Do Not Pass Go, Do Not Collect $200 ... Instead, Collect Ore

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Remember playing Monopoly and Scrabble around the dinner table? Arguing with your siblings about who gets to be the car or the Scottish Terrier? Or whether Z-A-Q could ever be a real word? Well those days are coming back -- with just one variation: The arguments are getting weird. Did you feed your monster properly? Can you trust her to save the world with you? And what’s the best way to ensure your family doesn't have to go begging -- selling bread or planting beans?

Welcome to the revamped world of board games.

At Spielbound in Omaha, Neb. -- a newly opened coffee shop and board game library with what’s believed to be the largest collection of board games in the country — the Short family recently played Takenoko, a Japanese board game.

"We are trying to please the emperor by taking care of his panda and growing a most excellent garden that feeds his panda," Justin Short explained.

Spielbound serves beer and specialty coffees. (Robyn Murray/OAG)
Spielbound serves beer and specialty coffees. (Robyn Murray/OAG)

There’s a comfortable feeling about Spielbound. The tables are wooden and the booths leather. There are no television screens, just a cozy bar that serves beer and coffees with names like "Taste of Sweet Victory" and "Dice Delight." Downstairs, four foot shelves are stocked with board games. Each box is a little work of art, with titles like "Arkham Horror" and "The Road to Canterbury," with pictures of ships, dragons and submarines.

The Shorts come here a lot on their monthly family pass. Short has a collection of 200 board games at home. But that’s nothing compared to the 1,200 available at Spielbound, at least according to the Shorts’ children:

"It's just fun to play as a family whenever we get down here," Isabelle said.

"I like pretending to be something else and do something else," Sabrina said.

"I like beating people," Cameron said, laughing.

Cameron is 10, and his sisters are 13 and 14, respectively, which partially explains their interest in board games. But what about Dad?

"I’m Dad age," Short said, laughing.

“Dad age” is pretty typical for board game fans in that fan ages are across the board, so to speak.

Broad Appeal

A volunteer at Spielbound explains the rules of Takenoko, an obscure Japanese board game, to the Short family. (Robyn Murray/OAG)
A volunteer at Spielbound explains the rules of Takenoko, an obscure Japanese board game, to the Short family. (Robyn Murray/OAG)

Board games sales are growing at a clip — 15 to 20 percent a year according to industry trackers. Some of that is being driven by Millenials — 20-to-30-year-olds looking to unplug from their devices. But grandparents and kids — people of all ages — are seeking these games out. Last year, the specialized board game industry — that’s not counting the Monopolies and the Scrabbles — brought in $700 million.

"So $700 million is still a far cry from the video game world, but it's definitely grown over the years," said Eric Martin, news editor of Board Game Geek -- an online forum that draws 2.5 million users each month from all over the world.

Martin said board games are growing the same way many other industries are — specialized and niche with small-batch runs, like craft brews are to beer.

"Now there are hundreds of other channels for everyone who has specialized interests," he said. "Or the same thing for music or books, almost everything, right? You think back to — you’d go to the store, and here's the mustard you're going to buy. Now there’s 30 or 40 different mustards — everyone gets to sample their own tastes and discover their own, what works best for them."

Hundreds of new board games come out each year — from Europe, Japan, and increasingly, the U.S. Some of the most popular make it to big box stores like Walmart and Target. Settlers of Catan, a German agriculture-based game came out in 1996. It’s grown in popularity ever since and spurred a host of expansions and similar, strategic games. Another popular one is Pandemic, a cooperative game where you have to stop the spread of diseases and save the world. Some games have corresponding apps. But Martin said those still translate to cardboard sales because people are seeking out the human connection.

"You get to challenge people, you get to stare at them," Martin said. "Do you have the character that you say you have? Can you actually take that action? Can I trust you? Are you the hidden traitor in this game? This is really where you get to figure out the people that you're playing with. And that appeal is staring at them and trying to figure out whether you can trust them or not. "

A European Phenomenon Comes To The U.S.

Kaleb Michaud is the founder of Spielbound and an avid board game collector. He has approximately 2,800 games to his name, and he's played about a third of them. (Robyn Murray/OAG)
Kaleb Michaud is the founder of Spielbound and an avid board game collector. He has approximately 2,800 games to his name and he's played about a third of them. (Robyn Murray/OAG)

Kaleb Michaud is the founder of Spielbound, which operates a little differently than most board game cafés — a phenomenon that’s common in Europe and becoming more so in the U.S. Spielbound is a non-profit, library-style café. Michaud simply wanted to share his games. And that’s not even his complete collection. He has 1,600 more at home.

"I remodeled my basement so they would fit there," he laughingly admitted.

Michaud said when he realized how much board games have changed since the classics of his childhood, he was hooked.

"Over here is one of my favorite games of all time: it's called Agricola," he said. "When people ask me, 'Well what does that mean?' It means — it's Latin for farming. And it's all about farming. It's always hard to make it sound exciting, but there's a bit of tension with it -- in order to feed your family on time so they don't have to go begging."

Michaud said the popularity of board games is partly a reaction to staring at a screen all day. But it’s also the quality of the games, he said, and the ability to find the perfect one for you. Even if it’s a game that requires you to nurture and care for a pet monster.

"The purpose of the game is to create — you buy your monsters and you nurture them until they’re the most fiendish monsters it can be," said C.J. Percosky while playing Dungeon Petz with a group of friends. He was enjoying it — although it does sound like a lot of work.

"Our problem is we need to make sure we have cages for them," Percosky said. "So we feed them, clean up their poop, the standards of keeping up with any pet that you have."

Why? Because if your monster is cared for, it’s worth more. And at Spielbound, pet monsters are perfectly normal.

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This segment aired on November 29, 2014.


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