Catching Up With Wil Wheaton: International TableTop Day

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Wil Wheaton—actor, writer, host and geek icon—stands in front of a brick wall, stand-up style, wearing a shirt that says “CRUSH ALL HUMANS” and launches into an opening monologue:

“When most people think of a small world, they think about being on a boat surrounded by creepy dolls who won’t stop singing. But when gamers think of a small world, they imagine a fantasy-filled land full of crazy races with outrageous powers where the world is covered in blood as we battle to see who can take it over and win the game.”

So begins Episode 1 of Wheaton’s online show TableTop, where he and three of his friends play a board, card or dice game. The 30-minute video has nearly 1.5 million views on YouTube. But if the idea of watching other people play a game doesn’t immediately grab you, that’s okay with Wheaton. His real goal is to get you to play.

Wheaton has had several vocations since starring in Stand By Me and spending time as the youngest member of the Enterprise in Star Trek: The Next Generation. When the series ended, he did one more film—the 1991 boarding-school action flick Toy Soldiers—then left the spotlight of Los Angeles for Topeka, Kansas, where he worked for NewTek, helping develop a video production tool called Video Toaster 4000. He returned to film in the late ‘90s, opting for independent projects. He also started voice acting again—he’d gotten his start playing young Martin Brisby in The Secret of NIMH at the age of 10. He’s now appeared everywhere from Family Guy to Batman: The Brave and the Bold. In 2001, he launched the blog Wil Wheaton dot Net and was named Best Celebrity Blogger by Forbes two years later. He’s hosted several TV shows and guest-starred on The Big Bang Theory. He’s written several books, including his first memoir Dancing Barefoot and amassed 2.5 million Twitter followers. But it wasn’t until recently that his passion for table top games intersected with his career.

Boardgames, dice games, deck-building games—Wheaton has kept a habit of finding new games to play with a group of friends who he’s known since high school. And a couple of years ago, he decided he wanted to help others discover the hobby he loved. At the encouragement of his friend Felicia Day—creator and star of The Guild, where Wheaton played her nemesis/love interest—Wheaton developed an idea for a show where he’d invite friends to play a different game each episode. TableTop has been a hit for Day’s Geek & Sundry YouTube channel, often generating more than a million views per episode thanks in part to guests like Seth Green, MythBusters’ Grant Imahara and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’s Jeri Ryan.

Wheaton expanded his gaming evangelism beyond the screen to the real world last year, helping found International TableTop Day, a series of events across the globe where anyone can join in the table-top game renaissance. Last year, more than 3,000 events were held on all seven continents (thanks to researchers in Antarctica). The second annual TableTop Day is April 5, and Wheaton hopes to have 11 million people participating. The stated goal: for us to “put down our worries and play more games.”

We spoke to Wheaton about his love for games and the success of TableTop.

Paste: Did you grow up playing boardgames as a kid?
Wil Wheaton: When I was a kid, I played lots of the old-school tabletop games with my parents and my sisters—Life and Sorry and Risk and things like that. But when I was about 14 or 15, I was introduced to real tabletop games by my friends in high school. We were all awkward nerds, and we were all into RPGs and Dungeons & Dragons. But I didn’t know what tabletop games really were. As a result of that, tabletop games are the mortar which holds together the longest friendships of my life.

Paste: Do you still get together with that same group of friends?
Wheaton: We get together on average about twice a month—probably five of us that are in the core and another three or four who come in and out. We all have families now; a lot of these guys have kids. We get together as couples, and we all game together. If we say we want to have dinner or a barbecue, nobody will show up. But if we say let’s have dinner and play a game, we have to pull the card table in from the garage and crowd around it.

Paste: What was the first game you remember falling in love with?
Wheaton: One of the first games that I completely fell in love with was an old Steve Jackson game called Car Wars. It’s effectively a table-top mini-game, but instead of using mini figures, there were cars were printed out on little pieces of cardboard. The game takes place in post-apocalyptic America where all the vehicles are kind of outfitted like the Road Warrior. The whole game is designing vehicles with weapons and driving around the countryside or an arena and trying to destroy all your friends. What I really liked about it was that I’d never played anything that had the same kind of tactical visual component to it—I’d played Risk but that was a different thing. I really liked the reality of that game. I loved imagining that I was this character in this post-apocalyptic future and letting that—in my mind at least—be real and letting my imagination create that place. I loved it so much—I was playing a game, but I was also being this weird character. I’ve become friends with Steve, and I found out years later that Steve Jackson says, “All games are role-playing games.” The way that D&D or role-playing games where you assume the identity of another person or creature in a world that you collaborate to build. Every game you play is just going to be a role-playing game and you just let whatever role you’re playing in that game inhabit you. What’s funny is I don’t play it anymore. It doesn’t scratch the same itch that I have as a player anymore. These days, I’d rather play a Euro-style game that has a different approach to gaming. But that will always hold a place in my heart and my memory that taught me that boardgames didn’t have to be Monopoly or Payday.

Paste: How did International TableTop Day get started?
Wheaton: In the first season of TableTop, just a few episodes into the season, we became aware that not only was it successful, but it was a hit. It’s success exceeded anything any of us expected or prepared for. And I can’t even remember who came up with the idea, but someone said, “We should have a TableTop Day where people are encouraged to get together and play games together.” Because that’s why TableTop exists. I created the show because I wanted to give people an excuse to get together and play games. And I wanted to show people how awesome gaming is. And TableTop Day takes the things that people see on our show TableTop and makes it real and puts it into their homes or their game shops or their libraries or whatever. The first TableTop Day wasn’t even finished and people were asking, “When are we going to do this again? This is so great. This is so fun!”

Paste: I’ve been getting more into table-top games lately. Paste just brought on our first boardgames writer, Keith Law, who by day is an analyst on ESPN.
Wheaton: Oh, cool.
Paste: It seems like table-top games are having a boom right now. Why do you think that is?
Wheaton: Well, I think that TableTop has certainly helped because people who are curious about games can look at it and see what the gaming hobby is all about. People who are already gamers who have non-gamers in their lives can show them TableTop so they can see what the hobby is about. But also table-top games are everywhere. I recently went into a bookstore and the table-top games section of the bookstore was nearly as big as the table-top game section of the dedicated table-top store that I went to in high school. And with big box retailers and stores like Target carrying table-top-style games, people who maybe would have needed to go into a game shop to find a game like Takenoko or Settlers of Catan would see it in their normal places where they’re shopping for entirely non-gaming-related reasons. The availability of it as well as the existence of a show that lets people see what it’s all about has contributed to the gaming renaissance. We’ve also noticed that there’s all these people who identify as gamers. They may have worked in the same office for years and never really knew because it never really came up. We’ve worked hard to demystify the hobby so that it’s just a natural thing people talk about. This is a great time to be a gamer.

Paste: I watched the last episode of TableTop this morning and I was surprised how entertaining it could be to watch other people play boardgames. What made you decide to create the show and what made you think that this could be something fun for other people to watch?
Wheaton: Through the early part of this century, I really loved watching people play poker on TV. That showed me that it was possible to watch other people playing a game, and even if I’m not playing it, still be entertained. So when Felicia [Day] asked me to if I wanted to start a show for Geek & Sundry and we were talking about what kind of show it was going to be, I said, what if we did a boardgame show that was like Celebrity Poker meets Dinner for Five, with table-top games instead of poker. We’ll get interesting people to come and play games with us ,and we’ll draw in lots of different people. If someone’s a fan of Grant Imahara or someone’s a fan of Grace Helbig, they might come and watch the show to see this person they love doing something and hopefully they will leave being interested about playing table-top games. Or someone is already a table-top gamer, but they’ve got a person in their life who isn’t. And they want to be able to say, “Hey, look, this is why I get together with my friends twice a week to play games,” and they show them the show. We’ve been really pleased to see that the predictions we made of how entertaining this was going to be to be correct. And this is really important: We have phenomenal editors. I bring to the editing process the eye and the brain of a gamer. Felicia brings the eye and the brain of a filmmaker. And the two of us are able to work with our editorial team to bring out the strongest entertainment and gaming elements and make sure those get into the show. And then the editors work really hard to put together something that is easy to follow, entertaining and visually interesting. Because we all have to acknowledge that this is a visual medium. But TableTop is a show that comes together in editing and it’s always very important to me that Steve [Grubel] gets the credit he deserves.

Paste: The show gets anywhere from a quarter million to over a million views each episode. Were you surprised at all by that response?
Wheaton: [Long pause] No. I was really excited about it. I always expected that it would do well. When we see episodes get up over the one-million mark, I always have to sit down for a minute because that’s actually pretty amazing. And one of the things that I think is really cool about that is that I know from talking to gamers, that gamers will get together—four or five people will sit down to watch TableTop and then play that game or other games. So those numbers don’t necessarily mean one million people. It could mean two million or even three million people.

Paste: So what are your favorite table-top games these days. What do you most enjoy?
Wheaton: At the moment I’m playing a ton of Lords of Waterdeep, Takenoko, a bluffing game called Skull, and a brand-new game called T’Zolkin. I want to say it just came out last year. Those are the ones that we’re playing the most. I’m also spending a lot of time reading sourcebooks for Fate Core and Savage Worlds because I’m about to start an RPG campaign with some friends.

Paste: I know you’ve gotten to know some of these game creators. Have you considered creating your own game or collaborating with those guys?
Wheaton: Yeah, sure. It’s something that I’ve talked about with some friends. Every now and then I’ll talk to one of my friends who’s a designer and we’ll say, “Gosh, you know, it’d be fun if this happened in a game.” And my friend said, “Well, so why don’t we just make that?” “Oh right, of course, we can do that. I didn’t even think of that.” So yeah, it’s something that I thought of and it’s something that I’d really love to do. But if I’m going to do that, it’s got to be a passion project and it needs to be something that’s really awesome. Because there are so many great games right now and no time to play them all. It’s the same way I feel about writing a book. If I’m going to ask someone to trust me with their time, I better make it worth their while.

Paste: In getting ready for this interview and watching TableTop and reading about International TableTop Day, I’ve thought, “Oh we’ve got to host something here at Paste—game nights at the Paste office.” So you’ve inspired me to dive into that. I think it’s a wonderful way to get friends together. We’ve enjoyed that when we’ve been doing it at our house, but I think it’d be fun to do here.
Wheaton: I love that and I’m so happy to know that because that’s one of the main motivations I had when I created the show. I wanted what you are describing to happen. And it’s a really great thing to do at work. I worked in offices years ago where we played Counter Strike after work. And it really brought the team that I was on really close together. And the same thing happens with table-top games now. People get together and form new bonds that really wouldn’t necessarily be forged in a work environment.

Paste: Well, you’ve been a huge presence on social media and people say there’s danger in that taking away from actual real friendships and real face-time, and I love that this is the way you’ve taken that social-media cache and tried to plug it back into real-world connections.
Wheaton: Yeah, one of the things we really hoped to accomplish with International TableTop Day is giving people a good reason to get into the same place and sit down together and enjoy sharing a game together and hopefully create some relationships that persist beyond International TableTop Day. Last year tons of people met people at a game shop that became their gaming group. And that’s really great, and I’m really hopeful that that happens this year and every year that we do this.

Paste: So where will you be spending International TableTop Day, and what will you be playing?
Wheaton: We actually have an event planned here in Los Angeles. I’ll be playing with Felicia and a bunch of our team at Geek & Sundry. We’re going to live-stream it on the Internet just like we did last year. I’m not sure what we’re going to play; we haven’t decided yet. But last year we played a game that I really love called Seven Wonders which is a game that wouldn’t necessarily work on TableTop. It doesn’t fit our format, but it’s still a great game. So I’m thinking maybe we’ll do that again—play a game that we all really love, but that’s a little bit different than the ones we really play.