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Aussie Tabletop Designers Matthew Dunstan And Phil Walker-Harding Demo Their Latest Titles At PAX AUS 2023

Weaving spells and solving crimes

During PAX AUS last weekend, we got the opportunity to sneak away from the Indie booths and head into the crowded jungles of the tabletop hall to meet with a couple of legendary homegrown board game designers. Known for the global card-passing sensation Sushi Go!, Phil Walker-Harding attended PAX AUS this year to show off his latest title SpellBook. Also joining us was Matthew Dunstan with his latest, Perspectives. Dunstan has worked on the card-driven point-and-click-inspired Adventure Games series, which also sees him collaborating with Walker-Harding.

Trying out SpellBook with Walker-Harding guiding the session was the first order of business, made less intimidating by the immediately striking card art before us. SpellBook is being published by Space Cowboys, a French outfit known for its gorgeous components and presentation, as can be seen with their smash family game Splendor.

Suitable for one to four players, each player has in front of them seven oversized cards and a single reference card displaying the steps taken during a player’s turn. Each player has the same seven cards arranged before them, with each card representing a spell that can be earned and upgraded. These spells are going to primarily affect how many resources, or runes, a player can collect and utilise each turn. Every player’s turn will involve selecting either one coloured, acrylic rune from a display board, or two drawn at random from a bag. When a player has taken enough turns drawing runes to have gained between three and five of the same coloured rune, they can spend these runes to unlock victory points and an ability on one of their seven cards. More runes spent equals higher points and better powers.

Matthew Dunstan

Phil Walker-Harding

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After going around the table collecting sets of coloured runes and denying other players the specific pieces they needed, I leaned over to Walker-Harding and asked him a question of utmost importance.

“So Phil, I have an important question. You don’t have to answer immediately, there’s no pressure. If you were to retheme Sushi Go from a Japanese cuisine to an Aussie cuisine, what would it be?

After some laughter, remarking on the fact that Aussie cuisine virtually encompasses all the dishes of the globe, he doesn’t miss a beat with his answer.

“It’s technically a theme I have used recently for a self-published title I launched through Joey Games, which makes kids and family games. Pass The Party Food is all about fairy bread, party pies, and the other snacks you would find during an Australian party in the 80s.”

Not only did Walker-Harding pull out a winning answer effortlessly, but he then proceeded to smash my score during our game of SpellBook.

Next up was Matthew Dunstan, demoing his upcoming title Perspectives. This is a cooperative deduction game where a series of postcard-sized cards are evenly distributed among the players. With an introductory brief on the mystery before us, in this case, a fatal poisoning, the players must hide their cards from one another while also explaining the contents of those cards. My cards comprised seemingly irrelevant photographs from the event where the poisoning took place, as well as an autopsy report. As the players laboured over our explanations, eventually a pattern of events began to form. Not only would we be expected to determine the perpetrator of the poisoning, we would have to explain a timeline of events. Thankfully, one keen-eyed sleuth noted a shared landmark between our photographs, and how the sun cast a moving shadow over said landmark. From here, we were able to cobble together a reliable sequence of events based solely on the movement of this shadow. Dunstan betrayed himself with a grin when he saw that we had properly gleaned this one obscure visual element to solve the case.

When we wrapped up, I probed Dunstan about the seemingly obvious video game inspirations behind the Adventure Game series. Taking me by surprise, he first revealed that Perspectives itself is also inspired by a video game.

“Perspectives is inspired by the game Her Story by Sam Barlow.”

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I had to pause and remark how cool this was, as Barlow’s debut indie title is a favourite among many at WellPlayed. Being given visual prompts that have no immediate context, and working backwards to read between the lines is an interesting way to adapt the ethos of Her Story for the tabletop. This revelation shifted how I looked at Perspectives and has me keen to dig through more cases when it is released.

Dunstan went on to say that developing board games often has him reflecting on his first video game love, Riven. In that, he would have to record seemingly innocuous tidbits in a notebook to beat its puzzles. When working on the Adventure Game series, particularly those entries with which he collaborates with Walker-Harding, he mentions the more direct video game influences.

“Often when working on the Adventure Games with Phil, he will mention games from the 90s such as Monkey Island and Day of The Tentacle.”

With such impressive games igniting the spark that has produced some excellent tabletop games, I then asked the obvious question.

“Hypothetically, and taking for granted the skills involved, would you consider taking your tabletop ideas and making a video game?”

SpellBook has a vivid tabletop prescence

Dunstan chuckled nervously, quick to remark that this would be quite an undertaking but reserves a part of himself for the opportunity to arise in the future.

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SpellBook is available now, with Perspectives due to release later in October.

Written By Nathan Hennessy

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