Space marines in the 41st millennium struggle through battles in a state of continuous war, a spell-casting nun tries to keep her sanity as she saves the world from cosmic horrors, a giant panda outwits the Kraken to become the king of Tokyo.
Board games have come a long way from Monopoly and are part of a nearly $1 billion industry that is well-represented in Tucson, where seven dedicated hobby gaming shops try to coexist.
The hobby gaming market — which includes collectible cards, board games and miniatures, dice and role-playing games — grew nationwide about 20 percent in 2014, the sixth consecutive year of growth, according to market researcher ICv2.
The market in the U.S. and Canada is now more than twice as large as it was in 2008. Board-game sales alone grew from $100 million in 2013 to $125 million in 2014 on the strength of increased awareness and variety of products.
An average board game can cost about $40, but aficionados can spend thousands of dollars in collectible card games or miniatures.
“The last 10 years has seen an insane development in board gaming. It went from being Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley to other legitimate offerings that are broad spectrum,” said Mike Camp, owner of Heroes and Villains. “Lots of cool things are happening.”
A longtime comic book retailer, Heroes and Villains opened a dedicated hobby game store two years ago, next door to their location on Broadway. Since then, Isle of Games and Tucson Games and Gadgets have opened along the thoroughfare.
They joined Amazing Discoveries, also on Broadway, Hat’s Games on 29th Street, A2Z Games on Ina Road and Games Workshop in Oro Valley.
The relationship between the stores is generally friendly, owners said, but even though the market is growing, they are all still more or less selling the same product and have to try to differentiate themselves.
“The variety of stores all have an area that they tend to focus on, so there’s not that much overlap,” said Ben Penner at Isle of Games. “One store does minis, another does cards, we do board games.”
Any time a store decides to branch out into another shop’s territory, most try to do it openly and take their competitor into consideration, owners said.
When A2Z Games wanted to start offering the superhero miniatures game Heroclix, it reached out to Heroes and Villains, which already had an established community and popular game nights.
“We were a little bit nervous about it; we’re going to be bringing this game and more or less stepping on somebody’s toes,” said co-owner Matthew Kovacs. “What we want is to give players the most opportunities to play a week. If that means we don’t get the best night of the week, that’s fine.”
When conflicts do crop up, you just have to learn to adapt and pick your battles, owners said.
“Our focus is growing a good gaming community as a whole, rather than fighting over the gamers that are already out there,” said Drew Kallen at Isle of Games. “The game industry is big enough for everyone if everybody plays nice.”
Although no one can agree on a single reason why hobby games have exploded in popularity in the United States, many people agree it starts around the time Settlers of Catan crossed the Atlantic.
Catan, a resource management game published in Germany in 1995, still regularly tops the list of biggest-selling board games in North America.
“Europeans sit around and play board games rather than watch TV, so for years they’ve had gaming as a part of their lives,” said Seth Jaffee, a game designer and head of the Southern Arizona Gamers Association.
With Catan’s success, more and more of these European games were released and soon U.S. publishers took notice.
“Compared to Risk and Sorry and Monopoly, the games you can think of from childhood, the European games are a lot more about player choice, more interesting in a lot of ways, more engaging,” Jaffee said. “I think people are finding out more and more how much better and sophisticated games are nowadays.”
Crowdfunding platforms and the ability for designers to get their games published independently has also helped the hobby grow, Jaffee said, along with what he calls “ambassadors for the hobby” pushing gaming into the mainstream.
“There are three seasons already of a show called ‘Tabletop’ with actor Wil Wheaton, where he explains a game and celebrity guests play it,” he said.
“Popular website The Oatmeal created a card game through Kickstarter. Not only did they raise millions of dollars, they made a big splash and made a lot more people aware of games.”
For Heroes and Villains’ Camp, the increased popularity of board games is part of newer generations growing up with videogames as a fact of life and wanting to share that experience socially.
“The memorable nights aren’t really the wins and losses; they’re the spirit that’s generated out of this central thing that brought everybody together,” he said. “That’s the magic in games. That’s the thing tabletop has done so well, and that’s why we’re seeing this.”
Store owners and experts are optimistic the industry will continue to grow, they said, because the best advertising you can get for a board game is for somebody to play it.
All Tucson stores host nightly game nights, have ample space for people to just drop by and try out a game and reach out to the community through special events.
“The more people play good games, the more the good games will sell,” Jaffee said. “Unless something fundamentally changes and everyone stops liking fun.”
Ironically, as the popularity of tabletop games increases, so does the threat to local game shops.
“In general, Tucson’s gaming community is growing, but it’s becoming more fragmented and niche,” said Dave Hat, owner of Hat’s Games. “Yes, I have more customers than I ever used to have, and yes my orders match that, however it doesn’t have enough teeth to make me feel safe.”
But while Tucson store owners may have occasional differences among themselves and be wary of more shops opening up, they all agree on their common enemy.
“The other local stores aren’t after you. We’re not going to put their business above ours but there’s no reason to be cutthroat,” said A2Z Games’ Kovacs. “But the big box stores don’t care. They’re going to order the product, sell it and that’s it.”
Sales of tabletop games at stores such as Walmart, Target and Toys R Us are a real threat, owners said.
“Having more shops in town just means a bigger audience,” Camp said. “Having Walmart get involved could just bury us. You have to pay attention to the big guys and try to be where they’re not.”
Camp cited his own experience selling comic-book character T-shirts in his shop. Once superhero movies became mainstream, larger retailers took over the market and he couldn’t compete.
The potential benefit of exposing a broader audience to these games, and hopefully getting more business once players want to delve beyond the limited offerings at large retailers, is negated by the nature of the sale, owners said.
“You get a kiddie pool at Walmart, you throw it on the ground, put some water in it, you’re good to go — there’s a picture on the box,” Hat said. “There’s no way you can figure out a collectible card game from a picture on the box.”
That’s why the stores in town exist, he said: You need that community, that knowledgeable person behind the counter ready to help you get the most out of your experience.
“If you want something a little more complicated than a pair of dice and moving a thing around the board it can get a lot more interesting, but it requires a lot more investment,” Hat said.
“You want to make sure those investments are worth it, and you can’t do that unless you have a place to do it.”