Why Phil Walker-Harding Created a Game About Sushi (A Look at Sushi Go!, Imhotep, + More)
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: