These days, it’s known mostly as a techie destination, but the Bay Area has a long history with analog gaming. There are several dozen social board gaming groups in the region.
On a recent Saturday in San Francisco, members of the Euro Gaming League — who focus on playing European strategy games — hosted an all day event to celebrate International Tabletop Day. Inside the community room of Dolores Park Church, about 30 people are spread out among round and rectangular tables. They play games that can last anywhere from several minutes, to several hours.
“My name is Linda Herbert. I teach kindergarten. And I live in Montara,” says one woman playing in the community room, referring to the small city on the California coast about an hour away from San Francisco.
Herbert is the first to say she doesn’t fit the gamer stereotype.
“I’m older than everybody by at least 20 years,” she says, adding that she’s close to 70. “And I’m female. There are a lot more female board game players now, but you can see it’s pretty much male dominated.”
Several years ago, her brother introduced her to Settlers of Cataan, the European strategy game that was first released in 1995. She says it was a “gateway game” for her. And so Herbert began traveling all over the Bay Area and beyond, trying to find a gaming group that spoke to her.
“For example, I’d go visit my dad in Monterey, so I would stop often in Gilroy and play games there,” she says. “I have a sister in San Jose, I play games in San Jose and then go visit my sister...when I go on trips like to Reno or Palm Springs, I go on Meetup and try to find games wherever I go.”
On any given day within a 25 mile radius of San Francisco, at least one — but often several — tabletop events are advertised on Meetup.com. Other groups organize on Instagram and Facebook. Weekly, monthly or off the cuff game nights take place at hobby stores, restaurants, and even San Francisco’s Ferry Building. That’s not to mention tabletop conventions and philanthropic fundraisers.
But game designer Ali Hajighafouri, who’s also at International Tabletop Day, says certain obstacles sometimes stand in the way of non-gamers understanding what’s so great about these games.
“Because of the assumption that, ‘Oh, it’s for nerds, it’s too difficult, or, they think of it only as the Monopoly and the Unos that are just for kids, so to speak,” he says.
But geeky has become cool, and the industry’s economic rise is hardly kids’ stuff. In North America, sales of hobby games — the board and card games which aren’t considered toys — reached almost 1.2 billion in 2015. According to ICv2, a trade magazine, 2016 marked the eighth year in a row the hobby games industry grew.
And that rising popularity is not just about playing these games — it’s around creating new ones too.
Take “designer night” at Victory Point Cafe in Berkeley. It’s the first designated “board game cafe” in the Bay Area. Every month, local game designers gather at the cafe to see how they can improve their game ideas — by “play-testing” prototypes with cafe customers who give feedback.
The goal for many of them is to develop the skeleton of a game that’s ready to fund on Kickstarter, says Teale Fristoe, a game designer who runs a small publishing company for games, at a recent designer night.
“Kickstarter has really warped the tabletop game industry,” he says. “And it’s done so because creating a tabletop game requires a lot of upfront investment. It doesn’t cost a lot to create the idea and figure out how the game will work. What costs a lot is producing the game at a high enough quality so you can sell it.”
Kickstarter’s games category has raised more than 630 million in crowdsourcing money since
it launched in 2009. It’s easily Kickstarter’s most-funded category. And when you break it down, it’s clear what kind of games are in the lead. According to a company spokesperson, last year, videogames and related hardware raised almost 18 million on Kickstarter. But tabletop games raised over 101 million. That’s more than five times as much startup capital as video games.
Fristoe says one explanation for this disparity is that people are tired of the screens and devices that already dominate many of our lives.
“So table top games provide that non-screen and social gaming experience,” he says. “And what you get are a lot of people who are excited about games, and they realize they can make them themselves, unlike making a video game, which requires a lot of technical expertise.”
Plus, the games themselves have evolved. Designers now often “gamify” current events and social issues, as some of the games up for play-testing show. There’s Fristoe’s own game, “Corporate America.” It’s a political satire about corporate influence over government. Another game at designer night is called “Dying Suns.” It’s tagline: “The galaxy is dying.”
In a corner of the cafe, Eliot Miller, another game designer originally from Wales, is play testing a game he developed about conservation — which was inspired by an exhibit at the Oakland museum.
“It’s about balancing the needs of cities with conservation and trying to juggle both of them, and you’re working as a city planner,” he says. “There is this like, twinkling dream in my heart that I will make one for every national park. And then start making ones for my like, homeland in Wales and around the world.”
While the video game industry isn’t threatened just yet by hobby games, the tech world is definitely paying attention.
At Google Launchpad, the company’s office for mentoring developers and startup founders, tabletop design and play are shifting mainstream ideas around gaming startup culture. At a recent “game expo” at the Launchpad, designers and developers show off their products. True to what you’d expect at a tech company’s event, the games are overwhelmingly digital. But alongside those 40 or so digital ones on display are four tabletop games.
One such game is a card-based party game tentatively titled “Department of Spin.” With Department of Spin, players take on issues and have the chance to “spin” them as smart or as ridiculous as they’d like -- just like politicians and media players do every day.
Mirko Micanociv, who co-designed the game, says it’s a big deal that tabletop games even have a presence at Google now.
“The fact that you have board games at an event that’s primarily digital —I think that in itself speaks how much it’s grown,” he says. “It’s not being segregated. It’s part of the whole gaming community.”
If the trend keeps going, the Bay Area may soon be known as a startup hub for tabletop design as much as it is for tech. As Dutch cultural historian Johan Huizinga once argued, new cultures manifest in play.