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Not just for kids: Why board games are making a comeback with grown-ups

Philadelphia's first board game cafe, Thirsty Dice, opened in Fairmount this fall. There are no TVs, retweets, mindless binge-watching or endless scrolling punctuated by emoticons. Instead, friends can argue over who gets to be the race-car piece in Monopoly.

L-R: Zach Santo, Ashley Saybaugh, Liz Biron, and Shaun Dattola play The Game of Life at Thirsty Dice, a board game cafe, on Dec. 1, 2018.
L-R: Zach Santo, Ashley Saybaugh, Liz Biron, and Shaun Dattola play The Game of Life at Thirsty Dice, a board game cafe, on Dec. 1, 2018.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

Jasmine Oglesby, 42, carefully observed the Jenga tower, leaning to the left, then right, before touching a few blocks to see which moved easily.

As she tried to push a block through, the tower collapsed into a noisy heap of clattering wooden pieces. “Ah, it fell!” she exclaimed, while laughing. Oglesby, of Mount Airy, was ready to try Trouble or Connect Four next.

Such lighthearted fun, away from the blue light of screens, was what Matt Hendricks hoped would fill his board game cafe, Thirsty Dice, which opened this fall in the Fairmount neighborhood. Inside, there are no televisions playing sports games or the news. Instead of retweets, mindless binge-watching or endless scrolling punctuated by emoticons, friends can argue over who gets to be the race-car piece in Monopoly.

As classic tabletop games emerged as the best selling games this year, cafes such as Philly’s Thirsty Dice are catering to those seeking decidedly less high-tech entertainment.

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“People have more of a desire to hang around and play games because of the digital age,” said Juli Lennett, toy industry analyst with NPD Group, a New York-based market researcher. “Parents are trying to connect with their kids. At younger and young ages, kids are kind of glued to the screen and I sometimes feel like the only way to get them away from that is to play games. … You can’t really be on your screen and play games at the same time.”

The top-selling games for 2018, as of Dec. 1, are Uno, Rubik’s Cube, Operation, Monopoly, and Connect Four, Lennett said.

Although the overall game category sales in the U.S. is down compared with last year, that is almost entirely due to the decline of strategic trading card games, such as Pokemon, Lennett said. When removing that subcategory, games are outperforming the toy industry at a 4 percent growth, compared to a 1.7 percent decline.

The popularity of board games is not just about young kids, said Adrienne Appell, a spokesperson for the Toy Association, a national trade body that represents more than 950 toy makers, designers and sellers.

“It has a much larger cultural implication to how people are socializing and a kind of backswing to technology,” she explained. “The board game really fills that need of people really wanting to connect and wanting to play, at whatever age.”

Among this year’s Toy of the Year Awards, Rookie of the Year finalists is Tic Tac Tongue, a card game that includes masks with tongues. This year’s game of the year finalists include games for ages as young as 4 and as old as 14 and up.

Research group NPD found that the fastest growing subcategories in games include family strategy — sales are up 19 percent. These are more complex games that players may not finish in one setting, such as Gloomhaven and Disney Villainous.

Sales in the card games category are up 13 percent, which Lennett attributes to popular games such as Exploding Kittens and Dos, the sequel to Uno. There has also been an 11 percent sales increase in preschool games, such as Hasbro’s “Don’t Step in It,” which instructs players to wear blindfolds and attempt to walk without stepping on what looks like poop on a mat.

Target announced in July that it was adding more than 130 games, including 95 Target-exclusive games, and spokesperson Lee Henderson said the company has seen double-digit growth in board games over the last year.

While L.O.L. Surprise! has remained popular, David Markman, the store director at Target’s Abington location, said last month that the Lego and Nerf brands, along with board games, were performing well.

“I know everybody is moving to the internet,” Markman said, “but people still love to play board games and we’re still doing a ton of business in board games, as well.”

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Walmart seemed to be having the same experience at the start of the holiday shopping season. Frank Pellicori, a store manager, said last month the demand for games is “continuously ongoing year after year.”

The Toy Association’s Appell said board-game cafes are “complimenting” the demand for games.

Four friends gathered at Thirsty Dice after work earlier this month were playing What Do You Meme, a game based on internet jokes. Nearby, others played King of Tokyo and Risk.

As the afternoon turned into night, more people filled the board game cafe.

“The number of people who have come in and said we really need more places like this in the city," Hendricks said "... I think it’s consumers responding to the need for novel, authentic, community-type experiences.”