Interview with Phil Walker-Harding
I love interviewing game designers, chatting with them is always enlightening and interesting. Yet interviews always slip down my ‘To Do’ list. Well at the beginning of this year I promised myself I would do more interviews… and here we are in September with my first one of the year! Still, it is a corker and well worth the wait. Inspired by a Rent, Shuffle and Roll rental containing Bärenpark and Gizmos I settle-in for a chat with Phil Walker-Harding…
Hi Phil, thanks so much for agreeing to chat board games with me. I guess the obvious first question would be about your board gaming origins. What was the game that made you fall in love with board gaming?
Thanks for having me! Well, I grew up playing a lot of American mass market games, so I have fond memories of playing lots of Uno and Mouse Trap. When I was a little older, some Ravensburger games made it over to Australia and I was really struck by Scotland Yard and The A-maze-ing Labyrinth. They really stood out as being different from a lot of the other things I had seen. Later, I got more into video games, but I always had a soft spot for boardgames as well. In my early twenties I was introduced to Settlers of Catan, Carcassonne and Lost Cities, and I was blown away by this new school of game design. Quite quickly I got really into the hobby and started designing myself.
I love Labyrinth too! So what was the trigger that made you think, I want to design my own game?
Well, way back when I was very young I used to make my own board games with paper and markers, just as silly little craft projects really. But I suppose this means I always knew games were designed, and that making games was a fun thing to do. So when I discovered modern German games, right away it seemed like a fun idea to make my own. I really loved Lost Cities, so one of the first things I did was to try and make a 3 and 4 player version of it (which didn’t work!) So designing games became a little hobby for me at that point, and slowly it grew into something I took more seriously.
Arguably you’re big breakthrough in the industry was Sushi Go! What do you think was the reason for its success?
It was probably a combination of a lot of things. I think pass-drafting is one of the more inherently fun game mechanisms there is, and so finding away to present the idea simply and directly really showcased how tense and enjoyable it can be. I had also been working on ideas for set-collection card games for years, so I think some of my best ideas for scoring rules all ended up finding their way into Sushi Go. But a lot of credit has to go to the publisher, Gamewright, who put together a really attractive package and marketed it really well
With time invested in playtesting the next game, do you have much time to play other people’s games?
Definitely not as much as I used to, or would like to, which is a shame. However, I make sure I play games as much as I can because playing is what I find leads to many of my ideas. Finding an aspect of game I really like (or even don’t like) often sparks some idea or play experience I’d like to explore. So it’s really a part of my process to play lots of different styles of games. I also like to keep in touch with what other designers are doing too, and what is happening in the industry more broadly.
I’m curious to know if you regularly play your own games that have already been published? If so, which one do you gravitate towards most often?
I don’t play my games a whole lot, but every now and again it can be fun to dip into one of them. And there are also occasions when you are showing your own games to friends, or teaching them to folks. The process for developing some games is quite monotonous and tiring, to the point that you don’t really want to play the game again once it is released! But there are other titles that, for whatever reason, I still have some interest in exploring. Two that come to mind are Gizmos and Bärenpark. I can still have some fun with them.
So, when playing your own games are you guaranteed to win?
Definitely not! It’s funny but often designers are not the best at their own games. It turns our creating a system can be quite different from being really good at mastering it. So I would say I am pretty good at playing many of my games, but I often lose too. I have tried a few of my games in their digital implementations on Board Game Arena, and it is pretty clear there are far better players than me!
When you are designing games, what is the first part of your creative process?
It changes from project to project. Different things can spark that initial idea for me. Usually my process begins with experiencing a particular moment of fun in a game (or maybe even imagining one) and then trying to form a system that will generate that experience. This usually starts off with working in a notebook to brainstorm and map out early thoughts. Then I will move to making a really basic prototype as quickly as possible to start testing. If that step is looking at all promising, I might dive in fully to develop the game from there. Other times a theme, or even a particular component can be the thing that gets an idea for a game going.
2022 seems to be a busy year for you, Museum Suspects and Fjords are hitting store shelves, while My Shelfie and a new Adventure Game for Kosmos are incoming. Is this coincidence, or is your output ramping up?
Yes this year and last year were both quite busy for me with releases. Some of this is just the coincidence of release dates clumping together. Different projects can spend varying amounts of time in development and production. My Shelfie, for example, is around five years old as a design at this point! However, the time I have been able to spend on design has increased over the last few years, so that is a factor too. As was trying to make the most of the long lockdowns we had here in Sydney!
Planted is one of your new releases for 2022 and is a Target exclusive. Is that a publisher agreement or do you get some involvement on such matters? And, as a non-US resident, do you know if it will have a wider release?
Both Planted and Summer Camp came from concepts that Buffalo Games sort of pitched to me, to see if I would be interested in designing them. They have relationships with some large retail chains in the states, and so both games were planned by Buffalo to start out as Target exclusives. However, they will see a more standard wider release down the line, and that was something that was important to me.
Scribbly Gum is due in 2023. A collaboration with you and Meredith Walker-Harding, I assume this is a relation rather than a bonkers coincidence! It’s aimed at kids and the first to be published by Joey Games, tell me more…
Yes, Meredith is my wife! We have started a publishing company together called Joey Games. Our aim is to make games that celebrate the people, plants and animals of Australia, and we are particularly focused on games that kids and adults can play together. Meredith and I have long talked about doing something together in the board game space, and the idea to start an Australian-themed kids game publisher really excited us. We are also committed to running a sustainable business, and that is something we have thought and learned a lot about as we have set things up. Our first three games will be out soon, and one of them is Scribbly Gum – a “flip and write” style game about Australia’s scribbly gum trees. You play as a baby moth burrowing through tree bark looking for food, and you draw paths on your sheet as you play.
Are there any other snippets that you can share of what’s to come?
The other two initial Joey Games releases are Busy Beaks – a card game about Australia’s birdlife and Pass the Party Food, a co-operative game. Busy Beaks is a set collection game where every different type of bird card has a unique power. Pass the Party Food is all about sharing food with your friends at an 80s birthday party! They should both be available late in the year. Another game of mine that is only recently released is called Museum Suspects from Blue Orange. It is my take on a simple deduction game and could be described as a bit of a cross between Guess Who and Clue/Cluedo. That one was a lot of fun to design and has a really cool production too. There’s more coming out next year, but nothing that has been officially announced yet!