Grinding to Valhalla

Interviewing the gamer with a thousand faces

Posts Tagged ‘Board games’

Valhalla unplugged: an interview with Lance “UndeadViking” Myxter

Posted by Randolph Carter on November 24, 2010

There’s no doubting Lance Myxter is an avid board gamer and that he’s passionate about the hobby. He is perhaps best known in the gaming community as UndeadViking on BoardGameGeek and for the series of board game video reviews he has been posting there. I managed to ask him some questions about his gaming background, what it is he enjoys about board gaming and what goes into making his video reviews.  Enjoy.

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I’m curious to know what your gaming background happens to be. Would you mind shedding some light on your gaming past (board games, pen & paper RPGs, console & computer games, etc.)?

UndeadViking in action

As far back as I can remember, games of some sort were part of my life. My parent’s got divorced when I was very young and neither of them were very financially stable after they separated. Instead of going out and doing something that cost money, we played a lot of card games – your standard stuff, Kings in the Corner, Crazy Eights, Old Maid – things that were easy to grasp but fun for little kids. I hate to admit that I played about 1000 games of WAR with my sister and enjoyed every single one. We used to combine 4 or 5 decks of cards and have these epic long contests that caused no end to arguments and hurt feelings when one person was declared the victor.

I fondly remember being at my Dad’s house one Saturday afternoon when I was probably 7 or 8 years old, and he decided he was going to teach me how to play poker. We played 5 card draw and 7 card stud and we used a big coffee jar of pennies as our “chips”. I remember him teaching me about the different hands and him getting frustrated when I thought all red cards was the same as a flush. Regardless to any dismay he might have had, our games of poker became a standard occurrence whenever we got together, and years later I got to return the favor, when I became an avid Hold ‘Em player and I got to teach him how to play that brand of gambling instead of just watching it on television.

As far as early boardgames that I played, a few stand out. I really like the game of Life, probably because you got to drive those cool little cars around the board, over those green mountains and around the little white buildings. I greatly enjoyed Clue because of the deduction strategies that were part of the game, and my sister got a copy of Mastermind when I was 10 or so, and I think we probably played that about 100 times one summer alone. I am proud to mention that I was smart enough to get a copy of Survive when I was younger (I knew it was something special even then) but not smart enough to actually keep track of it and still have it in my collection. Thankfully, the reprint comes out soon, so it is only a matter of time before it is in my hands once again. Careers and Payday also are memorable. I liked the banking aspect of Payday, and Careers was neat because you got to pick your own winning strategy, instead of being told what it was by the game.

I had an Atari 2600 pretty much as soon as it came out. I remember being absolutely fascinated by it and I still own my original today. The graphics and games are laughable now when you see what kids are playing nowadays. I remember having to ride my bike to the local arcade so I could play video games at a quarter a pop. I would save up my allowance for that Saturday afternoon when me and my friends would head out to throw our money away at electronic goodness. It is a little mind blowing for me to think that all of the games that used to be in a giant arcade can now be played on my computer in front of me with a few dozen ROMS and an emulator. I remember buying books on how to PLAY video arcade games, meaning not only was I putting the money in the games to play them, I was going out and paying money for books to hopefully teach me how to play them better. However, the first time I beat Dragon’s Lair and had the entire arcade cheering me on, it was worth it!

When I was in my early teens, I finally got my first computer, a Commodore 64. I played games on that constantly, with Ultima IV and Bard’s Tale being especially memorable. I don’t know how many nights I stayed up late, well after my mother and step-father had gone to bed, my room illuminated by the game playing out on my TV. Really great stuff, and great memories. It helped that all of my friends were playing the same games, so every day at school we would talk about what we had played the night before. Looking back, I realize that I grew up during the beginnings of the video game world we live in today – and when you think about that, it’s pretty cool to be a part of it.

However, what was probably the biggest and most dramatic change to my gaming life happened when I was about 10 years old (I think) and I was playing some Atari game and my older brother came home and started talking to me about the awesome new game that he had played over at a friend’s house. He said that he and his friends were adventurers and that they had gone off searching in a dungeon for a lost amulet that a princess had lost. They fought goblins, ogres, and giant spiders while exploring deeper and deeper. Eventually they found the amulet, but it was guarded by a sleeping dragon. They tried to sneak in and steal it but the dragon woke up and they had to run or they would have been killed.

Fascinated, I asked him what the name of the game cartridge was, and my brother got a look of disdain on his face and said “It isn’t a video game dummy, it’s called Dungeons & Dragons and you play it with dice and paper.” Luckily, he took the time to explain the game even further to me, and soon I was completely lost in the idea of this game and I absolutely had to have it. Of course this was the late 70’s, so you couldn’t just log on to the internet and buy a few books off of Amazon – I had to track this stuff down somehow.

I of course did no leg work at all and begged my mother to find them for me. She ended up ordering them through a catalog at JC Penney’s of all places, and a few weeks later I had my very first ever Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide. I remember being blown away by everything as I tried to absorb what I was reading. I think I was 10 at the time, so you can imagine my dismay as I was trying to decipher the rules of the game. Eventually, I figured out most of what was going on (and I was able to order my first set of dice – I really wish I still had those) and I took my brother through an adventure I had made. I don’t remember anything about it, other than I did well enough that I became the DM for my brother and his friends shortly afterwards, which was pretty cool really, being 10 years old and telling a bunch of teenagers that they were getting eaten by dragons was very empowering.

Eventually, I got my own gaming group that I played D&D with all the time. In high school we played almost every weekend, though some of us managed to get girlfriends so our free time was restricted a bit. My college years tapered off though, since we all scattered around the country going to school. When we came home for the holidays we would hook up here and there, but for the most part my gaming centered around the Nintendo and not much else. After college, we all reconnected and started having epicly long campaigns, lasting years at a time. We played D&D about 3 or 4 times a week – it was probably the zenith of my gaming life – 23 years old, no girlfriend or wife, no kids, just a job and a ton of spare time.

At some point, my gaming started to taper off. I don’t really have an explanation for it. I think it had a lot to do with all of us growing up in some way or another, plus a couple of my friends went off and got married and “settled down”. We went from playing two or three times a week, to once every two weeks, then maybe once a month, and then nothing. What really revitalized my gaming life would have to be, and I am almost loathe to admit this, the release of 3rd edition D&D. We all got excited, and we immediately dove into RPG’s again.

Finally, boardgames came back into my life around this point. We had always played Talisman from time to time but it was never a steady thing. I had read about many other boardgames and even lurked on a couple of times, but had not taken the plunge. Then, when I was living with my girlfriend (who is now my wife) and we were expecting our daughter to come along in about 6 months or so, I finally decided I was going to pick up a game that I had read about a lot – Arkham Horror. I bought it off of eBay and was immediately stunned by the complexity of it. I invited my gaming group over (all guys I went to high school with – I am extremely luck in this regard) and we gave it a spin. We had a blast even though we failed and the world was destroyed and I never looked back.

Now I have a stupidly huge collection of games, both board and role playing. They currently sit on 4 or 5 book shelves in my basement. Gaming and things related to gaming have been a part of my life for so long, it is just second nature to me. I really don’t realize the amount of time I devote to it, but when someone points it out to me, I am really stunned by the observation when I let it sink in.

With the wide variety of gaming experiences to be had out there, why do you happen to play board games?

Well to begin with, the reason I started playing boardgames was merely the fact that I didn’t have to devote a ton of time to preparation like I did with role playing games. I should mention at this point that I am usually the DM or GM for the RPG’s our group plays, so the creation of the plot, the world, the NPC’s, and so forth is all up to me. I am not complaining mind you – I love doing it – but after I moved in with my girlfriend and we were getting ready to have a family, I didn’t have time to sit in front of a computer, making another 6 level dungeon to entertain my friends. You can set up even the most complex boardgame in less than 10 minutes (once you know what you are doing) and just take off running.

Once I became a dad and we bought a house, I was finally able to get a rhythm to my life and I was able to get back in the world of RPG’s, but I still played boardgames, mostly for the variety, but ultimately because they are ridiculously fun. Look, unless you are from Germany, you probably cut your teeth on games like Battleship, Connect 4, and of course, everyone’s whipping boy, Monopoly. Most people, at one point in their life, really enjoyed playing boardgames, but when they think of them now, they only remember them as being a child’s toy.

If you took that random person, and sat them in front of something like Carcassonne or Catan, they are going to be apprehensive at first, but the vast majority of them are going to have a good time playing it, and some of them are even going to investigate the hobby further.

Now not everyone is going to buy 500 games and start making videos of themselves raving about the newest release, but I think people are just wired into the idea of enjoyable competition that a boardgame offers them. It is a chance to sit down, relax, let your mind concentrate on a single thing, and enjoy the company of a few friends. Have a beer or a glass of wine if that is your thing. In between turns, talk about the latest movie you saw, or complain about your job. Argue about the ending to Battlestar Galactica and why you think it sucked. Give each other hell about losing/winning the game, but most of all, enjoy your time with people you like.

That’s why I like boardgames the most. It is a reason for me and a group of my really good friends to get together and enjoy each other’s company for a few hours. You don’t have to do a bunch of bookkeeping like you do for role playing games, and you don’t really have to prepare – you can just sit down and go and have a great time.

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

Oh man, this really isn’t a fair question, since my compass switches up so much and so often. When I first got into the hobby, I was an “Ameritrash” fan through and through – games with high end components, heavy theme, dice rolling, lots of luck and chaos to go along with whatever strategy they could cram in as well. Arkham Horror is a real good example – so is Talisman or Battlestar Galactica. Those games are just full of fun and excitement. Sure, there isn’t much to them (at least when compared to some of the more deep games out there) but the games know that and they don’t care. They are about having an awesome idea, presenting it to you in a way that is fast and easy to comprehend, and getting you through the next few hours while you have a blast.

Later on I started diversifying and I began playing the “Euros” – and despite my trepidation I had a really good time. It is a different kind of fun to be sure – I mean you aren’t blasting aliens, or slicing up goblins, or fighting Cthulhu, instead you are trading shares in a shipping company or running a power plant, or tending your farm in the middle ages – but it is still fun!

When it comes right down to it, I play games to have a good time, and I will always give a game at least one try unless I can tell from the get go that it is a complete mess. I think that if you just pass by a game because you think it doesn’t fit your niche without giving it a go through, you are just hurting yourself by not allowing yourself the chance to play something that might surprise you. I wish we didn’t have classifications for games, but we do, and unfortunately the vast majority of people are pretty close minded about what they think is a good game and what is bad and that taints their perception. I must admit, I would be lying if I didn’t so this myself.

To answer your question though, right now, I am enjoying games that make me think and are heavy on player interaction. Too many games out there have you sit down and just race the people at the table to make the best possible victory point engine before the game is over. I want to be able to purposefully mess with you to screw up your plans. I want to be able to try and outthink my opponents and have them directly affected by that, and not just give me a bunch of points. I like games that have a negotiation element to them, because then the game becomes all about exerting your will on your opponents. One of the finest compliments I ever got was during a game of Battlestar Galactica, when my buddy Craig said “I can’t believe anything you say, even if you are human, because you have everyone wrapped around your finger every time we play this game!”.

If you held me down and made me tell you a few games that I love, a short list would be Arkham Horror, Battlestar Galactica, pretty much anything by Stefan Feld and Bruno Faidutti, and most recently, Dominant Species. Alien Frontiers is another relatively new game that is very fun and exciting. Most of my friends are big time Dominion players, and I enjoy that, but I would rather be playing Gosu or Glory to Rome if I was going to play a card game.

My all time favorite game though? Poker – hands down. There is nothing, nothing, like the feeling of playing Hold ‘Em at a table of complete strangers, trying to outwit them for their money. I had my bachelor party in Las Vegas a while ago and I sat down at the 1-2 No limit tables for hours on end and had a ridiculously good time, and not just because I won quite a bit of money. There is nothing like trying to decide if your cards are good enough to put several hundred dollars behind them. Win or lose, that is the most pure gaming feeling I ever experience.

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

I am lucky that my wife is not only stunningly beautiful and a wonderful friend, she also lets me have my gaming buddies over at my house every Saturday afternoon. We alternate between playing my Pathfinder campaign (ongoing for almost two years now) and boardgames.

I am also very lucky in the fact that I have had the same core group of gamers in my life for about two decades now. The same five or six guys have been getting together like clockwork on a regular schedule, enjoying each others company for years. We half jokingly tell each other that we need to plan on retiring to the same nursing home so we can continue playing D&D when we get to our 70’s, and you know what? I bet you we will do it, as long as our wives allow it to happen.

Plus, twice a year, Becca allows me to have about a dozen plus people over at the house all weekend for a mini gaming convention at my house. We start playing at noon on Friday and don’t stop until Sunday night. Probably the most fun I have gaming all year.

On off days, I sometimes convince Becca to play a few games with me, and of course my little daughter Rilyn is always interested in playing a game with me whenever she can. One of the greatest days of my life was when she came back from my game shelf, clutching my copy of Ticket to Ride and yelling “Dad! Play this with me!”. It was so cute I could even forgive the fact that she had picked a horrible game. We ended up just pushing the trains up and down the board, matching the colors, and counting them. I will remember that afternoon forever – I look forward to the day when she gets a little older and I can start playing Talisman with her.

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

A "few" of Lance's games

Define collect. Do I buy a lot of boardgames? Yeah I do, but I play them all, or at least I try. I mean I have 4 bookshelves full of them – around 500 or so – but I don’t really think of it as collecting them. I always considered collecting as something where people are buying something and then putting them in a display case or something. Certainly, I have a few games in my collection that are worth some money, but I would never consider just putting them up on a shelf and keeping them in pristine condition. Games are for cracking open and playing, not doing that just seems like a crime against the creation of the game in general.

For awhile there, my collection as getting out of hand. Now I realize some people would still think 500 or so games is still a lot, and it is, but I had dozens of games that I owned just to own, not to play. I was picking them up off of auctions, trades, large gaming orders, and so forth. I bought games that I knew I would never play, but I did it anyway just because I wanted to own it. Eventually I ended up selling a huge chunk of them, around 125 games or so, and it was very liberating. I cleared some space off my shelf, had some cash in my pocket, and felt better about the whole deal.

Honestly, I could sell another 100 or so games, and I should, but I can’t pull the trigger on some of the stuff I own. For example, I own Tide of Iron and 2 or 3 expansions for it. I have played the base game once – once. I own Descent and 2 or 3 expansions for that. Played the base game maybe 4 or 5 times and then never again. I am never going to play those games, but I just cannot bring myself to sell them for the $150-$200 I could probably get for the whole lot of them because I think “well maybe I will play them some time”. It is a form of madness I suppose, but I at least I recognize that I am nuts.

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

Definitely. I play a lot of games on my computer to pass the time – I am a huge fan of Team Fortress 2 and I am a pretty good Demo Man if I can brag for a bit. Currently I am playing Civilization 5 to death, and that is simply one of the best games I have ever played. Now if Diablo III can just come out, I might be able to die a happy man!

I played World of Warcraft for way too many years as well. I ended up quitting shortly after the first expansion came out because they altered the game too much for me, but I had a small amount of nerd bragging rights when I was on the second ever Horde guild to ever kill Nefarian AND I was the first rogue to ever complete his Tier 2 armor set on my server. Yay! Go me!

I own a Wii that is fun to dink around with, and I just recently finally got a hold of a PS3 which is cool because all of the older games are only $20 and they are a lot of fun. I am playing GTA 4 right now, which might be completely old school to a lot of you, but it is new to me and a lot of fun.

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

Excuse me for saying this, but I find that question to be a bit ridiculous. I read a lot – and by a lot I mean like 5 or 6 books a month. I read pretty much anything – if it entertains me I will give it my time. Do you think I feel guilty for reading a piece of fantasy garbage like Orcs (very good read by the way) after I just got done reading an in depth historical piece of non fiction about the civil war? Hell no.

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

No, no, no, a thousand times no.

Play what you want to play, read what you want to read, and watch what you want to watch. I will walk through the family room and Becca will be completely entranced by whatever trash happens to be on MTV at the time. My mother watches American Idol religiously. Do I fault them for it? No, because it is what they like, and it makes them happy. I don’t hang out in the room with them mind you, but I am not going to make fun of them for it.

Too many people get caught up in what they think they should be doing with their free time instead of just doing what they enjoy. If someone tried to tell me that I was stupid for playing ModNation Racers or that I was lame for watching late night Adult Swim cartoons, I would probably just laugh in their face.

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

That’s an interesting question that I don’t really have an answer for. Do I think it is in danger? Not really. Boardgames have been around for so long and they really have stood the test of time. Now, do I think they will remain as popular? Probably not. I think board games, at least the main stream stuff, will slowly but surely move towards an electronic/board hybrid – you can even see it now on the shelves. The game has to have something that lights up or contains a pre-set sampling of noises or voices that get repeated 100 times as you play the game. Maybe they need that to interest the kids, and good for them I guess, but I will tell you this. When I was growing up, my copy of Battleship didn’t need batteries.

However, the more hard core hobby of boardgames will remain the same or even get more popular. As long as there are that core group of people that are willing to pick up the latest offering from Knizia or Wallace, boardgames are not going to go anywhere. Look at D&D’s resurgence lately. I absolutely detest 4th edition D&D, but you cannot deny that it is popular and had brought a lot new games back into the fold.

Gaming is doing well as a whole though, and as long as people like to sit down and play something, boardgames will be a part of peoples lives. Sure, they might get more popular and less popular as time goes by, but everything is cyclical.

I’ve really enjoyed your board game review videos. I sincerely hope you continue with them. Truth be told, I’ve actually made a couple of purchase decisions based on your reviews. I’m sure there’s a question coming here somewhere… Would you mind discussing a little about what goes into making these reviews and are you planning on producing more?

Well thanks for the compliment, but all fake humility aside, I really don’t think I am doing that good of a job at what I am doing. I look at some of the other people who are making videos, and I am completely blown away by what they do.

Take a look at Tom Vasel and see everything that he has done. For better or worse, he has defined the genre of board game video reviews. He and Scott Nicholson were the two people that really inspired me to start making video in the first place. The care and ingenuity that goes into every single Scott’s Stuff video makes them instant classics. I really can’t flatter Scott’s videos enough.

Some of the other people pumping out videos right now need to be mentioned as well. Drakkenstrike’s HD component overviews, which are more reviews than an overview truth be told, are extremely well produced mini movies. The UFBRT videos are simply amazing and laugh out loud funny. The Castelli reviews have a simple charm all their own. However, all of these people I have mentioned have something in common – they all make better looking and better edited videos than I do.

I will let you in on a secret – I have a really crappy camera that barely does the job with what I try and accomplish. I use the cheapest video editing software I could find that still makes a passable product. I don’t really have a script or anything to follow when I make one of my little videos. I know the generic ideas that I want to touch on, and I know what I want to say, but before I sit down at my table with the box in my hands, I have no idea what is going to happen.

This is a bit counter productive of course, since I will make an entire video, hate every bit of it, and then go and do it again a few hours later. My most recent review, Dominant Species, I did that about 4 times before I got something that I thought was ok.

I don’t do anything flashy, I don’t have an animated intro, or theme music, I just hit record, sit down, and let fly. I get a pretty good response to what I am doing, so I must be doing something right, but I do hope to improve on my results.

For starters, I want to get a hold of a decent camera at some point. I don’t need to spend a thousand bucks on it or anything like that, but something decent would be nice. It would also be good if I could get a hold of some decent lighting too. Sometimes I won’t do a review on a certain day because the sky is overcast and I am not getting enough light in my dining room!

Someday, I will also have to splurge for some good video editing software too. I have been researching it and have my eye on Sony Vegas, but that is quite the investment as well, and to put it simply, I would rather spend the money on games. I also need to bite the bullet and finally get a website to embed my videos on. It is all well and good to post them on BGG, but I would like to have my own spot on the net where they can reside, and people can find me and give me their thoughts somewhere other than there. Problem is that I have so much going on with my life, I really don’t have the time to maintain a site.

There are a few things I don’t like about doing reviews. While getting the occasional free game from a company for review purposes (this has happened to me maybe five times total) I do feel the pressure to get reviews done and out for those games quickly, and when I can’t get a good feel for the game after a handful of plays, I don’t know what I should do. Do I make a review and go with my gut, or should I wait another week or so, get a few more plays in, and then record my thoughts? I always do the latter, but I feel bad for the company that is waiting for my review.

And while I am on the subject of free games for reviews, I personally feel that every single person who reviews games who in turn gets a free copy should divulge that information in every single review that they do that falls under that description. I don’t understand why anyone would not mention it. To not do so just seems less than genuine to me. I am not comdemning anyone for not doing this – who am I tell to them what to do? – but it is just my feelings on the matter.

As for my reviews, I will continue to do them until they aren’t fun anymore, and then I will stop. Luckily, I really enjoy the whole process, and the comments, questions, and even the people who say I am wrong make it enjoyable. I always subscribe to my reviews and try to respond to any and all questions that might be asked of me. I don’t ever want to be so busy I can’t respond to someone who took the time contact me, regardless of their reason.

What advice would you give to someone who hadn’t played D&D or touched a twenty-sided die in decades but wanted to see what was out there either as a table top RPG or board game?

Well for starters, find a couple of people near you that are interested in trying to start up gaming with you. If you can find a local gaming shop, you could go there and inquire if they have any gaming nights available to the public. Undoubtedly, you probably know someone already, or if you are in a relationship, you have someone in your life that is going to be willing to give it a shot with you.

If you have a gaming shop near you, go in and ask for advice. Tell them what you are interested in playing, and ask for suggestions. They should be willing to help you out, after all they are after your money. If you are like me, and you don’t have a local gaming store, log onto BGG, set up an account, and head over to the new user area of the forums and ask away. Lots of good people just wait for people to post in that section and they WILL answer your questions, probably better than anyone at a gaming store will.

Ultimately, you will just need to dive in. Pick up a game that interests you, give the rules a read, and play. If you are already geared towards gaming, it should be the beginning of a rewarding and exciting hobby to take part in.

Any final words of wisdom you’d like to leave us with?

Gaming or otherwise?

Lance playing with daughter (and meeting his match)

I guess the only real words of wisdom I will ever give anyone about anything is just be a good person. Talk to your mother at least once a week if not more. Do the same for your grandparents. Call your dad too – he likes to hear from you. Give your kids a hug every chance you get. Before posting some spiteful mean comment on the internet, ask yourself if you would say the same thing to that person if they were in front of you. Donate to charities, whether it is money or time it will make you feel better about yourself. If you aren’t allergic, own a dog – studies show they help people live longer. The next time some moron cuts you off in traffic, just let it go instead of letting it work you up. Tell your partner that you love them and mean it. Don’t hate anyone, it is wasted energy on someone who isn’t worth it. Remember to laugh out loud and laugh a lot. Remind yourself that the best revenge is living well. Take pleasure in your friends and make sure they know you care about them – that’s a tough thing to do as a guy, but try anyway. Dance like nobody is watching you. Remember to take a good half hour or more every day to just do nothing but sit there and daydream. Try and read a good book at least once a month.

Most of all – just treat each and every person you meet like you would want to be treated. I know that in our cynical and sarcastic world it is so easy to treat people with indifference instead of kindness, but just TRY and do it. The more you pull it off, the easier it will get.

Oh, and if you should ever see me at a gaming convention, or at some other place in your travels, by all means come up and talk to me. I love meeting new people.

Go out and enjoy your life – you only get one trip so make it worth your while.

Thank you very much, Lance.

Thank you! I really enjoyed myself.

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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, 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.



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.


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.

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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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Twitching toward cardboard

Posted by Randolph Carter on October 8, 2010

Imagine if you will a room with a computer.  On this computer’s desktop are icons for World of Warcraft, Age of Conan, Lord of the Rings Online, Runes of Magic and Risen.  The computer is on but idle. Directly across from the computer is a shelf full of PC games—a makeshift shrine devoted to a hobby that has spanned countless years.

Now imagine also in this room the owner of the computer, a middle-aged man, balding and wearing glasses, hunched over a card table, rolling dice, drawing cards, and flipping through a rulebook as he navigates a plastic figurine around a hexagon board all by himself.

That has been my evening’s entertainment more than once this week.  And here’s the kicker…it’s been fun.

For whatever reason, I’ve found myself lately gravitating toward board games.  Yes, board games.  No, not Monopoly, Clue or Risk.  These are fantasy RP-themed games that have more in common with Dungeons & Dragons than anything else.  And they all offer surprisingly satisfying solo variants.  

Unlike firing up a PC and instantly loading up a PC game, board games often take a bit of preparation.  I don’t see this as a bad thing.  In fact it gives me a few minutes to focus my thoughts as I set things up and come up with a game plan on how to approach this gaming session.

Don’t get me wrong, there can be some disconnect when you try going from years of a steady diet of video games to throwing in the occasional board game.  For me it’s been like using muscles I didn’t know I had (or at least forgotten I had) to make the gaming experience come alive.  But as I’ve said, it’s been a lot of fun and I’m finding myself looking forward to my next board game session.

If you are interested, here are a few of the games I’ve been playing and enjoying:


You play as a hero of Terrinoth tasked to stop the vile necromancer Vorakesh from finding the ancient Dragon Runes and resurrecting the High Dragon Lord, Margath. This “RPG-lite” adventure is less of a dungeon crawl and more of an overland encounter-based scenario.  The sense of impending doom this game generates is quite impressive effective.

Number of players: 1-6

Ages: 12 and up

Setup time: 5 min.

Playtime: 1 hr. +


Thunderstone is a fantasy deck building game where you play as a hero who has been commissioned by the town of Barrowsdale to retrieve the coveted Thunderstone lying deep within the dungeon of Grimhold. In order to accomplish this mission you must enlist the help of other heroes and townsfolk, while acquiring weapons, armor and magic in order to vanquish the evil minions spilling forth out of the dungeon.  For the Thunderstone , at all costs, must be kept out of the hands of the Doom Knights.  Don’t let the deck building mechanic scare you away from this one.  All the cards you need to play are included in the box.

Number of players: 1-5

Ages: 12 and up

Setup time: 10 min.

Playtime: 1 hr.

Ghost Stories

You play a Taoist monk whose job it is to protect a village from a seemingly never ending stream of ghosts and other evil spirits inspired by eastern mythology.  You must rely on the special powers of various village tiles to stay alive and ultimately defeat the formitable spirit of Wu-Feng.

Number of players: 1-4

Ages: 12 and up

Setup time: 5 min.

Playtime: 1 hr.

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