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TOPIC: The Games Room

The Games Room 08 Jan 2018 00:42 #260485

It is December, 1984.

The sky is a gray slate, the air damp and cold. But I am aglow with excitement. As an 11 year old, newly-minted gamer I am about to visit my first proper game shop. It's a little way out of the Norwich city center streets I know, so my Dad guides me, eyes rolling with loving exasperation.

At school, a friend has told me what to expect. There will be racks of games and miniatures in "blister packs". I ask my friend what this is: he explains the figures come in plastic stuck to cardboard. In my empty 11-year old head I imagine a little plastic bag stapled to corrugated card. It doesn't seem an exciting way to package what is, for me, about the most exciting thing in my small world.

We turn the corner away from the city center and into a fairy wonderland. There are cobblestones beneath my feet, smooth and wet with the moist air. The shop fronts are higgledy-piggledy gingerbread. There is an old bench around an even older tree that gives the street its name: Elm Hill. 

It's like stepping back in time. The shops sell tiny things from a bygone age: old stamps, dolls, tea and cakes on patterned translucent china plates. In the sea of wonders, I almost miss the games shop, its treasures hidden behind steamed up windows. Above the door, in small gothic lettering, is emblazoned a legend: The Games Room.

My Dad lets me go inside while he waits in the cold. I am so consumed with excitement that I barely notice the man behind the counter is greeting me. The shop is small and smells of forgotten treasures. There are bookshelves filled with rule books and magazines that I have, until now, only read about. Atop glass cases are whirly stands on which hang the blister packs. And now I understand they are not plain bag and card but branded, coloured, their precious contents safe behind a hard protective shell.

I browse the racks with the concentration of a scholar poring over an ancient text. Eventually, I select a purchase: it's a figure of an orc, shield in one hand, sword in the other, the blade resting on its shoulder. Later, I will take it home and paint it red because I have no idea orcs should be green and I will have a big argument with my friend about it. But for now, I hand over my weeks' pocket money to the man behind the counter.

He introduces himself as Duncan and carefully counts out my change. I step out of the door into the cold street, money clutched in one hand and figure in the other, little knowing I have also stepped through a trapdoor into a pit I'll be falling down for decades.

 --------------------  

It is December, 1989

The sky is a gray slate, the air damp and cold. Laughing with my friends, I turn the corner into to Elm Hill. The cobbled streets and timbered houses are of no interest now, lost behind a wall of ribald jokes, video games and the first sticky thrusts of romance. We go straight to the shop and open the door, consumed with the lust of acquisition.

Duncan greets us all. We're semi-regular visitors, although we spend a lot more time in the seaside arcades and the computer game shop in the main street. I don't know if he remembers us, but he's always polite, always full of enthusiasm and advice. One of our party starts rambling about the optimisation plan for his latest character, and he listens with patient interest.

I go into the back room. It's messy and the smell of damp is stronger. It's almost like a storeroom, and I wonder for a moment if I'm supposed to be here. Then I see that among the boxes and peeling plaster there are some games on display, and I relax. On one side there is something I've never seen before: thin paper pamphlets, printed in faded, shaky typeset.

The first one I pick up bears the legend "Harvest Time" and a crude picture of a man with a bow on the front. I rudely interrupt Duncan and my friend to ask what it is. He explains it is a "fanzine", a magazine written and printed by the collective enthusiasm of a local game group. Later I will take it home and plan my own fanzine and I will have big arguments with my friends over what to put in it.

I have more money to spend now, acquired from a part-time waiting job. So I hand over some of my pay packet to buy Harvest Time and another amateur printing, a set of tabletop wargame rules to use with plastic tanks. Duncan carefully counts out my change. I step out into the street, little knowing the fanzine in my hands will inspire me to try games writing for myself, and one day to a professional career.

 --------------------  

It is December 1996

The sky is a gray slate, the air damp and cold. I am taking the long-suffering lady who will one day be my wife on a tour of my hometown, over 200 miles from where the two of us now live. We've come to Elm Hill to en route to the Cathedral, and she's not expecting such archaic wonder. She stops to look in all the shop front, cooing with delight at the buildings and their contents. Of course, it's a great excuse to drag her into The Games Room.

Having moved away it's been a couple of years since my last visit, but Duncan says hello and it's like seeing an old friend again. The shop is now full of collectable card game boosters alongside the figures and boxed games but has otherwise barely changed. 

At this point my focus is Warhammer: we'd passed a Games Workshop on the high street on my way here. Duncan, it turns out, isn't all that keen on the new Games Workshop after the management buyout. I propose to him that it's good to get new kids into the hobby, but he's unconvinced. He thinks they'll just play GW product and nothing else. He's gloomy about his prospects.

In deference to his feelings, I select a couple of miniature blisters I know will look seamless in my Vampire Counts army and look round the shop. In a wall-mounted display is a new game I've heard of but never seen before. It's called "Settlers of Catan". My future wife picks it up and reads the back. "Sounds fun. You should get this," she says, in innocence of the old beast she's stirring in my soul. Later, we will play it and have a small argument about whether we should play it again.

So I do. I'm paying out of a student loan this time, but Duncan seems to need the business to I buy the figures and game together for a tidy sum. He seems a little more upbeat as he counts out my change. I step out into the street, little knowing I'm carrying a box that will forever change the way I - and many others - view gaming as a hobby.

-------------------- 

It is December 2017

The sky is a gray slate, the air damp and cold. I've dragged my two daughters up to Norwich before, between visits to relatives, to see the Castle Museum. But today, with their lengthening legs and attention spans, I'm taking them to Elm Hill. As we turn the corner, they gasp their astonishment. They've never seen cobbles or such old buildings in all their short lives. It's been far longer than those lives since I've been to this shop. I'm wondering how it's going to feel to be reliving their age again.

The shop is still there. It still smells the same. All that's changed is the stock: there are still role-playing books and figures but now every surface has been piled high with board games. The culprit stands behind the counter, older, but still radiating enthusiasm. He looks up to say hello as we enter then pauses, squints and frowns. "I know you," he says. It feels like being remembered by a national institution.

He chats patiently, amiably to my kids. At one point they mention I'm a games writer now and I mumble "thanks partly to you" to Duncan. I'm wandering around the shop, picking up boxes, feeling the weight, listening to the contents shift. It's a million miles away from snipping sellotape on a mail order parcel. It's lovely, but it's not the nostalgia rush I was expecting.

To my disappointment, he has nothing I want in stock. With my home already groaning with underplayed games, I don't want to buy anything on a whim. So, seeing the kids are getting fed up, I make to leave. "But you must buy something," complains my eldest. "What about this," says the youngest, pointing to a game with a cute Panda on it. It's called Takenoko. I've heard it's good, and I know I'll never hear the end of it if I don't, so I grab it and take it over to Duncan.

Being an engineer and a writer now, I pull out a credit card and Duncan's face falls. He doesn't take them. But that's okay: I have enough cash. And as I hand it over and he counts out my change, quite suddenly, there it is: that flood of childish glee I'd been hoping for all along. A repetition of an action I've taken a hundred time before, over twenty years ago, and it all comes rushing back. Later, we will play the first game we all jointly chose and have a fantastic time.

I step out into the cobbles with a spring in my step that wasn't there before, heedless of the gathering gloom. We all three are laughing and joking and I marvel that such a simple affair can bring such joy. The game is a happy weight in my hand. Only one thing mars the moment: I wish I'd said my thank you with more clarity, show Duncan how his shop has been a small but vital part of making me the man I am.

Thank you, Duncan.

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The Games Room 08 Jan 2018 06:10 #260486

That sounds like quite the place!
Nothing like that over this side of the UK. There were a couple of local toy shops that did miniatures, then Cyril Howe, Hamleys and Modellers Den in Bath. Further afield there was Forever People in Bristol... All closed now.
Did just discover Frome Model Centre though, that place is amazing - I need a second longer visit.
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The Games Room 08 Jan 2018 06:27 #260487

I love this shop. It's a legit aladdins cave, and the owner is a really nice guy. FLGS it is!
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The Games Room 08 Jan 2018 10:24 #260501

Great article. I bet many of us have a comparable store that holds a treasured place in our memories. I have a few, due to moving around over the years.

My first hobby shop didn't carry games, but it had that same vibe: The Comic Carnival, in Indianapolis. The original location was a tiny shop that was tightly packed with table holding lidless comic boxes containing back issues in taped plastic bags, with many issues mounted on the walls and some particularly rare ones on the wall behind the counter. There was also a couple of spinner racks of used sci-fi/fantasy books, and a wide display area for new comics. I was just 9 the first time I found this store, but it enabled me to continue buying comics even after I got funny looks for buying them in more normal stores. The owner was a short, thin guy with glasses who was missing an arm due to an injury received in Vietnam. They later moved to a larger location in the hipster section of town, then expanded out to various suburbs. To pay for my move to Minnesota, I sold most of my comics there for less then cover price.

When I got into rpgs in my teens, I went to The Boardroom for all my shopping. Jerry (Gerry?) Hunter was friendly and knowledgeable about his products, but always left me with the impression that he didn't actually play any of these games. Maybe he was a closet war gamer. During my first year on the school newspaper, I interviewed him for a story about D&D, about a year before it became a big cultural phenomenon. Eventually a hippie woman started a competing store (The Game Preserve), in a converted cottage on a hill in the hipster section of town. Her cats wandered about the store. Her location was more convenient for me, but I still gave some of my business to Jerry.

It took me three years after arriving in the Twin Cities to settle into my new gaming home at The Source. It was huge compared to other hobby stores I had visited in the past, and sold comics, games, shirts, movies, etc. I gravitated there because they had a large area in back set up for open play, and that was the place to go to play CCGs. Sundays were so busy that players could only play for three hours before getting ejected so a fresh group of players had a chance to play. However, the store made a special exception for Jyhad (later re-named Vampire: the Eternal Struggle). We got our own table and could play all day long, because our group was tn years older on average than the Magic players, and we spent more on cards. Plus, our games often took 2 or 3 hours to play, while Magic players could get a dozen games played in three hours. The Source was such a big deal that they ran late-night commercials on television, and some store employees were allowed to host gaming there after hours. I once played an obscure ccg (Heresy) there from midnight until 5 AM on a weeknight, thanks to a supportive employee and some curious players. When I finally bought a house, it happened to be walking distance from The Source.

I may eventually get comfortable at the FFG Event Center. It has a vast play area, plus they serve food and alcohol. Huge parking lot which is often nearly full on weekends. The bathrooms are amazingly clean, which is why a surprising number of young women show up to play there. I once even saw a table of five women playing a board game, with no guys. They have a large bookcase on one side of the gaming area, stocked with a wide variety of games that people can play for free while at the Event Center. There is also a vast, windowless interior room that they open up for tournaments and other special events.
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The Games Room 08 Jan 2018 11:31 #260506

I wish I had a story like that. I’ve never lived anywhere long enough to have that experience, for one, and also, all of the stores I’ve been to but one have been dens of filth and stench.
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The Games Room 08 Jan 2018 12:06 #260510

Excellent article. One of the best F:At has seen.
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The Games Room 08 Jan 2018 14:06 #260524

Though it was not really the focus of the article, what struck me the most was actually the reflection on how things have changed, ostensibly for the better, one might say, in that we all have access all the time to all the stuff we want, whatever the hobby is, but do we lose something as a result. Perhaps its just the rose tinted glasses of nostalgia but I don't think its entirely that either. I have similar stories of experiencing this kind of thing, and shelling out your hard earned pocket money to buy the Citadel compendium or a D&D module. Materialistically we have so much more compared to just a few years go, I'm not sure it makes any of us much happier, and in fact, i think it obscures a little of the sort of magic you allude to you in your reflections. (sure, you're the dad now, not the kid, but I dont think our dads had shelves full of unused stuff for their hobby in the way that so many seem to do now, collecting and accruing stuff just for the sake of it seems to be more the norm than the wide eyed enchantment of really engaging with just that one thing at a time that our means might have made available).
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The Games Room 08 Jan 2018 14:54 #260533

I suspect very game stores have survived as the one Matt mentions.

I recently went into such a store just last week. The Citadel, in New London CT. I first stopped there in the very early 90s, when it was in a strip mall with visibility from I95. Its moved twice since then, into more obscure and hard to find places. It used to be owned by Pat Flory, who was a long time Avalon Hill tournament player - his name was firmly entrenched at the top of the Russian Campaign rankings on the back page of The General. I believe it was sold in the last year or two by Pat.

The selection is pretty vast and one of the better ones I've seen in recent years. Not quite as good as Le Valet in Montreal - probably less up to date, but more older stuff due to lack of clearance sales. The place is a bit dark and disheveled, but not dirty / nasty by any means . Its a basement with a drop ceiling and linoleum floors. They have some open gaming tables. Its one of those places you could spend hours just slowly walking through the shelves. They don't have an online store so you have no idea what you'll find. There is a long 50 foot set of shelves of just RPG stuff for instance. They had a shrink wrapped copy of GMTs flagship, which tells you they don't mark down old stuff . They've got a fair bit of Avalanche Press stuff gathering dust . I didn't see any rare hens teeth other than a beat up copy of AH U Boat and some other AH oldies. They had some ASL stuff - a ASL rulebook, a copy of Hakka Palle and some old Journals and whatnot. A fair bit of GMT and Compass and DG folios . I give them credit for having a new releases section, which makes it easier to find stuff instead of wading through 100 feet of shelving.

These types of stores are a dying breed and for good reason. As much as they might be a trip down nostalgia lane, the mind boggles at how much inventory they are carrying - and probably the owner has no clue about what they actually have in stock. They sure as hell aren't using bar codes. My guess is that when the place changed hands, a fair amount of inventory debt was written off. When you see 20 year old games still in shrink wrap, that's a sign of low inventory turn. Its likely offset by some small amount of inventory - i.e. MAGIC - doing the lions share of the heavy lifting in terms of sales and ROI. The newest location is invisible from the street, being in a basement level at the back of a building below street level. So the rent is likely a pittance, the only thing keeping the lights on.
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The Games Room 08 Jan 2018 17:46 #260541

I passed that shop (and through that amazing area of Norwich) in 2014 when we were staying there. I didn't get a chance to go in. It was closed when we went passed, and that day there had been a massive storm so the shop was flooded out the rest of the time we were there.

Hope to visit it next time we're in Norwich, it sounds magical.
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The Games Room 08 Jan 2018 20:06 #260553

I had one of those in my dreary hometown, but, like Msample said, it closed down. It would be a real kick if I could still visit it.
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The Games Room 09 Jan 2018 09:32 #260576

trif wrote:
Hope to visit it next time we're in Norwich, it sounds magical.

Magical might be pushing it, but it's certainly worth a visit :)

Great article this, several memories come back to me just reading it.

I've lived in Norwich most of my life but there have only been a few periods where I was in the Games Room much. In the mid 80s my Dad bought me the MERP system from there and I popped into the Games Room now and again to get some other bits and pieces though I always felt a bit overwhelmed in there as a shy 12 year old kid. I remember Duncan ran it with his Dad at the time. I dipped in and out of the next few years but preferred the safer confines and bright lights of Games & Puzzles. And the weird rack of Avalon Hill wargames in Virgin Megastores, games that I frequently took off the shelves, saw the "complexity: HIGH" rating emblazoned on the box and returned to the shelf wistfully.

I made a brief comeback to the Games Room in the late 2000s when my interest in gaming was rejuvenated and I popped in frequently, although the stock rarely changed. Occasionally I'd put a request in to order a game, just to support the place, but whenever I did that it seemed almost like I was causing Duncan too much bother, I think he likes it quiet :) I then drifted away again before a period where I bought Netrunner packs and Star Wars miniatures ships. Then I stopped playing those games and I've hardly been in since. Always like to take a look in through the window on the way back from the pub late mind you.
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The Games Room 09 Jan 2018 09:39 #260577

Boy, Thaad shows up in another thread and moss_icon in this one? What is this, 2009?
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The Games Room 09 Jan 2018 10:32 #260587

As for the article, absolutely beautiful.

The game store that got me into gaming, Tabletop Games in Overland Park, KS, has moved a couple times in the last decade or so. When I first started going there it was a place for the standard type of gamer from circa 10 years ago, maybe middle-aged, generally genial but pretty nerdy. It was very much a niche kind of store. Their stock was impressive, but limited by necessity I'm sure. They moved back in like 2011 to just around the corner, and the game room got bigger. This also coincided with the games explosion that was happening, and the clientele became a lot more diverse and a lot younger. A lot of regulars drifted away.

They moved again after I left the KC area, but I got the opportunity to visit them just last month. They now are about as well-stocked as any purely games-based store I have ever seen. The employees don't know me from Adam anymore, which is just fine, but it is clearly very well-attended still. I was really impressed with their stock of RPGs especially, which I expect is kind of a risky product for stores to carry in volume. I'm really glad to see it apparently healthy and going strong, even if I don't have a lot of connection with it anymore.
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The Games Room 09 Jan 2018 11:51 #260602

Great story. La Valet in Montreal comes closest for me. I bring my kids there now when we're visiting.
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The Games Room 09 Jan 2018 14:11 #260616

Le Valet is excellent.
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