Tabletop Words With Friends? Oh, You Mean Scrabble.
We’ve reached a time where console games cost $60 each, and players line up to buy the games at midnight releases as if they were rare iPhones. Visual representations of reality through graphics and physics modeling has helped to spur sales so high that the most popular video games now threaten Hollywood with millions of dollars earned not just from the sales of games themselves, but also from the sale of accessories, add-ons, and in-game purchases. Motion sensitive controllers, video camera controls like the Microsoft Kinect, and even 3-D televisions are at the door, waiting for a compelling game title to tie it all together. So why is Star Trek TNG actor and celebrity geek Wil Wheaton promoting board games on his new YouTube show Tabletop?
If you watch a few episodes of his show (hosted on Felicia Day’s Geek & Sundry channel), you’ll understand that Wil Wheaton loves games. The podcasts of him playing D&D 4th Edition are quite entertaining. On Big Bang Theory, his character ‘evil Wil Wheaton’ wins a Magic: The Gathering-style tournament. And in a keynote address at PAX East 2010, Wheaton eloquently explains how great videogames entice us with their story and characters, not their graphics. Board games and card games lack the immersive experience that one might find playing Dragon Age on a 50” LCD. But what we gain as players is the across-the-table interaction with our friends and loved ones.
Not being terribly familiar with Wheaton’s oeuvre, I sat down to watch an episode or two of Tabletop and was favorably impressed. He’s a quick-witted host who invites interesting and intelligent guests (writers, actors, geeks) to play games on camera. Although one benefit of the show is to promote the sales of these games at sponsor Target, this is handled in a light-handed manner; the shows are part explanation of how the game is played, and part voyeurism. Although the topic of each show is ostensibly a Tabletop game, what sticks with the viewer most is the interaction between the players. And there’s the rub: The fact that you play these games across the table from your friends is more important than which games you choose to play.
That said, the games featured on Tabletop are a new breed of social game, quite unlike the game Monopoly, which has sold more than any other board game aside from Checkers or Chess. Even though Monopoly has sold millions of copies worldwide, much of the game play isn’t very fun. After all the properties are acquired, the game spins down as players go broke, usually slowly. The games featured on Tabletop engage different game mechanics, and thus don’t drag out with an easily predictable yet drawn-out resolution. They often have some element of strategy, trickery, or random roll of the die or draw of a card that keeps each player in the game with a good shot at winning. I have played several of these games (Munchkin, Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride, Pandemic, Gloom) and it feels good to see them get some positive exposure.
While I savor playing video games with a 3-D environment like World of Warcraft or Halo, most of the people with whom I’ve played those games online are complete strangers. In contrast, there’s something special about getting together with my buddies – people I know from meatspace – for our weekly “nerd night”, and sitting down in the same room to talk to and joke with while playing games. I prefer stepping away from the glowing screen and playing with my real-world friends. Tabletop is a good source for learning more about games we haven’t yet played, and inspiring all of us to try new things.
ProTip: If you’re interested in trying out a game before playing it, check out your local store for hobby gaming – not Target or Walmart. They often have ‘store copies’ of games, and will let you and your friends sit down to play a game or two before making a purchase. Our local store has a huge selection of some 60+ games for customers to check out.