As a kid, Tim Hall recalls, “I loved games. And like many kids who loved games, I could never play enough. I was always pestering my family to play, my friends to play.nn
Hall doesn’t have nearly as much trouble rustling up a game these days. In October 2004, he and his wife Valerie opened Game Night Games in Sugar House. Their goal was to create a store where the mission was not just to sell board games but to give the people who bought those games a place to play. “We have really great games that didn’t exist when I was a kid,” says Hall, “but it’s having the group of players that allows you to get your money’s worth out of them. â€¦ One of our founding principles was that we didn’t want the games people buy here to sit on their shelves and collect dust.nn
It’s something of a retro idea, a point emphasized by the juxtaposition of Game Night with its next-door neighbor, a computer-game center (“We were here first,” Hall points out with a smile). In an era when “gaming” is generally assumed to involve a guy alone with his joystick, Game Night focuses on board games'specifically, European-style board games like The Settlers of Catan that have exploded in popularity since the mid-1990s, as well as military history games.nn
More significantly, the store focuses on games not as a solitary time-killer, but as a social occasion. “We discovered it was a really great excuse to get together with people,” says Hall. “[When the store opened], we had a small group of friends, but it’s really been one of the bonuses that we’ve made a bunch of new friends. When we see them walk in the door, we’re really excited to see them.nn
You can feel that sense of community on any of Game Night’s open gaming evenings. On Wednesdays, anyone can come in for open gaming at no cost. On Fridays and Saturdays, the store’s Advantage group members can play for free, but visitors can sit down for a small charge. Anywhere from 10 to 30 people surround the tables that take up half the store’s square footage, immersed in games with titles like “Thurn & Taxis” and “Ra.” People bring in new favorites, eager to teach them to others. A one-time regular recently relocated out of state returns for a visit, inspiring smiles and greetings. Store manager and “Director of Gaming Education” Joe Schlimgen circulates through the room, offering deadpan commentary like you’d find on televised poker. It’s a little like Cheers, only with cards and small pieces of plastic instead of mugs of beer.nn
Hall and many of the regulars are also aware that they need to make it clear what their place is not. People tend to think that old-school games are played here like Monopoly, “or, for some strange reason, Dungeons & Dragons,” according to Hall, and assume that the demographics will be overwhelmingly male. In fact, thanks to the cross-gender appeal of many of the European board games, there’s a fairly even male-female split on any given game night, with several couples among the regular attendees.
There are also assumptions that the crowds will be younger, rather than the generally adult clientele that frequents Game Night. Even some of the Halls’ fellow retailers around the country have expressed amazement at trade gatherings that the store can survive without catering to the younger crowd that plays Magic'The Gathering or similar card-based youth-appeal games. When Game Night regular Paul Bernhardt recently taught a class in games and psychology at Westminster College, he noted that his students “didn’t realize some of these games are so sophisticated.nn
Perhaps most significantly, new visitors might assume they’ll be facing the board-game equivalent of ruthless card sharks eager to chew up the fresh meat. Yet even on the occasion of one of the store’s monthly tournaments, players are amiable and frequently offer strategy hints to their opponents. Keeping the atmosphere friendly is, in a sense, just good business. Because, as Hall comments, the regulars are “like a secondary staff that helps teach people how to play games,” everyone who walks in the door might walk out with a new game.nn
They also might walk out with a new friend. Using the store’s Website as a hub, Hall has made an effort to promote Game Night as a way to connect with other people. Visitors exchange thoughts on the latest new titles in online forums and use the scheduling feature to bring people together to play specific games at specific times. “This is a viable entertainment option for people to come do something interactive rather than something passive,” says Hall. “On a Wednesday night, on the spur of the moment, you can say at 6:30, â€˜I don’t want to watch TV tonight.’nn
Instead, maybe those people will be like a couple of first-time visitors on a recent Wednesday night who were smiling broadly at the prospect of coming back again. If they do, they’ll find that soon everybody knows their name'and their game.nn
GAME NIGHT GAMES
2030 S. 900 East Suite E
Wednesday 6-10 p.m.