I Spent Five Days at a Board Game Convention at DFW International Airport.
Somewhere in the sprawling concrete wasteland of the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, 3,000 people are packed into the basement ballroom of a middling hotel, huddled over cheap conference tables, crowded into corners and poring over detailed maps of major cities, entire continents and even worlds. They are networking, planning and coordinating. They are teaching, learning and recruiting.
Every year, they come from all over the globe to converge on this towering way station for laid-over, pissed-off travelers, surrounded on all sides by miles of twisting roadways and labyrinthine parking structures, cut off and hidden from life beyond the runways. There are no restaurants, no bars and no convenience stores. The pizza delivery options are severely limited. Pornography only comes pay-per-view. It’s a self-contained ecosystem and economy of overpriced hotel cocktails and cash-and-carry hot dogs. There’s nowhere else to go. And there’s nowhere else to be.
For five days each November, the Hyatt Regency Hotel here plays host to BGG.Con, Board Game Geek‘s annual celebration of board games. It is the local apex of a growing resistance movement — a rebellion that’s outgrown the underground and begun seeping into the cultural mainstream.
In the last few years, this world’s influence has spread everywhere from college dive bars to prime-time sitcoms.
If you haven’t noticed the rise of indie gaming yet, you will. You know that one high school friend who married young, quit partying and got a real job? There’s a good chance she’s got a copy of Settlers of Catan on her shelf and that she really wishes you’d come play it with her sometime. You should give her a call. Your fair weather bar buddy who gets too loud when he’s drunk and still thinks “ironic racism” is a thing? Yeah, he’s definitely got a copy of Cards Against Humanity in the trunk of his Trans-Am, and he can’t wait to show you how funny he thinks he is. That cousin who exclusively wears heather gray hoodies and shares his flask of KD with you at Thanksgiving? Chances are, he’s got a copy of Sushi Go in his man-purse, but he’s just not sure if you’d be into that kind of thing.
Trust me, you will be.
In less than a decade, tabletop gaming has exploded into a billion-dollar industry — and it’s still trending up. It’s gotten so big, you can now stumble drunk into any Walmart at three in the goddamn morning and buy a copy of Pandemic with the sock full of wadded-up singles you found in your weed dealer’s couch the other night. God bless Big Randy’s strip club wallet-sock, and God bless us, every one, for we are truly living in the Golden Age of Board Games. And with good reason.
We spend most of our waking hours staring at screens. We’ve had ten years now of social media; ten years of wishing to Christ we could remember our MySpace passwords to forever delete the embarrassing horrors of our past, to exorcise those digital ghosts that haunt our Google results and make us question the voting age. We’re overwhelmed, bored and sickened by our desperate need for the transient validation of high school acquaintances who still share low-res motivational memes posted by local radio stations.
Your ex-girlfriend and 30 others like this.
We’re constantly connected to everyone we’ve ever known, and we’ve never felt more alienated. We crave honest interaction. We demand authentic entertainment — fun we can influence and create, not just passively observe. We’re not content to be alone with an Xbox controller and a headset connection to preteens with an insecurity boner for homophobic slurs. “Disconnect!” we cry. Rage against the screen! For godsakes, man, grab your dice! This ain’t Monopoly. This is revolution!
Like any other movement on-the-rise, the Analog Revolution has begun to factionalize. There’s a schism in the board game community, and it’s widening. Geek culture in its many forms has been struggling to cope and adapt as once-niche hobbies creep further and further into the mainstream. While the video game geeks busy themselves with “Gamergate” — pearl-clutching over the idea that women might also enjoy mashing buttons in their underwear — the tabletop gaming world is facing its own (less misogynistic, but equally unnecessary) culture war.
Hi, hello, my name is Ryan and I’m a filthy malefactor of the hipster insurgence.
I grew up the way most nerdy kids in the late ’90s did; rejected and bullied by the jocks and “preps” in Gap knit sweater vests and Backstreet Boys frosted tips. I was pushed into lockers, doused with milkshakes in the Wendy’s parking lot and publicly shamed for being what I was — fat, weird and seemingly incapable of having a decent haircut. At the time, it seemed like that was just the way of the world. Some guys were born to tap ass, and some guys were born to tap mana. (If you don’t get that joke, you’re one of the lucky ones and your frosted tips were the fucking bomb.) Those of us who fell into the latter category sought refuge in comic stores and fantasy worlds — places where we felt we belonged. We played Magic and Warhammer and D&D. We made medieval costumes and beat the shit out of each other with PVC pipe “swords” in public parks. We created worlds, fucked up, forged lifelong friendships and figured ourselves out.
Then I grew up. I traded my mint-in-box Star Wars action figures for some decent Target chic that fits OK from certain angles. I developed passable social skills and even touched a boob once. But a lot of my fellow backroom mana-tappers never did. They’re Bitter Old Guard geeks, the kind that tucks in their Polo shirts and doesn’t like the taste of beer.
The con is already in full swing. A thousand people are crowded around countless rows of tables, each one scattered with bits and pieces, cards and dice, complex economies and epic battlefields in rainbow wood and plastic. Pennant flags on table edges here and there look like buoys in the vast sea of faces — “PLAYERS NEEDED” and “TEACHERS WANTED.” A twentysomething dude in a faux-leather duster coat hoists one pennant high above his head as he wanders the rows of tables in search of his fellow marooned. It comes off a little desperate, but it’s a pleasant reminder that most of the people here are brave enough to talk to strangers and make new friends.
If you’ve never been to a convention like this before, it’s easy to imagine it as a writhing swarm of pink-faced, bespectacled dweebs bathing in the otherworldly foulness of their own combined stench — a Waffle House toilet-come-grave for sickly ferrets, buttcrack for miles roaming the folding chairs unbridled and free.
But things have changed. Forget the stereotypes and preconceptions.
Well, I mean, maybe not entirely, The Bitter Old Guard geek still has a place at the table, rolling his beady eyes and smooshing his lips into that unmistakable grimace/grin that always precedes a greasy interjection of “Well, act-ually…” Turns out, The Simpsons‘ Comic Book Guy is a real person and he thinks you’re a fucking poseur. But his reign is in sharp decline, the schism is widening and the diversity of the BGG.Con crowd is expanding every year. Even the once-ubiquitous “Geek Stink” has very-nearly become a thing of the past, thanks in no small part to a hilarious (and unfortunately very real) campaign advising attendees to shower daily and bring more than one t-shirt.
No, the Bitter Old Guard hasn’t changed a bit since the comic store backroom days of our youth, and they lament the “hipster” interlopers who’ve invaded “their” hobby. I guess they don’t recognize us from the comic store. Must be our righteous new haircuts. But if there’s something you’ve loved your whole life as passionately as we all love this goofy hobby of ours, shouldn’t you be happy that people are finally starting to appreciate it?
Sorry, not sorry.
The Hipster Insurgence.
A cursory glance around the ballroom is a refreshing reminder of the Stinkers’ decline. There are girls and women at nearly every table. People of color, though still underrepresented, have increased in attendance. We see plenty of hipsters (nerds who pass for normal people) and hipsters (actual hipsters). We see a strange abundance of people with badly-dyed blue hair and strap-on animal tails. We see scrawny guys in khaki kilts and Hawaiian shirts, jolly fellows with decorative canes and Indiana Jones hats and balding patterns that don’t typically occur in nature.
But, mostly, we just see people. Normal, weird, cool and dorky. Young and old, extra-small and triple-XL. Everywhere we look, there are thousands of people playing games — teaching and supporting each other, connecting without screens.
The sense of community is overwhelming and wholly genuine.
• The BGG.Con Game Library is insane. They have what feels like every board game ever made and they’re all available for attendees to borrow. With so many amazing options, we obviously chose the one where you stack toy animals on top of each other until they fall down. It was really hard and I’m pretty sure nobody won.
• The Exhibitor Hall had so many vendors sign-up this year that they had to expand it into a second showroom. This is where the major publishers and indie upstarts sit side-by-side, hawking their wares and demoing their games. It’s a great place to be if you’ve got some money to burn, so definitely check it out if you’re not a writer.
• Amateur designers can showcase their prototype games in the Publisher Speed Dating event, in which they’re given six minutes to pitch their game to a publishing rep. When the time’s up, they move to the next designer’s table. Some publisher dropped out at the last minute, so one of the organizers asked us to fill-in, weirdly. We were tipsy enough to think that was a good idea, so we jumped into the rotation and listened to the pitches. The designers were incredibly passionate and clearly put a lot of work into their games. It’s unfortunate that we were total shams and couldn’t actually make their dreams come true, but I sincerely hope that our gush of encouragement helped, if only a little. Anyone who has the drive and the balls to put this much love into something deserves a supportive high five, even if it’s just from a couple of drunken phonies like us.
• Deep Ellum IPA is the only beer they sold at the bar this year, which makes me wonder where they hid the Miller rep’s body.
• Rich Sommer from Mad Men was roaming around, playing games and hanging out. When not hosting a regular podcast about gaming, you can catch him guest starring in the Denton-based web comedy, Board With Life, the second season of which kicks off in February. Sommer’s sort of the unofficial celebrity spokesman of this hobby, which means he gets to spend 45 minutes reading off raffle ticket numbers during the closing ceremony while nerds google who he is. Eat your heart out, Vin Diesel.
• It’s an annual BGG.Con tradition for a bunch of lunatics dressed as Luchadors to participate in a tournament of the ’70s game Battling Tops. The game involves players pulling a ripcord on plastic spinning tops that crash into each other in a funnel thing and then bouncing out at high velocity to gouge out your stupid ’70s kid eyeballs. Thankfully, they roped off the battle zone to prevent collateral damage. Here’s a video from the 2013 event. This year, we rooted for the Cardinal Fellow. We have no evidence to support this but we’re fairly certain he’s hosting the world’s most uncomfortable sex party in his hotel room tonight. I doubt my Central Track press pass is enough to gain us access, but if you’re reading this, Cardinal Fellow, we’ll be at the con again next year and we’re very open-minded.
We don’t mind talking to strangers. Forget the stereotypes and preconceptions. Make some new friends. Turn off your phone for a little while, create some worlds and fuck it up. You might just find your new guilty pleasure.
No, the Analog Revolution may not be changing the world. But it’s definitely one of those rare things that makes the world a pretty decent place to not be dead.