. The bottom number defines what type of note receives one beat – 4 means a quarter note gets the beat. The top number says how many beats are in a measure, or a phrasing unit of the piece. If you ever listen to a song and find yourself going, “ONE, two three, four, ONE, two three four…” then that song is “in four.” ie. The top number of the time signature is likely a 4.
SP: Yeah, 5/4 is… Oh, we love 5/4. We had one song that was 5/4 through most of the song, but had 4/4 at the end. And for whatever reason, your heart just goes…“Aaaaaahhhh.”
DTD: Was it the relief?
SP: Right, but you don’t notice it’s 5/4. It’s just the way he’s strumming the guitar in that part doesn’t really feel odd. It was natural. But I just, I guess it feels kind of like it’s lagging, lyrically. Like these are long kind of gaps, measures.
DTD: It does, it has a gallop. It has a “galumph” to it.
Our brains are really used to hearing songs in 3 (like a waltz), or more commonly in 4. Odd time signatures like 5/4 or 7/4 just feel off; they stumble or lurch along. However, this unique quality can make for a driving rhythm, and be very effective.
SP: Yeah. Its when that “bam…bam…bam” comes in.
Living in the Past by Jethro Tull is a fantastic example of a rock song in 5/4 that just throws you off balance.
SP: Yup, yeah.
DTD: But it also can just build up tension, and make you feel like you’re so off balance, and you just need something to resolve. See, that’s what you need. You need now a game that deals with 5/4 timing.
SP: Wow. I don’t know. It’s interesting like how many…with music and sports, especially, how they don’t always translate well into board games.
DTD: I agree.
SP: Yeah, there’s a lot of people that like those things in the community, but they don’t seem to want to play those games, for whatever reason.
DTD: I know a few designers who are big time musicians, and usually into some of the stranger…like jazz musicians, and going into things that have some strange flows to them.
SP: Yeah, nice. Yes, I played… I didn’t play it, but I saw at a local design meet-up, we had a woman who was designing a game called Ovation, which is all about putting on concerts, classical music, for people.
DTD: Uh huh.
SP: What I really liked about it, was that your, kind of, resource track, you’re moving things along. Kind of like, what’s it called? Oh gosh, Tapestry. It had that resource board that you move things on. It was like that but that was your piano. So, you’d move on the piano keys. So that’s quite clever. It was nice to like a little piano, by one octave, kind of in front of you for your resources.
DTD: There haven’t been that many, actually music-focused games, now that I think about.
SP: No, not too many, and if they are, they’re usually either more trivia, or just more family, kind of, focused, like DropMix.
DTD: Or it’s sort of pasted on kind of theme. Like this is really a worker placement, resource management game, but the theming is a symphony, or composition, or something along those lines.
SP: Yeah, it should work though because like board games are generally a lot of maths. And music is just maths, so it should work.
DTD: Yeah, music is just fractions.
DTD: Should be a game where none of the math works out and it could be about temperament. [laughs]
SP: Just destroy everything. I just, what was it? I just got… I just got in a big pile of the hard to get German games, they all arrived at once, and I’ve been trying to work my way through those so… I got Hallertau played. I thought there was a music one in there, but now it’s completely eluding me. See, it’s the pie. You’ve poisoned me with dense meat pie.
DTD: I have. Bogged you down.
SP: And now I’m going to need a nap [laughs].
Join Shem Phillips and myself next time for even more delicious pie, and equally scrummy discussions of early game designs, theories on development, board game remasters, and how the West [trilogy] was won. And pie.