September 6, 2018 at 11:00 AM
Somewhere, about the time you’re reading this, Kathleen Donahue, owner of Labyrinth Games and Puzzles on Capitol Hill, will be corralling a team of volunteers to transport several truckloads of her wares across town, to the Georgetown University Hotel and Conference Center.
It’s delicate cargo: Over 500 board games will be in those trucks, marked by the sound of hundreds of dice rattling in their boxes as the volunteers make their way to Georgetown. Once there, they’ll unload the games by the armful onto a collection of Ikea shelving that Matt Grosso stores in his basement just for this occasion: The Kallax model is commonly regarded by board-game hobbyists as the optimal storage for games.
All this effort (and a lot more behind the scenes) is to prepare for the city’s board-game convention, WashingCon, on Saturday and Sunday. Now in its fourth year, the event brings together 1,000-plus attendees for a weekend festival of “tabletop” games, a blanket term for board games like Settlers of Catan, role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, card games like Magic: The Gathering, and plenty more variations on the medium — basically anything where the players aren’t tied to a screen or battery-powered device to take part.
For that screenless reason, many observers conclude, board games are having a moment. Sales figures are growing, and every day, more and more people join the hobby, drawn by an ever-expanding medley of games that tackle subjects ranging from hunting dragons in a fantasy realm to managing a presidential campaign in this one.
“When I first opened Labyrinth eight years ago — and I think this is still true today — I saw that people were craving more human contact,” Donahue says. “We live in a society where we have hundreds of friends on Facebook, but we don’t spend as much time with other humans. Gaming gives you a framework to interact with people in a fun, social way.”
People across the country descend on stores like Labyrinth for weekly gaming nights, or buy passes to conventions like WashingCon and its bigger brother, Gen Con, the yearly Indianapolis game convention that draws more than 60,000 people.
The popularity of conventions in other cities, like Gen Con, was what sparked Grosso, WashingCon’s director, to start a festival here.
“There really wasn’t one in the area of the scale we thought it should be,” Grosso says, who also moonlights as a designer of his own board games. “I’m a D.C. native, and the conventions we want to go to are usually out in the suburbs. That’s too far for me. It’s important to us that we keep it in the city.”
When Grosso and his friend Ben Rosset approached Donahue in 2015 about getting help from her (and her extensive game library) for the convention, she was skeptical they could make it work. She said as much to Grosso and Rosset, but they weren’t dissuaded. A week later, they came back to say they’d found a venue: Westminster Presbyterian Church in Southwest D.C. Donahue got onboard.
That first year, WashingCon had space for about 250 people. The event sold out almost immediately, Grosso says: “We underestimated the appeal.”
So they went bigger the next year, finding a large and cooperative venue with Georgetown, where one of the staffers was, fortuitously, a board-game fan. That solved another problem Donahue encountered when trying to book venues in the past: No one knew what to expect from a tabletop convention. “I think they thought [attendees would be] weird video-game teenagers that would destroy the hotel,” she says. “A lot of places wouldn’t call us back.”
Since then, WashingCon has grown in attendance and variety of activities. The library is open for anyone to check out something that looks interesting, with volunteers on hand to teach rules to beginners. A gamer might sit down to play with friends, but it’s also typical to just ask random passersby if they’d like to join.
“It’s an easy icebreaker,” says Dave Chalker, a local board-game designer who’s attended all three WashingCons. “You get to meet people throughout the course of the game, and you might even stay together as a group to play a new game together. That side of it is just so casual and welcoming.”
The convention also hosts panel discussions on subjects like inclusivity and diversity in gaming, as well as how to make a living as a designer. (That one’s hosted by Chalker.) There are tournaments for popular games like Pandemic, Codenames and Settlers of Catan.
Even if you don’t consider yourself a board-gamer, you may have heard of — or even played — Catan. The gateway game for many hobbyists, it’s considered the vanguard of the European-style board games that made their way across the Atlantic over the past decade or so, supplanting the likes of Sorry! and Chutes & Ladders. Commonly referred to as “Eurogames,” they’re defined by strategy and thoughtful mechanics, unlike the random dice rolls and potentially lopsided gameplay familiar to anyone who’s sat through a never-ending grind of Monopoly.
“Tabletop gaming as a hobby for adults just wasn’t a thing in the U.S.,” Grosso says. “But that’s been a reality in Europe for years.” Today, many popular board games mimic that gameplay and presentation. Players might follow their favorite designers, who often stamp their name on the box, like the author of a book.
The Internet helped feed the craze, allowing people to find partners to play with or discover new titles. “The cumulative effect is, as people get more interested in games, more games get made and commissioned by these publishers,” Chalker says. “There’s a certain amount of money in it at some point.”
And money there is. Board-game sales have increased from $100 million in 2013 to $305 million in 2016, according to trade-news site ICv2. There’s a popular annual award ceremony, Germany’s Spiel des Jahres, for the year’s best game (this year’s winner, a pattern-placement game called Azul, will be on WashingCon’s library shelf). You don’t have to look hard for a news site or commentator calling the present “the golden age of board games.”
That might be especially true in Washington. In addition to supporting a large, diverse gaming community, Donahue says, there’s something about the capital that makes an event like WashingCon possible.
“I think a lot of it is, we have really nerdy, educated people in D.C.,” she says. “And games make your brain work in a fun, interesting way. So, people in D.C. really like games.”
If you go
Georgetown University Hotel and Conference Center, 3800 Reservoir Rd. NW. washingcon.com.
Dates: Saturday and Sunday.
Prices: Adults, $37.50 for Sunday; $65 for full weekend. Age 12 and under, $15 for Sunday; $25 for full weekend.