Welcome back to dinner with Phil Walker-Harding. Since the pandemic was taking away my ability to meet with people in person, I’ve decided to have some virtual meals with people on the other side of the planet. So Phil and I are bonding over sushi, the universal food, and talking…movies.
DTD: What were you… What were you doing with yourself before you became a designer? Before this was your job. What were you kind of aiming towards?
PWH: Well, I went to university, I studied film production – film and video.
PWH: Yeah, I wanted to make films. That was kind of where I wanted to be headed after high school. But I think I found film school… I mean, there was lots of great things about it, but I also found the process of making films incredibly frustrating. Even at that, you know, simple level of when you’re starting.
PWH: There’s this… There’s such a massive… There’s a lot of bloat around the process of making movies. And so, you know, you go to film school and you have all these ideas, and you just want to go out and shoot something, but you’re kind of very much encouraged to use a traditional crew model of how a film is shot. And that is incredibly time consuming and expensive, and obviously for bigger productions you need that. But I just found that whole culture around film crews and film production… It’s almost like to be creative, that there’s this whole like bureaucracy almost around the process that I just found a bit exhausting, and the gap between the creative impulse, and then getting to be creative was so big. Such a big, like, lag.
PWH: So, I found it pretty discouraging, but I think in the end I just realized, especially in Australia, to get a career in film is, you know… It’s something you need to commit most of your professional life to slowly, you know, going up the ladder. And I just think that…
DTD: A lot of perseverance and a lot of luck.
PWH: That’s right! And you know, I think it’s amazing that people can stick at it, and have that level of passion. But I just didn’t feel like it was what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to do non-creative things for 10 years, in the hopes that I might, maybe, be picked to be one of the few people who can direct a feature film each year in Australia. So, after I finished film school I just like took a few months off, and just made my own film.
DTD: Oh, OK.
PWH: Just went, “Forget it. I’m just gonna make a low budget short feature with friends, and that was great fun.”
DTD: Wow, that’s very cool.
PWH: But it also kind of got it out of my system too, and I was like, “Oh OK, like this doesn’t have to be a job.”
DTD: This is how it works. This is the process.
PWH: Yeah, and I’ve done it, and I love it, but it’s not my career, you know.
DTD: Wow. So, at what point did it occur to you, “You know I’m a game designer now.” At what point, was it “OK. This is going to be a career.”
PWH: Hmm. It was very gradual. As I said, I was self-publishing for a long time, and that started as a hobby, completely. Yeah, it would have cost money, rather than made any money. But slowly, you know, a couple of my games got picked up and you just get a bit of a taste for the industry. And then… Yeah, just gradually I move to like, “Oh, you know what, I could actually do this a day a week now. My royalties are enough that, “Oh, maybe I could just spend the day doing this.”
DTD: Oh cool.
PWH: And then you slowly build it. So, for me, yeah, I tried to not make any…I tried to let it happen that way, rather than just decide, “OK, I’m full time and let’s hope it works.” Which not everyone has the luxury of that, but thankfully, the way my royalty was slowly built up, meant that I was able to like, “Oh!” You know, take a day off, take two days off, and slowly transition into it. But I don’t think if it wasn’t for my wife, you know, telling me I was a game designer, I think I would have owned it yet! Because it’s a weird thing to… You know most jobs and careers, someone else tells you are this because it’s on a piece of paper somewhere.
DTD: Or you self-profess it one day.
PWH: Yeah, but creative pursuits are sometimes, you have to decide for yourself that that’s what you are. So I would say, certainly around I guess 2015, 16, when I had a couple games come out from bigger publishers.
PWH: I had the SDJ [Spiel des Jahres] nomination. I think that’s when I started to embrace it a little bit more.
DTD: I would think certainly around when Sushi Go came out, things picked up quite a bit. I mean, I’m not wrong in saying that still probably your bestselling game at this point, right?
PWH: Definitely. So that was something I self-published first in 2013.
DTD: Oh, I didn’t realize that.
PWH: Yeah, yeah, I ran a little crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo. It made $7000. I did a little print run, and I just… Yeah, I just sold it. I had a bit of distribution by that point. And so, yeah, the Gamewright Edition came out in 2015. But yeah, that was all when it kind of kickstarted a bit more for me. And yeah, definitely Sushi Go, that series, is still definitely one of my best selling games.
Sushi Go raised $7,226 from 258 backers when it finished on December 15, 2012. Gamewright had announced in 2019 that Sushi Go had sold over a million copies.
DTD: I still remember being lucky enough to play a copy of the dice game. I did before it was generally released.
PWH: Oh yeah?
DTD: I was having a lunch with Tom Vasel. And he said, “We’re going to play this.” And he just threw it on the table, and it was delightful. It was just great.
PWH: Oh, cool.
DTD: That was a few years ago now.
PWH: Quite early on, Gamewright said they’d be interested in a dice version.
PWH: So, they just sort of said, “Oh, if you ever, you know, anytime you figure one out, just let us know.” And so, it was something I tinkered with for years and I threw away. Like I completely abandoned two basically finished versions.
DTD: Oh no.
PWH: You know it. Yeah, I’ve never been that comfortable designing with dice. So it was more of a challenge to be happy with it, and yeah, the things I came up with just felt a bit too derivative of what other dice games were doing. So, when I finally just bit the bullet and sort of said, “No, we need to actually be drafting the dice, just like the cards.”
PWH: And we need 30 of them in the in the box. That’s when it started to come together.
DTD: Yeah, that’s got to be tough, because I think there’s an expectation for a dice version to be a smaller version, or even a less expensive version. But when you’re starting with a relatively simple card game, dice are going to be a big upgrade in how much it costs to make the game.
PWH: Totally, yeah. It’s much more expensive to make. And yeah, everything about it was a bigger process. The production took longer. Playtesting took longer. It’s a bigger game, which I think I had to kind of… Yeah, it took me a while to embrace that, because my first versions were very much like, very scaled down roll-and-write style things. But in the end, I just didn’t feel I had anything kind of new to add to that genre.
Spoiler: We talk about roll and write games later. Or rather write-on-cards games.
DTD: Well, I’ve been really impressed, just in general, with your games’ embrace of the elegance, the simplicity. And you tend to make very easy to understand, fun to play, and you know, that style of game. And that creative space, it seems to me, is a much more difficult place to be working in. There’s not a lot you can add to it. It’ll destroy the mold if you make it too different or too complex. Are you purposely trying to make the more… I hate saying “simple”, but it’s really a more elegant game. It’s a simple ruleset that leads to more complex actions, and something that can be picked up easily. Is that your goal when you’re designing these things?
PWH: Yeah, definitely. I think what captured me about those first German games I played is how much they did with kind of simple, intuitive rules sets. And I think that’s really important because, I always have found that the biggest barrier for people getting into modern games is basically, I think, the rules teach.
Thank goodness we have tutorial videos now, such as Watch it Played by the incomparably plaid-clad Rodney Smith.
DTD: Oh yeah.
PWH: I think it’s not that people, the average person, can’t understand the rules of a complex game. It’s the idea that the social process of sitting down with someone and being taught rules, and then having to remember them and implement them in front of other people isn’t that comfortable, you know.
DTD: No. And trying to do them from a book, is so artificial and difficult. And there’s a lot of people who aren’t particularly comfortable at teaching games, so it’s so dependent on, if you’re learning from someone else, how they’re doing it.
PWH: Yeah. Yeah, and I mean, that’s why a game like Monopoly, which isn’t that simple… People are very happy to play it because they were taught it at such a young age, they almost, you know, just like by osmosis, we all know the rules.
DTD: Well, that’s what I find fascinating about Monopoly is the majority of people play it wrong. They actually do not play it by the rules, because almost everybody is taught it from someone else. It’s a word-of-mouth game.
PWH: Exactly, yeah.
DTD: It’s just fascinating how that’s propagated.
PWH: Yeah, and I think, if you think about all the games you learn, even traditional card games and things as a kid. Even non-board games, games you play in the schoolyard, you learn them verbally.
DTD: No, not from a book. I mean, nobody’s read how to play Crazy Eights.
According to Wikipedia, Crazy Eights, the predecessor to UNO, started in the 1930s, originally just called Eights. The moniker Crazy was added on in the 1940s, probably a military reference to section 8. The rules are on page 56 of the 1985 Edition of According to Hoyle by Richard L. Frey.
PWH: Yeah, so I’m often thinking about that, and so I definitely aim to have games which can be taught in 5 minutes verbally. And once you’ve learned them, you hopefully don’t need to be referring to the rules. They’re easy enough that you can internalize the whole rule set in one listen.
DTD: Oh sure.
PWH: So that’s definitely something I aim for. Because I want my games to be very welcoming and inclusive to people, and easy to get into.
DTD: Very approachable.
PWH: Yeah. I will say I’ve tried to design complex, more complex games, and they haven’t worked, but maybe I can’t do it. Maybe this is all I can do.
According to BGG, Phil’s game with the heaviest weight rating is Imhotep: A New Dynasty, the expansion to Imhotep, with an average weight of 2.50/5. The lightest is Yummy World: Party at Picnic Palace with a rating of 1/5. Of course Yummy world only had one vote, so I’m sure that’s very accurate. Sushi Go has a weight rating of 1.17/5 with more than 1000 votes.
DTD: I was gonna ask about that, and if you can design complex games. So, we don’t have a heavy 3-hour euro game with 14 resources coming from Phil Walker-Harding?
PWH: I would love to try. Like, it’s on my bucket list of design challenges to do like a heavier euro. But just every time I try, my brain is so used to scaling things down and removing detail.
DTD: Editing, editing, editing.
PWH: I find it really hard. You know, designing simple games definitely has its challenges, but I think I would find designing a 90-minute economical euro a math challenge. I don’t seem to have the parts of the brain you need.
DTD: Wow. Well, I’ll keep an eye out for it without a doubt, you know. I want to see the coffin box game coming out from you.
A coffin box refers to a large, long box size, especially as used by Fantasy Flight Games in the early 2000’s. The most famous games in such boxes were Descent: Journeys in the Dark (2005), Twilight Imperium 3rd edition (2005), and StarCraft (2007).
PWH: Yeah [laughs]
DTD: You know, 20 pounds of pieces. Yeah, I still remember I was really impressed with…my favorite among the lot was Gizmos. When Gizmos came out, that just grabbed me immediately. I don’t know if it was the physicality, just the tactile nature of playing with the marbles. Or the engine building with the cards. But I found that one just delightful.
PWH: Oh, thank you. Yeah, so that you might say was an attempt at a much more complex game, so it began as a civilization building game. The idea was it was like a tableau-building card game, but it was all about all the different technologies your civilization would acquire.
PWH: And yeah, it was looking like it was going to be a pretty complicated thing, but as happens, at some point, I was like, “You know what? All of these powers that I’ve come up with pretty much fit into a few different categories. What would happen if…”
DTD: You know, I could replace all this civilization building with marbles…
Now I am picturing Civilization completely redone with marbles. It would take thousands. But honestly, I would buy any game that came with thousands of marbles. As an interesting aside, 10,000 regulation sized marbles weight about 100 pounds.
PWH: Yeah, what if I just stripped it back to colors and a bucket of energy and…?
PWH: Yeah, but it was Cool Mini or Not who… So it was a card game when I pitched it to them, and they were the ones who came up with the idea of the marble dispenser, and the marbles. And I was… Yeah, I’m not sure at first about, you know, gimmickifying the game, but in a lot of ways, I think I learned a lot from the process. Because I don’t think it is a gimmick, in the sense that it… Like, table presence and physicality, I just think are part of game design. They’re part of the process.
My new personal goal is to use the word “gimmickifying” every day.
DTD: Oh yeah.
PWH: And I think in a game where you’re you know making little machines at a science fair, having a wacky marble dispenser makes total sense. And it also actually speeds up the game quite a bit. Because originally the marbles was a deck of cards. And so, you’re constantly, like in Ticket to Ride, you’re constantly refreshing the row, and shuffling the deck.
DTD: A lot of maintenance.
PWH: And it just makes the game that much smoother, so I’m really glad we went that way.
DTD: Yeah. There’s, I think the pandemic has really taught us about that physicality. Everybody is trying to relive their board game itch, their board game addiction, online with TTS [Tabletop Simulator] and Tabletopia. And it’s hard to beat picking up big chunky pieces, and playing with marbles, and putting them in little slots and little rings.
I am a child at heart. I think I just want to find a good version of blocks to play with.
PWH: Definitely. Even just being aware. Even just being at a table with other people. I think the way you engage with the game is so different when there are, you know, other bodies in the room. There’s something about playing a game online, where… I don’t know, you’re not fully connected and in touch with everyone else’s stuff, and what they might be thinking. It’s just harder to, I think, enter into the social puzzle.
DTD: Yeah, I mean I have played games online where I’ve felt connected. I feel like the screen’s not there anymore, and I’m actually playing a game with people. But it’s rare. That happens a lot less often then when I’m actually at a table, with physical chunks. It’s the magic of the board game.
DTD: Suspension of disbelief. The breaking of the wall, whatever you want to call it. It’s so much easier when the pieces are all right there in front of you.
Come back next time when Phil-Walker Harding talks about those chunky bits in Imhotep, and his new foray into deck builders and party games. Plus, the twists and turns Gingerbread House took during development.