BGRtabletalk with Phil Eklund

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‏BGRtabletalk Episode 01


Phil Eklund is the head of Sierra-Madre Games and has been designing games for over half a decade.  Since 2017, BGR has become one of the fastest growing names in the industry.  Join us in the first installment of our new interview series, BGRtabletalk as we sit down and get to know Phil.  

Baylor:  When were you first introduced to modern board games?

Phil:  In High School, I saw advertising for a war simulation, “1914” by Avalon Hill. But at this time I had already designed many simulations of my own, reproduced on the xerox machine.

Baylor:  How does one go from aerospace engineer and rocket scientist to board game designer/publisher? What motivated you to dive into the board game industry?

Phil:  I have been “producing” boardgames for my friends since 1967, and have been incorporated as Sierra Madre Games since 1992. By this time I was already working to raise a family as an aerospace engineer, so boardgames remained a sideline throughout my 4 decade career in the space industry

Baylor:  When did you move from the United states to Germany. What prompted this and how do you like it there? Do you miss the US?

Phil:  I first started attending Spiel Messe Essen in Germany in 2004. My girlfriend (now wife) Nicole was born and raised in Germany. We married in 2010, but lived apart until I moved in with her in 2013. I still miss the USA. One thing I miss is deep conversations. I am the only American in this village, and my German is not good enough for really deep conversations.

Baylor:  In your opinion, are board games more accepted in Europe than they are in the US? If so, why do you think this is the case?

Phil:  I should say first that most of my sales are to the USA, by a good margin. Germany comes in second. I have no statistics to quote, but my impression is that game designers are more respected here in Germany, and more games are sold on the strength of the designer’s name than in the USA.

Baylor:  What’s your inspiration that drives your decision to design a game?

Phil:  Normally I read a good non-fiction book, and it hits me, this premise and hypothesis can be simulated and tested in a game format. Very often, I don’t know myself what the answer is until the game gets played a few times.

Baylor:  Your games are heavily based on science. Is it your aspiration to both educate and entertain hobbyists, or is science just a thematic device in your design?

Phil:  My vision is to show to illustrate nature as “rule-abiding”, and science as the mastery of the rules that run the universe. A boardgame player has a huge advantage over non-gamers, in that he or she understands that it is not a game unless everyone follows the same rules.

Baylor:  Obviously theme is important to you. Do you find it difficult Integrating theme with mechanics?

Phil:  With me it is usually the other way around. The theme is first, then I hunt for a process that will fit the theme. However, in a series of games (Pax, Bios, etc.) something the process mechanisms are set by another in the series, and I must make do with the same processes in the new game, in the name of rules parsimony. But even here it is not so difficult, because what is to be simulated is usually fundamentally invariant over time. In other words, if the game is about nature, the fundamentals of nature do not change over time and the same process mechanisms covers all themes about nature. If the game is about humans, the fundamentals of what makes us human has also not changed.

Baylor:  Your games incorporate a variety of different play mechanics. Do you have a favorite mechanic among the ones you have used? If so, why is it your favorite?

Phil:  The 2-row “Market” has become a standard in the Sierra Madre Games lexicon. This has generally replaced the auction mechanic (still used in High Frontier however). The Market allows players to anticipate what is coming, plan their moves when it is not their turn, and try to anticipate what their opponent will do. It increases player interaction, and allows the designer to set the pace of the game. I have increasingly relied on limited numbers of icons so that the players do not have to read each card to understand what is in the market.

Baylor:  Do you feel crowdfunding will become the primary avenue for board game designers in the next ten years? Do you believe that we will see less board games being sold in retail stores due to crowdfunding?

Phil:  I have had success in crowdfunding, but am hesitant to use this promotional model except for new editions of games. An artist should follow his vision, not the crowd. Having all the stretch goals up for debate hampers the creative process. Playtesting is the most useful source for feedback in the development process. And once the goals are set, the designer is honor-bound to fulfill the promises set in the campaign, and is motivated to do this in the cheapest way possible. And no matter what promotional means are used, the retailers must be respected. Without them, we lose valuable social discourse, and a means of reaching the next generation. Middlemen like retailers perform an invaluable service in any capitalist society.

Baylor:  Is there a game out there you wish you had designed? If so, why?

Phil:  Pandemic. It showed me how a purely cooperative game could work. My many failures in the development of the game Pax Emancipation (where the players must cooperate to rid the world of slavery) indicates that I still haven’t figured this out.

Baylor:  Looking back at all the games you’ve designed, which are you most proud of?

Phil:  I am happiest about the Neanderthal/Greenland games, for what they have to say about the role of cooperation and competition in surviving unforgiving environments, and what they postulate as to what makes us uniquely human.

Baylor:  Do you feel that the board game industry will stay traditional with regards to group gatherings, meetups, and conventions, or do you feel more designers will go the digital path instead? What’s your feeling on the matter in either case?

Phil:  Boardgames will continue to be a social interactive and tangible media. This has been their niche since Neanderthal days. I see the Otaku phenomena (the growing percentage of e-gamers who shut themselves off from reality) as a dangerously maladaptive.

Baylor:  Lastly, do you have any advice for aspiring designers who have an idea and want to make it a reality?

Phil:  One must have a vision, and persevere in this vision. That is about it. Games are an artform, and the artist’s task is to recreate reality according to his or her sense of life and values. I made and sold games as a hobby sideline for decades before taking the plunge. These were years where nobody seemed to take much notice. Yet, for the artist, the artwork itself is the end goal, not audience appreciation.

That’s all the time we have for Phil today.  We want to thank him for sitting down with us to share his story and insights.  Phil is a beacon to both the hobby and the industry in how he integrates science into his games which not only entertain but also educate us.  We look forward to his future designs and how they will intellectually challenge our minds and take us beyond the board game experience.  In the meantime,  there is still time to back the current Kickstarter for his highly anticipated reprints of Greenland and Neanderthal, two of his best games!

-Baylor Peak [Board Game Revolution]

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