I look down to check the time: there's a good five minutes left until I'm expecting to meet up with actor Rich Sommer, but a flash of hand-waving grabs my attention from the corner of my eye. Sommer is instantly recognizable from his role as Harry Crane on Mad Men. I am vaguely recognizeable from my Twitter avatar and the appearance of a man waiting for someone. We're both a bit early, but who can blame us? We're here to talk about games, and games are supposed to be fun.
A firm handshake and flight of stairs later, we're inside a private room at the New York Public Library. You may know Sommer from his career, but this will be the last time we mention Mad Men or his other television roles. Instead, we're going to focus mostly on his hobby with a look at the past, present, and future of Rich Sommer the board gamer.
We sit down and I lead off by sharing an anecdote. I told my friends I’m going to interview Rich Sommer, and they said "Oh yeah,the celebrity guy on TV?"
"Nobody said that," Sommer interjects. "They were probably like, oh, that guy from that thing, with the glasses?" And he was right. So I countered with the truth: once I explained to my geeky friends who Sommer was, they immediately questioned his gaming cred, stating "Sure, but he probably just plays Monopoly and casual stuff."
The room hangs on a bit of an awkward pause. Thirty seconds in and I've already put Sommer at a loss for words, but he explains. "It’s so funny to be in this position, because usually I’m in the role of evangelizing and trying to explain the games I play. Having to defend myself as a member of the hobby? That’s a little scary."
Actions speak louder than words, so Sommer pulls two games from his messenger bag that he packed just in case we both had some downtime afterwards: Würfel Bohnanza and Shoot-out. The former is a German card game not yet available in the US, and the latter is a quick-playing Reiner Knizia title packed in with Lorien Green's Going Cardboard documentary DVD. Case closed, Sommer is a died-in-the-wool gaming geek.
Some Würfel Bohnanza bean dice waiting to be planted. Yes, hobby games can get a bit weird.
MTV Geek: So before we get too deep into the gaming stuff, tell me what you’re doing in NYC.
Rich Sommer: We’ve been here since April, first rehearsing and now rounding out performances in Harvey. It’s the first play I’ve done in eight years and my first play on Broadway, so that’s a very exciting thing obviously for me.
Geek: Eight years between plays? Care to share one thing you’ve learned having jumped right into Broadway from such a long theater gap?
Sommer: Well there’s a lot of tradition, and I don’t just mean that there’s this one tradition. It’s “capital T” Tradition that contains many micro-traditions. A giant compendium of traditions. And “compendium” has gotta give me some geek points, please. We’ve got to note the general use of that term.
I had to learn things on Broadway like basic stage etiquette, such as don’t have an open cup of coffee. It’s not a big deal on a TV set, but going to do a play, I wandered in like an A-hole and somebody was like “well maybe, don’t do that. These guys spent a million years painting that floor, you’re going to spill coffee, and it’s going to be ruined.”
The other big takeaway is how much theater actors dabble in superstition. I’m not a superstitious guy at all but it’s a thing you’ve got to respect, or else it messes with everyone else’s mojo. There is a certain mystique and tradition of the theater and its backstage manner that is worth upholding, or it could quickly die away and become less magical.
Geek: So here’s what we really want to know about your time in NYC: Have you had any time to partake in the local gaming scene?
Sommer: This round it’s been pretty much impossible because my hours are inverse of everyone else’s. I’m around all day when everyone else is at work. I’m hanging out with my kids. Then my kids go to bed and I go to work while everyone else has fun.
I’ve gotten in some late night gaming with my buddies, starting around 11PM and playing for a couple hours, but everyone has jobs and lives. It’s been hard to sustain gaming. I have roped some of the people at Harvey into playing some games though.
Geek: I saw you had tweeted out a picture of some games in your dressing room. How about those?
Sommer: My roomate at Harvey is this guy Morgan Spector, an actor in town, and I’ve taught him Hive and Fastrack. Others have played For the Win, but Cards Against Humanity has been the dressing room hit. We’ve had the understudies, even Jim Parsons playing it. Our dressing room is practically sponsored by Cards Against Humanity.
Sommer's dressing room game stash. As to be expected, Cards Against Humanity has been a hit behind the scenes at Harvey.
Gaming has been a great way to get to know people. That’s part of what I love about games, that they are social. I mentioned to Carol Kane, and I haven’t played it yet, but there is a Princess Bride card game called Storming the Castle which I saw at The Compleat Strategist [NYC’s local game store]. Carol, who was in the movie is also in Harvey and has agreed to play Storming the Castle if I pick it up. If someone is willing to play a game with me, I’ll play anything even if it’s not the most highly regarded game. But it would be fun to get Carol to play that game.
Geek: You’re definitely touching on something big there. Non-gamers tend to underestimate the level of trust that board games require. You have to put faith that your opponents A) won’t cheat and B) will always play to win as to not break the game.
Sommer: Part of what I love about games is that even if you’re best friends with somebody, it gives you these sort of moments where you get to interact on a completely different level. You all agree to these abstract rules but there’s nobody holding a gun to your head.
Geek: I’m assuming you’re not playing Cash ‘N’ Guns then?
Sommer: Well yeah that’s a good point. With board games, they can take five minutes or five hours, but you come to this understanding with each other. I’ve never really played roleplaying games, but there is this sort of element where you take on the persona of this type of person who makes certain choices in certain in-game situations. Somebody needs to write a philosophy of board games book. Matt. Somebody needs to write a philosophy book.
Geek: I’ve got a long career ahead of me.
Sommer: Well if you need a foreward I can provide that, but that’s about all I can do.
Geek: We’ve got this on recording. I’m going to hold you to that.
So if you haven't gotten to get out to any game groups, have you been able to game at all with the family?
Sommer: My eldest is 4.5 years old and she would like to play all the time, but I have yet to really get her really into board gaming. I want to pick up some titles like Chicken Cha Cha Cha and Gulo Gulo so I can set her down a safe path. We play Sorry Sliders which has been a big hit; we brought the travel edition here with us. We’ve also got Zimbbos! which is a stacking game like Animal Upon Animal except it's elephants on these little platforms. We also play Candlyand and gosh, that reminds me of things. It’s not that fun.
Geek: We’ve now seen the release of Battleship as a movie, so you being an actor, humor me. What game do you think would make a great movie?
Sommer: None. I normally don’t choose theme over mechanics in games, but I do appreciate a good theme. Looking at the themes of the games I enjoy: Die Macher, that’s a political theme and they’ve made a thousand of those movies; Combat Commander Europe, it’s WWII I’ve seen the movie already. They should have just stopped with Clue.
I wonder if games are maybe a terminus for ideas. Things can be books or movies or operas or plays, but once they’re a game, that’s where they should end. Things shouldn’t start as games and be taken to movies.
Geek: You're absolutely on the right path. People can react harshly when they see a movie after reading the book it was based on. They have control over their internal voice and the director’s vision may not match that. Perhaps games as an interactive medium provide an experience that feels lacking when transferred to a passive medium?
Sommer: That’s one of the things that Clue did well. It kept you engaged with the multiple endings. You went to the theater and didn’t know which one you were going to get. Now all of that being said about video and board games, I always have loved a good VCR or DVD game. I had Doorways to Adventure by Sid Sackson, and the Clue VCR game. My buddy Matt Peterson and I would play these constantly and they were awesome. It was like an interactive movie.
Geek: So you obviously go way back here. Exactly how far back does your gaming history go?
Sommer: This guy Matt Peterson was my best friend growing up and through all four years of college and we were always into games. We would while away a Saturday flipping through the Hoyle book and playing any two-player game we could find. Then we graduated a little bit into board games with a lot of Monopoly. There was a chain, Games by James, were we would pick up new games,and we got CribbGolf, Shrieks and Creaks, and some other games that let us know there was something beyond the more popular games.
When I was in Cleveland in grad school, I walked by a game store that was going out of business, right around the time in 2001 or 2002 where a lot of gaming nerds were getting into the hobby. I went in and got Carcassonne and something else on deep discount. I looked them up when I got home and found BoardGameGeek.com. It’s been snowballing from there.
Geek: You’ve got your own blog now, Rich Likes Games. What pushed you over the edge to start a blog about gaming?
Sommer: Well, what actually started it was this board game segment I do on Attack of the Show. I can only say so much in the three minute segments, so I wanted a way to say more about the games. What anyone who goes there will see is that I haven’t updated it in about five months. Actually I put something up there last week or so, but literally every day I tell myself I should be writing something up there.
Geek: It’s a true blog.
Sommer: Yes, definitely. With months and months of stagnancy. Hopefully once I get back to LA I can pick that up again. We’ve aired two Game Night segments on AotS that I haven’t even written about on the blog yet.
Rich Sommer checks out some games, including Confusion (MTV Geek's 2011 Game of the Year) in a recent Game Night segment for G4TV's Attack of the Show.
Geek: So if the blog game from the Game Night segment, where did the segment come from?
Sommer: When I was in college, for some reason myself and a buddy of mine, Andy Zilch, developed a very serious, very deep obsession with the card game Uno. We would skip classes to play Uno. We took video and radio production classes together and we would sit in the back, surreptitiously handing each other cards.
When I moved to NY, we continues and came up with what we are 100% convinced was the first correspondence game of Uno. We had an intermediary shuffle up a deck of Uno, number each of those cards on the back, and duplicate that deck twice. We each had a numbered deck, would shuffle, and report those numbers back to the other player. It was insane, it would take us forever to complete a game. We even had a blog where we would post the moves. I’ve gone back and read some of it, and it must be the most shit-talking I’ve ever done in a game.
We did this probably for about a year and a half, going through a few decks each time the numbers would get burned into your head. We even got into collecting Uno sets, but that got to be too much. Although Mattel did tell us that they believed we had the world’s largest collection.
I can still rattle off the entire history of the card game Uno from my head, about Merl Robinson, his wife Marie and son Ray, who invented it in 1971. It even gets into heroin smuggling at one point. The Robinsons were not involved in that, but the guy who bought it, Robert Tezak, he got into that.
So I finally decided once board games started to come in big, I couldn’t be into both board games and Uno. We even sold off the collection to start a small college fund for Andy’s baby. Going back to your question, Andy is a TV producer in LA working for Attack of the Show, so he pitched this idea to me. It’s been very fun.
Geek: I know you have plenty of experience going to cons as a gamer, but now that you’re a recognized TV actor, you’re being asked to appear as a guest of honor. Is this year’s BoardGameGeek.con the first time you’ll be attending a con in that capactiy? How will it change your plans?
Sommer: Yes it is, but as for plans, well I intend to play as many games as I can. I’ve spoken to Aldie [BGG admin] and the intention is ust to have me there and be accessible.
Geek: Perhaps they’ll have you in a glass cage where people can buy some Rich Sommer pellets to hand feed you while you roll dice.
Sommer: Exactly. You can’t play with me. I’ll be playing online games only on my iPad. I’ll glance up and look at everyone once in a while.
But seriously, my goal is to play some of my favorite games. I love Die Macher and I never get to play it. My last game of it was a year ago this March at Snakes & Lattes in Toronto while I was filming Nikita. I just want to play those big games that you don’t get to play day to day, while also meeting as many people as I can.
Geek: Speaking of Snakes & Lattes, you must travel a lot for work. Are there any other places you’ve popped in to game while on a shoot?
Sommer: Any time I travel for work, I’ll try to find a game group or store. It’s for my benefit because I’m away from my family, a bit bored and a bit lonely, and it works out great. This is a hobby that is intrinsically social so it lends itself to being sought out when you travel, whether it be to Miami or Detroit.
Geek: You’ve mentioned a few times in passing during this convo that you almost always lose when you play games. What games do you lose the most at?
Sommer: Really anything that requires real life thought. I’m just not good at math, and 90% of the games we play are prettied up math problems. I’m terrible at it. I just go “oh well what if I go here?” while all my friends who are very smart and very good at math go “oh well I’ll do this this and this.” I really do love Summoner Wars though, even though I almost never win.
Geek: So let’s wrap this up with some quickfire. Most anticipated game?
Sommer: Crude: The Oil Game, the reprint of McMulti from Stronghold Games.
Geek: Game you own and are dying to play but can’t seem to get to the table?
Sommer: Going back to Summoner Wars, it is my favorite game of the past two years and I just can’t play it enough. I own every faction, every reinforcement pack, and I want to try every single faction with every possible permutation of matchups. I want to be playing it all the time.
Geek: Gem of your collection?
Sommer: Probably the Moskito-published 1986 edition of Die Macher, still in shrinkwrap. I previously owned the Valley Games version of it and that game was fugly. Die Macher deserves better than Comic Sans.
Geek: It really sounds like gamer equivalent of a good scotch.
Sommer: Absolutely! One day I’m going to crack that sealed Die Macher open and it’s going to be awesome.
The other gaming possession I’m proud of is my Memoir ‘44 collection. I’ve got every expansion put into one big tackle box. Andy Zilch and I transferred our personal Uno obsession right over to Memoir ‘44. Those two games, Die Macher and Memoir ‘44 are the two I’m really most proud of.
And with that, Rich and I wrapped up our interview, looked at our watches, and then over to the small pile of games we had brought. With time enough for one game, we opted to play Rich’s copy of the Würfel Bohnanza dice game, and he proceeded to mop the floor with me. Wait a minute. I thought this guy said he never wins games?!
Rich, flashing his hand of victory points and making his victory grin.