At BMCC, our president has recently sponsored a games library, allowing us to buy an excellent variety of board games to test and possibly use in our classrooms, as well as to provide inspiration for our own designs and as an education on mechanics. The first rule of designing good games is to play a ton of games–just like to be a great dancer to need to study other dancers’ steps; to be a great programmer you need to study how other programmers have solved known problems; to be a great scientist you must, as Newton said, stand on the shoulders of giants. The trouble is, many of us as educators just don’t have tons of time to play new games.
Even those of us who make time to play (me!) have trouble keeping up with the number of quality board games being released today. Make no mistake, we are living in at least a Silver Age of board games, spawned (arguably) by Settlers of Catan and the Euro game renaissance it engendered. A few nights ago I played at least four new games I’d never played before–Castle Panic, Saboteur (with the Saboteur 2 expansion–don’t play without it!), Lords of Waterdeep, and a fourth game whose title I won’t mention because it wasn’t very good. But the other three were orders of magnitude better than anything I grew up with when I was a kid in the 70s and 80s (except D&D of course). I learned a lot from all of them, and I had never heard of any of them until recently.
One of them, Castle Panic, I learned about through TableTop, a new, twice-a-month series on the youtube network Geek and Sundry. The show’s hosted by Wil Wheaton. Yes, Wil Wheaton. Strain your nerd-brain and remember: who is Wil Wheaton? Wait, no, you don’t mean the kid-genius Wesley Crusher from Star Trek: The Next Generation? That guy?
That guy. Turns out, for those of you outside of the geekosphere, Wheaton has reinvented himself as nerd-famous writer, blogger, and pop personality. Among his many passions are board games, and so, along with also-nerd-famous Felicia Day, he created TableTop, a series where he gathers together three semi- to non-famous friends, whose game skills range from non-existent to pwnstar, and plays a different board game each episode.
The show, which takes place in Wheaton’s home–on his very own, jealousy-inducing gaming table–follows a simple format. Wheaton takes a few minutes at the start to provide a non-overwhelming gloss of the game-of-the-week’s rules, and then we get something like 20-25 minutes of watching the game proceed, with rule-clarifications and protips sprinkled throughout. At the end, the loser(s) of the game sit on the couch of despair with a glass of whiskey and lick their wounds, while the winner(s) receives a trophy for winning: for about ten seconds, until Wil takes it back because supposedly the show’s budget’s too small to let them keep it. Same joke every week. Cough.
But that brings up a really important point. That which is scripted, formatted, structured in TableTop tends to be the least entertaining part of the show. Luckily, most of it is unscripted. Most episodes are pretty darn amusing, but that’s because Wheaton and his guests aren’t telling jokes or performing. The show’s funny the way your friends are funny: you laugh because you’re having a good time with them and you’re in the mood to laugh and cut loose a little. So what if Wheaton’s attempts at humor aren’t superwit 100% of the time? What comes across pretty much 100% of the time is that Wheaton is a generous, fun guy whose attempts at humor hit the mark more often than they miss, and who knows a hell of a lot about games. If you want a model of how to host a board game party, you could do a lot worse than TableTop.
The show also provides a kid-glove introduction to games you likely have never heard of. After watching the episode on Castle Panic, I went out and bought it. This is a genre of game–the “tower defense”–I don’t normally dig. But watching Wil and his friends play it, I saw a well-designed game evoke fun and not an insignificant bit of strategy from its players. At one point, Wil tells the table that one of the most satisfying aspects of this game is turning the triangular monster tokens after they have been wounded by the players. See, the way I just described it–“turning the triangular monster tokens after they have been wounded by the players”–sounds pretty dull, but watch the video (here, at 4:48) and hear Wheaton describe that it is one of his favorite mechanics of any board game.
See, that’s important for folks like myself who are trying to take Raph Koster’s advice that games are made out of games, and it’s turtles all the way down: until you reach the interface button. In other words, you can’t just have a great top-level idea for a game and expect it to perform miracles for its players; you’ve got to make sure that every “mini-game” and player interaction itself generates the desired effect. Wheaton’s reaction is an important one because it gives me something to steal when I go to make my own games–a clean and satisfying solution to helping players track their progress. I’ve added this mechanic now to the library in my head, so that when I go to make a game for my students, maybe this will be the one I use to make sure, even at the level of interface, I’m creating an engaging experience.
There are eight videos of TableTop so far, with a few more promised before the end of season one. As each runs about 45 minutes, it may be that not everyone will want to invest the time to watch them all. But to my mind, TableTop provides a time-efficient way to learn about new games, watch mechanics you never thought of in action, and best of all see a group of smart people having fun with and thinking through board games. For anyone interested in creating games to help their students learn, that’s time well-spent.
And no, I’m not just worshipping at the altar of Wil Wheaton in a transparent attempt to try and get on the show. But, I mean, if I were offered a seat at the table–that beautiful beautiful gaming table–I wouldn’t turn it down out of hand. I mean, my people would have to meet with Wil’s people, and maybe we could work something out. We’d have to see. #pleasecallmeWilWheatonIwanttoplay