Where Did This Rise in Popularity of Tabletop Games Come From? Where did this Rise in Popularity of Tabletop Games Come From?

Hunter: Hitting on twos.

Justin: Give me the money for my friend!

Tiana: Counter spell, counter spell, counter spell.

Andrew MacBeath: Excitement, lingo, and all those cards, dice, and figurines. All of these and more exist in the world of tabletop games. Tabletop games are games that can be played on a flat surface, including board games, card games, and role-playing games. Board games are played on a specialized board, card games are played with unique types of cards, and role-playing games exist in the theater of the mind.

A tight-knit community gathers to play these games, including people from all walks of life.

Hunter: I’m a retired military veteran.

Tiana: I just got a job at the library.

Justin: I actually work full, full time at T-C-G Player.

MacBeath: Hunter, Tania and Justin come from all over Central New York, gathering in stores to play their games…

Justin: I feel much nerdier.

MacBeath: And share their interests. And these stores they gather in are not your average stores. While they do sell your favorite dice, minis, and other supplies, they also hold tournaments and open table nights for players to socialize and compete. Spidr, manager of Unplugged Gaming in Manlius, has held these events at the store for over a year, and loves to see the community come together.

Spidr: We give you a place, as you can see behind me, a place where people to gather. There’s no actual event going on today, these are literally just people who came in on a Saturday to play their favorites.

MacBeath: The community has broken out of its shell over the last few years due to a large spike in popularity, one that did not go unnoticed by Brian Horton, game manager of the Art Store.

Brian Horton: It’s definitely come around. It used to be that you didn’t talk to your friends about all of this, you kind of kept it quiet, what you did. And now the culture has allowed for everyone to expand and grow.

MacBeath: The explosion in popularity of tabletop games can primarily be traced back to one thing. Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of people wanted games to play to pass the time. And they didn’t have a clue of what to do. So, people came to various gaming stores until nightfall to learn about the games they’ve always wanted to learn. So experienced people can give them a guide to everything.

Spidr: Because everybody was stuck at home, what are you gonna do? Play board games, play card games, collect, stuff like that.

MacBeath: The global board game market skyrocketed over the course of the pandemic, where it is now valued at around thirteen-point-four billion dollars and is projected to grow seven to 11 percent over the next five years. As for card games, those are up 29 percent, and strategic card games are up 209 percent, and have no signs of slowing down.

This surge in popularity over COVID also lined up with role-playing games breaking out into the public eye, with shows like Critical Role and Dimension 20 broadcasting Dungeons and Dragons campaigns for a live audience, and the Dungeons and Dragons Honor Among Thieves movie being met with widespread acclaim.

However, the greatest part of these niche games and interests is not just the fun, it is also..

Spidr: An escape. You’re, you’re delving into that world and escaping and playing and letting
your mind just do what you enjoy.

MacBeath: The therapeutic and communal aspect of tabletop games is the true driving force that brings these people to Unplugged Gaming and the Art Store, as so many people’s lives have been changed by the games they love to play.

Horton: I’ve met lifelong friends, I’ve been best man at my friend’s weddings I’ve met at a game store through playing, even Magic the Gathering or another card game.

Justin: I did end up going down a somewhat dark path, and those friends invited me to live with them. I lived with them and we played D&D on an almost daily basis, and it really, really helped me kind of become human again.

Tania: You know, ever since I started playing, even in different stores, and in like different places and different states as well, just this whole community is really nice.

Hunter: I love playing competitive style games, and most of all I get to hang out with my friends at these cool events, so that’s what I love most about it, is the community.

MacBeath: Tabletop games have saved lives and brought unlikely friends together, so now people from all over the state and country can freely talk about their hobbies, passing their interests to the next generation.

Hunter: I have to kill all of your flying behemoths.

Tania: Watch your flying creatures, because this can block flying, okay? Because he has reach.

MacBeath: In Syracuse, Andrew MacBeath…

Justin: Your quarry is headed further north.

MacBeath: …N-C-C News.

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.”


A large sign of Unplugged Gaming in blue lettering with people sitting at tables underneath.
People gather at Unplugged Gaming to play Magic: The Gathering.
© 2023 Andrew MacBeath

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.”


A group of people sit around a table with a man in a red shirt and large beard addressing the group.
A group of people play Dungeons and Dragons with Justin Howard (in red) leading the adventure.
© 2023 Andrew MacBeath

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.

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