Category Archives: Games

in which 16 year-old me plays Teen Win Lose Or Draw

This is … uh … a thing that happened.

This last weekend at MegaCon in Orlando, I met contestant Keri again, and she reminded me that we did this in 1989 when I was at the Disney Studios in Orlando. I asked her if she had a copy of it, and her husband told me they had it on VHS, but she was embarrassed by it and didn’t want anyone else to see it. He and I communicated in the secret language of husbands, and he risked sleeping on the couch to share it with us. I’m really glad he did, because unlike pretty much everything I’ve seen from this part of my life, I’m not mortified by it*. I think it’s pretty cute, and it’s obvious that we’re all having a whole lot of unselfconscious fun.

BUT! There is a cautionary tale, here: Kids, this is what we looked like when we were teenagers in the late 80s. I keep seeing that some fools are trying to make these fashion trends come back for you damn kids today. LEARN FROM OUR MISTAKES. DO NOT REPEAT THEM. WE WORE NEON SO YOU DON’T HAVE TO.

*except when I’m hollering at 16 year-old me to give the fucking obvious answer you moron!

March 30 is International Tabletop Day

As promised, the Very Big Tabletop Announcement is here. Take it away, Felicia!

We have wanted to do International Tabletop Day since we premiered a year ago, and we’ve been working on making it happen for almost as long.

At tabletopday.com, you can find and join events in your town, or create your own! You can play wherever you want, but if you go to your friendly local gameshop, you may just get one of the Tabletop Day exclusive bonuses for games like Gloom, Dixit, 7 Wonders, Castle Panic, Smash Up, and more. It’s so so so awesome, you guys, and I can’t wait for you to see the amazing things our friends in the games industry have created for you.

The very best thing about Tabletop, for me, isn’t that I get to play games for my job or that I get to hang out with awesome people while I do it. I know that seems like it would be the most awesome thing about Tabletop, but it isn’t. The most awesome thing about Tabletop is the community of people who have rediscovered their love of gaming, or started a game night, or have somehow been inspired by our show to play more games. International Tabletop Day is all about you, and it is designed to celebrate the community that inspires me to work as hard as I can to make the best show I can.

I hope you’ll join us on #Tabletopday, and play more games!

Guest Blog by Will Hindmarch: Flow

Will Hindmarch is a writer, designer, and mooncalf. You can find some of his stories for sale online at Amazon, DriveThruFiction, and other sites. Long ago, in ages past, he wrote things at wordstudio.net.

(Update: Looking back, I feel sort of silly sharing this. To be clear, I don’t think my changing relationship with video games is due to the games or gamers—not really. I’m just musing here, wondering why it is that I can’t dive into games like I used to. I still don’t know what’s up there. So it goes.)

Listen, can I confess something to you? Lately I’ve been having some trouble with video games.

I’m super excited to play some of the games on my to-play list but I don’t know when I’m supposed to do that. The impulse that used to signal me to play video games often gets met by different pastimes right now—for me, at least. By the end of my day, when I might otherwise power up my console, I find myself torn.

  • Music: “The Last Man,” from The Fountain, music by Clint Mansell

It’s a multifaceted problem. For comparison’s sake, consider how I operate at my desk. When I’m there, I’m almost always doing two things at once, whether I’m working or not.

When I’m working on something largely visual, like the layout for a book, I listen to podcasts at the same time. I listen to Wil and friends talk gaming with Gabe Newell and Co. at Valve. I listen to writers talk shop on the Nerdist Writer’s Panel. I listen to Ken Hite and Robin D. Laws talk about stuff. I get to take in know-how and stories at the same time I get to create things. I like that.

When I’m writing, I put on music. I get to absorb music and generate prose at the same time. This helps me escape my environment a little bit and put myself into a headspace that’s a few mental clicks away from the pressures of the blank page.

I often devise a playlist for the project I’m working on. For example, while writing “A Desert is Implicit,” I listened to a playlist I called “Future Desert,” populated with things like the soundtracks from Halo: ODST, Journey, Caprica, and Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Other playlists, like “Futuristic Operatic,” “Mission Driven,” and “Epic Fantastic” get played for a variety of projects that sort of sync up thematically.

  • Music: “Goodbye Renegade” from Tron: Uprising, music by Joseph Trapanese

These sorts of support structures aren’t necessary, though; they’re luxuries. They give me a chance to do two things once and get more day out of my day. They help work feel more like play.

I say this because it’s important, in my experience, to be able to write without rituals. I don’t need music to write. One way I know the work’s going well is when a playlist runs out and I discover I’ve been writing in silence for an hour. That’s flow.

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Guest Post by Stephen Toulouse: A Mythending Adventure Ends in Fiasco for Munchausen

This guest post is by Stephen “Stepto” Toulouse. He made a comedy album you can get on Bandcamp (cheapest option), iTunes or Amazon and wrote a book called A Microsoft Life. He blogs at Stepto.com.

If I had to pick three of my new favorite games my gaming circle has introduced me to this past year, it would be Fiasco, The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and Mythender. All three of these games involve basic improvisation skills and TERRIFY ME BEYOND ALL BELIEF. They are also terribly fun not just to play but to kibitz as well. (note I’m using the non-dick meaning of kibitz where you don’t constantly interrupt the game.)

The problem is I travel in some circles that involve people who write or perform for a living, so playing Fiasco with Wil, or Munchausen with Pat Rothfoss and Mike Selniker, or Mythender with Ryan Macklin can be mega super daunting. I’ll give you a for-instance: during a Fiasco game, Wil’s character was to meet my friend Eric’s character in a cheap bar. It was not the kind of place Wil’s character would ever go if he didn’t have to. Here’s how Wil opened the scene:

“I sit in the seedy bar, noting with disdain and disgust the rips in the vinyl cover of the dirty booth. With a sigh I slowly stir my cheap blend scotch rocks (the best this place could offer) with my finger watching the oily swirls of the cheap booze and the water. The tumbler is dirty and heavy, made from some poor cloudy looking glass. The smell of greasy beef coming from the kitchen well within view of the dining area is making me sick. I see [Eric’s Character] enter from the side, he looks shabby as always.”*

I mean, that’s how he opened. Eric played up to it perfectly but if you’re playing these games and people who have a lot of fun and a background of creativity and improv are playing with you, it can quickly put you in performance anxiety mode.

Thusly, I have tips for playing these games. These aren’t improv or story telling tips, they are just tips centered around the game experience itself.

#1: Don’t feel like you have to play to win.

Yes, most of these games have a form of scoring. But their structure is far more oriented towards everyone enjoying the game itself. I’ve “lost” many a game of Fiasco but much like losing at Chess I had a great time playing and learned something. I find I can relax my mind in these games quite a bit by simply not caring if I win.

#2: Role playing skills vary widely among people, don’t force yourself to try and play at the level of others.

This is by far the handiest tip I can give you, because it helps me the most. So when someone at the table absolutely knocks a scene or moment out of the park, don’t let that little voice who says “Well, I shouldn’t even speak at this point that was so good” stop you. I’ve played Fiasco games where the best role player or improv person actually didn’t win. It’s not about who can consistently turn their scenes into Shakespeare.

#3: Embrace the absurd or impossible when it’s presented.

This is by far the hardest tip to do. During a session of Munchausen, Pat was explaining how his rudimentary space ship reached the moon when Mike interjected and introduced a game challenge:

“But sir, what I do not understand is how you managed the trip being dead the entire time!”

Had I gotten that challenge I would have locked up and probably pushed back the challenge (you can do that in Munchausen), but it’s such a good challenge the other players would have forced it back on me. Pat took it in stride and wove a quick aside of what it truly means to be dead. I saw a similar scene in Fiasco where one character started off the scene describing the other character standing over their character’s own dead body, bloody knife in hand. This forced the other player to completely change what they were planning and explain how the situation came to be.

This is a hard piece of advice for these games because situations like this can happen often and force you into total and pure improv even if you already felt good about where you wanted to go. Take a moment, think about how you really would explain such a thing, and go for it.

#4: Have fun. It’s perfectly ok to stumble a bit or fail.

The most frustrating thing about these games is when people want to play them but feel they just aren’t good enough. Chances are if you are playing these games you are playing them with friends or, believe me, soon to be friends. If you take a moment to react to dialogue, or feel a story you are telling just isn’t working out, that’s ok. Sometimes there’s great fun in these games to playing in a more minimalist fashion with story telling and instead play the role of kingmaker by using your challenges or points to decide the winner. The point being if you’re going to sit at the table because this looks like fun, no one wants you to feel like this 20 minutes into it:

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I hope those tips help. If these games are new to you and you have no idea what I am talking about try watching the episode of TableTop featuring Fiasco!

Stepto

*I exaggerate only slightly. That’s more or less how Wil opened the scene. It was hysterical.

Guest Blog by Stephen Toulouse: Starting a Conversation, Video Games and Violence

This guest post is by Stephen “Stepto” Toulouse. He made a comedy album you can get on Bandcamp (cheapest option), iTunes or Amazon and wrote a book called A Microsoft Life. He blogs at Stepto.com.

Warning: Serious post is serious. I know right?  Should be totally non-controversial.

Yesterday, Nancy Pelosi stated what a lot of us already know and research has shown: That video games don’t instill violent behavior.

Video games are an easy scapegoat for the results of real world violence. Before video games became so realistic, violent films were the scapegoat. Our American culture is unique in its embrace of violence. The entertainment industry is consistent in its reaction to these events, wrapping freedom of artistic expression in the first amendment as the gun industry wraps itself in the second amendment.

I’ve been a gamer all my life and in the industry for the past six or seven years and I think someone needs to say it: As an industry we need to stop turtling up when these terrible events happen and stop insisting that any discussion omit the impact of violent entertainment or culture on those in whom violence may be already present. We need to be part of the conversation and we should not be afraid of where it leads.

Let me tell you a story about why.

Like any discerning gun user, I was noodling over whether I wanted to switch from my SCAR-H to my new Magpul PDW-R. There were important considerations here: stopping power, range, fire rate, recoil, whether I wanted to switch to NATO 5.56 rounds from the larger 7.62’s. I had to think about the number of rounds per magazine, number of magazines I could carry, and whether or not it was a good weapon for close encounter firefights as well as longer range ones. I was hardly going to be an asset in a situation where a gunman surprised me and my friends unless I had the optimal tool for the job!

I’m 40 years old, never owned a firearm, and I’ve never touched an assault rifle. So why do I know so much about assault weapons? Video games. I was choosing the above weapons as my loadouts for Battlefield 3. I have an incredible education and wealth of knowledge about such weapons due to games like Battlefield 3 or Call of Duty. It is an education I would not otherwise have. Likewise I have an education in single or squad combat tactics, understand enfilade and defilade, trigger discipline, conservation of ammo, and suppressing fire.

In short, I have a basic level of combat training that a hundred years ago would only be available to those in the military. (Note that I’m not saying these video game skills would make me an effective combat soldier in the actual terror of a firefight. I’m saying if you wanted to train me to be a soldier, I’m already part way there) Now granted, I could also learn a lot of this from movies, Youtube videos, or books or the Internet in general. But to actually practice the execution of those concepts is easiest through games.

Worse than that, I’ve virtually massacred dozens of innocent people as a mass shooter in a Russian airport in the Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 mission “No Russian”, an emotionally wrenching mission that I can say I did not enjoy playing but I understand its place in the narrative.

Now, I’m not about to snap. I feel pretty strongly confident about that! But let’s say I began to deteriorate over months, obtain guns and then commit a terrible crime.

Is it unreasonable to ask the question of whether or not I was impacted by entertainment, or made a more effective killer because of it?

I don’t know if the answer is “yes” or “no” to the latter question, but I believe it is not unreasonable to ask it. And yet my industry tends to react with howls of outrage when it’s brought up. To be fair, it’s often brought up alongside the trigger question of “Do video games in and of themselves cause violence?” However the defensive reaction to even the idea that money should be spent looking into this has been as consistent as is the NRA’s opposition to having gun control be a part of the discussion. We (myself included) roll our eyes at having to have this argument again.

I thought a lot about myself when I was choosing those weapons in Battlefield 3. I realized that I contained a lot of knowledge uniquely specific to the killing of other human beings when I was weighing those options in the game, and it bothered me deeply. I do not believe the concept that these games are “murder simulators” (paintball would be more effective at that, video game levels and physics are meticulously designed for fun factor and aren’t terribly realistic). But the idea I had all that knowledge in my head bothered me.

So I think that we as an industry need to be a part of this conversation much more than we are right now, or we can’t expect those we think will have a bigger impact to be a part of it either. I was proud to see Electronic Arts and Activision and other companies talk to Vice President Biden on the issue. I think the reaction so far to the latest round of violence has been far less defensive than before. I also saw a lot of opinion pieces and forums posts stating it’s a waste of money to study it. I still saw some of the old defensiveness.

I think the industry should be leading the discussion, given the success of games centered on combat violence involving guns, especially real life weaponry.

To be clear I know tons of responsible gun owners, I think the problem of violence in our society is complex and multifaceted. There are no easy answers here. And perhaps I’m not seeing the measured voices of reason in the industry who want to take a look at this, or hey maybe I just have this whole thing wrong. I’d love to know what you guys think in the comments.

*One side point, I play and enjoy Battlefield games and Call of Duty games. I’ve assisted in making them and other “shooter” games better during their development. I’m not suggesting they are bad or a threat to society or anything like that. They are used here simply to illustrate a point: that video games can be very powerful educators as well as entertainment. It’s worth looking at what they are educating us on and any impact that might have.

“You see an iron door at the end of the corridor. The door has three lightning bolts engraved on it.”

When I played D&D as a kid, I always wanted to be a magic user, not because it was easy, but because it was hard*. I died a lot in those days of d4 hit points and three worthless levels of cantrip spells before you got to do anything, but when a wizard survived and got powerful enough to melt goblins with fireballs … boy, was that awesome.

I don’t play as much as I used to, and I haven’t even run a game of my own or played in a regular campaign in a couple of years, but with the recent release of classic D&D modules as PDFs, I feel the itch to run Basic rules… you know, for kids.

GS-Tabletop-LogoIf I was going to play, though? I think I’d have to be a barbarian or fighter now, because I have fallen in love with the d12. It’s such a beautiful die, and it just doesn’t get any love at all (that’s why I chose it for Tabletop). I know it’s kind of weird to choose a class based on what kind of dice you’ll be rolling, but it’s where I find myself at the moment … and I’m really okay with that.
…Hmmmm I was going to write all about what it means to switch my preferred class from magic user to fighter based on the die I’d be rolling …. but now I can’t stop thinking that a Geek & Sundry show where I run a classic D&D campaign using Basic rules — maybe a modified module or series of modules or something like that — for six or eight episodes would be pretty awesome. Like, maybe a visit to the Lost City?

The walls of this room as plain stone. An oblong box made from stone slabs lies in the center of the room. Written in several languages on the side of the box are the words: "May the curse of darkness destroy all who dare desecrate my resting place." The box is 3' high, 7' long, and 3' wide. - From The Lost City (Dungeon Module B4)
The walls of this room as plain stone. An oblong box made from stone slabs lies in the center of the room. Written in several languages on the side of the box are the words: “May the curse of darkness destroy all who dare desecrate my resting place.” The box is 3′ high, 7′ long, and 3′ wide. – From The Lost City (Dungeon Module B4) Yes, this is actually mine and I actually scanned it. It was printed in 1980.

I mean, I’ll stay focused on making season two of Tabletop happen, but once we get that locked down, I bet an RPG show would be really, really great. (At least for me, because I’d have an excuse to play it: “Sorry, Anne, but I have to read this module and these rules and prepare these characters … because it’s my job and I have to do it so we can eat.“)

*I’ve written about this before, but I can’t find that post or story or column despite 20 minutes of searching. If it rings a bell for you, please let me know so I can link it.

I’m thinking about Tabletop

About a year ago, I finished shooting the first season of my show Tabletop, and had a few weeks off before we began editing the games we played into hopefully entertaining television.

I don’t remember what I did during those weeks — probably slept a whole lot — but when we got into editing, I clearly remember how terrified I was that the show wouldn’t work. The first cut of the first episode was (following my direction) too long, tough to follow, and just not as interesting as I wanted it to be. Luckily, Felicia Day was in the edit bay with me, and she knew exactly how to fix it. She gave notes and advice to the editor (who was amazing), and when we came back two days later to watch the second cut, it was an entirely different show. It was funny, it was entertaining, it captured how much fun it was to play the game. It was what I had always hoped Tabletop would be.

For the next few weeks, we cut the entire season, three episodes at a time, with three amazing and talented editors. By the time we got to the end of everything, we almost knew what we were doing!

As we got closer and closer to the premiere, I kept looking for the familiar nervous anxiety about how people would react, but it wasn’t ever there. I believed in the show in a way I’d never really been able to believe in myself, and I just wanted to share it with the world.

Tabletop’s premiere was a huge success that exceeded my wildest dreams. I think we got close to half a million views almost immediately, and the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. My friend John Rogers says that you should expect comments to be weighted 3:1 in favor of people hating on a thing, because someone who loves a thing goes “I loved that! I guess I’ll go back to my life now!” instead of going “I loved that! NOW I WILL ENGAGE ALL CAPS TO TELL THE PERSON WHO MADE IT HOW MUCH I LOVED IT.” Even with that adjustment, we were at like 10:1 positives to negatives.

As the season unfolded, I began to hear from game shop owners. When we played a game on Tabletop, it sold out. I heard from designers that when we played their games, they sold thousands and thousands of them. I heard from a distributor that one of the games we played sold out and had to go into a new printing — they thought 30,000 copies of the game would be enough, and they were wrong.

But the most amazing thing, that I didn’t even expect or think about even a little bit, were the personal stories from people who had been inspired to start up their own game nights with their friends and families because of Tabletop. One father told me that his tween kids spent every evening in front of their own computers or televisions, and after dinner he pretty much didn’t see his family until breakfast. But after watching Tabletop together, the kids were inspired to start a family game night. Tabletop, he told me, literally brought his family closer together.

There are dozens of parents of special needs children who have emailed me or talked to me at conventions, thanking me for giving them something that helps their children.

I even heard from a guy who felt like his marriage was drifting apart until he watched Tabletop with his wife and they started playing games together.

My ulterior motive with this show has always been to make more gamers by showing how much fun it is to play games, and I’m pretty confident that I can declare that effort an unqualified success.

Next week, we’re playing the Dragon Age RPG, and it will be the last two episodes of this season. We filmed it over a year ago, and I haven’t looked at it in almost as long. I don’t remember what happens, but I do remember how much fun it was to play with Chris Hardwick, Sam Witwer and Kevin Sussman in a game that was run by its designer, Chris Pramas. I’m excited for everyone to see it, but also a little sad that the season is coming to an end, because I don’t know if and when new episodes will air.

Tabletop means more to me than I ever thought it would, and the community that has grown around it makes me incredibly proud, but I didn’t do Tabletop alone. We had an incredible crew who could film people playing games in a visually interesting way. We had an incredible director who kept us together and focused on what was important. We had friends who came to play with me just because I asked, and game publishers who took a chance on our show without knowing exactly what it would end up being. I had an incredible creative partner in Felicia Day. I had a tremendously talented team of producers who pulled together an equally talented team of editors, who are the true unsung heroes of this entire effort.

And then there’s the community, which is as much a part of the success of Tabletop as anything. Whether you’re posting in the Geek and Sundry forums, sharing your stories and pictures on the Seen on Tabletop Tumblr I made, talking about games we played at Board Game Geek, or actually playing games with people who are important to you, you’re part of something wonderful.

So thank you for watching, and until next time … play more games.

#Tabletop Thoughts: Forbidden Island

If you’ve been watching any of the Geek and Sundry Google Hangouts I’ve been doing recently, you know that, though we haven’t officially been green lit for season two of Tabletop, I’m still playing tons of games so I know what we’re going to play if we do.

Games that we play on Tabletop have to fulfill a lot of criteria:

  1. Do I love it?
  2. Will it play well with four people?
  3. Can we play it in under an hour or so?
  4. Is it complicated enough to be fun, while being simple enough to explain in a few minutes?
  5. Is it fun to watch us play it?

It’s surprisingly easy to hit four of these criteria. The hardest ones to meet are 3 and 5 (stupid goddamn prime numbers have had it out for me ever since the first time I divided by zero.)

So there are games I am crazy about, like 7 Wonders, Dominion, Arkham Horror, Tribune, Agricola and Tichu, that we just can’t put on the show. This makes me sad, but there are even more games that I love that we can play, like Smash Up, King of Tokyo, Lords of Waterdeep, Star Trek Catan, and the game that inspired me to write this post in the first place, Forbidden Island.

Forbidden Island is designed by Matt Leacock, who created Pandemic, which kicked our ass on season one of Tabletop. It uses essentially the same mechanics as Pandemic, but instead of being scientists who are saving the world from infectious diseases, the players are adventurers trying to get artifacts off an island that’s trying to kill them by sinking into the ocean.

Like Pandemic, it’s usually won or lost by a few cards, but unlike Pandemic, it’s really great for kids as young as 8 (or precocious 7 year-olds). The themes are very family friendly, the artwork is beautiful, and the pieces are durable. Here’s what our board looked like when we started a recent game:

Forbidden Island Setup

Those tiles are the island, and the pawns are the explorers. As you play the game, you move around the island and try to collect cards that are turned in to recover the four artifacts. During the game, the island is trying to kill you by sinking, so tiles are constantly being removed from the board on almost every turn.

Here’s how it looked when we barely won:

Forbidden Island Victory

We won by either one or two cards, which was as exhilarating as any game of Pandemic I’ve ever played. For those of you scoring at home, we started on Elite difficulty, instead of the usual Legendary.

You can get Forbidden Island at your Friendly Local Gameshop. It’s a fantastic family game that is challenging enough and well balanced enough for serious gamers to enjoy.

If we get a second season of Tabletop, this is one game I’m absolutely going to play. Maybe I’ll even win this time. (HA HA YEAH RIGHT.)

#Tabletop is back! It’s Alhambra!

Yay! Tabletop is back! I didn’t realize how much I missed watching my show until just now.

Thank you to Shane, Ashley, and Dodger!

Congratulations, #Tabletop!

My show, Tabletop, was included in Giga Om’s The Best Of Web Video 2012, one of only four program(me)s singled out by Liz Shannon Miller:

Tabletop

Part of the Geek and Sundry YouTube network (along with Felicia Day’s Flog and the whimsicalWritten by a Kid), Tabletop was one of this year’s case models for the concept that web video audiences are ready for longer content.

The Wil Wheaton-hosted series sat geek celebs like Alex Albrecht, Morgan Webb, Jane Espenson, Amber Benson and Ryan Higa to play a wide range of dice, card and board games, consistently reaching six-figure viewcounts (impressive for a half-hour long show). But what I find especially cool abut Tabletop is the gaming community that’s come out of it, showcased primarily via the Tumblr blog Seen on Tabletop, where viewers are encouraged to submit their experiences playing the games featured on the show.

The last new episode of Tabletop was posted November 1st, but “Seen on Tabletop” is still updating regularly: Right now, it’s flooded with posts featuring the post-Christmas gaming adventures of its fans.

I’m so proud of Tabletop, and so grateful to everyone who has helped make it a success. As a rule, I don’t care about being included in lists or winning awards — I believe the work is what’s important and that the work should just speak for itself — but this is different, because we’re on a very short list with My Drunk Kitchen and Daily Grace, two of the funniest and most entertaining shows I’ve ever seen anywhere.

And I really love that she singled out the Tumblr community I created, which is only awesome because my fellow gamers keep submitting their pictures and stories to it.

The most important thing for us at Geek and Sundry is to make Tabletop an entertaining show that’s worth your time to watch, so we work very, very hard to hit that goal. But my ulterior motives are twofold:

1) Make more gamers by showing anyone who watches the show how much fun it is to play tabletop games, thus inspiring them to get together with friends and family to play.

2) Give gamers something to show their non-gaming partners, friends, or family to help them understand why we love games as much as we do, hopefully leading those partners/friends/family to number 1).

The community that’s been built at As Seen On Tabletop has ended up being a very big part of serving my ulterior motives, and I’m very grateful to everyone who’s submitted pictures and stories to it.

Tabletop comes back with new episodes starting on January 3, and we should know for sure if we get a season two very shortly after. Fingers crossed!