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Local Couples Trade Traditional Date Nights for Board Game Nights

While some people are content to indulge in Monopoly or backgammon, these black couples are embracing gaming night as the ultimate alternative to dinner and a movie.

Art by Jay Holladay

The world of board gaming has gone beyond the simple act of rolling the dice and waiting for a turn. In the wake of console games and mobile apps, more couples – including African-Americans – are turning to tabletop games in search of a new experience.

Nathan & Sherika Collins

Nathan and Sherika Collins are trying out a new game – Empires of the Void II. Neither one is entirely convinced that they love it. The pieces are neatly fitted around the wooden board game table. They sit across from one another studying the board as images from an anime TV show flit in the background. The sound, not quite muted but barely audible, has the haunted quality of a dying radio. We're joining a game already in progress, clearly, open to several interpretations.

"His (Nathan's) character goes planet-to-planet and leaves parasites, which he can then control the populace to do his bidding," Sherika explains. "It sounds bad, but that's what he does. My people … we're peaceful – for now – because my strategy requires me to be so. I kind of go, I leave some ships behind. Something may happen, something may not happen. I have some machinations going over here," she points to an area of the board. "He's tipped his hand way too early. He's going to go place-to-place and just subjugate everybody." She adds with a smirk: "I told him it sounds like slavery."

Nathan and Sherika might as well be communicating telepathically. Although they verbally tease one another, so much goes unspoken. So much history unfurls, and an even deeper connection is revealed. They easily complete each other's sentences but, more often than not, take opposing viewpoints and smash them together in a sort of endless repartee. This is a decade-long marriage, which originated on eHarmony, the popular dating website established in 2000. About seven years after the website's launch, Nathan and Sherika created online profiles. Eventually, they found each other. Nathan made the first move.

Out of all the usual profiles, listing favorite movies, TV shows and mundane activities meant for maximum posturing, Nathan saw something that really caught his eye: a profile touting The Dark Knight Returns comic book. First, he wouldn't have expected a "girl" to be into comics (that was a rarer thing back then), and second, The Dark Knight Returns? It couldn't be real. On their first date, he threw out some trick questioning to see if she did in fact read the comic. She passed. But Nathan failed.

"On our first date, he breaks out a game called … ?" Without hesitation, Nathan answers: "Guillotine."

"I whipped his ass in Guillotine," Sherika says, clearly relishing the win. "I had never played that game before."

After their first game night, the couple began attending smaller gaming conventions in Southfield, Farmington Hills and other cities. Going out for games is less common today. They prefer game nights at home, so they bought this gaming table – the one where they're pantomiming alien races for their 10th anniversary.

Both Sherika and Nathan got early exposure to tabletop board gaming, but in different ways. Nathan was chasing a girl who got him into Magic: The Gathering. Sherika discovered Dungeons & Dragons while attending Michigan Technological University for mechanical engineering. She was one of five black people in the town, including one on faculty. It was hard to be the girl into gaming because most of her opponents misread the signals.

"It's weird – as a woman when you go gaming with guys, they immediately think you want to date," she says, pausing, then deciding to walk the comment back ever so slightly. "They don't think you want to date, they just think you want to make yourself available. So I was never able to game with guys when I was in college."

Nathan, a Wayne State University graduate in communications, worked for the Detroit News as a journalist and eventually found another career as a data analyst. He enjoys the work, which gives him time to focus on his hobbies. But sometimes it takes more than two.

Couples gaming nights are usually held on Fridays at their home in Canton. Their own game nights – just the two of them – are set for Wednesdays. One of the best parts about board gaming is playing in large groups and sharing their love of gaming with others. They frequently introduce other couples to board gaming. Black couples such as Ashley, Omar, Lashelle and Geoffrey all enjoy game nights at Nathan's and Sherika's.

Ashley & Omar Abubakari

"When you go over to (Nathan and Sherika's) house, one of the first things you actually notice in their home is there are so many tabletop board games," says Omar Abubakari. "We started playing a couple of games with them – we're still very new to everything. It turned out to be a lot of fun."

Ashley's a registered nurse and Omar's a stay-at-home dad with a degree in electrical engineering from U of M. He used to be into console gaming, but was turned off by the increasing sameness of it.

"Video games to a degree have a limited scope," Omar says. "I believe that tabletop gaming really unleashes different worlds, different realities. It's much more diverse. Everyone plays the same console games. There's a million tabletop games. It's a new experience every time you open a different box."

Ashley agrees with Omar; however, her own experience didn't include gaming of any kind. She's simply open to trying new things and prefers an intellectual challenge. She's aware that most women probably wouldn't choose board gaming as a first hobby.

"Nate's wife is as into as he is – she's showed me that it's not just for men," Ashley says. "They have a lot of other female friends that play as well. But in our circle, it's a pretty even split."

Gaming is a shared experience between them, but Ashley plays omega to Omar's alpha – intentionally so. "I would say it's my way of kind of pulling her into my world. It's a way to bring her towards my center and get her out of her comfort zone a little bit, there's a bonus for both of us," he says. "It builds a different level of camaraderie when you do active things together rather than passive things."

Lashelle Benjamin & Geoffrey Hubbard

Actively pursuing activities together is what has kept Lashelle Benjamin, who works for a Medicaid plan, and Geoffrey Hubbard, a plant line operator, dating for five years. That, plus, they have a son together. Benjamin had loved board games before meeting Nathan and Sherika. She used to play Taboo and Monopoly with her family, as well as card games. Basically, she has a very competitive spirit.

"I'm a junk talker," Benjamin says. "And I know they do have (it) where you can talk to people online, but it's not the same as knowing a person." Since they're both competitive, it can be more interesting because sometimes she doesn't know whose side her boyfriend is actually on. "I think he's going to help me in a game, and he'll be out for self," she says. "We're making time for each other."

Benjamin and Hubbard are still in their 20s and continue to grow together. At this stage, Hubbard is more interested in board gaming than other pursuits. "I'm more about the competition," Hubbard says. "I like to win. It doesn't matter what game it is as long as I'm the winner or the best at the end. I'm kind of over the club stuff. I'm not really a gambler. You get to have fun, you get to relax."

Benjamin says, "I don't know a lot of black couples who play, but I know a lot of people who are open. When I mention it, people want to know more about it."

Growing Young Together

And that's the kind of response Sherika and Nathan hope to inspire. Anyone entering their home will see the board games and, with any luck, you're invited down to the rec room, which sports a projection screen, a comfy couch and shelves stacked with board games, many unopened because they're worth more that way – typically, thousands.

CNBC recently reported that more millennials are board gaming, making it a $9.6 billion-dollar industry back in 2016. African-American engagement wasn't tracked, nor did they cover Gen Xers, such as Nathan and Sherika, but that's OK.

Nathan remembers being one of five other black people who used to attend Gen Con, the biggest gaming convention in the U.S., which takes place in Indianapolis. They used to go regularly; now, it's too congested. They prefer the intimacy of each other's company and, of course, the company of friends.

Like most couples, Nathan and Sherika go to the movies, but gaming nights have both economical and personal advantages. A typical game night can run from $50-$75, but that covers at least three games. Once done, he can sell the game for at least half price.

"Can't do that with a movie date – once that money's gone, it's gone," he says. "The movie was awful? Oh well. And then the (games) we keep, they're memories."

Board games are not for everyone, Nathan admits, but couples should do something that requires time commitment. It's also about learning, socializing, getting to know one another, and getting to know other people. True to form, Sherika agrees, yet amplifies her husband's statement.

"I've never been attracted to the guy that struggles to put a couple of sentences together," she says. "Give me something more … grow with me. That's what hobbies together can do. A lot of people grow apart in marriage mainly because they stop growing together. How do you live with somebody for 20 years and you don't have anything in common? That boggles the mind right there."

Inspired by Nathan and Sherika? Check out these local spots to buy, play and dive into board games for time alone or your next party.

All Play

42865 Five Mile Road, Plymouth

734-228-5946

Eternal Games

26051 Hoover Road, Warren

586-684-4263

Pandemonium Games and Hobbies

6033 Middlebelt Road, Garden City

734-427-2451

RIW Hobbies

29571 Five Mile Road, Livonia

734-261-7233

The Loaded Die

22801 Woodward Ave., Ferndale

248-686-1810

Vault of Midnight

1226 Library St., Detroit

313-481-2165

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