They came to an Uptown coffee shop seeking one thing: world domination.

Make that island domination.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, a handful of strangers ranging in age from 19 to 60 attended a meetup to play the wildly popular board game Catan (previously known as Settlers of Catan). They circled around the hexagon-shaped board, rolling dice and earning cards as they strategically bartered to take control of a fictional island.

“It’s a game that’s easy to learn, but hard to master,” said meetup organizer Eric Ingman of Minneapolis. “It’s very competitive, and that appeals to me.”

In an era where many people live via a screen — be it laptop, tablet, smartphone, streaming video — the powerful pull of board games may come as a surprise. But players say the absence of technology is part of what’s driving the renaissance.

“I like the socializing that’s part of the game — that’s lacking with video games,” said Venkataraman Ragurman, 29, of Blaine. “I did that with games I played as a kid, and I want to come back to that.”

And forget spending hours collecting rent on the Boardwalk.

These mass-market, adult-geared games come with a snappier pace and irresistible immersion. Many feature themes that drop players into a world where they’re making tactical decisions as spies, zombies or urban planners.

“The quality of the products is the reason for the increased interest,” said Logan McKee, 34, operations manager of Games by James. “Games used to involve luck, frustration and length. Now games have the kind of strategy that leads to a lot of replay. When you’re done, you want to play again.”

That’s what happened with Gabe Kleinschmidt, 26, who started playing board games in college and hasn’t stopped.

Kleinschmidt, who drove from Woodbury to Minneapolis to join the meetup, uses board games as a part of his overall fitness routine.

“I played basketball this morning to exercise my body,” he said. “Now I want something cerebral to exercise my mind.”

Getting in the game

McKee was a teen when he started working in the family business, Games by James, as a store cashier. Since then, he’s watched the industry evolve — and expand.

“For years we did big business in December and just hung on the rest of the year,” he said. Now the board game business is booming year-round, so much so that the Savage-based business posted its best year ever, with a record $4.4 million in sales.

The rise of electronic games relegated many old-fashioned board games — from Monopoly to Parcheesi — to basement closets and cabin shelves. But game nights have slowly been fighting their way back into the social scene, albeit with a new generation of games.

Now there are meetups, impromptu events and regularly scheduled game nights in coffee shops, bars, community rooms and even game stores.

It’s not just adults who are caught up in the fun and games. A handful of players meet regularly for lunch hour games at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Minneapolis after a group of teenage boys asked their math teacher, Wendy Brunsman, to organize play over their noon break.

“They forfeit the opportunity to get on their cellphones to play games with me,” said Brunsman, 49, who regularly plays board games. Many of Brunsman’s student competitors are first- or second-generation Americans and may be the among the first in their families on track to finish high school.

“They didn’t grow up playing games at home, so they’re excited about a new activity,” she said. “These games involve logic and require them to use some higher order thinking skills.

“I don’t want to sound too altruistic about what they’re learning. I do it because I really have a lot of fun.”

Smart fun

It’s the fun factor that prompts time-stressed parents to clear the calendar for regular family game nights with their kids and other families. There’s pleasure in the play for everyone. Especially because the most engaging family games are like the best kids’ movies — while aimed at a young audience, they contain elements that amuse grown-ups, too.

Target spokesman Lee Henderson said that the Minneapolis retail chain notched a double-digit increase in game sales in the past year, with high interest from families. A Target exclusive called CodeMaster, a board game that teaches computer coding concepts, is particularly popular, he said.

But Target is also pushing the classics.

“We’ve built an exclusive program around retro/vintage games — Candy Land, Clue, Twister, Sorry, etc. — with the idea being that we would bring back nostalgic editions that our millennial guests grew up playing,” Henderson said.

Turns out that playing games does a lot more than rekindle memories and encourage togetherness. It can shape the way young players think.

“Strategy games require players to consider a move from another person’s perspective,” said Prof. Syneva Barrett, a game aficionado and director of the Advanced Montessori Programs at St. Catherine University in St. Paul. “You have to play offense and defense. It’s a skill that transfers into life and into the classroom.”

She added, “Games can get you out of your comfort zone and can shake up traditional family roles. It lets kids see their parents acting differently.”

Playing board games is something we do more in winter than summer, of course. But it’s not just the need to occupy long winter nights that makes games popular in the Twin Cities area. We’re one of the top areas in the country for sales of sophisticated tabletop games, said McKee, which reflects a well-educated population.

“People aren’t sheepish about playing,” he said. “They’re proud of their geeky side.”

 

Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.