By Luke Rowe and Nancy Welch 

Game Kastle 3
Break My Game’s fundraiser at Game Kastle
Credit: Luke Rowe

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the release of Dungeons & Dragons, the board game that revolutionized the industry by allowing players to assume different characters’ identities — innovative then, a standard feature now. Over the years, College Park has become a creative center of board gaming and game development. The industry saw 2.2 billion in U.S. sales in 2022 and is projected to grow at over 8% annually through 2027.

The North Star game publishing company in Bethesda was started by two graduate students at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith school of business. Looney Labs, publisher of the award-winning FLUXX series of card games, which are available in more than a dozen different languages, was created by Kristin and Andrew Looney, two UMD graduates who gave up aerospace engineering careers to publish games. The city is the home of Board and Brew, which was founded in 2014 and may be one of the oldest board game cafés in the country. College Park is also the birthplace of Break My Game (BMG), a nonprofit organization founded by UMD graduate Daniel Palmer. BMG helps developers playtest their games by getting feedback from experienced players who try them out, testing to see if a game is broken by awkward, boring or illogical features.

BMG held a fundraiser at Boyd Stephenson’s Game Kastle store last November — Stephenson declared the event an absolute success. It was also a perfect occasion to observe how today’s board games have evolved far beyond 1960s favorites such as Monopoly, The Game of Life and Risk. First, there are simply more games of many different types. Game Kastle has shelves upon shelves of games with names such as Catan, Star Wars Legion and Mystic Vale, and each game is surrounded by expansion packs and new versions. The store also carries absurdist card games like Exploding Kittens or Infinite Jonathans.

 As BMG’s Palmer explained, “In an older game like Monopoly, a lot of what happened was up to chance. A roll of the dice determined how far you went or if someone else landed on one of your properties. Newer games combine many different techniques to make the action go, which is why they need to be playtested.” BMG aims to promote diversity and inclusion in the field of game design. “I think that … designers, in general, have a desire to tell stories,” Palmer said. “There are so many stories out there and so much we can discuss through board games.” 

Elizabeth Hargrave, whose games typically explore complex and personal topics, was one of 15 designers at the fundraiser. Her game Wingspan has been listed as a consistent favorite on The game transforms players into birdwatchers and challenges them to create habitats for different species of birds. According to Hargrave, one of her main inspirations was watching birds and waterfowl while visiting lake Artemisia. She told the Hyattsville Wire, “I realized if I wanted a game to be about something I was actually interested in, I might have to make it myself.”

Even though Hargrave made Wingspan herself, she didn’t have to make it entirely by herself; the game benefited from conversations at Game Kastle and Board and Brew — and she developed it on their tables, too.

Some gaming proponents point to the communal aspect of playing as an important tool for public health at a time when many Americans are suffering from loneliness and isolation. Board and Brew’s Ben Epstein said, “Me and my partner, Brian McClimens, started this place because we wished we had something like it when we were undergraduates at Maryland. College Park has a million loud places to drink too much, but how often do people really connect there? This is a low key environment where people come together to spend quality time in small groups.” 

IMG 0050.JPG Game Guru Mack Creel
Board and Brew’s game guru Mack Creel
Credit: Paul Ruffins

Mack Creel, Board and Brew’s resident game guru, believes that contemporary board games have many social advantages over video games and even long-established games like chess. “Chess is useless if more than two people want to play at once,” he said. Creel noted that while many board games can be played online, they gain a different dimension when people are face to face. “Look around you,” he said, pointing around the room to the small knots of friends engaged in their games. “Nobody is on their cell phone, people are actually playing together without needing a distraction.”