With GAME in free-fall you might be wondering how tabletop games can capitalise on this blow to video games, their greatest foe. This is the moment when board games can rise and conquer. Have at thee, Halo Reach. Rest in peace, Super Mario 64. This is a new age, an era of dice and cardboard and dear little figurines. It’s an age of brain power, not processing power.
It’s an age that’s come not a day too soon, because let’s face it, tabletop gaming stores are in a bit of a state. You could argue that video game stores are a bit of a state too–and you’d be right. But tabletop games don’t have a flagship brand leading the charge into battle. There is no Gamestation for Caylus, no GAME for Descent. The closest the high street comes is Games Workshop, and that only caters for those war-gaming types who’re barely human anyway. It’s probably for the best if they’re all corralled into one location, penned up with their Citadel Miniatures and their Chaos Dwarf armies.
Even back through history, before video games rose to prominence there was no chain of board game stores that’s since been buried under the corpses of those who came later. Imagine if there had once been an Our Price that stocked games instead of LPs. Imagine how it would feel to be a child of the digital age with iPads for eyes and a constant cranial connection to the 5G network, excavating the debris of the high street Store Wars to find a shrink-wrapped HeroQuest expansion, and Skaven armies still on their sprues, waiting like terracotta warriors for their time to come again.
Instead, tabletop gaming stores tend to be as dingy and dungeon-like as anything crawled through by bands of intrepid adventurers. They’re manned by staff whose brains have devoured every Fantasy Flight game rules tweak, and have swelled into a sprawling, mutated mass incapable of ever being comprehended. “Ah,” says Kevin, your guide to The Hobbit’s Cauldron, your ‘friendly’ local game store. “I see you’re interested in Junior Scrabble. Might I instead recommend Dictowhizz. It’s another word game, much better than Scrabble.”
“Is it complicated?” you ask. You’re eyeing the Dictowhizz box. Some of the letters on the front are from alphabets that don’t exist in our dimension.
Kevin laughs. “Only if you’re–nyrh, nyrh–a bit thick.” He snorts when he laughs. It’s the sound a beach makes right before a tsunami hits, when the waves are sucked back exposing all manner of flopping sea life to an atmosphere they can neither breathe nor survive in. Which is kind of how you feel when talking to Kevin.
“It’s for my nephew, you see,” you say, trying to ignore the wobbling boil festering on the end of Kevin’s nose. “For his seventh birthday.”
Suddenly Kevin snatched Dictowhizz away from you. “Seven?” he roars. “Seven?” When he yells you feel the fine mist of his ejaculated saliva on your cheeks and mouth. “What do you think this is: a toy shop? These games aren’t for children! These are games for gamers.”
And the other patrons of the shop, the other gamers, they turn from their browsing to look at you. The hairy man-mountain whose Penny Arcade t-shirt won’t stretch over his tummy. The wan metal-head who looks like an anorexic corpse dipped in chip fat. The two teenagers who smell like a burger vendor plying his wares from the back of a school gymnasium, who turn from their card table, leaving their Yu-Gi-Oh trap cards behind. Everyone turns from their role playing games, their anime schoolgirl figurines, their Eurogames with more counters than a polling station network after an election, and they all turn to look at you.
And you back away slowly, leave the shop and never go back.
Over here in the United States, where a trip to the mall can end up with you being taken hostage by a knife-wielding shoplifter, one company is trying to dispel the image of game stores as pits of ultimate despair. That company is Marbles: The Brain Store, who have a number of locations across the North East. I was drawn to Marbles after seeing a large window display for Dixit. Any shop advertising Dixit in such a grandiose manner can’t be too bad, I reasoned.
Boy, was I wrong.
Marbles’ problem is the same as any game store. The branch my wife and I visited was positioned next to a GameStop, which immediately put it at a disadvantage. Video games are bright, noisy and flashy. Next to the PSVita displays and the Wii demo pods all that wood and cardboard looked rather drab. Gamestop was doing a roaring trade as well; we visited in late afternoon and high-schoolers and college students alike were going in, nosing through the new releases and coming out in a constant stream.
Next door, Marbles was a ghost town.
It’s difficult to show off board games, which generally require a lengthy time investment to get the most from. All the games (and puzzles, too–it’s a brain store, remember?) had preview copies which could be opened and messed around with. You couldn’t learn the rules, of course, but who plays a game for its rules? Aren’t games all about the boards, the pieces, the dice?
This is what Marbles seems to think. It’s the shopping mall’s equivalent of Brain Age, the Nintendo DS game that claimed to make people smarter through playing it. Marbles wants you to play, to toy, to tinker. I prises tactility above all else. It’s a veritable science museum of Bucky-Balls and Chinese ring puzzles, where board games are selected based on how stylish they look. Podiums in the centre of the shop floor have various game boards set up on them: solitaire chess, Rush Hour and Quarto. In fact Quarto is heavily promoted, cropping up in each of the shop’s departments. It’s distinctive-looking, I suppose, and looks very much like a traditional board game, the kind you might have played with your granddad, the kind that can be sold to people of all ages.
Marbles’ departments are based around the brain process the games within them are best suited to. Memory-based games are given their own set of shelves, as are games that heighten visual acuity–in other words, games that are brightly coloured. The games themselves might as well be needles and the sales assistant a brain surgeon. Want to improve your critical thinking? Then come this way, good madam, and I’ll stimulate your pre-frontal cortex with a hot shot of Hive.
Our shop assistant wasn’t a brain surgeon. She was small, softly-spoken and over-eager, and upon seeing two potential customers–quite possibly the first of the day–she latched onto us, eventually badgering me from the store and into GameStop next door–the modern day equivalent of chasing a lush from a temperance meeting right into a speakeasy.
“Do you play chess?” she said, noticing my wife taking an interest in the solitaire chess set. She took time to explain how the game differed from regular chess, before going into a detail about the other games and puzzles my wife moved toward. In this museum she was a bored curator, elaborating the history of every exhibit we touched. All the while she played with some scientific thing consisting of a couple plastic rods that span about one another. At the start of the day her boss must have told her “Demonstrate this–someone’s bound to ask what it is.” Neither of us did, and her constant fidgeting smacked of desperation. By this point in the afternoon she was well on the way to developing the wrist muscles of a marathon masturbator.
By game store standards Marbles is bright and airy, and it doesn’t smell like feet. Even with its shelves half-filled with magnets and books on ‘irresponsible’ science projects you can conduct in your own home it still has a decent selection of games, albeit one where each game takes up far more room than it should. With so much space devoted to every game it doesn’t carry the extensive library you might hope for from a game shop–Marbles is certainly no Aladdin’s Cave.
Surprisingly, it also avoids popular contemporary games that might draw game-curious punters. Although I spotted Qwirkle and Forbidden Island, and there were signs suggesting titles for family game nights, there was no Carcassonne, no Ticket to Ride and no Settlers of Catan–very surprising given how ubiquitous Settlers is over here.
And then there were the prices. I understand that physical shops have certain overheads online retailers don’t have to worry about. I also understand that I’m extremely cheap; I like a bargain, and rarely pay recommended retail price on anything. But when I saw Forbidden Island priced at $29.99–almost twice the MSRP listed on Amazon.com–I knew I’d never buy anything from Marbles.
We left the store empty-handed. In the ten minutes my wife had spent browsing the shelves I’d seen only one other customer enter the store–and even he had had left scant seconds after entering. “I feel bad for the attendant,” my wife said. “She spent so much time talking to me. I probably should have bought something.”
It’s a very precarious time for game stores. It seems even the mightiest can be felled with little notice. There must be some way of bringing tabletop games to the masses without giving them a nook in a book store, or selling them from an armpit of geekery, or marketing them as brain aids to people who’d much prefer watching celebrity makeovers to rolling dice. Marbles: The Brain Store might be a step in the wrong direction, but just as I learned it’s best to avoid malls around which police cars and ambulances swarm like bees, maybe the industry can learn from Marbles’ mistakes.
In time, maybe we’ll build the perfect games store. Not too bright, not too dingy, but just right for you and I, the games we love and the people we’d love to play them with.