Friday, 6 March 2015

Phil Eklund Interview - Upcoming Game Releases!

Friday, March 06, 2015

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Do I have a treat for you today my friends! As any long time reader of Fire Broadside knows I'm a great fan of the works of Phil Eklund, head of Sierra Madre Games and designer of games extraordinarie. I have written an extensive review of High Frontier with accompanying play reports as well as thoughts on Bios: Megafauna and Pax Porfiriana (and there's more to come!), so when SMG announced a very juicy looking list of upcoming releases on Facebook I decided to do a quick interview with Phil to see what we have to look forward to.

Well, it was meant to be a quick interview, but it ended up a little longer than anticipated. Here we go...

Fire Broadside: Even though I'm sure most of my readers know very well who you are, could you tell us about yourself and what you do?

Phil Eklund: For 35 years I was a rocket scientist at Hughes Aircraft in Arizona (actually only an aerospace engineer, but "rocket scientist" sounds so much cooler).  For almost as long, I have been producing boardgames; the first was an early hexmap version of High Frontier in 1978. There seemed so much unexploited gamespace between "wargame simulations" and "amusing euro abstractions", gamespace for cool simulations that emphasized the important parts of reality. This led to a series of games that broke processes down to their fundamentals, applicable to a wide range of different topics.  In other words, applying scientific induction to games, like Newton did when he integrated the motion of the moon with that of a falling apple.  For the last three years, I have retired from the rocket factory and have been working on games full time in Germany.

FB: A month ago Sierra Madre Games announced three confirmed 2015 releases and a number of possible releases. Lets start with the confirmed releases first. Neanderthal is a prequel of sorts to Greenland and they share many of the same mechanics. In which areas do Neanderthal differ from Greenland and how do the two games connect?

PE: Neanderthal ends just about where Greenland begins, with all three players as polytheistic tribes.  Many of the things Greenlanders take for granted - starting daughters and their survival skills, a starting "alpha" hunter, a starting council of 6 elders, monogamy and marriage, fire and fire starting, spears and projectiles, boats and sleds, speech and negotiations - have to be earned in Neanderthal. Therefore players can add up their points accumulated in Ice Age Europe, and practically plunk their achievements into the equally frozen island of Greenland, and continue playing for more points.

Because Neanderthal deals with the very roots of humanity, at the brief period when culture was invented, it can investigate wildly different sexual strategies.  Some will be startled to see concepts such as wanderlust, promiscuity, homosexuality, and rape introduced in the context of survival over many generations, which has never been done in a game before. Also novel are the origins of endearments, jokes, swear words, and anthropomorphisms, following my theory that the words least explicable today are the ones most likely primal to our cognitive fluidity.  Other concepts not found in Greenland are neolexia (i.e. words for thinking vs. for speaking), mental portals (i.e. cognitive fluidity), dependents, maturity, gathering, and preconditional tools.  Disks represent your vocabulary in Neanderthal, and are handled in a very different way than disks in Greenland. If your hunters bring down big game, they may have to face ferocious predators intent on stealing the kill. A final practical difference, since Neanderthal has no re-rolling, so the turns go faster. 

FB: As for the 2nd edition of Greenland - are there any major changes to it or is it mainly meant to update the rulebook to the latest iteration and correct misprinted cards?

PE: There are no major differences in the second edition.  But the following novelties are possible, pending forthcoming price estimates: rules errata, plastic figurines for the alpha hunters, enlarged placards for the elder tracking, more dice, and three additional cards.  Finally I have hired a talented French graphics designer who studied in Japan, so the cards and placards should have a dramatically different look.

FB: You usually handle the graphic design yourself for your games. How did the decision to it differently this time come about? Should we expect future titles to get this treatment as well?

PE: I was impressed by the minimalist depth the artist, Karim Chakroun, was able to impart to the layout of the cards and placards. His icon designs and incorporation results in cards that are far less cluttered, a completely different style that captures the essence without the detail.  But some like immersive detail, and the flavor text will remain. If the feedback in Neanderthal and Greenland is good, then I will let Karim design all my cards. 

FB: That will be very interesting to see! Karim is of course the talented artist behind games like Alien Frontiers, Space Cadets and Factory Fun, among others.
Now, Pax Pamir is the first of your games where another designer has used your mechanics to make his own game. Have you been involved in the design process or has Cole Wehrle worked mostly by himself?

PE: Cole is the designer, and I am the developer.  My son Matt broke the second major version of the game in playtesting, but Cole and I have undergone a major design revision that I pin high hopes on. Especially exciting is Cole's new ideas in spy deployments, counter-espionage, movement, and disinformation, which are more comprehensive than their treatment in other Pax games.

FB: I personally enjoy seeing different designers' take on a core mechanic, like with the COIN series from GMT for example. Do you think we'll see more of this coming from Sierra Madre Games in the future?

PE: Standard mechanics perhaps, but standard concepts certainly.  The 12-card Market mechanic has become a staple for both the Bios and the Pax series,  and the latter series will feature versions of the topples, regime-based victory, tableau-activated actions, and the division between makers and takers. Standards for the Origins series (including Greenland and Neanderthal) are elders and elder actions as the basis of value, intermarriage as the standard in player interaction, and a brain map to track lingual rearrangements according to the best theories of the origins of consciousness. Politically, I have used the concept of a BSU (basal societal unit) for games as disparate as Origins and High Frontier.  The BSU is the basic collective for which rights are defined and defended in a society. 

Notice that I use universals a lot in my games, such that games on totally different subjects use the same objective concepts. One of the biggest advantages of games and gaming as a media of knowledge is that they are inherently immune to the new orthodoxies that all knowledge is subjective, and we all live in our own "reality" that is "socially constructed". The reason that games are immune to such deconstruction is simple: games can only be enjoyed if everyone plays by the same set of objective rules. If the rules are objective enough, you can discover something of the universe for yourself.  This flies in the face of academia today, with its disparagement of facts in history, its treatment of reality as plastic and the fashions of the time as better than the evolved understandings produced by experience and validated by the assent of successive generations. 

FB: Alright, some quick questions about the possible releases. Play testing for High Frontier 3rd edition is well underway and I know a lot of people who will be very happy to see it in print again. What are the main additions or changes that might be interesting for owners of previous editions?

PE: What existing owners of High Frontier will be most interested in are the 34 new cards. This includes new robonaut, thruster, refinery, reactor, generator, radiator, freighter, and gigawatt thruster cards, as well as cards used to indicate ventures and glory, and alternate crew cards provided for all factions. There are not so many rules changes or extra rules, but there are some new stuff: the Rocket Diagram is replaced by a Fuel Strip allowing fungible fuel tanks and the carrying of different fuel grades. The Lander Fuel Penalty is replaced by lander burns. Triangle burns are eliminated. Water Theft is replaced as a felony by Hijacking. Powersats and Push Factories only push thrusters with the push icon. The cost of multiple operations has changed. Ending the game has changed.

The current version of the playmat in Vassal. A little clearer looking with better tracking options for multiple crafts (rocket/Bernal) and type of fuel (isotope/water/dirt). 

FB: So there are quite a few new features in the third edition. The new fuel strip certainly looks a lot less intimidating than the current diagram. Will there be an option for current 1st and 2nd edition owners to buy some kind of upgrade kit?

PE: That is supposed to be a stretch goal in the High Frontier kickstarter campaign that is scheduled to be launched by Jon Compton of One Small Step in June. 

FB: High Frontier Lite raised quite a lot of eyebrows in my neck of the woods and there has been a lot of speculation on what it might look like. I'm guessing some kind of stripped down version of the basic game. Or is it something completely different?

PE: The idea here is to publish a version of High Frontier using a map designed by rocketeer Dr. Bob Zubrin.  Actually two maps, a geocentric one (for WWIII in space) and a heliocentric one.  This hybrid game, to be included in Bob Zubrin's Space, will be called "Space the High Frontier".  It will use the movement rules, operations rules, patent cards, and fuel tracking from High Frontier (basic game, 3rd edition) while moving on the heliocentric map. 

FB: Will the cards and pieces necessary for this game be included in the Space game box or do you use the ones from your HF3 game?

PE: Space will be its own game, with its own pieces.  However, for the hybrid game "Space the High Frontier", you will need both Space and HF3 to play. And it will get published only if the kickstarter campaign is successful.

FB: I see. This leads us neatly into my next question. Last year we learned that Sierra Madre Games will be publishing Robert Zubrin's game Space. While it is a different game from High Frontier it shares the philosophy of providing a game where the physics are represented as correctly as possible. Could you tell us a little bit about it?

PE: This game, designed by the legendary head of the Mars Society, is rather more abstract than my own designs.  It is a bit like chess in space, and includes only a couple of pages of rules. It should be quite accessible to youths, who might be tempted to taking a step farther out with Space the High Frontier, aka High Frontier Lite.  

FB: Yes, Robert Zubrin is of course the man behind the Mars Direct plan (that I have successfully replicated in High Frontier!) and also an aerospace engineer.  Speaking of Mars Direct - I just have to take this opportunity to ask even though it's not board game related - what's your thought on its feasibility? I've read The Case for Mars and it all sounds great, but as a layman I don't really have the knowledge to judge it on its engineering merits.

PE: I  agree with Bob that Mars Direct is the engineer's way to Mars, and really the only way to get there at the moment.  But we bicker on whether Mars is a worthy destination or just another "one small step".  The premise in High Frontier is that space will be opened up not because of living space or resources, but because of a return on investment in space-processing and manufacturing, using conditions unique to space. Conditions not available dirtside at the bottom of another steep gravity well.

FB: Moving on to Pax Porfiriana. We've seen images of the Collector's Edition on bgg. There's a nice big fold out board included, what else might us Pax enthusiasts look forward to? And do you have a rough price point?

PE: I don't have a cost estimate yet for the English Pax Porfiriana Collector's Edition.  It will have a board, and a much bigger box. The rules will be far prettier, but the contents for the rules and cards will be about the same. I should have the English edition available at Booth 3P-100 in Spielmesse Essen, October 2015.

The board included in the Pax Porfiriana Collector's Edition is currently planned to include an optional board for Pax Pamir printed on its other side.  If so, then owners of either Pax Porfiriana or Pax Pamir can order just the map as an upgrade to both games. That is the plan, anyway. 

Render of Pax Porfiriana Collector's Edition prototype (of course, things might change between now and publication).

FB: Pax Porfiriana was a big hit and there has been murmurings of a sequal ever since it was released. Now of course we have Pax Pamir coming out soon, but you have also been working on your own game - Pax Renaissance. I remember you mentioning that you scrapped one iteration of the game last year and shifted focus to Greenland. How has it progressed since then?

PE: Pax Renaissance has been launched with playtesters twice since then, and both times failed.  My co-designer and chief playtester (and son) Matthew is the chief game-breaker here. This is to be expected for an ambitious project, and we are testing similar concepts with Pax Pamir, which deals with many of the same problems - e.g. integrating a map with a tableau, market refreshing, closed economic systems, providing enough information for players to understand the game status enough to launch strategies and campaigns, and navigating the shadow world of intelligence.  If Pax Pamir is successful, I will copy these concepts onto the bigger project Pax Renaissance. There are still big problems: how to incorporate polymaths, religion, renaissance zones, classes of society, the rise of capital in the overthrow of medievalism, bank loans, trade routes, and printing presses.

FB: Finally, not related to the new releases but I have to ask anyway, any news on BIOS: Genesis/Earth?

PE: Following the failure of the first prototype, I have been accumulating data for a new prototype launch. Such as the 5 thresholds for replication according to Richard Dawkins. Not this year, unfortunately. 

FB: Thanks for joining me here on Fire Broadside, Phil! I know I'm not alone in looking forward to the new releases.

PE: Thanks Martin.

So there you have it boys and girls, some solid info on upcoming releases from the man himself! Now go and re-read those books on rocketry, the Pleistocene and Afghanistan colonial history and I'm sure you'll be well prepared for what's to come...

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