Fans of Wil Wheaton’s work as an actor (Stand by Me; Star Trek: The Next Generation; Eureka), writer (Memories of the Future; Just a Geek), and advocate for gaming and geek culture have a readers’ advisory–savvy librarian to thank. On an elementary school trip to the library, when Wheaton realized that a book he was looking for was already checked out, he says, “The librarian asked me what movies I liked, what televisions shows I liked. It was 1979, and I loved Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica. She picked out [Robert C. O’Brien’s postapocalyptic novel] Z for Zachariah, and to this day I remember her telling me, ‘This book’s gonna land on you, kid.’ That book made me a true sci-fi nerd, and it’s all because the librarian took the time to help me find something I would love to read.”
Wheaton practices his own kind of gamers’ advisory on his web series, TableTop, each episode of which features him and a revolving panel of gamers playing and reviewing a different tabletop game. Guest gamers have included television writer Jane Espenson, NASA’s Bobak Ferdowski, sf/fiction author John Scalzi, and Felicia Day, on whose YouTube channel, Geek & Sundry, the show appears.
Wheaton believes that libraries and gaming are a natural fit, explaining, “Libraries are not just reading rooms. They’re community spaces where you meet people to do things. It only makes sense that gaming is one of the things you do.”
He advises that the best tabletop games require both skill and luck in play. Additionally, the rules should be concise, well written, and organized in a way that makes the rulebook a viable reference. He recommends the website Board Game Geek (ow.ly/mYOGG) for rules clarifications and explanations.
When it comes to buying games for libraries, especially when the budget is limited, Wheaton offers these guidelines. “If there’s only one game that a library should have on-hand for patrons to play, it needs to be a game that is accessible to adults and kids alike and should attract both readers and nonreaders. It should be quick to pick up and have a high ratio of skill to luck. Ticket to Ride [an economics game with a railroad theme] comes to mind. Catan Jr. [the juvenile version of Settlers of Catan] is another good pick.”
When asked about his own favorite tabletop games, Wheaton fondly remembers two from his youth. “Two games really captured my imagination and showed me what tabletop gaming could be. One was Illuminati, where up to seven players each control their own secret society in an attempt at world domination. It was darkly comedic, and building your power structure was unique and weird. It appealed to my dry, sardonic sense of humor when I was 13.
“The other game was Car Wars. Imagine the film The Road Warrior as a board game. It had this very well-developed world set in a postapocalyptic, post-oil civilization. Your task in the game was to load up different cars with weapons and fight against other players’ cars.”
Challenges & benefits
Wheaton believes that tabletop gaming has the advantage of allowing players to exercise their imaginations. He points out that he uses handouts, visual aids, and music to create an immersive experience for his role-playing game sessions. “Ultimately, different gamers are attracted to different games for various reasons,” he explains, “but video games are often cited as being more cinematic and aesthetically pleasing.”
Of course, with gaming comes competition, which can be a challenge to manage in a library setting; keeping the level of competitiveness in check is key to a library’s successful gaming initiatives. “You don’t want to scare players away,” Wheaton advises. “You want new gamers to come back and try again, and you want them to try out new games.”
Luckily, tabletop gaming provides opportunities for positive social interaction and tends to be self-policing. “With a tabletop game, you are sitting directly across from the people playing with you and against you; bad behavior is less likely tolerated,” Wheaton explains.
It’s an advantage that in-person gaming has over playing online, especially when the gamers don’t know one another well or at all. “There are millions of people playing online and little consequence for being a jerk,” he says. “If you bully someone you play tabletop games with, they won’t invite you back to their gaming group. If you bully someone online, they’ll leave the game or block you, but there’s still hundreds of games going on you can join at any time, and nobody knows your history.”
Both libraries and gaming excel at bringing people together to share common interests, and when they come together, great things happen. “[The library is] so much more than a place to borrow books; the people are what make a library wonderful,” Wheaton says, adding, “The games that we play are very often less important than the people with whom we play them. It’s a wonderful, natural relationship for libraries and tabletop games to exist together so people can come together.”
With those thoughts in mind, go forth and build (or enhance!) your library’s tabletop gaming initiatives. It can be easy to get caught up in the technological marvel of video games, but there’s a visceral thrill in getting a great dice roll and a tremendous amount of satisfaction in carefully crafting a character and story.
Check out Wil Wheaton’s TableTop series at tabletop.geekandsundry.com, and until next time, keep telling yourself—just one more level!