Patrick Olmstead had prepared for his day away from the office by packing his tablet to check messages periodically and grabbing his keyboard just in case he had to draft a document.
However, the Greenwood attorney was more occupied that day with slabs of cardboard, dice, cards and miniature pieces. Dressed in a T-shirt that says “Jesus Loves You: But I’m his favorite,” Olmstead was at the 2014 Gen Con indulging in his passion for board games.
Tabletop games seem to lack the pizzazz of their flashy video counterparts but the low-tech pastime attracts legions of avid fans, as evidenced by the massive crowds that invade Indianapolis every year for the annual gaming convention.
Attorneys, like Olmstead, number among the board gamers, often speaking about the designs and rules of the games with an infectious enthusiasm. The table
top contests give them the opportunity to forget about the law and instead focus on conquering the world, building railroads, settling new frontiers or outwitting flesh-eating monsters.
“Ultimately, I’m happy if I can play a game and have a good time,” Olmstead said.
Attorney and mediator Steve Spence combined his board-game hobby with his profession when he used a board game to teach mediation skills to students in his negotiation and alternative dispute resolution class at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.
He used the game Diplomacy, which requires players to make decisions about when to forge alliances and when to backstab opponents. The complex rules and time required to play may have hindered the game’s success at teaching the students, but Spence remains a fan.
He grew up playing chess, Stratego and Risk, and he noted playing the games does provide practice for his professional work. A mediator does not say or do something without a particular reason, he said, just like a chess player does not move a piece without a reason.
But his main reason for playing board games is the enjoyment it brings.
Olmstead caught the fever for board gaming when a former colleague took him to Gen Con in 2005. Playing games with other convention goers got him hooked, and he started his personal collection of games with The Settlers of Catan.
For the 2014 event, Olmstead spent part of his time volunteering in the Pick Up and Play room. Attendees could come to the room near the convention floor, open their new purchases or check out a classic from the library, and play. Olmstead helped gamers who had questions about the rules of a particular game or who needed an extra player.
Having changed into a bright orange T-shirt emblazoned with the word “VOLUNTEER,” Olmstead looked over the rows of people playing board games and talked about the correlation between the Pick Up and Play room and litigation.
“I think it’s great,” the attorney said. “If you’re a litigation attorney, it’s good training.” He explained teaching a random group of individuals a bunch of rules they are unfamiliar with is very similar to trying to sway a judge or jury to your side during a trial.
But what keeps him coming back to playing board games is the family time the activity brings. His wife, Julia, and their two daughters will switch off the television, gather around the table, and hang out.
“That’s what I like about gaming,” Olmstead said. “You turn everything off and you focus on spending time together.”
His sentiments are echoed by other attorneys.
Rachelle Ponist Harshman, associate at Patrick Olmstead Law, and her husband, Tippecanoe County Deputy Prosecutor Aaron Harshman, regularly welcome friends into their home for game night.
“I think it’s a productive way to spend time with people,” she said, explaining everyone at the table is involved in the game which creates a lot of laughter and a “joyful experience.”
Board games have always been a part of Ponist Harshman’s life. She would crowd with her girlfriends into the basement of her childhood home and play cards and board games all night. Since high school, board games have fostered key introductions.
She met her husband during moot court at Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law, and their first date was to a trivia event at a local bar. After graduation, her connections and friendships in board-gaming circles led her to Olmstead and eventually a job offer.
Aaron Harshman shares his wife’s enthusiasm. He described himself as a “bit of an evangelist” for board games, explaining he likes to play, he likes to teach others how to play, and he has even helped design a couple of tabletop contests.
The main element that attracts him to the low-tech gaming is the chance to be with friends. Board games, with their slower pace than video games, bring out the players’ personalities and require them to be thoughtful. And, they can be paused whenever the participants want to take a break.
John Lowery, attorney at Lee & Fairman LLP, saw the allure of board games when his two sons put down their video games to join him and his friends at the table. Lowery shares with a neighbor a collection of roughly 50 games that includes Acquire, Empire Builder and Executive Decision.
In high school, he enjoyed many rounds of Risk with his cross-country teammates and in college, while working as a law clerk, he spent a couple of nights each week huddled over a board game with friends. The competition and figuring out a strategy for winning kept him coming back.
Andrew Kanis, of Indianapolis, loves board games so much he is giving up the law. The solo practitioner, who has 700 games and has been a serious player since college, got his dream job when he saw a want ad from Panda Game Manufacturing.
It was not an impulsive move. Kanis has long wanted to work in the gaming industry but figured the only job openings would be for designers or artists. He now knows the industry needs account managers as well.
The social experience and the ability to interact with friends are his favorite aspects of board gaming, he said. Players of video games can be in different locations, but rolling the dice and moving pieces around a board requires all the players to be in the same room.
In the end, work did intrude on Olmstead’s gaming day, but in a good way. Someone at Gen Con chuckled at his “Jesus Loves You” T-shirt which led to a conversation and a new client.
Like Kanis, Olmstead has dreamed of working with the board-game industry. He is working to expand his practice to include legal representation for game designers and publishers. To be successful at adding a new practice area to his firm, Olmstead certainly has the love for the games, but he may need more catchy T-shirts.•