Zee Garcia is one of the contributors at the Dice Tower - the hugely popular board game media outlet. You'll often see Zee on their YouTube Channel, appearing in videos such as reviews and top ten lists. He took time out of his busy schedule to chat to us!
So, how long would you consider yourself to have been a gamer?
I got into gaming when I was in High School, so let's do some Math. I am 35 now, so around 18 or 19. Nearly two decades now roughly speaking.
So, quite late then in some ways, you were an adult or at least a young adult when you found it..
Well, I had no access to board games when I was a kid. Board games were not a thing where I grew up (Cuba). I did not grow up with Monopoly. I played some of those games as a child past 11 or so but not before.
Who introduced you to the hobby or how did you discover it?
I remember that the first game I saw which was not the typical mass market or party game was Ticket to Ride. I was with a friend at one of his friend's house that I didn’t know, and they had a few games on a shelf and were playing Ticket to Ride.
I remember seeing this massive bright board, it looked like nothing I had ever seen. The train theme wasn’t necessarily something that I was fascinated by, but the game looked epic. It’s funny saying that now as the game is probably about as non-epic as you can get, but compared to all the party games and stuff you saw back then this looked like something you could really dive into.
That was the first brush I had that was part of the hobby as we know it now and then after that I discovered there was a local game store that I had no idea was even there. I must have driven by it hundreds of times but never noticed it. The first game I got from there was Carcassonne and remember very distinctly I was in my car punching the tiles and had the realisation that this game did not have a board and I was going to build the board as I played. That blew my mind! My goodness, you make the board as you play!! I mean it was a revelation to me at the time, like when deck-builders came out.
I had never thought about it like that, I never considered the fact that these games came out and really broke the mould of not just how you play a game, but in every sense of how we perceive a standard board game to look and feel.
If you look at it through those lenses of someone completely new to the hobby, someone that’s used to having dice for movement, a board and possibly some paper money. If you take that board and make it a jigsaw puzzle and you throw it back at them, it was mind blowing to me.
What made you pick up Carcassonne off the shelf of all the other games?
I think at that point I had discovered BoardGameGeek and it was highly-rated at the time and wasn’t very old, plus people were talking about it being a really good game to try. I had basically heard about it and thought it I would give it a shot.
It probably was one of the less expensive ones you could have picked too?
Yeah, that would definitely have made it worth a gamble.
So, you’re known for loving Pandemic. Other than standard Pandemic or Pandemic Legacy, which is your favourite Pandemic spin-off?
I've only just reviewed Pandemic: Fall of Rome. It's very good but having only just got it and playing it a few times I would say at this point that my favourite is Pandemic: Iberia. Fall of Rome is currently a close second and I think it will overtake it. It’s a really fresh and interesting take on Pandemic. The idea of stopping the barbarians and recruiting legions, marching them fighting. It’s a great system.
I like Iberia the best because it retains the general theme of fighting disease. It has a real solid long-term planning aspect in which you must build railroads. You can ignore it somewhat but usually by the time you realise you need it, it is too late and you should have done it earlier. Sometimes you find yourself doing it too much and by the time you find yourself needing extra actions, you’re not using them as much and feel like you wasted time doing them. You can always put your finger on exactly where you went wrong and lost the game if it doesn’t go your way.
It looks fantastic but the undercurrent of forward thinking and planning I think shines through the most cleverly and simply in Iberia.
What features on a board game cover will catch your eye?
Oooh that’s a good question. I am trying to think of the games that I find particularly captivating. I think it's a combination of world setting and also a personality that if this was a movie and it was a poster, I would want to know what their story was. I am thinking of games like the Pandemic series, they often have two people on the cover, one will be studying something and the other will look ready to go out and fight or defend something or appear aggressive.
I love, for example, post-apocalyptic or alternate history settings. I think Scythe has a fantastic cover. On that cover you have a beautiful world with the farmers and landscape but there are people in the distance, and I want to know their story and if they had a movie I would want to watch it. The mechs would be looming in the background but not in the foreground and you could see what they were but not enough to take away the intrigue to know more. It has to be a cover that makes me lean in and look closer at the details rather than lean back.
You’re known for liking solo gaming, what is your drink of choice while enjoying a solo game?
Lately it’s been mango Diet Coke. If I am having an adult beverage then it would just be a cold light beer. If I am drinking something harder, then it would be a good dark rum... but it better be a much shorter game.
You have been to many places due to working with the Dice Tower and going to conventions not just in the USA. What do you enjoy most about visiting these places outside the conventions themselves?
Well it’s never the convention, gaming is obviously fantastic but it’s not better than people and meeting so many people. Meeting the designers and other gamers, or friends I have made on previous visits is by far the best thing.
I did not grow up in a household or really a culture when I was very young where I had the ability to do this, nor was it part of my upbringing, but as an adult I have had a taste of that. Now, as an adult I am not someone that is going to drop 1000's of dollars to go and see the Great Wall of China, but if I happen to find myself near it then I will go and see it. I have enjoyed a fantastic trip to Iceland, where I saw dormant volcanoes and geysers, and all these spectacular natural wonders were the highlights of the trip for me. The convention was great and everyone we met were fantastic but the sights, sounds and smells, and being somewhere that is so alien to a little Cuban boy is mind blowing.
Not that long ago, when you left the daily rat race of teaching and joined the unique career of board game reviewing with Tom, you can’t have imagined that you would end up in Reykjavik?
Yeah, it was incredible to be invited. It was great fun and we consider ourselves very lucky to get to do these things.
As we are in the ‘Golden Age’ of board gaming, how much longer do you think it can last?
I think the hobby we are in is here, in some way or form, to stay. I feel that at some point it is going to have to calm down a little and it cannot sustain itself with the amount of games currently being released each year, with the standard of games always trying to be better than the last. I joked recently that it seemed to me that there were a lot of people that considered themselves champions in ‘growing’ the hobby.
We want more gamers, more games, and plenty of growth growth growth, but that came with Asmodee buying up lots of companies because there is money in something that is growing. But the same people were horrified that the hobby had grown and companies were now making games not because they were a passionate pet project, not to say Asmodee isn’t a passionate company, but they were trying to make money. You can’t invite growth and not get capitalism.
There are lots of theories that there is a bubble out there and it will eventually burst but I think that in something like board gaming we look at it from the inside looking out and in reality, it is a really small bubble. I don’t think this bubble is large enough to burst, but rather settle and I think little companies will fold or get bought and the plateau will be reached, and games will still sell well yet we'll still retain the smaller and larger companies producing great games. I don’t think the doom and gloom of a bubble bursting is as likely as people think it will be. We will see change but it will be more of an evening out of things.
One of the unique things about our hobby is that when you’re talking about video games, you can still keep them forever but they feel more consumable than a board game. Movies are consumable, watch them once or twice and generally you’re done. Board games on your shelf that are maybe five or six-years-old, you take that game and give it to someone along with a game that just came out, most of the time they can’t tell you by just looking at it and playing it which came out first. Most games don’t age like movies or video games. Are there too many games being made? Probably, but that will eventually fix itself and level out.
So, who are your favourite designers? I am confident you’re going to say Bruno Cathala is your favourite but who else makes a game and you’re instantly interested?
Yeah, Bruno Cathala is my favourite. I really like Antoine Bauza too. I tend to like a lot of the French designers. I like that a lot of the French designers have really mastered making designs that are mechanically sound, whilst also being streamlined and clean alongside an interesting theme. It's a tricky thing to balance all those out and nail it.
There are many designers that are great at making captivating themes, but maybe mechanically they’re messy or not overly original. Then you have the opposite of great mechanisms wrapped with a theme that is pasted on. Cathala, Bauza and Ludovic Maublanc have really nailed that balance of hybrid games with a great theme and mechanics. Now, not every game they make is great, but they tend to get marriage of those two things right more often than not.
Do you have a favourite publisher?
Probably Portal Games. I don’t like all their games, obviously, but the ones I do like, I really like!! They often make games that have very captivating worlds to play in and the mechanics can be very captivating. 51st State and Imperial Settlers are two of my favourites. Detective is a long, heavy game to get into but if you're willing to put in the time it is hard to beat Detective by the way it really immerses you into the world. Portal Games tend to always immerse me in their worlds they produce.
Are there any designers that you think are on the verge of joining the pantheon of ‘great’ designers alongside the likes of Rosenberg, Lang, Feld, Knizier, Wallace and many others?
There are probably quite a few, but if he is not quite there yet then I would say Emerson Matsuuchi is knocking on the door. Another guy that I thought was heading for that group, but his last few have not been quite so well received, is a guy called J Alex Kevern. He did Gold West, World's Fair and Sentient. They both have really old school Euro type designs that give you a lot with very few mechanisms. I think they're both very smart people and are producing great games.
You often mention in your Top Ten videos, very obscure games that even Tom may not have heard of. How or why have you gravitated to lesser known games?
I was never going for obscure games necessarily, or certainly not consciously. I never thought; I am going to find a great little Japanese game that sold 12 copies. I have just always been consuming information about games out there and sometimes I would stumble across games that appeared different to everything else, which is probably half the reason they didn’t sell well and everyone was looking at the new Euro with a grumpy looking dude on the cover in front of a castle.
Now I honestly consider myself the obscure game guy, I think I was just a little ahead of the curve for some games. Now it is so much easier to get games from all over the world so there are less games that people would consider to be obscure or relatively unheard of. I am just part of the pack now for the most part. Also, I am known most for my favourite game being Pandemic which is one of the best-selling games in our hobby. I will say to my defence that I did Pandemic the first week it came out before barely anyone was talking about it so maybe it was a little obscure at the time.
Well it has been a pleasure talking to you my friend and we shall see you at UK Games Expo at the end of May
Thanks very much, see you all in the UK soon.