Going Cardboard in the Digital Age

AeronautBoard Game Bonanza at Aeronaut. Photo by Sasha Pedro.

In tech-savvy Greater Boston, a whole culture has developed around board gaming

Pop into Aeronaut Brewing Company on a Monday night, grab a lager or an IPA, and let Christine Platzek introduce you to some of the regulars. Maybe the ones who are trying to plant the best bean fields, or those desperate to sort out which people around the table are actually fascists trying to bring Hitler to power in Weimar-era Germany.

For almost two years, Monday night has been board gaming night at Aeronaut. Platzek, who lives in Somerville, is the volunteer organizer who got it started and continues to shepherd it along, as sometimes 50 or more gamers crowd around tables to play games like Bohnanza (the bean-planting card game), Secret Hitler (from the same people who created Cards Against Humanity), and dozens of others.

“People are very welcoming, it’s not a very competitive gaming community,” says Platzek of the crowd, about half of whom are regulars on any given night. “The purpose is to meet people.”

They’re people like Alex Fern Gilkeson, who found a community here shortly after moving to Boston.

“I came to the city knowing nobody, and I’m an extravert who goes a little crazy if I don’t get out every once in a while,” says Gilkeson. “I need to socialize. I love board games, I like meeting new people, so I made the trek out one week about two-and-half months ago, and have been coming every week since then.”

It’s much the same for Robert Berlet, who has been coming for more than three years.

“It’s mainly the community,” says Berlet, who developed a love of board gaming as a kid. “It’s hard to find a 10-person game of Secret Hitler, even if you have a lot of friends who game. It’s a nice crowd, the games are great, and the beer is good.”

“I think it continues to grow and develop in a way I’m really proud of,” says Platzek, “with a good number of new people and a good number of people who come in week after week.”

The popularity of board gaming among denizens of a tech hub like Greater Boston may not be the contradiction it seems at first. In fact, it’s a natural bridge between the impersonal digital world and the face-to-face reality of the analog world, according to journalist David Sax, author of the 2016 book “The Revenge of Analog.”

“What’s interesting is many of these people are the same people who play multiplayer video games at home over the internet,” says Sax. “The difference is, with that you’re really just playing a game. But in a board game, it’s much more of a social interaction. The game is the excuse to get together and talk and laugh and have a few drinks, in a way that’s really missing.”

For those who don’t have their noses stuck in modern board gaming, it may come as a surprise just how many new titles come out each year. For example, at the annual International Spieltage in Essen, Germany this past October, over a thousand new board games were announced or released. Visit BoardGameGeek.com, the largest internet board gaming resource, and you’ll find that many gamers have hundreds of titles in their personal collections.

The market is so lively that when Porter Square Books had the opportunity to open a holiday pop-up shop at the Porter Square Shopping Center between Thanksgiving and Christmas, they partnered with the Cambridge Arts Council to open seven stalls featuring local artists, and one for the bookstore that focused on board games.

“We all love games, but we don’t have room in the store to carry [many of] them,” says Dina Mardell, the manager and co-owner. “So we thought this was a great idea.”

Asked for her own recommendation, she quickly named a recent spinoff of the 2015 word-sleuthing game Codenames, which was a mega-hit for veteran Czech designer Vlaada Chivátil, called Codenames: Duet.

“Oh, my gosh, it’s so good!” Mardell exclaims. “First of all, you can play it with two players, but you can also play with a bigger group as a co-op. It’s a hot seller.”

Cooperative games, or co-ops, are an increasingly popular segment in the industry. Instead of playing against one another, everyone is working toward the same goal, so either you all win or you all lose. Arguably the most popular of those is Pandemic, where players are fighting global outbreaks of four diseases, trying to find cures before they run out of time and resources. It was one of the pop-up shop’s best-sellers.

Another Mardell recommends is Mysterium. Originally published in Poland, this game casts one player as a silent ghost who communicates through dreams by passing out cards with images. The other players are investigators who try to solve the mystery of the ghost’s murder by interpreting those images and determining who did it, how, and where.

Sound like the old standby Clue? Sure… if Clue had gotten degrees in fine arts, theater, and psychology.

Sax devoted a full chapter of his book to board games, and did a lot of his research at Snakes & Lattes, a board game café in Toronto. He says such cafés are becoming the Third Space for gamers, a term coined by the critical theorist Homi K. Bhabha to describe a place (after home and work) where people regularly gather and interact.

“These board game cafés … have really become the kind of hubs of social interactions, of friendships, of community,” says Sax—and that makes them an antidote to the “epidemic of loneliness” that is proliferating in many parts of the developed world. “With something like board games, the games are kind of, ‘Hey, let’s do this thing. It’s just a bunch of cardboard. But, you know, we’ll get to see each other and talk to each other and feel a sense of belonging to a group.’”

The Boston area has its own Third Spaces of that stripe, in the form of the Knight Moves board game cafés in Somerville and Brookline. Think coffee shop but with more table space and a huge lending library of board games, which are all-you-can-play for a cover charge of $5 Monday through Wednesday or $10 Thursday through Sunday.

“People have said I’m kind of like a sommelier of games,” says owner Devon Trevelyan, who opened the Brookline site in 2013 and Somerville three years later.

A product of the tech scene himself—he worked for Harmonix Music Systems—Trevelyan is also a lifelong gamer. Between contracts with Harmonix, he would work at Eureka! Puzzles on Beacon Street, where he eventually helped start an event-based board game service that brings games to parties, corporate events, bar mitzvahs, and the like and teaches people how to play them. That became a huge chunk of Eureka’s business, but Trevelyan wanted to try something new and took the plunge with Knight Moves (the name an homage to his past as a competitive chess player).

“It turns out the reason I’ve been able to stay in business for five years is that people crave face-to-face interaction—a social way to get together that doesn’t really exist anymore,” he says. “I think it’s kind of a renaissance period where people are intrigued and want to learn how to play games and be close to someone, without being on your phone.”

Given that, it’s probably not surprising that he often sees customers at his cafés who are there on dates.

“A lot of people will see our good reviews, then go on OK Cupid and say, ‘Let’s meet there,’” says Trevelyan. Which is a great thing … it’s much more engaging to see who someone is in how you work together, how you tackle problems. You learn a lot more about someone playing a game than you do having dinner—you still talk, but it’s much more open.”

Even five years after opening the first Knight Moves café, Trevelyan says he gets the exact same feelings of satisfaction when someone walks through his doors for the first time and asks about board games.

“People have weird ideas of what board games should be, and any time I teach a game, it’s about choices. You’re given agency to make something happen, and people are always surprised that’s what it is about,” he says. “I think that is just the tip of the iceberg, and opens up the horizon to the fact there’s a community that exists that plays board games.”

This story originally appeared in the Free Time Fervor issue of Scout Somerville, which is available for free at more than 200 locations throughout the city or by subscription.

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