Past the shelves of comic books and Avenger shields at Source Comics & Games in Roseville, scores of war-gamers storm the shop’s gaming area every Friday evening. Members of First Minnesota, a primarily war-gaming club, rewrite battles fought decades or centuries ago.
“Some of these games are big, sprawling experiences where you get to muck around in the sandbox of history,” First Minnesota president Jason Albert explained.
Throughout the Twin Cities area, similar tabletop gaming events lurk in strip malls, industrial parks and urban storefronts. Some last until 1 a.m. or whenever the store clerk wants to go home. Every night, in-the-know gamers converge at various hot spots from St. Louis Park to South St. Paul.
As a kid in St. Francis, Kyle Mattson was oblivious to the Twin Cities area’s vast nerd network until a friend invited him to an animé convention. From there, he discovered Fantasy Flight Games and Source — two pillars of the local tabletop gaming scene.
“If 13-year-old me knew about all this, I’d say I hit the holy grail,” said Mattson, now a co-organizer of the gaming convention 2D Con at Mall of America earlier this month.
Tabletops are a growing umbrella category of board, card, miniatures and role-playing games, such as Warhammer 40,000 and the seminal Dungeons & Dragons. Each subgenre — and sometimes each game — within the niche hobby has its own subculture, found somewhere in the local gaming community’s broad landscape.
Sophisticated hobby war-games make Risk look like Candyland. While degrees of difficulty vary, the more complex games (some designed by CIA or military analysts) involve thousands of pieces and can take four to 12 hours to complete, creating immersive narratives along the way, players say.
As the fate of World War II-era Europe hung on his military decisions, First Minnesota member Doug DeMoss paused to debate more pressing issues, such as Torii Hunter’s place in the Twins’ batting order. After moving to Stillwater from Los Angeles last year, the 45-year-old regularly attends First Minnesota meetups. Despite L.A.’s size, DeMoss said, its tabletop scene pales in comparison to his new home.
“L.A. is dead. This is the happening place, from what I can see,” he said. “There were limited communities in L.A. There were active clubs for certain games. But nothing like this where you can come in and see half a dozen games going on at once — the variety like this.”
Gaming world taproom
Local gamers point to a high number of shops hosting nightly events — such as Tower Games, Mead Hall Games and Dreamers Vault Games — with strengthening the community. That and the presence of large independent game publisher Fantasy Flight Games, the Roseville company behind miniatures hit Star Wars X-Wing, dystopian cyberpunk card game Android: Netrunner and other popular titles.
Across from its offices, Fantasy Flight runs a cavernous game center with a cafe serving food, beer and wine, where players can demo 500 games (think a gaming world’s taproom).
But the Twin Cities area’s gaming history started long before Fantasy Flight’s inception in 1995. In 1974, Minnesota native Dave Arneson co-created the groundbreaking role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons, which is regarded as the godfather of modern hobby games.
“The Twin Cities has been at the heart of hobby gaming from the very beginning, which I think is surprising for people,” said Fantasy Flight game center manager Bryan Bornmueller.
While tabletops have “reached a certain level of cultural saturation,” he said, noting that major retailers now carry hobby games such as Settlers of Catan and Ticket to Ride, the vast majority of players are male.
Amanda Durand of Maple Grove estimates that only 10 percent of her Magic-playing peers are women and said she’s felt uncomfortable at certain games.
“A lot of times you’ll get discounted as somebody who doesn’t know how to play or you’ll get seen as ‘Oh, you’re just here with your boyfriend,’ ” she said. Still, it hasn’t deterred the 35-year-old, who plays games several times a week.
Regardless of the game or gender gap, tabletop players say the social connections — forged over fantasy or history — are a large reason why they game.
“You have no idea what the other person does for a living,” said war-gamer David Dockter. “You don’t care about their politics. You’re just going to share the experience and invest in the experience, because together it’s a better experience than you could have individually.”
Michael Rietmulder, of Minneapolis, writes about nightlife.
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of local tabletop warriors at startribune.com/variety.