Phillip Millman, Two-Time Baseball Highlights 2045 World Champion & Board Game Phenomenon
Just who is this man who constantly posts about his Commissioner Ralph Trophy on The Boardgame Group on Facebook? Let's find out (pro tip: click on the link on the captions below images to get the full story behind them).
Hey Phillip, thank you for making your time available for this interview! First up, could you tell us a bit about yourself?
Thank you for asking me to talk about the wonderful world of board gaming. I’m a New Yorker who has been living in the DC diaspora for the past 16 years with my wife and (now grown) children. I’m a former Wall Street executive who currently works as a federal financial regulator. Before getting into modern board games, I participated in amateur improvisational theater for 7 years. My trophy pictures are a testament to my improv background.
How did you get into the hobby and what are some of your most memorable moments from that time?
Growing up in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I played a lot of Dungeons & Dragons and wargames in middle school and high school. My earliest tabletop games were Ogre from Steve Jackson games and Feudal from Avalon Hill Games. In college and during my early working career, I was too busy to play games. My first child was born in the early 1990s while my wife was in law school, and whatever time I might have had evaporated. When my kids were a little older, we did play some games, but it was mostly Once Upon a Time, Set, Ticket to Ride and Guillotine. What child doesn’t like to behead French citizens?
I got into modern board games in 2012, after my work responsibilities changed and I was required to travel over 100 nights a year. I could no longer participate in Improv because I couldn’t practice with my troupe nor make weekday performances. In searching for something to do, I stumbled across a website called Kickstarter and found two games that caught my attention: Ogre: Designer’s Edition and Francis Drake. Francis Drake was especially appealing because of the theme and the lack of dice. I was stunned that a game could be made without cards or dice. Then I heard about a website called BoardGameGeek.com and I was hooked.
My most memorable moment was going to my first Board Game Geek Con in Dallas. I was terrified as I didn’t know anyone there. I had no idea what games I would play nor with who I would play. My first con was fantastic. I learned how to play Francis Drake from Peter Hawes, who traveled from Australia to attend. I met fascinating people who introduced me to games like Lewis & Clark and Quantum. I had an amazing time and have yet to miss a BGGCon since then. I now have made many real life friends whom I met either waiting in line at 5am for registration to open or playing games with them.
Since then, what would you say was the most exciting news or a welcome change in the hobby world?
The biggest, best and most welcome change in the board game hobby is the dramatically higher level of inclusion. I see the world as a symphony. Would anyone want to hear a musical piece with just one instrument? I wouldn’t. I want to hear all instruments of a symphony not just the saxophone. Secondly is the massive improvement of the quality of games including components, art, theme and mechanics.
Before we dive deeper into other topics, let's pause for a bit so that we can get to know your gaming preferences:
What are some of your favorite thematic games to date?
While technically an omnigamer, I tend to prefer soulless eurogames with amazing mechanics. My top 3 favorite games with excellent thematic elements: Baseball Highlights 2045, Viticulture, Lisboa, and a newcomer Detective: City of Angels. I’ve always been a sucker for film noir.
What does it take for a game to receive a 10/10 rating from you and what are they?
The game needs to have interesting decisions, fantastic mechanics, theme, if it exists, most be well integrated, and lastly be replayable. My current rated 10 games are Baseball Highlights 2045, Francis Drake, Concordia, Age of Steam, and Viticulture with the Tuscany expansion.
What is one game you cannot stop talking about whether for good or bad and for what reason?
Baseball Highlights 2045. As a two-time consecutive World Champion, my fans ask me about the game quite often.
When I’m not inhabiting my role as socially clueless board game champion, I talk about Concordia. This game has the most elegant of mechanics with the most fascinating decision trees. While the theme is pasted on, the mechanics and sheer replayability of this game makes me think of it frequently.
You seem to have quite a busy schedule due to your profession. How often do you have to travel for work and are there some top of the line local game stores you discovered along the way? And what are your "must-attend" events/cons that you always make time for?
Prior to October 2019, I was traveling roughly 100 nights a year throughout the United States on government business. I was so busy that I rarely had a chance to go to a local game store. The only one that I went to outside of DC, was the Compleat Strategist in New York City. My childhood was spent going to that store at least once a week to browse new RPG material.
The three cons that I always make time for (in order of priority): BGGCon (best playing con), WashingCon (Excellent small local DC con) and Pax Unplugged (good mix of buying games and playing them).
Despite your busy schedule, you became one of the administrators on The Board Game Group on Facebook. What was your reason for joining this cause?
Masochism I think. The Boardgame Group is important to me because of the great people and the interesting content (my trophy pictures not withstanding). As with all things internet, the 18 admins have their hands full dealing with all sorts of issues from deleting bots to booting bullies. We have a philosophy of letting people have their say (good or bad) but we draw the line on bullying, threats and biased speech. I want to be part of fostering a place where all gamers can talk about games fully with other hobbyists.
You're now an iconic figure in the group with your Baseball Highlights: 2045 posts. For those who aren't aware of what I'm talking about, could you share its origin story?
After I won the 2018 Baseball Highlights 2045 tournament at Dice Tower Con in Orlando, Alex Goldsmith (of the Dukes of Dice), Evan Scussel and I decided to run a 32-person competition and call it a World Championship. We bought umpire shirts and, based on a suggestion from Kathleen Mercury, a pre-WW2 trophy. (The trophy actually is from 1938). For reasons I still can’t fathom, I won the tournament with a 16-2 record and a 12-game winning streak.
Afterwards, Alex Goldsmith interviewed me (Episode #204) for the Dukes of Dice Podcast. As the interview proceeded, an improv bit naturally evolved. Alex became more and more annoyed with me as I continued to talk about my win. The next day we took a picture of Kathleen handing me the Trophy in front of a dejected Alex.
At that moment, Tom Vasel walked by and asked what was going on. We told him and he asked if I wanted to picture. I said yes but asked Tom to look like he didn’t want to be next to me and the meme was born.
At what point did it hit you that the level of popularity for your posts is more than just a one-time thing?
I’m not really sure to be honest. It started as a random joke and just grew because I wanted to see how far I could take it. I took a picture with my boss looking disgusted with me and that was the picture that really showed me that people really enjoy this silly soft humor. I go out of my way to use the most gentle self-effacing humor possible. I hope it shines through.
So I have to ask, how do you go about taking those pictures? (For example... how much context do you provide to the person before taking the picture?)
Early on I had to explain the joke and the set up. Now (with the exception of people outside the hobby) I get asked to take pictures with the trophy. Really, the joke is easily explained.
Which of your encounters was the most memorable and how come?
On my way from the Philadelphia Convention center after setting up for Pax Unplugged, a gentleman from across the street yelled “Hey Mr. Baseball Champion!! Can I get a picture with you?” I had never had that happen to me before and it was a bit surreal.
You were featured on the promo banner for Baseball Highlights 2045 at BGG Con 2019. How did it feel to see this in person?
Very strange and very meta. I thank Randall Lloyd of Eagle Gryphon Games for getting the art done. It was truly amazing. I don’t know how to feel other than it was an excellent addition to the running joke.
I suppose it's the nature of this industry, but board game professionals and personalities come from all sorts of unexpected backgrounds. For your case, how does your profession give you a unique knowledge/insight into the board game industry? What do you think are the most common misconceptions related to the economics of the industry?
The biggest misconception I see in the board gaming industry is the actual profit margins versus being much smaller than most people assume. Very few designers can publish games full time due to the lack of large-scale hits. Most publishing companies have thin profit margins and have very few full-time employees. As a niche, non-essential industry that caters to the middle and upper middle class (primarily), the level of revenue given the number of games produced is tight. The industry is primarily made up of hobbyists with no background in business, finance or economics. The only two exceptions I know of are Jamey Stegmaier of Stonemaier Games (MBA from Washington University, St. Louis) and Debbie Moynihan of White Wizard Games (Management MIT).
Many very good game companies are poorly run due to a lack of business acumen from its owners and or executives. Mayfair games is a perfect example. These poorly run companies are ripe acquisition targets for companies like Asmodee.
Interesting that you mentioned Jamey Stegmaier. In what ways do you see his business model stand out ahead of other publishers out there?
Mr. Stegmaier understands that our hobby is a luxury and therefore knows he has to create value to be successful. He creates value for his fans by doing three things extremely well: relatable games, high production quality, and customer engagement. While I’ve seen other publishers do one of these three well, I have not seen other boardgame publishers do all three well.
For example, Stonemaier’s initial production estimate for Wingspan was a mistake that created a public relations nightmare for Mr. Stegmaier. In response to many people not being able to get a copy, he took ownership of the issue, apologized for it, and sent out monthly communications on when the next production runs would be available for purchase. He spent a great deal of time talking about the issue on many platforms and didn’t avoid the issue.
Mr. Stegmaier’s online presence is amazing. He responds to questions and concerns promptly. Stonemaier’s policy of component replacement is excellent. The large size of his fan base is due to his social media engagement and the accessibility of his games like Wingspan, Viticulture and Scythe. The popularity of these games are directly due to the confidence of hobbyists in Mr. Stegmaier himself.
What are some trends (by board game designers, publishers, or in terms of technology) that you'd like to see more of in 2020?
Too many games in 2019 had severe quality control errors, even from these companies that had previously produced high quality work. In games that I acquired in 2019, I’ve encountered extremely poor readability in the components, errors in printing, ambiguous (at best) rulebooks, warped boards and etc. I really hope that 2020 ushers in a new era of enhanced quality control. Too many games have post publishing errata that thoughtful proof reading would have cured. Too many publishing companies rushed their product out of China, probably to avoid a possible tariff.
This is a random question, but—would you ever consider running a board game cafe? (I can already imagine the interior design for the place).
Oh heck no. My interests tend to run more macro-economic.
I've interviewed a cafe owner before and it sure seemed like you'd have to manage lots of little details, so I can see where you're coming from.
In that case, could you expand a bit on that last part? I recall you've been on and off with your podcast recordings, but is this something you will be pursuing further in 2020? Or are there some other business ventures you have in mind?
My colleague and I are bringing back our podcast (Generic Boardgame Podcast). However, my big push in the hobby for 2020 is to develop and possibly start the publishing of a boardgame. I’m not doing this to make a lot of money (I know how thin the profit margins are in this hobby) but, like climbing Mt. Everest, to see if I can do it. I can’t go into much detail but one game will be heavy Euro race game with a unique theme and the other would be a more accessible Euro.
As we close, if you could show off your trophy to anyone in the world (and take the obligatory picture) for 2020, who would it be and why?
Bob Uecker. Bob Uecker was a major league catcher for five years and broadcaster for most of his life. He was also very funny and was featured in a series of Miller Light Commercials where he was always happy and “knew” his fans loved him no matter what their expression. The whole trophy joke is an homage to Bob Uecker and the Stanley Cup. I’d love to get a picture with him for this series.
Thanks again Phillip! My favorite has got to be the one with you and Zee Garcia from Dice Tower :)
Readers, if you'd like to see more of Phillip's past posts or keep up to date for future ones, make sure to head over to The Boardgame Group on Facebook.
Plus, you can find more of my interviews here. Thanks for the read!