The Daily Worker Placement

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Board Game Media and Creators: Audio and Other

by | published Friday, March 2, 2018

This week, I continue my exploration of what board game media and peripheral content creators go through as part of their process. Last week, I highlighted those folks producing written and video content. Now, I’m taking a dive into the world of podcasting, as well as folks who are makers – creating physical stuff that gets put out there into the world. I love the creativity of all of this, and I’m excited to share what these folks had to say. Let’s explore a “day in the life” of these creators who put stuff in your hands and sounds in your ears! 

I chatted with some audio teams – yeah, it’s not too often you’ll find a solo podcaster in board game content – that are creators on some of my favourite podcasts (sure, my bias is showing!). From Board Game Blitz, Ambie and Crystal; from Vox Republica, Ryan & Erin; and from The Five By, Mike and Mason. First of all, I wondered – how did our podcasters kick off into the world of audio adventures? I quite like the story of how Board Game Blitz came about, as a bit of a citizen of the internet myself: “There was a thread on Reddit a few years ago about what’s missing in board game podcasts, and there were a few things mentioned,” says Ambie, “notably female hosts and short podcasts. Crystal, Cassadi, and I all commented in that thread saying that we could do that, and that’s how we met!” This conversation was really key, as Crystal had been listening to a lot of board game podcasts. “I wanted to share my passion for and love of board games with the world and believed that there needed to be more female voices in board game media.” 

And speaking of short podcasts, Mike and Mason sprung up The Five By out of a desire to make the short content they were having trouble finding out there. Mike says “we felt there needed to be a shorter podcast that really packed a punch. Not what we are playing, but more informative  – without being a long review format.” Mason follows up, “I think the conversation was something like this: Mason – ‘I just can’t listen to 2 hour podcasts.’ Mike – ‘I want to do a podcast called In the Pipe: Five by Five. Five contributors. Five minutes each.’ Mason – ‘Let’s do it.’” All it takes is that punchy idea! Or sometimes the desire to create together – as Erin and Ryan from Vox Republica did. Ryan was looking for a way to share thoughts on games, and a “desire to shape game coverage in a different way than simple ‘I liked this’ or ‘I didn’t like this’.” And for Erin, “[Ryan] wanted to create this outlet to share his love of games, and I wanted to help him!”.  

Erin and Ryan from Vox Republica

With these sparks that led to the podcast fires, had anyone previously figured they’d get into the content creation scene? Erin continues, “I honestly thought I’d just help out for a few months while this whole ball got rolling, then I’d fade into the background. But then I started and found out that I loved it (most days), so I’m here for keeps!” Ryan knew he enjoyed gaming and making content, so putting the two things together made sense; “I knew what I was getting into when we started the CR, though I have to admit I underestimated the amount of work it takes to keep it all going.” Inspired more as a consumer, Crystal didn’t originally intend on taking part; “I found myself loving what I was hearing and wishing I was part of the conversations I was listening to. So I needed to start my own conversation to make that happen!” When it comes to the Five By, both Mason and Mike had no intentions of creating anything until this project formed; Mason’s come at it really from getting to know so many folks on Twitter, including Mike. Mike had been asked to contribute to a couple of shows previously and did, and came out of it enjoying the editing aspect more than anything, “that’s why I’m the producer now,” he says. 

From jobs on the podcast to everyone’s day jobs, what’s the range of careers among our podcasting pals? I already knew a little about what these folks do for a living, but it’s so interesting as a reflection of who the hobby is overall – and even though they’re all doing audio content, they’re a diverse group. Ryan and Mike are our only IT friends in this case – Erin works in mental health field, Mason runs a gardening program at a hunger non-profit, Ambie works in Sales Compensation Analytics at Salesforce and used to be a Chemical Engineer. Crystal is “a marketing copywriter for a credit card company. I love writing and editing so some people are surprised that I went into podcasting rather than blogging, but since I write during my day job, it’s nice to do something a little different for board game content.” Again, we still haven’t hit on people who have specifically come at hobby creation out of their own careers and I find this truly fascinating when considering how passionate we all are about our hobbies; so much so we go out of our way to share that somehow. 

So with that passion driving us overall, what drives these creators to pick their topics and hone their focus? The Five By’s modus operandi really dictates this, and within that Mike says “each contributor is responsible for choosing what game to cover each episode. We try to stay clear of news or anything really time sensitive because I want people to be able to listen to any episode at any time and not worry about it being ‘old news.’” And within that, Mason adds, “we sometimes try to coordinate a balance of old and new [games].” For our other two podcasts, they mostly follow a format that allows ideas and discussion to be plugged in. Board Game Blitz has “3 segments – Recently Played, the Thematic Segment, and Etymology,” says Ambie. The etymology segment has Crystal discussing “the history of a word related to board games”, recently played games are an easy pick, and the thematic segment centers around discussing “games of a particular genre or type or an issue in the board gaming world,” says Crystal. “Some of our listeners and Patrons have suggested show topics and we have those in a big list we can pull from, but we usually pick each topic the week before we record an episode based on what feels right or interesting in the moment.” On Vox Republica, Erin says “we always talk about what we’ve been playing and any recent gaming news. Then we try to tackle a bigger issue – something about a particular game or gaming culture that’s been on our minds.” As the Vox Republica team also produce content in other areas, “when we have something we want to share or talk about,” says Ryan, “we try to figure out which medium is the best way for us to do so based on the subject matter and the people involved.”  

Mason from the Five By

All of these podcasts are a team effort, and we’ve met most of these folks above. “Vox is predominantly Erin and I for the most part,” explains Ryan. “We experimented in some of the earlier episodes with having a guest host in addition to the two of us or having one of us sit out to accommodate them, but it never quite clicked. So we mostly stick with the co-hosting format these days.” On Board Game Blitz there have been three hosts, although Crystal noted “Cassadi is stepping away from regular contributions so she can spend more time with her family so it will just be Ambie and myself on some upcoming episodes.” The Five By has the biggest group of content producers out of the lot by far. It started with just 5, Mike explains – “I used to love to play Starcraft on the computer.  There’s a character for the dropship who always said “In the pipe, 5 by 5”.  Yes, I know it was originally from the movie Aliens and before that an air force thing.  Anyway, it got me thinking that our format should be 5 people each for 5 minutes.” Those original 5 are Mason, Mike, Stephanie, Lindsay and Ruth. As the podcast went on, they brought on Sarah and Kathryn to help as rotating co-hosts, as Mike puts it, “give us some breaks to catch our breath” – and they’ve even had Calvin from Ding & Dent do a guest segment.  

Herding together that many people, pre-recorded or not, must provide some challenges. I wondered how all of these teams managed to coordinate and schedule things. I think Erin and Ryan have possibly got it easiest out of the lot, living together – “At this point, we have a schedule and we stick to it. I wish there were more to say, but that’s it,” says Erin. With the other teams being spread out across North America and even the world, I wondered how things came into place. For Board Game Blitz, who record at the same time together, they will generally “discuss what days we’re free to record,” Ambie says, and then she will organize a calendar invite on Facebook where most of their discussion and organizing takes place. Ambie seems to mostly produce, and tells me they record over Skype, referencing a Google Doc with show notes, and each record their own tracks, which “everyone sends me … to edit together (and I have a backup recording of the Skype call).” While the Five By have the most co-hosts, with pre-recorded segments to be stitched together it can be a little easier for everyone to find time to make their contributions. They’ll chat in their Slack channel, but Mike says the “main reference point is a google sheet where everyone adds what game they’re covering each episode and I have it marked who is in that episode and in what order, who is off, and who does the introduction.” As the producer, he asks contributors to get their segments to him to finish up and get everything done by release day. That is a huge dang team effort, from all of the above. 

I was curious to compare the scripted versus off-the-cuff approaches of the audio crowd to the ways our video makers from last week tend to make their content. Just like the videographers, there’s no one tactic for the podcasters, so it’s interesting to get some insight on these differences. As a big group project every episode with no interaction between co-hosts, the Five By is “all scripted and pre-recorded,” explains Mike. The approach that Board Game Blitz take is reasonably similar to the one I take on Greatway Games with my co-hosts – Ambie points out “we usually have notes for our individual recently played games, and fewer notes for the Thematic segment” and Crystal explains “I like having an outline for myself with specific details that I need to make sure I include (the publisher and designer of a particular game, for instance)”. She goes on, explaining why an outline and not a script: “while I may be more eloquent if I script things, it hinders my personality at times as well as the natural conversation that takes place between all of us.” For Vox Republica, time can be tight for the hosting duo – everything is semi-scripted, Erin explains, “I like to go into podcasts and youtube segments knowing the talking points I need to hit … and having the ability to edit out any ridiculous flubs I make along the way.” Just as well too, in case Ryan “rambles too much” (his words!). Tied into the scripting or not debate, is whether or not audio creators will undertake live content. It’s not often that podcasts will go live – a handful do this regularly, and there are some that will do special event live episodes and the like – what do these folks prefer? For Mike, “I personally have trouble listening to live as the acoustics are never good and I have trouble keeping track of what’s going on” – and this approach doesn’t fit with the model of the Five By’s structure. For Erin and Ryan, “at this point, our schedules are so packed that live-recording is tricky to manage,” says Erin. “We might not feel up to it or have the time on any given day.” And it’s not just the time or energy, but live streaming “is more difficult because of scheduling and the time difference” for Board Game Blitz, Ambie explains. They’re going to try and do more in the future, though, likely more in the video territory. Is it more likely for people to tune into video livestreams rather than audio, due to its similarity to TV events, perhaps? 

Crystal and Ambie from Board Game Blitz

Out of all of the audio content producers highlighted today, Vox Republica is really the only one that doesn’t have a strict guideline for the length of their podcast. “Ryan talks a lot. So, usually, it’s as short as I can make it without like physically moving him away from the microphone,” Erin says. Ryan makes it clear “I’d just talk louder in that case.” A dynamic duo. But it works, with Erin directing topics and keeping things in line with her hosting. Things are more tight with the Five By, thanks to that goal of 5 contributors in 5 minutes. Mike clarifies that this was refined, and “each segment should be 4:30-5:30. Otherwise, I reserve the right to reject or trim the segment.  Which I have done. I don’t mean to sound harsh, and hitting those marks is harder that I think any of us initially expected, but I feel it’s important.” Ambie does some light editing of Board Game Blitz too, and says “when we’re recording, I usually time how long we’ve been taking so we have an idea of how much time we have left. We’re pretty good about keeping to the time limit.” It’s important to them to keep the content accessible so “an average person would be able to listen to our entire show during their commute or trip to the gym,” Crystal says. “We recognize that time is precious and that there is a LOT of board game content out there to listen to. We also think the time limit helps keep us from wandering too much off topic, keeping the content more relevant and interesting.”  

After the nuts and bolts of getting everyone together and figuring out what to talk about, what sorts of skills and tools do audio creators need? And as we saw above, as everyone’s taken this on as a hobby and not an offshoot of their careers, what has been learned “on the job”? Interestingly, Mason revealed “I used to be a semi-professional audio engineer, but I’m still not very good at it.” Lucky that Mike is the one handling the Five By audio, then! He suggests a Yeti microphone, and uses Audacity for recording and editing “as it’s free and runs on my computer.” Mike’s mostly self-taught when it comes to all of it, but has “had some help along the way with kind people showing me editing tips and tricks.” As Board Game Blitz’s editor, Ambie also recommends Audacity: “it has a lot of functions that are sufficient for creating podcasts.” Ambie learned a lot of skills along the way, especially before the podcast with her parody song YouTube channel – so a lot of that carried over to the podcast. Crystal was already somewhat familiar with the motions of getting audio content out there, “I had a show on my college’s radio station for a bit during college … a lot of those skills were mostly forgotten and I had to re-learn a lot of stuff for both audio and video content.” For the practical side of things beyond the audio itself, a great recommendation from Ambie is to do “research on what was needed for a podcast (like what’s needed to upload to iTunes – RSS feed, image, etc)”, which I think tends to get left until the last minute because it all seems so unimportant compared to creating the content itself. There’s no use in putting all of your energy into making a podcast if you don’t really know how to get it out there! Still, the passion is key, even beyond what you need to make – Erin’s stance is “you don’t need much! A microphone, a computer (probably even a phone), and some editing software. Don’t let the tools stop you. You can get all sorts of fancy equipment, but none of it matters if you don’t have passion and curiosity towards whatever you’re crafting.” And while Ryan had some tangential experience with being “A/V nerd in high school” Erin’s learned everything trial-by-fire. For Ryan, another piece of the skills puzzle wasn’t related to the content itself: “Brand building and self promotion on the other hand…that was definitely new. Still not sure I’ll ever quite get the hang of it.” 

The Board Game Blitz team

That note on the unexpected is a great segue into what other sorts of challenges our audio creators face on the daily. Erin’s experience steers more towards the personal side of things than the practical, “I tend to burn out on things quickly. I go all in right away, which means that I sometimes have trouble staying for the long haul. So, finding a way to keep your creative energy flowing is always my biggest challenge.” Reaching out there to stand out among all of the content being produced is what Ryan finds to be the major barrier – how to “make it interesting enough as an audio-only format such that people will choose to spend their time listening to that over videos. How can the topics we bring up and the insight we provide bring value to the listener and worthwhile contribution to hobby overall? It’s easier said than done, that’s for sure.” The Five By’s hurdles are a little more practical in that “hitting our time limits isn’t easy,” Mike says. In addition, “I expect contributors to aim for at least 4 plays before covering a game.  To do that with a game every other week can really limit what you play, which is why I appreciate the help of our newer contributors who have fit in flawlessly in my opinion.” Striving for a consistent format and a defined quality is tough, but worth it by the sounds of it. What I found interesting for Board Game Blitz was a point Crystal brought up, and something I encounter when making Greatway Games: “Talking over Skype is probably the toughest part for us. Not being in the same room as the people you’re talking to means you don’t have all the same visual cues that you normally have in a conversation. We use video, but it still doesn’t always convey those cues as well as a face-to-face conversation would.” As more of an extroverted co-host, she feels “It’s good when I can help drive the conversation forward, but sometimes I end up overstepping and talking too much.  I can’t stand awkward pauses, even if I know they’ll be edited out, because I want the conversation to flow.” Calling back to one of Mike’s points, Ambie also brings up the challenge of time. She makes a lot of content outside of the podcast, too: “I’m doing a lot of board game related things. But everything requires editing time in addition to recording time, so it takes a lot of time to get something done. Since I also have a full time job, it’s hard to find the time to do everything I want to do (and I also want time to play board games!).” I think that is a sort of perennial problem, even for those gamers outside the content creation circles – fitting in your gaming hobby around Real Life™ is no small feat in and of itself. 

Mike from the Five By

With challenges to time and to their lives, what keeps these folks going? For Crystal, it’s clear: “A love of the hobby and a desire to ensure that there are a wide range of diverse voices for new people to listen to.” Ambie has a lot of fun making content, and the podcast has allowed her to meet and become friends with her co-hosts, and many others. For the Vox Republica team, “it’s all predicated on a passionate (and perhaps foolish) notion that our voices help make the hobby, the industry, and the community all a little better off than how we found it,” Ryan explains. “And as long as we continue to believe that our efforts have merit, we’ll keep doing what we’re doing.” Mike is inspired by his fellow creators: “Frankly, what drives me is hearing the other segments … If I lost my voice or something, I would still do this every other week because I want to hear what Lindsay, Ruth, Mason, Stephanie, Sarah, and Kathryn have to say about games.” To have that inbuilt group of people to keep you going must be an incredible boon. And for Mason it goes beyond those co-hosts, too: “One of the best things that’s happened because of the show has been it opening me up to friendships with other gamers from all over the world that I wouldn’t know otherwise. So it’s not ‘do it for the fans’ or some kind of nonsense, but ‘do it because the board game community deserves better content’.” I love that all three of these podcasts have a strong connection to the community of gamers; not just listeners but other content creators, those making board games and going through similar things that our creators here do. Ryan sums this up really well, and I wanted to end our audio feature on this note: “Whether that’s by helping an indie game designer on Kickstarter get their game noticed, discussing ways to make gaming more inclusive for everyone, or simply sharing a unique approach to game reviewing that looks beyond the traditional good/bad rubric, we feel our contributions have an impact, however small.” 

Cindy Guillermo Heselton

Creators of physical items have more recently increased in number in the board game world, spreading throughout Etsy and the rest of the internet to great response. These tend to be more of a “one man band” situation – even a company like the Broken Token started out as a “person in their garage making stuff” project before they escalated their manufacturing – and I wanted to see the creativity that was out there as far as the types of products and crafts being made. I reached out to some solo creators, to see what their experiences are like and how they differ to the other creators I’ve featured – this lead me to chat to Robert Searing, of the game box insert site Insert Here Me, Cindy Guillermo Heselton who runs her own geeky fashion and decor website, Infinite Sinn, and John DuBois who sells mostly shadowbox displays of games through Etsy, but has branched out into accessories too.   

These “makers” are all a little bit different, but I thought, perhaps, there had to be some reasons in common for them starting up creating. For Cindy, it comes down to making something, no matter what – “willing something into existence makes me feel like a magical unicorn, though it’s definitely less fanciful than that.” Ah, now I see it – these makers are the magical unicorns of the board game world. Look – you couldn’t have known it til now, either! For Rob and John, making their projects came out of a mix of the hobby they love, and making something practical. Robert got into “board games as a means of bonding with my children,” – all 8 of them! – “[and] as I got into the hobby, I started researching ways of organizing the game pieces.” Sounds familiar, doesn’t it dear reader? I’m sure a good amount of us have often desired something more than baggies. When Robert was brainstorming, he came across some ideas using foam core/board. “I’ve never been very crafty, but thought I’d give it a shot. After making a few and posting pics in BoardGameGeek, people would comment that I should try selling them. I didn’t think I’d make anything but, after auctioning several for charity, I realized that it might be worth my time.” Now look where he is! Similarly, John found himself starting crafting because “we finished our basement and needed to decorate it. We designed the finished space to be usable as a game room …  so I made some projects to decorate our space. I had enough parts left from those projects to make others, so I just kept going.” The creative challenges that are offered by all of the things these creators do are inspiring and motivated. And for John, “and it often helps me think differently about games, both published designs and the games I’m currently designing.” Creating is not just a process, but a whole state of mind that brings an outlet to inspiration.  

It seems like being hobbyists lead to a whole other nested hobby for these folks in some ways! Or at least, a lifelong proclivity for creativity helped spark their interest in making even if it was never an intended outlet. Robert’s always enjoyed making things – “from wedding videos (amateur) to photo editing, to creating brochures at work – I always tended to try to do things to scratch that creativity itch … So the designing process comes a little easier for me, although each new design is a challenge.” John’s start came as part of his “immersion into the hobby”, from designing adventures when he started playing Dungeons & Dragons to playing board games, where “thinking about how to design my own emerged naturally from that,” he explains. It’s almost like, for these creators, it’s a bit of a chicken or the egg scenario. And it’s no different for Cindy, who “always loved being immersed in the arts – drawing and playing violin were early favorites.” As she got older, her “passion for sewing and fashion started in high school when I taught myself how to sew on my mom’s sewing machine so I could create loopholes around the oppressive school uniform. From there it just snowballed into different things, I just never stopped, and I absolutely love learning new skills.” From the chicken or the egg, to a more sort of Katamari situation, creators who are makers are in this constant feedback loop of rolling around in the hobby they love, being inspired, making things, putting those back out into the hobby and so on.  

Some of Cindy’s creations

So during all of this process and work, do these folks have official day jobs? John is a speech pathologist working mostly in schools and gets to dabble a little bit in mixing that with board gaming – he tells me, “as my student put it, ‘the guy who lets us play games, but then makes us talk about them.’” Robert also dabbles in board gaming, among other things, with four jobs. “I did mention I have eight children didn’t I?” So outside of Insert Me Here, he mainly works for Spring/Ericsson as a business analyst, but in addition to that, he is “the Dice Tower’s web admin, advertising manager …  [and manages] a team of about 12 that produce Dice Tower News.” No rest for the enthusiastic gamer! Cindy ties in her hobby passions somewhat to her job as a technical designer for a streetwear clothing brand. “It’s a lot of checking measurements on garments, deciding what size stripes to put on something, and making sure factories haven’t sewn a sleeve where a pant leg should be, haha.” It really is interesting to me that, as a whole, this last group of creators I’ve chosen to look into manages to have a complex Venn Diagram going on for their lives where a lot of things intertwine in a multitude of ways. A little day job with the hobby, a little hobby with the creating. We should all be so lucky. 

John DuBois

So when it’s time to clock off, how do Robert, John and Cindy hone in on what to make, considering there’s quite a breadth of output for all of them? That interplay of hobby and passion with creativity comes out quite obviously here, and felt somewhat similar to what our other creators feel when they’re inspired by a game, or news, to cover it. While Robert does keep an eye out on social media and at events like Gen Con for the “hotness”, “nine times out of ten it’s games that I purchase for my family (my gaming group).” John will also look at that hype and demand for what to put out there, but if it’s a personal project, he says “it’s usually related to a game that Christine [John’s wife] and I have particularly enjoyed lately or something for a decoration for our home.” Cindy is be inspired by any number of things that are the target of her obsession in the moment; to focus in on something, she says, “I sketch my ideas out and let it linger for a while, then revisit it and figure out if I still want to make it or not. I get a lot of random ideas, and I find this is the best way to sift out the ones I’m really crazy about.” It seems like, as our other creators find, walk the line of what keeps you happy and what’s fun, but also appeals to others. 

Inspiration and ideas seem to flow freely with this sort of creation – so what about the next part of this process? What are the first steps for creators when they settle down to make a project and, typically, how long does it take from start to finish? Regardless of the type of creation, Cindy starts out by looking at what materials will be needed and she explains, “sometimes I’ll start with a prototype or sample so I can work out whatever kinks there are in the design.” Despite this rounded approach for all of the creations she makes, timing tends to be variable – “stuff on my Etsy usually take a few days, while cosplay projects can take months.” John’s shadowboxes start off with him playing the game – this allows him to create something meaningful, as he explains, “I prefer to have the finished project resemble a possible outcome of game play.” Then it gets practical, where he’s measuring, “trying to figure out the best way to display the game’s best visual features within the limitations of the frame.” Most of his games will take about an hour or two after playing to finish up – he does have some more complicated commissions, however, “like the three Pandemic Legacy projects currently sitting in my basement, I need to put in a good 3-4 hours of work to make sure I’m using as much of the game as possible.” Like John, Robert starts off with some “research”: reading rules and watching “How To Play” videos (he mentions a favourite is Canada’s own Watch It Played!) to see the step-by-step setup of the game. This is important for him, “as it allows me to see what pieces are handed out to players and which are stored in piles besides the board … My driving goal is to spend time myself in design so that players can spend less time in set-up and tear-down – thus allowing them to spend more time enjoying the game and not so worried about the time required to set it up.” Between this priming stage, plus design and building, it can take anywhere from days to weeks for a project to complete for Robert: “Sometimes (rarely) everything may just seem to work perfectly but, more often than not, I go through several different iterations of a design before I’m satisfied.”  

Robert Searing and his family

Given the often complicated steps to creation, and the time that goes into it all, I wondered if our trio of makers came to their particular outlets with any relevant skills, or if they learned “on the job”. With her lifelong passion for fashion and sewing, it’s certainly been more of a development of those skills for Cindy rather than starting from scratch. But, as we have read with our podcasters and the like, there’s often other aspects of making things for other people that you don’t consider. The internet’s been a great tool for her to learn – but it’s not the most exciting part of making for her: “Navigating social media and managing my website have become a required skill with the business side of everything, though it’s rough balancing that aspect … I enjoy spending time daydreaming about projects a little more.” Robert had never owned a business before Insert Here Me sprang up, which “was something difficult to learn and something I had to develop professionally as I went along.” He dove in with enthusiasm to development and building actual products though: “it’s been completely ‘learn-as-you-go’. I can’t draw for the life of me (although I make a great stick figure) so it was a surprise to me at how I took to building foam core projects. But it’s been a long trial-by-error process and I learn with each new design I make.” That’s something John can sympathise with: “John  I figured everything out as I went along. This led to many discarded frames (and a couple discarded games!) before I found a method that worked well for me.” Although there’s time that goes into creating a video, recording a podcast or writing a review – there’s not often actual real stuff that gets wrecked along the way! I’m a little thankful for that, myself.  

There’s quite something about creating an actual physical thing that can be rewarding – what do these creators see as the projects they’ve had fun making, but also what they’re most proud of? Cindy’s choice for what’s been most fun is a cosplay of Padme Amidala’s lake dress from Star Wars Episode 2 , made for a family member. She notes, “It was the first time I dyed fabric for anything, it was incredibly frustrating, but also ridiculously exciting.” And I’d be excited if I made something like this too! Robert finds the fun in making projects for games he’ll play himself – he does say,  “many of my favorites have been the Mice & Mystics line (my favorite game), and any game that has gorgeous components that work well with my trays (ie Stonemaier products / Top Shelf Gamer token upgrades along with Meeple Source upgrade kits)”. John also finds it fun to make more personal projects, “for one birthday, I made Christine a “calendar” of important events in our relationship with a copy of Can’t Stop, and for one of our anniversaries, I made a shadowbox from the wedding edition of Love Letter.” That’s some next level excellence in gifts right there. His commission projects for Pandemic Legacy shadowboxes are what makes him most proud. He explains, “it’s a unique challenge to take this experience that a group shared and personalized and create something that reflects that individual experience without having been a direct part of it.” 

One of Robert’s game inserts

On the flipside of a personal feeling of pride and love for certain pieces, I asked everyone what their most popular pieces had been with fans and consumers. Although John’s store highlights the shadowboxes as his primary project, impulse buy accessory items “like my keychains, have been a lot more popular, once to the point that I had to drive to three different thrift stores looking for copies of Trivial Pursuit so I could fill an especially large order.” For Cindy, it goes back to the first thing she made, inspired by a video game – “a backpack version of the health pack from Left 4 Dead, I would constantly sell out of the item in my Etsy store at the time.” For Robert’s inserts, things will ebb in popularity with game hotness, but “The ones that tend to be the most popular are those that are designed for games with TONS of pieces. Caverna, Lords of Waterdeep, Scythe, Terraforming Mars, Great Western Trail, and Mice & Mystics have been huge successes,” he says. “” 

There are so many aspects to the pieces that Cindy, Robert and John make, that I figured there would have to be challenges – and most likely challenges unique in the land of board game content creation. For Cindy this manifests quite practically when translating an idea: “sometimes when I imagine something, it doesn’t necessarily work with reality. There’s a lot of trial and error and trying to not get discouraged by failure.” In John’s experience, it isn’t the physical aspect of making what he does, but targeting a niche market. “It’s a creative project, so it really only appeals to people who have both disposable income and display space,” he explains, “and its target demographic is a group that naturally weighs the value of a display piece against the value of buying, say, a new game.” This is almost certainly something unique to makers, in that most other content will likely just hit barriers where people aren’t interested in a format, for instance. The boom of the game industry can be a little thorn in Robert’s side, with his single biggest challenge being expansions to gameshe’s already designed inserts for. Practically, he’ll “do my very best to design something that will fit everything into a box (ie Champions of Midgard Big Box) but I can’t always do that.” Beyond that, it challenges his customer service and satisfaction: “I absolutely hate it that a customer that bought my product is now (if they also purchase the expansion) going to be require to purchase a new product. I take that into consideration however, and offer special programs for those customers.” Upon reflection, it seems like for creators such as these, iterating designs and trying something new or different more often can help get over these hurdles, but it must be quite a intensive process.  

Pandemic Legacy shadowbox by John

Through that process, and every day, what drives creators of products and art liked this, when it’s a lot of work for perhaps not the ideal ratio of feedback and money to that time and effort? Family is a massive motivator for Robert, who is “truly blessed to have a very supportive wife (whom I’ve been married to for 15.5 years) and 8 very loving children.” They take an interest and will also help out from time to time – Robert’s wife will often prepare a lot of the inserts for him to then assemble and ship. For him, the success of the business and support of the customers means a lot to him and his family, and really drives him; “I wish my customers could understand just how much they are valued and how I consider them, in my daily interactions, to be just another extended family member.” Cindy’s found that motivation can be tough, but her “creative process has slowly evolved into a form of coping with anxiety and depression,” as well as being “extremely fulfilling to be able to connect with other people with the things I create.” This pulls me back to a lot of the other creators I’ve spoken to, having their medium and message be a way for them to become part of a community like they hadn’t before. This is certainly the case for John too, who – although motivated by creativity and challenge to keep his designs fresh – finds “crafting is a way to keep myself actively involved in the board game community online that isn’t as time-intensive as game design has been.”  

 It’s truly remarkable to see the effort and passion that people pour into creating, and the feeling of creativity and connection that rewards then for that. None of the creators I spoke to as part of these features ever once was motivated by wanting to make money, to become famous, to push themselves into this sort of thing as a day job. The common factor of a hobby that people love pushes them to become a part of it in a way they’d not considered before becoming creators, putting themselves out into the world in myriad ways. You and I can listen to a podcast while working out, put together an insert for a game while watching a video review, or browse a review and its photo highlights over our lunch break – and we connect with the people who have made them all. A hobby such as this is nothing without its community, and it’s fantastic to see that creators – even this small slice of them – are integral to that. I hope you’ve gained some insight into the practicalities of what these folks do, and admire what they achieve every day – because a day in their life is a day in our hobby’s.  


Thank you so much to all of these fantastic creators who took the time to answer my questions! I’m glad I got to share them with the world. Please do visit their sites, check out their creations and give them a follow on social media. 

Ambie Valdés and Crystal Pisano @BoardGameBlitz @ambierona @CrystalPisano 

Mason Weaver and Mike Risley  @FiveByGames @DiscountCompost @MikeRisley  

Erin Ryan and Ryan LaFlamme @CardboardNews @Super_EMarie @trickybluemage 

Robert Searing @InsertHere_Me

Cindy Guillermo Heselton @sinnanoms on Twitter and Instagram 

John DuBois @JohnduBois   


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