(1) When did you get into the hobby? What’s kept you in it for so long?
I have always loved playing board games. As a child, while I enjoyed toys, I much preferred games. I have fond memories of such games as Voice of the Mummy, Shennanigans, Kooky Karnival and others. As did many others, I discovered Risk as I approached my teenager years and played it constantly with friends. This led me to search for more involved, challenging games.
There was a hobby shop (The Hobby Hut) located in a nearby shopping mall, and I would visit it often. This is where I was first exposed to Avalon Hill games. My early purchases included Twixt, Kingmaker, Acquire and Executive Decision. Since I always loved history, I eventually gravitated towards war games, quickly filling my shelves with Avalon Hill and SPI titles. I mostly played this with a close friend, but would occasionally visit a local gaming group that exclusively played war games.
During college I discovered Dungeons & Dragons and led a campaign for friends for well over a year. During that time and depending upon the venue I would still play family style games, party games and war games.
Thanks to the responsibilities of marriage and rearing a family, gaming became only an occasional event during my 20s. In 1995, I grew tired of watching my game collection gather dust, so I decided to form a game group so I could enjoy the games again. I gathered three friends and thus began the Westbank Gamers, which eventually grew to well over 20 members. I hosted the group for ten years until moving to East Tennessee.
I published a monthly newsletter for our group, which contained recaps of what we played, along with more detailed reviews of some of the games. The internet was in its infancy, so I decided to start a website for the group and began posting my reviews and session reports to the site. I was one of the early gamers to do this, so the site received a lot of attention, as did I. It was how I got to be known as a “reviewer.”
It was in 1995, shortly after forming the Westbank Gamers, that I discovered “German” games, taking a chance on an unknown game in a plain brown box called “Settlers of Catan.” The game shook my world and exposed me to the world of German games.
(2) What have been the biggest changes you’ve noticed from when you were first involved?
The internet has changed the gaming world dramatically. When I re-engaged with the hobby in 1995, the internet was in its infancy. There were only a few sites and forums where one could go to learn about games and discuss them. As the internet grew in popularity, more and more sites surfaced and more and more people began writing reviews and reports. Most of this has been good, but one of the drawbacks has been that it is often difficult to find trustworthy and well written reviews and material.
Sadly, the internet has also led to the demise of many very good print board game magazines. Alas, the times, they are a changin’ …
Another major change has been the explosion in publishers. When I first re-entered the hobby, it seemed as though there were only a dozen or so major publishers and the number of games being released each year could be listed on a single page. It wasn’t difficult to play most of them. Now, there are hundreds of publishers and nearly a thousand new games released each year. Even after eliminating the ones that don’t interest me, there are still dozens and dozens of games that catch my attention. Sadly, there just isn’t time to play them all. That is not necessarily a bad thing, just personally frustrating!
(3) I most associate you with your written review work: when I first got into the hobby, before I’d buy a game, I’d try to find an old Greg Schloesser review on BGG. When did you first start writing reviews? What kept you doing it? Is there truth to the legend that many of your early reviews seeded BoardGameGeek?
I have always enjoyed writing. I have been the newsletter editor for several social organizations, and have had articles published in newspapers, magazines, etc. Thus, it was natural for me to begin writing session reports and reviews following our weekly Westbank Gamers gatherings. Initially I published a hard copy newsletter for the group, but eventually moved all of that and new material to the group’s website.
The legend is true. When Scott Alden and Derk Solko were formulating the plans for the Boardgamegeek site, they contacted me and asked me if they could publish all of my reviews and session reports on the new site. I was happy to do it. Turns out that since I was one of the first — if not the first — person to have material on the site, my material became widely read and I became well known. Sadly, it still didn’t earn me a date with Kate Beckinsale! :o)
(4) By my count, you’ve written at least 500 reviews, probably far more. When you started, most reviews (if not all of them) in the hobby were written reviews, but video is popular these days. You also served as the editor of Counter Magazine. So with that experience in mind, what’s the state of the written review in 2018?
As I mentioned earlier, times change. Written reviews are still my favorite medium, but I fully understand and recognize that technology has made audio and video reviews much more accessible and popular. You can listen to podcasts while driving or even working (not sure how folks get much done doing this!), while written reviews require quiet time wherein you can carefully read, concentrate and ponder. Plus, video reviews have the advantage of actually being able to see the game in progress, making it easier to demonstrate a concept or mechanism. Explaining complex concepts or mechanisms can often be difficult to convey in a written format.
I still think there is a place for a well written review. Sadly, much of the material that is on the Geek and other sites is, in my opinion, not very well written. There is too much “fanboy” material clogging these sites, making it more difficult to find the worthy material. While biased, I honestly thought that Counter magazine was one of the best places to go for written reviews and commentary, and I was sad to see its nearly 20-year run end. There are other good places to find written content, including the Opinionated Gamers website, but these sites are few and far between.
(5) You recently started culling your game collection, and you’re focusing more on playing games you like rather than new games. That’s the literal opposite of the so-called “cult of the new.” Did you ever consider yourself part of that phenomenon? What led to the change?
Oh, I was a card-carrying member of the “cult of the new” for 20 years or so. I eagerly perused the lists of new Essen and Nürnberg releases, acquiring and purchasing 100 or more new games each year. I would play as many of them as I could, but after only two or three playings of a game, it would be muscled aside by yet another new, attractive seductress. Further, many of my new acquisitions would sit unplayed for months or even years on my shelves. Unless one is playing games several times each week for hours each time, there is no way to play even a high percentage of the new games being released each year. I began to get more and more frustrated at not only not being able to play all of the new games, but by not playing most of the games in my existing collection.
So, about a year ago, I made the tough decision to remove myself from the “cult of the new.” I no longer want to chase every new game that is published. Rather, I want to concentrate on playing the games in my collection that I know I enjoy. Sure, I will still play and acquire some new games each year, but it will no longer be my focus.
(6) You founded Gulf Games, a biannual invitational game convention. The next one is Gulf Games 43, so this has clearly been going for a while! It’s one of my favorite gaming events of the year, because it really does feel like a family of gamers. What’s the secret to founding an event that has gone that long?
The secret for me is the people. I have tried to make sure that the people who attend are friendly, fun and civil. I am a social person and I enjoy being with people. Whenever I host a party or event, I want people to get along and have fun. As a result, I am constantly keeping an eye on things to make sure that this is happening. No one wants to attend a dull party or event, or be around people who are rude or not fun. So, with Gulf Games, I work hard to make sure that it is a fun event and that folks are friendly, sociable and welcoming.
When I founded Gulf Games, there weren’t many other gaming conventions, especially ones that were smaller, more intimate and open to families. I wanted Gulf Games to be different. I personally don’t enjoy the larger conventions where hundreds or thousands of people attend. I feel lost in those environments. I much prefer smaller, intimate gatherings where you can get to meet and socialize with most of the folks in attendance. I want environments where friendships can grow and develop. While Gulf Games has grown, for me it still has that intimate atmosphere. So many lifelong friendships have been formed at Gulf Games. We even had one couple meet at Gulf Games, get married and have children!
While the saying can be cliche, for me and many who attend, Gulf Games is a family. Folks genuinely care about each other and keep in touch throughout the year. Many get together for vacations and other gatherings. It has been a major blessing in my life to witness how Gulf Games has fostered such friendships and changed lives. Michael Weston made a comment about Gulf Games that I believe is so true: “Gulf Games is like a family reunion, but you actually like the people who attend!”
(7) You founded the International Gamers Award, which has a phenomenal track record of picking games that endure as classics in the hobby. So let’s ask a tough question: what’s the toughest vote you’ve ever had to cast?
Well, the IGA voting process is a bit different, so one is not actually casting a vote for a single game. Rather, the voting is held in two stages. During the first stage, each committee member lists his/her Top 10 multi-player games and Top 5 2-player games. From these lists a list of finalists is determined for each category. Committee members then list these finalists in the order of their preference. From these final lists the winners are determined.
So, even if some of my preferred games don’t make it to the list of finalists, inevitably some do. So, I am not forced to cast a vote for a game I don’t care for or I wish had not made the list of finalists.
That being said, there certainly have been years where I didn’t particularly care for the game that won the award. But, we have nearly 20 committee members, so I cannot expect everyone’s tastes to align with mine.
(8) What’s left on your gamer bucket list?
Wow. That is a tough question. I feel that I have already done so much in the gaming industry and hobby, more than I ever dreamed or had even planned to do. I helped found two game groups (Westbank Gamers and East Tennessee Gamers), founded Gulf Games in 1998, formed the International Gamers Awards, and served as Editor for Counter magazine for nearly five years. I honestly don’t have any major goals or ambitions related to the boardgame hobby / industry.
My plans are to continue writing a dozen or so reviews each year, and continue attending a handful of gaming conventions / events. I will continue to game weekly with our East Tennessee Gamers group (I host twice a month) and have occasional weekend get-togethers with gaming friends.
Of course, I will certainly remain open to other opportunities within the hobby / industry if they arise and are available to me.
(9) Another tough question: what are your top 10 games?
My Top 3 are easy:
- El Grande
- Princes of Florence
After that, the list tends to occasionally change, as new games capture my attention and older ones are muscled out. Right now, I’d complete the list this way:
- Pandemic Legacy
- Settlers of Catan
- Euphrat & Tigris
- Railways of the World
- Grand Austria Hotel
- Small World
Of course, this “second seven” will likely be different very soon! :o)
(10) What advice would you give a new gamer, meaning somebody who has played a few modern games but is just getting into it?
Don’t go crazy. Try games before you go on a massive buying spree. The best way to do this is to find a local game group and become involved. Play a variety of games and determine the types of games you enjoy. Realize that you don’t need to own every game and you don’t need to be the first kid on the block with the new releases.
Also, find a group of folks that you genuinely enjoy being with. Eventually, you will discover that the game is secondary to the friendships that you will develop.
Reading reviews can also be helpful. Don’t feel that you have to read everything out there, which would be a daunting task. Rather, find reviewers whose style you enjoy and can clearly convey how the game works and plays.