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In this interview, I have the great pleasure of interviewing Shem Phillips, founder of Garphill Games and designer of many board games, including the ‘in the North Sea‘ and ‘West Kingdom‘ trilogies.

Shem Phillips Interview Photo

Tell us about yourself?

Hi, I’m Shem. I’m a designer and publisher of board games. I live in a small town called Waikanae, about an hour’s drive north of the capital city of Wellington in Aotearoa, New Zealand. My wife and I are the lucky parents of 3 crazy little kids.

What is your favourite board game, game category and game that you’ve designed?

I can never choose a favourite game. Lately I’ve been enjoying It’s a Wonderful World and Lost Ruins of Arnak. My favourite game category is definitely Euro-games. I especially enjoy games with multi-use cards and interesting decisions around action taking. The favourite game I’ve designed – that’s a hard one. It changes a lot, depending on what we’ve been playtesting. Currently I might have to say Viscounts with the upcoming expansions.

What do you enjoy most about playing board games?

I love trying to navigate different strategies, weighing up tough decisions and spotting tactical plays.

What inspired you to design games?

I’ve always been a creative person. When I started rediscovering board games, it seemed only natural to try make my own.

Games Designed and/or published By Shem

Plus many more View all

What was the motivation behind designing your games in trilogies and within the same universes?

It was never my intention going into it. After launching Shipwrights of the North Sea on Kickstarter, a lot of backers started asking what was next for me. They liked the idea of building Viking longships, but wanted to use them for something – and so, I started working on Raiders. At that point I just figured a trilogy would be better than having only two games linking together. Keeping games in trilogies or a common universe helps a lot with marketing and brand building. People begin to know what to expect when they see that new box cover on the shelf or on their screen. We just have to keep delivering on those expectations – hopefully exceeding them.

Do you pull inspiration for designing board games from outside sources?

I played a lot of Age of Empires II growing up. As a kid with Lego, I always gravitated towards the sets of Robin Hood, pirates, knights, etc. I guess there’s just something about the swords and shields era of history that draws me in. It’s a fun space to play in. Most of my inspiration comes from playing other games, or diving into the history of a particular topic.

Where do you prefer to start when designing a game?

Usually with the general setting. Then I like to work on the mechanisms. Once they start to work I jump into the story – who are the players, what are they doing? Answering those questions helps inform decisions around where the game should go mechanically.

What is the most enjoyable part of designing a game for you?

I love once the game starts to take shape. I’m more of a developer by nature – making all those tiny changes to turn a good game into a great one. Receiving new artwork is always a joy too. Feels like Christmas when new art pieces start arriving each day.

Shem and Sam of Garphill Games (left) with Jamey Stegmaier (centre) at Counter Culture Board Game Cafe in Wellington.

What do you enjoy most about designing board games?

Working with friends is a lot of fun. Especially bouncing back ideas with Sam Macdonald. I also enjoy seeing the game grow into what it wants to become. It’s a very satisfying experience.

How has a failure set you up for later success? Do you have a “favourite failure” of yours?

They’ve all helped me build up courage, and the ability to bounce back quickly from even bigger failures to come. I’m not sure I’d call any of my failures my favourite though! Hah.

In your career of designing and founding Garphill Games, what are you most proud of?

Currently, it’s the fact that I can do it full time, and provide jobs for other people. This started out as a fun hobby, with no ambitions or dreams of turning it into anything more.

What advice would you give to someone designing their first board game?

Enjoy the process. Your first game will probably suck, so don’t spend too long trying to perfect it. Learn from the experience and trying designing something else.

If you could choose a designer or artist to collaborate with in the future, who would it be and why?

I’m already living the dream – co-designing with Sam Macdonald and working with The Mico and Sam Phillips for illustrations. Couldn’t ask for any better collaborators.

What’s next for yourself and Garphill Games?

We are almost finished wrapping up the West Kingdom Trilogy, with a few expansions being released over the next year. We are diving back into the Circadians universe as well, with the upcoming sequel, Circadians: Chaos Order. Next year will also see the release the first game in the South Trilogy!

Thank you very much for your time, Shem. The board game community and I can’t wait to get future Garphil Games on tables and look forward to the start of the South Trilogy.

Want to keep up with Shem and the Garphil Games team? You can follow them on their social media accounts below:


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