Tabletop champions like Dice Tower Con and the Cloak & Blaster have put Orlando on the board

All fun and games

Tabletop champions like Dice Tower Con and the Cloak & Blaster have put Orlando on the board

I. Players begin by drafting their special talent cards.

"You probably don't want to do that," Kathleen Mercury says. "Think about the odds of your dice roll here."

It's 11:30 p.m. in the Caribe Royale Resort's Grand Sierra ballroom, and I am losing terribly.

"Yeah, you're probably better betting on black or red and at least splitting with the two of us," Morgan Dontanville says. I'm quickly learning the board gaming community is nothing if not accommodating.

More than a thousand board gamers pack the public gaming hall tonight at Dice Tower Con, the largest free-play gaming convention in the Southeast. They're playing the most bleeding-edge games in the industry, and here I am, hacking up this Bavarian relic. The game is Millionenspiel, a rare press-your-luck game from the early '80s. Each turn, a player rolls two dice, which moves a single game piece around a multicolored wheel. Players bet chips and large bills on where the game piece will land. The player that guesses the correct colored space collects the wagered chips and bills.

Mercury has on a rhinestone tiara and her emerald-green "gaming dress," so I've bet the house on green, plunking down eight serrated yellow chips at the center of the game board.

Mercury teaches gifted middle-school classes and gets her geek on as a traveling gaming convention exhibitor. Dontanville serves as chief creative officer at Catan Studios, a company that oversees the publishing and marketing of one of geekdom's most ubiquitous exports: the Settlers of Catan board game series. The two have brought Catan Studio's whole catalog – Catan, Catan Junior, Catan Traveler – to the country's most starry gaming conventions for years. After just two days of demoing the Catan brands for Dice Tower attendees, Orlando has joined their annual travel circuit.

"Dice Tower is too big to ignore," Dontanville says. "It's only a few years old and already 2,500 or 3,000 strong, and it's going to keep growing."

Mercury cups the dice, shakes, rolls, adjusts her studded crown, clops the pawn – space by colored space – onto black, and bankrupts me. I fork over my chips, which Mercury adds to her war chest.

II. Players roll at least five dice every turn to collect "mana."

Last year, Dice Tower Con – named after the tall cups that board gamers use to roll fistfuls of dice – shared this same convention floor with a beauty pageant and, on the last day, a gaggle of Catholic nuns. Thirty-five vendors, numerous exhibitors and retailers, and the convention's mountainous game library will fill every one of the Royale's convention halls and suites this year. Ice Cool asks players to flick weighted plastic penguins down the doors and hallways of their frozen high school for points. Players become galactic defenders by flipping space ships at a looming alien fleet in Flipship. You roll dice, Yahtzee-style, in a gladiatorial monster brawl to become the King of Tokyo.

I'm following Heather Mann, Dice Tower Con's associate director, as she walks her pre-convention beat. She double-fists a thin leather planner and her iPhone. By Friday she'll have graduated to a tablet, a phalanx of convention aides behind her toting bagged lunches and whatever else her vendors and exhibitors need to keep the day rolling. Mann's team roll tarp-blue game cabinets and heft massive tubs of game boxes into the convention hall, across from hundreds of folding tables brought in the night before, where attendees can play thousands of games all day and night. Mann stops at an empty concierge desk to charge her dying phone.

"I haven't had a chance to look at any of these yet, and they're just coming one after the other," Mann says, leaning into the wall and cruising through her email inbox. "I won't say it's been chaos, but I will say we've had our hands full."

While video game and movie ticket sales have flagged over the last four years or so, hobby and indie board game sales have climbed. Some of these new classics like Settlers of Catan, where players carve out a kingdom on the fictional eponymous continent of Catan, have become household names thanks to exposure from pop culture bastions like Parks and Rec. But these "gateway games," as hobbyists call them, are just that: portals to literally thousands of tabletop games.

Like nematodes rolling and moving from the primordial ooze, simple, chance-based American classics like the Game of Life and Candy Land have metamorphosed into more nuanced, engaging hobby games. Worker placement, modular boards, area control, press your luck, cooperative play – a plethora of new mechanics and genres await on the game shelf. Not that there's anything wrong with ooze (or Milton Bradley's board game library, as Mann stresses), but quadrupeds do add some ecological diversity to the animal kingdom.

"It's about making everyone feel welcome," Mann says, unplugging her phone. "We want to bring everyone to a table that feels like the game nights you remember as a child, whatever that family looked like."


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