This week Zatu blogger Neil Bunker was joined for breakfast by Paul Grogan, host of YouTube Channel Gaming Rules! for a chat about do-it-yourself board game conventions, 3am design disagreements and all-night games of Twilight Imperium.
Thank you for joining us today Paul. Most people reading this will recognise you from your Gaming Rules! Youtube Channel. It currently has 350+ videos, 3 million views…
Thanks for inviting me on. Three million views, eh? That sounds impressive, but a lot of those views are for my Gloomhaven video, which has had 700,000!. Most of my videos get a couple of thousand if it is a good day, it really does depend on the game. I have just over 23k subs though, which I’m happy with.
So, how did it all start?
About 7 years ago, I was working an IT job that wasn’t going well. I knew that I wanted to do something else. I had this master life plan, which was that I would “retire” at 50. My partner and I both had good jobs, we’ve both worked really hard and didn’t spend much money…
‘Retire’, of course, was a pretend retirement that meant I would start doing something in the board game industry, but I didn’t ever think that would become a full-time paid job.. The IT job steadily got worse and eventually, I took the leap, formed Gaming Rules! In 2015 and haven’t looked back.
I love teaching board games to people. I’ve taught games to people probably every week of my life for the past 35 years, often three or four times a week. So, it made sense that I would create a YouTube channel teaching people how to play games.
It was an idea that I had been kicking around for a while. Then a friend of mine said “Have you seen Rodney Smith’s Watch it Played?” I hadn’t, so I checked it out and that was exactly the sort of thing that I had been thinking of doing. I thought it would be something fun that I could do on the side, might not make a living out of it but I would enjoy it. It’s grown from there.
In addition to the Gaming Rules channel you also provide professional services to the industry: playtesting, rulebook writing, game development. What projects have you worked on? Anything that stands out?
Yeah, I kinda do a bit of everything, and I’m involved in a lot of ongoing projects ranging from a final edit of the rulebook for Marvel Splendor right through to full on development work for a super heavy new game. These days everyone knows the game designer, and artists are becoming more well-known than they used to be, and rarely somebody might look to see who wrote the rule book. But behind every game is a big team that most people don’t see. The role of the developer, for example, is quite unknown.
There are a lot of games I’ve been involved in where I’ve been proud to be a developer, where the game has been fantastic, and I’ve had a little part of that…but people don’t know it. Codenames…Vital Lacerda’s On Mars. There are parts of On Mars that I can say I had an influence on. Through the Ages…some of the new cards, the abilities, I can point to and say “I helped with that”, and there is a ‘not equal to’ sign on the Tzolk’in board which is there because of me.
What are you working on currently?
Some things I can’t talk about obviously, and I’m actively involved in about a dozen projects at the same time. One I’ve done a lot of work on this year and will continue to work on over the next few months is: Oathsworn: Into the Deepwood. It was on Kickstarter recently and funded at around £2million.
The designer of it approached me about 18 months ago, after watching my Gloomhaven videos.
He said “We have a big, epic game. Can you do the videos for it?”. They showed me it and it was one of those that would either be fantastic or fall flat on its face. It’s a UK designer, who has a dream of something the same size and scope as Gloomhaven. I wanted to support that if I could, so I said: “I’m in”.
I was initially involved in just the videos, but then I eventually started working on the rulebook too when they realised I also did that.. It’s a big, big game that they have been working on for years. And by helping with the rules, I also get involved in the development. I can’t help myself! Whilst I get paid for what I do, I’m a gamer, so pointing out things that feel wrong or just don’t work is something I never shy away from.
I don’t think I’ll be listed as a developer on that game, but I have been a small part of it and many of the discussions I’ve had have been talking through ideas with the designer. Again, most people won’t see that. They’ll see the videos; they may see that I wrote the rulebook. But may other people help make a game and being involved in something that epic is pretty cool.
I was involved in the new version of Caylus, which is one of my favourite games of all time. Being asked to do a final check of the rule book made me very happy. I know Pride is one of the seven deadly sins, but I felt proud that day.
Also, the recent Ultimate Edition of Mage Knight. It includes base game plus the three expansions. I wasn’t just involved in that game in a small way, I was a developer on the first expansion and actually co-designed the second and third expansions, so that’s something I’m happy about too.
As if YouTube and game development wasn’t keeping you busy enough you also organised three events during 2019. A Charity Games Day, TING, and then Gridcon…
It wasn’t intended that way. Back in 2018, as part of International Tabletop Day, I did a small event at a community centre, where I host the local gaming group. It went well, 40 or 50 people attended, and I wanted to do something again in 2019.
We booked the venue for April, however, something…weird…happened with the organisation of ITTD. The dates were not released until very late, and when they were announced they clashed with the UK Games Expo. I already had the community centre booked, advertisements out etc, so I thought “Why not host a Charity Day?” It went well and all the profits went to the Ugandan Chrysalis Youth Empowerment Foundation.
TING was actually a warm-up event for GridCon, call it Gridcon Zero if you like. It was not held at the venue that GridCon 1 would be held, was only a day and a half, and no on-site accommodation. I really didn’t want people to confuse the two events, so chose called it TING - which stands for ‘This Is Not GridCon’. As it turned out, everyone got confused and called it Gridcon anyway. 🙂
What has become GridCon actually started twenty years ago. I came back from Essen that year – the first time I had been, around 1999/2000- with a suitcase full of games. I thought it would be nice to have all my friends round at my house to play all these new games. I called it ‘Paul’s Post Essen Games Weekend’. And, it became a tradition. Every year, 4 or 5 weeks after Essen, everyone would come to mine.. Eventually, it was given the name ‘Runemeet’.
Then for my 40th birthday in the summer of 2010, I hosted an event that started at noon on Friday and went through to noon on Monday. 30 people. The garden was full of tents, people were sleeping in the garage. My partner said: “this is just a one off right?”. Er…maybe.
From then on, we held Runemeet in the summer and in the winter each year and this continued until about two years ago, when I looked at the list of people I wanted to invite and there were 80 on it. And…looking through that list to see which 30 I would invite to my house gave me such bad feelings that I thought maybe I should book a proper venue.
It had been suggested before but there was something nice about doing it at home, about coming downstairs in your dressing gown at 8am Sunday morning and to find a game of Twilight Imperium that has been going on all night. But it was time…and that’s when I decided to do GridCon.
What struck me about Gridcon 1, particularly as it’s something that’s grown out of your house, was how many well-known names from the boardgame industry were there. David Turczi, Matthew Dunstan, Tony Boydell, Richard Breese … At bigger conventions, designers and publishers are there at the stands but at Gridcon they were just enjoying the day. Is that something intended or was it a side effect of being in the industry yourself? Are you planning to carry it on?
It was never the initial intention to invite my designer contacts, but I asked a couple of them when I first decided to move to a venue. When they said ‘yes’, I thought, ‘why not invite a few more’ and it just became a thing. Moving forward, it’s definitely something we would like to do every year, having designers and publishers demoing their prototypes was pretty cool and I’d love to see that continue.
You are already planning the next Gridcon…
Yes, Gridcon 2 is in June 2020. The publisher ‘What’s Your Game?’ have already confirmed their attendance – although I’ve not advertised that yet :). The venue is also booked for Gridcon 3 in November 2020 and we are looking at Gridcon 4 & 5 in 2021.
What advice would you give someone looking to get into the industry?
That’s a difficult one. My entry into the industry is not easy to replicate. I had been doing a lot of “work” for publishers, purely on a voluntary basis, for years. I already had the contacts before I turned it into a job.
I had been going to Essen for years, I was known in the community, and a few people in the industry knew me. But it was a hobby. I helped out because I enjoyed it and I got a kick out of doing stuff for a publisher whose games I loved. So, when the time came for me to start Gaming Rules!, I already had a good relationship with some of the publishers, and I was lucky enough for them to say ‘yes’ when I asked if they would be willing to pay for the services I was already providing.
But for people who want to get into the industry, it can’t be done overnight. I’m not sure that any publisher is going to give work to someone who contacts them and asks: ‘can I write your rulebook?’. It’s not easy to get into the industry, and I’m certainly not suggesting anyone should work for free, but it worked for me. Though I have to say that at the time, I was just happy to be part of something I was passionate about. It was never the plan to do this for a living.
I’m actively trying to help other people become involved in rulebook editing by letting them have a view on the process I use, see what I am doing, the conversations with the publishers, etc.
Final question: it’s that time of year again. What’s been your favourite game of 2019?
Right now, at this moment, it’s Cooper Island…but I haven’t played through my Essen releases yet. So that may change by next week.
I release my ‘Game of the Year’ list videos a year behind. In January 2019, I made a Top Ten 2017 Games List. In January 2020, I’ll do a Top Ten of 2018.
It’s a little unusual, I know. I’m probably the only one that does it. I just feel I need time to reflect. Maybe there was a game released back in April that was amazing, but I’ve forgotten it due to the Essen hotness. Or maybe there is a game I love right now but in six months, I’ll have gone off it.
However, Crystal Palace arrived last week. I haven’t opened it. I’ve been told it’s great. Maybe, by Christmas, that will be my favourite…
Gridcon 2 will be held on 26th – 28th June 2020 in Tiverton, Devon.