YARMOUTH, Maine — On a cold Wednesday night in late November, 15 grown men descended upon a Route 1 strip mall to play games.
The Yarmouth Marketplace shops were dark, with the exception of Dirigo Hobbies, which for the past three years has served as merchant, battleground and clubhouse for local fans of fantasy card and board games and modern iterations of “Dungeons & Dragons.”
At the the end of December, owner Doug Hanrion will move Dirigo Hobbies to a larger, more affordable location on Main Street in Gray. He’s confident the customers who frequent his store week after week for game nights will follow him.
These folks — mostly in their 20s and 30s, almost exclusively male — come for the games but stay for the community.
“For me, it’s about the people,” said Drew, 28, who loves Pathfinder, a role-playing game in which players inhabit the characters of sorcerers, barbarians and clerics. “I like hanging out with like-minded people, and I like the role playing. It’s a shared storytelling experience where everyone’s using their imagination.
“You start in a tavern, or an adventuring party, or as soldiers in a unit,” he said. “Then you investigate a lead. It could be all combat, or dungeon raiding, or more story-based. If you really have a good group, it becomes immersive, more so than movies, video games, or books. The players are reacting and leading the story.”
At a recent game night, Drew wasn’t playing anything. He strolled the store and chatted with friends who played the massively popular card game “Magic: The Gathering,” and “Warmachine,” a table-top game that features handpainted models and figurines doing battle and more closely resembles a traditional board game.
Painting and assembling the models adds another dimension to the gaming experience and attracts different types of enthusiasts.
Max Beck of Gorham said he spends as many as 20 hours customizing his larger gaming pieces, like a 5-inch-tall “Warmachine” robot. He uses magnets and glue to attach weapons and accoutrement to the model, and then sprays it black before painting in color and applying a sealant.
The game pieces don’t have to be painted, and their customization has no effect on game play. It’s purely aesthetic, like peacocking for guys whose personal fashion sense entails little more than jeans, T-shirts and hoodies.
Beck, who works in customer support at Idexx Laboratories, said he likes “Warmachine” because it requires a small investment — about $50 — to get started and reminds him of “free-form chess, or chess without a board.”
He, too, remarked about the sense of community among the gamers.
“Everyone can relate to each other,” he said.
Beck met Hanrion about a year ago when he started coming into Dirigo. The two hit it off; they went fishing and took a week-long road trip to Indianapolis for Gen Con, which was founded in 1968 and bills itself as “the original, longest-running, best-attended gaming convention in the world.” This year’s event in August drew more than 49,000 people.
“It’s not a friendship,” Hanrion said. “I call these people my family.”
There are stigmas associated with the world of hobby gaming. Chris, a schoolteacher who enjoys “Magic: The Gathering,” calling it a combination of chess and poker, asked that his full name not be used to avoid blow-back from his students’ parents. Drew also asked that his last name be withheld.
There is something patently uncool about these games — the fantasy trappings, the 30-sided dice, the rule books that can strike the uninitiated as impenetrable. And in the 1980s, various groups tried to link “Dungeons & Dragons” to everything from satanism to schizophrenia.
But last month at Dirigo, there were no occult or psychotic episodes. The guys ordered in pizza to share. There was small talk and good-natured ribbing. No betting on the games, not a beer can in sight. It was good, clean fun.
As for the coolness factor, in an age where video games and “The Lord of the Rings” are truly mainstream, there may be some underground credibility left in hobby gaming. It’s not a small industry — Hasbro bought the leading company, “Wizards of the Coast,” for $325 million in 1999 — but it has flown largely under the radar for decades, and many of its fans like it that way.
“This encompasses everything that is nerd-dom, everything that is geek-dom,” Hanrion, who played “Magic: The Gathering” professionally for five years and started working at Dirigo Hobbies a year and a half ago before buying the shop 10 months later, said proudly. “These games transcend genres, ages, borders.”