Tom Vasel
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Interviews by an Optimist # 86 - Mark Johnson (BGTG)
Interviews by an Optimist # 86 - Mark Johnson

Mark said this about himself…

I'm 39, live in southern California, and work for NASA's robotic space program. At the Jet Propulsion Laboratory I'm the deputy manager of the spacecraft mechanical engineering section--the Mars rover inventors (and proud of it!). Growing up with the usual American stuff (Monopoly, Battleship), in 7th grade I discovered wargames in the form of science fiction Microgames. After G.E.V. and Starfire II it was on to roleplaying games (Traveller, The Fantasy Trip, Champions) with new friends in high school. That more or less continued into college, and grew to include Steve Jackson Games' GURPS. Grad school in Austin, Texas meant SJ Games was right in town, which led to some opportunities as a playtester, playtest coordinator, and eventually contributor and author of a few supplements for GURPS Supers.

After graduating my gaming time dropped way down, where it mostly stayed until Magic:The Gathering appeared. A limited budget kept things from getting crazy with that amazing game, and it indirectly brought me back to boardgaming. In 1996 I started a boardgame group (the Tri-Valley Boardgamers, still going), left it in 1998 for a work move to SoCal and joined Jonathan Degann's Left Coast Gamers. In 2001 I helped get SoCal Games Days started, and by 2002 I was forming my current group, the Santa Clarita Boardgamers, with Ryan Wheeler in my own town. Most recently I jumped on the latest internet bandwagon, transforming my old blog into the Boardgames To Go podcast.

My wife Candy is mostly a nongamer, but sometimes enjoys 2-player games. My 6th grade son and 4th grade daughter play games once in a while. Each of them have "guest starred" on my podcast, too, which is fun for me and generated good feedback from listeners.

Tom: What made you decide to start your own podcast?

Mark: For several years I'd been very active on internet mailing lists for boardgames. Part of my enjoyment of the hobby has always been tied to the network of friends and acquaintances made online. Over time my online activity tapered off for the usual reasons (work, family, etc.), but I still wanted to participate somehow. I ran a blog with the same name--Boardgames To Go--for the past few years. Besides being a "regular" blog, I had it set up for offline synchronization to Palm devices and Pocket PCs. I was fishing for some sort of delivery mechanism that allowed people to read my blog without being tied to their desktop computers. Though a few people took advantage of that, it never really took off. Then podcasting exploded on the scene, and it clearly was the right technology for offline content. It excels at delivering information for people to use during what used to be "downtime": on the commute, while exercising, etc. I've always had a commute, and can look forward to another 25 years of the same. Until the George Jetson briefcase + flying car thingies appear, I'll be happy to pass the time listening to innovative, amateur radio shows.

I'm no computer techie--I'm a mechanical engineer. My days on the bleeding edge for computer technology ended with CGA graphics and 2400 baud modems. Yes, THAT long ago. My first exposure to podcasting came from BoardgameSpeak--a few shows in and I was hooked. It wasn't too long before I thought about trying my own show, but then it took several months before I had the nerve to do it. The technology and infrastructure for podcasting was developing all the while, so that it wasn't too complicated by the time I finally recorded my first show in March. The previous September, Aldie and Derk REALLY got in on the ground floor. Not just the first boardgame podcast, they were one of the first podcasts of any type. Very impressive.

With the blog I just wanted some way to post my thoughts without getting wrapped up in mailing list threads I couldn't keep up with. Most of the time I just posted entries and never heard anything. The podcast has been quite different, with a pretty constant stream of positive feedback. And you know what? It's addictive! I'm hooked on the feedback.

Tom: Besides podcasts, what other trends have you noticed in board games over the past couple years?

Mark: I can think of a couple, though they may stretch back a few more years. The first has to do with game news & information, so it's more about the boardgaming community than boardgames themselves. I wasn't part of the first generation of German game enthusiasts in the English-speaking world. In the early 90s folks like Mike Siggins, Jennifer Schlickbernd, and Bob Rossney were struggling for scraps of information about these games, and paying top dollar to have them imported individually. I guess I caught the second or third wave, when Mayfair & Rio Grande were bringing in some good titles, though you still had to order overseas for others. But the Internet had picked up steam with the general public by then, so at least we had email lists, rec.games.board, and some early websites for getting information. Then the focus shifted to sharing individual play experiences & opinions about the games and our game groups. The Age of Session Reports, you could call it!

Today things are different again. Rick Thornquist at is a fulltime game news reporter, and Boardgamegeek is a seemingly infinite database of session reports, photos, and everything else. Not to mention all of the discussion lists that still exist. Getting information is no longer an issue--you almost have to keep it at arm's length if you still want to be occasionally surprised! Now some of the enthusiasm that used to go into mailing lists is being directed into Geeklists, blogs, and other creative outlets. Including a few podcasts. :-)

The other trend I notice is with the games themselves--the rise of American designers/publishers and their own hybrid style. This has surprised me. We'd been waiting for this to occur, especially those of us fond of games with strong themes. Five years ago on r.g.b I wrote, "I hope I'm not being too nationalistic about this, but I really think American (Anglo? & French?) publishers know how to inject theme, artwork, and maybe a few special rules into those elegant German game systems to make the whole experience more engaging."

Now those days are here, but I'm disappointed with the results. I guess I wanted just a *touch* more theme, keeping most of the design elegance. Instead I'm seeing more special rules, more custom cards/special powers, and too much emphasis on the traditional geek themes of fantasy, horror, and science fiction. Not only is the German design elegance diminished, but I had overlooked how much the more "normal" themes of business, politics, and history contribute to the appeal of these games.

Rereading my answers, I sound like I'm grumbling for the "good old days." That's not really the case. These are great times for the hobby, which must be bigger than ever. If my own personal preferences are for an older style of game, then I can still play those I already have. Besides, I still find a half-dozen new offerings every year that are must-buys.

Tom: Well, good! Can you tell us some "must-buys" from the past couple years?

Mark: An easy answer is to just look at the games I voted on for the Deutscher Spiel Preis the past couple years. Back in 2004 I voted for Hansa, St. Petersberg, Die Fugger, Iglu Pop, and Wings of War. Just missing the cut were San Juan, Ticket to Ride, and Santiago. I should've picked Ingenious, too. All good games. This year the pickings were slimmer for me, but I could still name Reef Encounter, Oltremare, Oceania, Geschenkt, and Chinagold. Looking back over these, I see that I don't own them *all* . . . but I've got more than three-quarters of them.

I don't play many wargames these days, but from the past couple years I can come up with Axis & Allies: D-Day (I like the system enough to look past the iffy victory condition). Bonaparte at Marengo grabs attention, though I'm not completely sold on it. Alfred Wallace is making me want to try Worthington's Clash for a Continent series over
on his blog, too.

Tom: How do you feel when you see that your podcast inspired other podcasts, such as ..erm.. the Dice Tower?

Mark: Are you kidding me? It's fantastic! In my original podcast I explained how I hoped my show would inspire other boardgamers to start podcasting. The main reason is time: I've given up on discussion groups on the net since I can't keep up, and I'm having trouble with all of the interesting blogs and websites. But podcasts let me enjoy the hobby during my commute. I need there to be lots of good podcast choices to fill that time.

Actually, even now the number of gaming podcasts is growing to the point where I can't listen to them all. That's okay. People will pick & choose their podcast subscriptions, and the shows will begin to have more separation based on podcaster style and listener base. Those are all good developments.

By the way, I fully realize that these boardgaming podcasts would've appeared with or without Boardgames To Go. I just hope I've accelerated it a little bit by showing people how easy it is. On my site I've got a link to a special show where I describe my equipment & process in some detail. You can do this with just about any computer,
a $15 microphone, free software, and a $5/month podcast hosting service. Really!

Tom: Do you think that we'll see hoards of these podcasts in the future?

Mark: Yes, I think so, though it will be self-limiting until the technology develops a bit more, helping us create and consume more polished work. Think back to when the web first exploded in popularity. Folks taught themselves HTML, but with no graphic design sense at all they created web pages with orange backgrounds and green text . . . flashing to get your attention. Ugh. Podcasting is in a similar state now: exciting for the new opportunities, the new viewpoints, but lacking good development, editing, or other polish. Nowadays web design templates now let a graphics moron like myself easily create an attractive page--eventually we'll see something similar for podcasts.

Even with that, however, there is a limitation. Written media, whether it's a magazine, discussion board, blog, or website lends itself to skimming for interesting content. Not so with podcasts. At least, not yet. Some sort of chapter or content-based skimming is badly needed for this emerging audio format.

I do believe more podcast shows will be shorter and tighter in the future, as the audience's listening time becomes a limiting factor. That's a step in the right direction. I also think in-depth shows will be produced less frequently, becoming more like audio magazines than audio blogs. Also good.

Then there's videocasts, or whatever they'll be called. Some are out there now, and that will surely be a growing segment. Bob Schwartz was doing that five years ago with The Board Room--one of those shows convinced me to buy a Crokinole board! But in general, the videocast format is a lot less useful to me, since I can't watch them on my

Tom: What are your thoughts on actual printed material about games (like the magazine Counter)? Are they still relevant?

Mark: Sure they're relevant. If nothing else, printed magazines have a permanence and tangibility that some gamers really find appealing. It's sometimes said that printed material has more editing and in-depth reporting or analysis compared to speedier online sources. If I found that to be true, I'd subscribe to lots of mags. In fact, I've let my subscriptions lapse, and I'm down to just one left. That last one is more of a trial--we'll see if I resubscribe when it runs out. The magazines aren't bad; I just find they offer very little over what's readily available for free on the net.

Tom: Between podcasts, printed material, internet websites, etc., where would you point a newcomer to the world of board games?

Mark: That's a good question. Not my own podcast, to be honest. I aim for an audience that's similar to myself: folks who are already familiar with these games and want to talk about them in some depth. I do have some "newbie" listeners and maintain a permanent "Intro to Boardgaming" podcast link, but that's not my focus.

Similarly, I'd expect just going to a website like Boardgamegeek or BoardgameNews.com could be overwhelming. That's like learning to swim by getting thrown into the deep end! There are some other "Intro to German Games" articles and pages on the web that could be helpful, but I imagine the best approach is to just lurk online for a while. That's the old system I used when reading rec.games.board and everything on The Game Cabinet website. The modern equivalent would be to skim the forums on Boardgamegeek, read The Games Journal, etc. Just read, read, read to soak it all in. Some of the online mail order shops have good tidbits, too.

Of course, the best way to find out about these games is to play them! Joining or forming a small game group is ideal, though not easy for everyone. I happen to think public Games Days are a fantastic introduction to the hobby, especially for someone who's played a few games and wants to try playing a LOT. Much of the enjoyment of playing
boardgames doesn't translate to online play, but it's better than nothing and can get you started or refine your game. Brettspielwelt is probably too intimidating for a newbie, but Days of Wonder's online implementations are wonderful. (It doesn't hurt that their games are usually great choices for newcomers to our hobby.)

Tom: Well, what specific board games would you recommend to someone starting the hobby?

Mark: My suggestions are the usual ones, the so-called "gateway games" that make great first impressions. Ticket to Ride is the most recent example, and a great one at that. I still think good, old Settlers of Catan is a great experience--just help the newcomers to pick good starting locations. Carcassonne can be good, though not everyone finds the spatial reasoning you need in such games fun. Bohnanza can be a little tough to teach, but always charms people that give it a chance. For someone that enjoys abstracts, Through The Desert is a great pick.

I see that most of my answers above have a little caveat attached. That's because the games themselves can do only so much in winning someone over. It always works best with a friendly, experienced gamer to guide the experience.

Tom: I've recently seen some folks complaining that, while good, podcasts and blogs are splintering the hobby - moving it to myriads of different websites, rather than a few, large sites. What are your thoughts on this?

Mark: Ironically, I had the same concern several years ago . . . but not now. At that time I felt that the hobby lacked a "central meeting place" online at any one location. Consequently, the fledgling online community of boardgame enthusiasts lacked the "critical mass" necessary to get publishers' attentions, share all news, or simply find each other in the real world for face-to-face boardgaming. When I was helping with spielfrieks, I asked for links between our discussion board and the online databases at Funagain and Boardgamegeek. The latter still exists, though it's a bit hidden in the current BGG interface. I don't know if those connections helped the other sites, but it definitely helped spielfrieks grow. (Whether that growth was entirely a good thing is another question.)

But that was then. This is now, and there's no question that BGG is the online town square for boardgamers around the English-speaking world. What comes with that success is a growth in numbers that encourages side-discussions and subgroups. I don't think there's anything wrong with that--I think it's healthy. When I dabbled in Magic:The Gathering again in about 2000, I was amazed at the volume of original material generated EVERY DAY by enthusiastic gamers. Boardgaming is simply heading down that same path of growth.

The next welcome development will be people (possibly programs, but more likely people) who sift through the glut of information, collecting and presenting the best stuff to readers who value their judgment. Editors, in other words! Editing can be a thankless job--when done well it should be almost invisible. But a good editor makes all the difference. The best ones should be rewarded for their service, as well. I would gladly pay the equivalent of a magazine subscription price to someone who skillfully edits the disparate web-content into a regular web-magazine. A little bit of that exists in Games International now, and Alfred Wallace is doing something along these lines in his blog, too. There's still a good ways to go, however.

Tom: Have you dabbled in game design yourself?

Mark: Only in my imagination. :-) No, I think about it from time to time, and got as far as making a card game prototype once. I had a thought of submitting it to the Hippodice design competition, but it didn't test well. That includes my own opinion! I made sort of a New Year's resolution to take some of the other ideas in my head and at least write them down, start a design file, that sort of thing. But I don't realistically have any aspirations to being a game designer.

Tom: Based on your wide knowledge of games, what advice would you have for an aspiring game designer?

Mark: Oh boy, I don't know. Don't quit your day job, of course. Playtest like crazy, including blindtesting. But heck, I don't have any special insight here. I feel like the best games have some sort of "spark" that brings them to life, making them more than a collection of mechanics, bits, and theme . . . only I can't usually identify what that spark is!

Tom: Why not tell us a bit about your favorite games, then, and why they're your favorites?

Mark: Ok. A few years ago I made a Top Ten list but never updated it. I mentioned these games in my very first podcast, I think, and they're still a good way of describing my own game preferences. Back then my Top Ten was Entdecker, Medici, Settlers of Catan, Euphrat & Tigris, Vinci, Bohnanza, Verrater, En Garde, Apples to Apples, and Ausgebremst. Is there a common thread in there? Not exactly, but I think you can see almost all of these games fit within an hour (only Vinci and E&T are a little longer). None of them are especially heavy (except perhaps Verrater and E&T again), but neither are they extremely light. The party game Apples to Apples (which probably wouldn't make my top list today) is the only one that could be considered silly--I like silly humor with my kids or friends, but not as a stand-in for good gameplay. There's no doubt that a game about bean farming filled with puns has some silliness, but it doesn't displace solid game mechanics.

I love the sort of games that I first encountered in this hobby: games of moderate length, some luck, but real strategy and design elegance that are about serious or even historic topics. I can handle strategic depth or even fiddliness in games; but my eyes glaze over after two hours, and I begin to wish I was playing something shorter.

From more recent years I've really enjoyed Reef Encounter, Oltremare, Africa, La Cittá, Wildlife, Web of Power, and Basari.

I'm playing a few more games with my kids, too. Queen's Gambit, Drunter & Druber, Ticket to Ride, and Epic Duels have been the most successful. Obviously, the Star Wars connection is helping with my son, who's just about the same age I was when the first trilogy came out. :-)

Tom: How do you decide, amongst the vast number of games released, which to purchase?

Mark: Since Essen is going on as we're doing this interview, now is an especially good time to ask that question! I guess theme still counts the most, as I'm always drawn to games of exploration, nature, and real history. Conversely, it's an uphill battle for game with dragons or trolls to grab my attention. The designer name and publisher count for something, but after the theme I'm looking to reviews and session reports to get an understanding of the mechanics and game length. Oddly enough, the reviews and reports don't need to be positive--I can determine a game might be for me even if the reviewer didn't care for it.

These days, the large number of online photos are a great help, too. The physical production of our games contributes quite a bit to their enjoyment. The ones with coins instead of paper money, wooden markers instead of plastic, well-designed cards, and an attractive board are more likely to be purchased.

I also have a great advantage in that many people around me buy lots of games, making it easy for me to try before I buy. My local game group has a few that buy games, and at SoCal Games Days I can easily try all of the popular new games. I might buy something smaller and quirky, or less well known . . . but the hit rate for those games is lower.

While I've got a large wishlist of games I'd like to acquire, I'm content to work through that list pretty slowly, buying a little at a time or making trades where I can. There are so many games in our collections; we've only played a time or two--or not at all--that I don't normally need to be the first kid on my block with a new game. I'd just as soon play Medici or Vinci again. :-)

Tom: What's your opinion of the different board game awards?

Mark: Maybe you're referring to an early podcast (and accompanying web-poll) I did? Well, I think the best reason to have such awards is to support the hobby. In that regard, Germany's Spiel des Jahre is meaningful and effective. Perhaps not to already-knowledgeable gamers who follow websites and discussion groups, but it means a great deal to the German public, publishers, and designers. All other awards strike me as not much more than conversation points for hobbyists. There's nothing wrong with that, of course. But sometimes we have a tendency to take them far too seriously when they really aren't so consequential.

Naturally, it would be helpful for other countries to have their own award with the clout--and retail significance--of the Spiel des Jahre. Or to successfully internationalize the SdJ. I don't have any idea how to do either, unfortunately.

Tom: What about awards such as the Origins awards? Do they have potential to support the hobby like the Spiel des Jahre?

Mark: No, I don't think so. The Origins awards come from the branch of the hobby that isn't as concerned with expanding the awareness and participation of the general public. Roleplaying, miniatures, and wargames don't stand the same chance of becoming a significant hobby of the public or families. They haven't even done so in Germany, as far as I understand. While the Origins awards have started to include more family strategy games in their selections, they seem a long way from anything like the effectiveness the Spiel des Jahre has. I don't have any data of my own, but I've heard from a publisher who's won Origins awards that they had negligible effect on his sales. Awards don't HAVE to be related to the publishers' bottom line--they can be purely about artistic excellence. But that's not what's going to grow the hobby.

Maybe the closest America has to a sales-significant award is the Games 100 selections. Especially coming as they do in support of the holiday buying season . . . with a holiday buying guide.

However, this whole line of questioning has got me talking like a gaming evangelist. That's not how I see myself. Don't get me wrong--I'd be happy if the hobby grew. I'd like to think my podcast has some positive effects in that way. I wish my neighbors played boardgames, and that games were more common at work. But I don't feel any need to actively push that. The hobby sells itself, or it doesn't. People play games, or they don't. I'm happy to show my hobby to anyone curious, but I don't need to "open their eyes" in any way. (Neither do I need someone to convince me to play golf, listen to opera, or get into model railroading. I'm sure those are fine interests, but I'm not interested.) Meanwhile, I've got enough games, opponents, and opportunities to play right now. In fact, I get more of each every year.

Tom: Do you feel that podcasts like yours will eventually become so common as to drown out the written blogs?

Mark: Not a chance. Written material is a lot easier to generate, host, and consume compared to audio (or later, video) podcasting. I don't mean that good, meaningful *content* is easier to produce in one medium or another--just that the tools for written material will always be more convenient than audio/visual production.

Tom: Okay, before we go, do you have any tips for bloggers, podcasters, and/or video bloggers?

Mark: Sure. Just do a little homework, take some notes, have an outline . . . and then try a recording. The first show is very likely something you'll throw away and do over anyway, so don't worry too much. Play around with your audio processing software. Get used to the equipment setup, your web host, and the other logistics associated with the
podcast. Only tell your close friends about your podcast for the first few shows. Then when you're ready to go public, you'll know what you're doing. Listen to your audience but have your own idea about what you want to do with your show.

And give me something good to listen to on MY commute. :-)

Tom: Thanks for all you responses, Mark! Do you have any final thoughts for our readers?

Mark: From the time that we started this interview to when it's wrapping up a few boardgame podcasts have sprung up (one just today!). There is still lots of room for different potential podcasters to find their own niche. You don't have to do an hour-long weekly show. Far from it. We could use specialized podcasts like a monthly audio magazine, frequent 15-minute snippets, and everything in-between. A podcast could cover just card games, chronicle the discoveries of a new hobbyist, or talk about life in a brick & mortar store. There are lots of stories to tell, and they don't have to be all things to all listeners. Don't get too hung up on grabbing more and more listeners, just find a focus for your podcast and work on refining it, making it better. But most of all, just get started. Experiment, record & edit, consider the early attempts your "rehearsals" and freely discard them to try your show over (I wish I'd done more of that in the beginning). Once you've got a few shows "in the can," put them out on the web, spread the word to some trusted friends, and then you'll be on your way. I'm looking forward to it!

Edited by Tom Vasel
"Real men play board games"
January 26, 2005
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