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Interview with Gabe Barrett of the Board Game Design Lab

Gabe Barrett Interview - The Board Game Design Lab

Gabe Barrett is an author and podcaster best known in the gaming world for his work on the Board Game Design Lab, a weekly podcast featuring interviews on board game design with designers and other figures in the industry. He was kind enough to take a break from his regular work to answer a few questions about board game design and media for our readers.

For those that haven't come across your work before, can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you got into board gaming as a hobby?

So, during the school year, I teach English and literature at a high school in Honduras, and during the summer, I run a mission organisation that serves the homeless in Atlanta, GA. In my spare time, I design board games, and I run the Board Game Design Lab—a site and podcast that helps game designers create great games people love.

I got into gaming in college. It started with Magic: The Gathering, and then I played a ton of Fourth Edition Dungeons & Dragons. Shortly after college, I stumbled upon designer games, and they’ve been a pretty big part of my life ever since.

And where did the desire to design games come from, rather than just play them?

I’ve always enjoyed creating stuff more than consuming stuff. I would much rather write than read, and I would much rather design games than play games. (Don’t get me wrong; I really enjoy reading books and playing games, but I definitely prefer making stuff.)

So, after a while, game design ideas just started bouncing around in my head. Of course, early on, they were all terrible, haha, but I just wanted to see if I could create something that people enjoyed. It’s taken a while, but I’m finally starting to make games I feel good about and that publishers want to publish. And I think the momentum from that just fuels the desire to design even more.

Tell us a bit about the Board Game Design Lab - How did that idea come about and what does it look like now?

The BGDL is a resource site and podcast for game designers, especially ones that are just starting out. A couple years ago, I really wanted to do something to be more a part of the gaming industry, but living in Honduras makes that really difficult.

There aren’t any game stores in the country, and it’s crazy expensive to ship stuff here. Also, at the time, my address was literally “the yellow house on the corner across from the horse field and near the soccer field in Valle de Angeles.” That was my address on all my official government documents and everything. Amazon wasn’t exactly going to send anything there.

So, I decided to start a podcast. I was frustrated by many gaming podcasts, and I felt like a lot of them were just people rambling and discussing things that I didn’t really care about. I got tired of wading through an hour of content to listen to the 10 minutes I actually wanted to hear.

I wanted something different, so I just created it myself. The show interviews people about specific topics in game design, and after doing it for a little over a year, I think its style and content have really resonated with people.

Congrats on your podcast becoming part of the Dice Tower Network! What does that change mean for you going forward?

Thanks! It’s mainly about exposure. The Dice Tower has a ton of people engaging with it on a daily basis, and now some of its listeners/viewers are aware of my show when they never would have found it otherwise. The BGDL fit into a nice niche the Dice Tower had been missing since their own designer interview show went off the air.

And now I get to say “part of the Dice Tower Network,” which brings a certain amount of credibility and trust with it. I’m really thankful for Tom trusting me enough to put me on the Dice Tower team.

I'm sure you've been asked this before, but if you could pick one or two highlights from all the interviews you've done, which ones stand out?

The Rob Daviau episode is probably my favourite. I think that’s when I really found my voice.

And the very first episode is a big one too. Jamey Stegmaier was the first guest, and I really appreciate him taking a chance on a podcast that was completely un-established at the time. Him coming on the show gave it a sense of credibility that then opened a lot of other doors for other guests to be interviewed.

You've talked to a lot of game designers on the BGDL podcast; are there any themes in what they say that keep coming up again and again that you think budding designers should be aware of?

“Do the work” is a big one. Many people who want to be designers really just enjoy the first 1% of game design. They love the initial idea phase when everything is new and shiny, but when it comes to making a prototype and going through the gauntlet/crucible of playtesting, they fade away. There’s nothing wrong with that necessarily, but if you want to really be a game designer, you have to do the work when it becomes real work.

“Fail faster” is another concept that comes up a lot. Get an idea to the table as quickly as possible. Until it hits the table, it’s just brain synapses that can’t be tested. So, make a minimum viable prototype to test your idea and then iterate from there. The faster you fail, the faster you learn what actually works.

Now, on top of the podcast, you're also working on a book! Can you tell us a bit about what it's about and why you decided to write it?

It’s called Board Game Design Advice: From the Best in the World, and it’s a resource to help game designers when they’re dealing with the challenges that come up in the game design journey.

I really wanted to know what Jamey Stegmaier would tell me after a bad play-testing session. I wanted to know what Rob Daviau would tell me about how to know when to shelve a game. I wanted to know what Matt Leacock would tell me if I was about to pitch a game to a publisher. Etc. So I asked them.

I reached out to the best designers on the planet to ask about the issues and situations that all designers face, and 68 responded with incredible insight and advice. I’ve learned a lot from what they shared, and I think other game designers are really going to benefit from it as well.

And finally, is there any advice you could give to those of us who are creating content for the board gaming hobby, or perhaps even thinking about starting their own podcast?

The biggest thing is consistency. If you really want to build up a community of listeners or readers, they have to be able to trust you, and a big part of that is knowing you’re going to release consistent and well-done content.

Another thing is to be authentic. Don’t do things just because they’re “trending.” People can tell when your heart isn’t in it, so do the work you’re passionate about. Your passion will spill over to others. It’ll also enable you to do this kind of thing long term. Passion can keep things going long after the new and shiny wear off.

And finally, build habits that will lead to success, and schedule your content creation time like it’s your regular job. There are certain time periods during my week that are scheduled for my podcast, and I don’t compromise that time for any reason other than an emergency. There are lots of times when I would rather do anything other than edit or record a show, but just like I can’t leave my regular job during work hours, I don’t allow myself to compromise the podcast either.

Zatu Games would like to thank Gabe Barrett for taking the time to speak with us!