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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.