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Simple Pleasures

Board games become cool again


Sometimes global domination comes down to a roll of the dice. Sometimes the fate of the universe is in the hands of one person. Sometimes your medieval village really needs grain but invaders keep ruining your crops and you just don't have the right cards to play.

Such are the burdens carried by those who dare venture into the realms of board games.

Once thought of as the domain of socially maladjusted adults who live in their parents' basements, drinking Mountain Dew as they get ready for their Star Trek fan club meeting, board gamers are breaking stereotypes. Board games have been embraced by every walk of society—including well-adjusted grown-ups with their own mortgages.

Now, it seems more common for adults to gather with friends and family over a game; just check out the plethora of television commercials in which fashionable hipsters frolic around a board game, martinis in hand.

Suddenly, gaming is cool. But that's no surprise to those who proudly wear the title of gamer. They've gathered with friends for years, waiting for the rest of the world to catch on.

Those who haven't touched a game since childhood bouts of Candyland are returning to stores to find themselves faced with a dizzying array of games. Ever dreamt of being a railroad tycoon? There's a game for you. Do your aspirations lean more toward military domination? There's a game for you. Into communal crop growing, elfin lands or Formula One car racing? There are games for each.

"It's not just Life and Monopoly anymore," said Bruce Delaney, owner of All About Games, as he dashed about the store on a recent Tuesday night.

The Boise business has become a home base for many of the area's most serious gamers, be they into role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons, collectable card games like Magic the Gathering, or traditional board games. Nightly, All About Games opens the back half of the building to anyone who wants to play.

Beyond a half-wall dividing the retail portion of the building from the play area, groups of friends are often found huddled around long tables. Seated in folding chairs, they animatedly discuss tactics and rules as laughter punctuates the din.

Against the back wall, stacks of sample games rest on shelves, awaiting clients who might want to try before they buy. Tabletops decorated with three-dimensional scenes from various worlds sit nearby, just waiting for someone to come in with a miniatures game.

Delaney spent 14 years working for Micron as a chemist in the high energy nuclear physics laboratory. While he loved his job, he asked himself if it was what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.

He made a simple choice. "I'd rather spend my time surrounded by games and books," Delaney said.

Delaney and his wife, Laura, already owned Rediscovered Bookshop, but the couple joined business partner Ken Sommerville to purchase All About Games, which they moved to its location on Overland Road. The store specializes in only non-electronic games. While Delaney said many of his clients play video games as well as traditional games, he believes board games offer something their electronic cousins can't.

"It's about getting together with friends and family and spending time together," he said. "With computer games, you're interacting with the computer.

Roughly one-third of Delaney's clients are kids and teens, while another third are families and the final third are adults who "just like playing," he said.

"It's a second-childhood thing," Delaney said. "I'm firmly in touch with my inner adult."

Delaney also believes that games offer a safe way for people to express their competitive natures. "Here, it really doesn't matter if your army men beat my army men."

Among those gathered around one of All About Games' tables last week was Dea Draper, a regular at the store who has a simple reason for joining the organized games.

"I love to play board games, and my family won't play with me," Draper said as she explained the rules of Space Dealer to the group.

Draper, Jon Wahl and Kevin Gordon have all found their way to weeknight game groups as a way to indulge their gaming habits. They didn't know each other when they started, but friendships form quickly over a shared passion.

"Half the fun is the people you hang out with," Wahl said.

Group members even host weekend game nights at their homes during which friends gather for marathon sessions sometimes lasting into the wee hours of the morning. The social aspect of spending time with friends and family in a mentally engaging activity keeps them collecting games. Draper admitted to owning close to 1,000.

Delaney also credits the increased interest in games to people becoming more value-conscious.

"With the economy, [people are] looking for better ways to stretch entertainment dollars," Delaney said.

Board games are not only less expensive than electronic games, but the cost is spread out each time it is played. "You buy it and you have it," he said. "And the more you play it, the better the value."

Gabriel Wilson, owner of ABU Games, said he's also seen an increase in the popularity of board games.

"It's not just gamers," he said. "It's any person you meet."

While ABU Games also offers an array of electronic games and movies, Wilson said board games are always popular, especially among families. He agrees that the lower price is an attraction. At ABU, board games range in price from $20 to $75, while electronic game consuls cost several hundred dollars and games are extra.

Wilson began his business online, selling Magic the Gathering cards. But when it grew too large to run out of his garage, he and his wife, Kim, decided to open the retail location. Since opening in fall 2007, Wilson said he has seen a steady increase in interest.

ABU also offers gamers space to gather and play both electronic and traditional board games. It also buys used games for in-store trade, giving customers the chance to experience more games. "The quality of the game, how fun it is, is all that really matters," he said.

While the classic games are always popular, Delaney said many of his best sellers were created in Europe, especially in Germany, where board games have a more established tradition.

Some of his top sellers include Ticket to Ride—in which players strategize to build railway lines—as well as Settlers of Catan, in which players have to establish settlements and a working economy.

Other favorites include Wits and Wagers, which Delaney calls a trivia game for people who hate trivia; Curses, which has players performing a series of random activities; and Mystery of the Abby, a Clue-like game set in a monastery in which players must guess a vast number of details.

Of course, Delaney has to try them before he can recommend them. "I've played a frightening number of games," he said.

"As long as you're having fun, there's no such thing as a bad game."