“I used to be this weird freak, who had this odd hobby that I didn't share with anyone,” says financier Jim Doughan, another regular gamer. “You would do it on the down-low. Now more people are doing it than I ever knew. In the finance industry, you ...
The rattle of dice is syncopated but constant.
A dozen or so men sit at different tables, each littered with an elaborate assortment of board game pieces—plastic figures, cards, and tokens. A bowl filled with candy-colored dice sits on one table like a giant assortment of the worst-ever M&M’s.
Although these guys are playing to win, there’s an atmosphere of camaraderie more than combat—no money is wagered—and they walk one another through each round, thinking aloud and discussing strategies. No wonder, given how complex many of the games are. “I could memorize the Torah, or this,” says one man, laughing as he brandishes the brick of a rulebook for
Advanced Squad Leader.
The group meets once a week in a gaming den in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. Every surface in the wood-paneled room is piled with bright boxes. They’re stacked precariously on the floor and windowsills and loaded onto shelves amid leather-bound books. The games display an array of styles: A Roman Empire-themed game is called
Trajan; another one,
Churchill, honors wartime politics;
Star Wars: Rebellion lets you play on the side of the rebels or the Empire. There’s even one based on Ken Follett’s epic
The Pillars of the Earth.
When J.R. Tracy bought this loft several years ago, he carved it in two—one half became the family home, the other a dedicated gaming lab. Tracy works in finance, and most of his fellow gamers are fortysomething bankers or lawyers or executives in other highly paid, highly stressful fields. “These guys come from taking depositions all day in a suit and tie. Then they look so happy to leave that all behind for a few hours,” Tracy says, sipping a beer.
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Tracy and his crew aren’t outliers: They’re part of a quiet network that’s more Snakes & Ladders than Skull & Bones, where groups of mostly white white-collar types come together to decompress with dice. “I used to be this weird freak, who had this odd hobby that I didn’t share with anyone,” says financier Jim Doughan, another regular gamer. “You would do it on the down-low. Now more people are doing it than I ever knew. In the finance industry, you don’t have to play golf anymore—you can play games.” He marvels at how wide-reaching his once-niche hobby is becoming. “My neighbor showed up the other day at a gaming event. He’s a doctor. I had no idea.”
One demographic that’s underrepresented is women. “The hobby as a whole is nowhere near parity, so it’s a very male group,” Tracy says of his club. “But there are two women who come at least two or three times a year.”
He pegs the gender divide to the hobby’s war-gaming heritage, and Mindy Kyrkos, a corporate travel agent and avid gamer, agrees on its lingering impact. “Very often I’m the only woman at the table,” she says. “It’s not that women don’t enjoy conflict, but not that type.”
As with fraternal groups since time immemorial, this network provides other advantages beyond the chance to unwind. “When I was changing jobs, one of the best career decisions I’ve ever made, it came directly through a gaming contact, and I’ve certainly recommended people that way,” Tracy says. “And I’ve hired people I’d never have known without gaming.”
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There are no formal statistics on the number of such groups, but the trend has caught hold enough that some companies have opted to include gameplay in their hiring process. Recruiters for Pennsylvania-based Susquehanna International Group LLP stage game nights at colleges and universities to seek out potential hires, looking for the strategic thinking such a hobby engenders. SIG also hosts regular play evenings for employees; multiple groups will play the same game, stress-testing it to see if it leads to good team-building.
“We approach it the same way we approach trading,” says Todd Simkin, a 20-year veteran of the company who co-heads its education team. “We look for ways to play the game, the different nuances, and we stop and discuss strategies. Then we have a debriefing afterwards.” A favorite, Avalon, divides players into good and bad guys, then tasks them with deducing who is on each side. SIG operates a standalone, company-run website, raiseyourgame.com, maintained by employees who share their observations, tips, and theories on all kinds of gaming, from sports to board games to cards.
“In the finance industry, you don’t have to play golf anymore—you can play games”
It’s this type of collaboration that makes board games different from the every-man-for-himself mentality of poker, says Benjamin Hoffstein, who works on the tech side of finance. He runs
Compass, a scavenger hunt and puzzle competition where “New York City is the game board.” Every year it attracts
almost two dozen teams from Goldman Sachs Group, Bridgewater Associates, Barclays, BlackRock, JPMorgan Chase, and other companies to compete in live-action puzzles at various locations across the city—and raise money for charity along the way. Winning in business is rarely a solo endeavor, and Hoffstein says his successful players have a group mindset. “You might work on a trading desk for a firm,” he says, “where you’re trying to get a team of people to quote-unquote win.”
According to NPD Group Inc., U.S. sales of board games in 2017 were $1.1 billion, up 7 percent from the previous year. Travis Parker, who runs Game Crafter LLC,
a custom game business, estimates that more than 3,000 games are released annually. Their producers range from big companies such as Hasbro Inc. to individual creators using crowdsourcing platforms like Kickstarter. Crowdfunding has been crucial to the board game boom: In 2017, for instance, Kickstarter saw 400 more successful campaigns for tabletop games than in the previous year, and revenue was up 30 percent. Not all titles become household names—the jury’s still out on Advanced Squad Leader, for sure—but some have become best-sellers:
Ticket to Ride, though none comes close to the sales of Catan (originally known as Settlers of Catan), a game in which players trade commodities to build an empire on a fictional island.
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Launched in 1995,
Catan has sold more than 20 million copies worldwide. It drummed up new enthusiasm for board games in a world of Nintendo consoles and was therefore pivotal in the emergence of networking groups such as Tracy’s. Reid Hoffman of LinkedIn Corp. has called Catan “the board game of entrepreneurship.” He’s described board games in general as a kind of off-duty MBA course that can exercise the brain to think strategically. Hoffman and Zynga Inc.’s Mark Pincus were among the Silicon Valley execs who began making game nights popular among the tech set about a decade ago.
Not long after, East Coast legal and finance types began playing the same way. Spencer Sloe is in a weekly game group in Brooklyn, N.Y., whose ringmaster is a health-care lawyer. Ranged around the table are hedge funders and wealth managers. Sloe himself is an executive with media company Oath. “I’ve helped people network—like, ‘Hey, my niece wants an internship, do you know XYZ person?’ ” he says. “It’s like getting people into a cult.”
Justin Carroll is a bankruptcy lawyer and fervent board gamer. The crowd at Carroll’s games is a mix of gay and straight and largely white. Most players didn’t know one another before showing up and were drawn by word-of-mouth. Indeed, that’s how he met a lawyer who specializes in pro bono programs, who in turn helped Carroll begin a similar project at his own employer.
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Wall Street insiders have been monitoring the rise of board gaming as a low-pressure networking device, according to executive coach Roy Cohen. He says playing such games has become more popular in the last three or four years. Gaming cabals can prove so useful, Cohen actively encourages many clients to seek them out to get ahead. One Scrabble-loving financier ended up joining a group after a chance conversation in a cafe in East Hampton, N.Y., and later found work through its members. “It’s for obvious reasons,” Cohen says. “They can blow off steam, decompress, and network all at the same time.”
British journalist Tristan Donovan, the author of It’s All a Game, which explores the history and enduring appeal of board games, suggests their current popularity derives from a newly time-pressed culture. Those who might once have spent an entire Saturday golfing together see an evening of board gaming as far more efficient. Networking at the table is also simpler than on the links: The structure of the evening makes conversation easier and erases the hierarchies of the 9 to 5. “You’re sitting around pieces of cardboard, leaning in close, and it all feels a little more intimate,” Donovan says. Unlike poker, which relies on bluffing and concealing your true self, board games can act as inadvertent personality tests. These nights can provide a preview of how someone might behave as a colleague—those sore losers at Catan are likely to throw the same tantrum when a deal doesn’t go as planned.
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Of course, the surge in
popularity of Catan and other games came hand in hand with the rise of nerd obsessions in general; video games, fantasy books such as the Harry Potter series, and films based on comics have become so pervasive that geekery is no longer a subculture, it’s the culture.
Back at Tracy’s group, the conversation grows noisier as the evening (and dice) rolls on, and wine glasses and beer cans begin cluttering the few empty surfaces. “I like the tactile nature of it, the social aspect of it,” Tracy says, before leaping into a Japanese history game called Rising Sun to help steer a clan leader from making a losing mistake.
You may know Monopoly and Risk, but these newer favorites are heating up game nights
Power Grid: In this German-designed game, utility managers bid for power plants in an effort to dominate supply.
Gloomhaven: Like Dungeons & Dragons without the dice (or role-playing). Players team up for battles in a shifting, puzzlelike storyline.
Pandemic: Health experts work together to stop the global spread of a disease, amassing cards that bestow unique abilities.
Terraforming Mars: Aspiring Elon Musks race together toward a common goal. Gameplay is backed by real science.
Carcassonne: This world-building game is often compared to Catan, where the goal is to populate a French countryside.
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