Who’s who of board games: Phil Walker-Harding

Today I want to highlight an underrated game designer who designs some of the most approachable fun games in the industry, but doesn’t get the buzz that others receive. That designer is Phil Walker-Harding. I most appreciate how his designs use their theme to teach the game in an intuitive way. I first stumbled into his work with Archaeology: The Card game, a 10 dollar impulse purchase at my local game store way back when I first got into the hobby. Honestly the name alone seemed ridiculous so I figured I’d give it a shot. While the theme is not about to set the world on fire, Archaeology: The Card Game proved to be a clever family style set collection game with a nice dose of push your luck involved for good measure. Players “dig” up treasure from a deck in the middle of the table. The more of one type of treasure a player has, the more points it’s worth, but only if you sell it to the museum and lock in that score. While you are collecting there’s always the risk of a sand storm causing you to lose part of your collection, or another player using a thief card to steal something valuable. The game rewards balancing between pushing for one more card to improve your set, or cashing out for points early, and the theme helps the rules of the game make sense.

The new edition shows how games have changed in ten years.

It’s no longer in my collection but this was a great approachable card game to stumble across. It has since been re-implemented in the improved Archaeology: The New Expedition. It is interesting to view the two versions as a case study for how art and design changed between the initial 2007 release and the 2016 rerelease. Price also changed however as the new version costs $20 and is a bit less of an impulse purchase!

The five characters of Dungeon Raiders.

Another game of his that is quite underrated is Dungeon Raiders. This one is a personal favorite, partly because I have the first edition that has some real silly art. Here too is an aspect of push your luck. Players each play as a different dungeon crawl character, Wizard, Thief, Barbarian etc. Players are trying to escape the dungeon together and so need to cooperate, but only one player, who has the most loot, is the winner. A dungeon deck is built out of cards where some rooms are face up and explored while others are face down and unexplored. Players have a set of cards numbered one through five and must strategically play these cards to overcome obstacles, defeat monsters and grab loot. Turn order plays a huge deal and the game functions a bit like a closed bidding system with some dungeon crawl flair. A nice twist is that the player with the most wounds at the end of the game cannot win, so players are encouraged to pay attention to each other player’s health in addition to their loot. This reminds me of a mechanic in High Society, an auction game by Reiner Knizia where the poorest player  at the end of the game automatically loses. It creates a kind of double win condition where just chasing the highest score is not enough, you have to not overcommit in achieving that score. It prevents scenarios seen in other games where players succeed by over-optimizing one aspect of their game.

Sushi go spells out its rules on every card.

Building on these earlier small successes Phil Walker-Harding put out the extremely popular Sushi Go on his own in 2013. This family-friendly take on a card drafting game was an independent release initially but grabbed the attention of GameWright to be re-published and hit more mainstream success. The game has players strategically picking which cards to keep out a dwindling hand each round. It removes the confusing iconography of it’s peer 7 Wonders and spells out what each card is worth. It also has very approachable cute art that invites players in rather than intimidating them with complex symbology. It is his biggest hit and was so successful that it was expanded in the 2016 Sushi Go Party with even more ingredients for making a delicious and adorable sushi dinner.

Imhotep has some serious table presence.

He nearly landed a Spiel Des Jahres, but lost to the tough competitor Codenames in 2015 with Imhotep. Unlike his previous card games this is a board game with chunky wooden pieces that players literally build Pyramids, Obelisks and other monuments with. It has his signature push and pull nature as players load boats to travel across the river to construct these various Egyptian monuments. The order of pieces on the boat matters when it ultimately unloads on the other side of the river and players can also choose when they want the ship to cross, working to time it when it is most beneficial for their own piece and most confounding to the other players. Like all of his games the title rewards knowing what risks you can take and has some spiteful interaction. The different monuments act like different mini-games with each scoring differently. It was later expanded with Imhotep: A New Dynasty adding even more different monument types for tons of replayabilty

He hit it out of the park again with Barenpark, the tertris-y game about building… bear parks? Players draft tiles from a central board to attempt to fill up squares of their rapidly expanding park. Covering up certain icons on your board rewards you with more tiles and also more terrain to place them on. Players are rewarded for completing goals first and these vary from game to game. This is one of the simplest so called Polyomino games and has that very satisfying spatial aspect down to a tee.

Gizmos uses the marble dispenser to drive a simple yet satisfying game.

Doubling down on the 3d toylike nature of Imhotep Phil Walker-Harding later put out Gizmos. This game has a cardboard constructed central dispenser of marbles which are the resources that drive the game. Players build gizmos, essentially a card tableau, that allows them to more effectively collect and convert these marble resources as well as score points. The game rewards putting together little engine like combos so it has a lot more meat on its bones than the initial toylike appearance would let on.

Cloud City is his most 3d game yet.

Most recently Phil Walker-Harding put out Cloud City, his most three dimensional game yet. In the game players place tiles that allow them to place buildings of three different heights. The goal is to place these buildings in such a way that you can build skyways stretching between them. The longer the skyway, the more points that it’s worth. Here similar to Barenpark this simple premise is jazzed up a bit with some placement goals that change each game.

I think PWH is a bit overlooked in the industry circles because he very much designs gateway style family friendly games. These games are simple. Approachable, and a great entry to the hobby. But as a result, they don’t often wow jaded industry veterans. This is a shame because while the hobby seems to focus more and more on deluxe miniatures, kickstarter stretch goals, complex and often convoluted systematic rules and legacy style campaigns, there is something to be said for a game that you can bring out with non-gamer friends, parents or family. While people in the hobby are often willing to struggle through a more complex teach, most folks just want to hit the ground running and be enjoying and understanding the game as quickly as possible. This is where PWH excels and has built a pretty sterling reputation of always having clean, clever but simple designs. If you see his name on the box, you know what you’re getting, a simple but very solid and well made game.


Online board gaming sucks

Table presence is part of the board game experience.

Sorry in advance for the clickbait title. But now that I’ve got your attention let’s talk about the state of online board gaming, one year into the pandemic. A year ago I wrote about the different ways to play online. The lockdown was new, and no one was likely to see anyone outside of their immediate household any time soon. One year on, we are in a similar place, with some hope on the horizon as vaccines roll out to a broad population. But for the most part, we are stuck with the solutions that we had then, and after more time with each method I have come away with a preferred method of gaming online, but all of them have major downsides which I want to highlight here.

But first, before I beat up on the services too much, there have been some upsides. For one, as the only way to play games for the most part things like Board Game Arena, Tabletop Simulator and online implementations of games elsewhere have been essential to keeping the hobby alive. We are fortunate to have entered lockdown when so many services already existed to make this happen compared to a decade prior when such things were in their infancy. Second, this has forced folks to revisit a lot of old games or the same games repeatedly. With fewer options and largely older titles implemented online the cult of the new or flavor of the week factor in board games was much reduced. I have had friends come to me blown away by games that came out 5-10 years ago because they finally had the chance to play them repeatedly on BoardGameArena. This is a nice side effect of a limited menu, it forces more in depth exploration of each game that is available.

Other than these two factors, I will be very happy to have online board gaming in the rearview mirror. I want to start by analyzing what I think is the worst way to play these games: Tabletop Simulator. Early on in the lockdown this option looked promising. Just about every board game was represented, although the legality of creating a tabletop simulator mod was up in the air, it was open season in terms of selection. You could virtually shuffle cards, roll dice, and even flick pieces, just like in real life. I have had the “pleasure” over the last week or two of playing both Greenland and Hansa Teutonica, two favorites of mine that aren’t available anywhere else. What’s not to love? Well, just about everything about the experience frankly. Tabletop simulator games on average take about twice as long as the same game would in real life. Both of the aforementioned games should clock in at around 90 minutes, but took something more like 3 hours to complete. But secondly, and more important than the time commitment, the simulation of tabletop play lacks a lot of the joy of actual board gaming in person.

Tabletop simulator lets you play games virtually, but the simulation is ultimately kind of hollow

Gone are the cross table death stares when someone makes an aggressive move, or eye contact of any type really. Even with a zoom or something combined with the game, the face to face of zoom and the on screen play don’t really mesh in even remotely the same way. Instead you are a disembodied camera with a hand in this virtual space. You can pan over to the other players pieces and play area, pick them up to look at them closely without them even knowing it. You can see everything, but ultimately you actually pay attention to less as a result of not being there in person. Other than occasionally watching players to make sure they are following the rules given there is no programmatic logic I would vaguely ignore my opponents turns in Tabletop Simulator because if my camera was not looking at the right place I might miss them entirely. In Hansa Teutonica my friend nabbed up a few critical bonus points on the board before I even noticed. I cannot imagine this happening in real life as I would have been sitting at my chair at the table watching him  take those moves versus panning around the board like a discovery nature documentary. 

Additionally any action you take in a virtual space is not as fun as in real life. Virtual dice rolls are anti-climactic, especially if no one is really watching or anticipating the results. Placing cubes on a board, while admittedly not the most scintillating activity even in meatspace, has no gravity on a screen. The illusion of a game, which creates something out of cardboard, wood and cards just boils down to a virtual collection of art assets that you move about on a screen. Board games have a toy factor because they are physical. It drives the minis craze on kickstarter and all the blinged out components like the berries in Everdell or the beautiful Totems in Iwari. But if they are just art this toy factor evaporates. I will play games that are not available elsewhere on Tabletop Simulator but I always withhold judgement if I play a new game there as I know it is only a shadow of the true experience.

Tobago is full of beautiful toy-like pieces

So then let’s visit more automated app-like board games. Board Game Arena has done tremendous work over the last year to improve the platform. It has the most official games of any similar website and the interface is top of the line and very intuitive. BGA takes advantage of being digital and makes many games shorter to play because the setup, score calculation and options on a turn are all taken care of by the program itself. So already this is much less of a headache than moving virtual pieces around. What’s not to love? While I will admit I prefer this method if given a choice, it is still not the same thing for much the same reason. Interaction is different through a digital interface and the physical nature of the games is gone. We had a day of online games last week, and while I had a good time and it was wonderful to catch up with those friends, I left the experience feeling a bit hollow and sad at the end of it. A perfect example of the toy factor being missing was Tobago. This is a favorite of mine, it captures a spirit of adventure as players play cards to slowly whittle down where a treasure is buried on the island while driving their jeeps around to be the first to dig it up. The physical game has beautifully modeled palm trees, huts, jeeps and Moai statues that feel and weigh like they are made out of stone. The BGA implementation might have been a bit old, but the

The digital implementation, while streamlined, loses all of the table presence

graphics were drab and everything was just a flat 2d image. The gameplay held up, but it just wasn’t the same. A frustrating but different experience was with Beyond the Sun, a new 2020 game that just hit the service. I need to give this one another try in person because at some point you are clicking so many times that each turn felt more like a flow chart than a game. Everything also felt small and reduced to fit on a single screen, and even on a larger monitor it was hard to make out. The real game has these neat custom dice that are not rolled but used to represent the different pieces in the game. In an online implementation this aspect is completely lost. One of the reasons I dedicate a whole shelf to these space hogging games is because they give back equally to the space of the table when they are set up and here that is not the case.

So what’s the verdict? Well, unless your covid bubble happens to contain a whole board gaming group we are still stuck with these tools for a while longer. I will keep gaming online because it is the best way to play these things with friends at the moment. But you better believe that I will swap it out for the real thing as soon as it makes sense to get out there in person again. Give me all the messy setup and clean up, all the rules mistakes, dirty looks and table banter, all the dice rolls and chunky pieces I can handle. To me there is nothing better than the real thing; accept no substitutes.

Yearning for the golden days of RPGs

Beautiful sprites and simple 3d in BOFIV

Let me talk today, a bit off topic from board games, about the heyday of JRPGs and how limited technology drove innovative game design choices. In 1997 Final Fantasy VII launched. It had a sexy razzle dazzle commercial that made the video game look like a movie. And people took the bait, hook, line and sinker. Millions of people bought a game in a genre that was previously only reserved for the most niche weebs like myself. So many people bought FFVII that other publishers thought it might be good to jump in the pool and bring over games that were previously left to languish untranslated in the Japanese market. Similar to how everyone had to copy Super Mario Bros on the Nintendo, everyone who was anyone had to have at least one RPG series, if not two, for good measure. It was truly the golden age of the genre.

I wax poetic about all of this, because despite loving games to this day and admiring how far we’ve come in terms of graphics and gameplay and even virtual reality, I am still living in the golden age through my nostalgia glasses. Firing up a PS1 game, and hearing that iconic Sony logo noise brings me right back to being in high school, in my basement, buried in the latest RPG release.

While cutting edge at the time FFVII has aged poorly.

Some of these have aged… poorly. The PS1 was not a powerful system, and Final Fantasy VII looks downright archaic by modern standards. But other examples in the genre stand the test of time and still hold up today if played in the right format. I recently fired up Breath of Fire IV and was amazed at how charming the game was 20+ years after the fact. Ironically games like these that weren’t necessarily pushing the limits of the processing power of the system are the ones that hold up the best. 

Broadly speaking developers took 3 to trying to make an RPG on the system. The first is 3d models with pre-rendered backgrounds. This is your classic PS1 final fantasy title where the art of the backgrounds is the best that current technology could render and the camera angle is fixed while you wander these paintings of a sort with a crude 3d model. Other examples are Chrono Cross and Legend of Dragoon. These often age the most poorly because the pre-rendered backgrounds were created for a certain resolution and the 3d at the time couldn’t really push enough polygons to make the characters terribly readable or realistic. Another approach was to just double down on 2d and create beautiful painterly games like Legend of Mana or Valkyrie Profile. At the time folks were not always excited about this because 2d games were not the latest and greatest technology. But these games hold up relatively ok because they were not relying on the underpowered polygonal graphics of the early 3d system. The third type of approach is by far my favorite, and is the system Breath of Fire IV and others use. 

Sticking to 2d worked well for Legend of Mana

Here the world itself is 3d, oftentimes with sprites mapped unto the 3d to give it more dimension, and the characters are traditional 2d sprites. To my mind this is the best of both worlds. You have these incredibly expressive animated characters paired with a somewhat rudimentary but immersive 3d world. Unlike the previous two examples, the three dimensions actually matter in that you need a camera system in order to rotate around your characters and navigate the world. Other games that use this style are Breath of Fire III, Xenogears, and the amazing Grandia. The design was created out of the limitation of the technology. Consequently when the ps2 and future systems came along and more mature 3d graphics were possible developers got away from this type of design. They literally don’t make games like this anymore, in part because those limitations are gone. 

In recent times there is some energy being put towards trying to recapture the spirit of this generation of games, with mixed success. Square Enix, one of the most prolific creators during the heyday put together a studio that was unironically called RPG Factory. And  just like a factory it rapidly produced three games in relatively short order that aped classic games like Chrono Trigger. But something of the soul was lost here, and it’s hard to define exactly what.

RPG Factory produces games aping this style

I have some guesses as to what might have happened however. For one thing, the Playstation 1 RPGs commanded the top talent of that era to work on these games that were then cutting edge. Some of those same names are still working in games, but are more likely working on current cutting edge vs throwback like titles. For another, imitation while the highest form of flattery is not necessarily enough to stand on its own. Trying to ape old titles feels more like a sort of pantomime than something truly inspired. Kind of like how a cover band is a good imitation but is always missing a certain something. Other modern games that aim for a classic feel or look are Octopath Traveler, that looks something like if you’re super Nintendo copy of Final Fantasy got put through some amazing Instagram filters, and Bravely Default II that has an almost twee aesthetic harkening back to earlier titles. And both of these are good and capture some of that classic feel in their own way, but they are not the A-team bringing all that they’ve got.

Octopath Traveler is certainly beautiful

I am fully aware that a lot of this is nostalgia on my part. A time and a place where I had a lot of free time to explore and fall in love with the genre. A player revisiting these games now without any context might wonder what the big deal is. But I would hope that some of the charm and ingenuity of these games would still come through 20 years later. It is striking to me how much technology defines video games and movies where it is hardly a factor at all in the board game world. Granted the manufacturing techniques of games have gotten remarkably advanced and you see more and more grandiose productions on kickstarter every week. But on the whole the hobby is much more timeless; there is not a certain style of board game produced in a 5 year span of the 90s like the games I am talking about. There are trends and fads like the hundreds of roll & write games produced in the last two years, and the me-too deckbuilders of the early 2010s, but these are also not driven by limitation, but imitation.

There is also the tragedy of how on earth to play these games in modern times even if you wanted to fight through their somewhat archaic nature. Sony has not proven to be the best curators of their old systems, so no modern system can play these right out of the box. Instead they can be played on PSP or PS Vita or a PS3 if you still have one kicking around. Original disc copies of Breath of Fire go for roughly $100 on ebay so that avenue is pretty price prohibitive, not to mention that PS1 games look terrible on modern TVs without a lot of tweaks. More obscure board games go out of print but if you do manage to track down a copy there’s never a question of how to play it. There are more illicit ways to play PS1 games out there of course, and people often seek out these methods because it is often the easiest in addition to being the cheapest. 

During these strange covid times it is nice to escape into nostalgia once in a while. With that said, I think there is a weekend of Breath of Fire IV ahead of me, and maybe my non-high school self will not get stuck on a tough boss battle halfway through. What is your favorite nostalgia escape and in what media?


Cancel culture in board games

On February 9th 2021 one of my favorite board game designers, Phil Eklund, was banned from Board Game Geek, permanently. Eklund for reference designed High Frontier, the Bios Series and the PAX series that I have written about previously. Given that BGG is such a centralized hub for the hobby, this was pretty disappointing news. When you start to get into the hobby you discover this fantastic community on the site, and while it can be a bit confusing to navigate at times this is more than made up for by interactions with designers themselves. Got a rules question? There’s a chance the designer will pipe in and give you a definitive answer right there on the site. They often respond to reviews and other questions and directly engage with their audience. I remember early in my board gaming days I wrote a pretty negative review and the designer reached out to me privately to understand where I was coming from. I was blown away, and also considered maybe toning down any future negativity because heck, the people involved may be reading my review.

Eklund was active on the forums in the same way. Often helpful and always interested in engaging with the people who play and write about his games. But while there is no better place to discuss board games on the internet, other kinds of discussion are not as welcome, and for good reason. You see, while Phil Eklund designs some of the most fascinating games on the market, he is also a bit like a crazy Libertarian uncle. His view on the world today in addition to the science and history his games are about is often challenging. So for a while he could be found on the forums for his upcoming game Bios Mesofauna arguing about whether climate change was man made. In the original edition of Pax Pamir he wrote a now infamous essay about the advantages of English colonialism and occupation of India vs being a border state like Afghanistan. And in his final blaze of glory on the site he was arguing about the importance of mechanics in his games that capture historical events where women were captured and forcibly integrated into other tribes. Most of the discussion, if it can be called that, has been deleted from the site entirely. So like the big bang the exact spark point is hard to find, but while it is interesting to tackle challenging subjects like this in a game, being insensitive in any way to the fact that this gameplay mechanic essentially depicts rape is not ok.

Board Game Geek is not the only place Phil has come under fire. Eklund game rulebooks are well known for being 25% footnotes about the various scientific and historical reasons for how the game works. This is fascinating in a way, but presenting all of it as fact when some of it is definitely subjective is not so great. His publisher Ion Games has pledged to peer review his footnotes.

Both of these actions have caused a lot of Eklund defenders to come out of the woodwork, claiming this is all a violation of free speech. But the reality is, neither BGG nor his rulebooks are truly open platforms where anything is open for debate and discussion. BGG for their part have been trying to broaden what has in the past been an incredibly insular hobby. There is a reason why I can count my women gaming friends on one hand, and having a public debate about these sorts of topics is not about to broaden that audience. The moderators on the site have deferred to having a safe space vs. a completely open platform, and that makes a lot of sense. And for the publisher’s part, they want to keep the focus on the games themselves vs the footnotes. It is not in their interest to alienate players before they even play the game.

We live in challenging times where opinions and views about the world are more public than ever before and shared in more places than ever before because of all of the platforms that exist to share that opinion. And maybe that’s a good thing, with sunlight being the best disinfectant after all. But it certainly makes it difficult when someone you admire turns out to be shitty. I feel for all of my Harry Potter fanatic friends who have to wrestle with the fact that the author of their favorite books may have views that are radically different from their own worldview. And here I can relate as I look at a shelf full of Eklund games and wonder how to reconcile things. It is even more personal because Eklund is the only board game designer I ever interviewed for the blog, and I found him goofy and charming and brilliant in a way that mirrored his games. 

The conclusion that I’ve ultimately come to is that I will continue to play his games. Eklund’s designs are ultimately sandboxes where there is history and science driving the rules of the game. Just like his libertarian ideals they are wide open systems where the interplay of rules creates a narrative and chance can change how history or science plays out vs the real world. I do not agree with his world views about many things, and I don’t plan to engage him in a debate about any of them on Facebook anytime soon. But in the space of the games, there is nothing else out there like his designs. To boycott or abandon those games because of the designer’s flawed views would be a loss. And given the publisher is taking these concerns seriously, I am not overly concerned with financially supporting the games either. It comes down to a separation of art and artist and ultimately Eklund’s designs have expanded my horizons and made me ask more questions. I cannot view that as a bad thing.

I remember a story about someone meeting Alton Brown and being disappointed. They said never meet your heroes, and I can see how that would be tragic if you admired his public persona and then realized he wasn’t who you thought he was. But does that make his cookbooks suck? At some point if he made the best recipe for cornbread and that was what you took away from his contribution to the world, then maybe that’s ok. Then again, you can find a good cornbread recipe on the back of the Jiffy box in the grocery store. 

Eklund’s voice on a major board game website has been silenced, and while that will prevent the toxicity that has driven people out of the hobby, it is a loss in terms of the direct connection from designer to player. I respect BGG’s decision to make sure the dialog on the site is about games first and foremost. The games then will have to stand on their own. They are flawed, challenging, confusing but ultimately fascinating and open for the player to experience and decide for themselves.