Grinding to Valhalla

Interviewing the gamer with a thousand faces

Valhalla unplugged: an interview with Matt Drake

Posted by Randolph Carter on October 14, 2010

Matt Drake is the author of the board game blog, Drake’s Flames.  Not exactly one to mince words, Matt discusses his blog, the board gaming hobby, his life-long affair with it, and the variety of gaming he tends to enjoy these days.  This interview reads like one big Hallmark greeting card.  Enjoy.

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Would you mind describing what your blog, Drake’s Flames, happens to be about?

I started writing game reviews around 2000, mostly because a friend of mine was scoring free White Wolf splat books for writing crappy reviews for RPG.net, and I figured that if he could do it, I could. After a few years of grinding out reviews for scraps, I thought writing for a print rag would make me legit, so I wrote for Knucklebones Magazine for the entire time they were in business.

But the thing I discovered as I was writing for money was that it sucked to have an editor (though I’m sure some of my readers would maintain that I could use one now, especially the anal-retentive jackholes at BoardGameGeek who come down with bouts of chronic constipation every time I use the word ‘retarded’). I wanted to write my way, no holds barred, entertaining and readable and a little bit crass. There are enough dry, mechanical, antiseptic reviews out there already. I wanted to have something fun.

So that’s what I did with Drake’s Flames. Granted, my kind of fun includes whiskey, fistfights and women of low moral character, but I like it, and if nobody else does, well, there’s no gun to their head. I figured that if there were people out there like me, at least a few people would follow along and we could have fun together.

That was three years ago. I’m still having fun. Sometimes I write about other stuff I’ve done, like playing paintball or visiting a botanical garden, and sometimes I just rant about things that irritate me. I try like hell to update three times a week, and I review a lot of games. I don’t always get them for free, and there’s a good-sized stack of publishers who hang up if I call them (don’t call a game a transvestite if you’re not ready to get a little bit blacklisted). But as long as I’m still having fun, I don’t see a reason not to do it.  And I am having fun.

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

Board games are fun. You can hang out with your friends, stretch the ol’ brainpower, and sometimes play out a story. There are thousands of games to choose from, so unless you have the mental acuity of a carrier pigeon, you can find something you’ll enjoy. Of course, just because I like board games doesn’t mean that’s all I play. I play traditional card games, sports every now and then, bar games, video games, and even the occasional roleplaying game. I like everything. So why play board games? Hell, why not?

What was your introduction to the genre?

My old man was a gamer from way back. I have been playing games since before I can remember. I learned how to play chess before I finished first grade (though I didn’t beat my dad until I was in junior high). I can’t remember a time when I didn’t like games. I cut my teeth on Risk and Space Invaders. My introduction to games started before I learned how to walk.

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

No, there wasn’t one single event, outside being born to a family that played a lot of games. We played Canasta and poker and Monopoly, and I picked up all the wacky hobby-style games I could get my hands on. I used to play wargames with my old man when I was in high school. No one thing made me a game nerd. It would take a lynchpin event to make me give it up, though.

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

I once got a few hundred game nerds riled up when I said that real men play games where people die, but just because it made some people a little menstrual doesn’t mean it’s not true. I like games that recreate violence, though my favorites are dungeon crawls. These aren’t always fantasy games, either – Mutant Chronicles: Siege of the Citadel had cybernetic commandos storming demon HQ with machine guns, and Space Hulk is all about a team of armored marines taking on hideous aliens in a derelict starship. But games like HeroQuest and Warhammer Quest are definitely ripped right out of a bad D&D novel, with orcs and wizards and very angry barbarians, and those are some of my all-time favorites. You get to kill a ludicrous number of bad guys, and tell a story at the same time (though it does tend to be a rather short and brutal story).

Of course, the games I just mentioned are out of print and hard to find, but there are still people making cool dungeon crawlers. Incursion has Nazi zombies in an underground lab, and Claustrophobia brings back the demons with a very non-standard hunt through the tunnels of Hell. In Last Night on Earth, the dungeon is the whole town, and you spend the game battling the mindless walking dead in a game that plays out like a B-rated zombie movie. You can score all of those right now, and if you shop at the right stores, you can get them way below retail.

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

I have two teenage kids and a wife, and we break out games all the time. We’ll spend one night taking turns playing console games (my wife is playing Fable II, my daughter likes Animal Crossing, and my son and I are playing Midnight Club: LA). Then the next night we’ll break out Defenders of the Realm or Dominion or whatever else we’re enjoying at the time, and spend a couple hours completely unplugged (unless I get an email on my Blackberry or my daughter is busy texting her friends).

I also have a group that meets every Saturday, created for the exclusive purpose of helping me play the games I have to review. One really good friend is my go-to guy for two-player games, but everyone in the group is a really good sport. We have played some absolutely horrible games, and aside from the profanity you might expect when playing a game so ugly and boring that you would rather have a colonoscopy than play another turn, everybody just takes it in stride.

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

Well, I have a lot of games, but I don’t exactly collect them. They show up at my house and I play them, and then they stay there because I don’t get around to donating them to the Boys & Girls Club until I start having to store them under the sofa. I probably have a few hundred games in my office right now, but that’s just because I haven’t purged in a while. I don’t collect games, exactly. I just keep the ones I like.

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

Supplementing is kind of an odd choice of words. It sounds like I take a regular dose of board games, and sometimes use video games as a suppository. It’s not like that at all. I play whatever I want. I like board games, and I like collectible card games, and roleplaying games, and basketball and baseball and video games. In fact, I’ve reviewed several video games for Drake’s Flames, including GTA IV and Red Dead Redemption.  If I had to choose one kind of game over all the others, I would find the guy making me choose and punch him in the kidney until he peed blood. Then I would play whatever the hell I want.

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

Why on Earth would I feel guilty? It’s not like I’m cheating on board games. If I start banging hookers, I’ll feel guilty for cheating on my wife, but games don’t give a crap. You can’t hurt a game’s feelings. Play what you like, and if anyone gives you grief for it, tell him to blow a goat.

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

There’s no reason I can imagine why anyone would have to choose one form of entertainment over another, unless one is wicked expensive or illegal. Like, if your ideal good time is an eight-ball and Swedish twins charging $1000 a night in a motel that charges by the hour, that might be a good reason to stick with board games. But if I want to spend Saturday playing in a softball league, Saturday night sniping chumps in Halo, and Sunday afternoon playing Cosmic Encounter with my family, I can’t see a downside.

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?

I would say, “If my Blackberry falls out of my shirt pocket and breaks, one of you assholes is going to take a beating.” Then I would tell them to mind their own business.  That, or they could come out on Saturday and play a game with me. I don’t defend board gaming because I don’t see a reason I should. I don’t like watching football, but it doesn’t mean I have a problem with grown-ass men who paint their faces and throw bowls of popcorn when overpaid, felonious strangers in shoulder pads manage to catch a pigskin on television. If that’s their bag, it’s none of my business.

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?

a flaming Matt Drake

I’m not saying board games are as good as sex, but for the sake of argument, let’s say people all over the world suddenly have free access to USB-connected vibrators that interact with their online porn. Would the human race suddenly quit having sex? No! It just means there would be a jump in the sale of water-based lube and antibacterial soap. People don’t quit doing what they like just because there’s something else they like.

There are literally hundreds of board games released every year. Just counting releases from the top ten publishers, you’re looking at a steady release schedule of 10-20 games a month, and if you add in the small press entrepreneurs and the up-and-comers, that number more than doubles. GenCon and BGG Con attract larger crowds every year, and both feature an astounding number of board games. The hobby isn’t in any danger.  Board games are fun. Just because you like playing Final Fantasy MCXXXVII doesn’t mean you can’t still get a kick out of a game of Agricola.

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

Most of America already plays board games. Try and find someone who never played Monopoly, or Sorry, or Risk. Everybody knows Chutes & Ladders or Candyland, even though both of those are horrible games. If someone really wants to try board games, they probably already have. Find some games and play them. That’s a good place to start.

Summary

Pros:

Matt tends to speak his mind.

With his knack for colorful language and countless sexual references, Grinding to Valhalla should benefit quite nicely from increased traffic due to keyword searching.

Cons:

Matt tends to speak his mind.

Not for those who don’t enjoy whiskey, fistfights and woman of low moral character.

If you’re easily offended and made it this far, chances are you’ve already read the entire interview and are scarred for life.

One Response to “Valhalla unplugged: an interview with Matt Drake”

  1. Matt Drake grew up playing games. Whether they were chess or wargames with his old man, roleplaying games with his brothers, or traditional board games with his whole family, he was a gamer from way back. And he never grew out of it.

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