Phil Walker-Harding is a board game designer from Sydney, Australia. He started out by self-publishing for around 7 years, and has since focused on game design and worked with publishers to come out with hit titles such as Sushi Go!, Gizmos, and Barenpark.
From an idea to the table, the process of creating a board game can be vast and intimidating at first glance. Every piece on the board, every card, the board itself, the rule book, the box, even the little baggies are all deliberate in their design, material, and function. The process is definitely more complex than starting a Kickstarter page and hoping for the best, but when it is laid out step by step in detail, the journey starts to feel more tangible. All you need is an inspired idea, the perseverance to face challenges head on, and lots of luck. This series of articles will walk through the steps designers take to turn a simple thought into an experience that is shared with potentially thousands of people.
So let's start from the very beginning. The first piece of knowledge I will share with you is:
The beginning can be the hardest part.
However, Phil Walker-Harding, the designer of games such as Sushi Go!, Gizmos, and Imhotep, has given us some advice which can help guide you as you take these first steps.
Why are you making this game. What kind of game do you want to make. What experience do you want to take players on? What innovative game mechanic do you want to share? A good game is built on a solid core foundation. If you don't have an idea that you think other people would genuinely enjoy or find interesting, it will be much more difficult to create, pitch, and market in the future. If you don't think it sounds fun, other people probably won't either.
It may be hard to come up with an awesome game concept out of thin air, so finding inspiration from outside of your own brain can be helpful. When asked, where do you find inspiration for the games you design? Where have been some places you have found inspiration for games you have designed in the past, Phil Walker-Harding answered:"The most common inspiration for me comes from playing other games. Finding something in a game that is fresh or exciting often gets my brain going in new directions. Sometimes something I don’t like in a game can be the trigger. I will ask myself, how could that have been better? Or what could fix that element of the game? In terms of themes, I try to pick settings for my games that are things I really enjoy and know a little bit about - whether that be sushi or Egyptology!"
It may sound simple, but through playing a wide variety of board games with different themes and game mechanics, you can discover new aspects that you can incorporate into your own games. Through playing other games you also can get a grasp on what has already been done and make sure your great ideas haven't already been created. It also gives you the opportunity to observe how different player counts affects games and can help you find what type of games you personally like playing and why. If you know what makes games fun, it'll be easier for you to make a fun game yourself.
In terms of starting the game design process, we asked Phil, When brainstorming, what exactly is the first thing you try to come up with? In short, what is the first goal of your brainstorming process? He told us:"My main goal at this early stage of design is to get the game to a first playable prototype, so my early brainstorming is usually about figuring out whatever details are required to get to that point. I like to write and draw out ideas in a notebook when I begin work on a new game concept. I might sketch some components, write out a possible turn structure, things like that. I guess I am trying to visualize how the game might play out in various ways to put the idea through its first paces. Sometimes the concept can fall apart right here - it already seems too derivative or uninteresting. If not, then when I have the details of a first version mapped out on paper I will use these notes to make the first prototype."
Board games usually stem from a central idea of either a theme or game mechanics. In his article, Themes and Mechanics 1.0 that was originally published in the Des Jeux Sur un Plateau magazine in 2005, French historian and sociologist Bruno Faidutti explores the difference in the games where designers start with themes or mechanics.
When designers start with a theme, the rules, game mechanics, look, setting, and almost every aspect of the game is created to reflect the theme with the "purpose of reproducing (sometimes with maniacal detail) a historic or literary situation." For example, if you wanted to make a game with the theme of baking pies (I'm hungry), the goal of the game could possibly be collecting the necessary ingredients to bake the most pies or as many different pies as you can or to score different combos with certain types of pies. Mechanically, the game probably wouldn't involve grid movement or or area control (though it could!) because people don't usually think of a games like Risk or Zombicide when baking a pie (or they could! I don't know). Instead, the game could use mechanics that can easily incorporate baking, such as card drafting or hand management. As Faidutti phrases it, "the theme is not only the starting point, but is also firmly imbedded in the centers of the play."
However, when games are centered around mechanics, "the theme is almost a decorative element." The focus is put more on how the game is played, rather than how it feels. "Their success relies upon the simplicity of the game rules and the internal coherence of their mechanisms." For example, games like Munchkin and Exploding Kittens rely heavily on the different effects on each of their cards, and if every cards' name and art were changed, the games would work basically the same way. Since Munchkin's mechanics can work in so many different contexts, the game has created a wide range of different variants and expansions, such as Munchkin Fu, Munchkin Cthulhu, Munchkin Steampunk, and Munchkin: Harry Potter.
We asked Phil, there seems to be two schools of thought when it comes to what the core of board games should be: Theme or mechanics. When you design games, do you find yourself leaning more towards one over the other? Do you see one having more benefits than the other? He answered:"Because most of my games are relatively simple and low on mechanical detail, multiple themes can usually work to present the gameplay. For example, the prototype for Bärenpark was actually about building an amusement park. So the choice of theme is usually a bit less crucial for me than for someone designing multiple-hour narrative-driven games. I think both theme or mechanism can be the starting point for developing a game idea. Usually, it is a novel mechanism that gets me inspired, although more and more I find myself thinking about player experience as a first broad step, and then finding both mechanisms and a theme that can generate that."
As Phil and Bruno Faidutti pointed out, a good game is able to "create a synergy between theme and mechanics, whose universe sticks to its rules, and whose rules stick to its universe." If a game has interesting mechanics, but the theme seems last minute and awkwardly stuck on, the players' immersion can be ruined and the game can lose its effect. If the game has a super interesting world and concept, but isn't fun to play, it will just stay on people's shelves and look pretty. Games should feel like the rules and gameplay make sense in the context of a compelling and interesting theme.
Once you have the core and the beginnings to a game, Phil tell us:"Once I have the initial idea for a game I usually start writing about it in a notebook. I’ll jot down possible mechanisms as they pop into my head, sketch out ideas for cards or pieces, and write out how I want the players to feel or react to certain things. The few times I have collaborated with other designers discussion plays a similar role. Bouncing ideas around to see what sticks."
So once you have the core idea in mind, it's time to come up with how the game actually works. This process will be different for each individual game, but the knowledge of other games you have played before can provide points of reference. If your game is based on a mechanic, come up with the factors that mediates the mechanic. You will need to come up with basic information, such as playtime and number of players, and test what works best with your game. Some materials that may be helpful are a blank deck of cards (if your game includes cards), sharpies (the fat ones so you are forced to write less and be more concise), and cardboard (if your game includes a board). We asked Phil if there are materials that are absolutely essential for him when creating prototypes for games and if he had any suggestions for people who have no idea how to make a prototype. He said:"I think first prototypes should be as simple as possible so you can figure out quickly if the core idea of the game is going to work. So I often use 200 gsm card stock which I cut up, and thick colored markers. If there’s more complexity to the components I’ll mock up something quickly on the computer and print it out. You can use a basic word processor to make simple cards and a board without too much know-how. And then of course I have a stash of wooden cubes and other components ready to use. But my advice would be to just get something to the table and worry about making it attractive later on in the process."
One method by which to start turning an idea into a prototype that Jamey Stegmaier, the designer of games such as Viticulture, Euphoria, and Scythe, suggests is rapid prototyping. Rapid prototyping is a process where you create as many variants of your game as you can and playtest them right away. It is a good idea to playtest these early prototypes against yourself so you can understand both sides of the gameplay and not have to ask anyone to play half thought out possibilities. Through going through countless variations of rules and game styles you can start to understand how you want your game to work as well as the different limitations and rules you have to set to keep the game balanced and well paced. Writing out all the rules for these prototypes can help you check if everything actually makes sense or if anything is overly complicated.
After going through early prototypes until you find a set of rules and mechanics that are actually fun and you feel comfortable with, invite other humans that are close to you to playtest it with you. The advice of other people is the most valuable thing you can receive as you continue to refine your prototype. They may discover flaws in the rules that you have overlooked, suggest ways to make the game more interesting, or let you know if things do not make sense. It's a good idea to start out with people who you trust and care about you so that their advice is with your best interests in mind. Through playing the game with these people, receiving their feedback, and adjusting the game accordingly, the next step is to create a more refined prototype that includes how the game will look visually and how every aspect comes together. You don't need to worry about art yet, but you should start thinking about how you want the game to look graphically. If cards are involved, how are they formatted? What about the board? Once this prototype gets to the point where you are willing to show strangers...show strangers.
The last part of prototyping should be seeking out blind playtesters. Blind playtesters are complete strangers who you have just met or never met before who are not afraid to hurt your feelings and give you honest criticism. They are the most valuable source of feedback because they are essentially the real world consumers you are making the game for in the first place. If they don't understand your game or find it fun, that's the tough reality. It is beneficial to let the rule book teach them the game, as in don't explain the game to them at all. This will allow you to identify any flaws in the way the rules are written and refine them until new players can understand the game by reading them alone. To make the game better and better, have as many people as you can playtest your game and address every issue or problem players report. There are many places to find strangers, a few being college campuses, libraries, and online on websites like Board Game Geek and the board game subreddit. College campuses are great because there are a multitude of students who are bored and would enjoy taking a break from studying (I can attest), coffee shops may let you put up posters asking if people would like to play a new board game, and community centers, such as churches, are also places you can find people to ask.
How can you translate gameplay to improvements? We asked Phil, when observing people playtest your prototypes, what are the things you are looking for and paying attention to? How do you translate these observations into revisions? His answer was:"I usually get more out of watching people play rather than the discussion after. For example, you can usually tell how engaged someone is by watching their body language and how excited they are to take each of their turns. Which parts of the game are frustrating the players is also usually pretty clear to see. This usually doesn’t result in specific revisions, but more a sense of where more work needs to be done, or where the system just isn’t generating the response you intended. Of course, sometimes playtesters have specific suggestions too. These are obviously much easier to action, but it is a good skill to learn which suggestions are worth testing. I think over time you develop a gut instinct about whether a new proposal might solve a problem, or if the playtester hasn’t quite grasped something about the overall design."
As Phil said, the most valuable information you can receive from playtesters is their body language and their first reaction to the game. However, it is also a good idea to ask questions and have a discussion afterwards. You should try to be absolutely silent throughout the playtesters' whole entire gaming experience, whether they play with a wrong understanding of the rules or not, so after they finish is a good time to have conversations. A few questions that can help guide these discussions are:
Keep playtesting the game until almost everyone who plays it has a good time. Keep refining the rules until they are concise and understandable, keep modifying different aspects until every part of the game feels balanced, and keep asking for as much feedback as you can. Basically, the more you playtest, the more problems you can solve about the game which will in turn make your game better and better.
So you have a refined prototype you are proud of and has been playtested thousands of times. Now, the obstacle you face is how you are going to turn this simple prototype into a beautiful final project that consumers will insta-buy on Amazon. How you ask? Stay tuned for the next article in this series!
Phil is a rising star among the industry's best tabletop game designers. His singular pursuit of creating accessible games led to the wildly successful Sushi Go! and introduced thousands of gamers into the hobby. So what does it take to create games that are loved by people of all background and age?
Hey Phil, thank you for making your time! First up, could you tell us a bit about yourself?
Hi! My name is Phil Walker-Harding and I am a game designer from Sydney, Australia. I have been designing since 2007, when I put out my first self-published game called Archaeology. I self-published for around 7 years, putting out my own titles in small print runs, and occasionally having a title picked up by a bigger publisher. A few years ago, I decided to focus just on game design, and since then I have worked with a whole lot of great publishers—the Sushi Go! series with Gamewright, Imhotep with Kosmos, Gizmos with CMON, Bärenpark and Gingerbread House with Lookout. I also work part-time for my church, where I do pastoral work with a non-traditional congregation. It is an interesting and satisfying combination of jobs to have!
A common thread across your interviews are the keywords accessibility and components. First, how do you define accessibility and how did it become such a big part of your design philosophy?
Yes, accessibility is very important to me in game design. I would say a game is accessible if it can be easily learned and played by a large range of players—in age, background, and gaming experience. I think if someone can absorb the rules by watching a game being played and then join in, that is a pretty good sign that there are a few barriers to entry. I suppose this has become central for me because I love how tabletop games can bring all different types of people together for a shared play experience. This is something I love to see, so I hope my games can promote this happening! I also generally prefer lighter games, so my design style quite naturally evolved in this way.
Taking some of your games as an example, what are some things you consider to make an accessible game? Which of your games do you think best showcases accessibility?
One of the biggest barriers to people playing games is having to learn the rules. I think for people who aren’t used to it having to learn rules and then play with them can feel stressful, almost like a surprise quiz at school! So a huge part of accessibility is that the game is quick and easy to learn. Ideally, it can be learned by simply watching others play, or it can explained in just a few minutes. Take for example, Sushi Go! and 7 Wonders. Mechanically, they are quite similar to play, but 7 Wonders has a lot of rules overhead you need to digest before you begin (of course, this allows for more strategic depth in the game!) This means that a big part of design for me is boiling down the core mechanisms so they work as a clear and simple system.
Players also need to feel comfortable that they understand what they are supposed to do on their turn. So I always try and have only few options to select from, very clear decision points, and quick feedback loops. That is, players can opaquely see the results of their actions soon after they take them. For example, to play a turn in Sushi Go! you simply choose one card from your hand and pass it on. After five minutes, the first round ends and you will see how all your cards score. This teaches the player how the combinations work, and then they have two more rounds to try again and improve. You also can’t really make a “wrong” move, even just picking cards because you like the pictures will get you some points! To again compare this to 7 Wonders, it really takes a full game to conceptualise how the different cards play out and interact with each other across the three rounds. This is part of what makes it a more advanced game despite its simple mechanisms.
Another key factor in accessibility is clear and intuitive graphic design. I think it’s important that players don’t have to expend mental energy on figuring out what the components do or how they work. I love the components in Gingerbread House, and the way that the player boards direct the players where to put certain things, and how many of each they are allowed to store. Having all this information openly available and presented in a visually obvious way lowers the amount of rules a player needs to keep in their head. Another small example of this is in Sushi Go!, where I designed the tempura and sashimi cards to subtly remind you how they score. There are 2 tempura depicted, and 3 sashimi, indicating that 2 and 3 cards are needed for a set, respectively.
Given the nature of your games, have there been times when you felt motivated by stories of your games bringing people together? Could you share some of them with us?
For sure! I suppose the main experience I have of this is seeing photos of people playing Sushi Go! on social media from all around the world. There has also been some amazing fan art too - sushi pictures by kids, sushi cakes, and even a sushi dress! So knowing that the game is being enjoyed by a wide range of people is really fulfilling, and motivates me to keep making games.
What are your top three favorite components and which board games are they from? Is there a component that you've taken an interest in recently?
Wow, great question. I think I’ll go with the board from Stone Age, the stone statues from Tobago, and the humungous 3D board from Fireball Island. All three do an amazing job of transporting you into the game world.
Recently, I have been trying to create a kids dexterity game. So I have been exploring all sorts of different components, especially objects that feel more like toys than traditional game pieces. So I have been playing around with marbles, ramps and plastic animals!
Barring all practical concerns or questioning from publishers, which of your games out there would you love to go back and make a massive upgrade in its component quality?
I am actually pretty happy with the production of my games! In fact, the final versions of Gizmos, Imhotep and Gingerbread House really exceeded my expectations. My original edition of Archaeology: The Card Game was pretty rudimentary, but this was greatly improved with the wonderful Z-Man reprint, Archaeology: The New Expedition. Many years ago, I self-published a little game called Cannonball Colony that by necessity had very plain components. I would like to re-work it and see how it could do with really nice tiles and 3D buildings.
Which of your games were designed around a theme? Were any of these games initially centered on a completely different theme than what we know them by today and if so, what was the reason for the change?
Imhotep is the best example of when I set out to make a game about a particular theme. I have always been interested in the mystery of how the pyramids were built, and so I started designing a game around this idea where the players would actually build the pyramids with large wooden blocks. Sushi Go! very quickly became about sushi, as soon as I made the connection between passing cards around the table and seeing dishes move around a sushi train. However, because my games are relatively simple and low on thematic detail, a few of them have changed themes during development. For example, Bärenpark was originally about building an amusement park, but the publisher wanted to go in a more unique direction and chose the new theme. Gizmos was originally about building up an ancient civilisation, but as I designed it I realised it felt more like building machines and having them set off chain reactions.
Have there been times when you invested a lot of time and thought into an idea that turned out to be a dud? On the flip side, are there times when a simple idea ended up being a surprise golden egg?
Both are very true of my experience! There are many game ideas that I have been chipping away at on and off for years. At various points I have been really excited about getting them to work, only to get stuck and have to put them back on the shelf, or throw them away entirely. One example is an area control game that is set in a kingdom in the clouds. As the players try and control areas of the board, they can also blow wind to move parts of the board around. The main mechanism works well, but I have never been able to get the whole game to gel together. But a great irony of game design is that sometimes good concepts come together with surprisingly little effort! For example, I recently had a first playtest of a party game that just popped into my head one day, and the system was already pretty good.
What are some common headaches that designers experience that most people don't realize/expect?
A big part of game design is iterating on a design to solve problems with it and finely tune the experience. This usually means a lot of repetitive testing, failing, and throwing out things that took a lot of work to create - which really is not that much fun! There are of course some enjoyable moments of creativity and inspiration, but behind the scenes there is a whole lot of grunt work which, for me at least, can be quite tiring. The process of development with a publisher is also an interesting interpersonal collaborative part of the process. While I’m thankful that I’ve had mainly very good experiences, these industry relationships can be a bit complex to navigate at times.
Do you ever see yourself going back to self-publishing? Have you ever considered Kickstarting your own game?
No, I am very happy building relationships with publishers and letting them do all the things that they are best at! I enjoyed many aspects of self-publishing, but in the end it took so much time and (even more importantly) headspace away from actual game design that I was happy to let them go. I did use crowdfunding back when I was self-publishing, and it was an amazing tool for funding and marketing a game, but again, running a campaign takes a lot of your energy and focus. So at the moment I am very thankful that I get to focus on just game design.
If you don't mind, could you share about the realities of making a living as a board game designer? What would you say to all of the amateur designers out there who are dying to transition into game design full-time?
When I started out designing and self-publishing I viewed it just as a hobby, which meant it was okay that it didn't really make any profit for a while. Relying on making money from design is tough because royalties are intermittent and not always reliable, and you just never know how a game is going to do out there in this crowded market. I transitioned very slowly from hobbyist to part-time to now almost full-time, and I only really took each step when the royalties I had coming in were reliable enough to do it. I was fortunate to be in a position with my other work where there was enough flexibility for it to be possible to make these moves. But I do recommend that you only make changes to your working situation when income from design allows for it. I think just jumping in and deciding to be full-time off the bat can be very risky.
Having an "evergreen" game is also really important for going full-time as well. For me, reliable income over time from a well-selling game, and a few others with decent sales, has been the key. It is much easier said than done, but aiming to make an evergreen title (or line of games) is an important goal. Ongoing sales, even if not huge, allow you to plan and build for the future. I think smaller niche publishers accomplish something similar by relying on customer loyalty and brand recognition of their particular style of game, so this can work too. So any planning you can do for a continuing stream of income, even if it starts small, will be really helpful.
What do you think is a good mark of success and what sort of milestone would you like to achieve in the near future?
I suppose every designer has their own goals, but for me I am inspired by the idea of “evergreen” games. That is, titles that are played widely enough and for long enough that in some way they enter the shared culture. To create a game that people know around the world, pass on to others, and play after I’m gone would be amazing. A lofty goal, but something that does motivate me for sure. To bring things back down to earth, in the more immediate future I’m hoping to create games in genres I haven’t worked in before - especially a kids game and a social deduction game. I think it is important to keep stretching yourself as a designer so you can grow in new areas.
Lastly, are there any exciting developments in the works that you'd like to share with us?
You bet. The expansion for Bärenpark is due out soon. It brings grizzly bears and monorails to the game! Imhotep: The Duel has just come out in english too. It is a 2-player only twist on the Imhotep system which I hope fans will enjoy. Also, the Adventure Games series has just been released in Germany and will be out in english soon. This is a line of story-driven co-operative games that I designed with Matthew Dunstan. In each game, the players are exploring locations, finding items, solving puzzles, and discovering an unfolding storyline. We wanted to create a narrative experience for players that gives the feeling of freely exploring a world and interacting with it. I am super excited to see how players respond to the first two title in the series - The Dungeon and Monochrome Inc.
Thank you Phil for making your time! I still remember playing Sushi Go! with my in-laws during Thanksgiving about two years ago. There really is nothing like a casual game of fun to help break the ice :)
Readers, please feel free to leave comments/questions below for Phil, any of the games mentioned, or for myself!
Below are my links to past interviews:
#Snakesss is the brand new party game just announced coming out in June 2021 from publisher Big Potato Games and designer Phil Walker-Harding (#Sushi Go Party!, #Barenpark, #Gizmos, #Imhotep, #Cacao and #Silver & Gold)
In each round, players can be one of three characters: Snakes, Humans or the Mongoose of Truth (the only player Humans know is not a Snake). Once a multiple-choice question is read aloud, the Snakes will see the correct answer first… leaving the Humans and Mongoose of Truth in the dark. You do not know whatever everyone's motives are, so you do not know who to trust is giving you the "right answer" to turn in.
It feels like #Secret Hitler but instead of debating intentions by who had the power to pass a law, it is about ignorance in knowledge over the debate of a random trivia question. It is easy to fake stupid but not to fake smart here so the balance will be interesting.
Snakesss looks like a lightweight and easy one which this publisher does well. These are two things that have never been mixed together. The hook seems very interesting, now we will just have to see if those two things will properly blend. It is hard to go wrong with Phil as the designer.
The tagline is:
"Don't let them charm you into choosing the wrong answer"
The game will be sold at Target and you can also check out more at the Publisher's site.
Publisher Page: https://bigpotato.com/products/snakesss
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