When Emma Larkins moved from New York to Seattle in 2017, she wanted to change her career’s course. She’d been working as a community manager at Playcrafting, a group that brings together gamers of various stripes—video, board, card—to share their knowledge. She came from the video game side but began to lean analog. Partly, the turn was practical. “It usually takes a lot more people to make video games…. You can prototype a board game in an hour,” Larkins says.
Upon landing here, she headed to conventions, like the Evergreen Tabletop Expo, and met local developers. She found a Facebook group, Seattle Tabletop Game Designers, but no one was organizing events for its members. So she did. Then she got a job at Ballard’s game shop/restaurant, Mox Boarding House. At first, the STGD play-testing events—sort of like writing workshops for game prototypes—were lightly attended. “Sometimes two people, sometimes five people, but pretty quickly they blossomed,” she says. Soon, 20 to 30 people would show up in a night.
Now a wave of games that were play tested there are hitting shelves. Larkins’s Abandon All Artichokes, a card game in which players try to get rid of artichokes and fill their hands with more amenable vegetables, came out last year. There’s also Fantastic Factories and Point Salad and Cascadia. They’re arriving in a sort of worldwide renaissance. For the past decade, tabletop gaming has boomed, a global industry expected to reach $12 billion this year, up from $10.4 billion in 2019. And it’s spawned a Kickstarter subeconomy (where a game like Avatar Legends can hit its $50,000 funding goal in 16 minutes, then blow past it to over $6 million).
In the U.S., this renaissance is finding a locus in Seattle. Of course it is. Magic: The Gathering, created in 1993 in Seattle, forever upended gaming. We were, and remain, the U.S. port of entry for Pokémon. One of the guys behind Kickstarter phenom Exploding Kittens hails from here. We are “the Hollywood of video games.” And, via the tech industry, we have a surfeit of engineering-minded folks. Larkins’s partner, who helped introduce her to board games, came here for a job at Amazon. Shawn Stankewich—a local game designer and cofounder of Flatout Games, a design collective and publisher—works as a landscape architect by day. But he says his play-testing groups are filled with tech workers. “Lots of software engineers, et cetera,” he says.
In a bit of a paradox, Stankewich figures the surge in tabletop gaming owes in part to the same impulses that have driven music’s so-called vinyl revival: “There’s a desire to unplug from digital devices.” There’s also a respect for the beauty of a physical object. He notes the comeliness of the surprise hit Wingspan, which is about birds. A board game is “more displayable,” Stankewich says. “It occupies a different kind of space in your home.” They also give introverts, or non-drinkers, Larkins points out, reason to gather around tables to talk.
One of those introverts is Fertessa Allyse. A few years ago she got into designing games, drawn to them both as a creative outlet and as a way to alleviate any social awkwardness. Last year, she moved from Atlanta to Seattle, because here she saw a growing culture—she’s met several other recent transplant gamers already—and an unusual concentration of game companies. In addition to Wizards of the Coast, there’s Flatout, Calliope Games, and Funko, where Allyse now works as a game producer.
Even though she was drawn to gaming as a social icebreaker, she’s yet to spend much time playing games in person here. When Covid swept into the city, board gamers—like all of us—took to the internet, play testing with tabletop simulators. But that’s suited Allyse just fine. “To me, it’s made it easier to connect,” she says. Financial barriers, like flying to a conference and paying for lodging, have vanished.
Other barriers have been falling recently, too. For a long time, in cultural imagination, the gamer has been a precise stereotype: a dude in a basement somewhere, bespectacled, poorly shaven, pale. But part of the growth in gaming recently is because that stereotype is increasingly inaccurate. In the few years Allyse has been part of the gaming world, she’s seen “a huge push for diversity and reaching out to communities that were otherwise excluded.” That push grew more prominent during last year’s Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate protests. The conversations, Larkins says, are “really making us reexplore our communities, professionally even, and say, ‘How do we make safe spaces for people?’” Talk is turning into actual change, Larkins and Allyse say: mentorship programs, scholarships, content warnings at play-testing groups.
In turn, conceptions of what tabletop games can be continue to expand. Allyse’s Wicked and Wise, a “trick-taking team game of dragons and mice,” reached its $9,700 Kickstarter goal in one day (and has now garnered upwards of $20,000). But before it hits stores another of Allyse’s games will be on shelves in 2022 (co-designed with Mondo Davis). In it, players get 60 seconds to explain something while inserting four random words. “So, for example, you would explain how to tie your shoe. And you have to slip in the words astronauts, papaya, charcuterie, and superfluous.” It’s a party game, and the audience must try to understand what the speaker is talking about. It’s called Mansplaining.