Meet the host of Who, What, Why?, an interview-style podcast all about game design.
Who is the man behind the Who, What Why? Game Design Podcast?
I'm your host Mike. I live in Westchester County New York with my wife, two sons (one is 3 and the other is a newborn), and dog. I've lived in New York my whole life. I grew up in Queens before moving to Westchester as a teenager. In my non-gaming life, I am an avid hockey fan and pick-up game player. My team is the New York Islanders, and I've been a fan since I was very young. Since last August I've been slowly getting into miniature painting. It's kind of calming to be able to paint little miniatures. I use a lot of tutorials like Sorastro to help guide me. I'm trying to finish my Imperial Assault set, but it is slow-moving. My day job is as a high school teacher in the Bronx. Specifically, I teach English generally to 12th graders, who are equal parts exciting and frustrating to teach.
Tell us a little bit about how this all started and what your podcast is all about.
Back in 2007 or 2008 my friend and I started a podcast called The Ninja Vs Pirates Podcast. The podcast was created purely as a reaction to an internet forum called Fear the Boot. My friend, who knew more about D&D than I, didn't like some of the ideas and expectations that the posting members had about D&D 3.5, so we started a podcast to analyze D&D and other games specifically using the MDA approach. MDA was a paper written around that time and stood for mechanics, dynamics, and aesthetics. We analyzed all sorts of games for each of these qualities.
Around 2009, we shifted our show from our own analysis of games (which was difficult to keep up since I had no connection to the board game hobby at the time) to interviewing game designers about design. That ran until about 2012 when my friend had to take a surprise hiatus. The show remained dormant (though my friend kept paying for the Libsyn account) until 2014 when I, now firmly entrenched in the hobby, decided to revitalize it. I brought on a new co-host and continued interviewing designers. I broadened my guest pool by asking artists, developers, publishers, and more to come on the show.
As time has gone on, how has your podcast changed? What is the biggest difference between your podcast when it started and your podcast now?
The biggest chance has been in my guest pool and my interviewing skills. We originally only interviewed designers of games. This left us in the lurch at least one time when a burgeoning company called Stronghold Games asked to be on the show, but my narrow mindset couldn't conceive of an interview about Code 777 if the person I was interviewing wasn't the actual designer. Shortly after my re-release as Who, What, Why?, I broadened the guest pool to include anyone involved in the board game industry, not just designers. And I rectified that earlier mistake by having Buonocore on the show during season 13.
In the beginning, my friend and I wrote down all of our questions. We had a standard set that we asked. My questions weren't very insightful. When I revitalized the show, I continued writing down questions, but those questions were less generic. As I continued podcasting, my new co-host didn't really like writing down questions preferring an off-the-cuff approach, and at some point I felt much more comfortable doing the same. Now I write some notes, but the rest of the conversation is from my head.
How do you decide what to ask when interviewing designers?
Before each interview, I think about the narrative angle that I am going to approach the interview with. This gives each episode a more unique feel than just focusing on a particular game that people may or may not have played. Each guest has a story to tell, and this approach helps me highlight that story. I also write down some broad ideas, sometimes discussed beforehand with the guest, of topics that I think will be interesting to explore. The benefit this has over writing specific questions is that the answers are more of an unknown for me.
Who are some of your favorite designers that you've been able to interview? Is there anyone you haven't interviewed yet that you would really love to get on the show? Pete Ruth was an absolute blast to talk to. I had such fun talking to him and his partner Mark Thomas. Jamey Stegmaier has always been a great guest because he's incredibly transparent with his knowledge and experience. D. Vincent Baker, who I interviewed frequently during the Ninja vs. Pirates days, was always insightful and enjoyable to speak with. Tanya Pobda was another guest who I got along really well with. Kathleen Mercury and I shared that teacher bond, which made for a good dynamic. Ode says so much so carefully that I always feel like I learn more about design...
The list is too long to name all of my favorites. Like my own children, all of my guests are my favorites.
Most people say yes to my requests for an interview. I'm not shy about just asking people if they want to come on my show. I've only had a few people reject my request, and I respect that rejection because everyone has a reason why, and it's not my nature to try to force people to do something they are uncomfortable doing.
What are some of your favorite games to play right now?
Pandemic living and children has limited my games to primarily Zoom stuff and Tabletop Simulator stuff. My Gloomhaven group has finally continued our campaign during the pandemic using Zoom, which is awesome because I have a lot of fun with that one. It's one of those games I feel like I know intimately. Another great one during a pandemic has been finishing my Pandemic Legacy Season 2 campaign. My wife and I play via Zoom with my brother. My wife and I also played an Exit game at one point and had an incredibly fun time with it. On Tabletop Simulator, I have a group that plays Middara, a ridiculous anime-inspired dungeon crawler, and we also played Rococo on Tabletop Simulator, which is getting me jazzed for the fancy reprint that I ordered.
What are your hopes for your podcast going forward?
My biggest hopes and dreams for this show is to grow my audience back up to and beyond the levels it was at during the height of its popularity. It's never been a top contender for Golden Geek awards or anything and has always been a niche podcast for people interested in design, but I had a decent sized audience at one point before I got my job as a teacher. My show suffered a bit from my own burnout during my early years as a teacher. The pandemic has revitalized my love of podcasting, and I don't see that stopping anytime soon.
I really want to thank Mike for agreeing to take part in this interview. You can check out his podcast on iTunes, Stitcher or Google Podcasts or visit his website at ninjavspirates.libsyn.com.