As People Search for Something Tactile, Board Games Are Booming in L.A.

Fueled by a constant stream of Kickstarter projects and looking for personal connections, board gamers are sweeping the city

Board games have come a long way since Monopoly. There are more diverse characters, richer settings and outcomes that ratchet up player engagement and investment. Cooperative games (“co-ops”) let players work together to solve a crime or fight the zombie apocalypse. “Euro-style” games force players to make efficient use of resources to produce the best wines or build the largest city.

In an increasingly stressful world, “tabletop” games offer Angelenos a chance to put down their devices for an hour—or two or five or ten—and interact with friends, both old and new, while giving their brains an enjoyable workout.

The studios have taken notice, and released games based on Disney villains, Harry Potter, Star Wars, The Godfather, Jaws, and Game of Thrones. Some feature “asymmetric” play in which players start with differing cards or abilities. Modern war games let players re-create specific, historic battles, while “legacy” games unfold over multiple episodes, the outcome of each which affects future gameplay. Even party games—once dismissed as “lightweight”—have gotten more interesting, allowing players to exercise more of their own creativity or to play as more diverse characters, including characters that are female, minority, and gay.

The explosion in board game popularity isn’t limited to L.A. Sales of tabletop games are expected to top $12 billion globally by 2023, with the largest share in the United States. Though video games still bring in more money, tabletop games attract six times as much funding as any other category on Kickstarter and account of over one-fifth of all funds raised on the platform. One recent offering, Kingdom Death: Monster 1.5, raised over $12 million from 19,000-plus backers (at a whopping average of over $645 per person). That shattered the previous record held by Exploding Kittens, a lightweight card game that raised almost $9 million dollars from 219,000 investors. And these sums are committed before the game is ever manufactured—meaning that the game, if it arrives at all, won’t show up for many months or even years down the road.

Marty Cantor, a retired smoke shop owner who hosts a meetup every Friday at Paper Hero’s games in Sherman Oaks, has half a dozen open Kickstarter orders. When I ask him why he doesn’t wait until the games are available at retail, he sighs.

“I’m 84-years-old,” Marty tells me. “I keep telling myself that at my age I’m gonna be dead by the time they get here. But I’m a ‘completist.’ If I like a game, I want everything produced for it.” That includes Kickstarter “exclusives,” incentives game publishers offer backers that will not be included in the retail version (such as acrylic or metal tokens instead of cardboard ones, or extra scenarios for story-driven games).

Board gamers, it turns out, suffer heavily from FOMO. Ryan Everly, a 38-year-old parking attendant from Los Angeles, hesitates when I ask how many games he’s bought on Kickstarter.

“You know, I’m not ashamed of this,” he finally exclaims, before admitting that since 2014 he has backed 111 games.

Like Marty, “exclusives” are the main reason he buys games on Kickstarter, but he also likes opening a new game and its components, which he says evokes the feeling he had as a kid unwrapping a new toy. Marty and Ryan each own over 100 games, even though they get only a fraction of them to the table in any given year. They are also known to spend additional money to “pimp” their games with upgraded components sold on Etsy and similar sites, which display a staggering degree of artistry and ingenuity that often costs more than the game itself.

But even a 100-game collection pales in comparison to the libraries owned by enthusiasts such as married Los Angeles architects Jeff and Maria Wauer. The Wauers toyed for a decade with various designs for enlarging their then-1,000-square foot house, but nothing seemed to excite them until they had the “aha!” moment of building a room to house their 600-plus game collection. Now they regularly host games at home, mostly for other couples and friends from work, though they still attend an occasional meetup to try out new games and play with people they otherwise don’t get to see very often.

On the other end of the spectrum are game aficionados who own very few or even no games at all. T.J. Garza, a 37-year-old data engineer, who plays most weeks with the Hollywood United Board Game Club (which meets at Shakey’s Pizza Parlor in Hollywood), owns just half a dozen games—lightweight, nostalgic favorites that help newcomers bridge the gap between party games and the more complex ones his group favors.

But no one needs to own games to attend a public game group. Meetups are filled with people only too happy to have others to play their latest acquisitions with, be it games they’ve backed on Kickstarter or ones they’ve bought at retail, often after learning about them on Board Game Geek, (BGG), an online resource for all things tabletop gaming-related. BGG compiles reviews and user ratings and lets people keep track of their games they own through a virtual library. They can also post rules questions—often answered by the games’ designers—trade games, and upload files containing homemade designs for upgrades such as card dividers or 3D tokens.

The wealth of information and material available on BGG can be daunting for newbies, as can be walking into a meetup for the first time. TJ told me he’s not a conversationalist and was nervous at meetups until he got to know a few people. Maria told me she didn’t want to play games at first, thinking she was just going to lose and bore the other players or disappoint her husband.

“There are board game meetups for gamers who are LGBT, vegan, young professionals, WWII enthusiasts, etc.”

But both say they are glad they pushed themselves out of their comfort zone. “You just have to get past that initial feeling of shame,” Maria told me. “The more you play the more you find out what you’re good at.” Or as Ryan puts it: “Let’s just dive into the rabbit hole and see what’s out there.” Ryan also told me that since he started playing board games his cognitive skills have improved and he has more friends. TJ, who knew no one other than his wife, Amy, when he moved to Phoenix in 2015 now feels comfortable inviting people to his home for a more intimate gaming experience.

For those who still feel uncomfortable at the thought of playing with strangers, there are dedicated board game cafés such as Game Haus Café in Glendale and the Dragon & Meeple downtown. These offer food and a library of games people can explore at leisure with their friends. Those who are somewhat more adventurous can simply type “board game meetup Los Angeles” into their web browser and find general game groups or those geared toward people who share non-gaming interests or characteristics—there are meetups for gamers who are LGBT, vegan, young professionals, WWII enthusiasts, etc.

There are also dozens of online channels on YouTube—such as Watch It Played and BGG TV’s GameNight!—which offer instructional videos and play-throughs of many popular games. Some games are also available in free online or downloadable versions that allow people to play practice games against others (friends or strangers) or with the app’s “bots”—a good way to learn the basics. One popular destination is Dominion online, which allows users to play the original version of the classic “deck builder” for free or to pay a small subscription fee for unlimited monthly access to expansions.

Yet most people I spoke to for this article told me that playing online isn’t the experience they’re after. For one thing, there’s a tactile satisfaction from interacting with actual components—drawing tiles, shuffling cards, tossing dice, taking cubes and tokens. But the main draw for in-person gaming is the satisfaction of learning something new and spending time with others who share a common interest.

As Marty says, “I want someone in front of me and we’re talking.” Talking and playing games.

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