Season three of Wil Wheaton’s TableTop started yesterday, and that’s awesome. I’m a huge fan of the show and I contributed to the IndieGoGo campaign to fund this season, so I’m really excited to finally be able to watch new episodes again. I watched the first episode, and then went back to watch some of the older stuff that I had missed, and it got me thinking about why this series is so important to me.
As a Gamer
As a fan of tabletop games, the show is invaluable because it introduces me to a ton of seemingly awesome games. I bought Smallworld, Pandemic, Forbidden Island, Star Trek: Attack Wing (because it’s the same engine as X-Wing), Carcassonne, Tsuro, Munchkin, Gloom, and King of Tokyo (so far) because I saw them on TableTop. My roommate bought Ticket to Ride because of it.
For those unfamiliar with the show’s format, Wheaton introduces the game and gives us a breakdown of gameplay (which is written by producer Boyan Radakovich) and then plays the game with three (or sometimes four) of his famous type friends. It’s a great way to see how a game is played and decide if you’re interested in playing it yourself.
As a Designer
It’s fascinating to watch people play these games. There are extended versions of some of them, which allows you to see a lot more of the games themselves, since the normal episodes cut a lot of stoppage of play, “boring” turns, and the like. You can get a pretty good sense of how the games work, which is important as a designer, because that’s how you learn to design games.
In grad school as a historian, you spend a lot of time reading the works of established historians, and talking about that work with your colleagues and professors, then, eventually, you do history of your own. Usually at least a paper per class each semester. You have to learn how to be a historian by watching other people do it and then trying it yourself. Game design works the same way: play lots of games, talk about those games, and then make your own.
When your schedule or living arrangement doesn’t provide a lot of opportunities to play games, something like TableTop is super helpful. You can essentially try out a game without needing $40 and a group of friends. This may sound sad, but when the show debuted, I didn’t have anyone to play games with in Lansing where I was living for grad school. Later I would make some really great friends and eventually we would make gaming a weekly, or in the case of my roommate and I, almost daily occurrence. I’m still sort of “settling in” here in Seattle, and I haven’t had the opportunity to meet a lot of people here and find new gamers. Two of my roommates (one of whom I lived with in Lansing) are into tabletop gaming, but our schedules have prevented us from having a lot of time to game. Many of the games we own are better with 4+ players, and getting the fourth roommate to play is next to impossible. So being able to watch Wil Wheaton play games with his friends gives me access to the basic systems of those games. Whether I want to buy those games or not, seeing them in action essentially adds them to my collective knowledge of game rules, tactics, and the like, and gives me that much more raw data to consider when working on my own designs.
Go through the archives and check out the older videos, they’re all worth watching, especially if you aren’t familiar with the game being played. You get to see the games in action. It’s a great teaching tool too. The first time I got to play Smallworld with people, we watched the TableTop episode about it before we played, and I think it helped a lot. Even the gag reels and extended player interviews are helpful, because they give you a better idea of what the game is like on the table, being played by actual people, many of whom are new to the game in question.
As a Person
This is probably not the most helpful thing for most readers, but I want to share it anyway. I’ve long been a gamer, and before I fell in love with history and decided to become a professor, I wanted to design games professionally. I did a little bit of freelance d20 work, but that all ended when grad school began.
I discovered TableTop because I was already a huge fan of Felicia Day’s series The Guild, so when she got her own YouTube channel, Geek & Sundry, I was a fan from the start. TableTop reminded me of how much I missed gaming, and as the first season unfolded, I realized just how big a hole there was in my life that had been filled by gaming. When grad school became fully unbearable (it was always hard, but it became apparent that I didn’t want to be there anymore), and I went into existential crisis mode, I realized that gaming was the answer. Or more specifically, game design. TableTop helped me realize that, as much as I love history and social theory, I loved game design more, and that was what I should be doing with my life. At least, eventually.