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An Intro to…Phil Walker-Harding

An Intro to Phil Walker-Harding

The first in our "An Intro to.." series focuses on Phil Walker-Harding, an Australian board game designer from Sydney.

In the beginning - Adventureland Games

Phil Walker-Harding has steadily become one of the go-to designers of games to introduce new people to the hobby. His games are streamlined, fast, highly thematic yet non-combative and often feature variations in play that allow for players from a wide range of ages and experience to enjoy.

Initially self-publishing games in the early 2000’s using the Adventureland imprint, Phil first came to the attention of the board gaming public with the set collecting card game Archaeology in 2007.

Using a distinctive pyramid layout, this was a game about finding and selling the treasure found during archaeological digs in Egypt. Featuring a relatively simple mechanic attached to a fun theme and quick to play, Archaeology had many of the features that have come to define later, better known, Phil Walker-Harding games.

On first release Archaeology had a very limited print run of a few hundred copies. Later selected for distribution by Z-Man Games, it was eventually revised and re-released in 2016 as Archaeology: The New Expedition.

Breakthrough - Sushi Go!

Phil’s real breakthrough game, and arguably still his best known, also had limited first print run. However, it has, according to eventual distributor Gamewright Games, gone on to sell over a million copies - the board gaming equivalent of a multi-platinum record.

That game is Sushi Go! In the space of 20 short minutes Sushi Go! sees players creating a three-course meal of sashimi and tempura; maki rolls and dumplings. Wasabi sauce adds heat and it’s all topped with a dessert.

Players are dealt a hand of cards at the start of each round. They choose one to keep and pass the rest on, repeating this process until the cards in-hand run out. The meal created is scored based on sets of sushi types collected and a new hand of cards is dealt. Three rounds are played and scored in total with a final scoring adjustment for desert.

Sushi Go! is a perfect introductory game to new gamer's, children and family members. The theme of a creating a sushi meal fits the pick and pass mechanic perfectly as the players create a conveyor belt from which they select their cards. The artwork is colourful and instantly appealing to kids of all ages.

The huge success of Sushi Go! has led to the bigger, more varied, fractionally more complex, Sushi Go! Party in 2016 which allows up to eight players to enjoy a meal. A third iteration, Sushi Roll! uses dice rather than cards, and is due for release later in the year.

Phil Walker-Harding - Sushi Go! (Credit: Gamewright)

Complexity simplified - Cacao

Phil Walker-Harding’s games often use mechanisms that are more frequently seen in far more complex games. In Cacao, released in 2015, two mechanical staples of the Euro game genre were combined into something quite different.

Tile-laying, seen in games as diverse as Tsuro and Terraforming Mars, merges seamlessly with worker placement, a mechanic beloved of heavy strategy games such as Agricola and The Gallerist.

The aim of Cacao, as in so many Euro-style games, is to score points by producing resources (in this case cacao beans), converting those resources into money and getting your player token a certain distance along a track printed on the board.

All the key features of both tile-laying and working placement are present. Pick up and place a tile and watch the game board come alive. As the game progresses, the map you are collectively creating reveals more options that represent a developing landscape of opportunities and challenges.

Use a worker, or workers, to generate resources in certain locations with which you can take other actions and simultaneously block other players from taking those actions.

What is unique about Cacao, however, is that the tiles are the workers. At the compasses points of each player’s tiles are printed worker icons, ranging in number from 0 -4, and the orientation of the tile when placed determines how many workers are used at a neighbouring location. This allows players to generate their own resources, block other players and develop the map all at the same time using just one action rather than a multitude.

It’s such a simple idea and executed so well. The theme of producing and selling cacao is a great fit for the game and the artwork and production quality are top notch.

Hardened Euro gamers may find the strategy a little simplistic, and the playtime a little short, however, for introducing new players to some of the principles that underpin many ‘gamer’s games’ it is hard not recommend Cacao. There is even an expansion that allows players to turn their cacao beans into chocolate! Yay!

Game of the Year Nominee - Imhotep

The board gaming world gave it’s official stamp of approval to Phil’s 2016 design, Imhotep. A block placement strategy game that tasks players with building the monuments of Ancient Egypt, Imhotep received a nomination for the prestigious Spiel des Jahres (SdJ).

Focusing on games that are accessible to all players, the SdJ is the Game of the Year awards held in Germany each year. Essentially, the board gaming Oscars (or Grammy’s to stick with the musical analogy earlier). Any of the games nominated would have been firm favourites in a lesser year, however, 2016 was the year that Codenames steamrolled its way across the board gaming landscape and it was a vintage year for the awards.

Each turn of Imhotep sees players load ships with blocks and sail them to the monument that they wish to build. Scoring is based upon the amount of input each player has into building a monument and varies based on monument. Pyramids score immediately, temples at the end of each round, burial chambers and obelisks at the end of the game.

As with all games from Phil Walker-Harding, turns fly by with a few simple actions that hide a deeper layer of strategy. Players compete for the ideal position on each ship as it’s first on, first off at each monument. Sometimes it’s better to be first on, sometimes last, but here’s the thing: you can sail a ship even if you don’t have any of your own blocks on it. This adds a tremendous competitive edge to the game as it allows blocking tactics to be employed.

The components add tactility to proceedings (who doesn’t love playing with wooden blocks) and as with tile laying games, watching the ‘board’ develop as blocks stack upon blocks is very satisfying.

Phil Walker-Harding - Imhotep (Credit: Kosmos)

A little bit of everything - Bärenpark

The standout design amongst Phil’s body of work is, for me, Bärenpark (2017). Translated as ‘Bear Park’, Bärenpark not only highlights the key elements of Phil’s style of design, it also ticks all the boxes on a checklist of things that makes a great introductory game.

A gentle game with quick, smooth turns, Bärenpark is about building a wildlife park for bears. It streamlines a mechanic (polyominoes or ‘Tetris Pieces’), seen in far more complex games. This requires some thought to master yet not so much it is off-putting to new players. The components have both visual and tactile appeal, it can be played non-competitively and is family friendly with variable complexity.

There is something so pleasant about building a park with polar bears here and koalas there. Ensuring that there is space for the animals to roam, food areas and playgrounds for the kids. Covering up the correct symbol to expand the park, creating space so that those more awkward pieces can be slotted into place, covering the final empty space so that a bear statue can be built. Why worry about victory points when there is such satisfaction to be gained by just building the most visually appealing park?

Bärenpark has a little bit of everything including toilets (a facility under-represented in many board games) and has rapidly become my go to gateway game. Even if, as Paul Dean from Shut and Sit Down says, Koalas are not actually bears…

Phil Walker-Harding - In Summary

Phil Walker-Harding has created some of the most accessible, streamlined and family friendly board games available. His games are quick to play with simple individual actions that provide a decent layer of strategy for those that like it without alienating those that don’t. His most recent releases are Gizmos and Gingerbread House.

You may like Phil Walker-Harding games if:

  • You're relatively new to the board game hobby.
  • you're looking for a new gateway game to introduce to new gamers.
  • You want a relaxing, conflict free game.
  • You like good integration of theme and mechanics.

You may not like Phil Walker-Harding games if:

  • You want a combat-based game.
  • You're looking for a highly complex game.

You may like Phil Walker-Harding games if:
You're relatively new to the board game hobby.
You're looking for a new gateway game to introduce to new gamers.
You want a relaxing, conflict free game.
You like good integration of theme and mechanics.

You may not like Phil Walker-Harding games if:
You want a combat-based game.
You're looking for a highly complex game.