Appeal of board games takes off among South Sound retailers, local gamers

Appeal of board games takes off among South Sound retailers, local gamers

Staff writerMarch 16, 2014 

Don’t worry if you don’t know about “Settlers of Catan.” Just know there is a wide world of board games beyond “Scrabble” or “Taboo,” and local South Sound retailers have you covered.

Reflecting the growing popularity of analog, table-top games, two new storefronts opened in recent weeks: Tacoma Games on Sixth Avenue and Terracrux in downtown Tacoma. They join Parkland’s Nerdy Stuffs and the grandfather of Pierce County game sellers: The Game Matrix in Lakewood.

These stores aren’t just for experts in “Dungeons and Dragons” or “Magic: The Gathering.” (Don’t worry if you don’t know what those are.) The shops aren’t hidden, or dusty, or jam-packed.

“Your stereotypical comic book guy doesn’t exist anymore,” said Ed Healy, owner of DuPont-based game promotion company Gamerati. “Retailers now are selling a variety of things. It’s hobbyist geekery.”

Gaming like this used to have a stigma. It was the realm of the uncool — for nerds and the socially awkward. But a generation of people have grown up with gaming now, and they’re reclaiming the insults. Note the subversive popularity of “Dr. Who,” and remakes of “Star Trek” and “Battlestar Galactica.”

“Now people are wearing their geek on the outside,” said Nathan Blackmer, 30, of Tacoma, a regular customer of The Game Matrix.

Some gamers such as Blackmer spend several hundred dollars a month on gaming, from new books for role-playing, to miniatures, to add-ons for games they own.

Reliable estimates for the size of the hobby game industry are hard to come by. In 2011, as Healy was doing a tour of U.S. game stores, he estimated it generated $1.5 billion in sales annually. Compare that to the video game industry — whose marketing budget alone runs about $72 billion, he said. As a money maker, hobby games pale in comparison, but customer demand is there for mom-and-pop shops.

Even though chain stores such as Target and Amazon sell most games at a discount, local stores offer two things they don’t, Healy said: community and immediacy.

Blackmer moved to Tacoma recently from North Dakota. To make friends, he started a gaming group by posting a note to a bulletin board at The Game Matrix. He stops in regularly to pick up game books or accessories. The resurgent popularity of board games makes sense to him, particularly for children.

“Board games are an easy in for people,” Blackmer said. “They’re colorful, and all the pieces are in one place.”

Unlike traditional games like “Monopoly” or “Risk,” the new generation of boards change during play. They don’t rely as much on luck — a roll of the dice or a turn of the card — but emphasize strategy, inventiveness and cooperation. CEOs, including those of Facebook and Spirit Airlines, are strategy-board gamers. Community groups are popping up to organize board-game play, including one in Puyallup called Peoples Who Like Meeples.

(Don’t worry if you don’t know that a Meeple is a word for a player’s token in a board game.)

Game stores offer space for that community building, hosting regular game events and staying open into the evening.

Tacoma Games, tucked behind Subway in a bright yellow building on 6th Avenue in Tacoma, has been open just three months.

Owners Carl and Lorien Hess have hit upon a vein of underserved gamers in North Tacoma. The store is within walking distance from the University of Puget Sound and surrounded by single-family homes. Until it opened, the closest local game shops were downtown and in Lakewood.

On one recent Saturday, a steady stream of customers stopped in despite a heavy rain designed to discourage anyone from leaving home.

They have inventory for college students looking for a homework break to “parents who have played ‘Candy Land’ a million times,” Lorien Hess said. She runs the store while Carl, a software engineer, still commutes to Seattle while they build the business.

In addition to basic retail sales, they host game-nights and parties, and rent tables with access to their vast library of games. Their sales are far better than they expected after being open such a short time, said Hess, a former corporate tax accountant. They’ll take stock in May to see whether they can afford to hire an employee.

“Our main goal is to be successful enough so that (the family) can be here exclusively and have this be our income-producing jobs,” Hess said.

Chris Ewick, who opened The Game Matrix 15 years ago, knows it’s possible.

“You have to be able to live meagerly,” he said. “I didn’t take a paycheck for three years. That’s the big one: If you cannot drain your business dry and let it flourish, that’s huge. Not many people can pull that off.”

Ewick said the new retailers will know within three years if their business is viable. He and the Hesses are betting that they can hold their own against video games.

“There’s still the desire to sit down, pop some popcorn and play a game around a table with friends,” he said. “I don’t think that will ever go away.”

Kathleen Cooper: 253-597-8546

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