An Interview with Rich Sommer
Board Games, Beauty, and Community
We recently got a chance to chat with Rich Sommer, professional actor, voice behind Cardboard Cast, and dedicated member of the tabletop gaming community. You might have seen him in the role of Harry Crane on Mad Men, on a recent episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, or onstage during the closing ceremonies of BGG Con. Here are his thoughts on board games, the community that surrounds them, and why both are so important.
What lured you into hobby gaming? Did you grow up loving board games, or was there a specific moment?
There was, actually, a specific moment. I grew up playing board games, but I didn't discover "these games" until I happened to walk past a game store going out of business in Cleveland. Early 2004, I think. I saw a bunch of games I'd never heard of, and looked up some of the titles. I ended up finding BoardGameGeek.com and buying one of those games, and it has really never stopped. The next game I recall hearing about was Settlers of Catan, when my friend came to visit me in Cleveland a few weeks later. He brought that game, and I showed him what I'd bought, and we experienced enlightenment.
What was it about those games that affected you so much?
It's tough to pin down. I've always loved games, but there was something different in these. I think it had something to do with all of a sudden feeling like I could have an impact on how the game went—the strategy-to-luck ratio was very different from everything else I knew. I also think the beauty of the mechanisms grabbed me quickly. Seeing the sort of lovely math inside these games made me—still makes me—get all excited. I don't know. I was a terrible student, and am still not good at math, which is probably why I lose 85% of the games I play. But there's an almost natural beauty to the way they're put together. It's like that concept in art—that the sculptor is taking away the unnecessary parts, and what's left is this statue or whatever. It feels like that, sometimes.
When we first met, you mentioned really liking Kemet. Does it for you, have that “natural beauty”?
Oh, yeah. Kemet has these interlocking mechanisms that feel entirely natural, yet they hadn't really been put together like that before. That's a big thing I look for in a game—something that feels intuitive, that feels like it has been there all along, yet it feels unique.
It's interesting to me that you’re in theatre & film, which I think of being very social and interactive, but you haven’t yet mentioned the face-to-face aspect of board gaming.
Well, that's certainly one of the main attractions to tabletop gaming for me. And it's easy to say that that's the main point of preference for me over, say, video games. But I am a very social guy, and have always found ways to interact with groups of people. Games just let me do it in a pretty way. I almost take the interaction aspect for granted.
Do you have any favorites among our recent releases?
LOVE Mysterium. It's so good. I play it and wonder "how has this not been here all along?" I own a copy of, but have not yet tried, T.I.M.E Stories. It's next on the list. And if I had to pick a desert island game, it might be Imperial Assault.
Do you ever play games during your downtime on set?
Oh, yeah. On the set of Mad Men, we played games constantly. Mainly old-timey stuff, but a lot of other, newer stuff got played there, too— Jungle Speed, for example.
You go to BGG Con every year, and you aren’t just a well-known tabletop fan, you’re a pretty prominent member of the board game community. Could you say a little about why it’s so important to you?
I love this community. I feel like it's a little magical, sometimes. Don't get me wrong, we definitely have our shortcomings. But at our best, I feel like we're a welcoming group. A place where people who don't necessarily have a soft place to land, socially, can find a spot. I have no tolerance for people who try to foster "cliques" within gaming. There should not be the "cool kids" in board games. This is where people can come together, sit at the same table, and agree to follow the rules on this piece of paper for 30 to 90 minutes (unless you're playing Twilight Imperium). I don't know. It's sort of simple and beautiful and romantic and all of it. If people can play by those rules, and the bigger rules of inclusion... It can be kinda great. I have met some phenomenal people through this hobby. Designers and publishers and website admins and just regular old board game fans. I am very glad I passed that store that was going out of business, although I think I would have found my way here even without that. Besides acting, and meeting My Lovely Wife, nothing has grabbed me like games have.
Finally, what are your plans for Cardboard Cast, the podcast you started last year?
I've always wanted to do a podcast. I love radio, and for a long time I thought that was where I would actually end up. So a podcast seems like a thing I should really, really enjoy. And the podcast has been a fun way for me to interact with people regarding boardgames. The Problem is, though, that it turns out podcasts require a lot of work. I really respect people who can live a life, and yet somehow maintain a regular podcasting schedule. I have had trouble with that. I really enjoyed doing it for the short time that I did it, and if Twitter is any indicator, some people seemed to like listening to it. I think if I feel I have something super important to say, I will say it.
Well, we think this was all important to say, so thank you! See you at BGG Con!