Chris Steele is a host for the Tabletop Game Talk podcast and an avid board gamer. His experience with playing and discussing all kinds of different games makes him the perfect candidate to share some thoughts on how to find new titles and enjoy learning them.
For those that might not have come across you or the podcast before, can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you got into the tabletop gaming hobby?
Sure, my name is Chris Steele and I’ve been gaming since the early 80's. The summer after 5th grade I must have played Monopoly 2-3 times a day. I wasn’t good at it, but the experience of being in another world (even the world of Monopoly) was amazing to me.
This was shortly after I played my first computer game which was just a step above Pong and decided that writing computer games is what I wanted to do “when I grew up.” It was a couple years later, in middle school, that I heard about this game called D&D where you could play in an imaginary fantasy world. I tracked down a kid in school that played it and we became best friends for the next six years.
Even though I ended up hating the way early D&D played, I did find what I was looking for in Champions - a game where you played as superheroes - and that’s when I started running games instead of just playing them.
I eventually made it into the video game industry and tabletop games faded away. But after working in that industry over 10 years, I burnt out on it. Once I stopped writing video games, I stopped playing them as well and I fell into a gaming void until one day I picked up a copy of D&D 4th edition which, to me, had fixed everything I didn’t like about the earlier editions. I started going to conventions again, started the organised play group at my local game store and was basically sucked in. From there it was a tiny step to also get involved in board games and all other tabletop games. It’s just kind of snowballed from there.
What made you want to go one step further than playing games and start a podcast about them?
I was a latecomer to podcasts in general. I always hated Apple as a company (being into computer games I was a Microsoft fanboy), so the idea they had this iPod thing that played podcasts just never interested me. When the iPhone came out I caved and gave Apple another try (I’m not an Apple fanboy).
A few years later Kitty introduced me to the Invisiblia and 99% Invisible podcasts. Once I started listening to those I found all kinds of cool stuff and was hooked. Kitty and I talked about starting a podcast ourselves but didn’t really have a solid idea of what we’d talk about.
About a year later Josh moved over from the UK and was staying with me for a while so we took him to Origins. He had just started getting into gaming and loved Origins, so on the way back I was like, “Josh you’re British, we should do a podcast about board games together.” He didn’t have anything else to do, so we recorded episode 0 a few weeks later.
A couple weeks after that I was hanging out with Kitty and she started talking about how I went and started a podcast without her, so I decided then that she was right and needed to be on the podcast as well. She joined us on episode four and the rest is history.
Can you give a quick description of the podcast for our readers who haven't heard it before?
Tabletop Game Talk (we picked the name because all our other name ideas didn’t have the website available) is basically a show where each week we pick a topic related to tabletop gaming (normally board games) and talk about it.
But I didn’t want it to just be a show where we talked “at” people, I wanted it to be something where listeners could also participate in the conversation. So, from the beginning we added the feedback segments to get comments on previous topics that we’d read on the air and have a little follow up conversation about.
We now go a step further and allow people to give us input for the next show topic before we even record via our Board Game Geek forum. In short, we talk about games with each other and with everyone that wants to be part of the conversation.
One thing that becomes apparent after a few times listening to Tabletop Game Talk is that you play a lot of games. How do you find the time?
Mostly, I just plan times to play. If it’s on the schedule it’s easy to not over-commit. When I was running organised play for D&D, those days were reserved for that and I didn’t make other plans. I’m also lucky as my wife loves games too. But we don’t play as many games with just each other as one would expect; what we do instead is make plans to play games with our friends.
Most of our friends know that if they are coming to hang out, we’ll probably be playing a game. Of course, we have non-gamer friends as well, and we don’t make them play as many games.
Lastly, I love gaming conventions and go to as many as I can. It’s 2-5 days, depending on the convention, that you are there just to play games. These days, there’s probably 2-3 conventions within a couple hour drive of just about everyone and I highly recommend people check them out as they are a ton of fun and really only require taking a Friday off.
Something else I've wondered is where you find new games. What are your tricks for sniffing out good new titles?
I go to my local game stores a lot and used to just buy anything that looked cool. I still do that, but now I can also get a bit more information before I buy something by going to BoardGameGeek.com and seeing what people are saying about it. I also listen to gaming podcast (The Dice Tower is a great one to hear about new games) and sometimes YouTube reviews.
I also go to conventions where you get to meet and play games with the designers. After a while you just get a feel for what you like and don’t like and where to look. On our podcast we don’t talk about specific games unless it relates to a topic because there are so many other places to get that type of info already.
Also, there are just so many games I couldn’t do it justice, so I’d rather do topics well then try and cover all the games. Although Kickstarter is a bit of an exception…
Can you give us some tips on Kickstarter specifically? How do you decide if a campaign is worth backing, especially now you're only backing one a week?
I’d love to say the best advice is don’t do it! But that’s a lie. I love it. Before the podcast I had just started looking at Kickstarter and it was sort of an accident that I got as hooked as I did. I’m lucky enough that my day job pays the bills and leaves some left over to have this kind of habit, but for most people, you’re right, you should be more selective.
So, some tips – watch all the videos and play-throughs they have. And if they don’t have enough to give you a good idea of the game, you’re better off avoiding it. Read the rule book if they have one. A nicely formatted, nearly “finished” rule book can tell you a lot about the state of the game and the people making it. Look at the number of backers. If there are only a couple hundred backers, that’s a sign that it may not have much to offer. Sometimes it’s worth the risk, but a game that’s doing “great” is one with 1000+ backers with $100k+ raised. There have been a few cases where even those types of campaigns have failed to deliver, but that’s very rare, and it’s more likely you’ll get the game and just not like it.
Finally, if you’re really unsure, stick with companies that are trusted. You’ll never go wrong backing a CMON game for example. Oh, and bonus tip. Once you get notification your game is about to ship, go back to the Kickstarter page and redo all the above stuff to get yourself excited about the game again. It’s easy to lose hyped feeling when it takes a year or so to get the game.
What do you do if a game turns out to be bad, or at least, not what you thought it would be?
Honestly, the same thing I do with a game that is good, put it on the shelf and not play it again. I have so many games to play, very few hit the table more than once anyway. I also love game design in general so even a bad game teaches me something more about how games should and shouldn’t work. And really, the game itself could be amazing, but if you can’t find anyone to play with it’s still going to sit on the shelf.
The opposite is also true, the game could really bad, but if you have a group that loves playing it together, it makes it great. Lastly, Ebay, yard sales, and consignment at the local gaming store are always options.
Given that you play a lot of new games, do you have any tips for how to learn them? I know I've had a few experiences where I've messed rules up on the first couple of plays...
I always expect the first time we play the game is going to be wrong. So, after the first play of the game, I go back and re-read the rule book. Once you have the context of what’s going on in the game, it’s far easier to understand the rules.
But for the first play it can depend. If there is a YouTube how to play, I start there. Then (or if there isn’t a how to play) if I have time to learn it myself before teaching it, I first read through the set-up, do the set-up and then take a turn or two.
Normally though I’m teaching as I’m learning. In that case, I start with set-up and read the rules out loud to the group. Some people are bored by this and I try to skip the full and examples, but by saying the rules out loud everyone has a chance to hear them at the very least.
We will often start playing before we’re done with the rules and then read the necessary sections as we go. Oh, and read the “how to win” section first, before you do anything else. Knowing what the goal is makes understanding what your moves can be so much easier.
And finally, following on from that previous question, do you have any tips for teaching others how to play new games to make their first experience as positive as possible?
I always start by saying something like, “this is your first game, don’t worry about winning, just worry about understanding the rules.” It normally doesn’t work, but I try. Making a game fun for new players starts even before you sit down with them.
First, know the game already. Don’t try and teach ourselves and someone new to gaming at the same time. My group knows we’re going to be learning new games, so that works, but for a brand-new person, it is boring to learn rules. So, set the game up, give them the goal, and present the actions they can do on their turn.
When they pick one, then tell them what it does specifically. It’s very hard to learn something with no context, so if you spend 30 minutes explain every option, you’ve just spent 30 minutes talking into the air for most people. Again, this is different with experienced players because they know what to listen for and can normally relate it to different games they’ve played in the past.
Lastly, don’t play to win when you’re teaching new players. Play for fun, and you might win, but take your turns quickly and keep the game moving as much as possible.
If you like the sound of Tabletop Game Talk (personally, it’s one of my favourite board gaming podcasts) you can find it online or on your regular podcast app. If you want to jump in with a recent episode relating to the topics that Chris has talked about here, I recommend their Kickstarter episode (92), ‘playing for fun’ (89) and ‘are there too many games?’ (86).