Interview with Rodney Smith from Watch it Played:
Rodney Smith has one of the most recognisable smiles in the board game hobby. When you go to his highly successful YouTube channel Watch It Played, your screen will be filled with thumbnails of Rodney smiling at you with some new game. And why not smile? Watch It Played has over 100,000 subscribers and has become an indispensable resource for the board game hobby.
Rodney has achieved a celebrity like status by playing board games and teaching us the rules. He is a regular in my home as I try to quickly learn a new game to teach at my school or Saturday night board game group. Rodney sets himself apart by providing professional looking videos that clearly and coherently walk people through game rules. His teaching style, well-articulated language, and thought through explanations demonstrate that Rodney is meticulous in the development of his videos. In addition to the success of rules explanations, Rodney has developed a community that promotes acceptance and tolerance and values people within the hobby. This quality seems to be a natural flow on from his genuinely gracious character.
Before we get into the interview I want to encourage that if you would like to support Rodney and Watch it Played you can contribute to his Indiegogo Campaign. The goal has already been achieved, but the real goal is to get to “The Force is Strong” Stretch Goal, go look it up. I hope you enjoyed hearing from Rodney as much as I did.
What was a formative experience or game that made you realise you wanted to be a gamer?
I’m not exactly sure what drew me towards hobby games initially, but I remember finding an Avalon Hill games catalogue when I was younger, and casually thumbing through the games until I stumbled upon Empires In Arms. It boasted a play time of up to 200 hours, and a rule book of 80 pages or something like that.
I don’t know why that grabbed me, but it did. I was fascinated by the concept of a “game” that could hold such complexity. What could that mean? How could any of this work?!
I would have been an early teenager at the time, but I bought the game and then spent days (weeks?) going through the rules, and pushing the pieces around as I taught myself how to play. Of course, I never found a single soul who was able to play it with me, but something about that experience opened doors in my mind about what gaming could be. Later, I found the excellent game Ambush!, which was a war game you could play solo and that enabled me to both be fascinated by what games could be AND actually play them!
What do you love about table top games specifically?
The cliché answer is that games can bring people around the table to created shared experiences, but it’s the cliché for a reason: it’s true. Whether it’s with family or friends, gaming has created so many enjoyable social moments that revolve around an activity that I enjoy.
I also really enjoy rule books. Before you play a game, it is a lifeless collection of cardboard and plastic. It’s basically useless. As you read a rule book though, all these components start to take meaning. They gain a purpose. I love discovering the ways in which a game designer has woven together game rules and mechanisms to create a game play experience.
Can you provide a story that explains what your favourite game is and why?
I think of myself as having pretty broad taste in games, and enjoy many of the ones in my collection, but my favourite game is Kemet. Why I like the game is not so much grounded in a story, as much as it is the style of game, components and way the rules come together, but the game did lead to me making a dear friend.
I was travelling with my family in the United States and was stopped at a hotel in New Hampshire. I must have shared something about that on social media, because a fellow named Matt Evans reached out to me, to let me know he lived nearby and would be happy to get together to game if I was interested.
I don’t generally make a point of meeting strangers to game when I’m on vacation with my family, but I felt I knew Matt a little because he had participated in some of my content through video submissions I had requested. I had always liked his presentations and was happy to get a chance to meet him. The game he brought to teach me was Kemet, and I have to say, it was one of the most enjoyable experiences I ever had playing a game. Certainly, the game suited my tastes, but better than any of that, Matt and I just really hit it off. He was a patient and gracious rules teacher, and in my opinion, the best of what an ambassador of the hobby represents. He’s since gone on to create the excellent Board Game Replay YouTube channel, and I consider him one of my dearest friends.
To that end, it further reinforces the notion that what is most important and special about this hobby to me, is the relationships that become possible because of it.
Last year you posted a video on Mansions of Madness 2nd Edition. Your show began with the first edition. Can you share some of your journey from that first episode to now? What motivated you to keep going?
Before recording content about board games I had been an avid fan of other people’s material. I was a board game media junkie, and still am. I love to learn about games and see what excites others about them. I’ve also always enjoyed making videos as an amateur hobby and had a growing sense that I wanted to get involved.
The challenge was that I didn’t want to review games. That didn’t feel like the right fit for me. That said, I found reviews very helpful… until I came across Mansions of Madness first edition. I was interested in the game but wasn’t sure if I wanted to plunk down the money for it. I couldn’t tell if it was a game I would enjoy. So I watched many reviews, and I came away with half saying the game was great and half saying it was a mess. I just couldn’t make up my mind.
I said to myself “If I could just see this being played, I could make up my own mind about it!”. That’s when I realised there was something I could create for the hobby that wasn’t being done yet (keep in mind, this was before Tabletop, and the boom of so much board game media content that we have today).
So I did buy Mansions of Madness, and created that first series to not just show the game being played, but also teach it, with the hopes that a person could watch and the videos could help them decide if the game would create the kind of experiences they could enjoy, based on their own unique tastes and interests.
I thoroughly enjoyed that first creative experience and knew immediately that I wanted to continue, so one after the other I featured more and more games.
I was doing something I found incredibly satisfying, so the motivation to keep going was there from the beginning, but that would never have been enough to enable me to keep doing it as long as I have, in the way I have wanted to. I needed a lot of support along the way, that came first and foremost from my family, but also from the gaming community at large. I’ve been very fortunate to have fellow gamers who value and care about the content that we create, and have supported me all the way along. I’ve been fortunate to have fellow media creator colleagues to work with and to learn from.
And, well, I just love games a whole lot - and to be able to share them with people. That’s as true now as it ever was.
What do you hope people get out of sharing in the Watch It Played community beyond just learning to play games?
One of my big hopes is that the channel is a place that people feel welcomed into the hobby. Despite being a smaller industry, the hobby itself is quite involved and overwhelming. If possible, I want to remove some of those barriers to entry and encourage more people to feel like they can be a part of this activity that we all enjoy.
Not everyone has a game group or community yet, and it’s my hope that anyone who tunes into one of our episodes can feel like they are welcome to be a part of our ‘virtual’ game group. I want them to feel at ease no matter what experience they’ve had in the hobby, even if it’s none at all. I want them to know that there is no kind of ‘gamer authenticity’ test they have to pass before they can be a part of the fun.
Does making videos and building an audience ever feel like a chore? If so, how do you keep motivated?
I suppose technically, it’s always a chore. The process of creating a video is more work than people really need to know about or be aware of, so I won’t bore your readers with the details, but “having fun” is not what motivates me. At the end of the day, no matter what work went into my day, I get to look back on it with a sense of satisfaction. I would trade any amount of ‘feeling good’ for feeling satisfied.
The fun comes and goes. Some days will be easier, some will be harder, but if you can find something that satisfies you, either way, that’s a real treasure. I stay motivated because what I do satisfies my creative desires and it connects me to the larger gaming community that makes everything I do possible.
How do you balance your commitment to gaming, making videos, Family, work, and life?
Not well. I don’t think I’m in a unique position. Anyone who runs a small business will have work/life balance issues because as you’re figuring out how to make something sustainable, you have to keep working to make it something that deserves to be sustained in the first place. That takes a certain amount of time and care.
Thankfully I’ve had a very supportive family. Without that, I could never have done any of this. That said, my hope is that in time the show will hit certain strides that will allow me to maintain a more consistent schedule.
How would you describe yourself as a gamer and what qualities do you consider most important in the people you game with?
I’m definitely a “cult of the new” type of gamer. I always enjoy learning a new game and sharing those with friends. I wouldn’t say I’m particularly competitive, but at the same time, I think I am susceptible to my surroundings. If everyone is playing casually, I can play casually, but as soon as someone at the table starts taking things “seriously”, I can fall into the trap of becoming competitive.
I think one should always play to win (at least to the best of their ability), but I think it can hurt a gaming experience when people get too cutthroat. Again, it can be very dependent on the group, but I probably stray closer to “let’s just find the fun in this experience” than “who gets to take home the trophy tonight?”
For that reason, the thing I want most in my fellow gamers is an enjoyment of the gaming experience. People who are primarily focused on “how can we collectively have fun”, over “how can ‘I’ get what just what I want out of this experience”. Gaming is social, and I prefer to play with people who have a sense of their social surroundings.
What gives you hope about the gaming community?
My biggest hope comes from my personal experiences. Although you’ll always encounter situations that are less than desirable, in the majority of cases, most people, (even the harshest critics), respond well to patience and kindness. Not always, of course, but most often. I also think our hobby demands a certain amount of caring for one another, because gaming at a table doesn’t work if people don’t work together to create the fun.
What would you say is the one thing the gaming community needs most or more of right now and why?
Despite my overwhelmingly positive experiences, one has to be careful not to take for granted that, at the end of the day, this hobby is full of people, and nothing gets in the way of something good, like people.
We all have our biases and weaknesses and we bring those to the hobby with us. If we want our hobby to thrive, we can’t just be focused on what has traditionally made it fun for those of us already entrenched in it, but also how we can make it something inviting to people from all backgrounds and levels of experience. I think our community can become a better place, if those of us who are already in it, don’t take for granted what it’s like to be an outsider trying to become a part of it.
Can you give yourself a plug? How can people get onboard with what you are doing?
Our videos can be found at here and we can be followed on Instagram and Twitter @WatchItPlayed - if someone is curious about what games we’ve covered, we’ve put each in a playlist on our channel, or you can see a list that is updated regularly on our Wikipedia page.
I want to thank Rodney for fitting us into his busy schedule and sharing with us a little more about himself, and what it takes to successfully create content for our hobby.