Ann Arbor Gets Its Game On
When Alex Yeager first got into the world of high-strategy European-style board games, the Ann Arbor board gaming scene essentially consisted of a handful of guys meeting up in a coffee shop. In the late '90s, Yeager and a few friends would meet regularly to try out board games fresh off the boat from Europe, then at the inception of their American popularity.
Today, Yeager has gone from being a mere player to bearing an impressive professional title as minister of product acquisitions for major publisher Mayfair Games
. And Ann Arbor's board-gaming community has grown remarkably, drawing a diverse fanbase, spurring numerous regular events, game nights at local bars, and filling many a store shelf.
"I think right now we're seeing a level of knowledge about board games that is - mature, I guess, would be the best way to put it," Yeager says. "Back in the late '90s when we were starting to see this wave of games, we had the luxury of pretty much cherry-picking three decades of great design. Now, I think, everything has kind of caught up. We're as knowledgeable as any community, as any other group in the world, that you would run into."
Of course, the board games in question aren't quite your average family-game-night classics. Settlers of Catan
, a German game largely responsible for jump-starting America's Euro board-game craze, involves economic decisions as players swap for natural resources to build colonies. In Pandemic
, another popular title, players race to find the cures for four diseases before they reach pandemic proportions. The games are intelligent and often intricate, usually requiring players to cooperate rather than compete.
"Most people associate it with your Monopoly, your Risk, that kind of thing," says Nick Yribar, board games department manager at Ann Arbor comics shop Vault of Midnight
. "So people are already kind of primed for it. And the games that are coming out now are very different from that tone and the way people compete. But nevertheless, people want to play a good game, and they're getting better at it all the time."
Vault has seen a considerable interest spike in board games in recent years. When the store began carrying board games eight years ago, owner Curtis Sullivan says he stocked "just top five, top ten sellers." Now, he estimates, the games make up 25-30% of the shop's sales. "We just constantly scaled up," Sullivan says. "It is on a steep climb and it has not stopped climbing for three to five years."
Across town at gaming store Get Your Game On
, manager Stu Parnes says board games have also become a key part of his store's offerings in recent years. "I think there's a lot of nostalgia for people," he says. "Just that kind of sitting around as a group - you're not in front of a screen, but you can actually hang out and talk to people. I think a lot of people miss that now."
Both establishments cater to that social aspect by encouraging players to come in, meet up, and try new games. Get Your Game On offers around 30 games for open play in a spacious basement gaming area, while Vault of Midnight holds two weekly game nights. Yribar says Vault's board game night began several years ago as a weekly gathering of "three or four diehard gamers," but the weekly events now attract as many as 30 players. "The idea is let us know what you want to play, we'll set it up, we'll teach it to you, and like it or not, at least you'll get a sense of it before you drop $60 on a game you've never played before," Yribar says.
According to Sullivan, the players who show up for Vault's game night represent a thorough cross-section of ages, genders, and walks of life. "It's just literally everybody," he says. "There's families, moms, dads, young kids. What's driving it? I don't know. Nerddom. To anybody who's 35 years old or up, 25 or up, video games are no big deal. The Internet is no big deal. None of it is rock 'n' roll any more. We've moved beyond 'rock 'n' roll is going to burn the world down.' It's just music. People just play games and people just go on the Internet."
Yeager says board gaming presents an environment where college kids will often play with middle-aged parents, and where women are just as welcome as men. "As long as it's an inclusive group, it's certainly an inclusive activity," he says. "Board games provide a lot of that equality - they don't have a lot of the smack talk or some of the other things that are pervasive in the video game world. If you're going to be a jerk, you're probably not going to do well in a board game that requires negotiation."
During a recent stop at Vault's Thursday game night, we found 39-year-old father Karl Fischer playing alongside law students Liza Roe, 24, and Andreas Becker, 25. Fischer, who had no interest in "staying in and gaming" as a teenager, says he's developed a passion for the strategy of board games as he's grown older.
For Roe, it's all about the elements of logic and cooperative play. "Even though it's familiar, it's always a good experience when you're picking up a new game," she says. "And there's always board games coming out. Every year there's like five or six games coming out that I want to try. You're never going to get stuck playing Monopoly for the rest of your life, because that can get really boring."
For Yeager, the rise of board gaming in Ann Arbor and across the nation represents a mainstreaming of his favorite hobby, and a recognition of its accessibility and validity. He cites Target stores' recent promotion of "Tabletop
," actor Wil Wheaton's web series on board gaming.
"To think about a mainstream store like Target actually putting money and marketing effort behind a podcast about people playing games, that's a pretty tremendous step from the days when you had to go to a specific store in a specific city to buy a game," Yeager says.
"Games are becoming more mainstream, but also more accepted. Mainstream means it's popular, but accepted means it's popular because there's value behind it."
All photos by Doug Coombe