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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 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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