And Dice Tower Dish is back after a short hiatus. My new guest is Phil Walker-Harding, arguably a master of light, elegant, entry-level board games. Phil has designed many, many evergreen hits, including Sushi Go, Imhotep, Gizmos, and Bärenpark. I am joining Master Walker-Harding over the modern, magical world of virtual meetings, and predictably, am experiencing the modern, magical problems of virtual meetings. But Phil was unwilling to bicycle the 7500 miles from Sydney to California, so I am left with only fickle computer wizardry. On the bright side, there is sushi.
DTD: Hello, Sir! Can you hear me alright?
PWH: Hey, can you hear me?
DTD: Yes, I can hear you now.
DTD: It’s I apologize, there’s been nothing but technical difficulties all evening.
PWH: That’s alright.
DTD: So, if this cuts out. I apologize in advance.
PWH: No problem
DTD: So, thank you so much for joining me for, well…for a, for a dinner. I’m glad that I got the time zones right.
PWH: Yep, Yep.
DTD: It was very close. I almost set up an hour ago.
PWH: Yeah, it is a bit confusing, when it’s so far. The distance is so great.
I am in Pacific Daylight Time in California. Phil is in Australian Eastern Standard Time. 17 hours ahead of me. It’s late Sunday night for me. Monday evening for Phil.
PWH: You go back a day, forward a day.
DTD: Awesome. No, this is very exciting. I got myself some sushi!
PWH: Yep, me too.
DTD: We can go ahead and roll with the…ooooo!
PWH: I bought a little box. [looking closer at the screen] Ooh! That looks great.
DTD: So, I got myself… I can never decide what kind of sushi I want to get, so I usually get the combo chirashi with everything. That’s my go-to…
Chirashizushi, literally “scattered sushi,” is a chef selected mix of fish on a bed of sushi rice. Very nice for the decision-impaired.
PWH: Yeah, me too. I often…yeah. But I love these little lunch boxes, because you get to try everything.
DTD: Oh, the little bentos.
DTD: Ah, they’re fantastic. Wow. So how’s everything going?
PWH: Pretty good, yeah. Pretty good.
DTD: Pretty busy lately?
PWH: I’m sorry?
DTD: Been busy?
PWH: Yeah, yeah. Very busy. If anything, I feel like game design work picked up a bit during 2020. Yeah so, I’ve got quite a few projects on the boil, games coming out this year. So, yeah, lots of different things to work on.
DTD: Fantastic. Yeah. [noises] Aww, I’ve got feedback now. Sorry. I just want…now I’ve got horrible noises! I apologize about that. So, I have to tell you I’m a huge fan. I’ve been playing your games for a long old time, so.
PWH: Oh wow, that’s great. Do you have a favorite?
I was so excited at the start of this interview, and so flustered by technological difficulties, that I completely missed Phil’s question. I’m sure it will come back up.
DTD: Yeah, so how did you get into this crazy industry?
PWH: Ah, well. So, I discovered kind of modern board Games 2004, 2005. And, uhm, I’ve played. You know, mainstream games when I was a kid. A lot, and really love board games. But yeah, they kind of, they fell off my radar as an adult, but then, so around the end of university, I discovered them again. So discovered what the Germans were doing, and were just pretty amazed. And very quickly got back into the whole hobby.
PWH: And I think because I had, when I was little, I liked to make my own games.
DTD: Oh, Cool.
PWH: Like they were just like silly craft projects really, just, you know, make your own board game with paper and markers and stuff. But it was always in my head that you know you could make… It was quite an approachable thing to make a board game. So, when I got back into the hobby I straightaway started dabbling in design just for fun. And, yeah, somewhere along the line when I was pretty new to it, I decided to self-publish, so I put out Archaeology, as a kind of homemade hand-assembled miniature print run.
DTD: How cool.
PWH: And I took it to a convention, a little convention here to sell. And popped it online, and a few people bought it online, and it just slowly built from there. Mostly, yeah, the first few things I did were just very small.
DTD: So, what was what was your first game that you made?
PWH: So yeah, the very first game was Archeology.
DTD: OK, yeah.
PWH: I think it was a 50-copy run. And the first edition, the first version, had a board and it had all these extra components, I can’t believe I had the time to make. But I made them all by hand. And then, you know, I got the idea that “You know what? If this was just a card game, it would be much easier to hand make.” So then, I kind of scaled the game down to just Archaeology, the card game. And I got the cards printed just on business cards, at a business card printer, and I just hand assembled them all.
PWH: And then Z-man Games picked that up. So, that was also the first game that a bigger publisher of, you know, picked up of mine. So that kind of got me going. But I continued to self-publish for quite a few years, but after that, too.
DTD: Wow, so you said that you enjoyed games a lot when you were a kid? What sort of games were you raised with? What sort of games did you have around?
PWH: Well in Australia we had all the, you know American stuff, so we played Monopoly. I loved Mouse Trap, Operation, Battleship, Connect Four. All that stuff, you know. I also moved. I lived in America for a few years when I was young as well. And then I lived in the States. I got Fireball Island when it first came out . That was a big influence.
As a reminder to the very young, Fireball Island originally came out in 1986, well before Restoration Games made such an amazing new edition of the classic in 2018. The original was huge. It was popular. It was, well… bad.
DTD: I lived in Sydney for a little bit when I was young.
PWH: Oh, really, how strange! Whereabouts were you?
DTD: My father taught at University of Sydney during the bicentennial.
Australia’s bicentennial, not the Uni’s. The University’s bicentennial is in 2050.
PWH: OK. Oh wow. OK, so I live right near Sydney Uni. Just around the corner there.
DTD: Oh, right near the Uni? Oh, how cool. Wow. Well yeah, I remember there were there were games around when I was a kid as well, and but it was such a big difference. Like you said, when I discovered the German games, what was going on in the world, it was it was so different.
PWH: Yeah. The first time I played Settlers… Well, Catan now. I remember just thinking, “Wow, you can do this? Just, you could do this with a board game?” I couldn’t even imagine that. And straightaway a part of me thought, “Man, I wish this was around when I was a kid,” because, you know, we played a lot of games, and we enjoyed them, but they… They didn’t really. There was something about them that didn’t keep me coming back, I think. I remember I got so excited. I used to love The Jetsons…
The theme song to The Jetsons has perhaps the most minimalistic lyrics ever. It is literally a list of the characters. Surprising since the music was amazing.
PWH: And I remember I got so excited because I was given the Jetsons board game when I was like 6 or 7. And I thought it was the greatest thing ever, but I think I probably only actually played it once, because it was, you know, a horrible roll and move thing.
DTD: There were so many churned out games.
PWH: And it just wasn’t a good game, you know. And you didn’t really process that as a child. You just thought, “Well, this is what you know games are. You play them once or twice and then maybe a year later you can play them once or twice.” There’s a few exceptions to that, but it was a big eye opening moment to see that a real huge range of what you can do in a tabletop game.
DTD: Absolutely. I remember when I was little scouring toy stores and the mass market games. And then discovering that there were these little stores around that kind of specialized in games, and discovering things like Games Workshop and the big 3M boxes. Early TSR clamshell mini-games, things like that. But then once everything exploded in the ’90s it was, it became pretty incredible.
PWH: Yeah, yeah. We were…Australia, like a lot of things, seemed a little bit culturally behind where the US was at that time, I guess. Just things take a couple years to come over, you know? We definitely had Games Workshop, because you know we have a stronger UK link here.
PWH: But yeah, I don’t think I would have come across any of that other stuff, or it would have been very hard to find some of that stuff pre-, sort of 2000s, at least where I was. I just didn’t ever come across the other part of the hobby.
DTD: Oh sure.
PWH: …until the Germans… Actually, the one exception is probably a couple of Ravensburger games came over. So, I played Scotland Yard and The Amazing Labyrinth.
DTD: Oh yeah.
PWH: So, they were brought over in the 80s, I think. And they definitely felt different to me as well.
DTD: Labyrinth was a real eye opener, and that was that was pretty early.
PWH: Yeah, mid-eighties I think. I remember seeing the Spiel des Jahres logo on Scotland Yard, and just thinking, “Wow, what are games like in Europe? Because this is really different to everything I’ve played.” Yeah, Scotland Yard is worth a mention too, because that just was such a different experience.
The Spiel des Jahres is the most recognized board game award. There are three awards in total – the Spiel, for best family weight game, the Kennerspiel, for more advanced games, and the Kinderspiel, for children’s games. Scotland Yard won the Spiel in 1983.
DTD: I think, I remember as a kid I was really… I was impacted by Dungeons and Dragons a lot. I was in that early wave of Dungeons and Dragons, so I was always looking for some sort of board game to mimic Dungeons and Dragons. So, I would find Talisman, or Dungeon!, or one of those.
PWH: Yeah, we played Dungeon! I remember getting Dungeon! when I was about, I guess 10 or 11. And uhm, me and my friends sort of invented our own Co-op variant. Because it just felt like it should be a Co-op.
PWH: You know, like we’re all going through the dungeon, why are we, you know, racing to pick up money? So we basically just walk through the dungeon together.
DTD: Yeah. We should run through it together. So, you said you were constantly making up new rules and making your own game designs, and things like that. Even from a very young age?
PWH: It was very natural, like I don’t… It didn’t even seem like, it just felt like a natural thing to do. The same way you write a story as a kid. You just, you might want to become an author, maybe, but you also just do it because kids’ brains just tend to be creative, I think.
DTD: Sure. Yeah. But I mean I think a lot of us play around with rules and making house rules and playing with the games. But, you know, almost none of us make a career out of it. [laughs]
PWH: [laughs] No.
Come back next time for discussion of Phil’s burgeoning movie career, design tales from the back rooms of CMoN, and sushi – both ludological and epicurean. And if I am allowed, little philosophy about rules.