On July 11, 2015, Eric posted his first review of Catan and kicked off "What's Eric Playing," a blog dedicated to tabletop game reviews. Now past review #450 after only four years, Eric leads a double life of software engineer by day and prolific reviewer/photographer by night. He is known by many for his approachable feedback on games and for introducing the most aesthetically pleasing circular patterns known to mankind (at least among this community anyway).
Hey Eric, thank you for making your time! First up, could you tell us a bit about yourself?
- Hm, I never have a cogent answer for this. I usually just say my name’s Eric and then I trail off for a bit because I’m not sure if y’all want to know more about, like, my hobbies or job or whatsit. Thankfully, this is over text and not audio, so that five-minute existential pause I just had basically doesn’t exist. Lemme try again. My name’s Eric, and in my day-to-day, I’m a software engineer focused on educational technology. When I’m not doing that, well, I’m generally doing this, board game reviews, photography, and miscellaneous extras. I used to be more of a video gamer, but I missed the in-person interactions, so I switched over shortly after college. And I do mostly that, now. I also watch a fair amount of TV, and have a soft spot for aquariums? That’s about it, offhand.
What was the most "geeky" thing you've done in your life?
- I really gotta assume it was “start a board game reviewing website”.
What did pre-board game blogging Eric look like? As in... what were you up to before starting your blog?
- Not a whole lot; I started it shortly after I graduated college, when I was still settling into “how does one have hobbies after graduate school?”.
- It was a complex time, so, I guess the answer was graduate school?
Could you share about the genesis of "What's Eric Playing?" Like... how did you decide on the title? (please be honest, did you actually take time thinking about it? xD). What motivated you to start the blog? How did photography come into play?
- I hate naming things. It took me two weeks to come up with What’s Eric Playing? and I still really don’t think I love it. Bleh. Oh well, stuck with it now. I kind of wish I had come up with something that was only 15 characters for Twitter handle reasons, but, again, bleh.
- I had a lot of free time post-grad school, and my friend was working on her FFXIV food blog (wild), and she asked if I had ever considered writing. I said I had no formal experience, and she told me to just … do it. And so that’s what I did. Wrote up the first 15 posts or so and started releasing them on a regular cycle.
- The photography came into play when I realized it was probably not a great look for me to just take photos from BGG and use them on my website (I assumed [correctly, nice] that I could do that if I just wanted to post to BGG, but in general it seemed kinda sketchy). Now, I make my photos shareable under a Creative Commons license (non-commercial / share-alike / with attribution) so that people who are getting started on their own sites don’t have to do all the heavy lifting I did (unless they want to!!!).
I wasn't trying to make fun of the title by the way (I think it's a great original title and goes with your approachable vibe). Moving on, I feel like anyone looking for board game content on social media would've stumbled onto your photography at some point (they're BEAUTIFUL by the way). So what was the intent behind your unique photography setups?
- It’s fine; I make fun of the title quite a bit, since it’s … pretty straightforward. But thank you for the compliment.
- Yeah, a fair number of times I stumble on my own photography when I’m browsing social media, which is always … interesting. I really got inspired by some of the work I saw in other mediums (and board games) and I wanted to try and do something that was kinda … my own thing. So I focused a lot on circles and here we are. Doesn’t work for everything (and that’s always interesting) but it works a lot of the time.
What is your approach or philosophy behind reviewing board games?
- Good question. Lately, my approach has been “what have I already agreed to review”, but in The Before Times a lot of it was what games am I most excited to talk about. There’s a really interesting point that we could spend a whole interview on about audience expectations for reviews—I think there’s a nonzero number of people out there who expect your average review score to be a 5, whereas in reality for a lot of people it’s probably between a 7 and an 8. On one hand, there’s an argument there that many / most games are “good”, at minimum, but I think there’s also a bit of selection bias at play. Especially if you’re not full-time, you’re mostly reviewing games in your collection or games you like, which tends to nudge the average more positive. It’s not some Grand Conspiracy as much as it is the casual nature of you try to buy games that you like, so if you reviewed your entire collection you’d assume that the average score would be slightly higher. It’s a really interesting psychology thing. But I got off track.
- My philosophy is generally that every game has something I like, something I’m lukewarm on, and something I wish it had. After I’ve gone through that, I usually have a pretty good sense of what bucket it falls into, relative to other games (I usually just do “at the moment, would I rather play X or Y more?” and sift until I find games that are roughly equivalent). That’s gotten me through the first 450, so I’m pretty happy with my approach and style.
What was the most visually stunning game you reviewed that also delivered in its gameplay?
- Depends on what you mean by visually stunning. Artistically impressive, I still gotta give a shout-out to Millennium Blades for just making so many moving parts work. Aesthetically, Catch the Moon is still one of my favorites for being simple with great components. The ladders look great when they’re being used. For just general art, I usually give a shout-out to Near and Far and Sol: Last Days of a Star—both are beautiful games in their own right, with Near and Far shooting for a wistful storybook and Sol being a more meditative orbiting experience. All of those games are, in my opinion, excellent, both mechanically and artistically.
Let's go to the other end. Did you ever have a game that you tried to review that was frankly... ugly and difficult to photograph in an appealing way? If so, how did you deal with it?
- Yeah. In the interest of not clowning games, I’ve had several instances where games were either too large and unwieldy, had too many or too few pieces, or frankly just had an aesthetic that wasn’t really my jam, so I’ll not deal too much in specifics, here. I generally have a system that I use for getting through a game’s photos, so you just kinda adhere to the system as best as you can, even if you aren’t super jazzed about it. I will happily admit it takes me two or three times as long to do photos / writing for games I’m not really enthusiastic about, which is always fun. Hard to budget for that.
What is a lesser known board game that you'd like to give a shoutout to the most? What do you love about the game? What do you think is the reason behind its lack of presence?
- Ironically, I hadn’t read this question and had a whole Twitter thread about it, yesterday. There are probably five, I’d say, honestly. Cursed Court, Sol: Last Days of a Star, Kintsugi, The Legend of Korra: Pro-Bending Arena, and Spy Club. There are a lot of reasons for these, I think. Out of the five, only Spy Club has a really dedicated social media presence, for one. I haven’t seen a lot of press for any of the five, and even now, I still don’t see much about it. I think there may be other reasons they never really took off (some people have noted that they struggled with Korra’s rulebook, and others suggested that Spy Club’s best content is tucked into the modules, so demoers at cons wouldn’t necessarily get past the first game), so it’s worth considering how you promote your game through its entire life-cycle. A lot of great games get released, these days, and a lot of them can fly under the radar if you’re not careful.
You seem to be actively engaged with other content creators through Twitter. Who is a fellow content creator you've gotten to know that you'd especially like to give a shoutout to?
- Nettersplays is awesome. She makes videos, makes awesome component trays, has a great bird, and plays a ton of heavy games that are wildly outside of my comfort zone and scope. It means that I relish the opportunities we get to team up. :)
As of this interview, you're at #450 in total reviews since starting your blog. Congrats!! Did you always expect yourself to have stuck through with this for so long?
- I feel like the arbitrary milestone was probably 100; once I got through that I assumed that I would probably be on the hook forever. I think what I didn’t expect was to go from one review every two weeks (~2 / month) to five reviews every week (~20 / month). It’s a bit of a faster pace than is probably sustainable, but, games to review, you know?
By this point, is there any superpower you've developed from doing so many reviews? Also, having observed pros and cons across hundreds of games, have you ever thought about making a game of your own?
- The key is time management, haha. I have a lot of spreadsheet work I’ve done, and I know how to allocate work such that I always have something to do. The other “superpower” I guess is a better understanding of myself and how I work. I try not to force myself to do anything, otherwise it comes out badly, so I gotta have a good sense of how I’m feeling (or will likely feel) at any given point so I can predict how much work I can wring out of myself. For instance, last night I did 5 games’ worth of photos while watching TV. I can do that and edit photos with TV on; I can’t necessarily write a review while that’s happening. If I have a night that I don’t feel like doing TV, I can now go and write the reviews that correspond to those.
- I have, several times, and I have three designs that I’ve done some work on. I do not enjoy the game design process, so, they’re kind of bunk. If someone wants to make a game off of a half-baked idea, hit me up.
What are some ways in which your influence in this community has grown to a point that it surprised you?
- Hahaha, I’m not sure, honestly. I’m still surprised that I can get a press pass to conventions, is probably the thing.
Do you wish to make this into your full-time job? How close are you and what would it take to get to that point?
- Hard pass, haha. The area I live in is far too expensive for that kind of lifestyle. Also, even though I do a bit too much right now, I do try to think about this as something that I enjoy, and depending on my audience for my actual livelihood would probably stress me out too much. No disrespect to people who are doing it; I really respect the hustle. It’s just not for me.
Do you foresee any changes in the direction of your blog/content in the near future?
- I’m currently doing a few other things that I’m going to put in an Other Thoughts tab, but that content is always going to be secondary compared to my primary review content. Then again, ask me when I’m a bit closer to review #1000 and I might have different thoughts, hahaha.
As we near the end of this talk, what are some changes in the board game industry/media that you'd like to see the most? What would be your solution for the changes to occur?
- I still think board games and board game media have a ways to go on representation. The hobby isn’t nearly as diverse as it could be, and though we’re seeing a lot of good progress, I think some paradigm shifts are still necessary. Part of that is that we really gotta internalize the idea that a rising tide lifts all boats and start working with up-and-coming diverse content creators; be the change and all that. Simply cutting yourself off from the media landscape and arguing it’s a meritocracy ignores a lot of real issues facing people trying to break into the space (the imbalanced expectations of childcare, societally; the requirement for both a significant additional income and extra free time outside of work and other responsibilities; the pressure to always have and make content for the newest and latest titles). It’s tough, and I think it actively discourages folks who could really provide new voices. And even when they do, against all odds, get into the space, it’s not always super welcoming; sometimes it’s even pretty insular. It’s a tough problem to solve, and while I think we’re making progress, we’re not there yet.
Lastly, what do you think is a good mark of success and what sort of milestone would you like to achieve in the near future?
- Heh, I think about this a lot, but, as cliche as it’s going to sound, I think the best mark of success is whether or not I’m proud of the work I’m doing. And I am, you know? Like, I’m happy to have done this many reviews and gotten to check out this many cool games, but I’ve also had the opportunity through this whole thing to meet some amazing people (some of whom are some of my closest friends), and I’m really thankful for that. Gratitude is a really positive emotion. Chasing metrics is a good way to microadjust content, but, at the end of the day, I don’t have that much macro-level control over whether or not I get 1000+ views in a day or hit 10,000 followers, and trying to put that all on me is a great way to stress myself out. So I try to focus on what I can control, which is whether or not I’m putting out work that I feel like I can be proud of. And that’s been good enough for me.
Thanks Eric for making your time!
(All images have been provided with permission from Eric)
Before we close, here's a fun little section I prepared...
What Do Fellow Content Creators Say About Eric?
Ross @ More Games Please:
"I'm pretty sure Eric is actually 15 interns he doesn't credit due to the output of his blog. I'm joking of course but seriously, it's an amazing output level."
Annette @ Nettersplays:
"Not only is Eric one of the dearest, funniest and most honest friends in the board game world, but he's also one of the hardest workers. This may be due to the fact that he's a robot in disguise. How else can he explain coming out with 4-5 reviews a week consistently for months on end?"
Suzanne @ 425suzanne:
"If you want a thoughtfully crafted, entertaining-to-read game review that features lovely photographs - then you have to be reading What's Eric Playing. I'm glad he decided to go with just "What's Eric Playing" instead of my suggestion 'What's Eric Playing Today' with its unfortunate acronym. See? Smart moves like that shows how smart he really is."
....And That's All for Today!
Readers, if you haven't done so already, check out more of Eric's reviews here.
You can also support Eric's work on his Patreon.
Thanks for the read and you can also find more of my interviews below. Instead of my usual list of ALL of my interviews... it's a random selection of three of my past interviews. Now if you really want to binge on all of my past interviews, feel free to do so by sifting through my past posts here.
- Board Game Meets Wildlife—How Catherine Hamilton Illustrated the Evolution Series
- Legacy of Martin Wallace and How Kickstarter Transformed the Board Game Industry
- From MIT to Board Game Artist: How Ruwen Liu Illustrated Cake Duel