Leif Gantvoort

The real magic that makes the new Above Board television show special is the cast. The dozen or so actors in Above Board clearly have a special knowledge of sketch comedy, and all work together beautifully, playing off of each other in a natural manner. While attending the studio filming, I was able to speak to each cast member and get their take on the show, board games, and the community at large.

The production creates a “meta of the show” with actors using their real names and often their real jobs. You get to know the characters they portray, from the picked-on intern Curtiss, to psychotic Kurt the Sound Guy, and Brett the hopeless, possibly homeless, victim of destiny. Ideas, gags, and characters come around a second and third time, creating inside jokes that make the viewer feel like they are part of this hysterical, dysfunctional family.

Producer/Writer/Director Travis Oates was the owner and teacher at the ACME Comedy Theater in L.A., where he trained most of the cast of Above Board in sketch and improv comedy. He was host of Arena on G4, director of Don’t Blink (2014), and has been the official voice of Piglet for Disney for more than 15 years. Travis’ natural comfort in front of the camera and finely honed comedic timing and wit are what make this show special. He is also a true board game connoisseur (read: junkie). His personal collection of games is immense, and many of the cast have ridiculed his Kickstarter addiction. In fact, a compilation video of Travis wandering conventions, continually stating “I Kickstarted that” is rumored to exist. Curtiss Frisle commented that “Travis can swim in a pile of games like Scrooge McDuck”.

Leif Gantvoort is the perfect straight man to Travis Oates’ sarcastic prodding and taunting, and the two are a natural hosting pair. Leif has known Travis for decades and directed at ACME. His on screen innocence from the hobby is an act, as Leif was getting into gaming well before production on the show started. However, Leif did express surprise at the sheer scope he witnessed during his trip to GenCon. In fact, while “researching” titles in the show, his personal collection increased significantly, including favorites Twilight Imperium and Heroes of Land, Sea & Air. Plus, Leif killed Uncle Ben.

Like most of the cast, Kim Evey, along with her better half Greg Benson, were with Travis at ACME. The two of them worked on the comedy web series The Guild, as well as behind the scenes at the nerd vacation JoCo Cruise. Between these projects, the couple was in touch with the gamer community and fully knew what they were getting in to, although they consider themselves “gamer adjacent”. Kim admits that one of the better perks of the production was the necessity of “playing in depth games for research”. Greg does recall Quarto as being one of his favorite games from ages past. Greg plays a hyperbolic game show host who bursts in during competitions between the hosts, perfectly mediating metaphorical battles to the death. Kim’s segments add a bubbly, delightful innocence and energy to the show, although her more evil intelligent side does show through – most notably when she makes short work of YouTube celebrity guest Chaz Marler. Charlie, 3 years old but instrumental behind the scenes of Above Board, lists Snug as a Bug in a Rug as a favorite to play with parents Greg and Kim.

Kurt Engstrom really is the sound guy when on location, but he steals the show as Kurt the Sound Guy. Large and imposing, Kurt the Sound Guy doesn’t say much, but what he does say touches your brain in a way that makes you innately uncomfortable. In real life, Kurt is a delight who has been playing RPGs, Warhammer 40K, and Star Fleet Battles forever. Kurt said of the community around board gaming, “You can’t be an ass and expect to be invited back”. Similarly, Curtiss Frisle embodies the simple, naïve Curtiss the Intern, who takes constant physical and mental punishment from the hosts, yet always runs back, just excited to be there. Curtiss acted in Travis’ feature film Don’t Blink (2014), and identifies himself as more of a video gamer than a board gamer. However, constant exposure during filming has made Curtiss a fan of Star Realms, Zombicide: Black Plague and Heroes of Land Sea & Air.

Brian Spillane tends to burst in unannounced to “Spillane it to you”, laughably botching board game definitions or terms, much to the delight of Travis and annoyance of Leif. Brian portrays the kind, but completely lost and out of his element, wannabe expert. Spillane admits to not being much of a gamer prior to Above Board, but has since fallen in love with classics such as Orleans, Mysterium and Terraforming Mars.

Dan Billet plays a perpetually angry, intense correspondent, whose ranting screams brought the audience to tears several times. A veteran actor of 25 years, Dan lists Game the Game on Geek and Sundry among his many roles. Dan has been playing RPGs forever, attending NecronomiCon on a regular basis, and was well versed in board games before production on Above Board. Dan remembers playing Dead of Winter preparing for the show, although he admits he is always the traitor. His favorite game of late is Pandemic.

Beth Leckbee dominates her scenes, often in an appropriate barbarian outfit, intimidating the hosts and exploding with gaming excitement. She also brings a musical element to the show, singing amazing board game song parodies. Beth commented that the show is “not being faked. [There is a] legitimate gaming community in this group”. Games were relatively new to Beth, but during the production she learned about the titles, many of which she now plays with her kids. 

Brett Sheridan portrays an innocent who through the hosts’ pranks or simple fate, seems to constantly run into bad luck. Brett might live in his car, may be wounded or trapped, but always steals the audience’s heart and sympathy. A long term ACME veteran, Brett acted on The Guild with Greg and Kim. Games were relatively new to Brett before the show, but now “family time has increased since getting into games”, and games have become a necessary way to unplug.

Pauline Yasuda plays a disaffected, emo correspondent, laughably despondent in her many roles in the show. She calls her trip to Essen “very intense”, its mere size and scope a real eye opener. Pauline has since fallen in love with games Dead of Winter and Trekking the National Parks.

Miles Grose also plays many roles on Above Board, starring in varied sketches, and brings a humorous intensity to his segments. Miles is a veteran actor who trained at ACME with Travis, and although he played some RPGs as a kid, board games are a relatively new world for him.

It is obvious watching the cast at work that they enjoy what they do, they enjoy working together, and this bursts through in the final product. Miles Grose best summarized the passion behind Above Board: “When you have a pitch, [you have to think] not only is it a good idea, but are you the right person to pitch it? Travis is the right person”.

Last week, I had the great opportunity to visit the set for the upcoming television show Above Board. The brain child of Travis Oates, Above Board is a lifestyle comedy show celebrating our little corner of the vast nerd multiverse – board games, role playing games and collectible card games. The show combines inside jokes about modern board games with tongue in cheek interviews and smart comedy. Above Board will not feature play through videos or reviews, preferring to leave that angle to the people who already do it well – the YouTube personalities we all know and love. (But look for YouTube celebrity cameos). In this article I will review the various segments featured on the show.

The show shines due to its roots in improv sketch comedy. Travis was the owner of the ACME Comedy Theater in L.A. in the 2000s, and most of the cast and crew has previously worked with Travis and with each other through ACME. Everybody on the show has practiced humor, enthusiasm, and charisma that comes from a shared experience in live improv. A majority of the show involves smart banter between the hosts: board game savvy Travis Oates, and the more refined, board game innocent straight man Leif Gantvoort. The humor shines through as Travis continually lies, cheats, and steals in order to embarrass and one-up Leif.

Each show spotlights three board games, beauty shot in a dynamic, close camera fly-by of the board and components (lens flare included). This “car commercial style” has witty narration and ends with a great list of the proper player qualifications for the game. These back of the box “badges” go above and beyond the classic “age 8 and up” in truly surprising ways – think “appropriate for cube fetishists”.

Live skits interspersed in the show allow the rest of the talented cast to shine. Quick Picks has a cast member creating a crazy top 5 list, such as “board games I cannot pronounce”. Retro Spectrum presents an entire line of games, with every version and expansion listed and duly noted. Let Me Spillane It To You features Brian Spillane confidently explaining a board game concept completely wrong. Versus pits two cast members against each other, debating which of two completely unrelated games is superior, often leading to hysterical comparisons – imagine “Gloom vs. Gloomhaven”. Lights and alarms announce surprise game show type competitions between the hosts (usually rigged by Travis) involving crazy tasks. And the frosting on the cake is that our own Tom Vasel does a regular Top Ten List, themed but with surprise twists.

Pre-recorded segments are also an important part of the show. Visits to board game conventions, component factories, and field reporter interviews are reminiscent of The Daily Show or Top Gear. The cast made pilgrimages to both Essen Spiel and GenCon, and the footage and interviews from these huge conventions is priceless. Ludicrous historical newsreels show imagined origins of classic games, and fake commercials for our well known maladies, such as Analysis Paralysis, had the audience in stitches. Role Playing segments feature cast members arguing inane points, then transitioning to the miniatures on the table, having the actual fantasy characters continue the arguments to great effect.

I was initially worried that a television show about board games might take the low road, bashing the eccentric uniqueness of our passion for a cheap laugh, or the opposite and turn into a bland reference documentary. The show consistently exceeded my expectations, balancing smart inside jokes and skits with informed knowledge about the games we love. Above all, the comedy shines through, crafted by a cast well versed in timing, surprise, pathos and satire. I, for one, am looking forward to Above Board and cannot wait for its release.