Meaningful Decisions: Phil Walker-Harding on Design Choices in Imhotep

In our Meaningful Decisions series, we ask designers about the design choices they made while creating their games, and what lessons other designers can take away from those decisions.

In this edition, we talk with Phil Walker-Harding, the designer of Imhotep, about designing for an audience, player control, adding variable elements and more.

Certain players seem to be attracted to certain sites, each of which awards points or benefits in a different way. One rewards well-timed maneuvers, another is about edging out the competition, another is puzzle-y, and so on. How did you settle on the way the different sites behave? Was appealing to different types of players a conscious decision?

More than appealing to different types of players, I was really trying to make each site feel like a unique and interesting mini-game. So I suppose it makes sense that different players prefer the different styles of mini-games! In the very early stages of the design, the players were just building the pyramids, and straight points were awarded based on the position of each stone. But quite quickly I realised things would be much more interesting with multiple monuments that scored differently. Obelisks came to mind next, and it immediately made sense that they should score based on who had the tallest. The temple was inspired by Arkadia and Blokus 3D, where having your pieces be visible from above is important. I also wanted a site that used spatial connections, and this idea developed into the burial chamber. I have always been very influenced by Reiner Knizia's use of different methods (especially in Ra), and how they can drastically change the whole way you feel about some element of the game. So I am sure the lessons I have learnt from him were also at play as I designed the sites.

Are there ways a designer can make a game that "has something for everyone" by appealing to different types of players? Are there pitfalls to trying to do this?

I think it is really important that a designer has a specific audience in mind during the design process. I think the best way to be broadly appealing is actually to know your audience really well and then try and design a standout game for that audience. This way your game might jump out from the crowd and hopefully be found by other audiences who might enjoy the design. For example, when I designed Sushi Go! I was aiming at those who like quick cute colourful filler card games with just enough decision making to keep older players and even gamers a bit interested. Now that is quite a broad audience, but I did everything I could to hit that mark. I think if I had set out to include "something for everyone", for example some extra planning to appeal to advanced gamers, the design would have lost focus. It can be tempting to put disparate elements into a design in the hope of wide appeal, but I think it usually leads to more muddled designs that don't hit the spot for either audience.

Players are allowed to sail a ship even if they don't have one of their stones on it. This means you rarely have total control over what happens to your stones. Was this always the case?

Yes, this was always the rule for sailing ships in Imhotep. I briefly tried some other rules but they were nowhere near as fun or interesting, and also presented other problems. For example, the timing and turn flow in Imhotep is very interesting to me and very important to the feel of the game. Every turn is a whole action and therefore crucial, so to place prerequisites on any of the actions (for example, you can't move a ship without any of your stones) would mean this structure would break down. An influence on this part of the game was the classic Coloretto. In that game you either add a card to a row or take a row of cards. When playing Coloretto I don't really think of the cards as mine until I have actually taken a row. Rather, I am focused on setting up each row to benefit me. So I suppose this was in my thinking as I designed the sailing mechanism. I was much more interested in the decision of how to best place your stones so that they are of some use, no matter where they are sailed. This also brings the players into all sorts of subtle conflicts and alliances and is really the core of the interaction within the game.

In general, how much control over their fate do players seem to be willing to cede to other players? Are there guidelines for designers to keep in mind?

This is of course pretty subjective, and there are many different tastes in game style. However, I do have a bit of a guideline for myself. I think it is very important that players have a strong sense of involvement in their own fate in a game. I am always trying to make sure the players' decisions feel important and respected by the game environment. For example, in Imhotep even if someone takes a ship somewhere I wouldn't prefer, I at least know that I chose to place my stone when and where I did, and that I left myself open for that ship to be moved. This is much more interesting to me than a straight "take that" mechanism--for example, where an opponent plays a hidden card on me that means I lose something. I had no involvement in that moment happening, and so it feels more like an attack or just bad luck. For me, the ideal in very interactive games is to make sure the players feel active in their destiny rather than like they are just being acted upon.

Imhotep comes with a second set of sites. How did you decide which sites to include on side A and which to include on side B?

The B sides were actually something which came along later in development in order to increase the game's replayability. I first thought it would be quite easy to find four new board designs, but it actually proved very tricky! The structure of the game was so tight that many ideas that I thought would work really didn't. So in the end there were only four new sites that both myself and the publisher felt were really keepers. The secondary versions of the palace and pyramids are more complex rules-wise so we put them on the B sides. The B side of the obelisks and burial chamber are quite similar in complexity, but I was so used to my original versions, and I slightly prefer them, so it felt right to keep them on the A sides. Since the game's release I have managed to come up with some more site designs, should an expansion ever happen!

Are there things designers should keep in mind when creating alternative mechanisms or scoring conditions for their game?

Adding variable elements to a game is a really interesting part of designing to me. Dominion is recognised for introducing the deck-building mechanism, but I think it has also been very influential in showing how fascinating it can be to have high variability in a game's setup. My advice when attempting this would be to first do a huge brainstorm of many different ideas. Think about all your favourite games and if there are any elements in them that could be adapted into the gameplay of your design. Then it is a matter of testing them all out and only persisting with those that really feel "within the spirit" of the original game. Having elements that seem different to players but not so different they don't belong can be a hard balance to find. I think the aim is to have each alternative seem like it naturally belongs in the game, rather than feeling strange or like a gimmick. Also, it should be said that not every game needs huge variability. Sometimes throwing extra ideas in just because you have them can confuse players learning the game or just dilute the way the game presents itself.

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Peter C. Hayward, RetroIn Games, Aaron Vanderbeek

SENIOR INVENTORS: Steven Cole, John du Bois, Richard Durham, Koen Hendrix, Chris and Kathy Keane (The Drs. Keane), Matthew O’Malley, Marcel Perro

JUNIOR INVENTORS: Ryan Abrams, Luis Lara, Behrooz Shahriari, Aidan Short, Jay Treat

ASSOCIATES: Robert Booth, Danica E., Doug Levandowski, Aaron Lim, Nathan Miller, Isaias Vallejo, Matt Wolfe

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