Southern Tier Board Gaming is Back
By Ed Bond, Horseheads, NY
On a cold Sunday at the end of February, Dippity Do Dahs Homemade Ice Cream store on Market Street in Corning was packed with board gamers, an occasion that gaming fans and game designers like me appreciate in this era of potentially declining COVID.
Store owner Ben Calkins had reached out to my fellow board game designer Dan Hundycz, who has an office on Market Street, with an idea.
“We have space,” Ben said to Dan. “We are generally closed on Sundays, is there a group that wants to get together to play?”
Dan is a retired counselor with a lifelong interest in board, card, and role-playing games. He founded DPH Games Inc. in 2013 and produced a variety of games. He passed the idea of “Board Games & Ice Cream” event to Patrick Perl of Caton, a frequent collaborator on games with Dan and something of a lynchpin in the region’s board gaming community. Patrick spread the word through a series of posts on social media and turnout was better than expected.
“Yeah, it was about 20 more than I thought we'd have!” Dan said of the crowd of about 20 people playing games like “Cards Against Humanity,” “Can’t Stop,” “Incan Gold,” “Celestia” and “Cockroach Poker.”
Photo provided by Ed Bond.
Board gamers from various local groups attended the "Board Games & Ice Cream" event at Dippity Do Dahs Homemade Ice cream in Corning, playing games like "Cards Against Humanity" and "Can't Stop."
Meanwhile, Dan used the event to test out yet another game in development, “On the Edge of Time.”
“Gamers are gathering once again in groups,” Patrick said. “Board games are still enjoying what many consider a golden age with hundreds of new games every month.”
The pandemic shut down much of board gaming in March 2020, forcing conventions to online events using apps like Zoom, Facebook Rooms, Discord and Tabletop Simulator. Live, in-person events and board game groups have slowly returned since last summer, but over the past few months vendors would sign up for an event with no guarantee that it wouldn’t be forced online.
“It's been 2 years since I got together with people to play games,” Patrick said. “I am feeling a little better about the prospect of getting together. As long as cases continue to decline and there are no new variants, I would love to continue to get together.”
Organizers express more confidence that events planned for 2022 will remain live and in-person. So, players, designers and vendors move forward with cautious optimism.
The event at Dippity Do Dahs was an eye opener for Ben Calkins because players brought games he had never heard of.
“Cards Against Humanity I’d heard of, but never Cockroach Poker,” said Ben, who started the business with his wife Anna in 2013 and moved to their current location four years ago.
Photo provided by Ed Bond.
At Dippity Do Dahs Homemade Ice cream in Corning, board gamers get instructions on playing “Celestia,” a press-your-luck game where players win points if they jump from a fantasy airship at the right moment.
Board games have come a long way since the days of “Monopoly,” “Risk,” “Sorry” and “Trouble,” all produced by large companies like Parker Bros, Milton Bradley and Hasbro. One of the big turning points in the board game world was the release of “Settlers of Catan” in Germany in the mid-1990s, which brought European-style games to our shores. The launch of crowd-funding sites like Kickstarter in 2009 allowed countless small developers to reach an audience, and the diversity of numbers of board games have exploded.
My entry into the world of board games really began in 2016 as I walked along the storefronts at the Arnot Mall in Horseheads. A couple years earlier, I had invented a chess variant called MetaCheckers, which at first I had sold as an app on the iPhone. Slowly, I realized that a real-world version of the game would have more impact and be more appreciated.
Physical board games bring people together to have fun, and I loved the idea of bringing fun to people. This would be much more satisfying than my previous career as a newspaper reporter.
Taking a leap of faith, I ordered 500 sets of MetaCheckers from a factory in China, but without really knowing how to sell them. Lost in thought as I walked a loop through the mall, I looked up to see a new store, Great Escape Adventures.
“Our family started this business after a vacation to Nashville, TN when we tried our first escape room,” said Abi Yentzer, general manager of the store which opened in 2015. “Even though we didn't beat the room, our family walked away with so much adrenaline and thought it would be fun to bring it back to the area.”
But the idea of the escape room for Horseheads mall was not enough.
“As we were brainstorming the logistics, the thought was added to include a gift shop outside of the escape room,” said Abi, who works with her parents Ken and Jen, and brother Nathan. “In addition to some fun souvenirs, one of the biggest additions we wanted to bring was board games. Our family played board games for years, but had recently expanded into strategy games like Catan and Ticket to Ride. Once we added some strategy games, people started suggesting more games that we should sell. Our store soon grew to be primarily a game store with an escape room at our Horseheads location. That was the beginning of Great Escape Adventures.”
Within a week of walking into Great Escape for the first time, I had sold my first copy of MetaCheckers. By then, I had also met Dan and very soon I found myself a vendor on the local board gaming circuit, learning about the business by watching Dan and other developers.
Game demos, feedback from players and a willingness to improve, improvise and work out the bugs are essential for the success of a game developer. You can’t sell a game if no one wants to buy it, and you don’t know if they will buy it until you see it played over and over again.
With a lot of input from kids and adult players, my games evolved over the years as did my understanding of the business side. In 2019, I attended an entrepreneurship training program and created my own LLC, called MetaDreams. With new training, a new company, new ideas and a laser-cutter purchased in 2018, I had a plan to push my products out into the world.
2020 was going to be my year.
March 2020, the board game world shut down. Demos, conventions, gaming groups all stopped. Great Escape Adventures, which had expanded to locations in Ithaca, Johnson City and Buffalo, closed for four months. The stores did reopen, but the in-person gatherings couldn’t happen. We limped along with virtual conventions organized by formerly in-person events like Ithacon (at Ithaca College) and Running GAGG (at SUNY Geneseo), and also participated in a “Stay At Home Con” on Facebook. The virtual meet-ups kept us going but they lacked the energy and engagement of in-person interaction.
By the summer of 2021, the situation began to improve and gaming groups began meeting again. In August, Great Escape also held its first game convention “Great Escape on the Lake” at Lamoka Lake in Bradford, billed as a geek adventure camp, with open gaming, tournaments, LARPing, zip lines and fun on the water. The event went off without a hitch from the pandemic, and the store has scheduled a second convention for August 2022.
This was where I finally got a chance to see players try out two of my new games, “Puzzle Board Chess” and “When Gods Collide.” But in the following months, any convention was in danger and depending on the outbreaks of Delta and Omicron variants of COVID-19, events were still being canceled. Running GAGG at Geneseo had to move online for its February 2022 convention.
But later in February, I joined the Finger Lakes Games Gang, a board game group that usually meets at Great Escape Adventures every other Saturday.
“It’s amazing how often people want to join because they just want to be involved in a social activity,” said Cindy Hauri of Horseheads, the main organizer for the group which began five years ago. When Cindy and her husband Don joined it was a small group of fewer than 10 gamers and players got in by invitation only.
She took it over four years ago and expanded membership. They have more than 50 members today, with players coming from as far away as Hornell, Ithaca, Watkins Glen, Waverly, Bath and, when counting family visiting from out of town, Maryland and Philadelphia. Interested players request to join their Facebook group.
“We try to play easy to moderate difficulty games,” Cindy said. The games they play depend on how many players show up and how long the games will take. “We look at play time and numbers. We try to be flexible to meet the interests of those who show up. When there are new people who are playing, we look for intro games. ”
When I sat down to play “Ticket to Ride” with them, I met a mix of experienced players and those who had always wanted to play board games but never had the chance.
Photo provided by Great Escape Adventures.
Game designer Ed Bond does some play testing at Great Escape on the Lake in August 2021. Great Escape Adventures, based in Horseheads, has scheduled another geek adventure camp with open gaming, tournaments, LARPing, zip lines and fun on the water in August 2022.
“A lot of people who play games don’t have someone to play with,” Don said. “We try to get everyone involved.”
“That was always the goal, to make it available to anyone who wanted to get into boardgaming,” Cindy said.
So with cautious optimism, board gaming is making a comeback in the Southern Tier. My plans include SIMCOM at the University of Rochester at the end of March, a Kickstarter for MetaCheckers: Soccer and, hopefully, a return to Ithaca College for another area favorite.
“The convention is returning this year as ITHACON 45 and it will be in person!” said Ithaca College student Ilyana Castillo of the convention, planned for April 23 and 24. “Attendees can expect to see the return of the Cosplay Runway which will be held both days this year. We are also collaborating with the Ithaca College eSports Club to facilitate a few panels, workshops and gaming tournaments.”
What you need to know
* Live events will depend on COVID health guidelines. Be sure to check for event updates.
PUBLIC GAMING GROUPS
PRIVATE GAMING GROUPS (Interested members must request to join, requirements vary)
About the Author
Ed Bond of Horseheads is the owner of MetaDreams LLC, which produces custom laser-cut objects and unique board games.