SYRACUSE, N.Y. (NCC News) — A crowd gathers around a table, awaiting the next move from the competitor. He shuffles his cards, contemplating the possible outcomes of the play. Finally, with confidence, he lays down the cards of choice, illustrating his every move. Turning three cards sideways, he says the last words of the tournament:
“I’ll swing at you with Ulamog for 11 damage.”
Applause and handshakes are shared, and the cash prize goes to this week’s Magic: The Gathering champion.
Magic and many other popular tabletop games, like Warhammer 40,000, Pathfinder and Pokémon, have hit a surge of popularity over the last few years. Tabletop games include any game that can be played on a flat surface, often with boards, cards, figurines, dice and other accessories. Card games like Magic, board games like Settlers of Catan and role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) all fall into this broad stroke of the brush.
When Magic and D&D started in the 1980’s and 90’s, they started out as niche hobbies with an underground following. Board games with longer lifespans like Risk and Monopoly have been in the public eye for over a century, but the new-age and complex systems of D&D and similar games were not nearly as appealing to the general population. Additionally, many religious communities saw the game and its content as demonic and Satanic, boycotting and speaking out against the activity.
However, in recent years the popularity of tabletop games has skyrocketed, mostly due to role-playing games breaking into the public eye. Companies like Critical Role and Dimension 20 from College Humor have popularized live-streaming Dungeons and Dragons campaigns for a dedicated audience, and the recent release of the “Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” movie was received with widespread praise and acclaim for the depiction of the hobby on the silver screen.
“It’s definitely come around,” said Brian Horton, game manager at the Art Store in Syracuse. “It used to be that you didn’t talk to your friends about all of this, and you kind of kept it quiet what you did. And now, the culture has allowed for everyone to expand and grow.”
Tabletop game interest and sales spiked over the COVID-19 pandemic, since so many people were stuck inside and needed something to do. Board game and card game sales surged, as more and more people started collecting and playing these games both in person and online with friends across the world. According to The Washington Post, board game sales in December of 2022 were up 22 percent since 2019 , and the market is now valued at around $15 billion.
“Everyone was stuck at home, what were you going to do? Play board games, play card games, collect, stuff like that,” said Spidr, manager of Unplugged Gaming in Manlius.
What used to be a niche hobby has now transformed into a much larger community, with game stores across Central New York selling these games and opening their doors to old and new players to play together in a shared space. These game stores also hold weekly events and tournaments for cash prizes, some up to four figures in total prize pools.
“There’s no actual event going on today, this is just people coming in on a Saturday to play their favorites,” Spidr said gesturing at a packed store. “We offer a place where you can come with your friends where everything is already set up, you don’t have to clean, and you can just come and play.”
However, the most notable reason for playing these games is not always the games themselves. The community is extremely welcoming and accommodating of everyone, offering a good time with a group of people with shared interests. People use these games as a way to get away from the world, escaping to a world that isn’t their own for a few hours.
“Ever since I started playing, this whole community has been really nice,” said Tania Fontana of Liverpool. “Everyone’s smiling, everyone’s having fun, and doing this gives me something to do, and get out of the house.”
The community in particular has been the most impactful part on these player’s lives, sometimes bringing people out of the toughest parts in life and giving them a community of friends to look forward to playing with. Justin Howard, a regular D&D player and Dungeon Master, knows first hand how tabletop games can save lives.
“I did end up going down a somewhat dark path, and I had a group of friends that offered me to live with them, and we played D&D on an almost daily basis,” he said. “It really helped me kind of become human again.”
Tabletop games have transformed from a closeted group that met on Saturday nights in secret to a welcoming community of millions, where anyone young or old can join to take part in their game of choice. These games can be more than a fun activity, they can also be a safe haven and source for some of the greatest memories one can have.
Take a chance and roll the dice on tabletop games, and you might be surprised what amounts of fun you may have in more ways than one.