Welcome to the penultimate portion of my parlay with the pinnacle of pleasantness, Phil Walker-Harding. The sushi is mostly eaten, much to my chagrin, and my post-prandial brain is bouncing between topics like no one’s business. Starting with pandemics, conventions, and the return to normality.
DTD: Oh man. So, what are your thoughts on conventions coming up again? Essen is supposedly happening. GenCon is supposedly happening. They’re trying to act like it’s all normal again.
Both GenCon and Essen are having physical conventions this year. However several restrictions are popping up about social distancing, trying to avoid crowds and forming lines. Which spurs the debate over whether any of this is possible.
PWH: Yeah. Yeah, I mean. So, we… As I said, we’re pretty much, you know, we don’t have any restrictions really at the moment, so we…
I keep forgetting how much better Australia is doing with this whole COVID thing.
DTD: Does that make you more nervous about the rest of the world opening up?
PWH: Well, so Australia has pretty strict borders at the moment.
PWH: So, in terms of, you know, I would have to… For me to fly over to GenCon or something, would be a big bit.
PWH: It’d be a difficult thing to do. I’d have to self-isolate when I go back for two weeks. And so I’m in no rush at all to attend. Like, I mean, obviously I miss international conventions, but I’m in no rush at all. I can’t speak to the situation, but I mean, I get that obviously the industry needs to revitalize itself and get going again. But yeah, I’m not sure.
DTD: Yeah, it has to start somewhere.
PWH: And if they can do scaled down events and slowly ramp back up to normal over the coming year or two, that would be ideal. But we’ll see how it goes. But, I’m in no rush. I think, one thing that’s, as a designer, I found really great is so many publishers, who you would normally only get to meet at the Essens and the GenCons, have reached out to designers in lots of great digital ways. So, quite a few publishers have had online pitch events. And have done them quite openly as well, so it’s not just you know really, really established designers, but they’ve opened the doors a little wider, and they’ve run really well organized online events, where you get to pitch in. So, in that sense I haven’t… It used to be, for me to pitch to a big publisher, I would, most of the time, especially early on, have to fly to Germany, or have to fly to the states to get that opportunity. But I do think that pandemic’s changed that. I think a lot of publishers have developed the infrastructure to do those sorts of pitch events online now. So that part of it has been really great.
DTD: Yeah, by necessity. And I I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s going to stay for a while. Because I know I’ve spoken to other designers and in Australia and New Zealand, and that’s a very, very difficult flight. I remember it well.
The flight can last 18 hours, which is quite a long time to sit in a cramped seat. Even with peanuts. I remember flying from San Francisco to Sydney when I was in college. I’m pretty sure it was interminable. I may still be on that flight.
PWH: Yeah, yeah, it’s.. You know, you go to Essen for a week. And you’re in transit. And then have jet lag for a week. It just is pretty intense. Oh, it’s amazing to be able to do it online. I mean, nothing beats being in the hubbub of the industry and you know, seeing everyone physically all at once.
PWH: But the fact that it’s opened that door to people who live a bit farther afield a little more, I think it is a good thing.
DTD: Oh yeah. One… I’m jumping subjects like nobody’s business, but one other thing that I’ve often wondered about, in modern board gaming, it seems the public is pretty fickle. There’s so many games out, and oftentimes people will play a game once, maybe twice, and then move on to the next, newest, hottest game. Does this go through your mind as you’re designing? Do you purposely try to make a design that that will grab people on that first all-important play?
PWH: I think it’s a little different for me, because my games are usually short and have a pretty low barrier to entry, so I think it’s much more likely someone will play, you know, Sushi Go twice in a setting, in a sitting, than a big euro. So, it’s not as critical in a way. And often because my games are more marketed towards people who buy less games anyway; they’re more casually into the hobby.
Most of Phil’s games are definitely good entry level games, mellow and easy going.
DTD: Oh, I hadn’t thought about it on that side.
PWH: Yeah, but having said that, I am definitely aware of the trend. And I think… I do think [about it] when I play a lot of older euros – so 90s, early 2000s stuff. You realize there’s a little bit of, there’s often a little bit of subtlety to them that isn’t apparent right away.
DTD: Oh sure.
PWH: Like a game… Like say Ra, Reiner Knizia‘s Ra, which I think is an amazing game. I could see so many people… like it doesn’t necessarily always make for a first great play.
Reiner Knizia has designed well over 700 games so far in his career. 1999’s Ra is an auction game with a bit of a learning curve; Experienced players will definitely use different strategies than a first time player.
PWH: It’s the sort of game where it grows on you, and you see what it does, and you see the amount of nuance that there is in a pretty simple rule set. And I think that style of design has definitely waned a little bit because of this effect you’re talking about, this need to be very apparent as a play experience on the first play. I mean that’s what a lot of games should be, and that’s great. But yeah, I think I’ve noticed that kind of slightly more subtle design approach is a bit rarer. I think the thing I’m most aware of in that discussion is just the shelf life of games, of new games coming out, is so quick. It’s like you need. If a game does well, it needs to do well quite quickly or that’s it.
DTD: Yeah. The immediacy.
The board game industry has certainly been following a “cult of the new” trend, with customer really feeling the fear of missing out.
PWH: A game won’t get a second print run. A publisher is much more likely, in general… I would say, if a game is selling very slowly and doesn’t seem to be taking off, they’re more likely to go, “OK. Well, we’ve got next year’s games, and we’ll focus on one of them. And maybe we’ll have a bigger hit with one of them.” Which is understandable. But, I do feel like some games take a bit longer to grow in the public’s feelings.
DTD: And the question is, is the public going to allow that? Because we seem to all have some degree of ADHD when it’s coming to games. We are always buying the newest, buying the newest.
New, shiny game!
PWH: I read, I can’t remember who said it, it was in, I think was in one of Eric Martin interviews, he was doing with a with someone in the retail industry. I think they were a game store owner, and they said board games have shifted to becoming a periodical product.
W Eric Martin is the head news hound on BoardGameGeek. On March 3, He talked about a Steve Jackson Games report, in which they discussed a periodical philosophy of selling games. Rather than just stocking games, a periodical model says that a store should stock the new games, anticipating repeat customers coming in each month for the new hotness.
PWH: As in, even though they’re not like a magazine that comes out every month, or two months, or three months, his store had to adapt to them essentially being a periodical.
DTD: So, people are coming in and buying a new one a month.
PWH: Yeah, so people coming in want to see the 10 latest newest games every few months. And that’s what keeps his stock turning over, as opposed to you know 10-20 years ago when you would have a relatively stable assortment of games.
PWH: And if that’s true, and this is obviously one person’s perspective, but that sort of rings true for me with the level of turnover that happens. It’s almost like “OK, what are this quarter’s games?” So, you know, we’ve got the summer games, and the winter games, and then we play them, and then one or two have a life. But really, it’s turning over to the next quarter. And I think, for me anyway, board games are at their most powerful when they stick around and become a bit of a cultural force. You know, for want of a better words.
In the BGG top 10 list, 9 of the games were made in 2018 or before, more evidence that truly good games get better over time, and bloom from repeated play. Technically, the two newest titles Jaws of the Lion (2020) and Brass: Birmingham (2018) are re-dos of older titles Gloomhaven (2017) and Brass (2007), so all 10 could be considered older than 2017.
PWH: I have friends who are hardly gamers at all, who know Azul now. And I just think that’s amazing that I can go over to their house and they’ve got, you know, Monopoly and Azul. And we can sit down and play Azul. That is such a great thing which board games can do – they can bring people together with an experience that’s shared, even though you haven’t [yet] had it together. But somehow, it’s culturally a shared experience. Like, “Do you know Azul? I know Azul. OK, let’s play Azul.”
DTD: All right! I think, at least from my perspective, it seemed that there was a push towards more elegant, approachable games. And quite honestly, [those are] your style games, and I think you were very instrumental in this push. And Azul, Century Spice Road, those were some of the other examples at this time period, of games that, you know, reached past the stereotypical hard-core gamer, and started drawing in more of the public. And that trend is still going on, of just bringing a simplicity back to the board games.
The big key word in gaming now is “elegant”. Publishers are looking for fast, simple games with a deep play experience.
PWH: Yeah, I think Azul’s amazing. Its strength is, somehow it feels like a classic game that’s always been around. And it is easy enough to learn, and it’s very intuitive to play. Mostly. That it’s just had this big impact, and I do think… It seems to me anyway, that a lot of publishers, like a lot of publishers seem to be asking for the 45-minute family weight big table presence game.
2017’s Azul from Plan B Games and designer Michael Kiesling is a pattern matching, tile laying, abstract game, which has the most fantastic plastic square tiles. That definitely do not look like candy. That I want to eat.
DTD: Oh yeah.
PWH: When I first started, I felt like no one was asking for that. I mean, some people.
DTD: It does seem like a relatively recent, growing trend.
PWH: Yeah, but I feel like a lot of publishers who are more known for more just “hobby-only” kind of space. I think are saying that there’s a bigger intersection there, between hobby and casual gamers, then there has to be. You know, there’s more of an intersection there than perhaps there has been.
DTD: Well, there’s certainly a market for them now. I’ve said a couple times that if we look way back, if we go into the 70s and the 80s, the trend was to try to make really complex detailed games. Games sold better if they were bigger, had more pieces, and the rulebook was larger. That was the goal. And it is so different today. The market is like… The publishers are looking for that evergreen, elegant, simple 30-minute game, that people can’t stop talking about. So, it’s amazing how much it’s changed.
My standard example of a 1970s complex game is always Freedom in the Galaxy (1979), which had more than 40 pages of dense rules. No pictures. Pictures were for weenies.
PWH: Yeah, yeah. And that has been a bit of a goal, like that’s always been a goal of mine. To make a game that would have that sort of staying power, and become a game lots of people would just play.
DTD: But no one would argue, you’ve succeeded.
PWH: Oh, well. [flustered] Sushi Go has come close to being that sort of thing, where, you know, I meet people who I don’t know at all, and they know the game. And you hear about friends of friends introducing friends of friends to the game and it having a bit of a life of its own. And I think what’s so powerful about tabletop gaming, is that sort of shared experience that can bridge across people. So I’ve been really encouraged, I think, that more publishers are seeing that as a valuable thing; to try and unearth those games that will really stick around.
DTD: That’s fantastic. So, I’ve got a question for you. Is there one of your designs that you really don’t like, that you wish you could go back and do again? My experience with being creative was always that it was very, very difficult to stop. You’d constantly want to fiddle and change, and fiddle and change, and it’s hard to say when something is done. So, the corollary to that is there something out there that you’ve done that you’d really like to take back and change again?
To be clear – I have no real experience “being creative”.
PWH: Yeah, well in most of my games there is something small, definitely. So, you know, you’re always… It’s very hard to come to a point where you’re like “This game is 100% perfect. Every single element is exactly what I like.”
PWH: There is some point where you need to go “OK, maybe it could be a little bit better. Maybe I could refine things, but I need to stop.” Every game has a little bit of that. I would say, in terms of games that I’m just not on a much bigger level, “happy with”… Or kind of dissatisfied with… I think much earlier in, when I first started out, for sure a lot of my earlier games. I just have learned so much, that I just would not…
DTD: That’s gotta be true.
PWH: Yeah, I just would not have done them. I just would have not done them, or I would have done them so differently now. I mean, do you want me to name names or?
DTD: Oh, it’s up to you.
This is a polite way of saying, “Yes. Name names. I am a gossip hound.”
PWH: I mean pretty much, I think around the time I did Sushi Go, which is 2013 – the first edition of that… Around that time, I think I sort of made a self-conscious decision to… I mean, it is easy to say, but to not put out anything I wasn’t really, really happy with. I think I was realizing that, yeah, quality is, in the long run, so much more important than just having games, a lot of games, out. So everything before that, not that I don’t like any of them… But all my earlier work before that, I feel like I was still finding my way. And yeah, not everything that I put out I think was amazing at all, because I was young. And as a designer still learning, that’s the way it is.
DTD: Well, that’s expected.
PWH: And you need to go through that. You can’t skip that process. You have to make mistakes, and you have to learn and grow.
DTD: But at the same time, I’ve always felt that the first thing that a creator makes has this strange sort of bizarre magic to it. Because you’re unrestrained, the reins are off. You just do whatever you want, because you don’t know what’s smart and what’s dumb to do. So, the first book by an author, the first film, and the first game by a game designer. They tend to be kind of crazy. And there’s a certain magic to them.
Prime examples: Treason by Orson Scott Card and Brazil by Terry Gilliam.
PWH: Yeah, yeah! Oh, I agree. And Archaeology for me, like in in one way it’s just a kind of a Rummy variant thing, and it’s pretty simple. But just the fact that there are decisions I made there, I was just completely flying by the seat of my pants. And now, I’m so self-conscious and self-aware about the design, that I probably wouldn’t have ever done some of those things. But they work for that game, so… Z-man wanted me to do a second edition a few years ago.
DTD: Well, that’s what I was wondering after this: Have you thought about doing the classic “Deluxe Revised Second Edition” on some of the older games?
PWH: Well, so it did happen with Archaeology [The New Expedition], so Z-man asked me to reboot it a little bit for a new addition, and my first thought was “Oh man, I’m gonna tear this thing apart, and rebuild it. Going to be a totally different game.” And in the end I realized… I did make a few small changes, like it’s more new content than anything. But the core of the game is the same, because I think I just realized I probably wouldn’t have designed it then, when I was redoing it, but it worked for what it was quite well. It fulfilled its own kind of stated goals in its own way. And even though I would never have a “steal a card from another player” card in a game now, somehow it actually is this dynamic spice that that game needs.
Steal a card, eliminate a player, and roll-and-move seem to be modern taboo game mechanics.
DTD: It’s in there, and it works. Wow. What about relationships with publishers? Is there one of your games that had a little tension, had a back and forth with the publisher, that was a little more than expected? Because I know that there’s a lot of changes that happen on the publisher side.
PWH: Yeah, definitely. I think for me the most common thing is that it’s taken a while to find the right publishers. So, I’ve had a few games like Imhotep for example, which… So, you know, there was years of it sort of being passed around different publishers. And there was no one quite clicking with it. In terms of things changing a lot, I think the process that happened with Gizmos was the biggest change. So, I pitched that to Eric Lang when he was the head of games at [CMoN]. And I think he had such a… As we were playing it the first time, he already had this vision of it. Of how he wanted it to be. And he could see things that I couldn’t really see in the product. So, that was definitely the most engaged, back and forth process, of like, “What if we do this? What if we do this? What if we strip that out? What if we bring this in?” That was the most intense development I’ve had with a publisher.
Gizmos (2018) is a game of engine building, using a hopper of colored marbles. The tactility of the marbles, the simplicity of converting colors, and even the bracketing and categorizing of certain engine types, just make Gizmos a delightful, approachable game in the otherwise complex category of engine builders.
DTD: But from what I’ve heard, he’s extremely hands on when he’s working with his games.
PWH: Oh, very much, yeah. So, it almost felt like co-designing at points, because him and his team were very much committed to making the best product they could out of that game. So yeah, a lot of stuff changed. I mean, it still felt like the same game, but so many little things changed. And you know, the table presence.
DTD: Well, it came out right. Like I said, that’s my favorite one.
Come back next time for, sadly, the final installment of sushi dinner with Phil Walker-Harding. Next time we talk about Fjords, roll and writes, and current board games that have tickled the master’s fancy.