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LI’s hobby game stores attract loyal players, face challenges

Visitors to Brothers Grim Games & Collectibles in

Visitors to Brothers Grim Games & Collectibles in Selden play the board game Terraforming Mars. Credit: David L. Pokress

Long Island’s hobby game stores, which sell entertainments such as Pokémon card games and Dungeons & Dragons, say they face the same challenges as other local retailers, including increased competition from Amazon and Walmart, and the high costs of operating in an expensive region.

But unlike some other retailers, they have no trouble getting enthusiastic customers through the door.

Walk into one of Long Island’s hobby game shops — referred to in the game industry as a Friendly Local Game Store, or FLGS — and you’re likely to see dozens of 20- to 40-year-olds crowded around tables playing games late into the night.

Hobby game shops often have colorful science-fiction posters or statues of sword-wielding heroes as decorations, abundant tables where customers play in tournaments, and shelves filled with games such as Magic: The Gathering and Warhammer.

They typically don’t stock traditional board games such as Sorry!, nor do they usually sell video or electronic games. Locally, there are roughly 15 independent retailers that sell hobby games, including comic book shops and toy stores. Of that, about half a dozen specialize in the games.

Their customers are not casual players but habitual “gamers” who often feel strong loyalty to their favorite store.

“The biggest part is trying to grow a community that is loyal to you,” said Steve Megas, manager of TWS Game Center in Middle Island.

Specialty game sales are growing, driven by depictions of the games on shows such as Netflix’s “Stranger Things” and CBS’ “The Big Bang Theory,” owners and industry experts say.

U.S. and Canadian sales of hobby games, including board games, trading card games, role-playing games and miniature gaming, topped more than $1.44 billion in 2016, up 21 percent from an estimated $1.19 billion the previous year, according to estimates by ICv2, an industry trade publication that says it covers the “business of geek culture.” That was the eighth consecutive year of growth in industry sales.

“We’re seeing just a huge expansion in the numbers of games and titles that are hitting the market,” said John Ward, executive director of the Game Manufacturers Association, a Columbus, Ohio-based trade organization representing more than 200 game publishers and manufacturers, and more than 700 retailers nationwide.

Pokémon, with $390.6 million in estimated sales, and Magic: The Gathering, with $67.7 million, were the bestselling games in the United States in 2016, beating Monopoly and Uno, according to data from the NPD Group, a Port Washington-based retail analysis company. The NPD data track the sale of hobby games through large national retailers and don’t include sales by hobby game stores.

Hobby games are often more complicated to play than their mass market counterparts, such as Clue or Battleship.

The shops sell strategic board games such as Terraforming Mars; trading card games, such as Pokémon, where players collect cards and create customized decks to play against others; miniature war games, such as Flames of War, in which players simulate scaled-down battles using figurines to represent combat units; and tabletop role-playing games, such as Dungeons & Dragons, in which players verbally describe the actions of fictional characters and determine the outcome of actions through dice rolls.

The games can be expensive.

The newest edition of the science-fiction-themed strategy board game Twilight Imperium can come with more than 1,600 individual game pieces and retails for $149.

Warhammer, a fantasy tabletop “war game” played with miniature orcs, wizards and knights, can cost players hundreds of dollars over time as they collect and paint individual figures to build armies.

Many of the shops on Long Island are open late, some until 2 a.m., and host a variety of gaming events organized and judged by store employees. In most instances, participation in leagues or manufacturer-sanctioned tournaments gives dedicated players access to limited-edition product prizes.

“Building a community is huge,” TWS Game Center’s Megas said. “We know that a lot of folks are quick to jump to Amazon.”

His 1,800-square-foot store, an offshoot of Southold-based online retailer, dedicates roughly half of its space to game playing, with roughly 36 feet of table space, complete with modular terrain for a variety of miniature war gaming players.

Long Island’s gaming store owners share a personal interest in one type of hobby gaming or another, and say that making consumers feel comfortable is paramount.

Jim Katona, 71, has owned and operated Men At Arms Hobbies, a Middle Island hobby supply and game store, for 38 years. While running such a niche store can be a “very unforgiving” enterprise, filled with challenges, he said he’s formed strong relationships with his customers.

“There’s a certain dynamic that, when it works, it really makes you feel good even if you’re not making as many bucks,” said Katona, who started out with a personal interest in historical model building and eventually hobby gaming. About 16 years ago Katona had to shrink the size of his store, but he remains in the same location. “I think when you like the hobby, you want to be part of it.”

Small business experts said that for some entrepreneurs, the allure of community building is a big draw.

“Not all businesses go into business to make big profits,” said Erica Chase-Gregory, regional director of the Small Business Development Center at Farmingdale State College. “They go into it to do something that they love and provide a service to their customer community.”

Despite the increased awareness and demand for new game titles, game shops face challenges, the owners said.

Because most hobby game stores offer designated areas for customers to sit down and play games for free or as a part of store-organized events with nominal entry fees ($5 to $20), owners said a store packed with customers doesn’t necessarily translate to full registers.

“I would generally make only one dollar on each person that came to an event,” said David VanderWerf, owner of Game Master Games in Hicksville, which closed in August after five years. VanderWerf, who previously owned a store in Mineola, said while his business was busy most nights of the week, it would have been hard to retire comfortably on the money he was bringing in.

“You want to have events in order to get people in the store,” he said. “You hope that they’ll ask questions and they’ll purchase products.”

Many times, retailers said, they count on snacks and drinks to help generate sales when customers spend hours in-store playing games.

Even though stores typically buy games at 40 percent to 50 percent of manufacturers’ suggested retail price, overhead can drive down margins to below 10 percent in some cases, owners said.

Online retailers, like Amazon, can sell the games at lower prices.

While independently owned game shops have historically acted as an advertising arm for game makers, many retailers said manufacturers have increasingly turned to big-box chains such as Walmart and Target, to sell some of their best-performing products.

Demand for hobby games has been boosted by what Milton Griepp, chief executive of ICv2, called “the celebration of geek culture” on TV and film, including the box office success of Marvel’s superhero movies.

“We’re in a golden age of ‘nerddom,’ ” said Gil Rappold, 50, owner of Brothers Grim Games & Collectibles, in Selden. “The average person on the street knows more about fantasy, science fiction and comics now than they have at any other point in the history of those things.”

Brothers Grim, a 3,500-square-foot store, has seating for up to 150 and hosts nightly organized gaming events that keep customers in the store for hours.

One of hobby gaming’s standard-bearers, Dungeons & Dragons, is selling well due to the popularity of “Stranger Things,” which premiered on Netflix in 2016. The show makes extensive references to the “pen and paper” role-playing game, which first appeared in 1974 and allows players to create and act as fantasy characters in a fictional world.

“I have a whole new influx of people who saw D&D on ‘Stranger Things,’ ” Rappold said.

Jesse James De Marco, owner of A Store of Fire and Dice in Lynbrook, said sales of Dungeons & Dragons’ newest, fifth edition — released in 2014 — have been boosted by the show’s popularity.

“I’ve sold more fifth-edition material than I’ve sold of all the other editions combined,” said De Marco, who opened his store three years ago. “That’s within a year or two.”

De Marco, who specializes in rare and expensive trading cards, said on Wednesday nights at his store, it isn’t uncommon to spot up to seven player groups. “At capacity, there are like 70 people sitting playing D&D,” he said.

While the number of games in the market continues to grow, giving consumers even greater variety, Griepp of ICv2 said there are concerns over saturation.

“The biggest concern is that the number of games is growing faster than the number of customers,” Griepp said. While more choice is great for players, many retailers have to gamble on the success of products. “They have to decide what to stock. They only have so much display space, and they only have so much capital.”

Stephan Brissaud, chief operating officer of the U.S. unit of IELLO, a France-based publisher of games and game expansions including dice and card game King of Tokyo, said his company hopes to help where it can.

IELLO has programs that give game shops access to its newer products weeks or months in advance of bigger retailers. The company also redirects retail sales on its website to local shops near a customer’s shipping destination.

Brissaud, who is also board president of the Game Manufacturers Association, said hobby game stores are an asset in the digital age.

“You cannot try a game online,” he said.

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