We are proud to introduce Top Shelf Influencers! This will be a new, monthly interview segment that sheds light on a Board Game Industry leaders and contributors that are taking strides to move the industry forward and is a positive influence on gamers, game makers, and the industry as a whole.
INTERVIEW WITH ROBERT SEARING - INSERT HERE
How did you get introduced to board gaming?
I’m a father of 8 kids with one 1 on the way this coming January to make 9. I’m not much of an outdoorsman nor am I a diehard sports nut. I wanted to find a way to bond more closely with my children. I started finding new and interesting games in your larger department stores, such as Don’t Wake the Daddy, Don’t Pop the Pig, Jenga, etc. They weren’t the traditional board games most think of (ie Monopoly, Sorry, etc). Several months later we had some friends over who suggested checking out a local board game store and then I was hooked. I went through the traditional “gateway” games (ie Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne, Catan) craze which, then, broadened my scope.
How often do you get to play and who do you game with normally?
I’ll start this answer off much like the previous and say that I’m the father of 8 kids – I don’t have the luxury of getting out much. I also work 4 jobs so my gaming group is typically always going to be my family (unless I’m at a gaming convention or related event). I will typically play with them 2-3 times a week. Outside of my family setting I do tend to be extremely socially shy (until I get to know you personally) which makes it difficult for me to walk up to people to start a game.
Top 3 favorite games, and why?
1. Mice & Mystics. M&M is a dungeon crawl. Not only do my kids love it, but the rule set is such that it makes playing as an adult fun too. The story is completely absorbing and fun and … the game is just so clever in its intricacies yet simplistic at the same time. By this I mean the story may have you searching for treasures that are, in turn, used to complete story lines and you’ll have fun obtaining so many different little things to enhance your characters. On the flip side, the rules are so simple and the mechanisms (die roll typically) for combat are just as easy. M&M is loved by nearly everyone in our family.
2. Pandemic Legacy. Our family tends to stray from “take that” games thus making cooperative games one of our favorite categories. My kids have always loved “Pandemic”-like games (ie Forbidden Island/Desert) so Legacy was a no-brainer for us to try. The way the game allows you to custom-tailor your gaming experience and allow for custom choices just enhances the experience that much more for us.
3. Thunderstone. Thunderstone is a fantasy deck-builder. The combination of deck-building and fantasy dungeon crawling is just so unique and fun. We tend to remove “take that” cards from the game which allows for us to really be building our own engines while still leaving a little bit of a competition there in that players race to get their favorite cards added to their deck. Thunderstone was one of the earliest deck-builders and remains a go-to game for us. (HOWEVER, it’s gotten stiff competition from the Harry Potter Hogwart’s Battle deckbuilder!)
What is your favorite game mechanism?
This would have to be a tie between dungeon crawl and deckbuilding. I hate to be cliché by choosing deckbuilding – but I was an early adopter (before there were so many deckbuilding games). I loved Dominion but it was just lacking something that Thunderstone wound up filling. If done right (ie Marvel Legendary, Clank) they are easy sells for me. Dungeon crawls are easily tied because they typically involve story-driven game play and leveling up/tailoring character skills and traits. I tend to stick to those that have a mechanism for auto-playing the monsters so that we (my kids and I) can work as a team without one having to take the place of the “bad guy”. (Not to knock games that require it at all – we just like all playing and formulating ideas together).
Do you have a favorite board game theme you prefer to play?
I debated whether “cooperative” was more a mechanism than a theme and, thus, didn’t list it in the above question and chose to put it here. I realize, being a parent, that introducing children to games that require “losing” or “confrontation” is important. We play our fair share of those (with Bang: The Dice Game being one of our current favorites) however I feel that you can still lose (together) in a cooperative game and be taught the same lesson. There’s something about encouraging team play and listening to all my different kids’ choices and, in turn, pushing them to explain their reasoning and defend their choices that is so enlightening as a father.
What do you feel is the most underrated game?
Harry Potter Hogwart’s Battle for sure. Don’t get me wrong, there was quite a bit of hype about this one but it was short lived. What I thought was SO interesting about this game was the fact that it was a legacy game without requiring component destruction or manipulation. By this I mean that the game starts out with basic components/decks and you have 7 different boxes (representing the 7 different books/movies) that are added in progressively. These boxes contain everything from new cards to new components and rules to be added. What was wonderful, however, is that you could “rewind” the legacy aspect at any time and re-play any of the books you wanted. Not to mention it was a fun little deck-builder. It felt that “legacy”-style games have become the newest hype and this one didn’t seem to be lumped in that category.
Do you customize your games and which ones have you customized?
Definitely. It’s hard for me to bring a board game to the table without having an organizer of some sort ready for it (more on that later). Outside of organizers and component upgrades one of my most unique customizations was built for Mice & Mystics. Because my kids have earlier bedtimes (especially during school) we would have to stop playing in the middle of a story. Leaving the board game out was not working as the younger kids would have a field day with an unsupervised board full of fun little “toys” (components). I had to figure out a way to remember the state of the game at any given time and, thus, designed a “save game” feature that would allow me to write down everyone’s cards, components – where we were on the board, etc. It was nothing fancier than a Word doc or Excel sheet – but it allowed us to quickly get back to the game without having to worry about leaving the board game out.
What's your favorite game upgrade (beyond foam core inserts)?
If asked this a few months ago I would have answered simply “token upgrades” (ie realistic resource tokens instead of cubes). That said I’ve seen some really neat overlays produced that make putting cubes and such on player boards easier. In other words in games where you have individual player boards to track progress of things (ie Terraforming Mars, Great Western Trail, etc) you can build these overlays to put on top of the boards (they are see-thru) that have cut outs for the tracking cubes so that they don’t slide all over your player board or move should the player board get jostled.
How big is your game collection?
150 maybe? I don’t count. Most of the games I obtain are for the business which kills me as I don’t like taking up any more room than necessary. I’d love to get rid of some of the games but with expansions coming out so often I need to keep them in case a re-design is needed. That, or at times, I will have customers suggest improvements (which I take to heart) and will need the game there to work that in (if that’s the case).
Sleeves or no sleeves?
SLEEVES! What’s so crazy about that is I can’t tell you how many games I’ve designed inserts for that had a PERFECT insert, one that held all the components perfectly, but didn’t account for sleeved cards. Two games that fit this category, that come instantly to mind, are Lords of Waterdeep and the recently-released Ethnos. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to say anything negative about their inserts, they’re great. Additionally, I realize that not everyone sleeves cards. My personal preference for sleeving cards came from the simple fact that (being deckbuilding was one of my favorite game mechanisms) I didn’t want to mark the cards in any way that might clue someone into what cards was next in line to pick from (assuming they were face down). Additionally, with me having so many kids, I know they can be rough on games and I wanted these to last the other reason I chose to sleeve. Now it’s become more of a business decision in that I’d rather sleeve and design my inserts around it so that the inserts will, therefore, satisfy both sleevers and non-sleevers alike.
How did you get into making inserts?
Funny store, I really tend to be fussy with regards to organization. As a child (I have two sisters) I always had the cleanest room (now with 8 kids in the house I’ve given up on having a clean room let alone house). Everything had to have its place. I’m the same way with games. I like to have them organized. I found myself going out and purchasing Plano storage boxes and even purchasing some online wine-bottle boxes (perfect for holding card games such as Lord of the Rings LCG and Marvel Legendary). Over time I would research what other people were doing and them stumbled upon foam board inserts. Using foam board didn’t require any expensive machinery so I thought I would give it a try.
How do you choose which game inserts to make?
Good question. First, I will design an insert for any game that I buy for myself – that’s a no-brainer. For my store I try to just focus on what I feel are going to be popular games and, typically, ones that have lots of components. Worker-placement games are known to have many different components. Definitely anything with resources will be up for contention. I even have a program where I will design, build, and ship an insert for any game that I don’t offer an insert for. (Feel free to ask me about it!)
What games do you think benefit most from adding an insert?
The biggest contender would be any game that has “pools” of resources that are typically stored besides the game and commonly used. Many publishers have gotten better at offering really good trays that organizes pieces but that’s half the battle. There’s something to be said about being able to pull out a tray of commonly used resources to place right beside the board.
How do you design an insert?
I start with reserving spaces for cards (sleeved). They seem to take up the most real estate (besides the game board itself which typically sits on top of the insert, along with manuals, to help keep components in their trays). After that I look at organizing removable trays for resources. Lastly, I try to develop ways of combining player tokens so that setting up the game can be as simple as setting out resource trays and handing players their individual trays.
What differentiates you from other insert makers?
There are some really good people designing wonderful products out there and I’m just so happy that, because of it, the board game hobby is benefiting from such wonderful upgrades. I cannot begin to express the honor I feel to be included in a group of companies and people doing inserts/organizers/upgrades. I feel that I stick out for three big reasons. First, they all come assembled. Second, they are light weight. When you’re off to game night and carrying a half-dozen games with you, you’ll hardly recognize the added weight of a foam board insert. Lastly, I have the largest variety of products of anyone in the world.
Would you ever consider doing a Kickstarter?
I’m open to anything but most of my time comes in assembling my product and there’s not much you can do to automate that. I’ve often thought of a Kickstarter to help fund a CNC router and appropriate bits.
We love your inserts - and we think others should too! For those that haven't tried your inserts, why should they get an insert for a game?
Really, to sum it up, the biggest benefit of owning an insert is to enhance your gaming experience. Owning an insert accomplishes this by reducing the time required to set up the game as well as tear it down. It accomplishes this by organizing components into trays (rather than zip lock bags) that can be easily placed beside the game board so that set up is as easy as removing a resource tray and player trays and then begin your game. It also helps during game play in that you’ll always have all of your game pieces neatly organized.
What's your biggest challenge of being a board gamer?
Just finding time. The most important thing to me in my life is my family. I not only love the hobby but I’ve also found a way to incorporate my family into the hobby as well. Between working 4 jobs and raising a large family, it’s just hard to find the time to sit down to play as much as I’d like to.
What's your biggest challenge of being a business owner?
Keeping up with the industry is one challenge. The industry is growing exponentially. I remember, and supported, the very first board game on Kickstarter. There are now multiple board gaming podcasts that will have segments focused solely on Kickstarter campaigns due to the large growing number of games.
What gives you the most pleasure out of being a business owner in the board game and tabletop industry?
First, it has allowed me to grow my hobby into a business. Everyone yearns to work in an area they enjoy. I love working in the board gaming industry. But, most importantly, it has opened the door to so many wonderful friendships. I am proud to say that some of my closest friends are from a pool of board game publishers, designers, retailers, reviewers – even some of my competition.
Which city do you live in?
Olathe, KS (A KS City suburb)
Do you attend any regular board game conventions?
- Which board game conventions are your favorite?
Gencon is the only convention I currently go to. It’s more due to the fact that I don’t have the time to be able to devote to going to multiple cons especially since my main source of income (that which pays for my insurance) doesn’t allow for taking a ton of time off every year. Gencon tends to be more of a “business” con in that it revolves (in my opinion) more about the selling of new games whereas, I’ve been told, cons such as Dice Tower Con or Origins tends to focus more on actually playing games. I’d love to diversify in the future and try one of those out.
If you would have one board game related wish, what would it be?
Very easy – to grow my business to where it could be my main source of income.
Besides yourself, name your 3 top board game content producers (can be podcast, youtube, blogger)
1. The Dice Tower. It may seem that I’m biased here, since I am on their staff (I am the Dice Tower webmaster and advertising manager – I also manage Dice Tower News) but long before I was associated with the Dice Tower, I was a fan. I enjoyed the content and it went far in helping me make buying decisions as Tom Vasel also has a large family and tends to like similar games that I do.
2. Watch it Played / Rahdo Runs Through. I combine these because they are both WONDERFUL and help serve the same purpose for me – that of learning how to set up and play the game. I rely on their videos quite heavily in my design of inserts. Rodney Smith (Watch it Played) helps me on game set-up so that I can know what pieces will be best served being stored in removable trays whereas Richard Ham will feature entire game play throughs – allowing me to see how the game works and help tailor my inserts to focus on ease of game play.
3. I have to lump several into one category here (along with my #1 and #2) – Game Boy Geek, Undead Viking, Man vs Meeple, Board Game Corner, and Rolling Dice Taking Names – I lump them all together because I have developed, over time, close relationships, dare I say “friendships” with all of them. They have all helped me out personally and professionally and I cannot thank them enough.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Being part of the board gaming community is such a rewarding opportunity. I am just so appreciative of everyone that has supported me along the way. I have the best customers ever. I would not be the success I am without their support – and the support of the industry itself. I am also very honored to have a “friendship” with both Chad and Marlene of Top Shelf Gamer and appreciate the opportunity to be featured here. I value my relationship with them and value the business relationship we have formed over the years. Both Chad and Marlene are two of the nicest people you’ll meet and it’ just been a joy!