Your guests are beginning to arrive, and you start corralling them into cliques. You know that some of them are going to get along swimmingly, while you’d like to keep others apart. Small talk and the clinking of glasses fill your ears as you make your rounds, making sure everyone is entertained. You glimpse the belle of the ball as she turns a corner, and you rush to lure her into your party before she ends up at your neighbor’s. After all, she’s the key to victory.
While the scenario sounds familiar enough to be taking place in real life, it’s actually from Belle of the Ball, which is currently one of my favorite games. Not only is it easy to learn, but it also has an interesting setting, a charming premise, and diverse characters with hilarious names like Gigglelack Lololol, Zest of Latesun. Players arrange party guests, represented by cards, into groups to create the most dynamic soiree. The guests are interested in various subjects, and matching them properly garners pointsbut beware, because other players can sabotage your party.
Belle of the Ball’s creator, Daniel Solis, has lived in Durham since 2011. Soon after moving here, he joined the Game Designers of North Carolina, a group that meets regularly at game stores like Atomic Empire in Durham and The Gamer’s Armory in Cary. Solis makes his living creating analog, or nondigital, games. He has published more than a dozen of them, making him a prolific participant in the Triangle’s thriving game-making scene.
Growing up, Solis couldn’t help but think up alternative rules when playing chess with his stepfather. He realized at a young age that game design isn’t just about creating entertainment.
“It’s about human behavior, psychology, economics, and math,” he says. “There are flavors to fun. You have to ask yourself, ‘What kind of experience do I want to create?’ Game designers at their core are storytellers.”
Solis says that we’re currently living in the golden age of board games. It was arguably set in motion in 1995, when Settlers of Catan was published in Germanythough it took more than a decade to become a worldwide phenomenon. Designed by Klaus Teuber, Catan offered a streamlined, flexible play style that American gamers, still stuck with Monopoly and Risk, weren’t accustomed to. Catan went on to sell more than twenty million copies, and big-box stores have greatly expanded their game departments in the past decade. Target has committed to releasing exclusive games, like last year’s Oregon Trail card game, while Barnes & Noble has rolled out weekly game nights in its hundreds of stores across the country.
Catan not only made tabletop games a mainstream social pastime again; it also started an era in which game designers, like Solis, got their names on the boxes. Curly haired and bespectacled, the shy designer comes to life when talking about board games. His blog is full of budding concepts, and he says he has fifteen games on the backburner right now. He says the video game industry around Research Triangle Park and the myriad local universities make the Triangle an ideal place for analog game makers, too.
It’s also convenient that there’s a local publisher nearby. Dice Hate Me Games, a Chapel Hill-based company founded by Chris Kirkman, has published more than twenty-five titles, including Belle of the Ball. Drawing on his own passion for game design, Kirkman helps creators publish a game from start to finish: designing, funding, and producing.
“We want to bring greater awareness of gaming to the mainstream,” says Kirkman. Key to building this awareness are crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter; most of the games his company publishes get started on the site, where people who might not go into a game store can find and support interesting games. Atomic Empire hosts game makers’ Kickstarter events at the store.
“The culture is growing,” says owner Jennifer Bedell. “Once you get a core of people doing it in an area you can help jumpstart others and create a community for it.”
One of the most popular games that got started this way is Cards Against Humanity. An adult version of Apples to Apples, it was funded on Kickstarter in 2010 and went on to became a staple among millennials. Letting players match a variety of noun cards to unfinished sentences like “But before I kill you, Mr. Bond, I must show you [BLANK]” creates raunchy hilarity that is most fun with large groups. Such irreverent hits have made analog games more mainstream and hip, says Shelly Hardwick, a local board-game player.
“They’re becoming part of party culture,” Hardwick says.
In April at Atomic Empire, Hardwick and her boyfriend, Jeremy Freeman, attended UnPub, a national series of events where game creators share, test, and market their latest works. The sounds of dice being thrown and cards being shuffled filled the store, where more than a dozen designers, some driving from as far away as Virginia, filled the back room.
The youngest designer present, seventeen-year-old Judah Kalb, showed two games, Chopping Block and Clash. The first imagines a world in which the French Revolution and the Salem Witch Trials take place at the same time. The other is a two-player fighting game that plays like an elaborate rock, paper, scissors. My partner and I get heated while playing it, battling ninja-like assassins with tank-like brawler characters.
Kalb, who has been designing games since he was in elementary school, hopes to attend Champlain College’s game design program and go on to make his passion into a career. Young designers like Kalb point to the wide-open future of analog games, and, with more than four hundred new ones being funded on Kickstarter right nowmaking it one of the most prolific categories on the sitewe players have a lot to look forward to.
This article appeared in print with the headline “Nontrivial Pursuit”