In the back room of a brick-and-mortar hobby shop on Bloomington’s Pete Ellis Drive, a heavy wooden table rests in the glow of a low fluorescent light. Two pizza boxes lie open next to an array of many-sided dice. A company of weather-beaten men, one surly looking dwarf, and a seven-foot-tall black-scaled humanoid named Skar sit ready for their next adventure. And then there’s me — a red-headed, ruddy-cheeked, doe-eyed halfling — along for the ride. Armed with pencils and paper, we’re companions in battle and in revelry for four hours on a Tuesday night in June at The Common Room gaming store. And these adventures happen all the time. For those with a willing mind and a good set of dice, the road goes ever on.
While board games date back to before 3000 B.C.E. (see below), modern role-playing games (RPG) and tabletop gaming were put on the map following the creation of Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) in 1974. Since then, card games like Magic: The Gathering and miniature-figures games such as Warhammer have bolstered the popularity of hobby games worldwide. Bloomington has its own gaming community, enriched by two active gaming stores and many public events that occur every day of the week all across town, such as Cardinal Spirits’ monthly Board Game Nights. Dice Masters fan? Check out The Common Room on Wednesday nights. Can’t get enough Boss Monster? Pick up a box set at The Game Preserve and challenge a friend to build the better dungeon.
Both The Game Preserve and The Common Room host at least one night of action role-playing adventure each week. The regulars at these events are passionate about their hobby, and it is their apparent joy to welcome new players.
With its first store opening in Indianapolis in 1980, The Game Preserve came to Bloomington in 1994. Located in Fountain Square Mall, it sells a wide selection of games and sponsors a variety of functions during the week — everything from exhibitions of new family board games to D&D campaigns to Magic tournaments in gaming rooms on the bottom floor of the mall.
The Game Preserve also hosts events specifically for young teens. On Thursdays, attendees embark on a tween Pathfinder journey, and Wednesdays in the fall is junior Magic: The Gathering when teens and younger players can flex their mana. And don’t for a minute think that Japan’s most famous electric rodent has retired: The Game Preserve hosts Pokémon tournaments (and there’s a PokéStop nearby!). For the more hardcore gamers, the store is home to a Sunday-night Warhammer 40,000 league.
The Common Room, started by Phil Eskew four and a half years ago, has a strong following and a loyal clientele attending events ranging from Magic drafts to RPG Day, where they conduct tutorials on a variety of board games. Every Saturday, patrons are invited to engage in a casual Board Game Day. The rest of the week you’ll witness bouts of the exciting Star Wars miniatures game X-Wing, duels in the classic Yu-Gi-Oh!, and the intrigue of Pathfinder Society. The Common Room’s calendar is packed with events where gamers might test their mettle against the Call of Cthulhu, challenge their friends to a round of whimsical Munchkin, or dare the peril of Warhammer 40,000: Conquest, a card game based on the popular warfare franchise.
If you like a little libation with your 12-sided dice roll, visit Cardinal Spirits on the second Monday of each month for Board Game Night hosted by Mike Trotzke, a local board-game guru who has been organizing tabletop events at his house and various public spaces for more than a decade.
I visited Cardinal Spirits for the June Board Game Night and was surprised at the turnout. There were more than forty gamers sipping cocktails and rolling dice, trading resources, and pointing fingers at whodunit with their friends. Sometimes Trotzke gives Game Night a theme — June was dubbed “We Built This City,” focusing on games like King of New York and Quadropolis — and attendees are always welcome to choose from three or four bags overflowing with sundry board games supplied by Trotzke. Guests are welcome to take games from home, too. I saw a group playing the popular western-themed dice game Bang! and two friends dogfighting their starships at one of Cardinal’s cozy window tables.
To me, tabletop gaming is healthy escapism. For others, it’s a hobby or a way to connect with new friends. And while it often does require a lot of imagination, gaming is not all make-believe. It is an engaging experience that brings people together and forges bonds that last. Board games, dice games, card games — they are avenues for the creative spirit, the puzzle-solving mind, and the adventuresome soul. These games allow people to explore themselves and bring what they find, literally, to the table. Of course, it’s not just fantasy that powers tabletop gaming. Fans of sci-fi, classic literature, modern architecture, and more can all find a board game that suits their interest. It’s a diverse community that keeps board gaming alive, and Bloomington’s tabletop scene is as rich and vibrant as any.
Both The Common Room and The Game Preserve list upcoming events on their websites, and Cardinal Spirits posts an event notification for their monthly Board Game Night on Facebook.
A Brief History of Board Games
Board games have spanned cultures, ages, and social classes. It’s possible that games have been around for as long as humans have had leisure time. The Royal Game of Ur dates to 2600 B.C.E. and was discovered in the 1920s by Sir Leonard Woolley, a British archaeologist known for his digs in Mesopotamia. The game uses tetrahedral dice on a board shaped somewhat like a hopscotch track. But one of the oldest known board games is the ancient Egyptian Senet, which dates to before 3000 B.C.E. An intact set of the grid-shaped game board, including pawns, was discovered in King Tutankhamen’s tomb. The game is well represented in Egyptian history. It’s still being played today and even has its own listing at boardgamegeek.com.
The earliest board games published in the United States and England were rooted in Christian morality. The Mansion of Happiness (1843), for example, sent players along a path of virtues and vices that led to the Mansion of Happiness. The game was a major success on both sides of the pond for more than a century, but the industry soon gave way to games that embraced materialism and capitalism. In 1860, Milton Bradley, the former owner of a lithograph business, produced The Checkered Game of Life, which focused on worldly activities, such as attending college, marrying, and getting rich — the first game to reward secular values rather than religious virtues. It sold more than 40,000 copies in its first year.
Though distinct board games can be found throughout human civilization, role-playing games developed much later. By the 20th century, a long European history of improvisational theater melded with traditional (often German) war games and fashionable “parlour games,” such as Fictionary and Jury Box, to formulate what we now recognize as patented board games like Balderdash and Diplomacy. The war-games fad grew throughout the 20th century; aspects of games like Siege of Bodenburg and the medieval-styled Chainmail culminated in the publication of Dungeons & Dragons — and the table was set.