Welcome back to a globe-spanning sushi meal with Phil Walker-Harding, master of the light but infinitely addictive. Today, through unfortunate internet interference, we dive into Imhotep, and talk about the future of party games.
DTD: Yeah, speaking of that physicality, I think that the one that strikes me that you did, that was the best with that was Imhotep.
PWH: Oh yeah.
DTD: That was… Big chunky blocks and moving the boats around. The physicality on that is delightful. How did that come about?
Imhotep, Phil’s Spiel des Jahres nominee from 2016, features wonderfully tactile 15mm wooden cubes which are collected and moved on boats, eventually to construct obelisks, pyramids and statues. They just feel good to move around. Maybe we are all just regressing to a time in our childhood where we played with blocks.
PWH: Yeah, I would have done… I rarely sort of make really, you know, pretty strong requests of the publisher when they sign a game. But I pretty much said to Kosmos, “This has to be the big wooden blocks, you know.”
PWH: Because my prototyping used 16 millimeter cubes, and I knew they were just so important to the way the game looked and felt. But I also know publishers, you know, they have a bottom line, and they’re always looking for ways to make a production cheap.
PWH: And I knew there would be some discussion about that. So, I kind of said, “Look, we really need big. This has to be big blocks, because if they were anything else, I think the game would lose quite a lot of, just the way it feels.
DTD: That was the point. Is it has to be big blocks.
Standard board game cubes are usually 8 or 10 millimeter.
PWH: So, I’m glad they were able to do the big cubes.
DTD: Wow. That is very cool. I’m really glad that they went with big cubes as well.
PWH: Are you there?
DTD: Have I frozen up? You’ve lost me, haven’t you?
PWH: You’re cut out, Corey.
DTD: Oh, you’ve lost me, I think.
DTD: Hello. Like I said I have had an evening of technical difficulties, and I apologize from the bottom of my heart.
PWH: That’s fine. No problem.
DTD: My computer is hating me today. I do not know why. But I heard you great.
Lesser journalists would edit out such moments, because they are embarrassing and really boring. But I live to serve.
PWH: Oh, good!
DTD: So that was fantastic. I had no problem at all hearing you. I just froze up. So I had asked… So the sticking point, the “will not budge” was large cubes on Imhotep.
PWH: Yep, Yep.
DTD: That’s fantastic because honestly, anybody who describes that game, says I played this game… The first thing they say is “It’s got these big wooden cubes.” It’s always the sticking point, which is great.
PWH: Uh Oh, I think you’re frozen again.
DTD: Oh No. This is terrible.
PWH: You’re back!
Phil was so kind during these moments, and so genuinely excited when I connected back. I cannot adequately express what a nice guy he is.
DTD: I am. Oh, I don’t know why it is doing this. But that is terrible. So, I was saying the anytime you talked to anybody about Imhotep, the first thing they say is the big wooden cubes. It sticks in their mind and it’s perfect for that game. It just makes it all work. It’s delightful.
DTD: So what is going on now? What’s new on the schedule for your game designs? Besides the three-hour euro?
PWH: Well, the last couple years, I won’t say I got sort of sick of my style of game, but I felt a little bit burnt out on it, and wanted to try a few different genres. So I’ve been yeah, just pushing myself a bit to try different types of designs. So, one of those areas I have been dabbling in is party games.
DTD: Mmm hmm.
PWH: So, when Dominion came out, every designer wanted to do a deck-builder. And I think when Codenames came out, every designer wanted a party game.
Dominion, by designer Donald X Vaccarino, came out in 2008. Codenames by Vlaada Chvátil came out in 2015. Both won the Spiel des Jahres.
DTD: [laughs] Yeah.
PWH: And I did. Yeah, so I think that’s something that I really dived into, so I have two party games coming out this year, actually. So, I’m bit fascinated to see how they will go, and a bit nervous actually. Because it feels like a whole new… It’s a whole new type of game.
DTD: Oh sure.
PWH: So, I’m not quite sure how they’ll land. So, one of them is called Platypus, which is coming up from Matagot. And that’s more or less my take on the Codenames, Just One, word party game. And then… Are you there Corey?
DTD: Ah no. I have frozen up again!
Let’s take a little taxonomy lesson during the service interruption. The platypus, Ornithorhynchus anatinus, is a duck billed, egg laying mammal with toxic claws native to Australia. Originally given the species name Platypus anatinus (greek for flat foot, duck-like), it was discovered that the wood boring ambrosia beetle already had claimed the name Platypus. So the genus was changed to Ornithorhynchus (bird snout) in 1800. The more you know…
PWH: You’re back!
DTD: I am. This is so frustrating. I hear everything, when… I hear everything you’re saying. You have never frozen for me.
PWH: Let me ask you, if it happens, should I just keep talking? Like, can I just keep talking, period?
DTD: Yeah, you definitely can.
PWH: OK, great. So, yeah, so Platypus, which is a is a kind of a word style party game, and that was really inspired by Codenames and Just One. And then the other one is called Snakesss.
Repos Production‘s Just One by Ludovic Roudy and Bruno Sautter took home the Spiel des Jahres in 2019.
DTD: Oh yeah.
PWH: Coming out from Big Potato. And that’s my attempt at a social deduction kind of game, so I love One Night Ultimate Werewolf. And one of the working titles for this was “One Night Ultimate Trivial Pursuit”. It’s sort of a trivia social deduction game. Sort of.
DTD: [laughs] I love it.
PWH: But both of those took a long time to get right. Like much more work than a lot of my others at the time. So much playtesting.
PWH: So much refining of the content. So, the different words and cards in the game. Every card needs to be tested and you know you need to refine the pool of cards in a party game to be…you know, because every one has to be fun. You can’t really afford any duds. But yeah, it’s really exciting to just try anything, so hopefully people like them.
DTD: Wow. So, you’re going to be the party game guy now.
Sushi! Go Go Go!
PWH: I think this might be all I have in me, though. I think it might just be these two.
DTD: I heard a lot of buzz about Snakesss, so it’s that’s an exciting one.
Snakes is a hidden traitor party game, along the lines of Insider or Werewords. The group needs to figure out an obscure multiple choice problem, but a few people in the group are “snakesss,” and already know the answer. And they want the group to get it wrong.
PWH: Oh, really? Oh, that’s cool. Yeah, it’s been bouncing around publishers for a while and I’ve been working on it for years. The first version was 2017.
DTD: Wow. It’s always surprising how long the development process is. I think a lot of gamers don’t really realize, you know, what we’re playing now is something that you thought of five years ago.
PWH: Yeah, yeah, and it varies a lot. So yeah, some of my games have been like a five year process, and some have been… I think the quickest is about nine months. So that’s like, that is exceptional.
DTD: Oh sure.
PWH: But yeah, yeah, so it’s funny…
DTD: Which of your games do you think changed the most over time? Do you remember which one during the development process really, you know, turned 180°?
PWH: Hmmm? Well, Gizmos changed the most as sort of a physical product. Because it went from 120 cards to a big box game. So like in a way that changed the most.
And from a card tableau, civilization builder to a marble factory.
PWH: In terms of mechanisms and sort of the design, let me think… That’s a tough one. Because usually I start up design because my games are quite simple usually. As you said there isn’t a lot of room to move, so if it’s not working it generally gets thrown away, rather than, you know, “How can I adapt and pivot?” It’s much more likely that, “Well, this isn’t what I want to be doing. This isn’t right.” And I move on.
DTD: And just start from scratch?
PWH: Yeah, and go, “OK. Put a line through that idea. Next idea.” But, let me think… Yeah. OK. I think the one that changed the most would definitely, actually be Gingerbread House. I don’t know if you’ve played Gingerbread House.
Gingerbread House came out in 2018 from Lookout Games. According to some, it is the spiritual successor to Bärenpark, and forms a trilogy with the upcoming title Llamaland. And by “some,” I mean Phil.
DTD: I’ve watched it played, but unfortunately, no. I have not played it.
Bad interviewer. Bad. Mental note: Play. All. Games.
PWH: OK. So that is a really old design of mine, and the basic premise is you sort of have domino tiles. And you’re laying them on top of each other and building the board, kind of layering them.
PWH: And the original game, you’re all playing to 1 central board, and the icons you cover when you place the dominoes down determines what resources you pick up. And then other icons that were visible on the board determine the price at which you can sell those resources. So, it was this really tight economic thing with 3D tile laying in it, and it was a really tight and simple little game. And I think… So it would have been 2011 I designed that, and I think I was still fiddling around with it, with different publishers, five years later.
PWH: And eventually I was just like, “Eh, this isn’t working”. I took that mechanism, the covering up of the icons mechanism, and put it in Bärenpark. So that’s… You get new tiles in Bärenpark, and I thought, “Oh well. That will be the legacy of that design.”
DTD: That’s that.
PWH: You know, that’s what it gave me. But one day I just thought, “I wonder what would happen if I went back to that old design, but everybody had their own board. Instead of playing on a communal board, everyone had their own board, and they were making their own structure. And of course that changed the game in lots of ways. Yeah, so that would be the biggest, the biggest change over time. I mean, you could almost say it was a different game at that point, but it was based on the same tile placement mechanism.
DTD: Sure. That’s really funny. I actually, now I see behind you, Dungeon! is sitting on your shelf behind you. I know we were talking about it earlier.
Subliminally placed in the background. Such a clever genius.
PWH: Oh yeah! Yeah, that’s my shelf of, like, oldies.
DTD: Oh yeah, that’s fantastic. It’s all the ones that I was talking about. Talisman and DungeonQuest and Dungeon. It’s all the ones I remember.
PWH: But they’re things I’ve only, I’ve sort of semi- started collecting, you know, much later in life. I never had those editions of those games.
For better or worse, I had originals of all of these. But that’s because I am old.
DTD: Nice. So, do you get an opportunity to go out and play games and have game groups, without playtesting? It seems like a lot of designers I talked to, the answer inevitably is, “If I have a moment, I make them playtest something.”
PWH: It is a bit depressing, yeah that. Yeah, the more you work on game design, the less time you have to play, which I think is probably true of any field. You know when you become a creator, you… It’s different, like being a consumer suddenly is a… You have less time for it, and it feels very different. So yeah, I definitely play games a lot less, just to play them, than I did 10 years ago.
DTD: Well, it’s also your biggest source for inspiration and what’s going on in the world, is seeing the new games that are coming out.
PWH: Totally, yeah.
DTD: You know, if you’re going to write film, then you have to watch films.
In Part One, Phil revealed that he started out as a filmmaker. Unfortunately, his one film remains locked in a high security vault somewhere in Sydney.
PWH: 100%. So, I do make sure I’m playing new stuff and playing. Yeah, so I do have a couple of different groups of friends I play with, but pretty regularly. And I try. I mean, I obviously can’t help but play test with them too, but I try to make sure it’s also just playing. Because, yeah, a lot of a lot of games do start with, “What was fun about this?”, “Why did this capture me?”, or “Why did this not work?”
PWH: Playing other people’s games is obviously a huge part of the creative process.
See, Mom? I am not obsessive. I am feeding my creative nature.
DTD: And do your do your tastes in games you play differ from your tastes in games you design? Do you find that you really want to play something unlike what you design, or do you want to play games that are more like what you design?
PWH: No, I think it’s pretty aligned. So, I think the reason my style has developed the way it has, is because that is what I play the most of.
PWH: I play a lot with people who aren’t…who are more casual gamers. So, I just always enjoyed that style. I mean, I think one of the greatest games ever designed is For Sale.
For Sale (1997) by veteran designer Stefan Dorra is a light card game about bidding and buying real estate, then selling for profit.
PWH: It is an incredibly simple little card game, but to me, you know, that’s a pinnacle to aspire to. So I don’t… I’ve always just enjoyed lighter, simpler games. I do, there are a few heavy games I really love, so I do play across the spectrum of games. But no, I do think what I produce is roughly my, what I like playing the most. I do play a bit more broadly than that, yeah.
Next time Phil chats about new games that have struck his interest, deck building in the wonderful world of Walker-Harding, and playtesting during a pandemic. Plus a little history on how he broke into the world of design. There’s still some sushi left, so cleanse your palate with some ginger and join me in about a week for Part Four.