Surviving in a digital-first world: The unexpected tenacity of analog games

By MacKenzie Coffman
Medill Reports

What do you think of when you imagine analog games? Maybe it’s Monopoly, Dungeons and Dragons or just a deck of cards. Our schema for each of these games may vary vastly; tabletop games can be family fun or a highly competitive livelihood for professionals.

No matter what your game of choice is, it’s a part of a multibillion-dollar industry that is only expanding, despite old fears about video games replacing the board game. Grand View Research Inc. released a report in 2019 indicating the playing cards and board games market size would drastically increase. The authors projected that by 2025 it would be worth $21.56 billion.

By February of 2020, Google searches for board game cafes reached an all-time high.

Then the pandemic hit.

KLEIN: “I was prepared for the possibility that we would have to close and not reopen, but I was never really afraid of that. I was pretty sure that in, you know, some form or another, we would be able to come out the other side of things. And thankfully, that’s proven correct.”

NARRATION: This is Eli Klein. He owns Evanston Games and Cafe at 1610 Maple Ave., where I interviewed him on a dreary January Sunday afternoon. When the pandemic began, he shipped and hand-delivered games to people. Then, he set up an online ordering system on the store’s website. Although his business model had to shift, he never fully closed the cafe. His store is a part of just 55% of businesses that did not permanently shut down in Evanston over the past couple of years.

KLEIN: “You know, obviously party games and games that you really wanted eight or 10 players for, nobody was buying. Really good two-player games were just flying off the shelves. And the escape room games too. That was one that I was really tickled to see people picking up on as a good quarantine activity.”

COFFMAN: “What about the Pandemic game?”

KLEIN: “Pandemic has not sold very well. Go figure. I think it, they just get was a little too topical for people.”

NARRATION: Many years ago, when the first video games launched, some people speculated that it meant the end of board games. In 2003, the New York Times published a piece reflecting on the 1990s as a time when “playing board games was about as cool as carrying a Filofax.” Yet, much in the same way that the laptop hasn’t made paper and pen obsolete, analog games stuck around and even made a comeback. So how is it that this little game store has survived a pandemic that shuttered over 200,000 small businesses across the United States and sent everyone into virtual spaces?

KLEIN: “People are always asking me, you know, ‘Are you worried that these are going to run you out of business or kill tabletop gaming?’ But for me, they’ve always been very different activities that I go to for very different reasons.”

GIFFORD-SMITH: “Playing tabletop games is like a social thing. Form. It’s all about, like, coming here, being with a bunch of friends, having a wonderful time playing games and sharing with them. Additionally, like Magic, like, you know, we’re playing is involves a lot of work, like out of the store. So there’s a lot of work. It’s a hobby that takes up both time alone and time with other people, which is lovely.”

NARRATION: That’s Ella Owen Keith Gifford-Smith. She’s a fourth-year Northwestern student studying creative writing and theater because that combination was as close to Dungeons and Dragons as she could get. She started working here her freshman year almost immediately.

GIFFORD-SMITH: “The first thing I did upon getting into college was to look for the local friendly gaming store, using Wizards’ store locator to find magic tournaments. And this one was the closest one in walking distance. So I walked here. I literally, there was like, the first thing I did with my parents, like we got here, we got my room, the key, and I was like, I’m gonna walk down to ECG so that I know how to get there . And I came here and I just kind of started coming in here for like Friday nights. And just fell in love with the place.”

NARRATION: Gaming cafes and stores like this garner cult followings through hosting events and tournaments for popular games. For instance, at Evanston Games and Cafe, they hold weekly Dungeons and Dragon games and Magic: The Gathering nights. Events like these create regular customers that drive constant business, which was apparent as soon as I stepped into the store.

The front of the store is dedicated to selling analog games – when you walk in, you see classics like Settlers of Catan alongside hot, new games like Wavelength. Then, you walk past the cafe area with a long bar, and in the back are about seven tables where people gather to play games. That day, people playing Magic: The Gathering occupied almost half the tables, and the Chicago Scrabble Club took up the other half.

The club has hosted events at Evanston Games and Cafe for about five months now, but through most of the pandemic, many of the club members played on apps like Words with Friends to fill the time they used to spend together. I asked club member Audrey Anderson how the experiences compared.

ANDERSON: “It’s like apples and oranges. It’s a different situation. And both are enjoyable to me. You know, whether it’s Words with Friends or playing in person, but I’m glad to come out and see the people I used to play with before.”

NARRATION: In all my interviews, almost everyone expressed the same sentiment. They liked video games or online games and sometimes loved them, but as Anderson said, they wouldn’t trade one for another. They needed both.

KLEIN: “There are game experiences that video games can deliver that analog games can’t, you know, because you have a computer to crunch the numbers and you can obfuscate certain things and things like that. But I do think that there are game experiences that analog games can deliver that video games can’t as easily, you know, in the same way that there are stories that work as books that don’t work as movies and vice versa. I think that games have some of that as well.”

NARRATION: That isn’t to say that the pandemic hasn’t changed the way people play analog games. Klein noted that many Dungeons & Dragons players shifted online at the beginning of the pandemic. Google searches for the game peaked in June of 2020. As a result, Klein said it’s been challenging to get people to come out to play each week.

KLEIN: “It does lend itself to online play better than, say, a game like Magic. I think a lot of people who otherwise would not have were willing to try D&D and try playing virtually, because it gave them that social outlet that was now so difficult to find.”

NARRATION: Socialization is a word that’s been thrown around a lot ever since we found ourselves heavily stripped of it. Everyone needs human interaction, and Klein has commodified it by creating a space where people can go and find a community. They rely on game sales, of course, but they also profit off events and food sales, all of which feed into each other and rely on people deciding to show up and stay awhile — and they do.

KLEIN: “There’s nothing I sell that isn’t cheaper on Amazon, you know, that’s going to be true of everything. But people have gotten very used to the idea that in order to have their local game store around, they need to spend the hours they need to support them.”

NARRATION: On Yelp, Evanston Games and Cafe has 18 reviews. The store is just shy of a perfect five-star establishment. In describing why they loved the store, several reviewers mentioned Klein by name. One user described him as a godsend for her boys. But perhaps Gifford-Smith said it best:

COFFMAN: “What does coming here mean to you?”

GIFFORD-SMITH: “Oh, everything. Just everything. It is not an exaggeration to say that I do not think I would have stayed at Northwestern if this place was not here.”

MacKenzie Coffman is a video and broadcast graduate student at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @Mac_coffman and see her portfolio at mackenziecoffman.myportfolio.com.

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