Old-school fans of dice and pen

Video games get attention, but tabletop diversions are a big draw at PAX East

Although this weekend’s PAX East gaming convention, now drawing thousands of fans to Boston, is known as a showcase for the $60 billion video game industry, many of the visitors will never twitch a joystick or click a computer mouse. Instead, they’ll deal cards and roll dice, as they compete against each other in old-fashioned tabletop games like Dungeons & Dragons.

PAX East, continuing through Sunday at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, has become one of the nation’s largest gatherings of tabletop gamers, where players meet face-to-face in contests where luck and good strategy count for more than a quick trigger finger.

Paul Levy, brand manager for Hasbro Inc.’s popular card game Magic: The Gathering, has attended PAX conferences in Boston and Seattle for years. “It used to be primarily just a video game conference,’’ Levy said. “Now you see more and more tabletop gaming.’’

The space set aside for tabletop players at PAX East is roughly as large as the adjacent show floor for video game companies.


In fact, the space set aside for tabletop players at PAX East is roughly as large as the adjacent show floor where video game companies large and small, from Xbox 360 maker Microsoft Corp. to local players like Rock Band creator Harmonix Music Systems of Cambridge, display their wares. Dozens of tables have been set aside for tournaments, in which gamers can compete for prizes. Other tables are open to anybody who simply wants to play a game with a newfound friend.

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For instance, on Friday, Simon Cooper, a 36-year-old native of Reading, England, played Magic: The Gathering with someone he’d just met: Curtis Sgroi, a 17-year-old high school senior from Reading, Mass.

Cooper, who’s been playing Magic since his student days at Imperial College London, said it’s more engaging than the typical video game. “I prefer real-people interactions,’’ he said. Sgroi, who got into the game in ninth grade, also values the opportunity to hang out with friends. “It’s kind of like a community experience,’’ he said. “We talk about it, we trade cards, we go to tournaments together.’’

Tabletop gaming is overshadowed by the vast popularity of video games. According to research company NPD Group, Americans spent more than $16 billion on video games in 2011, but only a little over $2 billion for tabletop games and puzzles. The tabletop industry boasts a few giant firms like Hasbro of Pawtucket, R.I., whose Wizards of the Coast subsidiary makes hit tabletop games like Dungeons & Dragons and Magic. But most titles are produced by small, independent game developers and sold through hundreds of specialty retailers.

Still, hordes of fans turn up for tabletop gaming conventions. The Origins Game Fair in Columbus, Ohio, drew 11,000 fans last year, and 36,000 attended the GenCon tabletop gaming convention in Indianapolis.


For about 10 years, Fantasy Flight Games in St. Paul, Minn., has made a tabletop game based on A Game of Thrones and other novels in the fantasy series by George R.R. Martin that is now a popular HBO television series. Sales manager Bryan Bornmueller said the success of the TV show has been “a very big windfall for us,’’ but added that digital technology also boosted the business. Thanks to the Internet, tabletop gaming fans can easily find each other for real-world get-togethers. As a result, “it’s much easier today than it was 10 years ago to find people who want to play these complex board games,’’ he said.

R.A. Salvatore, the best-selling fantasy novelist and creative executive at video game maker 38 Studios LLC in Providence, started playing Dungeons & Dragons in 1980, when it was just a tabletop game. He said there’s a level of personal contact in tabletop gaming that video games can’t match, which is why he still plays with friends every week. “The interaction between the guys in the room is amazing,’’ said Salvatore. “We’re killing monsters, and then each other.’’

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at