Board Games Are Getting Really, Really Popular

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A teenage boy plays a card game
Board game fans flock to Gen Con in Indiana every year. Darron Cummings/AP

Jonathan Kay, co-author of the new book Your Move: What Board Games Teach Us About Life, has largely given up on movies and TV, and has instead made tabletop gaming his primary mode of recreation.

“It has a social function in my life, and an intellectual function,” Kay says in Episode 392 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “I’ve now written a book about it, so I guess it has a professional, editorial function. It’s a huge part of my life.”

Kay wrote the book together with Joan Moriarty, who works full-time at the Snakes & Lattes board game cafe in Toronto. The concept of a board game cafe may be unfamiliar to many, but Kay believes that Snakes & Lattes is an important institution.

“I’m not sure if it’s still the biggest board game cafe in North America, but I think it might be the oldest single-purpose urban board game cafe,” he says. “And the Snakes & Lattes business model became a model for people creating board game cafes in other cities.”

The rise of such cafes is a testmant to the growing popularity of board games. Sales quadrupled between 2013 and 2016, and the annual Gen Con convention now attracts over 70,000 attendees, Kay among them. He enjoys the laid back atmosphere among the mostly quiet, bookish gamers. “Introverts are actually usually very careful about their social interactions, because they know that if there’s conflict that emerges, they won’t know how to manage it,” he says. “So as a result there’s a heightened sense of politeness and consideration at these places.”

But even among so many fellow gamers, it can be a challenge finding opponents for his preferred game, Advanced Squad Leader. He notes that the tabletop community is really a collection of separate subcultures who often view each other’s games with mutual disregard.

“Half the people there are there for miniatures,” he says. “They love it. And I’m like, ‘Shoot me now.’ I have zero interest in it. Spending four hours painting a tiny little goblin so you can fight someone else’s little goblin? I’d rather do macrame.”

Listen to the complete interview with Jonathan Kay in Episode 392 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.

Jonathan Kay on Ray Bradbury:

“There was a short story of his called ‘The Jar,’ and it was about this really creepy exhibit at a local fair—Ray Bradbury was always obsessed with the creepy local iconography of small communities—and there was nothing in it that was ‘monsters from outer space’ or something like that, but I remember reading it and recognizing that the effect it was having on me, the effect of fear and suspense, was all based on the inner lives of the characters, and my own inner reaction to what was going on. It made me realize that if you want to use reading or writing to understand who you are, and understand the human condition, you’re going to have to put away some of the formulaic genres like space opera and focus on the ultimate question of all great writing, which is, ‘Who are we?’”

Jonathan Kay on finding opponents:

“The game that I really love is this obscure game called Advanced Squad Leader—it’s a World War II game, I have a chapter about it in my book. There are probably maybe like 10,000 serious ASL players in the whole world. I just came back from Albany—we have a tournament there. I go to Cleveland every year in October for a tournament. In March I’ll be going to Copenhagen for a tournament. I live in Toronto, which is a city of 3 million people, but there probably aren’t more than a couple thousand really serious board gamers. … And someone who loves one game may not have any interest in another game, so of those couple thousand people, there may only be like 10 or 20 who share my passion for a particular game.”

Jonathan Kay on game stores:

“If you go to [The Compleat Strategist in New York], you can see exactly what board game culture looked like in the ’70s and ’80s, because they have this bulletin board, and the bulletin board is exactly what bulletin boards looked like in every comic book store—and sci-fi and board game store—when I was a kid. It was like, ‘Desperately seeking opponents for Age of Rome‘ or ‘We need a fourth for such-and-such,’ with the phone numbers written at the bottom, and little hatched pieces of paper that you tore off and stuck in your pocket. And some people still live in that world. They don’t want to be on the internet. That’s part of the reason they do board gaming.”

Jonathan Kay on his book Among the Truthers:

“I went on so many National Public Radio programs. NPR listeners like to know that a book [about conspiracy theories] exists. I’m not sure how many people would actually read it, but I met so many people who were like, ‘Oh, I’ve got to give your book to my uncle,’ or ‘I’ve got to give your book to my ex-wife,’ or ‘I’ve got to give your book to my boss.’ Everyone I met, they didn’t need the book, but they were convinced that the crazy person in their life did. But of course that person had no interest in reading my book. So that’s one of the reasons I didn’t get rich off the book, but I’m really glad I wrote it, if only for the fact that it taught me the warning signs of when this type of thinking begins to infect my own consciousness.”

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