The Board Game Biz is Booming, and Chicago’s Ready to Play

El: The Chicago Transit Adventure. (Photo: Transit Tees)El: The Chicago Transit Adventure. (Photo: Transit Tees)

Board games are a multibillion-dollar analog unicorn in a digital world. Far from being squashed by the high-tech revolution, these games of dice and tokens are surging in popularity, particularly in North America, as people look for ways to unplug.

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“It’s way more interesting than anything on a phone,” said Eric Slepak-Cherney, co-founder of the meetup group Beers & Board Games Chicago.

“It’s a social activity. I definitely see people having that connection, people are so engaged,” said Slepak-Cherney, 31, who lives in Hyde Park. 

The breadth and diversity of titles — from classics like Battleship to newcomers like 2019’s bird-themed breakout hit Wingspan — have broadened board games’ appeal, he said. “It shows there’s a lot of cool territory to explore.”

According to market research, tabletop gaming fills a craving for face-to-face interaction, but its growth is also being fueled by another trend: the proliferation of board game bars and cafes. More than 5,000 board game cafes opened in the U.S. alone in 2016.

Chicago has been a little late to the party. When Cards Against Humanity’s Chicago Board Game Cafe opens on Valentine’s Day, it will be just the third tabletop-focused outpost in the city, along with Relo’s Board Game & Dessert Cafe in Little Village and Lakeview’s Bonus Round Cafe, established in 2019 and 2018, respectively. Staff at all three spots have been trained to help customers not only with game selection — each is stocked with hundreds of options — but also to walk players through the rules and instructions of unfamiliar games, a response to the impenetrably insular “Dungeons & Dragons”-style stereotypes often associated with the pastime. 

“It’s turned into a more inclusive hobby,” Slepak-Cherney said. “It’s definitely a big tent.”  

While “gateway” games like Monopoly and Settlers of Catan often lead people to try more difficult and involved titles, the goal is not to intimidate, said Regen Chan, co-owner of Relo’s.

“Anyone is welcome here. We have an open environment for people to learn,” Chan said. “Staff knows the games, just come to have fun.”

Chan hails from Toronto, where a night of gaming is as common as going to the movies, he said. Indeed, board game bars and cafes are so prevalent there, the market is saturated, and that’s what drew Chan to Chicago.

“There’s a lot of opportunity for growth. It’s definitely an up-and-coming trend,” he said.

SURREAL SUCCESS 

The team at Transit Tees didn’t purposely set out to ride that trend, but the company’s game El: The Chicago Transit Adventure, designed by Transit Tees owner Tim Gillengerten and art director Tom LaPlante, is a case of right-place right-time success. 

The game debuted in late 2019 and caught fire. Transit Tees sold out of its initial run of 2,000 games within weeks, and a second run of 2,000 evaporated just as quickly.  

That’s right, masochistic Chicagoans couldn’t wait to entertain themselves with faux commutes involving real-world conditions like “fell asleep on bus, missed stop” and “Cubs game, move at half speed.” Because, truth be told, a miserable trip is often the most interesting part of a person’s day and the worst commutes wind up being the most memorable.

“It’s a love-hate thing, it’s an interesting juxtaposition,” said Gillengerten.

Demand was so high over the holidays, Transit Tees had to rent out an adjacent storefront just to handle shipping of the game, Gillengerten said, and there are more than 100 copies on back order, pending the mid-February arrival of a new supply. Preliminary talks are underway to potentially expand distribution to local Target stores, which would send production into hyperdrive. That’s a big win for an upstart indie venture in an industry dominated by a pair of titans — Hasbro and Asmodee. 

“It’s a little bit surreal,” LaPlante said of the game’s popularity.

Even Gillengerten, whose business is built on the premise that Chicagoans love all things Chicago, was surprised by the enthusiastic reception the game received.

“I had anticipated we’d sell about 500 games. Within the first three days, those were gone,” he said. “It was amazing the way it was picked up by social media. It kind of shocked me the strength of social media.”

Though Gillengerten originally considered the game something of a novelty act, he’s now coming around to the idea that it might have staying power.

“I’m hoping it becomes a standard item, part of living here, like, ‘Oh, you have to have it,’” he said.

(John Liu / Flickr)(John Liu / Flickr)

Gamers have given Transit Adventure a 6.3 rating (out of 10) on the Board Game Geek site: Some hardcore players found the concept too simplistic but others praised the game for both its faithful representation of the CTA system and “flavor text” that gives the game an authentic Chicago voice.

Relo’s has the game on its shelves and it’s definitely connected with Chicagoans. “It’s been pretty popular,” Chan said.

Given that Gillengerten and LaPlante had never created a board game before, calibrating Transit Adventure’s degree of difficulty was just one aspect of an overall daunting process, LaPlante said.

The idea for a board game kept bubbling up during new product brainstorming sessions, and they finally decided to pull the trigger in January 2019. (Transit Tees introduces more than 100 new products every year — from t-shirts and socks to magnets and postcards — much of it CTA-themed, with the agency’s blessing.)

Using their own card game The Loop as a starting point, Gillengerten and LaPlante pulled out a CTA map and started batting around rules and conditions.

“The first thing you have to consider is, ‘What’s the goal, what’s the end game?’“ LaPlante said. “We knew we wanted a deck of cards and to have players visit all these stations.” 

The game was fine-tuned over countless rounds of play testing in the office — “If it’s too predictable, it gets boring. If it’s too chaotic, that’s not fun either,” he said — with staff chipping in ideas for conditions players could encounter.

“One that made it in was ‘Sat in a puddle,’” said LaPlante, adding that others were rejected for being a little too snarky or R-rated.

“The CTA asks us not to put in anything disparaging,” Gillengerten said. “There’s a lot of funny adult things that happen that we had to leave out. We’ve talked about using those in an after-hours version.”

Though they’ve heard of people buying the game as a way to learn about Chicago and the CTA system before visiting the city, the most meaningful responses have been from customers who’ve shared stories about the ways Transit Adventure has created community. It’s that kind of feedback that hits at the heart of board games’ enduring popularity.

“Families tell us when they had the game out, everyone opened up. We got this really sweet email from a grandma, she purchased the game for her grandson. They played the game together and it created this moment for the two of them,” Gillengerten said. “I blew [the message] up and put it on the wall to keep us motivated.” 

Striking while the iron is hot, Transit Tees is already working on a sequel of sorts that tackles another quirk in Chicago’s civic DNA: The working title of their next board game is Mayor for Life. Bring on the ghost payroll.

Contact Patty Wetli: @pattywetli | (773) 509-5623 |  pwetli@wttw.com


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