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Building community around a tabletop

In the past few years, the tabletop gaming industry has skyrocketed, and Grand Rapids has been a great hub for its community.
Interior of Out of the Box store in Kentwood.

Interior of Out of the Box store in Kentwood. /Brianna Steiner

Top 10 best selling board games according to Amazon:

  1. Pie Face!

  2. Connect 4

  3. Pie Face Showdown

  4. Hungry Hungry Hippos

  5. Suspend

  6. Yeti in My Spaghetti

  7. Code Names

  8. Let’s Go Fishin’

  9. Catan

  10. Battleship

On a green, felt table a group of tabletop gamers lay out their board and its pieces, getting ready to begin their play. Their game of choice tonight: Agricola. The gamers will strategize, laugh, and engage with like-minded community members in a place where everyone is accepted. The only stipulation is that you must love board games.

A group much like this meets every Wednesday afternoon at the Grand Rapids board game shop, Out of the Box. This group is organized by Brian Lenz, a game designer and an owner of Underbite Games. He says of the Meetup group, West Michigan Tabletop Gamers, “I started WMTG about five years ago. It had 100 members after about a year and has continued to grow since then.” The group now boasts nearly 1,000 members who support local businesses like Out of the Box with their gaming pastime.

Out of the Box marks a similar trend in increased interest in board games. Employee Tim Hogue noted, “We’ve been open for seven years, and it always seems like we have more and more people coming in.”

Tabletop games are on the rise. The market research group NPD states that there has been a 20 percent rise in sales of tabletop games in just the past year. But why board games and why now? It seems today that people live on the web, glued to their smartphones, tablets, and computers. Most would rather binge watch the next Netflix hit than head out to a party with their friends. If this is true, why are people taking a break from all these screens to spend time face-to-face?

“I believe there is an inner drive with most people to share good times and moments with those that express the same passions as they do,” Lenz said. Hogue shared a similar sentiment, admitting that he’s seen closed off people open up around a board game. “People value social interaction. We’ve all been to a party where we felt a bit shy, but when someone starts playing Cards Against Humanity, then we’re all laughing together.”

Grand Rapid’s infrastructure as a dynamic and bustling city seems to make it a great candidate for the board game trend to increase in the past few years. “It has lots of locations that make it great for meetups. It’s also a ‘millennial town.’ Board games are for all ages, but there’s definitely a big push within that age group.” Hogue says that the number of universities and colleges in Grand Rapids could be a reason for this tabletop phenomenon.

Cornerstone Professor Don Perini, a board game designer for games like Looney Bin, has contributed to this tabletop trend in Grand Rapids in an interesting way, teaching a Board Game Design class at Cornerstone in the fall of 2014.

“I don’t think you need to be a specific type of person to like board games. Today there are different types of games for every type of player. It’s the Golden Age of game design.” He saw his students’ growing interest in a class like this and saw it as an opportunity to connect with them. “It’s not just about learning how to play and design board games. Games can make you think harder and strategize. They are also ways to encourage gathering and socialization.”

There are a number of ways to get involved in the gaming community in Grand Rapids. Brian Lenz also runs an annual gaming convention, GrandCon, which held its fourth show in September. Their fifth anniversary show will be happening in September 2017, and Lenz encourages gamers of all levels of experience to take part in the convention.

“It’s a place to shop for games, toys, crafts, and art. You can also learn about the hobby industry and there are all kinds of games to be played.” GrandCon also supports the Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital Foundation with a part of their badge sales.

The community in Grand Rapids that has built up around the board game culture is a strong one. Lenz said he sees it as, “A positive catalyst to bring others together that share the same passion for gaming and those who want to learn more about the gaming industry.” Lenz, like Perini, has found that it's a way to improve skills like communication, collaboration, math and logic. This is why he’s found that GrandCon can also be a great place to network.

Hogue, Lenz, and Perini all suggest to those who wish to start their gaming journey to attend a WMTG meetup. WMTG welcomes all levels of experience.  When you attend a meetup, bring any board games you wish to play or simply show up ready to learn!

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