Interview with Phil Eklund

April 21st, 2021

It seems like whenever I reach out to someone in order to do an interview, it gets postponed indefinitely due to my inability to sort my shit out and make time to actually, you know… do the damned interview. This serves as my sincere apology for this piece only coming to light so late and the process being a prolonged one for the other party involved: Phil Eklund.

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Phil Eklund is hard man to define and I feel like the BGG line “game designer, aerospace engineer, and rocket scientist” doesn’t really do him justice other than on a functional scale. I haven’t personally dabbled in his games (though I know of them and have seen a couple being played) and he only shifted firmly into my attention via some covid-related social media hubbub that escalated into written essays that accompany his games’ rulebooks being removed in the future by Ion Games. You can read more about that here.

As a side note, reading Ion Games’ statement in the matter, I find it incredibly amusing if not downright hilarious how “sensitivity readers” must now be included in the boardgaming industry in order to examine essays accompanying games that, honestly, most of the people screeching about probably hadn’t even known about, let alone played.

Because, you see, Phil’s designs fit into a niche that’s pretty much occupied by himself and not many - if any - other designers. Even some of his board designs might be enough to turn people off from attempting a game, like, say, High Frontier:

If you are able to accept, appreciate, and more importantly understand the complex, almost spreadsheet-like designs that permeate many elements of his games, you are met with amazing game experiences, as evident by the cult following he’s amassed over the years.
Ranging in topics that you might see on the mainstream boardgaming market, like evolution, political machinations, or space colonisation, but coated in depth and detail that are, in my estimation, virtually unrivaled. This is because his games are simulations of reality, at least according to his definitions and based on his knowledge and expertise on a subject at that point in time, something he’s mentioned repeatedly.

Online, you can see a whole plethora of reactions to his games as well as his essays, and many people question his takes on anything from evolution to the mix of technology and historic events he mixes in his games which, I believe, are to a certain extent missing the point that these are still games and not scientifically vetted theses that will shape the understanding we have on our past and/or future as a civilisation. But people like to bicker and nitpick, so bicker and nitpick they do.

Now, because I come from such a noob place in terms of Phil’s designs, we chatted more about topics that I was personally familiar with, so those of you looking to see an in-depth take on the evolution of the Pax series of games might be left wanting.

If, however, you’re looking for some insightful takes on his creations, I highly recommend this blog.

Costin Becheanu: How long have you been active in boardgaming, from a designer perspective?

Phil Eklund: I was making my own designs since about 1966, and xeroxing games for my friends in the early 1970's which was also the time my friend Nandor and I discovered Avalon Hill games.

CB: Has it become harder or easier to get a game to market over the years, and what exactly has influenced that evolution?

PE: For those who make games specialized for nerds and geeks, the internet is a huge blessing to find niche customers.

CB: How have you felt your audience evolve over time, by contrast to the hobby at large? I.e. did you feel the same "movements" or fads that have permeated from the general populace into boardgaming have made their way into your particular niche at all?

PE: I have been influenced by Euro games, and eventually committed the sacrilege of moving to Germany, the ground zero of the Euro Game industry. I have the feeling that the sort of nerds and geeks who become fanatics for my games are the same intellectual fringe that has always existed in society.

CB: What part, do you feel, has the advent of social media played in the shaping of boardgaming communities and the hobby as a whole, and how do you employ it to advertising your creations?

PE: Social media has given a voice to boardgaming, and was instrumental to their renaissance with regard to computer games and other entertainment. I use social media to announce and advertise my new designs.

CB: Do you have any upcoming/current projects you would like to spotlight at this time?

PE: I love insects and have done considerable work to make Bios:Mesofauna a beautiful and approachable game, a much more streamlined version of Bios:Megafauna. Like its ancestral game "Insecta", you assemble and evolve your bug creations and are able to see what they look like. There are carnivores, herbivores, parasites, and zombies (yes even I shamelessly use zombies to market my games).

CB: In an increasingly personality-driven world and medium, how can you separate the art from the artist? Do you think people have been/are unable to do that when it comes to you, more so than with other designers?

PE: I define art as a selective re-creation of reality that reflects/emphasizes the value judgements of the artist. A boardgame with any simulation value at all is such a re-creation, and thus an artform much like literature. But because it emphasizes the artist's value judgements, one cannot safely separate art from the artist.

CB: Where on the political spectrum do you feel you fall, and how has this affected your relationships within the industry, both on a professional level as well as for interacting with the public?

PE: Those who have played "High Frontier" know that I prefer a 2-D political spectrum, rather than a 1-D right versus left one. I prefer a freedom-oriented politics, rejecting governmental regulation of personal freedoms favored by the right, but equally rejecting regulation of economic freedoms favored by the left.

CB: There is a (I hate to call it) consensus among what seems like an increasing number of people that your designer's notes only serve to detract from the games' experience via controversial takes. One such example is your being called a "human driven climate change denier" (or, just a climate change denier) in repeated instances across BGG and other media for statements made, for instance, in the American Megafauna rules. Looking at that particular entry, it is my understanding that you're trying to underline how much greater effect natural cycles have on the planet compared to human input. Would that be a correct assumption?

PE: Some gamers enjoy notes about the background behind the rules, and thus their experience is improved by my footnotes and essays about the hows and whys of the design. As an aside, I consider a climate change denier as one who denies past climate change for the purposes of asserting that only the climate change of the last decades is significant. But I have no opinion on the course that humans should take to try to influence the climate, nor how much humans actually influence the climate.

CB: Why do you think there is a continuous divide between what person A says and what persons B through Z take from it? Do you feel like it's partly "headline peek syndrome", where people base their assumptions on a single, isolated bit of text/information?

PE: For communication to take place, context of the text must be included and considered. It is an epistemological sin to drop the context of any concept or rule, which conditions its validity and use.

CB: And why do you feel there is a constant swing towards one-sided conversations with people deaf to the issues being discussed and would rather target the person? It seems to me you've dealt with some of these people recently, over your Facebook posts.

PE: I admire persons willing to discuss ideas or issues, even if they are dead wrong and are unwilling to consider other ideas. What is despicable are those who respond to ideas they oppose, not with discussion, but with twitter campaigns using slurs. It is fine to attack bad ideas, but the goal of the cancel culture is to attack persons, not ideas, using the modern equivalents of lynch mobs, burning crosses and churches, prisoners of conscience, and auto-de-fe.

CB: Earlier this year, one of your Facebook posts drew a lot of commentary and engagement and caused grave professional issues for you. The basis of your argument, I thought, was that COVID lockdowns had little demonstrable effect when taking into consideration more laissez-faire or mixed (strict followed by relaxation) actions undertaken by other countries, is that correct?
After the fact (this was January 9th) more data came to light, and you were alright with agreeing with the new evidence, stating that at the time of the post you were basing it on information.
Do you think that your (for lack of a better word) sterile, distant view of the subject, including proposing the idea that a pandemic could be "life saving", contributed to the public's vitriolic take on the matter and your subsequent issues with Ion Games?

PE: I did share some preliminary conclusions comparing countries with draconian legal lockdowns with those which relied on voluntary measures, such as my new country of Sweden. I also compared measures taken in 2020 compared to those in the more severe flu outbreaks of 1918 and 1957. The data are (E.N. were) still preliminary, but so far there is no apparent correlation between high stringency and excess deaths or other measures of impact. In particular Sweden suffered no more than the world average.
I have no issues with Besime and Jon of Ion Games, who support the publication of my games to the same standards as they have for 40 years.

CB: I was hoping we could also talk more along the lines of your recent experiences with the online mob seeing as it's brought you to the fore of many forums and boards in terms of discussion topics. Any comments on that front?

PE: For relaxation I read Japanese mangas, and one hot topic is that of bullying and mobbing in schools. The bully's aim is aggression and intimidation, and thus has no interest in logic or discussions. Tough questions are what the school authorities should do, and what the victims themselves should do. In the face of blind hate, the worse thing to do is nothing, which leads to bitterness, chain aggression, and suicide. Parents who are bullied may pass their bitterness onto their children.
The post-modernist disrespect of philosophy and reason has left a vacuum in which emotions take charge, and this may be the basis for nihilism, Columbine-style sprees and genocidal pogroms. My goal is to confront the hatred without succumbing to it and becoming a worse person.

In my game Pax Emancipation, hate is a game mechanic that the players fight, and if they fail then the Enlightenment stalls, plunging the world into a new Dark Age. In my game Pax Renaissance, "silencing" is a mechanism in which the inquisition can quelch new ideas, and again civilization falls into the stagnant abyss. One of the characters in this game is Michael Servetus, a great thinker who made the mistake of exchanging some cordial letters with the theologian John Calvin, who had him burned at the stake.

CB: Would you be willing to discuss other, specific boardgame industry antics (related to cancel culture and such) performed by various other actors within the community, namely designers, "influencers" etc.?

PE: Innovative and independent thinking are the most important attributes of a game designer or other creator. These qualities are under siege by the cancel culture, who use one-word unsubstantiated defamations designed to forestall debate and achieve the intimidation and silencing necessary for total monoculture groupthink. Logic, particulars, definitions, and evidence are scrupulously avoided. These hate tactics can be employed by any politics, and can target any victim. It has a special meaning for gamers, who know the need for clearly-defined rules and can identify cheaters who try to evade discussion of particulars or definitions.

CB: How do you feel about publishers dropping certain designers from their line-ups over what many perceive to be poorly understood events/actions? Take Daniele Tascini's translated "racist remarks" and his subsequent apology being considered "insufficient" by publisher Board & Dice who then cut any future collaborations with him, for example. Of course, publishers are justified to take whatever measures they see fit in order to maintain whatever public image they may feel they are defending, but do you feel that these actions are more knee-jerk over perceived online noise than anything?

PE: A publisher or on-line platform has final say on what they publish or promote using their own property, and can set any standards they wish for rules of discourse or communication. I ask everyone in our hobby to adopt a philosophy in order to set their own standards and scruples, which are clear, advertised, and adhered to. The defining characteristic of cancel culture is the avoidance of definitions or discussions in their defamations, preferring instead slurs and intimidation. Never try to appease such hatred, instead be true to who you have defined yourself to be. This will take both extraordinary courage and integrity (from people) to be immersed in hatred without becoming themselves hateful.

So, hopefully you’ve taken something from this little chat. I look forward to following Phil’s thoughts and takes on games and life in general in the future, and see where the next controversy pops up from. Probably BGG, because of course that place still hasn’t died even though it has the look and functionality of the Dodo bird and people can exist and thrive in the hobby without its existence. But I digress...

Thanks for reading, and have as nice a day as you deserve!

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Tags: Costin Becheanu, Interviews, Boardgames