In 2011, Merrillville resident Scott Hankins sent a request through the BoardGameGeek application that he was seeking someone to join in playing a board game in Northwest Indiana.

He received a response from Cedar Lake resident Brian Mola who, along with his wife and a friend of Hankins, soon got together and played a few different games, including Zooloretto. That game is based on the idea of players using different animals to try to attract as many people as possible to their zoo.

The pair decided others might want to join in the activity and in May 2011 they formed the Northwest Indiana Board Game Association, which now has a few hundred members on their Facebook page and nearly 100 members on their guild on BoardGameGeek.com.

The group has attracted a wide diversity of players, although they tend to be primarily male. Hankins estimated that about 10 to 15 percent of the members are female.

Still, he said, there have been more than one couple that has formed as a result of the club. The members' main home is at Hallmark Sports Club II in Merrillville, where Hankins works as a manager, although members also meet at various game stores in the Region.

There is a $5 donation that goes toward rental of the space at the sports club, although the first visit is free and there are reduced rates for players who pay monthly or quarterly. Hankins said there is a library of games at the site for players to try out.

Hankins said while many of those who play the games may be less socially active and quieter, they also "tend to be smart and funny and that's a good combination in my mind."

The Monday night gatherings run from 6 to 10:30 p.m. every week, he said, and usually attract about 20 people or more. A few dozen may show up once a month on Saturdays when they host a full day of board games.

Some of the local stores where they play include Games Inn in Hobart, which bills itself as the largest game store in Northern Indiana, and Tenth Planet in Schererville. They are among a number of stores nationwide that play host to people playing board games, the most popular probably being the fantasy game called "Magic: The Gathering."

Tenth Planet owner Dan Scheffel said an average of 20 to 40 people may show up Friday for the card game at his store, while a variety of other games are played on other nights with a regular Dungeons and Dragons group meeting there on Saturday afternoon.

Hankins said he used to play Magic: The Gathering in the 1990s, but a couple of other players became too competitive and began spending money on better game cards. He said those players went on to play in larger tournaments, but Hankins said he and some others who didn't want to make such an investment stopped playing with them.

Scheffel said his store's philosophy "on all of our tournament play and gaming in stores is we want people to be treated fairly, have fun and then the competitive part of it is sort of third."

Hankins, 52, said most of the board players in his group range in age from the late 20s to their 50s, although they have some older players as well as some teenagers. Hankins, who is also soccer coach for a local travel club, said he also recommends the game playing as a team building exercise.

While many of the games consist of players competing against one another, there are some known as cooperative games in which players work together toward a common goal. The game Pandemic in which players work together to find cures for four diseases that have broken out in different regions of the world was at one time one of the most popular games at the club.

"Terraforming Mars is the hot game right now," he said of the board game that involves making the planet Mars habitable.

The board games are more elaborate than games like Monopoly that some people may have played in their youth. Hankins said the boards and pieces can be called works of art. The games can also be more complex with a lengthy set of rules, he said, but some can be very simple.  A lot of the pieces can become collectible.

He said most of the games people like in his group take an average of about 90 minutes to play and people may play two or three games a night at the Monday gatherings.

In addition, to some romances blossoming from what has become a social gathering, there are also cases in which friends have decided to gather at one another's home to play the games. One advantage of playing among a larger group, however, is that it is easier to find others to play specific games a person may want to play.

Hankins notes the organizers make sure to maintain a family friendly atmosphere at the events and said children are welcome to attend.

John Ward, executive director of the Game Manufacturers Association, spoke of the value of families being able to get together to play the board games. He said just being able to sit together "and really connect with one another is a really good thing for families."

Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, said "I am surprised we don't see more of this now."

He said for all the glories of the Internet there is still the desire to physically interact with people of common interest.

Thompson noted there are a lot of such opportunities for interactions at social events when people are in secondary school and college as well as at retirement centers. He said there is a dearth of such opportunities, however, in the intervening years and is bullish on what places like The Tenth Planet provides.

"I think these types of things should be encouraged," Thompson said.

THE BUSINESS SIDE

While many retail companies try to use as much space as possible to sell their products, a lot of the small hobby game stores have set aside tables for players to use for free.

The hope is players will either purchase the games they are playing with others or similar games. 

Ward said the hobby game industry has seen substantial growth over the last 10 years.

"It's just been growing and growing and growing," he said.

In many cases, like The Tenth Planet, the game stores will only offer very limited goods such as canned soft drinks and snacks for players to buy. 

Ward said one of the seminars at the GAMA Trade Show talks about "cafe models," where the businesses provide more of a variety of beverages or food for players. 

Thompson noted cafe models were seen at book stores like Barnes and Noble and Borders where space was set aside for people with the hope they would purchase a book. The places set up at the game stores, he noted, usually tend to be not quite as upscale and many instead just consist of folding tables and chairs.

Ward, however, said the stores can run the gamut when it comes to their venue.

"We have people who have full scale restaurants as part of their business model," he said.

Hankins noted Games Inn in Hobart is a place that operates more in this vein. The Hobart business opened up the Dark Ground Cafe earlier this year, offering dining options to the hundreds of players who go to its location.

Thompson suggested other retail establishments also may want to look at trying to lure shoppers back into their stores by creating opportunities for the type of personal interaction they can not get on the Internet.

He noted bars are, of course, the primary place where people go for social interactions. The advantage bars have over the game stores, noted Thompson, is that they have a product people will buy multiple times and on multiple days. He thought having another product, like the comics sold at some of the stores, that appeals to the same demographic makes sense for these businesses.

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Ed has been with The Times since January 2014. He previously covered government affairs for Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers in Florida. Prior to Scripps, he was with the Chicago Regional Bureau of Copley News Service.