Plugged In

Pull up a chair at the board game renaissance

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Settlers of Catan

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Settlers of Catan set off the new board game renaissance years ago, but it's still enormously popular. Establish colonies, build roads, acquire and trade resources until you win. Games take about 90 minutes.

Contemporary video games are big, flashy, and all kinds of fun, but sometimes they just can't compete with a simple roll of the dice.

That's something more and more gamers are discovering as they rekindle their love of a distinctly analog form of entertainment.

Board games are in the midst of a revival. Sales last year were up 3 percent to $1.9 billion, according to The NPD Group. At cities across America, hobby shops, bars and other establishments regularly draw crowds by offering game nights. During the recent South by Southwest conference, showgoers largely ignored the booths in the gaming section and instead focused on playing board games in a central common area.

"The thing about board games is there's no other kind of game or play experience that offers the same level of social interaction," says Chris Byrne, an entertainment expert better known as "The Toy Guy." "Concurrent with the rise of video games and apps is the desire to have that human experience."

It’s easy to write board gaming off as a family-driven pursuit, but recent years have seen a surge in the number of college-aged players, as well as those in their 20s and 30s. Classics like Connect 4, Jenga and Monopoly never go out of style, but most are instead flocking to the likes of Cards Againts Humanity and Eldritch Horror.

Why the shift from screens to tables? Economics, for one thing. Video game systems aren't cheap, and at $60 a pop, neither are games. Board games, however, typically sell in the $20 neighborhood (though specialty titles can hover around $60) and are generally viewed as a better value proposition.

"In the market research we've done, we found that in a recession people curtail their entertainment budget, but they don't curtail their hobby budget," says Robert Cron, co-owner of Gamehaus Cafe, a Glendale, CA-based cafe that is entirely focused on board games. "Family game night came back with a vengeance. It's not going to the movies and dropping $80. It's going to the toy store and dropping $20 and having an entertainment experience that's better than sitting in a theater."

Gamehaus offers 600 different titles for customers to choose from for a $5 cover charge. Opened in November 2013, it was earning a profit within a month.

It’s not just about money, of course. Perhaps just as important a factor in the board game revival is our desire to escape our electronic leashes.

We work in front of computers. We settle into our couch and night, turn on our TVs and zone out to "Game of Thrones" or "Survivor." When we're not watching TV, we're playing games on it, or using dedicated portable gaming devices or our smart phones. We're constantly checking Facebook and Twitter. Heck, we even read using a screen these days thanks to the quick adoption of the Kindle and Nook devices.

Board games offer a respite from all of that.

"I'm sick and tired of screens," says Cron. "I'm tired of being plugged in and constantly getting messages. ... We don't offer WiFi for that very reason. We don't want people on their phones or tablets. We want people to come and play Mousetrap."

Of course, this revived interest isn't being lost on the big toy companies, either. The old guard is giving their standards a fresh coat of paint and a bigger marketing push -- and the trend seems likely to continue.

"One of the things Hasbro did was reintroduce a lot of their classics - things like Taboo and other titles that have been around since the 80s." says Byrne. "They've revised them with simpler gameplay and a little more interaction."

Monopoly, for example, will be adding a handful of new ‘house rules’ as voted on by players. The makers of the venerable property trading game also tried to freshen it up by swapping in a cat token for the old-school iron.  But whether you replay the classics or dive into the wealth of new offerings at your local hobby shop, one thing's for certain: you'll have a great time playing unplugged.

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