In August 2013, Board With Life appeared on YouTube, “a comedy web series following a group of board game geeks during their regular game nights” and quickly captured the internet’s hearts. A fresh take on board games, this mini-sitcom was a format I hadn’t seen in board game media so far, and I got hooked. Season 2 releases today and Chris Bryan, one of the co-creators of the show, was kind enough to take the time to chat with me about Board With Life (BwL)’s inception, how season 2 came together, and more.
BwL features a group of friends, all of whom have great on-screen chemistry – so how did everyone meet? Considering the quality of BwL’s production, it should come as no surprise that most of them had met in college where they started making films together. They all met Donald (Shults) on a shoot post-college and as they continued to work together, they played games as a group of friends during or after film shoots. (When they finally started making BwL, the only person in the cast who wasn’t previously part of the group of friends was Jonathan, who’d been cast because none of the rest of them “looked like adult human people or someone who had maybe played football at one point in their life.”)
After working hard on making and showcasing indie films at festivals as a hobby, they decided to move towards creating something that more people might see, and decided to create a web series. “We were looking for some kind of fandom or geekdom on the internet that we could centre the show around so that people could find it”, Chris recalls. Inspired by what people were doing creatively in video game media – shows like Video Game High School, The Guild and Hey Ash Whatcha Playin’ – they realized that as a group of people who love board games, they had a perfect setting for a sitcom. “There wasn’t really anyone doing narrative content [for board games],” Chris says, “..video games certainly had a lot of good comedic content. We saw them doing it and it was going well… and thought why not [do] it for board games.”
The group knew that being able to produce something new, with a fresh take, would be key to finding their audience and having a wider reach. “Honestly, the market at the time – and especially now – there were a ton of people doing board game reviews; like that’s predominantly what board game videos are. I think people like Shut Up & Sit Down do comedic reviews incredibly well and we didn’t really want to compete with anybody, we wanted to offer something new”, Chris says. On top of that unique content, “the thing we could offer was production value because we have backgrounds in filmmaking, whereas almost everyone else is coming at it where they have backgrounds in playing board games and then they learn the aspect of filmmaking. We were coming at it from a different angle where we already knew the filmmaking aspect and we could just do it around board games.”
Overall, this niche approach was deliberate; not only to reach an audience, but as an investment in their career futures. Chris says, “while we love board games, and we love being in the board game industry, what we really wanted to do was make a narrative, show to show, that we were able to do it, so that if ever the time came where we were in the situation where we could pitch a show to someone – like TV or internet or whatever – we could, in addition to being able to pitch a show, demonstrate we have made that show. So it’s sort of a proof of concept for us.”
And quite an excellent proof of concept it was. Although it was originally planned to be 12 episodes, season 1 was 5 regular episodes and a special episode. Their success and popularity flourished quicker than they expected, and Chris says “BwL is by far the most successful thing we’ve ever done in the film world, so once it did well it was a foregone conclusion we’d make season 2.” The group made season 1 completely out of their own pockets, but the success of that first season made for a successful Kickstarter campaign in February 2014. The funding goal was not outrageous, but more along the lines of “I really hope we make this goal because it’s kinda what we need to do season 2 the way we want to,” Chris says. Because of the warmth and generosity of the board game community, the Kickstarter campaign brought in double the original goal amount of $14,000. It was fantastic being able to do this, Chris says. “People in the board game community are so happy to support what they like and what they think is valuable. The fact that the Dice Tower & Watch It Played – they can make a living based off donations – Shut Up & Sit Down is the same way … It’s not like you have to pay for the content, it’s free – but people are happy to support them. Which is something that’s really cool about the board game hobby, it’s very supportive of the people within it.”
So if crowdfunding their way to a season 2 meant doing it the way they wanted, how did the money raised go towards helping with that? The most important thing isn’t exactly super flashy to most of us on the outside of the production of film. Chris: “It’s a weird thing that you wouldn’t expect, and nobody will ever see, but it’s a sound recorder.” Long story short, it allowed for 6 people to be mic’d up at a time (rather than just 2 at a time as in season 1), and Chris notes “it meant we could write however we wanted, we were way more efficient in how quickly we could shoot and were free to move the camera however we wanted.” With the addition of a new lighting setup and a MōVI camera stabilizer for hand-held work, “we were able to get really creative with a lot of our shots in season 2 and we’re way freer with how we could use a camera.” In addition to equipment, the funding meant guest stars like Rich Sommer, Troy Baker and Lisa Foils, and their semi-regular Ashley Burch, could be flown in to film, and the money overall “freed us up in almost every aspect so we were able to improve because we could write whatever we wanted because we knew we’d be able to film it,” Chris says.
Much of this creativity and freer way of filming is evident in the trailer for season 2, so you should take a look at that right now!
Since the Kickstarter finished up, the team have been working solidly the last couple of years in their spare time to get season 2 done. Not only are there more episodes this season, each of which are about twice as long as the episodes from season 1 – so cumulatively, the season’s worth of filming is about two feature films in length. No small feat at all! How exactly did the team go about planning and creating the season? After 6 months of an email thread where the writers (Nikki, Brittany, Casey, Donald and Chris) throw their ideas, jokes and whatever else at the wall, they had hundreds of ideas. As a group they sat down and read through all the ideas Nikki had written out on note cards, and Chris explains, “if we laughed at a thing, it went in one pile, and if we didn’t it went in another pile. Then we went through the pile of everything we’d laughed at and started looking at what we wanted to do with the season and how things could fit into certain episodes.” The team outlined a general season arc, where certain jokes would land, and then each went to write an episode or two – coming back together once that was done to see how everything flowed. This was, as Chris states, “really successful and led to a much more cohesive feeling season.”
Aside from the scripting of plot and jokes, I was curious whether the team had picked certain games for specific episodes, or if they found games after writing them. It’s a little of both, according to Chris. “Some episodes started from knowing what game we were gonna do, and we went from there, and then some episodes we figured out when writing the outline what game would fit thematically.” The process is tough to pull apart about now, because the games and the episodes seem so integrated in hindsight. Much of season 2 is influenced by thematic games, especially the Dead of Winter and Fiasco episodes. Regarding the latter, they’d really wanted to cover RPGs more this season to “to hopefully bring in some new eyes, along with the RPG podcast” [Chris is referring to the group’s regular D&D play through podcast, which you can find here]. “We tried to have a variety of different games … and I think we kind of leaned a little more on thematic games this season because a lot of the episode’s tone comes from the game itself,” Chris notes. The first episode, featuring the RPG Fiasco, centres around a heist, which fits perfectly, seeing as Fiasco is “inspired by cinematic tales of small time capers gone disastrously wrong.”
With new equipment and more chances to script things that they’d not tried before, I asked Chris what had worked that they hadn’t expected to. Luckily, he says “more than everything we’ve ever done, stuff worked.” Hella lucky! One of the episodes Chris wrote and directed features a car chase, which none of them had experience filming before – but they threw themselves at it, and it worked. The team knew their limits for some things that weren’t logistically feasible, or realized before things got too far if an idea was purely put forward because it’d look cool, rather than be compelling for an episode’s momentum. They still let themselves try things beyond what they’d done in season 1; Chris says the group “kinda wanted to stretch our wings – our production wings and our filmmaking chops, so we were doing stuff that was exciting to us, that was funny to us; trying new things, taking risks and they generally worked.”
But even more than the big jokes, fun adventures, and the challenging production efforts, the characters and balance of emotion in season 2 matter more. “More than about board games,” says Chris, the show is “about a board game group. …. And so, we work really hard to try and have interesting and flawed characters that are complex, but feel honest.” While some episodes are packed with great jokes and visuals, like the episode guest starring Rich Sommer that previewed at 2015’s BGGcon, others are more nuanced. It’s important for Chris, as “That is kind of my aesthetic as a writer, I think. I think things can be funnier when it’s sad, and I think putting honest emotions in things that are funny kinda makes the funny stuff better.” Where they rushed in a little at the end of season 1 with some heavier emotion, season 2 has “sad parts, as well as funny parts and happy parts. I think we captured an overall tone that is more lighthearted than season 1.”, Chris says. They set some boundaries for the characters and tone in season 1, and are now getting to play within that this season: “The characters are kind of deeper – now that we’ve already established them and gotten to know them, now we get to start messing with them a little bit, and seeing how they’re growing or changing or what’s going on with them.”
A testament to the strength of how established the characters are, as well as how the group works together on screen, is a montage at the end of one of Chris’ episodes, inspired in part by the mumblecore style of filmmaking. Hoping for improvisation, Chris didn’t write specifically what should happen in this scene – “I didn’t actually write any dialogue, which the other writers were really nervous about. I just wrote what needed to happen in the scene and we found it organically and it worked, which was awesome … Because we actually are friends in real life and have a rapport with other which I think is a pretty valuable thing in this context because a lot of shows, even if people like each other, like – we are actually all best friends … It feels so honest, it feels like you’re actually at a game night with friends.”
So, what’s next for these besties? Chris says “we bit off a bit more than we could chew with season 2 – it took us literally two years of work … I think we’re going to take a break from making anything for a second and kind of enjoy each other’s company.” Not only that, in the last couple of years, “literally every single cast member has either gotten married, pregnant or both. So, our time is just way more valuable these days and our lives are so different now.” But after a while, once everyone’s felt they’ve had a break “we’ll all be ‘man we gotta get back into this we gotta go do something’”. If season 2 does well, Chris says the team will likely do a season 3 and it’ll be a smaller venture so as to fit it in over a year – and then perhaps do a season every year. He quips, “we’ll have to see, and wait for everyone to have all the babies they’re going to have.”
Board With Life Season 2 premieres today, Monday February 29th! The season is 7 episodes long, and will air weekly on Mondays.