When Phil Walker-Harding was a child he made silly little board games with his brother and cousin. Now he makes internationally successful games like Sushi Go and Bärenpark. They're still a bit silly.
With Phil Walker-Harding being awarded the inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award at PAX Australia, we've republished this interview which originally appeared in February 2018.
Making board games has always been a hobby for Phil Walker-Harding. He carries a notebook around to jot down ideas as they come to him, playing with the ideas until they coalesce into something real. About ten years ago he decided to take the hobby more seriously and started to self-publish his games under the Adventureland Games label.
"A couple of my early designs got picked up by bigger publishers and I slowly built up my design experience this way," says Walker-Harding.
One of these early designs was Sushi Go, a simple 'pick and pass' card game where players try to put together the most delectable - and adorable - sushi dinner. Fast, fun and easy to learn, Sushi Go is a joy to play.
After a successful Indiegogo campaign, Sushi Go came to the attention of publisher Gamewright. From there Walker-Harding has gone from success to success in the board game world. Last year he won Boardgame Australia's 2017 Best Australian Game and was nominated for the coveted Spiel des Jahres with Imhotep.
There is no rigid design process for Walker-Harding. He works on multiple designs at the same time and says that "most of my concepts are quite simple, they often shift around a lot and can merge into one another."
"Early on in a design, I try and articulate what the core concept of the design is and what the 'hook' will be for new players. This really helps focus my thinking."
From there he starts prototyping. These prototypes are little more than colourful scribbles on scraps of paper but they're enough to get things moving. Enough to find out if there's something more behind the idea. Successful prototypes get refined and tested further. Unsuccessful prototypes end up in the bin. Maybe the idea will come back in another form. Maybe it won't.
Games undergo further testing with Walker-Harding seeking feedback from his players. "What is causing them to smile, laugh, or get frustrated? How excited are they for their turn to come around?" Feedback about the broad strokes experience the players are having is often far more useful than any specific fine-tuning offered up.
"How much a game changes during testing can vary a lot. Some designs, especially simple ones, may only have the details change as they develop. Other times, when I am trying to make quite an elusive concept work on the table, a game can shift in all sorts of different ways before it settles."
One of the simpler changes that happened over the course of development happened to Bärenpark. Originally the idea was to build an amusement park where players put together attractions for the guests. The game's publisher, Lookout Games, wanted the game to stand out more and changed it so that players were building enclosures in a bear park.
When the art samples came back, Walker-Harding noticed that there were koalas included in the art. "I felt it was my national duty as an Australian to call this out, and so there is now a fun disclaimer about it in the rules!" says Walker-Harding.
Bärenpark - with its fuzzy definition of what is a bear - does have a disclaimer in the rules, it reads: "Although koalas are not really bears, people like koalas, so we will be including them in our park!"
Designing games is an on-going process. Even after a game is done, there are still lessons to be learned from it. "Imhotep taught me a lot about player interaction, and how binding the fate of players together as the game develops can be really interesting and exciting. Sushi Go Party helped me learn how to deal with a large pool of different cards and how they all might possibly interact. A big lesson from Bärenpark was how valuable it can be to reward players constantly in small ways throughout the game."
Just as valuable are the lessons learned from failed designs. "Why something didn't work can be very valuable information for future designs. This knowledge can close off pathways in your thinking and force you to branch out in new directions."
The biggest tip Walker-Harding had for aspiring games designers was to get their work out there.
"You really learn so much by making your games available in some form to a wider audience. So I often recommend that new designers work on a small, simple to produce game and then make it available via print and play, or print on demand. Each completed design teaches you valuable lessons and grows your skills, so just keep at it!"