A mystic, a spirit merchant and a reality sculptor walk into a bar…
Okay, it’s not a bar; it’s a brew shop. Also, those magic-wielding beings didn’t exactly walk in; they were walked in. And of course, those beings aren’t real; they’re characters in a board game, printed onto fancy illustrated playing cards.
The brew shop is Luck & Levity in downtown New Haven, the walker is a member of the New Haven County Board Games Meetup and the game is called Ascension: Rise of Vigil. It’s a fantasy “deck-building” game—where players try to collect and manage a competitive hand of cards from a shared pool—that involves, among many things, slaying monsters to collect the treasures they guard.
Four players are slaying those monsters in the middle of Luck & Levity during the meetup group’s latest tentpole event. 20 feet away, a different foursome is playing Trajan, a “development” game where players act like ambitious nobles, amassing power and influence through construction activity, commerce, military expansion and political meddling in ancient Rome. At the other end of the room, four more meetup attendees are playing Carcassonne, a “tile-placement” game set in the south of France where players build the board as they go, one randomly selected tile at a time. Back towards the middle, another group is playing To Court the King, a dice-based game in which players attempt to win the favor of a fictitious monarch by first gaining influence over various members of his court.
“Hobby games” like these—intended more for board gaming enthusiasts than for casual gamers—have risen in popularity in recent years as younger generations feel increasingly comfortable embracing their geek streaks. Joe Tyman, a particularly devoted member of the meetup, embraces his in spades. “I’m a super-nerd. I’m 28 years old and I still play with toys,” he says without a shred of regret. As a high schooler, in addition to playing Dungeons & Dragons and computer games, “I was really into anime,” and it was at a convention celebrating the now-ubiquitous Japanese animation style that he first encountered board games “that weren’t Monopoly or Scrabble. I got really into it.”
The meetup’s organizer Matt Loter—tanned and tatted, tank-topped and talkative—doesn’t seem to fit the board gamer stereotype. But it’s in his blood. “I grew up in a nerd family. My uncle was a grad student at MIT in the 70s, so he was at that forefront of nerdery. We always joke that he messed up by pursuing D&D instead of computers,” spending his time “building dungeons instead of laying the groundwork for being a crazy millionaire.” Still, his uncle’s choice paid some dividends, helping foster a family of happy gamers. “As long as I can remember there were always games in the house,” Loter says. He fondly remembers achieving a familial rite of passage: “It was a big deal when I got to join the family D&D game in 1986,” when he was about five years old.
You won’t find much Dungeons & Dragons—technically not a board game anyway—being played at the meetups the New Haven group organizes. There’s not enough time or regularity: even the longest meetup sessions rarely last more than four or five hours, with people coming and going as they please, and there might only be a few meetups per month, which are organized in a relaxed fashion and usually draw a different mix of gamers each time. D&D, on the other hand, requires unwavering commitment by the same group of people over a long period of time.
That’s not this meetup’s speed. It’s more about trying new games and meeting new people, especially for those who tend to feel a little out of place in other situations. A board game “facilitates social interaction,” Loter observes. It “allows you to have a shared interest and an easy first conversation,” he continues, pointing out that “it’s okay to not have something to say” at all times, since that’s a natural way to be when you’re thinking about what to do on your next turn.
As a relatively new and socially anxious New Havener, Tyman can attest to that. “When I moved here, I had no friends. Then I started going to board gaming meetups.”
New Haven County Board Games Meetup
meeting at various times and locations around New Haven
Written and photographed by Dan Mims.