Wil Wheaton, Felicia Day and the group behind the weekly web series “TableTop” are hoping to take their fervor for board games global with a March 30 event they’ve dubbed International TableTop Day.
Day’s multimedia company and YouTube channel Geek & Sundry are teaming up with local game stores and major publishers, including Asmodee Editions, Days of Wonder, Indie Boards & Cards, Mayfair Games and Wizards of the Coast, to host the event — a sort of worldwide gaming open house. People interested in trying new games or meeting other gamers can sign up at TableTopDay.com to attend free events at game shops or to host their own gaming event.
The event comes after the success of the “TableTop” series, hosted by Wheaton, of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and “The Big Bang Theory” fame. The show, which launched last April, features Wheaton and a table of celebrity guests teaching and playing board games, card games and dice games, drawing hundreds of thousands of views each week.
Hero Complex readers can get a first look at Wheaton’s latest video (above). We caught up with Wheaton to talk about the series, International TableTop Day and the joy of gaming.
HC: How did the idea for “TableTop” come about?
WW: The primary motivation behind making “TableTop” is to share with the world how much I love tabletop board games. And my ulterior motive with the creation of the show is to make more gamers in the world. And I thought the best way to make more gamers was by showing people by example how much fun it is to get together with your friends around the table and play some board games. And the show has succeeded beyond my wildest dreams in that regard. Shortly after we aired our first episode last year, and it was so incredibly well received, we at Geek & Sundry started talking about ways that we could do cool things with “TableTop” that maybe would sort of take it to what was the next logical step. And the next logical step for us was to organize a big, global event where people would get together and play the tabletop board games that they have fallen in love with after watching our show.
HC: Are you joining the gaming on March 30?
WW: Yeah, a bunch of us from Geek & Sundry are getting together. I’m not sure where — we haven’t figured it out yet. I don’t know if we’re getting together in the conference room at the office, if we’re going to get together at someone’s house, if we’re going to get together at a game shop, but wherever we are, we’re going to livestream the games we play during International TableTop Day.
HC: Why board games as opposed to video games?
WW: There is something that happens when people get together in person and sit around a table and share the social experience of gaming. You can certainly have a really good time playing multi-player video games with your friends, but that intimate personal experience is sort of lost. We as human beings have been playing games for thousands of years, and it’s really wonderful and really meaningful to get together around a table and play.
HC: Did you grow up playing board games?
WW: I’ve been a gamer my entire life. When I was growing up, my parents had us a couple of times a week play those board games we all grew up playing, like “Sorry “and “Monopoly” and the “Mad Magazine Game” and stuff like that. And then when I was in high school, I kind of grew out of those games, and some of the friends that I had made asked me if I had ever played “real board games.” I didn’t know what they were talking about, but we sat down and started playing these games that were deeply strategic and heavily themed and really just kind of different from what I was used to. And you can’t really get that experience that we had then that has held our group of friends together for almost — we’re closing in on 30 years. It’s been like 26 years that my friends and I have been playing together. If we weren’t getting together in the same place every week to play games, I don’t know if we would be as close as we are.
HC: You mentioned a period where you felt you had outgrown games. What was the “real board game” that pulled you back in?
WW: My friend Caius was talking about this game called “Car Wars,” which sounded like “Mad Max” the board game. The players would have a budget to spend on designing these vehicles in a dystopian future. You would outfit your vehicle with weapons or armor and things like that and then drive around either on an arena that was printed out on a grid, like a graph paper grid, or you would race down roads on a similar grid, and then you’d just shoot each other and drop down oil slicks and clouds of smoke and clouds of paint and things. It sort of combined “Mad Max “and the video game “Spy Hunter,” and really pulled together a lot of things that I really loved, and it was great. What I think made this particular game so engaging for me was that it just grabbed my imagination. I wasn’t just trying to buy all the properties in “Monopoly,” or get my piece to home before everybody else like in “Pop-O-Matic Trouble” or something like that. I was a guy in the future driving my car that I had designed, and trying to outwit and out-maneuver and out-think other drivers in the same way. I was a role-playing game nerd from about 1982, I guess, and I really loved sitting down to play “Dungeons & Dragons” with my friends, and it was hard to get four to five to six people to do that. In board games, these heavily themed fantasy and science fiction board games, I could do the same thing with my imagination, but we could do it with three people. And those are the games that I still love today, and those are the games that people are right now playing all over the world.
HC: It seems that there’s been a resurgence in the popularity of table-top games during the past few years. Why do you think that is? Or do you think that’s the case?
WW: That’s absolutely accurate. It feels douchey for me to claim any kind of credit for it, but I just know from my friends in the game industry and my friends who are gamers and the people who own the game shots where I go to buy games, that tabletop has had a real effect, that my goal of creating more gamers has succeeded. When we play a game on “TableTop,” it sells out and has to go to a new printing. We did an episode last season that featured a game from Steve Jackson Games called “Zombie Dice,” and it’s a really fun, silly game where the players are zombies, and you’re just rolling dice, and it’s like a press-your-luck dice game. You’re rolling dice trying to get brains — like “eat delicious brains” — and try to not get shot in the face by the humans. And the first person to 13 brains wins. It’s really simple, it’s really fun, and it goes by really fast. When we aired that on “TableTop,” they sold 30,000 units of the game the next week and had to go into a second printing. When we played a game called “Star Fluxx,” it increased that company’s earnings by over $200,000 last year. So I keep hearing about this thing called the “TableTop” effect, and I think that we’re helping. And I’m not saying it’s because of me. It’s because we’re making it possible for people to see how much fun it is to play these games, so people are starting game groups. People who were gamers and maybe stopped gaming are starting to game again, and it’s sort of taking on a little bit of a life of its own.
I think it also helps that a lot of the role-playing games — like the “Dragon Age” role-playing game from Green Ronin or “Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition,” they’ve become very accessible. When people think about role-playing games, if you’re from Generation X, you think about things that are like “Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition,” which was really all about math and charts and had kind of a high barrier to entry. But the modern role-playing games, like “Mutants and Masterminds,” they were made by people who didn’t like the unbelievably complicated equations you had to solve in “D&D 2nd Edition,” so they’re way more accessible to people. I’m sure that “World of Warcraft” has helped expose people to fantasy gaming, movies like “Lord of the Rings” and series like “Game of Thrones.” I’m sure that all of that has helped together, and all of these things taken together are like stacking bonuses on top of each other.
HC: How do you choose what games to feature on the show?
WW: There are three things that have to happen. No. 1, I have to love the game. If I don’t like the game, we’re not playing it. We spend months playing games. And I’m already a gamer, so I have experience with tons and tons of games. And my producer, Boyan [Radakovich], works in the games industry, and he knows designers and goes to the GAMA Trade Show and goes to Origins and Gen Con and all the gaming conventions and knows what’s coming up. … We sort of separate them into games that I absolutely love, and then games that are OK, or games that just don’t do it for me. And I don’t think there are a lot of really bad games. I think there are games that work for some people and don’t work for others, and that’s fine.
So once a game clears that first filter, the next thing is that it has to be relatively easy to explain in a few minutes. I don’t want games that are extraordinarily complicated, because that turns off the audience. If the audience can’t follow the game the simple way that we explain it, then they’re not going to have a good time. This eliminates some of my absolute favorite games, because they’re just very complicated, very deep, deep strategy games. …
The last thing that we really want is a game that is playable in somewhere between 60 and 75 minutes just because of our shooting restrictions. … And I guess the last thing, which is sort of like 3b, I suppose, is I want games that have a high luck component but also a high strategy component, because it lets everybody be in the game all the way to the end. There’s a game that I’m crazy about called “Puerto Rico,” but there’s almost no luck in the game at all. It’s all strategy, so an experienced player is going to destroy a new player every single time that we play. On the other side of that is a game like “Settlers of Catan,” which is incredibly fun, has tons of unbelievably deep strategy, but because you roll dice every single turn, there is a random luck element that lets ever player stay competitive all the way to the end, and these are the games that are most fun for new gamers and for groups of gamers who exist at different skill levels.
HC: So primarily gateway games?
WW: I think any game can be a gateway game, just because you put the right game in front of the right person, and they’re going to go crazy. … You’ve just got to figure out what kinds of games people like to play. And one of the things that I’m real excited about with International TableTop Day is that we have these retailers all over the world who are experienced gamers — they own game shops that are very much the cornerstone and the heart and soul of the gaming community — and they are opening their doors to players on TableTop Day. So people can come in [and ask questions], and they can direct them to the appropriate game. Hopefully, people will go to participate in these events, and they’ll meet people who love games as much as they do and hopefully start some friendships and gaming groups that will endure over time. And hopefully they’ll find new games that they’ve never played before, that they can get excited about, that they can add to their collection.
HC: Year after year, the bestselling games have been “Monopoly,” “Scrabble” and other games that were invented decades ago, despite a robust catalog of creative new games. With the exception of a few, like “Ticket to Ride,” they don’t take off commercially. Why do you think that is?
WW: That’s going to change over time, because a generation of kids is growing up playing “Alhambra” and “Ticket to Ride” and “Settlers of Catan” and “Munchkin” the same way my generation grew up playing “Sorry,” “Monopoly,” “The Game of Life” and “Risk” and things like that. So that will change over time. Those are all fine games. One of the reasons that I really love big conquest exploration games, is that I loved “Risk” when I was a kid. … I think that the people who are raising kids today and watching “TableTop” are going to elevate the games that we love into that same sort of area.
HC: What’s the first game you remember playing?
WW: We used to play this game with my grandmother where we’d roll five dice. It wasn’t “Yahtzee.” You’d roll five dice, and if you got a five, it counted for 50 points, and if you got a one, it counted for a hundred points, and if you rolled three of a kind, it was that many points times 100, so three two’s would be 200. And you’d try to get to 5,000 points, and you would total by collecting the dice and then writing down your score. So it was sort of like a press-your-luck dice game. It is in the family tree of “Zombie Dice.” I played that all the time with my grandmother, and I absolutely loved it. It was really, really fun.
Probably the most memorable game from my childhood was the “Mad Magazine Game,” just because I played that with my parents and my brother and sister all the time. And for families, gaming is rarely about the game. It’s about the time you spend together playing it. I heard from a “TableTop” viewer — he’s a father and I think he had three kids, and his kids after dinner every night would sort of retreat to their own corners of the house, and they would be watching something on their phone or their laptop, or maybe they would be playing a video game by themselves, but they weren’t really doing much as a family after dinner every night. They started watching “TableTop,” and the kids came to the dad, and said, “We want to play these games together. Can we have a family game night?” And he said to me, “So I wanted to thank you for ‘TableTop,’ because I missed doing things together with my family, and this has brought our family closer. We get together a couple of nights a week, and we have a family game night, and it’s bonding the family together, and that wouldn’t have happened without ‘TableTop.'”
HC: That must feel very gratifying.
WW: It really does. That’s why I made the show, and it’s what I want out of International TableTop Day, to spread that and to just give an opportunity to people to go somewhere and experience the boundless joy of getting together with other people and just hanging out and playing a game together.
HC: Any gaming etiquette tips for newbies?
WW: Rule No. 1: Don’t be a [jerk]. Rule No. 2: Do not sacrifice the joy of playing in pursuit of winning. And play more games.
— Noelene Clark
RECENT AND RELATED: