Washington is a city that likes giving instructions. And it likes following them. There was plenty of giving and following Saturday at WashingCon, a board-game convention attended by more than a thousand aficionados at the Georgetown University Hotel and Conference Center.
Players sat at long tables in the vast ballroom — in clusters of two and three and six and eight — strategizing over moves, collecting cards, paying ransoms, trading powers and explaining the rules.
Like so many other instructions overheard in Washington, the directions often sounded bewildering:
“One thing you never want to do is have your character in the middle of the ball launch.”
“If you get past the dragon lady, then the ceiling explodes.”
“Move twice, then grab. Move once, then shoot.”
“If that happens, you are immediately rejuvenated and gain one life or two pies.”
“Does that make sense?”
It didn’t always make sense, but it didn’t matter. The two-day convention — it continues Sunday — is a chance for fans to try new games, revisit classics, meet up with old friends and share a passion for screenless fun.
Games played without a joystick might seem like an endangered species, but in fact they’ve enjoyed a resurgence in recent years. Kathleen Donahue, the owner of Labyrinth Games and Puzzles, a Capitol Hill store that is one of the convention’s sponsors, says that her business has grown exponentially since opening eight years ago. She expanded the business to two floors, has 16 employees, hosts 700 board game events a year and has after-school game programs at 15 schools in the District.
The WashingCon conference, too, has flourished. It was first held four years ago as a one-day event at a church in Southwest Washington and drew 250 visitors. This year, attendance has quadrupled, and organizers have already started thinking about next year’s event.
Nintendo isn’t quaking in its digital shoes — electronic game sales dwarf those of board games — but fans are fueling a renewed interest in games that require moving pieces by hand, rolling dies and, that rarest of social interactions, talking face to face.
“Board games are just a fun way to get together with friends and they allow for a fluidity of conversation that doesn’t happen when you’re watching a movie or television,” said Eddie Gienger, a 31-year-old scientist who lives in the District. “I don’t want more screen time in my life. I have enough of that.”
Gienger attended the conference with his friends Eric Joerdens, 28, and Meriam Sassi, 28. They are part of a group that meets up regularly to play board games. Gienger grew up playing games such as Life and Phase 10 but prefers the wide assortment of new titles that populate modern game culture.
“These new games are so much . . . better,” he said.
Monopoly may once have controlled the board game market, but the 500 to 600 offerings at WashingCon reveal a wide range of styles and levels of sophistication. And also some amazing titles: Blurble, Dude, Evolution Climate, DreadBall, Forbidden Desert, Terraforming Mars, Rhino Hero, New York Slice. That last one’s a pizza game. Yes, a game about pizza.
Standing in the game library with her 10-year-old daughter, Ella, Laura Higday of Chevy Chase, Md., said she planned to check out One Deck Dungeon, a board game where all the heroes are female.
“It never hurts to have girl power in a game when you’re playing with two daughters,” said Higday, whose husband, Paul, and daughter Liz were also at the convention.
Across the room, a dozen players sat playing Codenames, a captivating game where spymasters guide teams, supply hints and guess at code words to find a culprit. The word “lodestar” was not the code word.
While most attendees were busy playing games, some were marketing the games they created. Andrew Park, 31, explained a political game he co-created with Nick Reddick, “The Partisans: An Extra Politics/Extra Credits Game.” The game forces players to grapple not only with issues but also with all of the forces and constituencies that elected leaders have to deal with to pass legislation.
“People think that politicians are just bad people, but we think it’s more about how the system is set up,” Park said. “This game makes you think about if the system in place is what makes it tough to get good results.”
Stone Simpson wasn’t playing any board games at the convention. He likes some, but mostly he’s a cuber. The 11-year-old, who lives near the Navy Yard, got his first Rubik’s Cube nine months ago and was offering others at the conference tips on how to solve them. He can solve the basic cube in an average of 16 seconds.
“It’s stimulating to do it, but it’s also a fun talent to have,” he said. “It puts people in awe. You can just amaze them.”
A Washington Post reporter, whose best time solving a Rubik’s Cube is measured in days, was indeed amazed. And a tad bitter.