For Fresno gamers, fun is found in a deck of cards or tabletop war

The Fresno BeeMay 5, 2014 

Forget golf. Never mind video games. Another kind of game scene is thriving in Fresno. It includes everything from board games and collectable card games to role-playing and tabletop war games with armies of miniature evil space elves.

Most nights in Fresno, a group of people -- usually men -- can be found at a game store or in a home playing one of these games and socializing. Gaming , it seems, is a new social outlet -- a modern version of meeting buddies for a round of golf or getting together for a drink at a bar.

Gamers and organized game nights are driving growth at Valley stores, with one doubling in size and two more opening since last summer.

Sales of tabletop games sold through hobby game stores have been growing for five years, said Milton Griepp, president of ICv2, an information service for "geek culture" businesses.

The trend appears to be an evolution of video gaming, which are usually played in isolation, perhaps while chatting via a microphone with another player. But sales of video games are slipping as people turn to more social games, Griepp said. It's a trend that started among tech workers but extends to the general public as well.

"There's been a real explosion of interest in social gaming, in interacting across the table," he said. "They spend all day staring at screens. Going home and staring at a screen is not neccesarily what they want to do."

That's led to groups of people gaming together -- and it's a lot different than the old stereotype of geeks squirreled away in a dark basement playing Dungeons & Dragons.

HobbyTown USA on Barstow Avenue in Fresno, for example, hosts a Friday night game night that routinely draws 30 to 40 people -- sometimes as many as 90. From 6 p.m. til midnight -- long past the store's closing time -- they play all sorts of games, says Derrick Dorman, a Hobbytown supervisor.

"It's being social as normal human beings are, but what's tying them together is playing a game on top of it," he said.

The event started much more informally about 11 years ago, when Dorman started staying after closing time with less than a dozen people to play Warhammer, a game that uses strategy and miniature figurines that players paint.

Today, the game night is open to the public.

When gamers sit around the table together, they chat about the new burrito joint they found or their vacation plans, he says. Sometimes strangers who come to game nights become friends. Dorman has several friends he now goes to the gym with or otherwise sees outside of game nights. Others play games at friends' houses -- sometimes for six hours at a time -- with games morphing into barbecues and other activities.

"Magic: The Gathering" is one of the most popular games, with game stores around the globe hosting "Friday Night Magic" events weekly. Players collect cards used in the game. Some buy cards -- $3 or $4 for a pack of 15 -- several times a week. New releases of cards that guide how the game is played keep people coming back.

Morgan's Pair-a-Dice in Reedley gets good turnout for its Friday Magic events and hosts Warhammer tournaments on Sundays. The store opened at 1151 G St. in Reedley last summer.

Customers are welcome to come in and play at the store any time it's open. The store has a selection of games to use.

"As long as there's room, you can play whatever you want here," says co-owner David Chesterton.

Crazy Squirrel, a game store on Bullard Avenue near Fresno Street, attracts between 60-80 people -- most of them men in their late teens to early 20s -- every Friday night for its Magic events.

The store opened in 2010 and devoted half its 2,000 square feet to tables for gaming.

"We just had people sardined into seats," said owner Jennifer Ward.

In late January, the store unveiled its expansion, which doubled the size of both the playing space and the store.

The store also hosts board game nights every Thursday that attract a broader mix of ages and gender. Players bring their own games, or choose from a library the store has available. First time playing is free. After that, it costs $5, though players can uses passes they get when buying games or bring in five canned goods to donate.

Kenneth Lee, 31, of Fresno, and three friends had a stack of games at their table on a recent board game night. Lee says he used to play a lot of video games at home, but when he discovered board games and game nights, he started coming out a lot more.

"There's a really large community" of people who play board games, he says.

And they're not playing Monopoly or Candy Land. Today's board games involve less luck and much more strategy. A resurgence of board games started in 1995 with the game Settlers of Catan, in which players build settlements, cities and roads. That game, and Ticket To Ride, where players build railroads across various countries, have released multiple editions and spin-offs over the years.

Board games are a $312 million industry, with the broader category of games and puzzles growing 3% to $1.9 billion in 2013, according to The NPD Group research.

Board game nights tend to be the most diverse among the planned game nights, attracting more women and a broader range in ages than other nights. But, says Lee, "It is mostly men, although I did meet my fiancée here at the store."

The evolution of geeks plays a role in the popularity of gaming, too.

It's cool -- or at least cooler than it used to be -- to be a geek these days. Shows such as "The Big Bang Theory" celebrate the nerdiness of its physicist roommates and often open the show with the characters playing a game.

And Wil Wheaton, who most people know as Wesley Crusher on "Star Trek: The Next Generation," is also the co-creater of the online show "Tabletop." The show is on the YouTube channel "Geek & Sundry." Wheaton lightheartedly walks viewers through board games with other TV personalities and people in the gaming world.

Many customers at Games Workshop are in their 30s through their 50s. The store opened in March, selling niche products for three tabletop miniature war games: Warhammer, the newer Warhammer 40,000 and The Hobbit.

Warhammer has been around since 1983, and since it is an expensive game to play -- a box of 10 armed dwarves costs $50 -- it tends to attract an older crowd with more money to spend, says store manager Jeff Behrens.

At Crazy Squirrel's game night, there's a table of six men over the age of 40 playing a board game. One of them, Ed Forbes, 52, of Fresno, is heavy into World War II-themed games such as Flames of War that use miniature tanks and soldiers. He travels to tournaments around the country, where he says he competes with lawyers and judges.

"It's equivalent to poker games without the money involved," he said. "I like to see somebody across the table instead of staring at a computer screen.

And sometimes an unexpected crowd is attracted to a certain game, such as the men and women in their 20s through 40s playing My Little Pony card games. The game is based on the My Little Pony cartoon released four years ago -- not the 1980s one. The show is geared toward little girls, but has a surprising number of fans who are older and appreciate the layers of humor that younger viewers don't understand.

Males fans of the show and the game are called "Bronies" and female fans are called "Pegasisters."

"The player base is super polite," Ward says.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6431, bclough@fresnobee.com or @BethanyClough on Twitter.

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