Welcome back to the second half of a futuristic data-driven dinner with the master of elegant light gaming, Phil Walker-Harding. Most of the food is eaten, and we are chatting about deck building, early design work, and the encroaching usefulness of digital tools in board gaming. Truly ironic, given I am having sooo many connection problems.
DTD: Has there been a game recently that’s really struck your fancy? That’s just impressed you. That you’ve looked at it, played it, and thought, “Wow, that’s really neat, that’s different, that’s unique.”
PWH: Uhm, let me think.
DTD: We do tend to get a little jaded, the more we play.
PWH: It is true, it is true. It takes something, even… Yeah, the longer you are in the hobby, I guess, it just takes something more innovative and more different to kind of get you. What have I enjoyed recently? I recently played Nidavellir.
In Nidavellir by Serge Laget, players blind bid on cards using coins of varying value. The kicker is that by bidding zero, you can upgrade your unused coins.
DTD: Oh, yeah.
PWH: Have you played that?
PWH: And I wouldn’t say that’s like, you know, groundbreaking. But I just think that little deck-building bidding mechanism with the coins…
DTD: Deck-building in an auction.
PWH: That is just brilliant. And that struck me as, like, I love when you can find a little system like that in a game and think “Yes. Yeah, this designer just got it exactly right.”
DTD: Yeah. Well, you led into it earlier that deck building kind of made everybody sit up and take notice, and you see these echoes of it showing up over and over in the most unique ways. So, in Nidavellir, deck building with the auction tokens. it’s really fascinating.
PWH: Yeah! And it seems to have popped up in the last couple years; There’s been quite a lot of popular designs with a deck-building element.
DTD: As a side mechanism.
PWH: Yeah! And I just think it…
PWH: Yeah, so it’s fascinating to me that every… You know when Dominion came out there was a lot of, I guess, quote Dominion clones. One of the better terms. That were very similar in structure, but maybe where deck building will really end up is more as a mechanism, rather than an entire experience.
Dominion by Donald X Vaccarino is of course considered the first deck building game. Someone should interview that guy.
DTD: Yeah, it’s fascinating that.. You know, a lot of mechanisms have come. But deck-building has really found this niche as being a side mechanism to drive other things in a game. It’s been a hybridizing force more than anything.
DTD: And I wonder like where’s our trick-taking side mechanism? Where’s our…? You know, these other these other things that are popular.
Several games have used card play or poker as a side mechanism, such as 2018’s Western Legends, but not so much trick taking.
PWH: Yeah, I think it’s such a useful mechanism, because it so quickly and easily allows you to kind of both build an engine, but also sort of randomize what’s available to the player. So, like, it’s such an intuitive way to say, “OK, I own these 10 things, but I can only use five of them each turn”.
DTD: And I don’t know which.
PWH: And I don’t know which. And that’s such a useful game design trick, because, you know, it just solves so many issues with any kind of game where you’re accumulating more and more stuff you need a way to limit the player. And deck building just does it in one beautiful little package.
DTD: Yeah, leading to bag building and dice building, and all these ways to change the physicality of it, but still have that engine-building but yet randomized element.
DTD: It’s just fascinating. So, where’s your deck-builder, man?
PWH: Well, it’s funny you should mention that…
Phil had the most intriguing, evil grin at this point. Cat in the canary farm.
DTD: Wow, so you were egging me on! I knew this was a setup…
I was genuinely intrigued at this point as to who was driving the bus. I suspect Phil is much better at running interviews than I. And driving buses.
PWH: [laughing] No… [teasing] Let’s talk about deck building. No, so it hasn’t been, I don’t think it’s been formally announced yet, but it is on BoardGameGeek… So that sort of counts as being announced. So, I have a game coming out this year called Summer Camp, which is a deck-building game. So it’s pretty much a straight up deck-building game about going to summer camp. Oh, I shouldn’t say it’s totally straight up. It does have a board, and you’re using your cards to progress in different tracks on the board, which are like your skills. You’re earning merit badges at summer camp. And the thing that got me excited about that idea was a publisher actually said it, came to me with the idea. And the thing that got me excited is the idea of instead of having a deck-building game where, like in Dominion, where you use a different 10 cards every game, or in Ascension, where you have a big deck of cards… Instead of using that to kind of randomize the pool of cards, I thought, you know, this cliché of summer camp is all those different merit badges – you can do archery, You can do swimming, you can do fishing, you can do ropes…
Summer Camp came out of nowhere. It was not formally announced at this interview in May, but hit Target stores in June. Announcement to release in just a few weeks.
PWH: And I thought, how cool would it be if, each game, you have a different, three different, merit badges you’re going for, and you pull a little tuck box out of the box, and it’s like, “Oh, here’s the Water Sports merit badge box.” So inside that is the merit badges and all of the cards. And that’s how you customize the game. It’s based around which merit badges are in play. And for some reason I just really pulled from my imagination when I thought of it. Not that I ever went to an American summer camp. It’s purely based on movies and TV. But, yeah, that theme just really was fun to play around with. So yeah, that’s my attempt at a deckbuilder, which will be coming out a bit later.
I went to an American summer camp many a time. Mixed feelings.
DTD: Oh cool. So, it’s got a modular approach to start.
PWH: Yeah. So, it’s basically like you have three different decks of cards in play. And so, every game you pick three of the seven different merit badge decks, and that greatly affects the game. So, one of them is sports, and that’s the one that has the most interaction with the other players, because in the cards are dodgeball and tug of war, and stuff like that. And so, you’re interacting with each other. And then there’s, there’s like The Outdoors badge, which is just peaceful and doing stuff with your own deck. Yeah, so that’s the way you customize the way it feels.
DTD: That sounds awesome. Very cool. So, I was I was trying to do my homework a little bit and I went back and went through your games on BGG, and I saw you credited on Small World, on its expansions. And that has to be a while back, that has to be relatively early when you were doing stuff.
2009’s Small World by Philippe Keyaerts is a multiple award winning game that remains an evergreen favorite to this day. In the game, players combine a fantasy race with a special ability to create a unique army of sorts. Such as Aquatic Trolls, Catapult Wizards or Were- Leprechauns.
PWH: Yeah, so that was not long after Small World came out. Days of Wonder had a competition for designing expansion content.
DTD: I didn’t even realize it.
PWH: Yeah, so you could submit an idea for a new race in the game, or a new ability in the game. And that’s how the… That went into the first two little expansions they put out, so a whole bunch of people got selected. And so, one ability is mine. The “Were-“ ability, the werewolf ability.
DTD: Yeah! I remember that.
PWH: That’s me.
DTD: That was great. Had you already been designing at that point?
PWH: Yeah, so that was like a couple years into my self-publishing. I was still, I was very small potatoes. But that was a that was a really fun little commit. Because I remember when Days of Wonder called me on the phone, and they were like “We are proud to tell you that you have won the competition.” And I was like [singing happy]. That was like the first time, I think, a big European publisher I had spoken to, so that was kind of cool.
DTD: And they were huge. They’re still pretty big, but Days of Wonder was like the pinnacle at that point. You know, their games were gorgeous, and their games were so well made. They were, they were the gold standard.
PWH: Oh yeah. Yeah, if you think about it, they almost… I mean they were ten years ahead of their time.
DTD: Oh sure.
PWH: If you look back at, you know, Memoir ‘44 and even Ticket to Ride. But Memoir ‘44 and Cleopatra [and the Society of Architects], and those games. They’re 10-15 years ahead of where components were, where productions were.
Days of Wonder really was known for quite a while for putting out only 1 or 2 games a year, but they were fantastic. And gorgeous. Five Tribes, Splendor, and Quadropolis are just a few more examples. Cleopatra was actually known for having huge amounts of arguably unnecessary, but spectacular components.
DTD: Oh yeah, they were gorgeous. They were so well made, and they really, they were excellent at the time for straddling that line of easy to play, easy to get into, but still engaging and complex enough.
PWH: Yeah. Definitely.
DTD: They kind of set the standard, and I think that a lot of their games still hold up today because of that. They’re still popular.
PWH: Oh yeah. Well, it’s telling isn’t it, that Ticket to Ride is like, you know they’ve done anniversary editions and all that sort of thing, but essentially it’s the exact same production as when it first came out. They haven’t had to discontinue it and reboot the artwork, or anything. It just has held up as a as a product.
DTD: Yep. [crashed again]
PWH: You’re back.
DTD: I feel so terrible that it keeps crashing out like this.
I was getting very good at this point at rebooting Zoom in record time.
PWH: It’s just, that’s just Zoom.
DTD: I’m currently in the middle of nowhere in Napa Valley, and apparently there’s not a direct line between here and Sydney. They should put it in, like right now. There should be just one hardwired thing. I guess I should just be in awe that this is possible at all.
Real time video conferencing at 7500 miles. And I’m complaining about an occasional glitch…
PWH: Yeah, I mean we were talking about online gaming before. And how it’s not as good. But really the fact that during a global pandemic we’ve all been able to keep playing virtual board games, is pretty incredible.
DTD: Yeah, I was wondering too, how is it impacting design? Because, I think that because of the pandemic… I mean, it was happening a little bit before, but playtesting and quick prototyping has become very, very different because of TTS and Tabletopia.
The most popular forums for digital board gaming are currently Tabletopia and Tabletop Simulator (TTS).
PWH: Yeah, so it hasn’t impacted me nearly as much as people in Europe and North America, because we were just much less impacted by COVID here. So, I was able to play. You know, there wasn’t a very long period where I couldn’t meet with groups, small groups, to play test.
PWH: Yeah, we only had like a couple of months of lockdown. However, I have been involved in, you know virtual play testing during that time with other with other people, and on collaborations and things. And yeah, it’s both amazingly good, and also has its own challenges. So, it’s actually quite incredible that you can just dial-in people from anywhere in the world, and you have a communal play space to interact with. At its best, it’s almost like Zoom itself, where it makes you wonder, “Oh, will we ever go back to how we used to work?”
I use digital AI to do a first pass transcribing the audio from these interviews, and sometimes the mistakes are laughable. “virtual play testing” was transcribed by the computer as “visual plate lifting”. I’d pay to see that.
DTD: Oh, I’m ready to go back [to face to face].
I was a tad miffed at Zoom at this point.
PWH: To “how we used to work? How we used to do offices? How we used to do playtesting?” But there are obviously challenges with it. I’ve been working on a game with another co-designer exclusively on Tabletop Simulator, so we’ve never made a physical version. It’s purely with… digitally. And it’s a very physical game, it has quite a lot of movement of pieces. And it finally got to the point, where it was like, “Oh, I need to… I need to make a little physical prototype. Just to test in person.” And quite quickly, I just realized, this is so incredibly fiddly to physically play.
PWH: Like prohibitively fiddly.
DTD: You designed a video game.
The image, for the age-impaired among you, was the state of the art computer game in 1980, Rogue. This is what “rogue-like” refers to.
PWH: Yeah! It’s almost like we designed a video game. And that’s something you don’t even… it’s very hard to be aware of. Because obviously we were thinking about that, when we were, you know, making it.
PWH: But even so, there’s just no way to actually simulate what it’s like to move things on the table, and to pick up small pieces and move them around. And you know that’s just a small example. There’s lots of other examples of what you miss when you’re doing virtual testing. But certainly for games that, like full games that just need a whole lot of crunchy testing at the end of the process. Especially, I guess, heavier games. It must just be a dream come true to be able to send people a link, and just say “Here’s the game. Go nuts and send, you know, send us your feedback.”
DTD: “Play the game.”
PWH: Yeah, it’s an incredibly powerful, very powerful tool.
DTD: Well, certainly it’s easier than trying to print, you know, 1000 cards in Sharpie-written sleeves.
PWH: I was going to say I actually use it a little bit for my own solo testing of things.
DTD: Oh, OK.
PWH: So, I have a card game I’m working on and I made a Tabletopia version of it just to show a publisher, but then I realized how much easier it was to test and tweak inside Tabletopia. So, I haven’t updated the physical prototype for months and months. The Tabletopia prototype is the prototype.
DTD: Because you’re doing all the changes online before you have to make a physical one.
PWH: That’s right. For the right game, it’s a very, very strong tool.
DTD: I’m wondering if there’s going to be a delay in dexterity games, impacted by pandemic, because that’s somewhere you really can’t playtest, unless you’re in person and playing with physical objects.
There is physics in Tabletopia and TTS, but its really not the same at all.
PWH: Yeah, I think… Yeah, the obvious ones would be dexterity. I guess also social and party games, where you need to be present. Some of those work great on Zoom and have really grown in in popularity.
DTD: I think everyone is desperate to get together again.
PWH: Yeah, yeah. Oh yeah, those games that are, have a real required physical presence, obviously. Yeah. I do think, I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a bit of a lull, because not many people would have been designing them in the last 18 months.
DTD: Yeah. I think you might have frozen up on me this time. Yeah, I’m not seeing you. Oh, there you are, you’re back.
PWH: That was probably me that time.
Redemption! The evils of the intrawebs are not entirely my fault!
PWH: Yep, Yep, I’m getting an unstable connection warning.
DTD: I gotta tell you, I’m ready to do dinners and interviews in person again, today more than ever. I’m disappointed that you didn’t fly out to Napa Valley so that we could have dinner here. I thought for sure you’d take me up on the offer.
I really did offer. And as consolation from my future self… Corey, buck up little cowboy. You get to go out to a real physical dinner in a mere 3 weeks.
PWH: No, I know.
DTD: It’s a short little jump.
PWH: Mate, look, we’ll meet at a convention down the line. We’ll have some sushi.
Come back next time, in a week or so, for more board gaming goodness with Phil Walker-Harding. Discussions touch on upcoming conventions, game design for admittedly fickle audiences, and philosophies of buying and selling board games. Plus sushi. On the go.