By: Jon Meltzer

Gamers gathered on June 25, Free RPG Day, for a day of role-playing games illustrative of a tabletop gaming community that has been growing in College Park for over a decade.

“It’s really a chance for smaller RPGs, third party publishers to shine,” said Boyd Stephenson, owner of Game Kastle, where College Park’s game day took place. Some 500 retail locations, worldwide, took part in the event. “We give [games] away, and it’s a great way to bring people in.”

Role-Playing Games in College Park

A player commands his hand-painted army of miniature soldiers atop one of Game Kastle’s many dedicated gaming tables.
Credit: Derek Ohringer

Stephenson strained to speak over the dozens of hobbyists of all ages squabbling over 20-sided dice rolls determining the fates of mythical knights and sorcerers on world-saving quests. Smiling in the thick of it, he said none of this would be possible without his community.

Stephenson opened his Game Kastle, part of a nationwide franchise, in November 2021. The store is in the College Park Marketplace on Cherry Hill Road in walls that once housed a Blockbuster. Stephenson has seen enthusiastic playgroups flock to the store ever since the opening; he said there were 60 or 70 events in June, alone. He hopes to pump those numbers up as time goes on.

The community doesn’t disperse once they depart through the glass double doors, though: They also flock to Discord, a robust app video game players turn to for everything from game scheduling to strategy tips. “We also use it to announce sales and events,” Stephenson added.

The Growth of RPG in College Park

As so-called nerd culture has become more mainstream, the popularity of formerly niche hobbies like board games and figurine painting has risen to a place of prominence. Indeed, Game Kastle is getting a new neighbor who has similarly benefited from the resurgence of all things geeky; the Annapolis-based Third Eye Comics opened its seventh location next door to Stephenson on July 1.

Game Kastle associate Josi Bender leads a game on RPG Day.
Credit: Derek Ohringer

It may seem strange to some that carboard-based hobbies are still capturing imaginations in an age of ubiquitous high-tech, high-resolution entertainment conveniently stashed in everyone’s pocket and video games with seven- and eight-figure production budgets. But it’s true: Board games are experiencing something of a renaissance.

“When ‘Settlers of Catan’ came over from Germany in 1994, maybe 1996 … that’s what kind of started it,” said Benjamin Epstein, one of the owners of the Board and Brew, a restaurant that offers free-to-play board games to complement patrons’ food and drink. “You start playing games like that, and that can really get you in.”

Dice dictate the outcome of most fantasy combat in the tabletop gaming space.
Credit: Derek Ohringer

Epstein got into board games as a student at the University of Maryland in the late 1990s and early 2000s ; since then, the sheer number of games on the market has grown exponentially. According to the aptly named aggregator website BoardGameGeek, more than 4,000 games were released in 2021 alone.

RPG Culture in College Park

When Epstein and his two business partners, Brian McClimens and Michael Chmar, opened the Board and Brew on the ground floor of the Varsity apartment complex, in 2014, their vision was different than Stephenson’s. While the Game Kastle has snacks and soft drinks available for purchase, the Board and Brew has a full kitchen, front staff and the most popular local beers on tap. While Game Kastle does have dozens of free demo games for people to try, the Board and Brew has over 850, complete with dedicated staff known as game gurus to teach those games to patrons.

Boyd Stephenson, owner of Game Kastle College Park, in-store on Free RPG Day.
Credit: Derek Ohringer

With its different business model, the Board and Brew also attracts a different clientele than Game Kastle does, just a few blocks up Baltimore Avenue. “There are lots of places that are designed for more hardcore gamers, but that’s not who we are,” said Epstein. “We even have a lot of [University of Maryland] athletes nearby, and even some of them come by and play games.” As such, there aren’t many games for folks to buy and play at home, Epstein says.

The Board and Brew formula was so successful that its three proprietors were able to open a second location, in Philadelphia,in February 2020. Then the coronavirus pandemic threw a damper on things.

“Philadelphia, we stayed closed for a full year, and now that’s growing” said Epstein, “but since things have really started to open up again, [the College Park location] has been doing really, really well.”

Not every gamer has enjoyed these re-openings — or even the reconvening of private game groups long separated by lockdowns and quarantines. Jared Mitaski, a long-time hobbyist who just moved to College Park in the past year, has not yet made the leap back to in-person table time.

“It’s hard to know who to trust,” Mitaski said, “you never know who is vaccinated, who will wear a mask.” Still, Mitaski is on the Game Kastle Discord server, trying to piece together a game group with which he and his partner are comfortable.

Stephenson said he has organizers from as far afield as Virginia who patronize his store specifically because he takes community health so seriously. “We have immunocompromised people on staff. We have immunocompromised people in our community,” he said. While there is no longer a mask mandate in-store, many players were fully masked for Free RPG Day, and industrial-sized bottles of hand sanitizer were within easy reach of most gaming tables.

The staff at Game Kastle are excited to keep growing past the hurdles of COVID-19 and into a new generation of enthusiasts. Josi Bender, a store associate and dungeon master (a special role in RPG gaming, a person who verbally guides the other players through their sessions) for hire, will be running a Dungeons and Dragons summer camp for youths ages 10 – 14 this summer.

Stephenson thinks young gamers can learn math skills, conflict resolution and so much more from tabletop gaming, and Bender agrees. “Beyond that, I think of how I’ve benefited from tabletop gaming,” she says, hoping to pass at least some of those benefits on to her campers in July.