Game shops, publishers, and hometown designers: Inside the heart of Dayton’s board game renaissance

Move over, Monopoly.

Board games are back. From Dungeons and Dragons and other roleplaying games to competitive puzzle solving, tabletop gaming is sweeping the nation and the world, with many of the titles found on shelves designed and developed in the Dayton area.

The global tabletop games market was valued at $15.1 Billion last year by research firm IMARC Group, and is expected to reach $29.7 Billion by 2028. Another firm Arizton reported in March 2023 it valued the board game market at $24.91 billion in 2022, expected to reach $48.69 billion by 2028. Both firms projected a growth rate in the industry of around 11%.

“We’re getting a kind of renaissance of gaming, playing games and creating games‚” said John Stacy, Executive Director of the Game Manufacturer’s Association. “It’s been amazing seeing the growth in our industry over the last five to 10 years, and projecting forward, we’re going to double in revenue in the next five years.”

Dayton is on a winning streak in this board game boom. Several successful game creators from here are getting national attention. And the region’s flourishing gaming subculture supports a growing number of game shops and businesses that gamers say outpaces other parts of the country.

In D&D terms, you could say Dayton is rolling a natural 20.

The Game Manufacturer’s Association, or GAMA, is based in Columbus and has about 1,200 members in 21 countries worldwide. The organization also annually hosts Origins Game Fair in Columbus, which in 2023 drew 16,000 attendees. The organization has approximately 200 member game companies, stores and gaming clubs in Ohio alone.

“The Midwest has a huge gaming presence,” Stacy said. “The southern Ohio area has so many people that are interested in games and playing games and designing games. It’s really a hotbed of our industry, which is phenomenal.”

The board gaming industry still pales in comparison to video games. But the popularity of physical games, as well as gaming hangout spots, and the growth of events like Origins show that demand for in-person gaming experiences is alive and growing.

“I think it’s a reaction to all the overstimulation, of all the digital things in our lives,” Stacy said. “People want to disengage from that and connect with people, and the best way to do that is around a table, having a communal experience with somebody else, whether it’s a family member or a friend or a total stranger at a convention.”

Like many things, COVID accelerated an existing trend. While the world was increasingly going more digital, people also turned to board games and other analog activities to do with their families during lockdown.

“Even a few years before COVID started, lots more people were coming out and looking for other interesting board games, something other than Monopoly and Sorry,” said Steve Nordmeyer, owner of Puzzles Plus at The Greene Town Center. “When we bought the store back in 2017, the store did about 75% to 80% jigsaw puzzle sales. Now, about 40% to 45% of our business is the board games and other stuff. Our jigsaw puzzles are now still over half of our business, but only just over half.”

Sales of board games and puzzles remained steady during the pandemic years, Nordmeyer said, enough that he was able to pay his staff through lockdown with curbside pickup sales. Over the course of the 2020 shutdown, the store was reduced to about 20% of its total inventory.

“At the end of those seven weeks, we knew which jigsaw puzzles we never wanted to order again, because they were whichever ones people didn’t even want to buy during COVID,” he joked.

Kickstarter and the Rise of Indie Board Game Publishers

The seeds of the current trend were planted in the 1980s, when an influx of thematic European-style strategy games to the American market changed how people thought about board game design, Stacy said. Games like Settlers of Catan, as well as the rise in popularity of Dungeons and Dragons and other role-playing games, challenged existing ideas of what board games could be.

Now, those games, as well as D&D, are seeing a resurgence.

“It just really changed the industry completely, and people have been expanding on that ever since,” Stacy said. “So we’re finally getting to become a mature industry. Not quite, but almost.”

Much of the growth in board game market share comes from independent designers and publishers, as crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and Gamefound have fueled a golden age of self-publishing for board gamers.

Husband and wife duo Holly and Travis Hancock, founders of Façade Games, have run several successful Kickstarters and have published five board games in their Dark Cities series, the boxes of which are disguised as antique books. The look is meant partially to stand out in a crowded market, and to give families something they’d be proud to have on their shelves.

“Growing up, I have a big family, and a lot of our game boxes would get smashed and the game would get ruined,” Travis Hancock said. “It’s like you’re opening the pages of history, and helping people feel more immersed in the game.”

The Beavercreek couple launched their first game, Salem, on Kickstarter in 2015 with a modest goal of $6,000. In the end, more than 3,400 backers pledged a total $103,347 to bring the social deduction and strategy game to home game shelves across the country.

Additionally, in 2020 during the height of the pandemic, Facade Games brought Bristol 1350 to the platform, a game about racing out of the namesake coastal British town to escape the Black Death. That crowdfunding campaign raising nearly $1 million.

“We just try to make good games. They’re relatively simple, easy to pick up,” he said. “I think because they have large player counts, you can invite your friends over to play, and if they like it, then maybe they buy it and share it with new group of friends.”

The two have since quit their jobs and are designing games and running their business full time, doing roughly $500,000 in sales annually.

Katrina Thurman and Avery Pershing, of Xenia, founded Dusty Tophat Games in 2016. The brother and sister duo ran a small Kickstarter for their tongue-in-cheek card game, Butts in Space, based on their mobile app of the same humorous name. The game has since jumped to be in the top 100 best-selling games on Amazon.

“Families will post pictures on social media and tag us, it’s really cool to see people playing your game, and it’s cool to see you’re a part of other people’s game nights,” Thurman said.

Dusty Tophat has since published three more titles, including Ultimate Aquarium, a game where players collect colorful fish to build their titular aquarium, earlier this year.

Local Game Designers

Dayton has several successful board game companies to its name. However, many local game designers pursue game design as a hobby, or may choose to pursue traditional publishing, rather than crowdfunding their game on Kickstarter.

Jeffrey Secrest of Kettering, and his partner Kathryn Dowell, are both tabletop game designers. The two also develop and play board games with their three children, ages seven, nine and 12, continuing the tradition of their own family game nights growing up.

Secrest, a letter carrier by day, grew up playing wargames, Dungeons and Dragons, and board games with his family. After being invited to a playtesting group for Fantasy Flight Games, Secrest said he realized “anyone can design a game.”

Secrest’s project, Upstaged!, is a game based on a tradition of historical Italian theatre called commedia dell’arte. Players move characters around stage tiles, leverage props and upstage others, hoping to win favor from the game’s fickle patrons.

“I was hooked. I was totally obsessed,” he said. “Art always plays a role in your life, and in the way you see the world, but I had not for years had a chance to apply it to anything. But this was my outlet suddenly. So I just poured all my creative energies into it.”

Dowell’s main project, called Intertidal, is inspired by the marine life of the world’s coastal areas, in which players roll dice Yahtzee-style to fill in numeric habitats with marine animals. The game also has a nonfiction component, and teaches children about marine ecosystems and conservation. The game is in the final stages before being put forth for publication.

“From a design aspect I’m more inspired by real life concepts,” Dowell said. “If I’m interested in this topic, like color design, or color theory, I’m like, ‘How can I gamify that?’”

Local Game Shops

The Dayton area also has a rich variety of locally-owned board game shops and game cafes, specializing in everything from locally made board games, roleplaying games, collectible trading card games, puzzles, miniatures and wargaming.

“The only other city that’s kind of close to this is the birthplace of D&D, Madison, Wisconsin,” said Andrew Coen, co-owner of Bookery Games in Fairborn. “In some cities you hear a lot of competitive talk between game shops, and around here, I feel like there’s a certain synergy with most of the stores in the area. Everybody’s got different areas they excel in and I’m happy for that.”

The Bookery has two locations in downtown Fairborn, Bookery Collectibles and Bookery Games. When the previous owner of Bookery Games wished to sell the new-issue comics and games portion of the business, eight people — half former employees and half longtime gamers — banded together to purchase the shop in March last year, Coen said.

Since then, the store has gone from roughly $2,000 a week to $6,000 a week in board game and roleplaying game sales. The group has also converted sections of the shop to host as many as 130 people for nights of Dungeons and Dragons, Starfinder, Shadowrun, Battletech, and a host of miniature games and wargames.

“We had estimated that we had to see an initial uptake of about 32% in sales, so not really a small portion,” Coen said. “And we managed to do that pretty much right away, and have kept it up and kept growing from there.”

Dayton-made board games

Façade Games

Salem 1692 - Accuse, defend, or put your fellow players on trial for witchcraft, in a card game in the style of the classic Werewolf or Mafia games.

Tortuga 1667 - Players hold a secret loyalty to the British or French, and must gather the most treasure before the Spanish Armada arrives.

Deadwood 1876 - A Wild West adventure about using cards to steal safes from other players, before advancing to the final showdown.

Dusty Tophat Games

Butts in Space - A humorous game about collecting all the toilet paper in the universe before time runs out.

Beard Wizards - Use cards to cast spells, grow your beard, and become the most powerful wizard.

Ultimate Aquarium - Decorate your aquarium with colorful fish, playing cards to score points.

Dolphin Hat Games

Taco Cat Goat Cheese Pizza - A fun, fast-paced card game where players race to ‘slap’ a match between a card and a spoken word.

Gimme That! - A fast-paced roll-and-write of stealing pencils and mashing potatoes.

800 Pound Gorilla - Players spin the spinner, find the right-size gorilla, and race to take the coconut and bananas.

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