October 23, 2021

Game time

Photos by Katie Keyser/contributing photographer

John Howard of Cortland shows a secret opening on a miniature military game he made.

When you are stuck in a desert for two years with nothing to do, you adapt. You play Dungeons and Dragons.

That’s when John Howard of Cortland, an 18-year veteran of the military, got hooked on the game, as a Marine during Operation Desert Storm.

“I have played games all my life,” Howard said. “I’m not into video games. I like them. But I don’t have the patience to sit and play them.”

Howard, 50, a single father of three teens, founded the Cortland Area Gamers Guild in April 2017. In the beginning, it was just him. Now the guild has 120 members across Central New York. It has monthly game nights open to the public at the Cortland Community Center, 90 Central Ave. Its next game night is 5 to 9 p.m. Dec. 3.

“It’s free and open to anyone that plays games,” he said. “You don’t have to have any games to bring with you. One board game serves two to seven people. If you show up, there’s going to be a board game.”

“I like the social aspect of games. People sitting around a table is more appealing to me than sitting around, staring at a screen,” Howard said.

Howard has a huge house in the city. A shelf in the kitchen holds some of his 200-game collection. In the dining room he has landscape panoramas on boards, tucked away in shelves, used for miniature war games.

“Did you see my Connect Four on the way in?” he said.

An outdoor Connect Four game in John Howard’s Cortland home.

In the entry foyer is an outdoor 3-foot-high Connect Four rack, with discs that fit in the slots that are the size of dinner dishes.

Tabletop games include classic board games like Monopoly, role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons, miniature war games and collectable or trading card games like Pokemon and Magic the Gathering. They also include card and dice games too.

Howard, who moved to Cortland in 2009, is originally from Melbourne, Fla. “I spent 18 years in the military, all of it in infantry,” Howard said. “I was brought up on Air Force bases where dad was stationed. When I was 18, I ran away and joined the Marines. … I have lived in a lot of places, have traveled around the world.”

He spent eight years in the Marines, got out and went back into the National Guard for 10 years. He has three children, William, 17, Hellen, 14 and Diana, 12. The children’s mom lives out of state.

Part of John Howard’s collection of board games, seen here in his Cortland home Nov. 21, 2018. A favorite of his: Risk.

Howard buys his games at typical stores, online, from game stores and picks up older games from thrift stores.

“Thrifty Shopper is a good place for everything. Any of the thrift stores tend to have games, older games, classic games like Monopoly,” he said.

Howard has his collection registered on BoardGameGeek, where people list their games. He has 143 listed there but has more small and role-playing games beyond that.

“There are people that spend hundreds of dollars every month on board games,” he said. “It’s a hobby, like people who knit. (Knitters) buy all this yarn.”

Worldwide, 2,000 to 3,000 new board games come out every year. Europe is huge for games. Conventions host televised releases and people watch the release parties for days, he said.

Howard’s favorite game is Dungeons and Dragons.

“You can be who you want to be,” he said. “You can live a different life: rescue princesses, slay dragons, be a great hero — do all kinds of stuff without limit. Not too many people get to go on hero’s quests with their friends in the world anymore. Dungeons and Dragons allows you to do that.”

Role-playing games are good for children with autism and are good for school children. They develop problem-solving and social skills. It’s a good social outlet for teens and middle-aged people.

“It’s the opposite of modern society where people get individualized and compartmentalized,” he said. “It develops community.”

People also learn how to debate civilly: argue with someone without getting mad.

“You do that a lot in role playing games and board games.”

William Howard, 17, of Cortland, with a collectible card game he enjoys. He is one of John Howard’s three teens.

Howard is working at three libraries to offer gaming groups: at the Cortland Free Library, which has a Dungeons and Dragons Club, in Dryden’s Southworth Library and in the Hamilton Public Library in Hamilton.

For the last, in the Utica area, Howard is working with the CNY Tabletop Society and CNY Role Playing Games, to host tabletop game events three times a month.

“It’s a bit out of our area, be we gamers like to help each other out,” he

“I know nothing about the guild, but I do know about John and what he did at the library,” said Diane Pamel, director of the Southworth Library in Dryden. “John is awesome. He manages to keep 14 kids playing this game for three hours.”

It was during Dryden’s recent Teen Takeover, which attracted more than 30 kids, where Howard taught the game. The other half of the group was playing board games, including chess.

“He is so gung ho. He wants to see kids engaged, face to face. Not screen time,” Pamel said.

People can find out the next gaming event at www.southworthlibrary.org. Vanessa Mielke, co-owner of Heroes and Villains, a comic book shop that hosts weekly Magic the Gathering card games at 75 E. Court St., Cortland, said the card game is a creative outlet.

“You can tell there’s a genuine joy from playing it … and it’s a way to escape every day stresses,” Mielke said. “We are living in a very fast-paced society.”

The games are a way for people to connect.

“You see friendships evolve and bonds are formed from it,” she said.

“As I have gotten older, I have noticed a phenomenon,” Howard said. “You lose an opportunity to make friends, to socialize.”

People in their 50s are not going to school with their peers. They may have church or social groups like the Veterans of Foreign Wars, of which Howard is a member. But gaming is open to everybody of all abilities and background.

“People are getting tired of technology and getting lost in their phones,” he said. “People want to have fun again.”