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Phil Walker-Harding and the Sushi Go! Heroes

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Phil Walker-Harding and the Sushi Go! Heroes

The Inquisitive Meeple interviews Australian game designer Phil Walker-Harding about Archaeology the Card Game, Sushi Go! and his newest game Pack of Heroes.

Phil, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and what go you into board gaming?
Board Game Publisher: Adventureland Games

Phil: I live in Sydney, Australia. I grew up here, but also spent some years in the USA. I studied film at university and am currently working as a video editor and doing my Masters of Theology. I grew up playing board games like Monopoly, Mouse Trap, Dungeon and Fireball Island. I always liked making up my own board and card games too. I rediscovered the hobby in the mid 2000s with Settlers, Lost Cities and Carcassonne. Straight away the old design itch came back and I started making games again!

Who is your favorite game designer?

Phil: For me it is hard to go past Reiner Knizia. It amazes me that within a 3 year period he produced ten games I find pretty amazing: Tigris and Euphrates, Ra, Lost Cities, Battle Line, Samurai, Through the Desert, Circus Flohcati, Traumfabrik, Merchants of Amsterdam and Taj Mahal. For me this has to be he best run in design history! I also really respect Sid Sackson, who I think we have to credit with so much of what we take for granted in the design scene now. More recently I am fascinated by Antoine Bauza's range of creative designs.

What card games (by other designers) do you love or stand out to you?

Phil: There are so many, but the games that stand out to me are those which take a really fun and different mechanism as their core.

Coloretto is a genius example of a mechanism for collecting cards, and its scoring system ensures there is tension all the way through.

For Sale takes two types of auctions and creates an intuitive game with great choices that flows really well.

Lost Cities and Battle Line create amazing tension from 2 players both needing cards from a shared deck, but especially at the right times!

Race for the Galaxy takes what can be one with "just cards" to its extreme.

Dominion of course turned a lot of assumptions about card games on their head to make something new.

Many of your own games are card games. What is it about designing card games do you like so much?

Phil: A big reason is actually that as a small self-publisher, card games are much easier and cheaper to produce and distribute. Living in Australia also means shipping to and from just about anywhere costs a bundle! So small games are just so much easier logistically. But more importantly, a lot of my favourite games are small card games. There's something really appealing to me about packing a lot of gameplay into a small package, and I've found it a fruitful design challenge as well.

What is your favorite part of designing card games?

Phil: It would have to be once the game design is starting to get locked in and I make the first prototype with nice graphics. The first few plays with these cards are really fun as I get to experience the game as it will really be, with theme and images. I guess it's fulfilling because it feels like the moment the game is really born.

When you make games – which more often comes first mechanics or theme?

Phil: Ah, the old theme vs mechanics chestnut! Because I am so often designing with particular components in mind (for example, a maximum of 120 cards), I would say this leads me to think about mechanisms first most of the time - What new thing can I do with a simple deck of cards? However I've always felt this question isn't really an either/or. I think most designers as they work find themselves bouncing back and forth between a theme informing the mechanisms, and the mechanisms influencing the theme. I also feel that even if you start with a theme, at some point at the beginning of the process you need to decide which mechanism you will use to primarily present it to the players, and this to me is the biggest decision you make about what your game will become.

Which do like more, designing games or playing them?
Board Game: Archaeology: The Card Game

Phil: Good question! I have to go with playing. As much as I enjoy designing, a lot of it takes place in my own head, and the social experience of playing a board game is tough to beat. I suppose you could say that designing is really just a means to an end of creating play experiences anyway!

The game that started to get you on people’s radar was Archaeology the Card Game. In 2008 it won the Australian Awards Best Australian game. Then it was picked up and published by Z-Man Games in 2009. How did that game come about and was its success surprising at all?

Phil: Archaeology: The Card Game (and the board game version I did just before it) came about after playing lots of Lost Cities. I loved how in that game you are trying to collect sets of cards, but their value is drastically different for different players and at different times during the game. So I set out to explore this idea, and collecting sets of treasures seemed like a natural thematic fit. For the card game version, I shrunk the game down to just cards so I could produce it more easily, and in the process also tightened up the gameplay quite a bit. I was very fortunate to meet Zev at the Australian Games Expo in 2008. I played it with him there and he picked it up, which was fantastic! I have been really happy with the game's success and still get a kick out of seeing photos of people playing it all around the world. In designing it I was aiming for something that was approachable and exciting for non-gamers, but I never expected it to go so well!

I notice that here on Geek you have a Indiana Jones microbadge. Did Indiana Jones have any influence on the theme of this game?

Phil: Yes actually! I loved the Indiana Jones films growing up, as well as The Mysterious Cities of Gold cartoon series. I think more than anything this theme says adventure and excitement to me. Later in life I realized these things present an extremely romanticized (and actually pretty problematic) picture of investigating ancient cultures. But hey it is still a fun theme! Just don't get me started on the fourth Indiana Jones movie.

Let’s flash forward to last years’ Sushi Go. Not only was it a great success – but you sold out pretty quickly of the game. And now it is being picked up by Gamewright and published later this Spring (2014). Could you tell us a little bit about how Sushi Go! Came about?

Phil: I really love 7 Wonders, and enjoy Fairy Tale a lot too. I wanted to make a game that explored their drafting mechanism, but one that stripped it down to its bare bones. I think passing and drafting is such a great structure for a game that I wanted to explore it with very little other gameplay on top of it.
Board Game: Sushi Go!

What made you go with a sushi theme over say another theme?

Phil: Because the game was so simple I knew any theme would be somewhat abstracted. But when I considered what it felt like to pass cards around the table, a sushi train was the first thing that popped into my head! The only other theme I experimented with was a bakery. It made sense in that the different types of baked goods scored points in certain ways, but it didn't really match the passing mechanism.

What do you think the magic is that attracts people to Sushi Go?

Phil: I think people are responding to the simplicity of the gameplay and the inherent tension and excitement that there is when multiple players are picking from rotating sets of cards. I think the sushi train theme fits pretty well, and this ties the experience together. At least that's what I hope people are thinking!

One of the cool things about the game is that each type of food scores differently. Was this always the case and did it come naturally to you have each would score or was it tough to work out?

Phil: When I was figuring out the simplest possible game to use with the drafting mechanism, having the cards simply be worth points, alone or as part of a set, seemed like the best path. As I developed the different types of scoring I was trying to bring out the natural excitement of the pass, draft and reveal structure. When I play 7 Wonders I find I am mainly focused on what cards will work best for me, hand by hand. In Sushi Go! I wanted the players to be able to easily assess the make-up of the whole round, and then make decisions based on what the other players might do, as well as what seems best for them. Having sets that only score if you have 2 or 3 cards is an example - You may have seen a whole lot of Sashimi cards in the first two turns of a round, so you feel it's worth drafting a Sashimi. But what if someone else grabs the rest before they get back around to you? I must say that Knizia's Ra is a masterwork of using different set collection scoring rules, and it was a big inspiration too.

Part of the reason Sushi Go did so well no doubt was your art – what inspired you in the creation of the games art?

Phil: Well I am not very good at drawing, but I am ok with graphic design. I had seen some really cute "chibi"-style sushi pictures, and thought I'd have a crack at making my own sushi vector art. It took a lot of effort to get everything looking right though!

And speaking of art – I know there are a few outspoken people on Geek about the changing of the art in the Gamewright version of the game. Do you know why Gamewright decided to change it?
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Phil: I think Gamewright is known for their beautiful illustrative art, and so I think the new illustrations fit with their style, and are really great. I think the box front took a couple of people by surprise because of the colour scheme of the background. However, in person the embossed tin box really looks like a tray that you might get at a sushi restaurant.

What was the best piece of advice you got from playtesters when playtesting Sushi Go?

Phil: Two things I suppose. One was gauging from them what the correct value of sushi rolls and puddings should be. When players felt they weren't worth going after I knew I had to raise the value. The other thing would be player count. For a time I considered having the game play up to six players, but the feedback was that players didn't have enough turns or ability to pursue sets.

One of the things I thought was cool in the game is the score track – which is two cards. Where did the idea of this score track come from?

Phil: I am always thinking of ways the players can keep score without having to use a pencil and paper, or needing to put dozens of scoring tokens in the box (which of course really increases production costs). I first saw this type of card sliding used in Palastgeflüster (which by the way is an excellent one-deck game that predates the recent "micro game" movement). I used something similar in Dungeon Raiders and it seemed to work ok. I just needed to add card rotation to the idea so you could keep track of the much higher scores in Sushi Go!

Do you enjoy eating Sushi?
Board Game: Sushi Go!
Board Game: Sushi Go!

Phil: Yes! I think when I can afford it, sashimi is my favourite. This is why I made it so valuable in Sushi Go!

What was the greatest challenge you faced in designing Sushi Go?

Phil: The biggest challenge was getting all the point values right. I think the hardest thing of all was figuring our how much sushi rolls and puddings should be worth, as they score comparatively. It just took lots of play testing until it felt right!

Since Sushi Go, is currently out of print – you actually posted the print and play file for the game here at Geek. What made you decide to do this?

Phil: I was getting lots of requests for the game, and I wanted people to be able to play it while it was out of print. In my mind, if you can put in the effort to print and play something, you deserve a copy! These players are also often big fans of the game and introduce it to lots of people, so I really don't see it as a loss of profit or anything like that.
Board Game: Sushi Go!

Board Game: Pack of Heroes
This year you have a new card game coming out call Pack of Heroes. Could you tell us a little bit about it and how the design came about?

Phil: Growing up, my brother, cousin and I made this always-expanding card game of fighting characters, which was basically our own version of Top Trumps. Remembering all the whacky character cards we came up with was the starting point forPack of Heroes. I also loved reading and collecting comic books when I was young, and have always been fascinated by the idea of designing new super heroes. So coming up with a whole lot of crazy super hero characters seemed like a great fit! I also love the aesthetics and product design of 80s and 90s trading cards, and thought that would be a fun thing to bring to a card game. I worked with my good friend John D-C (the game's illustrator) on the character design, and am so happy with how it has come out. As the game developed I realized that I was essentially creating my own take on the two-player tactical battle game. A main design aim ended up being creating a fulfilling dice-less combat system. This was quite the design problem, but I do enjoy the power card mechanism we came up with.

Could you give us an overview on how Pack of Heroes is played?

Phil: Pack of Heroes is a 2 player 20 minute tactical battle game. Each player chooses a team of five super heroes, each represented by a hero card. You can use set teams or pick your team by drafting. Drafting is like a little mini-game before you play, and the best way to experience the game, because it lets you customize your team and find synergies and combos. Then the two teams fight! At the start of each turn you can move a hero (the game is played on a 3x3 grid of spaces). Then with your main action you can either bring a hero into play, or use one power. Powers cost power cards to use. Each player has a deck of 9 power cards (3 each in 3 colours). Some powers cost any card, some cost a specific colour so are harder to pull off. Some mega powerful powers even cost two cards! Most powers are attacks, but there are also defend, heal, stun and all sorts of special powers. By looking at your opponent's discards you can try to figure out what powers they might use. When it comes time to re-shuffle your deck, more options are opened up to you again. Whoever has the last hero standing wins!

What was your designing process like for designing Pack of Heroes?

It was different and much harder than any other game I've worked on. Most of my games have simple rules and just a few variations across the cards in the game. Pack of Heroes has 40 unique characters each with 1-3 powers - that is a lot of variations, especially when you consider how they all interact with each other! So it took far more in-depth play testing than my other games, as all these combinations needed to be tested and balanced. The upside was that it was lots of fun to create the characters with John D-C and see the hero illustrations develop along the way!

Do you have a favorite superhero?

Phil: Growing up my two favourites were Batman and Spiderman. Even though I don't read comics any more I still think these two are the best characters to have come out of comics in terms of their backstory and motivations.
Board Game: Pack of Heroes

Who is your favorite character in the Pack of Heroes?

Phil: Disco Droid is definitely up there. He has a funny back story, looks groovy and his automated attack is fun to play!

Who is your favorite team in the game and why?

Phil: In terms of character design, probably Freak Show Five. Each character is a weird circus sideshow character, and I think John D-C's illustrations got them all exactly right. In terms of gameplay, probably Data Brigade because they feel the most unique to play. A lot of their powers are automated and don't cost power cards to use, so once you get the hang of them they can do some great combos.

Fantastic Four vs the Safari Squad – who wins and why?

Phil: Safari Squad! There's five of them, plus Admiral Rhino is like The Thing but with a huge horn!
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Avengers vs the Liberty Legends?

Phil: Ooo, that's a tougher one. I'd say it would all come down to whether or not Bazooka Girl could get a clear shot on Hulk.

If Liberty Steel faced Captain America who would win?

Phil: Liberty Steele for sure! Not only can he fly, but his torch flame would undoubtably melt Cap's shield. Still I can't see them fighting, they would make an amazing patriotic duo!

So if Captain America and Liberty Steel did make a duo, what would they call themselves?

Phil: Uummm… Double Democracy!

Not only did you make your own superhero world – but superheroes. And you didn’t stop there, you then made backstories for every hero. So, let me ask - who has your favorite backstory in the game?

Phil: Writing 40 original backstories for all the characters was lots of fun, but was also really hard work! I'd say my favourites are Admiral Rhino, Zombie Lad and Disco Droid. These three take a familiar sounding hero origin story but add a really absurd kind of twist!

What was your favorite part in designing the vintage superheroes?

I think the funnest part is near the beginning when we had to place the character somewhere in the alternate comic universe we came up with. For example, The Elementeens are the Saturday morning kids cartoon team. The Liberty Legends belong in a patriotic comic series from the 50s or 60s. The Galactanauts starred in a less than successful sci-fi movie in the 70s. Putting the character in a fun context like these suggests lots of things about their personality and design, and really gets the ball rolling!

If you could have one superpower what would it be?

Phil: Hmmm… I'll have to go with an intergalactic surfboard.

If you could have a superhero name what would you be called?

Phil: Um, let's go with The Philibuster.

If you could have any of the Elementeens as your sidekick – who would you choose?
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Phil: It would have to be the team dog, Beau. Any time I got hurt or sick he could heal me with the power of heart!

What is your favorite weapon in Pack of Heroes and why?

Phil: I think I'll have to go with The Hyper Velocity Hover Boots. Making all your heroes be able to fly just really opens up the game and is loads of fun!

Pack of Heroes has a lot of replayability, as you do not use all the cards correct? Each play either gets a pre-made team or you draft a team. It also means if you are playing with your younger kids and you know the Zombie or Voodogirl would scare them – you can take them out – or if you just don’t like certain characters. Why did you choose to go this route?

Phil: Yes, there are 40 characters in Pack of Heroes and each player has just 5 of them in their team per game. I wanted it to feel like there was a whole universe of characters right in the box for players to explore. I also wanted to the game to have an element of customization similar to pre-game deck-building. A big part of the game is choosing who will be in your team, and looking for cool combinations and team-ups.

You mentioned cool combinations and team ups. Do you have a favorite?
Board Game: Pack of Heroes

Phil: Zander Zapp and Admiral Rhino is a pretty great combination. Admiral Rhino's "Stampede" attack is one of the strongest in the game, but he can only use it after moving. Because he can only move 1 space at a time, it is often hard for him to get a run up and use the power. Now Zander Zapp can teleport teammates anywhere, so he can turn Admiral Rhino into a brutal teleporting wrecking ball!

Are you working on any new characters expansions?

Phil: Nothing is set in stone yet, but we certainly want to add to the Pack of Heroes universe. Once we see how the game is received when it hits general release we will make a call!

Pack of Heroes first Kickstarter failed and only received a little under $9000 in funding. However, you rebooted the Kickstarter and this time it made a little over $38,000. That is quite the difference! Why do you think there was such and dramatic difference and what did you learn by all of this?

Phil: Yes, it was really interesting! I think part of it was just that a project gets so much momentum once it funds, and we managed to get the funding goal much lower for the second campaign. There were also a couple of other superhero games on Kickstarter when we ran the first campaign which was probably a bit of a factor as well.

I know during the first Kickstarter for Pack of Heroes you previewed some Pack of Heroes snack recipes. Will we see more of these on once it goes live? What else can we expect on the website?

Phil: Ha, yes the recipes were a great addition to the campaign, written by our good friend and food-blogger, Kate. I don't think there are any more coming, but they will feature in the Pack of Heroes activity book which some backers pledged for! We are not totally sure exactly what will be on the site until we see how the game is received. At very least it will be a place to order Pack of Heroes merch.

The Kickstarter offered some unique add-ons including some action figures based off of the heroes in the game. Could you speak on this some.
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Phil: Most of this extra stuff came from the brilliant mind of John D-C. As well as being an illustrator, he also custom-makes action figures and has a crazy imagination! So he created a whole bunch of stuff in the Pack of Heroes universe: action figures, t-shirts, fake merchandise and even a real mini comic book which comes in every copy of the game! It certainly made the Kickstarter campaign lots of fun!

Could you tell us some of the hero suggestions that didn’t make it into the final game?
Board Game: Pack of Heroes

Phil: Yes, there were quite a few! Four of them became Kickstarter exclusive foil cards: The Brain (a brain in a jar, originally in Guild of Ghouls), The Black Banana (a monkey ninja, originally in Safari Squad), Mr. Music (a walking juke box, originally in Data Brigade) and Gum (some weird blob creature that sprang forth from John's mind!). Others that didn't make the cut were Squid Kid (half-boy, half-squid) and a crazy half-melted robotic toothpaste brand mascot! We also have a load of ideas for new teams that we haven't started developing yet. The one I am most excited about is a team of 80s wrestlers!

Do you think we will ever see a Sushi Go inspired team in Pack of Heroes? Sushi Go! Heroes - with Nargari Girl, Burning Wasabi Man, and Rubber Pudding Boy?! Think of the cross-promotion man!

Phil: Nice idea! I will say that there is a certain "fishy" surprise in store for people when they read the Pack of Heroes mini comic!

You have received some press there in Australia for Pack of Heroes, even making it into the newspaper. And John D-C even had a Pack of Heroes art gallery show. Have you been surprised by the attention this game is getting and has it be fun?

Phil: Yes, we had an exhibition at a local gallery called Sweets Workshop here in Sydney. It was a great way to showcase all the work John did on the game - both the character art and all the other designs for the merch. The local paper decided to cover the exhibition which was nice! I think the game idea and art style were appealing to local kids and families, so it was nice to get a little bit of attention.

In creating Pack of Heroes what was your biggest design challenge and how did you overcome it?
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Phil: A huge challenge was coming up with a combat resolution mechanism that didn't involve dice. Some early versions of the game did have dice rolling in them, and they really made it clear to me why I don't enjoy it for combat. Dice mean that each attack is largely an independent event disconnected from previous and future attacks. Even if you somehow model characters getting tired or powering up, at the end of the day you can still roll five ones in a row, or five sixes. You can still completely fail an attack even though in terms of everything under your control, you set it up perfectly.

I often hear it said that in real life combat has surprising results, so dice model it well in games. But in my mind, combat is really only surprising from the point of view of a spectator. If you look at a battle (or a one-on-one fight) from afar, the result might seem surprising or even random to you. However, those involved in the combat are usually very aware of how their preparation, fitness, decision-making, skill and execution determined the result. I want players to feel more like the characters fighting rather than a spectator, and I think dice often take this agency away. On the other hand, purely deterministic combat often creates dry and analytical games which miss the visceral thrill of a fight. So my goal was to find a mechanism that could bring both control and some exciting uncertainty to combat.
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In the end I came up with this pretty simple "power card" mechanism. Players have a hand of cards in three colours which can trigger certain powers. The players' hands are secret, but their decks are alike and their discard piles are open. So you always know what you can achieve, your powers always "work". However, exactly when your opponent can attack, or defend your attacks is somewhat uncertain. I am pretty happy with how this mechanism came out, but it took a lot of tweaking and testing!

You've probably taught Pack of Heroes to new players many times. Do you have any tips on how we should teach Pack of Heroes to new players?

Phil: I think it's best to simply say, that the game is a fight between two teams of heroes and the last one standing wins. Then move right into explaining an individual hero card: rank, health, movement and then the basic types of powers. Then I'd explain how power cards are spent to trigger powers and how a turn flows. The included reference cards are handy for this. Then I'd just explain the specific powers of the ten heroes being used in that game. I will always play with set teams and no weapons with new players, even if they are experienced gamers. Drafting teams makes much more sense after a game or two!

Why is Pack of Heroes different for any other super hero game out there?

Phil: I started working on Pack of Heroes when there were hardly any good super hero games out there. A few years later and this problem has been more than corrected! But I think this game's strong point is that it's really focused on individual hero characters and their powers. With 40 unique characters who can all affect the game in surprising ways, it does feel like you are controlling 'real' super heroes. Also Pack of Heroes is all about tactical combat and only takes 20 minutes to play. So if you are in the mood to have a quick super hero fight-out, this is the game for you!

When should we expect to see Pack of Heroes show up in retail store in the US?

Phil: Assuming everything goes ok with the game getting through customs etc, it will be this May or June.

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All three of the games we talked about today – use a card drafting mechanic of some kind. What is it that draws you to card drafting?

Phil: I think card drafting in all its forms models something which most of us enjoy on some very basic level: collecting things. Being presented with a choice of cards and getting to choose the one you want taps into that same urge we get when we go shopping or when we start a hobby collecting something. Grabbing stuff we want is just fun!

Out of the three games we discussed today - Archaeology the Card Game, Sushi Go, and Pack of Heroes - do you have a favorite one of the three?

Phil: Pack of Heroes has to be my favourite because of all the memories and fun times that went into its long history and development process. It has been by far the most challenging and rewarding game I have worked on. In second place would be Sushi Go! because I feel it concisely achieved what I set out to do.

Later this year, your game company (Adventureland Games) is publishing a game called Elveneses by David Harding - is this a relation of yours?

Phil: Yes, David is my brother! He designed Elevenses last year, and we developed it together.
Board Game: Elevenses

Could you tell us a little bit about that game?

Phil: It is a card game about putting on a morning tea in the 1920s but it has only 11 cards per player. It is a simple tableau building game with lots of bluffing, trickery and a touch of social deduction. Oh and the watercolour artwork by TJ Lubrano is really wonderful too! It will be available mid-year.

Does game design run throughout your family or is it just you and David?

Phil: I think it's just David and I! Although, we were certainly encouraged by our family to play lots of games growing up.

How important was having a family growing up that encourage you to play table top games? Do you think it is what shaped you into going into game designing today?

Phil: Very important! I think it is a great thing to encourage kids to play games. Games can teach but also foster imagination. I definitely think my family's encouragement of playing games as well as my creativity in general is a big part of why I design now.

Could you share with us a little of what is next game wise on the horizon from you?

Phil: I have quite a few little card games at different stages of development and I'm not sure which one will be the next out. The furthest along is an exploration/set-collection game about a haunted house. I also have a couple of actual board games (yes, full size games!) currently with other publishers. One is my take on a family style tile-laying game which hopefully will make it out this year. I'm pretty excited about that one! More Pack of Heroes stuff is also in the pipeline if the game is well received!

As we wrap this up, is there anything else you would like to add?

Phil: I'd just like to say thanks to everyone who has sought out and played my games, especially those who have taken the time to share your experiences with me over email. At the end of the day I make games to make people happy, so it is really rewarding to hear from you!

Thanks Phil!

What's that you say? Inquiring meeples want to know more?
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You may want to check out these links:

Adventureland Games official site

A Gallery of Superheroes! Meet the 30 unique characters from Pack of Heroes. With pictures and origin stories!

Pack of Heroes Facebook page

John D-C Artist of Pack of Heroes website

Already a fan? Check out these microbadges:
Adventureland Games fan = Microbadge: Adventureland Games fan
Archaeology: The Card Game fan = Microbadge: Archaeology: The Card Game fan
Sushi Go! fan = Microbadge: Sushi Go! fan

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