Tabletop game stores are strange places for me. They're social places, dedicated to board games, that most social of gaming media, and while I love board games, I am fundamentally not a social creature. When I play board games I play them a small group of close friends, people I already know. I'm not necessarily opposed to playing board games with strangers, but the idea of hanging out in a shop designed primarily for that purpose doesn't appeal to me. Even so, there's something that strikes me as wrong about a poorly constructed board game store, one that doesn't have space for play, one that focuses solely on shuffling out products. The Compleat Strategist chain is especially bad in this regard, featuring lavish, surprisingly well stocked, impressively expensive stores bereft of social spaces. It carries through every aspect of their being, right down to their churning, anti-social customer service. I've never had an experience in a Compleat Strategist that made me want to come back, I've just had experiences that didn't seem quite so bad.
All this, despite loving the spaces, the sense of purpose and unity that a board game store provides. There's something about board games in particular, about how they are simultaneously objects of nerd fetish and objects demanding social interaction, that appealed to the part of me that never quite belonged. A good board game store is a place for people who don't quite fit that mold, who may or may not in fact fit another mold at all. It's a space for outsiders, losers, and loners to be none of those things, to be normal people who love a thing in a space that thoroughly enshrines it.
I write this as someone who has lived in New York for about three years now who has just now actually found a legitimate gaming store. It is, as is often the case with board game stores, incredibly inconveniently located, but it is, all the same, an incredible space for shared nerd-dom. The wall of dice, sealed D&D books from the 80s to the present, sealed AD&D player manuals that hold within them scale models, sexist verbiage and overly complex tables that, for so long, made tabletop gaming into an inaccessible cultural construct. The games, oh god, the games, stacked on top of one another, spread out so that one can actually browse through them, peruse them, and do so without blocking passage through the entire god damn store. And the gaming section: in the back, always in the back, an array of cheap wood and metal ringed by the same chairs I buy at Target to fill the common areas of the apartments that I continue to sequence out of every few months.
It took me less than a year to find Guardian Games in Portland. I'd visit them once every few months, usually to buy something small: a set of dice, a pack of Magic cards. I'd glance at the taps next to the folding tables they set up in the back of the store and ponder how many people actually used them, how many people decided to drop by Guardian Games on their Friday night to sit down, drink a beer, and play a hand of Magic with the guys. The idea of doing that in a shared space seemed absurd to me, though a microcosmic view of that same imagined scene played out in reality time and time again across town in a rotating sequences of friend's homes and other bars, places where a game of Dominion was well out of the norm, but still taken in stride by the well-adjusted Portlanders.
The store, in a real sense, made that kind of tolerance possible. Not in that it changed people's minds in some thorough, tangible way, but in that its existence presented a framework that allowed Portlanders to perceive these games as social experiences. I would never drive into Guardian's nightmarish warehouse neighborhood, struggle to find parking, and then throw back a few on my night off. It's just not something I'd have in me, the same way I'd be loath to play a game of Magic the Gathering with a stranger, or ask to cut in on a game of Catan. But the magic of that social space, of the game store as construct, projects itself outside of the structure itself, and into the world at large.
I cannot imagine this phenomena radiating out of The Twenty Sided store. While it's an amazing space, it's located in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It holds up as a sort of bastion against the pervasive irony and layered, postured disinterest that saturates that part of the world. You cannot be a true, full blooded nerd and couch your love of The Thing in irony. It just doesn't compute. You can be shamed, in fact you may very well be constantly shamed, by your relentless enthusiasm, but there's never any kind of disinterest behind your play: you want to win, where winning could mean actually winning, or where winning could mean playing an interesting, complex game, or where winning could mean making a story together. I'm glad that a space like that exists in a place I'd rather never be, and I'm glad I got a chance to visit it for the first time. Its relatively remote location, at the intersection of a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood and a rapidly gentrifying storefront, made for a strange sort of madness, one that I cannot imagine the raw positive energy of The Twenty Sided store radiating out into. Perhaps I am wrong: perhaps I could go into any number of $14 plate bar/restaurants serving gourmet hot dogs and five dollar cans of PBR and see a hand of four way Magic being played. Perhaps I could go into a designer burger shoppe staffed exclusively by waifish men with comically large mustaches and eavesdrop on the table talk for a Catan game. But it seems so unlikely. The magic of the store is contained. Perhaps this is for the best. There's something special about that energy when it's pressed into a small space.
When I visited PAX East with my friends we spent relatively little time on the showroom floor. There simply wasn't that much we could do as a group. Most of our time was spent in the tabletop gaming area. In truth, the area was little more than a series of extra long event tables, the kind you'd usually see in a church basement, ringed by folding chairs. There were vendor booths surrounding the gaming area, but the areas itself, with its raw simplicity and huddled groupings of nerds arrayed around one game or another, was incredible. We picked a spot on our own and a handful of us played an overlong game of Munchkin together. At first, it felt a bit like theater, like we were performing for others. We fudged the rules, argued over minutae and experienced those delightfully interminable delayed turns as players eased in and out of paying attention on their phones. But after a while the magic of the table started to take hold. Instead of fumbling through turns, players started to get into it. The theater became real as players spoiled one another, pushed towards victory only to be torn down in a single brutal maneuver. At one point Jerry Mother Fucking Holkins sat down next to us at the very same table to playtest some sort of Adventure Time looking product, and while we all noticed and nodded among ourselves, he didn't act like he was any different from us, and it didn't feel like he was any different. That was the magic of the table, the magic of that space, where we were all just nerds playing out our tiny little dramas, relishing our little victories, lamenting our more frequent defeats. That space couldn't exist outside PAX. It likely couldn't even really perpetuate itself within PAX amidst the ambient noise, marketing, and ham fisted play-by-play announcements. But that corner of that conference hall conjured the magic that I'm talking about, ringed it in the same confines good game stores do, and managed to make Boston feel like a safer place for a nerdy kid from the suburb, a kid who grew up knowing for a fact he should be ashamed of loving board games and card games as much as he did who still does today. It was a shrine to something I'd always loved, and to sit within its limits and play a board game with friends was sublime.