The world is a frightening place. Military conflict rocks entire nations and the threat of terrorism is a daily concern for many. But somewhere between ISIS and the Ukraine, Israel and Gaza, there exists an oasis of sorts – a place where we can, if only briefly, forget trials of life.
That oasis is the world of board games.
I refer not to the childhood staples of Monopoly, Risk or Sorry. Instead, I am talking about Argricola, Power Grid, Caylus – titles that are part of the booming industry of designer board games.
These games, unlike those that rely heavily on the rolling of dice or drawing of cards, stress tactics, strategy and careful planning. This emphasis on skill rather than luck places control of the outcome of games squarely in the hands of the gamer.
The Settlers of Catan is often cited as the catalyst for the sudden rise in popularity of the “Euro game.” The term began as a label for games from designers in Europe, but now embodies an entire subgenre wherein game mechanics are prioritized over its theme.
Greg Thatcher, an associate professor at Fresno State’s department of public health, has been playing games since his high school years.
“I started playing board games…around 1987,” he says. “Being around the hobby for 30 years, I cannot remember how I learned about it, but in today’s world it is similar to my profession. Never stagnant, always changing.”
In past semesters, Thatcher oversaw the campus club Finding Responsible and Entertaining Activities on KampuS (FREAKS).
Meeting every Friday night, FREAKS drew the attention of hundreds of gamers both new and experienced.
“In just under three years, the club grew to averaging more than 110 students and community members [weekly],” says Thatcher. “[This made FREAKS] one of, if not the largest, board gaming club in the country.”
The club was so large, in fact, that the only spot suitable to host game nights was the Residence Dining Hall. Unfortunately, the location was coveted by a number of other groups and, according to Thatcher, FREAKS was denied a weekly reservation. This led to Thatcher attempting to take the club off-campus and the eventual dissolving of FREAKS.
While FREAKS may not have been afforded the same campuswide attention of some of the athletics-based clubs, Thatcher says that board gaming is not as different from sports as one might think.
“As a hobby, board gaming offers personal interaction and competition similar to most club sports. You can get better with practice, excel and succeed at your own pace, but it stays new and fun because of the myriad games available.”
Though FREAKS is no longer active, there are a number of other places Fresnans can try their hand at some of the most popular board games. The Crazy Squirrel Game Store is a business located at the intersection of Bullard and Fresno streets, not far from the Fresno State campus.
Co-owner Jennifer Ward says the philosophy behind the store is the idea that games bring people together.
“For me, gaming is all about spending time with people you love to hang out with,” Ward says. “So while we may sell you a physical copy of a game, we’re really just giving you an excuse to spend time with your family and friends.”
The Crazy Squirrel opened in October of 2010 after Ward and her husband found themselves unemployed.
“We panicked for a couple of weeks and then sat down to figure out what we were going to do,” she says. “People had joked for years that we should open a game store, so I did a few months of research, and we decided to be crazy and go ahead and do it.”
The store has seen a steady increase in game sales over the years, which Ward partially attributes to actor Wil Wheaton’s YouTube series “TableTop.” Interest in gaming has grown so much, in fact, that this year The Crazy Squirrel is helping organize ZappCon, a convention dedicated to the hobby of gaming.
“There’s a huge growth in the convention scene,” says Ward. “We’re hoping to build a quality geek-oriented con in Fresno.”
For more information, or to buy tickets, visit The Crazy Squirrel.
ZappCon may be in its inaugural year, but gaming conventions are nothing new. For years, the German city of Essen has played host to Spiel, a massive convention where designers and publishers show off their newest games.
The convention has grown exponentially each year, with attendance numbers rivaling those of ComiCon. More recently, GenCon has become a premier convention in America and is often referred to as the “E3 of board games.”
These conventions are a great way for the board gaming hobby to get some time on the international stage, but for Ward it is important to focus on the local scene.
“[My husband] and I have always had a strong desire to help our community,” she says. “Fresno has had serious poverty issues, and we thought one way to help out was to make sure our community has access to good meals. That’s why we have a food drive and our Feed Fresno events in December.”
While fads come and go, it appears that board games are here for the long haul. Thatcher believes that the appeal of board games gives the hobby longevity.
“What is drawing people [in] is easy,” he says. “It is fun, interactive, fast, and easy to learn. There are little to no politics involved. Everyone is welcome and can succeed.”