Grinding to Valhalla

Interviewing the gamer with a thousand faces

Valhalla unplugged: an interview with Mike Betzel

Posted by Randolph Carter on October 12, 2010

Although his roots are more in video games, Mike Betzel is very much an avid board gamer these days.  His board game blog Beware the Gazebo is certainly a testament to this.  Here Mike discusses his blog and answers a range of questions about the board game hobby and the gamer culture surrounding it.

Would you mind describing what your blog, Beware the Gazebo, happens to be about?

Beware the Gazebo is my personal dumping ground for thoughts on board games.  I first started in January 2008 after a game of Die Macher when I realized I had a lot of thoughts on the game rattling around in my brain.  I’ve always enjoyed writing and thought starting a gaming blog would be a great way for me to work on my writing skills while organizing my thoughts on board games.

My main goal with the blog isn’t to teach you how to play a game but to explain what I think works and doesn’t work in a game’s design.  I summarize rules or frame them in the context of a mechanic or design principle that I enjoy or dislike, which I find far easier to digest than verbose rules explanations.  As you read you’ll hopefully get a feel for my gaming preferences which helps you further frame my opinions, letting you come to your own conclusions on which games are right for you!

I can’t say I’ve ever had a run-in with a gazebo before—at least not sober.  Why should we beware of them?

Gazebos are dangerous, unassuming creatures.   They will lure you in with their inviting shelter and beautiful architecture, then BAM they catch you and eat you.

You’ve been warned.

With the huge variety of gaming experiences to be had out there, why board games?

Board games offer a type of experience you often don’t find elsewhere in entertainment.  First, board gaming is often a social hobby.  You can find solo games – particularly in the war game genre – but most board games are designed to be played with others.  It works for families, friends and for meeting new people.  At the same time there are plenty of fantastic solo games for those that don’t have an outlet for gaming or prefer to play by themselves.  Second, the tactile nature of board gaming is undeniable.  Loads of artwork, wooden cubes, plastic miniatures, cardboard tiles, buckets of dice… there’s something very satisfying about the physicality of board games.  Finally, board games generally engage your brain, something often lacking in today’s world of entertainment.

What was your introduction to the genre?

As a child I remember playing many of the standard games others played in their youth: Monopoly, Battleship, chess, checkers, Trivial Pursuit, Pictionary, Balderdash and the like.  I have fond memories of playing several week-long games of Monopoly with my older brother.  At the end of the evening we’d tape all the pieces down and resume the next day.  My favorite game growing up was Stratego; I loved the tactical play and mind games with your opponent.

I never would have considered myself a board gamer growing up, though, and once I went off to college my board gaming mostly stopped.  There were a couple of games of Axis and Allies on my dorm room floor and I often walked through Games by James in the mall thinking the board games looked interesting but it wasn’t until later that I really discovered modern board games.

Would you say there was a pivotal moment or perhaps a game that turned you into a board game enthusiast?

Heroscape.  2005.  There was a Toys R’Us I frequented that had an awesome Heroscape display.  Every time I walked past I would stop and stare; it was one of the coolest-looking things I had ever seen.  Modular hex-shaped terrain, sweet pre-painted miniatures of all types… it was a thing of beauty.  I’m not quite sure why Heroscape’s look resonated with me as I didn’t even really know what miniatures games or modern board games were at the time.  I’m a big fan of fantasy and science fiction, though, and Heroscape certainly melds those two genres together.  Eventually I broke down, bought it and introduced it to a friend I thought might enjoy it as well.  We instantly fell in love and dove in deep.

While exploring the online Heroscape community I discovered BoardGameGeek and the wider world of board games.  Not long after I found out one of my co-workers regularly played board games with some friends.  It was all down hill from there!

What happens to be your favorite genre of board game and could you mention some of your favorite titles?

I’m a sucker for big, long epic games filled with theme and cool components.  Runewars, Twilight Imperium and Britannia are three of my favorites.  I really enjoy the feeling you get of building up, watching the face of the map change as armies battle and exchange territories and hoping for a little bit of luck in the dice.  Unfortunately it’s not easy to get four to six hour games on the table on a regular basis.  If we have the time, though, I’d never pass up playing any of those.

When it comes to slightly less epic experiences I often enjoy games heavy on tactics and a touch of luck.  Railroad Tycoon (with the Europe or England maps), El Grande, Homesteaders, Dominion, Shogun and Ra are all fantastic.  I’m also a huge fan of cooperative and semi-cooperative games like Battlestar Galatica, Saboteur, Pandemic and Defenders of the Realm.

Who do you tend to play with and how often do you play?

I have two groups I play with regularly and was introduced to both through friends.  One group plays pretty much every Monday, the other usually gets together later in the week although we usually don’t play every week.  We’ll also get the occasional weekend game in and I’ll get together with a buddy for some two player games from time to time as well.  I’ve met lots of great people and made some very good friends through gaming!

I’ve lived in Madison, WI for the past six years and there’s also a fantastic board game community here.  Outside of my main game groups there are plenty of opportunities to play games with others.  I don’t do much gaming outside of my group of friends due to time but it’s great knowing I’ll have no problem finding people to play with!

Do you happen to collect board games?  If so, roughly how many do you have in your collection?

I certainly have a healthy board game collection – 111 not counting expansions according to BoardGameGeek – but I wouldn’t consider myself a collector.  I’ve done a fair amount of trading games via BoardGameGeek; if I haven’t played a game in awhile I’ll likely trade it off for something else.  I don’t see value in keeping games around that aren’t hitting the table and I don’t have the desire to seek out hard-to-find games simply for the sake of owning them.

However, I am a little crazy when it comes to organizing my games.  I think I may be single-handedly keeping the plastic baggie industry going and I love Plano boxes.  Time spent setting up and tearing down games is time not spent playing so I like to organize as much as possible.  My friends now refer to organizing your games as “Betzel-izing”.  Most game inserts are useless for actually keeping the components so I toss most of those out.  That probably makes most collectors cringe.

Do you ever supplement your board gaming with video games (console or PC)?

Absolutely! Video games were my first true love. I have faint memories of playing our Pong machine when I was very little, but the Atari 2600 and Apple //c were my real introductions to gaming.  I’m not sure there are words to describe my excitement when we got the Atari 2600 for Christmas; Pac-Man never looked so good or played so well, even though that was such a terrible port!

I certainly spent a lot of time with Pitfall, Yars’ Revenge, Night Driver, Boxing, Dig Dug, Space Invaders and many more on the Atari 2600, but The Bard’s Tale series of RPGs on the Apple //c really cemented my love for video games (and all things fantasy).  I was probably around 7 years old when I first played the original Bard’s Tale and was instantly hooked.  It not only showed me video games could have a level of depth I never imagined but also got me interested in programming.  I spent hours with hex editors and modding tools giving my characters all the best gear and maxing out their levels!  That soon led me to spending hours coding BASIC programs from Byte Magazine and teaching myself Pascal in middle school so I could make a breakout-style game.  Video games are really the reason I pursued a career as a computer programmer.

Now I still play plenty of video games.  I own all the current generation consoles and recently put together a new gaming PC.  My video game time is a little more limited these days but I’m always trying out the newest releases and love following the industry.  Right now I’ve been spending a lot of time with Civilization V and Red Dead Redemption and am really looking forward to Rock Band 3, the Ico/Shadow of the Colossus high-def remakes and The Last Guardian.

Would you say there is any guilt involved in doing so?

Certainly no more than participating in any other hobby.  The only thing that has changed is I tend to avoid MMOs these days.  I was massively hooked on the original EverQuest during and after college but now I don’t enjoy that level of time sink.  I don’t like games that are difficult to walk away from at a moment’s notice when I’m at home so MMOs generally don’t fit my lifestyle any more.  I still dabble in them from time to time but just can’t get myself to dive in again.

Do you see any reason why a gamer needs to choose between one or the other?

Not at all!  I think there’s a lot of common ground between video games and board games.  They share some commonalities while filling completely different niches.  In fact, if you are currently only into one or the other I highly recommend checking out the “other side”; there’s almost guaranteed to be something for you.

If you were surrounded by a group of diehard video gamers at a cocktail party and they discovered your board gaming tendencies, what would you tell them about the genre in its defense as you were dangled head first over the balcony?

Yikes!  Remind me to never go to the same cocktail parties you do.  Seems like you hang with a rough crowd!

I’d tell them that many video game mechanics and designs owe a lot to board games.  Sid Meyer may have never created Civilization were it not for board games.  Fantasy roleplaying games may have never seen the light of day without Dungeons and Dragons which was born from classic historical war games.  Even today video games draw inspiration from modern board games; I know the designers of Sins of a Solar Empire specifically mentioned Twilight Imperium as a source of inspiration.

Also, as mentioned before, the two have much in common.  If you like deep strategic video games there are many board game equivalents.  Fans of twitch shooters may get a kick out of fast dexterity games or highly tactical games.  RPG enthusiasts will find many adventure style board games to be right up their alley.

Finally, platforms like the iPhone are boosting the popularity of digital board game conversions.  The Settlers of Catan, Carcassonne, Roll Through the Ages, Kingsburg, Medici and many others are finding much success with their digital versions.

In an age where so many children are brought up on a steady diet of electronic games, do you see board gaming in danger of becoming a lost pastime?

Not at all.  Board games are seeing great success recently as popularity grows and higher production values become more feasible at lower cost.  There’s something about the tactile and social nature of board games that I think will always hold appeal.  Humans have been playing board games for thousands of years and I see no reason for that to change.

If anything I think we’ll start to see further convergence between the two.  The Microsoft Surface is a great example of technology that can enhance board games.  I see a future where it will become increasingly difficult to draw the line between video games and board games, which I think is very cool.  There will still be plenty of room and demand for classic styles of both but over time I think it’s inevitable the two will come together.

I also think that board games may engage your mind in ways video games do not.  They help strengthen critical thinking skills and I think the tactile nature of board games more strongly reinforces that for certain types of thinkers and learners.  I fully believe that keeping your brain active is critical to mental health as you age and I think both video games and board games are great ways to stay engaged.

What advice would you give to someone who wanted to give the board gaming hobby a try?

A pensive Mike Betzel

Go for it!  BoardGameGeek is one of the greatest online resources.  Spend some time there browsing different styles of games and get a feel for what looks interesting to you.  Once you’ve seen a bit of what’s out there, find out if if there are any local game hobby stores in your area.  There’s certainly something to be said for seeing game boxes in person and maybe even getting a chance to get a demonstration.

Many people feel they have nobody to play with, but I’d challenge them on that.  Start by asking your friends!  You may be surprised how many people love gaming but never discuss it.  Find a game that looks to fit your common interests and give it a shot, you may be pleasantly surprised.

If you are struggling to get enough friends on board, head back to that game store and see if they have a board game night.  I’ve discovered there are far more people than I ever imagined out there who love board games.  Do a little bit of research and you are bound to find a great group of people to game with.

Still struggling?  Start looking up regional gaming conventions (that list is certainly just a starting point); there’s probably one closer than you think.  Don’t forget to look at local video game or comic book conventions as they often have associated board gaming.  No luck?  See if you can find the time and resources to head out to one of the larger conventions like Origins, GenCon or PAX (where apparently board gaming is huge).  You’ll have no problem meeting all sorts of like-minded gamers.

I was leaving work one day, had just received some new board games and got on the elevator with games in tow.  There was a man already in the elevator, probably from one of the law firms on the floors above based on his attire.  He looked at the stack of board games under my arms and commented on how he plays games with some friends.  I asked what games and he responded with Agricola!  Here’s some random guy in the elevator who knows about one of the hottest modern board games on the market.

Seven years ago I couldn’t have named a board game designed in the last ten years.  Now nearly every week I hang out with friends, have a cold beverage and engage my brain with some cardboard on the table.  Does a hobby really get much better than that?

Thanks very much, Mike.

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