I Am Not Insane

On one sweltering, summer afternoon in Baton Rouge, perhaps three years ago, I visited a hobby store. I call it a "hobby" store because I don't know what better appellation might befit a store that sells games of all types, except for the electronic variety. You may know its kind: the store stays open well into the evening, so that the core customer group of high-school-aged boys will visit on days other than the weekends. Tall glass cases house row upon row of hand-painted miniatures for display, many of which have somehow gathered a layer of dust, in spite of their transparent trappings. And the selection of merchandise ranges from old, out-of-print Avalon Hill games, to esoteric tabletop RPGs imported from continental Europe, as well as Magic: The Gathering, Warhammer, chess, Go, and everything in-between. Such stores as these are guilty pleasures--shameful even, for some people--but the guilt fades quickly before the sheer onslaught of enthusiasm, which permeates the place to its very core. You can tell, simply by examining the variegated wares, and also the faces of other customers, that there is an unbroken chain of pure, juvenile delight that stretches from the games' designers, to the store's proprietor, right to the customers themselves. Hobby stores are among the happiest of places in which money is expected to change hands.

In other words, they're a far cry from EB or Gamestop.

On that particular day, in that particular store, I myself was being awfully particular about what I should buy. I noticed an old Shadowrun sourcebook that I had once fervently desired as a kid, and my heart leapt at the opportunity to fulfill that longstanding want. Then my eye strayed to the historical wargames section, where I must have loitered in awe for at least ten minutes before dejectedly returning the Shadowrun book to its shelf. But before I could decide between the battles of Zama and Alesia (tough choice, that!), a crazy 3-D geometry game involving plastic pyramids stole my attention away; and, in very much this same manner, I eventually covered the entirety of the store at least three times over, to the point that I decided I should amend the common simile that usually refers to children and confectionaries, for fear that it had fallen fatally out of style.

Finally, while browsing through the discount section, I settled upon one (and only one) game, of tactical combat involving medieval knights and squires, which was remarkable for several reasons. Rather than coming in a lavish or descriptive box, the game was packaged in a gallon-sized, plastic, zip-top bag. In place of a neatly bound and illustrated manual printed on glossy paper, it came with thirty or so pages torn from a dot-matrix printer. And instead of colorful plastic pieces, the bag contained dozens of humble, cardboard rectangles, each of which was marked with words and numbers, which, to my considerable surprise, were not handwritten, but actually printed out by machine. Perhaps most significant of all to my process of deliberation, the game had no price tag, and when I offered the storeowner one dollar for it, he promptly agreed.

Of course, I never once actually played my medieval combat game; this is the sad fate of at least fifty percent of all tabletop games, as any aficionado will confirm. (I wish I could tell you the game's name and designer, but I don't even remember that much; and after the chaos hurricane Katrina inflicted upon my household, I doubt that I'll ever even see that worn, plastic bag again.) But I didn't need to play it to get my slight money's worth. It was quite enough for me simply to read the manual's historical synopses, to study the arcane rules and dense statistical tables, and generally to bask in someone else's labor of love. One man had designed the entire game from scratch, and it was presumably he who made the cardboard pieces, printed out the manual, and shoved the whole thing in a bag for sale.

Thinking back on these hobby-store and hobby-game experiences, I can count, oh, approximately seven thousand ways that they leave me satisfied, ways that video gaming seldom does anymore. Consider the quality and diversity of the games on the market; the fantastic retail experience (that is, to my knowledge, the norm for the industry); the openness to small, independent developers; and those developers' unflagging ability to design fresh, interesting games that do not assume mass-market idiocy of their target audience.

(As far as the "openness to small developers" goes: I am well aware of the fact that my nifty game-in-a-bag experience is not even remotely normal; nor should we ever expect it to be. After all, I doubt that my forgotten game designer turned much more of a profit than the measly buck I paid for his labor. But it is indicative of a broader pattern of receptiveness that exists in the retail tabletop and hobby games industries, in which storeowners pride themselves on having a wide and eclectic selection, and customers expect nothing less.)

It seems that I am always harkening back to the video-gaming industry that was, and forever lamenting the industry that now exists. This sort of activity--the harkening back, that is--is liable to knock eyeballs loose within their sockets, and I am by this point accustomed to people dismissing my complaints with less concern than Prometheus showed to Io at the sting of her gadfly. I think that from now on, though, whenever people suggest that I'm engaging in some wildly exaggerative nostalgia, imagining idealized states that could never pertain to the real world, rather than stamp my feet and insist that I was there, man, I'll just point to the hobbyist games industry and say, That's how it's done. If they can get it right, so can we.


Your not insane, I'm one of those obsessive people that derives ridiculous amounts of satisfaction from knowing games rules inside and out, sometimes the fun is in learning how to play a game, not in the game itself.

I've just recently dusted off my shelves of miniatures and forced my housemate to convert our dining room for games of Mordheim, a few months back I spent weeks learning Go, and I find experiences like this can be good to just bring you out of yourself, and do what your parents always told you, and get away from the damn computer.

I don't know if I agree with you, Lobo. Hobby stores are just as concerned with the bottom line as anywhere else, and unless you find a remarkably large store, you'll find the Yu-Gi-Oh Cards and Warhammer figurines grabbing their lebensraum from the obscure, dot matrix-eqsue game-in-a-baggies. We're pretty lucky to have a large hobby store in Rochester relatively nearby, but even that store is more than half Pokemon cards and Lord of the Rings paraphenalia. Smaller stores would have to relegate all the "unique" games to one shelf; I've seen it happen. So, I don't think hobby stores are nearly the utopia you describe.

Yet, they're closer to it than your average Gamestop. How many "unique", game-in-a-baggies do you find there?

I'm convinced the Internet, and digital distribution, will bring that hobby-store feel to gaming that you and I and everyone else wants. Maybe not tomorrow, maybe not a year from now, but soon.

I think store staff has a lot to do with a good game shop experience too. There's an EB Games right near my work that I get the same kind of experience, socially speaking, that I do at the hobby/board game shop I like to frequent: the staff are not only enthusiastic about games and their job, they're willing to chat with you about it too. Quite a leap from the experience I've had at most other EB stores I have to say.

Warhammer owns me so I am constantly at the local gaming store. My video game time has dramatically decreased since I rekindled my tabletop obsession but I never was one to linger in a video game store anyways. If I do spend more than five minutes there , it is because I am looking through the bargain bins for games I wanted to play in the past but didn't have the time or money. I do agree that the hobby store experience is much different and brings back that sense of innocent joy that I remember as a kid.
Another big difference is the staff ... I can't say hi to the guys at the hobby stores without them following me around and chatting my ear off. Nice article, Lobo. Been thinking similar thoughts lately ...

Not insane at all, and I too, have the closet full of baggie games and german wierdness and more Advanced Squad Leader stuff than I will ever play. I too have a certain nostalgia. But as Katerin points out, the modern hobby gamer store is struggling to survive. The Internet has driven their margins to the point where they MUST sell local product that requires place. I know a few gamestore guys - the reason they push magic and warhammer is that they repeat. If he runs a draft tournament every friday night and 10 kids show up, he's just sold 30 packs of magic cards and perhaps has to give 2 away free. If 50 kids show up he's sold 150 and has to give away a dozen or so. Along the way, every one of these kids bought a few 1 dollar sodas and some snacks, and all those kids drooled over the magic singles in the case.

Same with warhammer to some degree, although Games Workshop business practices have started shrinking their shelfspace.

Along the way, a hundred really, really good german style games never get the shelfspace they deserve. The reason? They're targetted at adults with money. Most of my favorite games -- game of thrones, funkenshlag, arkham horror -- cost upwards of $50 and require 3 players.

This state of affairs has (believe it or not) allowed the monster Hasbro to produce a truly excellent "real" game system - Heroscape. It's gamer crack. Thousands of kids are getting hooked on miniatures wargaming because of it. It's cheap, and it plays two, and it makes you talk to someone and thing slowly and tactically. It's the perfect complement to, say, Halo.

Side note: I gave some serious consideration to openning a gamestore three years go. I had some money, I had some time, I definately had the interest. I decided that there was simply no way to pay myself enough to pay my mortgage living in the exurb I live in - you need a college town or a city nearby to provide the traffic.

I agree with you completely Lobo, although I am a little more pessimistic, as I believe the wonderful types of stores you describe will soon be only nostalgia. To make a parallel to a very similar industry, comic books, the small comic book store with the high school kids and enthusiastic owner and eclectic collection of comics, is almost a thing of the past. And sadly, it's not large comic book stores or lack of interest that is driving them under, it's the internet. With the ability to buy hard to find titles and comics from eBay or Amazon, there is less foot traffic and far less custom for the small comic book store to cater to. Such businesses have gone from what has always been a risky venture at best, to a losing proposition all around, and the enthusiasm that you spoke of is no longer enough to sustain said establishment among the mounting bills. And should this wonderful icon survive, it can only do so by no longer sinking the money into rare, interesting comics, figurines and trivia, but by focusing on what actually makes them money. Magic: the Gathering and less interesting, mainstream periodicals.

Small hobby stores have an advantage, in that there is much more of a social atmosphere in such places, and for some people it is the only place they can go to regularly play such games. This will draw a clientele that is much more likely to buy in person from you than for a few bucks cheaper online. But even so, I fear the eventual disappearance of the venue entirely.

If you're looking for that 'game in a plastic baggie' feel and can't get it locally, I HIGHLY recommend Cheap Ass Games for fantastic board/card games and Indie Press Revolution for excellent independent RPGs. If you've ever thought there was more to Role-Playing than clunky combat and stat maxing, you should definitely check out The Forge for great discussion on those other RPGs.

Man, sounds like the better part of my twenties. There was a gaming store outside DC called Dream Wizards - it still exists, although the nature of the staff has changed and it's moved a few miles - that was Nerd Central for gamers, occultists, medievalists, foam fighters, BBS addicts and the like. It was absolutely stuffed, to the point where sometimes new material was simply placed in milk crates and set near a counter or rotating display. There were ongoing games in a side room, and a U around the back room was full of strange UFO and Newage crank stuff, with wonderful covers that featured out of focus aliens with their Molesto-wands and pyramids with glowing eyes shining out of them. The owners had come out of the local computer/RPG/medieval scene, and they hired mostly people I knew peripherally from Twelfth Night banquets and consulting companies, so it was always comfortable. I spent hours in there just catching up and debating various minutiae of games new and gone by. Occasionally, I'd even buy stuff, and as I made more money, they got more from me. I think I bought just about the entire ASL set there over time.

A good game store is as much a scene as a money-making enterprise.

I'm a little too tired to commiserate with you except to say that your article brought back many memories of me and a friend thumbing through a big box of Battletech CCG cards in a local comic shop for sometimes up to an hour.

Oh, and as far as table top gaming, Sabbuteo is always where it's at.

Damn, it's been so long since I've played that.

I've got that first edition hardcover Shadowrun book sitting on a shelf in my closet, along with probably twenty sourcebooks and modules. I can't quite bring myself to sell them, in spite of the fact that I haven't played a PnP RPG in more than ten years. I don't frequent hobby stores anymore, but this article has definitely caused me to wax nostalgic.

It really does depend on the kind of store you go into. The store I run, for example, is a bubbling cauldron of knowledge and fun. And this is because I only hire people that are willing to do what has to be done to make the customer experience a fun one. I'm not going to spend 40+ hours a week at work if I'm not going to have a good time. Sure there are mandates rained down upon you by corporate, but as long as you don't let that stuff quell your attitude it's all good.

Yeah, I miss the experience of going into those small town stores and finding my Marvel Universe trading cards, or my Transformers The Movie puffy stickers, but if you can come across an EB or Gamestop in which the manager actually cares about customer service and the attitude of his staff, then it's possible that good times await.

I freaked out from the title, Lobo, I thought it was Part 2 of your last article!

Tabletop games cost much less to create and publish than even primitive video games. The profit is probably slightly higher and thus I imagine comic/rpg shops can survive longer than say niche video game shops. Plus, the atmosphere of a true D&D shop is something I hope never disappears. Nerds rule!

As a very small publisher of hobby games (it's a side business, too be sure) I understand the perils of running a game store these days. The only way to survive is to be constantly, constantly running events. We go to the local game stores that stock our product and do demos, and the ones that always have events going on are the ones that are growing, despite the Internet.

On the other hand, we also sell our games online. We produce small card games (along the lines of the early days of Cheapass Games, production style-wise) and some PDF games, which is a section of the gaming industry that is growing quickly. I'll bet it's way easier and cheaper to be a small hobby press (like us) than a small hobby videogame studio. And with new Print on Demand technologies and PDF games, it's just getting easier. However, don't expect it to pay the rent unless you really, really push it. And even then, it's a good bit of luck.

Check out our current card game, Zombie Rally at our web site if you want to see what today's small press games look like.

I had much the same thoughts shoftly after buying my first PC in '92. For years before that I'd occasionally stop by a software store in a small DC mall and they'd let me play some computer games, as long as no one else wanted the machine (and that almost never happened). It was very much the same feel as the great hobby shop I first discovered D&D in (not, mind you, AD&D): enthusiastic staff who enjoyed the games and were happy to talk about them. And then, after about 6 months of computer gaming, that shop closed, and I was left with every other retailer of computer games.
And somewhere along the line I came to the conclusion that I wasn't ever going to get that retail experience again. I've visited that same hobby shop since then, and had very enjoyable conversations with the owners (they remember me, 30 years on). But I don't play PnP games anymore , so the store didn't hold the same potential for me that it once did. My free time is so limited, and my ability to engage the culture of the store is thereby stunted.
Ironically, that kind of culture is largely what attracted me to GWJ. I get to have these long, completely-meaningless-but-oh-so-satisfying discourses about my hobby with like-minded people. And its time well spent.
I even have the chance to discuss that new-fangled game. AD&D, did you call it?

If you're talking about the one behind the beignet place, I've been to that store before.

Chiggie Von Richthofen wrote:

I'm a little too tired to commiserate with you except to say that your article brought back many memories of me and a friend thumbing through a big box of Battletech CCG cards in a local comic shop for sometimes up to an hour.

After all this time I've found the other two Battletech CCG players! Do you still have your cards? What'd you use for counters? I used miniature dice, using the pips rather than the number of dice. Was that game truly unpopular or just in my town?

My city actually had a small generic nerd-con and the Battletech tourney was cancelled since there weren't enough players, but my Magic:TG Sealed blue-green monster deck did kick ass until I foolishly held onto my Counterspell instead of using it when I needed it.

bennard wrote:

If you're talking about the one behind the beignet place, I've been to that store before.

I'm talking about one called Little Wars, actually. I'm unsure of its proximity to sweet, fried food of the gods, but it's possible.

You people with your stories of how hobby stores are beginning to suck make me sad, because in my heart I feel that you are right. At least with hobby stores, the huge, mass-market games, like Magic and Warhammer, are usually genuinely amazing, and well deserving of their ubiquity. Contrast this with the video-game bestsellers, which are not nearly so consistently good.

RolandofGilead wrote:
Chiggie Von Richthofen wrote:

I'm a little too tired to commiserate with you except to say that your article brought back many memories of me and a friend thumbing through a big box of Battletech CCG cards in a local comic shop for sometimes up to an hour.

After all this time I've found the other two Battletech CCG players! Do you still have your cards? What'd you use for counters? I used miniature dice, using the pips rather than the number of dice. Was that game truly unpopular or just in my town?

My city actually had a small generic nerd-con and the Battletech tourney was cancelled since there weren't enough players, but my Magic:TG Sealed blue-green monster deck did kick ass until I foolishly held onto my Counterspell instead of using it when I needed it.

I think I might have ditched all my cards. I'll have to check. We used stacks of pennies. Like a 3D life bar. I knew 2 other people that played that game versus the 10 or so that played Magic.