By Coty Dolores Miranda

Jeff Caples describes his Gilbert game store, GamesU, as “Cheers, without the bar.” A comfortable place to go where everybody knows your name.

His game store, opened 16 months ago at 1550 N. Stonehenge Drive, is a lifelong dream come true, as is much the same as for the owners of Mesa’s Gateway Games, founded by Les and Janice Tanzer in September 2017, and Mike Griffin of Desert Sky Games who opened his store in a larger Chandler location the same month.

The three stores bustle with business. Visiting any one of them will typically showcase gamers of all ages perusing the shelves of games for sale, trying out board or card games in special stay-as-long-as-you’d like game rooms, or competing in regularly scheduled Role-Playing Games (RPG) like Dungeons & Dragons or various trading card games like Magic: The Gathering, itself containing several versions.

Their calendars, posted on their webpages, are chockablock with activities with weeknight and weekend games including the parent-child popular Starwars Destiny and Pokemon, and other popular games like Pandemic, and Tal’dore with its specific characters based on the original Vox Machina cast.

These aren’t the board games played on rainy days back home. But don’t discount the standards like Scrabble and Monopoly; they’re still around, but newer games like Catan – formerly Settlers of Catan, and Carcassone are all the rage for family game nights or adult competitive gatherings.

And don’t look for the $9.99 specials, though there are trading cards that circle that price including the newly announced A Game of Thrones: The Card Game that sells for $14.95 a pack.

Today’s games can cost you big bucks.

“You’re talking games running more than $100,” said Gateway Games’ Janice Tanzer. “Games are expensive. Gloomhaven is priced at $140 and we can’t even get it. I heard it’s being sold online for as much as $200.”

Those prices are what prompted these game stores to make many of their board games available for rent (Gateway), or for play in-store (Gateway, GamesU, Desert Sky).

Pick a game, find a private room or table, and experiment before handing over your credit card – or hard-earned allowance.

So what’s up with this resurgence of board games and the popularity of game stores? It’s not just a local phenomenon.  

According to Euromonitor International, a global market research company, sales of games and puzzles grew by 15 percent in 2016, while industry news outlet ICv2 proclaimed sales in the United States and Canada that year surged by 21 percent.

Pick your statistic, but both say more than 5,000 new board games were introduced in the United States alone in 2016. (To get an idea of the vast number of games available and/or coming available, a perusal of BoardGameGeek.com will be an eye-opener.)

And the game store business is blossoming across the country.

GamesU, Gateway Games – formerly QCB – and Desert Sky Games are reaping the results of this renaissance of tabletop games that provide a retro, real-time connection between people, so unlike most online games.

And interestingly, for the owners of these area game stores, having these stores as their place of business is the culmination of years of dreaming.

“I’ve been planning and dreaming this for a quarter of a century,” said Jeff Caples, 46, of GamesU that proclaims itself, “Smart Games for Smart People.”

“I spent most of my adult life contemplating this. My first job, at age 17, was in a game store in Diamond Bar, California. The owners basically taught me to run the business. By 18, I was actually running the business – hiring, ordering, operating it day-by-day.”

Caples’ adult life was spent serving in the U.S. Army, attending a local police academy, returning to the Army, and then totally changing careers to teach math and social studies in Phoenix, and at Mesa’s Kino Junior High School.

“As much as I loved teaching, and I absolutely loved being in the classroom and loved being with my students, this is something I wanted to do, needed to do, planned to do,” he said.

GamesU in Gilbert opened with 4,200 square feet, an intimidating space for an inaugural store.

“Honestly, I was afraid it was going to be a bit big, but it was a great location. Now I figure I could have another 1,000 square feet,” Caples said.

“Part of our store is a retail environment but a little more than half is devoted to playing games. People play here anywhere from two or three or seven hours. It’s the kind of place where staff wants to hang out after working.”

Today’s game stores are well lit, clean and welcoming. This may sound normal for a business, but until the recent resurgence of board and card games, many game stores were too often described as cave-like and well, “smelly.”

“We try to be a step above,” said Janice Tanzer, Gateway Games’ co-owner with husband Les Tanzer, an electrical plans examiner for the city of Phoenix. “Our store is bright and clean, and we have three private rooms including a Dungeon & Dragons room that has a projector on the ceiling to project a detailed map.”

And all have an extensive library of games to purchase, rent or tryout in the store.

“We have a demo library of more than 120 games that people can sit down and play. If they don’t like one, they can pick out another one,” Janice Tanzer said.

The couple purchased the former QCB Fun Store and rechristened it Gateway Games in September. The two were already avid gamers themselves.

“We’ve both played games pretty much, all our lives; we have quite a selection at home,” she said.

“I started playing the original Dungeons & Dragons in 1977 and continued until around 1986,” he said.  

His oldest son reignited the spark with the introduction of D&D to QCB, suggesting they start a game night. It blossomed from there.

Their Mesa storefront at 2,100 square feet is a draw every day of the week, but particularly late afternoons, evenings and weekends. On Fridays and Saturdays, their store is open until 11 p.m. GamesU is open Friday and Saturdays until midnight.

Besides D & D, Tanzer said Magic: The Gathering is a big pull, especially among high school and college students.

“And we have families come and play games,” she asserted. “The Star Wars Destiny is scheduled every week and we have fathers and child sets that play that regularly.”

Desert Sky Games at 3875 W. Ray Road in Chandler is owned by Mike Griffin, who operated his store at two other locations before moving into this 6,100-square-foot storefront.

“It’s larger than our other two stores combined,” said Griffin of the previous locations in Tempe and Gilbert. “We had 104 people last Friday night in our game room.”

Like the other owners, owning a game store has been a long percolating dream.

“I’ve been wanting to do this since I was a teenager,” Griffin admitted. “I’m a software engineer and we have a physicist and electrical engineer here, so we have a pretty well-educated staff.”

Desert Sky Games also has an in-house arcade with eight machines, with more planned. Griffin agreed families are also among the regular customers, especially participating in “very-family-oriented” Pokemon competitions at 3 p.m. Sundays. A Monday Pokemon play tends to pull college students.

As if to confirm the increasing popularity of neighborhood game stores, a recently released book may provide additional proliferation. Friendly Local Game Store: A Five Year Path to a Middle-Class Income by Gary L. Ray is already spurring interest nationwide.