EVERYONE IS A GAMER. That is true, at least, to some extent, and I would argue that point but that isn’t the point of what I have to say today. My point is that the world needs more game stores, to provide ACTUAL support to the gamer in everyone. Scratch that. That is also not my main point. My actual point is that I have been trying, very hard, to open my own boardgame restaurant and bar, in order to support the gamer that is in everyone, but my quest to open a brick-and-mortar store has run into a brick wall.
Forced to admit that academia was not for me, I left a PhD program 20 years ago, and decided I would one day run my own book and game store. B Dalton and Borders were still around, the internet was in its infancy, and there was no such thing, yet, as social media. Game stores were small holes in the wall, tiny dens (often unkempt) dominated by particular niche-dwellers, and the games available were miniatures, role-playing, detailed war games, and the relatively new “trading card games” – mostly Magic the Gathering or the brand new Pokemon Cards. Your typical person-on-the-street, asked to name a board game, would respond with so-called family games like Monopoly, Risk, or Sorry, or else the Hasbro “Game Night” games like Taboo, Scattergories, or Trivial Pursuit. See any garage sale or thrift store for more, similar titles. One might find a nice chess set here or there, and there was always a cheap checker or parcheesi or backgammon or dominoes or 3-in-1 or 8-in-1 set in many a random corner, or clearance bin. Or you could buy a generic deck of cards at a convenience store, or a nicer one, as well as a Hoyle’s Book of Rules, at Barnes and Noble.
Way back since then – even before then – I thought to myself “They aren’t doing this right.” There is a reason Monopoly and Risk and Clue have stuck around all these years – they provide something worthwhile. But they are limited, and the combination of ubiquity, market domination, and limitations rendered the American conceptualization of board games as mere pastimes. Games were for the idle, or worse, something for children, and not for serious (i.e. “normal”) adults. Yet there was still ongoing interest and investment in party games and adult parlor games, at some level, in every city and town. Trivial Pursuit, Balderdash, and Scene-It existed in many homes. Cranium came out and almost overnight became a huge success. So adults DID want to play games, some more serious than others.
In the mean time, in Germany, the people who created serious wargaming (using games for modeling warfare, in order to gain an actual wartime advantage) in the early 1800’s with Kriegspiel, have been busy creating modern boardgames. As far back as 1978, an appointed jury of German-speaking boardgame experts has been awarding the “Spiel des Jahre” to the family-style board game with the best combination of originality, ease of rules, construction, and functionality. The Spiel des Jahre can safely be called the Oscars of the board game world. The annual Essen Game Fair, an annual exposition of new games both simple and complex, began in 1983, and continues to be the Mecca of the board game world; a pilgrimage to Essen is almost implicitly required for one to have credentials in the board game world (I am not so credentialed. Yet). So Germany and other countries in Northern Europe got a running start at creating, and celebrating, board games as a legitimate hobby for adults as well as kids. Then, in 1995, Klaus Teuber, a Dental Technician, first published Settlers of Catan.
Now known strictly as “Catan,” the game was introduced to the US and picked up by people who were keeping the boardgame hobby alive. But something else happened. It took a decade or so, but Catan became a cross-over success. It was being introduced to regular families and friends by the one oddball gamer in the family, and it was a hit, as it – along with its multiple spin-offs and expansions – has been ever since. Now considered a “gateway game,” since it has an appeal that makes it easier for “non-gamers” to enjoy (while still holding an appeal to gamers), Catan opened the floodgates in America to the high quality games being created and played in Europe. The big sign that a modern game has become a gateway game is its availability in mass market stores like Walmart, Target or Toys R Us (rip).
Catan features hexagonal, numbered tiles that produce resources of various types when their number is rolled, and players who have built structures (using their resources) on the tiles earn those resources, and can build more structures or roads to future building sites, plus they can trade resources with other players. The goal in Catan is to be first to ten “victory points,” which are awarded for various things. And that is the appeal of what are known as “Eurogames:” there is no direct conflict – no battles, no rent collection, no player elimination. Every player is in the game until the end. Games typically have themes, relatively brief but intuitive rules, low randomness/high skill (ever have a game of Risk in the bag, only to roll a bunch of ones and twos and lose everything?), and a small stable of game mechanics that have become increasingly popular, such as Tile Placement, Set Collection, Auctions and Bidding, and Worker Placement. Other games that have become popular and serve as gateway games include Carcassonne, Ticket to Ride, and Pandemic.
So…what does that mean for me? I wanted to create a game store, and I wanted to “do it right.” I wanted to give people ample, comfortable seating, an attractive, interesting, classy, and clean atmosphere, and lots of games to choose from. Most importantly, I wanted to provide a place that gamers could call home, and at the same time a place that nongamers could come into and feel welcome…and learn new games instead of the same old, limited fun they had been used to.
So I left my job a year ago, with more than 20 years of retail under my belt. 20 years, mostly in management, running someone else’s business, some who were in it for the right reason, many who were not. Regardless, I was always working in an industry I enjoyed, but not doing it my way, the way I know that customers would respond to, and pay for, and, most importantly, providing something of true value to customers. So I took the plunge, and began the long process of trying to create my own store, and “doing it right.”
People with a lot of money have the freedom to dabble in these things. If I had enough money of my own, I would be writing this as the owner and operator of currently thriving The Grail Tabletop Tavern. Alas, I do not, so I am not. I have the support of a few people, also without a lot of money, but some, and I have my own relatively meager savings. Beyond that, in order for me to create the place that I KNOW people will flock to, I need to ask the bank for money. And asking the bank for m0ney means lots of forms, and reviews, and requests, and some more forms, and lots of time up front, and lots of time behind (just waiting). It also means that if you haven’t run a restaurant in the past (“95%” of which fail), you automatically have one strike against you. If so many restaurants fail, they clearly need to avoid restaurant people. But what do I know?
So here’s the point of my story today. My goal is to create the best game store you have ever been to. You would walk in to behold a grand wall of over 1,000 games to choose from and play, be seated by a host/ess with your group composition and game preferences in mind (quiet, loud, large, small, etc), then you could play, and eat, and drink, in any order, and stay as long as you like. There would be game experts available, to help you choose, learn, or interpret the rules of a game. If you try a current game and like it, you can buy it – for yourself or as a gift to someone not lucky enough to live around here. There are lots of boardgame cafes popping up, finally, but I want to run a boardgame restaurant and bar – meaning there would be a full bar and a full menu of tasty food instead of just pastries and coffee, and there would be comfortable, booth seating, not just wood and metal chairs that make you want to leave after a half hour.
Wait, no, that wasn’t actually the point, but this is: I found a great building, in a great location, with a TON of character, and grand ideas for decor that would have made it worth visiting just to see. I ironed out the details with the owners, and then set out to apply for a bank loan. And the loan process takes a lot of time, and the owners of the location became impatient, and the bank just told me I would have it in less than two weeks, and I just received an e-mail from the owners that they signed another tenant, so this awesome location is gone, and I’m back to the drawing board of finding a new space.
So I’m sad, mad, and discouraged. But that’s how it goes – in life and in games. Things don’t always go your way, but sometimes to win you have to persevere, adapt, and try a different strategy. I am closer to my goal of providing a boardgame restaurant and bar, even with this setback, because when I find the right place, or the next right place, as it were, I will have financial momentum behind me, and I will be able to act quickly. And when I win this, everyone else will get to share in it. It’ll be awesome.