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A Conversation with Simon Ennis (THE HOBBY)

If you love board games, have I got a film for you! In The Hobby, which just premiered at SXSW 2024 (where I reviewed it), director Simon Ennis (Lunarcy!) explores his newfound enthusiasm for, well, “the hobby” in a celebratory look at the passion it engenders. There’s enough material to please fans of games old and new, with interviews with collectors, promoters, podcasters, designers and, yes, players, some of whom gather in 2022 in Las Vegas for the first-ever World Series of Board Games. It’s all extraordinarily good fun. I had a chance to sit down with Ennis at SXSW, and here is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Hammer to Nail: So, if I understand correctly, you were not always a board-game aficionado, as this is relatively new to your life. Could you describe your journey to becoming one?

Simon Ennis: Absolutely. I got deep into the hobby in about 2018. I was interested in it. I started hearing about these new games and I just kind of went to Gen Con as a guy that barely knew anything about it. I walked into this world, the world that you see in the film, those crowds you see in the film, and my jaw just dropped. I had no idea that this world was so big and that it went in so many different directions, that people were so passionate, had their own language, that this was just a real subculture, which is something I’m interested in, anyway.

I had friends that liked Catan or maybe Carcassonne or whatever but then as I started looking into it more and more, my shelves started overflowing. Wingspan and Terraforming Mars were two games that I really got into. And then it just felt like my interaction with the hobby was very much like my other obsessions. And the ones that me and Dan—who’s in the movie—share and have ever since we became friends about 25 years ago, are music and movies, which we both collect. And this was kind of the same thing. Instead of exploring my favorite musicians or filmmakers, I looked at game designers. I love Castles of Burgundy. And every Stefan Feld game. And so it just felt like a new thing that I could just pour my curiosity and my passions into.

And Dan and my wife and I were playing some games together and then Dan and I really started playing games together and then created our own game group. And now that’s been going on for years. So by the time that cameras actually rolled on the movie, I was so deeply in it that I had to keep reminding myself that this movie has to be for the gamer me, but also for the pre-gamer me. So that if you love games, I hope you love this movie; if you don’t know anything about this, I hope you love this movie. If you dislike games, I hope you love this movie because the people in this, I think, are just so relatable and so charming and so smart and funny and just lovable, really.

HtN’s Chris Reed and filmmaker Simon Ennis

HtN: There are a lot of hobbies in this world. So why do board-game aficionados get to call this “the hobby”? Where does that come from?

SE: I asked a lot of people that, and I never got a real answer. I mean, the reason we called this movie “The Hobby” is because it goes back to the language of subcultures, which is something that I’ve always been interested in. I would talk to people and ask them, “What got you into board games?” And they would say, “I’ve been in the hobby for 25 years,” or “The game that got me into the hobby was ‘blank.’” But then whenever I asked, “Why do we call it ‘the hobby’?,” nobody could give me an answer. People like Tom Vasel would just say, “I’ve just always heard it. I’ve always said it.” So I have no idea.” (laughs)

HtN: Can you talk about your process of gathering your subjects? It’s a wonderfully diverse group. And was there anyone that you filmed that you ended up not using?

SE: There were lots of people I filmed that I ended up not using, but none that I filmed to the extent of anyone that we really follow in the film. But my process was really threefold, now that I think of it. There was the personal thing. So that was just kind of me and Dan and my own journey, our own journey, his journey. And then there was just more traditional reaching out to people that I knew I wanted to interview and talk to, like Elizabeth Hargrave, who designed Wingspan. I love that game and I loved the story of how she created this game and its runaway success. So that was literally just reaching out and saying, “Hey, I’m making a movie. I would love to interview.”

So I went to Washington DC and spent a few days with Elizabeth and we went birdwatching and all that. That was the same with Dr. Finkel at the British Museum; I just put in an interview request. But most of the people where we follow their more personal stories, it was just me hanging out, wandering through this world, going to different conventions, going to different events, usually by myself and not with my cinematographer. And I’d have a small camera and I’d sort of be around, but I’d also be participating because, you know, I love going to these places.

That’s how I met Candice Harris, at a gathering of friends. We went to Buffalo, got buffalo wings, and we just happened to be sitting at a table together and shared a pitcher of beer, got to talking, and all of a sudden she’s now in the movie. I think that that’s indicative of the community of the board-game hobby, that this just grew out of being around tables with people, hanging out with board-gamers. I like going out into the world and searching and I like floating around and enjoying the world and then following whatever curiosity inspires.

HtN: Do you have a current favorite game?

SE: Oh, boy. I have quite a few. I mean, as a guy that’s always made lists of like my favorite movies and music and everything, I kind of want to just tell you 10 things right away. But I’ll say generally that I like—that Dan and I play—very heavy Euro-style games, like the kind of more complex ones that take a lot of time. But lately, and maybe it’s just because I’ve been so busy finishing the film, I love this pretty fast little card game called Sea Salt & Paper that plays in about 15 to 30 minutes. That’s been my current obsession. But a lot of that is because I haven’t been able to make too many of the Sunday game meetups where we play for eight hours, just because I’ve been finishing the movie. (laughs)

HtN: I have a serious addiction problem with Ticket to Ride. I own so many different versions and I have all the ones you can have on your iPad, and I play it all the time. Is there a support group for people like me? (laughs)

SE: Well, I mean, I don’t think you need one. I think you just need more people to play it with. Ticket to Ride is an absolute all-time classic. I mean, there’s a reason that that straddles the line between a very popular family game that almost anybody can play and something that really serious hobbyist gamers will play, as well. It’s like a Beatles song or something. It’s a real hit.

HtN: Yeah. And there are so many different maps, which makes it exciting. And there are versions that you can play in like 10 minutes on a small board.

SE: I hear Berlin is really good. That’s one of the new ones.

HtN: Haven’t yet played!

A still from THE HOBBY

SE: I think it just came out last year and I think they’re calling it a lunchtime game or something. It plays in like 20 minutes.

HtN: I’ll check it out. Thank you! So, did your friend Dan Corbett return to the next World Series of Board Games the year after?

SE: No, Dan didn’t go back last year. I think that he absolutely loved the experience of it. It was really cool. But I think in the end, as you see in the movie, he prefers our weekly hangouts with friends rather than being surrounded by a lot of people. When we get together, we listen to a lot of music while we play games, too. But when you go to a convention, it’s either kind of silent or just the din of people talking, and you can’t create the vibe of playing good records, as well. We were talking about maybe doing it again, but instead we actually went on the Dice Tower cruise, which was a really fun experience. It was before mask mandates were lifted, though. So I just didn’t use any of the footage because we didn’t really want a COVID kind of thing in there.

HtN: So, I’ve always wanted to play Wingspan, and seeing it in your film, it looks amazing, but I don’t quite understand how the game works. Do you have a brief way to describe it?

SE: I love the mechanics and everything, but the greatest thing about Wingspan is that it creates such an amazing vibe when you’re sitting down at the table and you have your own aviary. Basically you’re trying to collect different birds to your aviary. The birds are on these cards which have these beautiful paintings or drawings of different kinds of birds. You have to do things like collect food to feed them. You have to get eggs that, you know, create more birds. It would be too complicated for me to tell you all the rules of the game, but I’ll say that the thing that is really wonderful is that when you’re sitting at a table playing Wingspan, you’re just immersed in this gentle, lovely, vibey, beautiful, natural kind of place.

You can be very competitive with it and it really makes you think. But the thing I love about that game so much, and the reason it’s still to this day one of my favorites is just the feeling that it gives you. And in the part of the film where we see Elizabeth and we went bird watching with her, that sequence sort of evokes the feeling I feel when I’m playing the game. So I wanted to translate it into visuals and sound and just be in this lovely natural vibe that I think the game creates, as well.

HtN: Sounds lovely and I can’t wait to play it, myself! Thanks for that and thanks for chatting with me.

SE: Thank you!

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

2024 SXSW Film Festival; Simon Ennis; The Hobby documentary

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is: lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; editor at Film Festival Today; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the founders and former cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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