Editor’s Note: As a kind of content geek, I try new formats. So, here’s a new interviewette for tabletop designers. We promise no TL;DR. Let’s see how Phil Walker-Harding, the designer of hot new game Bärenpark (among others like Sushi Go, Imhotep, Cacao and more), shall we?
The Gathering of Friends, Alan Moon’s invitational, is always a highlight of the gaming year. One of my favorite things about the show is the opportunity to game with designers who have become friends. It is a Gathering of them, after all. Playing games with designers is a bit like going to dinner with a chef or having wine with a vintner – the perspective they provide can help deepen your appreciation of a game immensely. Some of my favorite moments from the years I’ve spent at GOF are the post-game discussions about something we have played, metering out the specific mechanisms and how they worked, recalling where we’d seen them in the past and judging their reimplementation, and talking about how the title fits into something like Bruno Faidutti’s Ideal Game Library concept – only the games you need for all moods, situations, player types and numbers. Those convos are sublime for the engaged tabletop gamer.
The other major delight is meeting designers whose work I love and this year, a key meeting was Phil Walker-Harding. I’d call myself an OF (Original Fan) of Phil’s work, way back to his first game with Z-Man,
Archaeology: The Card Game. This light but clever design found its way to me when I was running demos for Z-Man Games (Yes, I was a Z-Forcer) at Strategicon conventions. I taught it to so many people, but never lost interest. It played wonderfully with families and gamers could admire the pleasantly clean design. NOTE: The game is out of print, but an expanded title based on it called “Archaeology: The New Expedition” is available here.
Years later, I was unsurprised that modern family game winner Sushi Go was from Phil – it’s such an immediate delight and imminently playable. Gamewright was lucky to pick it up. Sushi Go Party is even better, as I’ve previously noted in this space. Everyone on my team at work owns it now because they love it so much. His SDJ-nominated Imhotep was another story. I wasn’t sure the first time out, but as I have chronicled, I found its brilliance a few plays in. It’s a standard gateway for us now. His other well-known title, Cacao, is another winner that I want to play a bit more before commenting, but it warranted an SDJ recommendation in 2015. Phil has the goods, folks.
Over the years, my enthusiasm for his titles hasn’t gone unnoticed in this era of social media. I’ve tweeted back and forth with Phil a number of times, but it was still a distinct pleasure to actually shake his hand at Gathering of Friends 2017. Having missed last year’s GOF due to a new job, this was my first chance to sample his new games prior to publication. When we met, he first brandished his just-released Bärenpark, which is now available in Europe from Lookout and will be hitting the US via Mayfair this summer. Amusingly, he brought it out to play with Matt Leacock and myself after I’d been asked what I was interested in playing. I’d expressed an interest in Cottage Garden based on my wife’s deep love of Patchwork. Phil offered up Bärenpark as being designed to scratch a similar itch.
“I designed Bärenpark after hundreds of plays of Patchwork with my wife,” Phil noted. Sounds familiar to me, and many tabletop gamers, I expect. Uwe’s delightful two-player game is firmly planted on the “Couples’ Game” list now. Cottage Garden, which I’ll talk about in my full GOF report, is the big brother of Patchwork and plays up to four. Bärenpark has the same pentominoes you find in those games but the goal here is to build out your bear (that’s what ‘baren’ means, folks) zoo park with various attractions. I wondered about the similarities to my own Theme Park game, which also uses pentominoes but they were limited to just that construction bit (see Princes of Florence for the original idea, I expect).
Phil also noted the influence of the wonderful little game Mosaix from designer (and game illustrator) Christof Tisch. That roll-and-assign winner from 2009 is due to come to my table again soon after Phil referencing it in regard to Bärenpark.
How Does Play Bärenpark?
Bärenpark turns are simple enough – just build a piece from your supply and gain new pieces based on what you play. You play the pieces to a swatches of parks (you start with one) as 4×4 grids, each with symbols that let you acquire new pieces of varying types (and values) that decrease as they are acquired (Thurn und Taxis-style). You need to then fit those pieces onto your board so there is no overlap or overhang. Since this is a euro-style game, you collect new piece(s) at the end of the turn and have time to consider how to use them while the other players take their turns. You may get more than one per turn, but you only place a single one each turn.
While the big pieces delivered by building over dump truck spots are a lot of points, they’re also unwieldy at times and you will often need to go back to the small park pieces to fill in the empty spots. There’s a reason to do so – the game clock is completion of park grids with an also-decreasing value in bonus delivered. These are manhole cover tokens that are automatically placed over the single pit on each grid after all other spaces are filled. These values start with the biggest points in the game and recognizing that helped Matt win our game (I was caught up in accelerating to the high point park pieces).
Of course, you don’t just fill one 4×4 grid. Additional boards can be had by building over worker spaces, up to maximum of four, and they’re a chance to gain more bonus points from placement plus that completion bonus. Matt astutely noticed this was a strategy for maximizing points because you didn’t just score from just your placement, but from the completion. Did I mention there’s a downside to playing games with great designers? Yeah, they win a lot.
Bärenpark has an elegance I associate with Phil’s games, yet there are things to explore and enjoy through repeat plays. Much like the subtle choices of Imhotep or the realization that Sushi Go has enough information to make choices better if you want to play it more than casually, Bärenpark will surely reveal more as the game gets more play – and it will certainly do that. I think this is an early runner for SDJ consideration and it would be a welcome addition to gamer and family collections. To that end, it plays in about 40 minutes and you can teach it in two. Watch for it.
I also played a hush-hush prototype of Phil’s that had his signature simplicity that often reminds me of Michael Schacht. From me, that a high compliment, indeed, as I believe Schacht to be one of the top 10 of all time. Again, I was unsurprised that the prototype was snapped up by a publisher promptly and was in much demand from the players, too. The title will be well-liked when it arrives on the scene and was much discussed at GOF. I missed two other protos Phil had but I look forward to their publication with interest as I heard many other positive reviews of them.
Thanks to Phil for the introduction to his games and the great convos. Bärenpark is due out from Mayfair in June 2017, just in time for the summer convention season.
Boardgame Babylon Rating for Bärenpark
BIN (Buy It Now) PIN (P)lay It Now TIF (Try It First) NMT (Not My Thing)
Disclosure: Not sure if I need it but Phil’s a good guy with whom I’ve tweeted for years. This was our first meeting.
Imhotep is a welcome addition to our gateway games collection, but I almost missed out on it. My first play was fine, but I was underwhelmed. This SDJ nominee was my final game of the day at an event last month. I had wanted to try out this title that was going to challenge Codenames for the Spiel Des Jahres and only spotted it late in the day. I had faith in the possibility that it could take on Vlaada Chvatil’s effortlessly wonderful party game because I’m a fan of Phil Walker-Harding‘s other games like Sushi Go!, Archaeology, Pack of Heroes, and Cacao. The game was loaned to me from another party who waited until I played before mentioning that he felt similarly (good, not great), suggesting that maybe the nomination was an Academy Award-style ‘make up for a previous snub’ to console the open wound of the excellent Cacao missing the cut. I nodded in agreement before taking off that night.
I was wrong. Imhotep deserved the nomination and the adoration of the SDJ jury. This is a very good game that I’ve now played nine times. Despite my first impression, I bought the game to play during our summertime game-cation (where we always sample the SDJ and KDJ nominees ahead of the announcements). I was impressed with the delight the newcomers experienced playing it and I how much enjoyed exploring the nuances of the game.
Gameplay is straightforward and seems familiar, as with many great games. Players are trying to score points and win by placing stones on boats and delivering them to ports that let them score in various ways. This is done six times, with some scoring happening immediately, some happening at the end of the round, and the bulk of points coming at the end. The game has an old-school euro feel and I sense the strong influence of Michael Schacht, the master of minimalist designs that have incredible depth.
To play, you give your two to four players a pile of colored blocks and a sled tile that holds up to five stones at a time, select round cards based on the number of players you have, and then set up the modular port boards you opt to use. The port boards have two sides, with side A featuring ‘beginner’ options with simpler rules. There are also boats with one to four slots, four of which (in some combination of slots) you’ll bring up based on the round card. Each turn, players decide between three options: add up to three blocks from the player’s general supply to their sled, add a block to a boat from the sled, or sail a boat with enough blocks to a port for activation.
Four boats are available each round and they only can be sailed when one fewer than the number they will handle have been placed on them (pointless clarification: yes, the one-block boat needs a block). At that point, any player (whether or not they have a block on the boat) can sail it into a port. This is important because players can send a boat into a port that doesn’t help the players with blocks on it very much. Managing this narrow range of choices still makes for interesting decisions, even if it doesn’t sound that intriguing just reading the gameplay mechanisms.
There are five ports and only four boats, so one is skipped each round of play. Furthermore, fewer blocks can reach those ports if players send them early so there’s definitely some dynamics around whether players opt to play offensively or defensively. The ports resolve as the boats were loaded, with blocks at the front resolving first. In some cases, this gives that player first choice; on other ports, it just means their block goes into place first – sometimes to their frustration.
The ports are the way players score, but they work differently.
- The Market lets players choose from a set of mostly face-up cards (the B side has facedown cards), which gives them various immediate or future chances to act or score. The blue cards are an effective way to do double actions, the red ones let you place a block into one of the other ports immediately, the purple are award set collecting points, and the green ones are end of game bonuses for the performance of other ports.
- The Temple scores at the end of each round, with spaces for five blocks. The interesting bit here is that this option delivers points for the blocks viewable from above. Thus, blocks placed early can score over and over – and new blocks ruin this plan.
- The Pyramid scores points immediately, but the loading order is a factor because different spaces provide different point rewards.
- The Burial Chamber and the Obelisk ports both score competitively at the end. The former is pattern-based and loading order is a big deal, while the latter is a raw comparison on side A and a timing/commitment game on side B.
While the side A cards are ‘for beginners’, there is no reason for gamers to not begin with the side B variants. They are a trifle more complicated, but they also make the game better. Players sail the four boats six times before a winner is declared. With experienced players, it’s a satisfying thirty minutes.
Imhotep’s Modular Rules
Much has been made of Friedemann Friese’s 504, a game that takes rules variations to the extreme. Imhotep has some possibilities here but it’s done in a simpler way. Dominion popularized the inspiration from older games like Cosmic Encounter for modern euro games. Indeed, you can see a Dominion inspiration in the way Imhotep’s designer expanded his hit game Sushi Go! for Sushi Go Party (see my adoring review of that game here).
With Imhotep, the game’s central mechanism allows for new ports to be plugged in that score block placement in different ways. The flipside variants on the backside reminded me of Antoine Bauza, who famously mentioned on my podcast that one of his publishers, Repos Productions, encourages this strongly – suggesting it’s otherwise a waste of the back of cardboard. I happen to agree; this feature allows for varied play via selection or random options. I can only assume Walker-Harding is cooking up additional ports for expected expansions of the game. Heck, we designed a couple on the spot last time we played.
The Final Word on Imhotep
Imhotep is a well-designed, interesting game that I’m glad is on our shelves. I do think gamers will enjoy it more if they play the B variants or some combination of A and B. Some longtime players may feel like they have enough gateway games but, like Hanging Gardens, Carcassonne, Kingdom Builder and even Schacht’s own Zooloretto, it fills a useful spot in a collection. Imhotep is also good enough to delight experienced gamers who enjoy a super-filler with a 90’s euro feel.
Boardgame Babylon Rating for Imhotep
BIN (Buy It Now) PIN (P)lay It Now TIF (Try It First) NMT (Not My Thing)
Don’t you hate it when a new edition of your favorite game comes out and the old one might as well go in the trash bin? Sushi Go Party will not do that to you. Fans will love the expanded version and they can easily recycle their previous copy by handing it to a friend as a great introduction to modern board games. That is, until the friend loves it so much that they upgrade to Sushi Go Party and pass the basic game on, too. The new version is that welcome and good.
Sushi Go For Beginners (skip this section, experts)
If you don’t know the original Sushi Go, where have you been? This inexpensive crowd-pleaser has enjoyably light game play (plays in 20-30 minutes) and charming artwork sure to dazzle young and new-to-modern-game players. The game works incredibly well for that set, while serious gamers often like it as a filler.
Play is simple but interesting: players get a hand of cards, selecting and revealing one at a time, and then passing the hand to the left (a ‘pick and pass’ mechanism, as it is sometimes called). This is done until all cards are gone, which triggers scoring for the round. Points are awarded for sets that are collected and scored in unique ways for different cards (e.g., majority, multipliers, pairs, etc.) The game plays over three rounds, with building scores and a final bonus for dessert cards collected over the course of the game. The original game is enormous fun and so worth the cost of this small tin chock full of fun. But the new edition is even better.
Sushi Go Party Expands The Menu
Yes, it’s still Sushi Go but bringing the party means two key changes: more players and more variety. The new expanded version offers both in spades. Sushi Go Party plays up to eight – a very welcome feature – and combines the original game with the Dominion concept. Designer Phil Walker-Harding (whose SDJ-nominated Imhotep is all the rage right now) gives buyers of the big new tin a host of new cards in sets that you can mix and match for varied play.
In an inspired thematic choice, Walker-Harding has added ‘menus’ of card sets to play. Card types are now categorized as Rolls, Appetizers, Specials, and Desserts. Your custom bento box of card selection options (you can use a pre-made ones or build your own) are clearly shown with cardboard markers that sit in the center of the new score track. Hurray to that addition as well. No more score-keeping elsewhere on paper or scoring apps round to round.
Card and menu selections from each type can adjust the feel of the game for more interaction or to appeal to larger player counts. For example, there’s now a Spoon card that allows players to request a card from other player hands. There are also risky propositions with Eel and Tofu cards, which require players to have specific numbers of cards or earn a penalty. Additional desserts have been added and a distribution tweak that has more of these end-of-the-game cards rolling in each round makes these post-meal bonuses work better.
The Final Word on Sushi Go Party
Like Sushi Go, Sushi Go Party plays quickly and it doesn’t take any longer to play with eight than it does with the original five player limit. In fact, the new edition even has improved rules to play the game well with only two players. My wife and I tried the new two-player version and it worked quite well. While it isn’t a game that I’d expect to transition so well (even the wondrous 7 Wonders is MUCH better as 7 Wonders: Duel than in in the two-player variant of the original), Walker-Harding has come up with a good way to handle things when you want Sushi For Two.
Sushi Go Party is an ideal upgrade to the original and an instant buy for fans of the game. Everyone who plays it with us says they want to buy it. The game is now on our must-include board game list for travel and big game parties. The US edition is out from Gamewright and you can see previews of many of the new cards on the designer’s Twitter feed.
New dessert in Sushi Go Party! – FRUIT
3 types that score like dumplings but -2 if you have 0. Get a piece of each! pic.twitter.com/i591N7Mkkt
— Phil Walker-Harding (@AdventurelandG) June 24, 2016
Boardgame Babylon Rating for Sushi Go Party
BIN (Buy It Now) PIN (Play It Now) TIF (Try It First) NMT (Not My Thing)
Disclosure: Copy provided by the publisher for independent review.