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Interviews

Anyone who frequents the Spielfrieks Yahoo group or to rec.games.board has probably come across the name Frank Branham. Frank plays a ton of games and seems to get his hands on the new ones before anyone else. In recent years, he's also started designing his own games. His first was Dia de los Muertos, which he published himself. His next two, Warhamster Rally and Nodwick, were published by Jolly Roger Games. His games have received great reviews from gamers and they've been honored by Games Magazine in their Games 100. We were honored to do the following interview with Frank in June, 2003.


Mike Petty: When you're not playing or designing games, what do you do for a living?

Frank Branham: I work as a Systems Administrator for the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Specifically, I deal with the larger UNIX servers there.

MP: As I came to know the name "Frank Branham" while discovering the world of boardgames online, I thought of him as someone who owns a ton of games and someone who has the answer to most questions people posted on the internet. I'm amazed at the number of games you own and your knowlege of the games that are out there. How big is your game collection?

FB: The game collection is just shy of 2400 games. My wife Sandi has catalogued them and they take up about half of a converted two car garage. I suspect part of the mystique is that I got started earlier than a lot of folks. My dad's family were all avid game players, and my sister and I had 60 or 70 games throughout most of our childhoods. My cousins had a huge childhood collection of 200-300 games.

I continued to play games in college but the collection did not really start to grow as rapidly until I graduated from college. A year or two after, I fell in with a bad crowd, and started buying German imports fanatically.

MP: How much gaming do you do in an average month?

FB: I've got a few gaming groups I play with, weekly Tuesday night and Sunday night Groups. Every couple of months we burn an entire Saturday gaming, and we've been doing prototypes only once a month on Thursday evenings.

Which comes out to about....30-35 hours a month? I also spend about another 10-20 hours playing videogames.

MP: What types of games are your favorite?

FB: I am probably most fond of open field racing games, like Robo Rally, Mississippi Queen, Magalon, and of course Warhamster Rally. My other two favorite types of games are real time games and partnership trick taking games. Conveniently, my three published games are one of each of those categories. I played a lot of Bridge in college, and enjoyed playing, but got tired of the bidding system.

The one genre I am very fond of that I've not been able to create a decent game about is the dungeon crawl. I love Warhammer Quest, Heroquest, and Sandi and I spent Eris knows how many hours playing Diablo II. I've been tearing my hair out trying to come up with a system that gives that genre a good twist. I'm not even close.

MP: Speaking of your own designs, when did you start designing games?

FB: I started about 1995-1996. I was working for Sequent and spending about 50% of the time on the road. I cannot remember why I actually started working on games, but I had few distractions, and it was easy to spend concentrated time working on games. I designed about 3 large, huge, gigantic games in that time period. One of those is the forerunner to both Arcana Arcanissima and Nodwick. That particular game had about 3 games worth of rules in it, combining a Bazaar-like production and working out combinations with high speed trading. On top of that was an elaborate city simulation where you could control aspects of the village in which you lived.

It was kind of cool, but humans couldn't play it--especially not in real time. I could keep it all in my head, but I'd spent a few months agonizing over the game.

MP: Tell us about your experiences self-publishing Dia de Los Muertos.

FB: I had my insane prototype of Aquarium Derby at the Gathering a few years back. John McCallion of Games Magazine liked the game, and was thinking about a small article on new designers. He suggested that he would love to run a picture of me with Aquarium Derby. And then he asked if there was any way I could put together a small run of some game that could be reviewed with the article.

I said, "No Problem." Not that I had a game, mind you. Or that Sandi had threatened to divorce me if I ever tried to publish a game. Sooooo...I had some obvious and immediate design criteria. I needed to do a game that was very tiny and with a theme that Sandi could not resist.

Turns out we were married on Dia de Los Muertos in a cemetery. On our first anniversary, we went on a trip to Salem, Mass, where the Peabody Essex Museum had a large exhibit of Day of the Dead artwork. Including a description of the 3 day celebration with animals, children, and adults remembered on each day.

I convinced Sandi, she designed the artwork, and printed it at her workplace. We cut corners by using Ziplocks, but also by using a pile of thick cardstock that another client had ordered but decided not to use. Then we designed the cards to fit onto those sheets, which were a little smaller than we would have done normally. We think we printed about 1400 games. There were 1800 sheets, and we don't know how many were wasted from setting the inks at the start of the run.

The cool thing, almost all of them are gone.

MP: And how did your two games with Jolly Roger Games come about? Did you approach them, or the other way around?

FB: I'd not had much luck with the German companies. Most liked my games, but decided not to publish them. When I started to look around at American companies, Jolly Roger caught my eye. First of all, they had published a zombie game -- a subject near and dear to my heart.

As it turns out, Jim also needed someone to help coordinate the content of the games, and develop and playtest designs. He lives in a tiny town in rural Illinois and coaches volleyball, so he doesn't have a steady game group. So it has been a pretty happy arrangement, as I would rather work on the game content itself.

MP: You mentioned German publishers. I've noticed your name in the credits for some translations of imported games--Mare Nostrum comes to mind as one of them. How did those opportunities arise?

FB: I've been doing translations for Eurogames for a couple of years now. This started when Bruno Faidutti was looking for someone to translate notes and game rules so he could submit games to German companies. Most of the German companies could read English, but not French. My qualifications were that I had three years of high school French and had already played and been rather fond of all of his older games. When Democrazy and Castle were picked up by Eurogames, Bruno convinced them to let me do the English translation, as I already knew the games from playtesting.

The really odd thing is that I've known Bruno and worked with him for 5 or 6 years. It wasn't until this April that we actually met. I really need to get to Essen.

MP: What can we expect from you as far as new games in the near future?

FB: I'm helping Jolly Roger coordinate and work on the rules and layout for Scream Machine and Victory and Honor. Jim has threatened to reprint Dia die Los Muertos. We are working on a theme related to some of the Chinese myths about dragons and rain.

The real problem with all of these is artwork. Artists are expensive, and a small card game just doesn't have any money in the budget for very elaborate art. We want to find a traditional Chinese artist for the Dia die Los Muertos reprint, but have not had much luck.

The only other game I've completed and am happy with is Arcana Arcanissima. In fact my games have been published in reverse order of their design. Arcana is the first game I finished. This one is being published next year by Plenary Games, and is a big game. It plays something like an advanced Bazaar, but with a lot of subtle elements hiding in the rules. The nice thing is that is plays in about 45 minutes, and moves rather quickly. I think Sandi and I will be doing much of the layout, and Angela is trying to get a cloth board as in our prototypes.

MP: Yes, I noticed Sandi was also credited for the game at the Plenary site. From my own experience, it's great to have a spouse who also enjoys games. How do the two of you work together on designs?

FB: In general, we don't. Sandi has a graphic arts background, and so has done layouts for completed prototypes. Arcana Arcanissima was a little different. First of all she had to convince me that the original mega-huge design was not really playable, and presented so many suggestions along the way. I cannot really remember which ones, as this was 5 years or so ago. She also suggested the themes for the game, from the original one of witches creating fairytale stories from potions. And she did the bulk of the Alchemical research for theming the final game.

MP: It must be very exciting to see each of the games you've finished make it to print. What's been your greatest satisfaction so far as a designer?

FB: Probably the Games 100 awards. I grew up reading Games Magazine and I lived in a tiny, tiny county of 3000 people in rural Kentucky. The nearest toy and hobby stores were 80 minutes away in Lexington. So I did not get to see many of the more strategic games except in the Games reviews. The Games 100 were always particularly special to me, as Dad would mail order some of the more interesting looking choices.

MP: I've talked to a number of aspiring designers in recent years. Many are driven by unrealistic goals of money or by this incredibly great game idea that never really comes to fruition. Your career in games seems to be growing very steadily. What sort of goals keep you going?

FB: It is still fun. When it stops being fun, I cannot really see myself continuing to make games. The money involved in even the publishing side of games with under 5000 copies is pretty small, and the profits are even tinier. By the time that filters down to authors, t'ain't much.

The four games that I'm happy with and consider finished are all being published. I'm slowly working on one or two, but my driving force is the whimsical forces surrounding when I'm in the mood to work on one of them. I am really trying not to burn myself out.

MP: Frank, I've enjoyed having this chance to get to know more about you and your work. Thanks for taking time to do this interview.

FB: Sure thing. Folks don't ask me to babble on much.

 



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