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

All fun and games

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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."

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