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

All fun and games

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."

click to enlarge Players at Dice Tower Con
  • Players at Dice Tower Con

III. Purchased Workshop cards are placed on a player's Work Bench.

Bryan Kline peers across the board like a helicopter dad. He dotes, he cringes, he interjects, and he revels in seeing his game being played by a complete stranger.

"That symbol means you can choose either Mana to play," Kline says, "and you can find that on your reference card. What do you think of the reference cards, by the way?"

I'd met Kline's girlfriend, Ada Gomez, Friday afternoon at the convention center coffee machine. We took turns punching up on all-night gaming fuel and trading stories of two "civilians" discovering this massive gaming universe. Now I'm play-testing Manaforge, Kline's first major design project, in the Caribe Royale's Bonaire Room.

"In games like Dungeons and Dragons, you are the adventurer. You're trying to save the world. In Manaforge, you forge their weaponry," Gomez explains. "Harry Potter couldn't have been invisible or done magic without the cloak or the wand."

The Orlando area has become a bit of a hotbed for board game development. Last year, more than three dozen amateur designers met at the Ramada in Kissimmee to play-test their prospective board games with each other and board game enthusiasts. At Dice Tower Con, it seems like every other attendee has a prototype to play-test – and many of them, like Kline, are local. Orlando board game publishers may be scant in the City Beautiful, but standout boutiques like Screech Dragon Studios and Kline's own Mystic Tiger Games are slowly changing that.

"You actually need two more Water Mana to tap that Workshop card," Kline says, gingerly turning my Healing Potion back to an upright position.

Manaforge brings many popular game mechanics to the tabletop. Players begin by drafting two special talent cards, which allow each player to uniquely "break" the game's rules, from a set of eight. Each turn, players roll at least five multicolored dice to collect "mana" that they can use to purchase Store cards and Workshop cards. Store cards are placed off to the side, and Workshop cards are placed on a player's Work Bench, up to four at a time. Any cards not purchased by the end of that turn are discarded, face up, and replaced. Some cards allow players to collect more Mana, while others award Prestige Points. The player with the most Prestige Points after nine turns wins.

My eyes glazed over when Kline and Gomez first explained the rules, but after only a couple of turns, I had a baby-grip grasp of the game's rules and flow. Now I have a firm handle on playing Manaforge, or as solid as a soon-to-be last-place finisher can. That's true for a majority of these new generation board games: They're simple to learn, but tough to master.

This is Manaforge's penultimate version, complete with glorious new artwork that would be right at home in your brother's Magic the Gathering deck from 1999. A cloaked blacksmith on the game box swings his hammer at an enchanted scimitar, the blade encircled with fuchsia runes and fire. Game cards depict barbarians smiting ice demons and warlocks wielding fiery scepters.  

"All we're waiting on are embossed dice and some heftier tokens and game boards." Kline says. "Once those are done, we're set for distribution."

IV. Alcohol adds +2 Courage, -3 Dexterity to the whole party.

"As a kid, I would pretend to be an Animorph in my father's backyard," Andrea Zimmerman says, "but owning a Lord of the Rings-themed pub isn't so bad, either."

Zimmerman's pink unicorn Snuggie, a gift from a grateful patron, is draped over an adjacent barstool. She pecks at her laptop, tidying up the Cloak & Blaster's new craft liquor and cocktail menu and planning the ensuing launch party.

Just about every dive, sports bar and brewery in Orlando has an obligatory stack of board games and Cards Against Humanity in the corner, but comparing those paltry collections to the Cloak & Blaster's is like comparing Frodo's hobbit-hole to the halls of Rivendell. Cloak & Blaster's stout library of more than 300 board games contains American classics like Battleship, bluffing games like Coup and complex area-control games like Smallworld. Zimmerman's partial to storytelling games herself, but with a local nerd dynasty to forge, she hardly plays for leisure anymore these days.

"Tabletop gaming was a hobby, but I'm a bit of a workaholic, so gaming is my job now," Zimmerman says. "And I wouldn't have it any other way."

I met Zimmerman at MegaCon, another Orlando convention, almost five years ago, where she manned a modest table celebrating the Cloak & Blaster's successful Kickstarter campaign. Today, two weeks before Dice Tower Con's opening day, her pub hosts an event for Free Role-Playing Game Day. Dungeon Masters, or "DMs," have their Dungeon Screens up, four-paneled boards concealing what booby traps and monsters the players will encounter as they move around the game board. And there are dice – oh, are there dice. Six-, eight- and 10-sided dice clack across five different tables, each clothed with dry-erase game grids that players or DMs can adjust between campaigns for all-day adventuring.

Cloak & Blaster's quest began one sudsy night when Zimmerman's game night with her husband, Markus Zimmerman, was thwarted by a dastardly pitfall: They ran out of beer.

"We had been drinking, so we couldn't just drive somewhere to get more drinks for our night," Zimmerman says. "So we had this conundrum: What do you do when you're playing games, you're drinking, you don't want to drive and find a new location, and there's nowhere to go? So we decided to try and fix that."

The fledgling power couple made their nerd nest in a ne'er-do-well strip mall behind the Waterford Lakes Plaza, right at the University of Central Florida's doorstep. Cloak & Blaster's neighbors and visiting geeks from across the country have raised their mugs in kind. One of Zimmerman's bartenders hands me my figurative stein o' mead – a snifter of Stone Brewing's Imperial IPA. A literal armory adorns the walls behind him – a dwarfish battle axe, a leather chest plate, and myriad famous blades from across the grand universe of geekdom. Cloak & Blaster may be the first of its kind in Orlando, but something tells me it won't be the last.

"When we were getting this started, tabletop gaming wasn't at the forefront of pop culture. It wasn't the hot thing to do," Zimmerman says. "And now people are jumping onto the wagon, which is great, because the whole purpose of creating a place like this is to get as many people as possible into the hobby of tabletop games."

click to enlarge Painting miniatures at Dice Tower Con
  • Painting miniatures at Dice Tower Con

V. If the draw pile is empty, the game ends.

Bryan Kline isn't the only Orlandoan game whiz in the Bonaire Room this weekend.

"Besides my fiancée, there are two things I love most in this world," Matt Holden exclaims, "helping people and gaming."

Holden runs the Indie Game Alliance. Headquartered off Alafaya Trail in Oviedo, Holden's collective comprises 661 indie board game designers from around the world. These gurus are the Mickey Goldmills to scrappy designers' Rocky Balboas, consulting on a nascent game's theming, play-testing and even publishing.

"To us, IGA is like a big international family," Holden says. "You'd think all these large companies involved in the Alliance would treat each other as competitors, but we couldn't do what we do if we worked that way. Nobody ever hesitates to share advice or to share an idea, even if it means that someone is going to buy their game instead of the person giving the advice's game."

Holden speaks with a reverence – and deference – for his colleagues that reminds me of many a local brewer in my time covering the Orlando craft beer scene during the city's 2013 craft brewing boom. That industry has become more competitive over the years, but Holden doesn't see board gaming development going down that route.

"So many people involved in gaming are, necessarily, friends," Holden says. "If you're a home brewer, you can brew beer at your house, I can brew beer in mine, but we may not ever meet. But if I make a game, I have to take it to a convention – I have to play it with other people, and those people are probably other designers. We've made friends with these people before they were ever 'competitors,' as it were."

As is true of many Dice Tower attendees I'll meet, video games were Holden's first passion. Holden attended Full Sail University to study video game design, but after his professor brought in Settlers of Catan and Munchkin – two of board gaming's "new classics" – to demonstrate proper game rules and balance, Holden fell in love with tabletop gaming.

Dozens of the games Holden's collective has coached to fruition adorn the Bonaire Room. There's Gingerdead House, where players must defend their freshly built gingerbread stronghold from unwashed hordes of ogres, trolls and witches. Players wrestle and rummage for alley scraps in Dumpster Brawl.

"I get to have a personal hand in making someone's dreams happen, and this is very fulfilling to me," says Holden.

Despite being the hero in countless developers' stories, Holden hasn't designed any board games himself – well, except for one: "I used to play Scrabble with my mom and my grandma – she lived with us," he says. "That time with them was mine. I got to look across the table from them, and we got to be a family. And as my grandma got older and her eyesight faded, it was devastating when she could no longer play Scrabble. So my mom and I bought a bunch of poster board, and we made a massive Scrabble board with 4-inch tiles, so that she could play."

"That was a formative moment for me," Holden says. "That's how I really learned what it's supposed to feel like when you sit down to play a board game."

VI. Workshop or Store cards not purchased each turn must be discarded, face up, then replaced with new cards.

In going 0-for-6 at Dice Tower Con, I've made new friends from around the country. I've forged enchanted scepters. I've appraised precious jewels from the Middle East. I've captained an airship ferrying steampunk royalty. I've guided a clan of cavemen out of the Stone Age. I've battled intergalactic warlords across the detritus of space. I've lost thousands and thousands of German marks to a queen in an emerald dress.

I wanted to be a wizard when I grew up.

I knew it after an excruciating three-filling marathon one day, after the hygienist brought me to a corner of the dentist's office, after she opened that plastic chest full of finger puppets and other trinkets, after I dug out that little gold ring with the garnet stone set at the center. I knew wizardry was my destiny. I was bullied for wearing that ring. I slept wearing that ring. My 5th birthday passed, and then the 6th, and then one day I never grew into what I wanted to be. But then, we don't grow up. We just grow old.

"The power of board games is undeniable," Zimmerman says. "They have this childlike element to them. That's what I did as a kid – I played games. I played Capture the Flag and played pretend."

You can't live in the past, but, as I'm learning at Dice Tower Con, you can visit.

"When you're playing a game, you feel really good after you've defeated the monster or saved the world," Zimmerman says. "I think a lot of us don't feel like we have that power in real life, and letting people have that power in a game is just good for us. That's the happiness and innocence we had as kids, and we've lost that."

In an earlier version of this story, Matt Holden of the Indie Game Alliance was misidentified as Brian Holden. We regret the error.

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