This is how gamers roll

By Luke Wilusz

Most people who consider themselves gamers spend hours in front of TVs or computer monitors, basking in electronic glow as they immerse themselves in digital bliss. However, there’s another type of gamer, that doesn’t get as much attention these days.

These gamers can often be found sitting around tables in homes or specialty shops around the city—rolling dice of all shapes and sizes, moving pieces, laying down cards and bickering good-naturedly amongst themselves, often into the wee hours of the morning.

Tabletop gaming is alive and well, both in Chicago and across the country. While specialty gaming shops may be few and far between, the ones around serve a large and dedicated fan base. A handful of gaming shops around the city cater to the needs of both casual and hardcore players, whether their interests lie in obscure, European board games, card games like “Magic: The Gathering,” role-playing games like “Dungeons and Dragons” or anywhere in between.

“There is a tremendous community out there,” said Marc Heller, owner of Galactic Force Toys and Games, 1121 W. Belmont Ave., a shop catering mainly to fans of collectible and trading card games. “I know when you see there aren’t that many shops, you think there aren’t a lot of players, but it’s really evident when you see us running our Magic events and stuff, how big of a community there is. There are hundreds of people who play very specific games in this area.”

Heller, a 1997 graduate of Columbia’s Fiction Writing Department, said he started Galactic Force approximately three years ago as a toy kiosk in Westfield Old Orchard Mall, 4999 Old Orchard Center, in Skokie, Ill. The business grew rapidly when Heller began selling Magic cards and catering more specifically to the gaming community. Now, Galactic Force holds weekly Magic tournaments and game nights, which draw anywhere from 25–40 people per week, along with special quarterly events that bring in crowds ranging from 75–120 people.

“We support the gaming community in Chicago, and they’ve continued to support us,” Heller said.

The social aspect and sense of community are what attract many players to tabletop gaming. According to Andre LeMoine, who co-owns the Cat & Mouse Game Store, 2212 W. Armitage Ave., with his wife Linda Schmidt, board games offer a more personal social experience than an online video game.

“When you play against somebody you can’t see, it doesn’t feel as rewarding,” LeMoine said. “You don’t get that feedback or the sense that you’re actually playing a person. You often feel like you’re just playing a


Cat & Mouse doesn’t only stock run-of-the mill board games like “Monopoly” or “Scrabble”. Instead, LeMoine said they like to encourage people to try more complex, lesser-known games they might not have heard of before.

“It kind of helps to have some classics that people can recognize because it kind of gives them a psychological foundation to build on, but that’s not really what we try to stock,” LeMoine said. “I don’t think we ever sell much Monopoly or anything like that.”

Jon-Paul Nery, co-owner of Chicagoland Games, 5550 N. Broadway., sees the shop as not only a place for local gamers to buy their games, but as a place where they can go to play them with other people.

Chicagoland Games hosts weekly open board gaming nights every Wednesday, where anybody can come to the shop and play for free. The store’s motto is “We don’t close ’til the game is over,” and the staff will often hang around until midnight or later to let players finish.

Nery said another reason people are so drawn to board games is because they are a great value, especially when compared to the price of other forms

of entertainment.

“For two people to see a movie, it’s almost 20 bucks, if not more,” Nery said. “You could buy a board game [for that price]. “The board game’s going to last longer, you can play it longer and you can play with more people … that’s more value than seeing a movie that might suck. You walk out of a theater with a memory of what happened—it might have sucked, it might have not. You walk out with a board game, you have that for life.”

While the hobby certainly has a large following, tabletop gaming still isn’t as popular or mainstream as video gaming. Part of the reason for that, according to LeMoine, is accessibility.

“With a lot of video games, people can just jump right in,” LeMoine said. “Most people never read the rules for a video game; they just open it up, put it in and figure it out. It’s intuitive, which is a nice aspect because a lot of people don’t like to read rules. A lot of board gamers do like to read rules, though, to a certain extent.”

According to Nery, the increased complexity and potential educational value are what make board games so appealing to their niche audience, even more so to some people

than video games.

“You get parents wanting games for their kids that basically teach something other than swearing,” Nery said. “Video games, what is that, move your thumbs and pull a trigger? With board gaming, you have strategy, logic skills, reading skills, mathematics, all kinds of stuff like that.”

He admitted he still loves to play video games, but for very different reasons than board games.

“Video games are easy. They’re just easy,” Nery said. “I like going home and not doing anything, so I play a video game.”

Despite the popularity of the hobby among its niche audience, there are very few shops dedicated exclusively to tabletop gaming these days. Comic book stores often have gaming sections, but they’re usually limited to one or two shelves of the more popular games. There are currently only four dedicated specialty gaming shops in the city of Chicago. Because most games can be purchased at lower prices online than at specialty shops, things wouldn’t look so good for these stores if they didn’t have loyal customers. But Nery isn’t fazed by his online competition.

“Internet sales don’t hurt us because there are some people who are going to buy games on the Internet anyway,” he said. “But people come here because they want to play games, and if you want to keep playing games here, we have to stay open, and people keep buying games here.”

Heller, on the other hand, does see online sales as a threat, but knows customers are willing to support him if he treats them right.

“You have to be honest with your customers,” Heller said. “If you’re charging more than the guy on the Internet, it’s because your costs are more. It’s not because you just decided you want to go ahead and charge a buck extra for this stuff.”

LeMoine agrees that customer service, along with a more personalized shopping experience, are crucial in keeping people coming back to his store.

“Lots of loyal customers come back,” LeMoine said. “I think people like that personal touch. They like having things explained to them a little bit. I know I personally like touching a game, picking it up, feeling how heavy it is. We have a lot of open games you can open up, look at the rules, see the components—it’s not just a mystery of what you’re getting in the box.”

This personal touch and welcoming atmosphere pays off for Cat & Mouse in the form of regular customers like David Morkrid.

Morkrid, 62, has played board games his whole life and has come to Cat & Mouse’s Tuesday night, open board gaming for two years.

“A lot of people that play here, because we get the chance to play here, tend to buy our games here even though we might be able to buy them online cheaper,” Morkrid said.

He personally favors European-style board games, or Euro games—strategic games such as “The Settlers of Catan” or “Dominion”—over more traditional,classic games.

When it comes down to it, the reason people are so passionate about tabletop games is the same reason anybody plays any game: because they’re fun. For tabletop gamers, though, a lot of that fun comes from sharing experiences with friends in a personal way.

“Anytime you experience something with people there [as opposed to over the Internet], it changes the whole experience because you can see if they’re having a good time and stuff,” Heller said. “If your buddies are having a great time, and they’re all pumped about playing the game, then you’re going to get more excited and have more fun.”