Take a seat and join us at PAX Aus 2023 as we get up close with Spellbook in our interview with Phil Walker-Harding!
On Saturday at PAX 2023 I had the privilege to sit down and interview Phil-Walker Harding, who’s had a 15 year career in creating board games. Phil is based in Sydney and also happens to be the creator of smash hit board games such as Sushi Go!, Imhotep and Bärenpark. And we had the opportunity to find out all about his latest creation!
What’s Spellbook about?
Spellbook, published by Space Cowboys and released on the 29th September, is a fantasy title where you are a wizard, gathering to participate in the Annual Grand Rite. You have to create spells for your book *cough* of spells, and duel some magical duels. You’re also accompanied by a familiar, a little sidekick.
The win condition is how many victory points you’ve accumulated. You add up points from your spellcards (there are seven in total, each with different effects) you’ve powered up, as well as Materia (coloured tokens) you’ve stored with your familiar. In this deck/engine-building game, you don’t discard your hand, so it feels like you have full control over your magical elemental spells. It’s up to 4 players, and lasts around 30-45 minutes.
Q&A with Phil Walker-Harding
Zahra: ‘So, what first got you interested in board games as a hobby?’
Phil: ‘I, like most people, grew up playing lots of mass market games with my family, always liked board games, but then also like most people, as a teenager, I as much more interested in videogames, and thought board games were lame. But then got into modern board games coming out of Germany around 2005, and caught the bug, and just naturally started designing as a hobby. Then slowly, a little career grew from there.
Zahra: What pieces of media have influenced you the most when creating?
Phil: I’m also a big movie guy. I went to film school, wanted to be a movie director. And I think the thing that captures my imagination about boardgames as opposed to lots of other types of entertainment is how they can sort of…enter culture, and stick around for a really long time. People have been playing chess for 500 years, right? That’s amazing to me.
And movies are similar, they enter culture, and become famous for generations. It sounds a bit pompous, but that’s kind of what I like about boardgames, and that’s probably a bit inspired coming from a love of movies, and, feeling like I’d love to make something that lasts beyond me.
Zahra: It’s a very collaborative hobby. Compared to reading a book, or watching a film, you’re around a circle of people, and socialising, as well.
Phil: For me, one of the most rewarding things about games is hopping on social media and seeing people playing one of my games all over the world. And I think, knowing you’re creating those little social moments for folks is a really great feeling.
Zahra: You’ve had a reasonably long career, how has the board game industry changed from when you first started out, to now?
Phil: The biggest change in Australia is like *this*. The fact that there is now an industry here. When I started out in 2007, there was not much happening in the hobby space, I mean, there were stores, and gamers, but having Australian publishers, and this level of a market here is the biggest thing. Being able to buy Catan in Kmart, I never thought I’d see the day.
And then covid, as crap as that was, even as just a designer, I felt this massive rush of the level of which everyday people in the street knew hobby games. Because so many people go into puzzles and games at home. It’s really kicked up a level the last couple of years.
Zahra: What got me into boardgames was, during covid, I had to be indoors, and a lot of my friends are avid boardamers, they were all on Discord, and invited me to play on Tabletop Simulator. That’s how I got into it.
Phil: Playing games on Board Game Arena or Tabletop Simulator, that just exponentially grew, and introduced me to a whole lot of new games.
Zahra: With Spellbook, how is it different from your previous titles? Was the creative process different?
Phil: It really summarises my process quite well. The way Spellbook came about was, I thought about one game mechanism I really liked, in this case, collecting sets in Rummy. Needing to get, you know, five of the same colour, or something like that. I love set collection. And so I started with that idea, and I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be cool to create a game were every time you play a set, you learn a special power for the rest of the game.
That was it, that was the really simple premise. That felt like I was a magician learning spells, so I just went with that theme, and a lot of the design process was trying to invent twenty different spells for the game. But that’s often how my process goes. Start with a single mechanism that I want to explore, and just dig into it.
Some Materia sitting in the Altar and discard box (I, too, thought of Final Fantasy 7)
Phil: And, for example, with Sushi Go!, it’s an accessible game, and that’s what I really enjoy about your games, they’re so easy for new players to get into.
Phil: When I’m designing, I’m always aiming for a pretty wide audience, I suppose. But one of the little limits I give myself is I want the game to be taught in a few minutes. Because I think for new players, new people in the hobby, the learning of the game is a bit of a barrier.
Zahra: It is.
Phil: It’s not something that a lot of people are used to. Like, sitting down with friends and having to internalise a ruleset. So, with Sushi Go! You can pretty much learn it watching one round. That’s something I really aim for, is that ease of play.
Zahra: The artwork for Spellbook is gorgeous!
Phil: The thing I love about the art in this game is, at first glance, it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s fantasy artwork, it all kind of looks a bit the same. But there’s all sorts of quirky things here in the art. Every time I look at spellcards, I see a fun small detail.