About Today’s Guest: This is the fifth interview in our “Voices in Board Gaming” series here on The Opinionated Gamers. Today’s guest, Brandon Kempf, is one of the most prolific gaming voices I know, and one of the finest. He previously ran the WDYPTW podcast, and now he edits and hosts The Shuffle, a monthly podcast featuring various gaming topics. He tweets often about board games (@Vacabck), plus he posts over at BGG, where he has been Geek of the Week. He posts written reviews on WDYPTW.com, and appears in other media forms with regularity. But most importantly, he’s also incredibly fun to play games with, and he’s one of the few voices in this hobby who I deeply respect. Without Brandon, I wouldn’t get to play nearly as many as games as I do, and I love being part of his game group in Jefferson City, MO.
(1) When did you get into the hobby? What’s kept you in it for so long?
In truth, I’ve always been part of the “gaming” hobby. Although early in my life it was predominately video gaming, but my parents did try to have game nights with the kids every now and then and we had neighbor friends who occasionally got those big cool games like Fireball Island or The Dark Tower, but I was predominately video game oriented up until about 8 years or so ago. My sister was looking for a gift for my oldest daughter at Christmas, at that time Gabby was 6, and my sister wandered into the old Valhalla’s Gate in downtown Columbia Missouri and she walked out with a copy of a game she had no idea about, but it looked fun. It had magnets, cool pieces and it was a memory game, The Magic Labyrinth. We played that a bunch that winter, but ultimately it kind of faded away and I went back to playing video games, mainly World of Warcraft still at that time. I kind of realized a bit later that my hobby of video gaming, was kind of isolating the rest of the family from me and I tried to figure out things that we could do together when I wasn’t playing video games and it all bounced back to board gaming somehow. My wife, Kerensa, will tell you that when I do things, I tend to just jump in head first without looking and just immerse myself in whatever it is I am doing, and board gaming was no different. I wish I would have discovered the “need” to create a Board Game Geek profile earlier on as we’d be able to dig in and see where it all really started or what we bought when we first started, but I didn’t. So I kind of see me actually jumping into the hobby of board gaming as most people think about it until the beginning of 2012 when I first discovered BGG, even though my family and I were those gamers who had no idea what was going on outside our own little world for 3 years before that. Just for curiosity’s sake I checked my first three logged games on BGG and they were, Forbidden Island, The Magic Labyrinth & Ticket to Ride. Pretty iconic Gateway games to start with even if we weren’t asking folks what should we be playing. Kind of amazing how you can find things on your own sometimes.
What has kept me involved for so long? I don’t really think we’ve been here that long, but what has kept me going has been the sense of discovery and the way that board gaming can bring families and friends to the table for laughs, good fun and even some friendly (or not so friendly) competition.
(2) What have been the biggest changes you’ve noticed from when you were first involved?
In eight short years, the biggest change that I’ve noticed is just the sheer volume of games that are being thrown at the world now and the speed in which these publishers do this. I wasn’t around in the early part of the hobby, so I don’t know what it was like to have to wait for the newest games to first be in Europe and then we had to either import it ourselves or wait months for it to show up here, it’s so instant now though, I have to wonder if anyone expected this. Oh, and Kickstarter. That’s a huge change. Someone now has an idea for a game, they can polish it up as nicely as they can and throw it on Kickstarter hoping that other will help them publish it. Completely bypassing the need to get a bigger publishing house involved, for good or bad.
(3) I most associate you with your audio work. The WDYPTW podcast, which has morphed into The Shuffle, has been your pet project for years. What got you into audio?
This is going to sound weird, especially coming from someone who loves to read reviews and has been writing more reviews lately, I switched to audio because I was lazy. Board Game Geek has these wonderful geeklists, where folks share their thoughts on games and other things, well, one of the, if not longest running geeklists is the weekly What Did You Play This Week Geeklist. I started chiming in on it early in my BGG life, documenting our weekly gaming exploits and sharing our experiences that way. One day, the person who posted that Geeklist every week, Jon Gilmour, revealed that he had a big project going on and needed someone to step in and post the weekly Geeklist, and that’s where I stepped in. I think that was back in February of 2013 or so. By about November of 2014, I was tired of writing out my thoughts and I figured I’d just use audio equipment I had laying around and record my thoughts for the Geeklist. It was never meant to be a podcast, it was just going to be me talking for 5-10 minutes about what we played instead of me writing it out every week. So 32 weeks I did this, sometimes Kerensa or Gabby would join me, but mostly it was me all by myself just talking about the games and the experiences around the table, not really reviewing games as much as just telling people about them. Then on Week 33 a local guy, Ray, joined the show and had a segment and we kind of just steamrolled from there. I enjoy audio work, and I enjoy creating an outlet for other folks, so we just kept adding voices and then folks would leave and others would come in, until we finally stopped the What Did You Play This Week Podcast in that format at Week 171 and started with The Shuffle and a couple other smaller shows.
Audio work is just another way for me to dive deeper into the hobby and feel like I am a part of it. I’m married, both of us work full time jobs, two kids, so we don’t go to all the conventions and get to be a part of the community that way, so I participate how I can and that’s through board gaming podcasts and hopefully creating content that others care enough about to listen to once a week.
(4) As I catalogued back when I interviewed Greg Schloesser, in the early days of the hobby, written reviews were the dominant form. Then we saw the rise of podcasts and video reviews. What is the state of the board game podcast in 2018? Where do you see trends going?
You know, I really wish I knew what the state of board gaming podcasts is. To be frank, I’ve never been a huge part of the podcasting scene so the only thing I really know is what we are doing. I mean I know we aren’t getting 65k downloads a week like NBA stars do, but we’re doing good as far as downloads go as far as I can tell. I think podcasts are always going to be tough to gauge, there are just so many of them, they come out of the woodwork every day. I used to be one of those folks who constantly had podcasts going, listening intently to see what is coming and finding out as much information as I possibly could, but I don’t any more, there are only a couple shows that I will listen to that aren’t a part of our PunchBoard Media label. A big issue is that they all start to sound the same, we as podcasters have to find something new, a new way to present the information to people and to engage. Otherwise we’re doomed to keep having the same talking head shows that currently dot the landscape.
(5) You’re one of the founders of Punchboard Media. Punchboard doesn’t, on its own, create content, but is a partnership of sorts among “content creators.” What led to the rise of Punchboard, and how is that project going?
“A rising tide lifts all boats” – That’s kind of the basic reason that Punchboard Media started. Eric Buscemi and I talk quite a bit throughout the day via Slack and one day we basically were just talking about how our show, WDYPTW could be considered a media “Network” all on it’s own. We had contributors from other shows, we had written content on the website and just lots of different voices. So we thought maybe we should form a Network and invite others in that we respected and wanted to share a space with. These conversations probably lasted about 6 months before we decided to just go for it and we started reaching out and low and behold, folks were into the idea. I mean everyone wants to belong to something right? It should have been a sure thing, but in the back of my head I kept thinking, these people are going to think we’re nuts. We reached out to groups as diverse as we possibly could. From the very beginning we wanted to be a network full of as many different and diverse voices as possible, and we’re still trying to diversify our voices as much as we can.
PunchBoard was never going to be an entity that was the focus, we didn’t want to have a “flagship” so to speak like other networks do. We wanted to be a group of content creators that lift each other as much as we can. Maybe Network sounds better than Support Group, I don’t know, but in reality it’s as much a supporting network as it is a media network.
(6) In real life, one of the things I frequently give you had a hard time about is your number of unplayed games. And here’s the funny part: you actually don’t have that many compared to many gamers that I know. You’ve resisted calling these games the “shelf of shame,” even pushing back on that label. When do unplayed games become too many unplayed games?
You know, my motto has always been that if you are taking care of everything else in your life, there is no problem with having a few extra games lying around. Yes, your constant beratement has caused me to sell off a few games before they ever get played, but I try to not think about it too much. I purchased them for a reason, hopefully that reason is to play them. But I will say, the biggest thing that is helping me is not backing nearly as many Kickstarter games as I used to and trying to strictly buy retail if I can. The thing that kills games for me, especially games that are backed via Kickstarter is that the wait just kills any excitement I have built up for them. I rarely pre-order games because of this. I like to know what’s coming, but I don’t like to necessarily get over excited about it before we know when it will get here.
But if you want an answer to that question, I’d say unplayed games become too many unplayed games when you have to have a seperate room or shelving system for them, and by that I mean an actual set aside space for games that are unplayed, or when you start feeling like you really should be playing the games. I’ve never felt guilt or shame for having games sitting there gathering dust, that’s why they are Shelves of Opportunities, not Shelves of Shame. Plus, shaming is kind of an awful thing to do anyway.
[Editor’s Note: I deny any “beratement” of Brandon. I do, however, insist on “shelf of shame” terminology!”]
(7) You and Kerensa have managed to raise two brilliant daughters that have an interest in games. In my experience, many gamers with children have difficulty getting their kids to play games with them. How’d you get your kids involved?
The question that has given me the most pause. As I mentioned at the beginning it wasn’t me who started us down this path of gaming as a family, that was my sister. Gabby at a younger age loved playing games with us, The Magic Labyrinth, Ticket to Ride, Smallworld were all favorites of hers that we played quite a bit. If folks came over to play, she wanted to be right in the middle of it, and we tried to accomodate her as best we could so that she didn’t feel left out. We never took it easy on her, and I think if she would have suspected it, she would have been upset about it. She was competitive and she understood the games quickly. Somewhere along the way I switched over into the Board Game Geek, the guy who always had new games coming and always wanted to learn them, that’s when Gabby kind of checked out on us. Now she’s 14 years old and is very much a teenager who would rather not spend her time sitting around a table with her parents playing board games, she has discovered friends, Overwatch and the PS4. So I tried a different tact with AnnaBeth, who is 5 ½ years younger than Gabby. I never forced it with her, and I tried to get her roped into playing by having all these fun yellow Haba boxes laying around, and it worked for a bit, but AnnaBeth kind of turned out to be our “Care Bear”, which is really weird for a kid who would describe, Survive: Escape from Atlantis as her favorite game. She loves that game, but she doesn’t like knocking anyone out except Dad, and that game still marks the only time I’ve had anyone cry at our table (AB cried because Mom had a Shark eat a swimmer or two of AB’s). So now at this point we just kind of let them play when they want to. Every now and then I’ll use it as an excuse to make Gabby get off the PS4 and spend time with us, but most of the time they get to choose when they want to play.
Gabby’s favorite thing gaming wise is Geekway to the West, over the last 6 years that we’ve been going there she has kind of developed this group of friends and they get to hang out most of the weekend playing Werewolf and other things like that. AnnaBeth is still a bit young to be running around so she still has to hang out with us but she always enjoys it as well.
People have asked us numerous times what we did to get our children into gaming and it’s always a difficult answer for me because I don’t really feel like ours play as much as others around the hobby do, but I think I prefer it this way, I feel like they are their own people, not just an extension of me.
(8) Unlike me, who has never quite figured out how to use that dang “Twitter machine,” you’re very active on Twitter, and actually have a very large following. I see you as kind of an expert on board game Twitter. What do you think the role is of that platform in the hobby?
If you notice, or if you even care, my twitter presence is kind of broken up into three parts, it’s one part baseball (Kansas City Royals of course), it’s another part craft beer and then last to come in has been board gaming. I joined Twitter and have been active on it since 2009 I think, so that’s 9 years of 128 characters, now 256. I think the role that Twitter has played in hobby board gaming has been fairly important, you are seeing companies that have embraced Twitter and devote time to having a presence among those in the hobby are seeing positive results. Really, right now, Twitter is just another way for companies to share information and it’s a way for gamers to gain that information. It feels more organic and friendly than just advertising, right? You converse with the person behind that company’s account when asking questions about an upcoming game. Twitter, and social media in general, has just made the world really small. I mean how else can someone learn about some obscure game that a designer halfway around the world has made, order it and have it on their doorstep in a couple week’s time. It’s amazing the connections that can be made.
(9) A tough question: do you think board game Twitter is a force for good? I see it as very divisive, and some of the nastiest of exchanges I’ve seen among gamers have been on Twitter.
I think just like anything, there is good and bad. There is nothing different about Twitter, it’s a lot of people with a lot of different ideas putting those ideas and thoughts out for the other people to see. Sure we all have the option of anonymity on Twitter if we so desire, but for the most part, board game twitter doesn’t seem to hide who they are. I think that for the most part, social media of any kind is good as an idea, it’s the people who kind of make it intolerable at times. I think Twitter is kind of just an extension of what we see going on around us right now in the “real world”. If people are passionate, sometimes too passionate, about something, you are bound to see these divisive or “nasty” exchanges. We also seem to have a lot of so-called experts floating around the Twitter-sphere and that I think has just been another extension of this digital age that we live in, right? There is just so much information out there that we all seem to think we are experts, or that we are smarter than the person opposite us. Thing I really notice though in social media in general is that there are conversations but more than anything there are more people who like to make a habit of talking at people, not necessarily with them, but that may just be me.
(10) What’s left on your gamer bucket list?
I don’t really have a “bucket” list for gaming. Sure there are things that I would like to do like be able to attend Essen or the Gathering, but ultimately I don’t feel like my life as a gamer would be incomplete without any of those. My “bucket” list if you will is just to hopefully keep on enjoying board gaming and keep using it as something to bring my family and friends closer together, that’s sappy and kind of a cop out answer, I know, but it’s kind of the truth at this point.
(11) Another tough question: what are your top 10 games?
You know this is a tough question for me. I can pretty easily rank games from a year or of a certain mechanism, but ranking things overall is really tough, but we’ll give it a try.
10) Crokinole (Even though it is my only 10 on BGG, it’s my number 10)
9) Pitch Car
8) Isle of Skye
4) Modern Art
3) Carson City
1) Carcassonne plus any number of expansions, PLAY THEM ALL!
(12) What advice would you give a new gamer, meaning somebody who has played a few modern games but is just getting into it?
So, the gamer who has jumped in and just sunk their teeth in so to speak? Keep exploring, don’t become complacent with what you play. Don’t dismiss parts of board gaming until you try them. If you are interested in big epic war games that take days, try it, if you are interested in story telling, try it. Don’t be afraid to just try things, worst thing that happens is that you waste a few hours of your time with people who are passionate about something. It may not be your cup of tea, but it all gives you a sense of scale, a sense of just how diverging this hobby is. There is a lot out there, don’t cut yourself off from exploring as much of it as you can. Find a game group to do this though, don’t go crazy buying everything you want to try. Chances are, someone else was just like you at one time and they’re probably looking for someone to game with as well.
Previously on Voices in Boardgaming:
Coming Soon on Voices in Boardgaming:
- James & Sheila Davis
- Paul Grogan
- Mark Johnson
- Steph Hodge
If you have suggestions for future participants, let me know!