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
MP: Speaking of your own designs, when did you start
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
FB: Sure thing. Folks don't ask me to babble on much.