Role Selection is an interview series in which we chat up folks who work, live, and play board games in a variety of ways to learn about the roles in the hobby they’ve chosen.
Character Name: Cody Carlson
Role: Board Game Video Reviewer, The Discriminating Gamer
Location: Midvale, Utah
Quote: “A board game, a tabletop game, in my opinion is a work of art.”
Character Bio: The Discriminating Gamer’s Cody Carlson is a marathon man.
Or a sprinter. Or some dice-fueled amalgam of the two.
The numbers tell the tale. Though Cody and friends only started filming board-game videos in 2014 (sprint), his site, thediscriminatinggamer.com, boasts more than 300 reviews and sketch comedy bits (marathon). That’s about a dozen videos per month, an impressive technical achievement for somebody who considers themselves “a bit of a Luddite.”
An early introduction to “Axis & Allies” helped spur Cody’s interest in history – he’d go on to earn a master’s degree and spend time studying in Berlin – but he didn’t play a lot of other games until a friend gave him a copy of Fantasy Flight’s 2008 hit “Battlestar Galactica.”
Soon after, Cody began writing board game reviews for his local paper, The Deseret News, and, inspired by The Dice Tower and Shut Up & Sit Down, he and some friends decided to make board game videos. The earliest productions featured sets, costumes and sketch comedy — not surprising, as Cody is a local theater actor with 21 years of improv experience — but as his friends got too busy to participate, the videos became more like traditional reviews, though leavened by Cody’s comedic sensibilities.
Two years and hundreds of videos later, The Discriminating Gamer’s Cody Carlson is still running strong. I asked him how keeps producing so many videos.
Cody Carlson: I am one of the – and I mean this sincerely – I am one of the laziest people you will ever meet in your life. But it’s funny, whenever I set myself a task that I’m excited about, I stick to it, and this just falls into that category.
When I started reviewing board games…part of me wanting to review was, “Hey, people send free stuff.” But that’s not why I got into this, don’t misunderstand me. And I’m kind of a victim of my own success, because as I sit here talking to you, I’ve probably got about 20 games over there that people have sent me that I haven’t reviewed, and they just keep coming.
I feel like there’s an obligation to these people to do a review, and I feel guilty when time goes by and I haven’t gotten to one for a while. Right now I’m posting about two reviews a week, and I don’t think that’s going to increase anytime soon, so I’m going to get further and further behind, and maybe at one point have a breakdown…or go live on an island somewhere where they don’t have the internet.
Matt Golec: So you’ve kind of made fun of your technical abilities, but I’ve been watching your videos and I can really see an improvement. I think the sound quality, the video quality, everything looks sharp. It’s not like it was bad in the beginning, but the stuff you’re doing now is very good. What are all the different jobs you have to do to produce a nice-looking video?
First of all there’s the sound quality. The first few videos I can definitely tell the sound is crap. At the time, I thought, ‘That’s fine, don’t worry,’ but my friend Stan – who does lot of videos – he recommended that I get a digital audio recorder. So I got it, thinking maybe I’ll use it here and there, but the sound is just so much cleaner on that, so I use it all the time.
MG: Instead of just the microphone that comes on the camera?
Exactly. As far as the process goes, I get the game I want to review, then I need to schedule a time when I can play it. That’s always difficult because you never know how many people are gonna be there to play it. Am I going to have X number of players this night? So we’ll play this game. Or are we going to have this many? We’ll play this game.
The first time we play a game I usually record it, because I don’t know if there’s going to be a second time. Sometimes l think one play through and you got it. Other games you need to play a few times to really get it.
I want to give good visual representations of what the game is. I don’t want it to look like somebody talking into a camera and just have the same static shot the whole time. That’s so boring to me! So I decided I’d set up angles – I’ll set [the camera] up here, take it down, set it up here, take it down. I really annoy the people I’m playing with it because it’s my turn and I’m moving the camera.
I take different shots around the play area, and once that’s done, I’ll take some photographs of just the components. If [the game] has a lot of components – these are both my favorite games to review and my least favorite games to review, because they’re so much more work but so much more rewarding – what I do is go through and take still photographs of every component. Maybe not every card, but a lot of them. Sometimes I’ll go through the rule book and take pictures there too because I know – I know – when I’m editing, I want choices. I want those choices. I’d rather have too much stuff than not enough.
So now I’ve got all the stuff I need for my review. Then I usually wait a few days and kind of digest what I think about the game. Do I need to play it again, do I need to play it a third time? What do I need to do to come up with what I think is a fair review?
After I’ve done that with a few games, I usually talk into my camera. I’ll tell you right now, this is my absolute least favorite part, setting up my camera and then recording three or four reviews at a time. I just don’t enjoy that at all.
MG: Is that because of the technical side of it or because it takes you out of the game experience?
It’s just a pain In the butt. Where I film stuff in my work space, I don’t have a lot of room. And a lot of the “witticisms” that I offer – you know, ‘The Discriminating Gamer, the board game review show that dada-dada-da” – I come up with right when I’m filming.
MG: Oh, really? Interesting.
Note: Cody’s reviews open and close with off-the-wall style jokes.
Sometimes I’ll think of something and say, ‘Hey that’s good, I’ll remember it for later.’ But really, I’m ready to go shoot, and hey, I’ve got to come up with something. Then I’ll shoot it, and as I’m nearing the end, right after I say what I think about the game, I’ve got to come up with a joke for the end. A lot of times I’ll just sit there with the camera rolling on me. I’ve probably got hundreds and hundreds of minutes of me sitting there thinking: ‘Is that fun? Does that work?’
So I get the jokes and the review down. I try to do three or four of them at a time so I don’t have to worry about them for a couple of weeks. Then I put it all on my computer, and I usually wait a few days before I edit.
Then I go through and cut it: first with just me talking, then I put all the B-track stuff in. If there are a lot of components, and /or if it’s a big game, I’ll do a montage with music, which is something I really like to do with every game. As soon as it’s done editing, I upload it to YouTube.
It’s Called ‘The Process’
MG: So there’s no script or storyboard? It’s just you talking, flexing your improv muscles?
When I’m thinking about what I want to say, sometimes I’ll come up with jokes, but a lot of it is on the fly, yes. But I’m always thinking: ‘Is this funny? Am I just being an idiot? Are people going to get this?’ A lot of times I don’t think it’s necessarily what I say or the jokes, but it’s my expression or some weird, quirky thing that I end up doing because I can’t think anything funny to say.
MG: (laughter) That’s interesting that you don’t use a script, because when you talk on those videos, there’s no awws or umms or pauses, and you don’t seem to double back on a sentence. You just go like a train. That must be the actor in you.
Editing! That’s what the B-track footage and those still photographs give me. If you steal a raw, uncut video, there’s plenty of that stuff. I just go through and I edit it out.
MG: The magic of editing.
MG: How long from start to finish does it take you to do a video?
A game takes the better part of an hour to unbox – maybe not that long, maybe a half hour. Then you’ve got to invest at least a half hour to read the rules. If I can’t get the concept of the game from the rule book, I may watch another video. I don’t like to do that though because I don’t want to listen to [another reviewer’s] thoughts too much. But I may look at their rules breakdown. Sometimes you can’t get the flavor of the game from reading it.
MG: I understand.
So all that is maybe an hour. Actually scheduling people can take time, but we’ll ignore that. Playing the game? We’ll say an hour-long game, that’s another hour. Taking pictures afterwards can take me about an hour. If I play it again, that’s another hour. Filming the review? Each review takes me at least half an hour, usually more. And editing it probably takes me one to two hours. So I’ll say 8 to 10 hours, to give you an amount.
The Review Game
MG: That’s a good chunk of time. So people send you games, and you choose from the stack. Is that how you choose what to review next? Maybe you see if it looks good, or how many people you have?
As much as I can, I try to queue it. So if I get a new game, it’ll go on the bottom. Sometimes I’ll get a game I didn’t ask for that I won’t review, or I’ll give it to somebody else to review. We’ve got Holly [Anderson] here on The Discriminating Gamer now, and she’s a real help – I just put up one of her reviews today.
But a lot of it is determined by how many people can we get to game night. Sometimes I’m preparing to play one game (I’ll have gotten all the rules down), and somebody drops out or something, and suddenly we’ve got to play this other one – so okay, let me hurry up and read the rules.
MG: Do people send you random games, or do you reach out to companies and say, ‘I’d like to review that game’?
It’s a little bit of both. In the beginning, it was really me contacting the publishers, especially when I was doing the writing. Some companies right of the bat were really cool to me. Wizards of the Coast was very good; they sent me my first review copy. GMT Games was really cool. There’s a lot of really good companies out there that are just good to work with.
As I started doing the video reviews…more and more companies started sending me stuff, and so now I’ve got contacts at most companies. Of course, there are a lot of smaller companies doing Kickstarters and things like that, but most of the big companies I can contact them and say, ‘Hey I’m interested in this,’ and they’ll go, ‘Great, we’ll get it out to you.’ But a lot of the time I’ll just get big boxes from companies that have a bunch of games in them.
MG: One of the things I like about your reviews is the way you sum up with the Buy, Try It Before You Buy It, or Can’t Recommend. Instead of giving it a number, it’s just three options.
I think there was a conscious decision not to have a rating system. Not the two thumbs up, or five stars, or something like that. Just something very simple.
What I find is that the majority of games that I review end up with the Try It Before You Buy It rating. And that’s because it’s so broad. There are specific kinds of games that I like, but I play a lot of games that are outside that field. And so a lot of times I’m playing a game that I can tell is a good game, but it’s not my cup of tea. Even then I’ll try to recommend it, if I think it’s a really good game. But sometimes it’s hard to make that distinction. How much of my own bias is coloring whether or not I think it’s a good game? At the end of the day, my opinion is really all I have to offer.
It is, because I’ve been tinkering on and off with a game that is absolute crap. So I know what it’s like to be a creative person and to put your art out there as an actor, or a writer. I wrote a novel called “The Fall of London,” available on Amazon, check that out.
MG: Ok, I will.
A board game, a tabletop game, in my opinion is a work of art. It may be bad art or good art but it’s art. So I know what it’s like if you’re designing a game – you put your heart and your soul into it. Even when I give a Can’t Recommend, I don’t try to be flippant. Sometimes I think I come across that way, but I don’t mean to.
MG: I never get the sense you’re being disrespectful. You joke around but you seem to take the review responsibility seriously.
A few years ago, some guys I know were working on a game…and I put money in their Kickstarter. I got the game and decided to do a review, and I did not like the game…I debated, ‘should I post this or should I not’? In the end, this was a really small game. To this day I don’t think there’s any other videos up there. I just thought any publicity is better than no publicity. When I put it up there, I emailed the designer to say ‘I hope there was no hard feelings. I was just being as honest as I could be and I hope you’re cool with it’. He said, ‘No, thank you, I appreciate your opinion. We’re cool.’ But it is a hard thing.
What’s the future hold for The Discriminating Gamer? Cody says he’d like to film more sketch-type episodes, do more written reviews, and if he’s got any time left, pursue his PhD. To watch it all happen in real-time, check out The Discriminating Gamer’s YouTube channel, follow them on Facebook, and Twitter, or visiting their website.
Matt Golec is game designer with a background in print journalism. Combining these skills, he aims to explore and give voice to the many different jobs within the hobby industry that don’t frequently get reported on. He can be best reached via Twitter.
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