Austin's thriving table top gaming scene

As many kids gravitate away from board games and toward their computers or consoles when it comes to gaming, some adults are returning to the table for the camaraderie and the occasional argument.

As many kids gravitate away from board games and toward their computers or consoles when it comes to gaming, some adults are returning to the table for the camaraderie and the occasional argument.

"Board games are really great because it's community building,” said Chris Fedor, events manager at Dragon’s Lair Comics & Fantasy. “In the digital age it's very easy for people to disconnect, and board games and table top is a way for you to interact with people in a head-on situation that brings back the good old days of going out and actually hanging out with people and talking and interacting and laughing and having a good time.”

Loading ...

“I think people are really hungry for that analog, non-digital experience. They want something fun and interesting to do that fosters the social experience without putting a screen in front of them,” said Preston Swincher, CEO and general manager at Vigilante Bar.

Once a niche hobby, table top gaming has grown in popularity over the last 5-10 years. YouTube channels like The Dice Tower, Watch It Played and Geek & Sundry have brought it closer to the mainstream, and game stores throughout Austin cater to that growing demand. A quick search on Google shows around a dozen stores dedicated to selling board games in the Austin area from the Round Rock to Lakeline Mall to Slaughter Lane, and that doesn't include big chain stores like Target, Walmart or Toys R Us.

Few of these shops operate solely as game stores. Dragon's Lair, Rogue's Gallery Comics & Games and Tribe Comics and Games also serve as comic book stores while Emerald Tavern Games & Cafe and Vigilante Bar also offer a dining experience.

One of several custom-built tables at Vigilante Gaming Bar. Image by Steve Newton, KVUE.

"...The other thing that people are always surprised by is the aspect of combining the cafe with the table top gaming," said Emerald Tavern Games & Cafe Manager Gus Sterneman.

"Part of the magic of having a social space like this is hearing other tables cheer and get excited for their game, which makes it easier for you to get more excited about your game," said Swincher.

Loading ...

Wonko's Toys & Games, Mage’s Sanctum and Outlaw Moon Games are among the stores that also sell models and miniatures, while Mothership Books and Games has a LAN (local area network) center for people to hop on and play computer games with each other.

Gamers play Rocket League and Overwatch in the LAN center at Mothership Books and Games. Image by Steve Newton, KVUE.

"A lot of players that we have not only play the table top games, but they also play video games, so it seemed like a pretty easy choice there to just squish the two together," said Mothership owner Lauren Akamine.

Almost all of the game stores in the Austin area have something in common: Demo copies of games and spaces where people can try them before buying.

“The idea of in-store gaming is sort of fundamental to a game store," said Randy Lander, owner of Rogue's Gallery Comics & Games.

“The beauty of the demo shelf is that you might try a game out and not like it,” said Akamine. “We also take pride in that we don't want people spending $50 on a board game without having ever seeing it or done anything with it, and then take it home and they're like, 'This is a terrible game.’”

Dragon's Lair Comics & Fantasy. Image by Steve Newton, KVUE.

Game stores in the Austin area – like every other small business – work to foster a sense of warmth among their customers to help recruit new gamers and grow the community.

"I directly communicate with a lot of the guys who are the regulars," said Fedor, "and for them getting new people into their game is usually a reward in itself. So if you're a new person coming out to play a game for the first time, it's a very good way to just find a group of people who are playing something to your liking or you're curious about and ask them questions, watch a game or join them."

"The nerd community that still games these days - especially in places like this - I feel like in a lot of ways we're a lot of the kids that got made fun of, or were bullied or didn't really have a spot at the lunch table. Coming here is that-- every new person that comes in we want them to feel like this is their home," said Akamine.

Loading ...

"We work really hard to learn who they are, to make friends with them, to make them feel welcome, make them feel at home, and to foster their love of what we do," said Sterneman.

Articles that praise the idea of family game nights - including PBS, CBC, The Atlantic and Living Well Mom - list a lot of common themes: bringing families (or people in general) together, getting people away from screens, teaching good sportsmanship, stimulate learning and just having fun.

"We still get the people coming in and they're constantly buried in their phones or their computers, but the thing is that the family will start playing the game and pull the other person into it," said Fedor.

"When you get bogged in work or you get bogged down in daily routine, you tend to have the same conversations over and over again. Good games shake you out of that. They wake you up, they position you in a new light in front of your friends, and help you connect to them in ways that maybe you've never connected to them before," said Swincher.

Game shelves at Emerald Tavern Games & Cafe. Image by Steve Newton, KVUE.

Classics like ‘Monopoly,’ ‘Risk’ and ‘Scrabble’ are still great games to play, but titles released in recent years can be just as fun to play if not more so. Games like ‘Settlers of Catan’ and ‘Munchkin’ have developed followings of their own since their releases and tournaments are held for newer games just like ones for the classics. In fact, there was a Scrabble tournament in Austin on April 8, and there is one held in Dallas on the third Saturday of each month.

There is also a relatively new segment of games that is growing in popularity: cooperative games. Instead of competing against each other to win, people playing games like ‘Pandemic’ and ‘Castle Panic’ have to work together.

"There are a lot of people who either get turned off by highly competitive aspects of games or have had bad experiences playing against someone who was uber-competitive. For people like that, the ability to play a game that's challenging, that's difficult, but is not directly competing against another player provides them with an opportunity to have the enjoyment in our hobby that they wouldn't otherwise get,” said Sterneman.

Loading ...

"If you’re a very competitive person board games can be frustrating, and cooperative is great because it means everybody’s working toward the same goal and basically you’re playing against the mechanics of the game,” said Lander. "It’s essentially like having a good co-op video game without the electricity."

As part of the movement toward table top gaming, there is an annual event for the table top gaming community. Geek & Sundry has sponsored International Tabletop Day since 2013 as a way for people around the world to celebrate all types of table top games together.

"It's a really great opportunity not only to get people exposed to these different areas of gaming that they may not have known before, but to actually get people from different quadrants of the gaming community in the same place at the same time," Akamine said.

"You’re never sure if these initiatives are going to take off, but it was not just a hit but a rocket ship. It went zero to 60 first year," Lander said.

Retailers around the world will be hosting events, including many stores in Austin. Those stores will have discounts and demos of new games, including those from local publishers like Steve Jackson Games and Fireside Games. TAP HERE to find the closest location to you.

Writer's note: The businesses interviewed for this story represent a fraction of the board game retailers in Austin. TAP HERE to search for a board game store near you.