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.