Wed. Oct 20th, 2021
Board Game Publisher: Garphill Games

Editors note: This interview was first published on Diagonal Move on January 15, 2021. —WEM

For today’s interview Shem Phillips, designer of Raiders of the North Sea and founder of Garphill Games, joins Neil Bunker from Diagonal Move to discuss the West and North trilogies.

DM: Thank you for joining us today, Shem. Can you tell us how your career as a game designer began and what prompted the decision to found Garphill Games rather than seek an established publisher?

SP: It started out by me simply wanting to make my own game. I had no knowledge of the modern board game market or any prior experience in game design/publishing, so I set out to create my own simple, roll-and-move family game. It was after producing this game that a friend introduced me to Catan. From there I rushed out to my local toy store and picked up Carcassonne and Family Business. Later, I was invited to a local board game convention, and I’ve been discovering more and more great games ever since.

DM: Garphill Games was founded in 2009. It was some years later that your games began to receive notable public attention. How were those first few years as an independent publishing company?

SP: The first six years were purely run as a hobby. I wasn’t aiming to make money or even turn it into a business. I was just designing games and printing small print runs for friends and a few loyal supporters. It was very boutique back them.

Board Game: Architects of the West Kingdom

DM: You are most well-known for your two historical trilogies, the first of which — The North Sea Saga — began with Shipwrights of the North Sea. How did this game develop, and what was the initial reception like?

SP: Shipwrights started with me wanting to make a game about building ships. I already had some mechanisms in mind, including using only three resources to construct the ships. Through some research, this led me to discover that Viking longships were predominantly made of wool, oak, and iron. After delving more into the theme, I knew that Vikings were the right fit for the game. The initial reception was far beyond what I had ever expected. This was my first Kickstarter campaign. I had an extremely low funding target, and planned to print only five hundred units (hoping to sell at least two hundred of those). A lot of the buzz was generated from the artwork. This was the first time anyone had seen The Mico’s art in a board game, and it seemed that the large majority of people who saw the campaign loved the art.

DM: The trilogy continued with Raiders and Explorers, which are both playable as standalone games. What prompted the decision to turn the games into a trilogy, and how did you strike the balance between the new and the familiar from a design point of view?

SP: That came from a lot of Kickstarter comments. People liked the idea of building ships, but felt like they wanted to use them for something once the game had ended. This sparked the idea of creating a second game, this time focusing on raiding. In my mind, doing a trilogy just made sense, which is why I committed to designing Explorers before Raiders even went to Kickstarter.

Board Game: Raiders of the North Sea

DM: The West Kingdom games (co-designed with S J Macdonald) follow a similar pattern — a trilogy of standalone games — and incorporate multiple layers of mechanisms in each game. What is your approach to this layering of mechanisms?

SP: We always start with the general setting, perhaps a title or at least some sort of story that we want to base the game around. Then we do a lot of brainstorming on how the game could look visually on the table, and also how it might work mechanically. Sam and I both love games that have interconnected mechanisms, which is probably why you see that a lot in our own games. I’m not sure we ever set out to mix mechanisms. It’s more likely that it just comes out of the development process.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board

Image: Jon Burgess

DM: The trilogies are both themed around turbulent historical periods. Is this something that you are interested in, and did you try to reflect the historical period within the game mechanisms? If so, can you describe how you approached this?

SP: I’m a big fan of Age of Empires II on PC. In fact, so is Sam Macdonald. I grew up always wanting the more medieval LEGO sets over the sci-fi or trains as well. I guess there’s just something about the swords and shields period that interests me. While our games are set in history, we still like to give them a little twist of fantasy and fiction, so don’t expect too much historical accuracy. Hah. I love the setting, but I’m not so particular on every little detail.

DM: Like many more complex games, North Sea and West Kingdom lean heavily on iconography to aid players during play. What challenges do you face when developing this aspect of a game? How tricky is it to get the balance right, and what are the implications for the success of a game if this aspect doesn’t work?

SP: There are plenty of times where Sam might think up a new card ability, and my answer is simply, “How would I show that with icons?” So they can be quite restrictive. You really need to approach each game separately. Sometimes using text is actually better for the gameplay. Icons are often better when there are a lot of cards on the table, and players need to quickly decipher them without trying to read text upside down on the opposite side of the board.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board

Image: Jon Burgess

DM: With numerous award nominations and three games currently in the BGG top 100, you’ve clearly achieved a certain level of both critical and popular success. How does that feel, and was there a point when you first realized that you had “made it”?

SP: It’s still hard to believe, and it’s an absolute privilege and blessing to have received so much recognition for our designs. I suppose the first time it really hit me was receiving the Kennerspiel nomination for Raiders of the North Sea. That was a huge shock and honor.

DM: Now that you have achieved that certain level of success, has your design and publishing career become easier or have the challenges also grown?

SP: I definitely trust my gut a lot more than in the past. The more you design and get positive feedback from players, the more the imposter syndrome begins to fade away. It took a long time, though. I’m a lot busier now than I’ve ever been. It’s still just as fun, but there is a lot more responsibility and expectation to keep delivering quality games. I’m not complaining, though — I’m up for the challenge!

Board Game: Circadians: First Light

DM: What’s next for yourself and Garphill Games?

SP: 2021 will see the release of three expansions for the West Kingdom trilogy. We also have the second part of our Circadians universe coming to Kickstarter later in the year, along with an expansion for the first title. We’re also well into the designing process for the “South Trilogy”, which should debut in 2022.