Even in a digital world, traditional game industry is thriving

When Mark Drejza was a teenager in the 1980s playing board games with his friends and family, he didn’t think he’d be designing his own one day.

Jump ahead to 2019, and Drejza’s first board game – the historic recreation-style “Allies of the Revolution” is in its final stages of development.

Drejza is one of a network of amateur game developers who keep the tabletop gaming industry thriving with customized niche games.

“I think that board games have matured from plain abstracts, with better themes to pique people’s interest,” Drejza said. “Food or cooking or something historical or out of the ordinary – there seems to be a game with a theme to match. And if not, then there’s an opportunity.”

A mechanical engineer by day, Drejza was introduced around 2006 to a game called “Pandemic” where players compete against the game, not each other.

That showed him there were many different game types with seemingly endless possibilities, and he began developing his own role-play tabletop game.

Drejza and other developers rely on online organizations like Unpublished Games Network (www.unpub.net), a growing community of  game designers, publishers, players, retailers and artists working toward the creation of new and intriguing games.

Started in 2010 in a church basement in Dover with 16 people, the organization hosts a gaming convention held annually in Baltimore. It routinely attracts thousands of guests.

“Basically, you walk into the convention and designers have paid for a table and they’re sitting there waiting to play,” said Dover’s Darrell Louder, an active unpub.net member and the designer of several styles of games.

“I didn’t think it was going to work,” Louder said of the convention. “Now we have 100 dealer slots and they 100 percent sell out and we now have a waiting list.”

Louder said while people are still platform gaming left and right on phones and devices, often an online version of a common game like “Risk” will lead to a sales increase for the physical board game.

“I like to think that the bubble is bursting,” Louder said. “People are tired of always looking down at their computer or device – they want that analog connection. Family time and friend time, no text – ignore the ding and just have fun.”

Game designer Ric Baker, of Newark, is a lifelong gamer who first started on his Dungeons and Dragons setting, “World of Farland” over 30 years ago while still in high school.

Originally published for free online, Baker physically published four “Farland” books and gaming modules last year that have proven popular – although he doesn’t expect to make a killing on it.

“If you divide the amount of hours I’ve devoted to it by the amount of money it’s made me, it hasn’t been lucrative at all,” Baker said. “But I view any money I’ve made on them as a bonus. The real reward has been the fun I’ve had creating the world and the friendships I’ve made along the way because of it.”

Baker credits the growth of social media and the formation of groups with shared interests with the increasing interest in tabletop gaming, as well as the street cred formerly “geek culture” icons now enjoy.

“The Marvel [Cinematic Universe] movies, the ‘Lord of the Rings’ movies, and so forth, has now made these things acceptable and maybe even somewhat ‘cool,’” Baker said.

At the Days of Knights shop in Newark, the entire back section is dedicated to board games from all eras and with all manner of play opportunities. Manager Joe Brumfield said while independent games are generally popular, just how popular depends on a variety of reasons.

“Sometimes it depends on what they look like, if they have better production quality,” he said. “People do like the independent stuff because it’s usually unique.”

Some customers are keen to try almost anything new that comes through the doors, Brumfield said, while others take recommendations from the staff or friends.

“We have people that come in and look for the stuff they say they can’t get anywhere else” he said. “That’s why people bring us their games – people know we’re here and they bring it for us to sell. And they do sell.”

Brumfield said the recent boom, which he notes has been picking up in the past few years, follows word of mouth on the fun that folks are having. “It’s getting more publicity because people are hearing about them from their friends and the media,” he said.

“I think it’s definitely the social aspect of it, that’s for sure,” Drejza said.

To learn more about Unpublished Games Network, visit unpub.net.

The next unpub.net game convention is March 22 to 24 at the Baltimore Hunt Valley Hotel.