The challenge is compelling: turn off your TV. Turn on your brain. Those words appear in the front window of Fair Game, a retailer that wants to re-define “interactive gaming” to mean friends and family interacting with each other over table top board games, as opposed to staring at digital screens and killing soldiers in grisly black ops scenarios. And Fair Game is succeeding — not only by selling games that empower people to socialize but also by acting as a social destination for gaming enthusiasts.
Advertised as a place “Where Fun and Family Meet,” Fair Game sells the kind of immersive board games that you can spend hours playing over a long winter’s night: like the popular Settlers of Catan, in which participants compete to build roads, homes, and settlements by trading goods with each other; or Lost Cities, which challenges players to mount expeditions into long-forgotten worlds in places like the Brazilian rain forest. With a game like Conflict of Heroes, you can create the frigid world of the World War II Eastern Front, aided by the power of your own imagination — instead of having a piece of software do all the work for you.
The games jump out at you from brightly colored boxes that form lopsided towers on the shelves of this comfortable, friendly space adorned with comfortable chairs, long tables, and many genres of music ranging from Hawaiian to rock, as programmed from the Pandora channel of owner Josh Stein — whose own childhood experiences are the reason the store exists.
Josh also happens to live around the corner of my home in Downers Grove. In an interview that he conducted with me for Superhype, Josh explained that his love of gaming came from his father, who passed away shortly after our conversation occurred. “My dad introduced me to games,” he says. “Together we played games like Broadside from Milton Bradley.”
And gaming helped shaped his social experiences, especially the popular role playing game of Dungeons & Dragons, in which participants construct fantasy characters who engage in elaborately constructed adventures conceived of by a designated Dungeon Master, or teammate in charge of a playing session, called an encounter.
“When I was growing up, Dungeons & Dragons was the go-to game for my group of friends,” he recalled. “The joy of D&D was playing with my friends until 3:00 a.m., hopped up on Coke and peanuts, and giggling like school girls. It’s about playing with your friends.”
Years later, in November 2010, Josh open a store that recalled the joyous experience of his childhood.
“I launched Fair Game because I wanted a place to play games,” he said, recalling a club of model railroaders that counted his dad as a member. “Model railroaders are guys who pay dues, squat in a basement, and play with model railroads. I figured: why not do this with games?”
His focus on board games instead of videos is not only a personal passion but also a business decision.
“I enjoy table top games more than video games,” he said. ” What’s the point of selling video games especially if I don’t enjoy them? You are not going to make millions of dollars in this market. So I need to sell something I enjoy. And board games also constitute a better niche market. You can buy video games at Best Buy and Walmart. I’m not going to compete with them.”
As he mentioned in an interview with a Downers Grove publication earlier this year, Josh accepts the reality of video games in society and in his own family — but he expects little from them.
“Video games are the easy, quick fix,” he elaborated when I mention the article to him. “If I want to zone out and hit the neurons in my brain that fire the imagination of gaming, video games do that. But there are social bonds that occur with board games that just don’t happen with video games. When you are sitting at a table interacting with someone, it’s a completely different experience than sitting at a computer screen with a headset on.”
In addition to selling tabletop games that encourage socializing, Josh makes Fair Game a social experience. The store takes advantage of its expansive space by hosting activities such as Family Gaming hours on Sundays, during which the store encourages families to hang out and play with many of the open boxes of games Josh keeps on hand.
During Social Painting hours, you can attend classes to learn the fine art of painting miniatures (and if you want to be a proper gamer, you use the term “miniatures” instead of “figurines”) that you send into battle to slay dragons in dark caves or thwart the Nazi menace in the streets of Moscow.
In addition to sponsoring special days and events formally (more of which are listed on his website), Josh allows informal groups to use Fair Game as a gathering place to play, including enthusiasts of D&D (an activity I share, incompetently in my case, with my daughter and a group of D&D players who meet faithfully each Saturday like a crew of poker playing regulars).
“I like the idea of having a place where any time you want to come in and play, you are welcomed to come in and play games,” he said. “I purposefully set aside days when Mom and Dad can come in and play whatever games they want with their kids. And I’ll sit down and teach you how to play a game if you’re interested.”
And Josh is especially passionate about passing on his love of board games to younger generations of digital natives.
“Kids are missing out on challenges to their imagination,” he said. “Video games are so incredibly rich that they make our imagination passive.”
Even worse, in his view: online games reward engagement caused by repetitious, mechanical action, not learning.
“The game designers have decided that their goal is to keep you engaged in the game for X amount of hours because game review sites measure their value that way,” he continued. “Your game playing strategy is to simply keep doing the same action over and over until the game lets you advance to the next level.”
He added, “I want to teach kids that telling a story can be enjoyable and even as important as the game itself.”
In its first year of operation, Fair Game has enjoyed considerable success as an epicenter for gamers in the relatively affluent western suburbs of Chicago. Josh has learned some lessons, too. For instance, the store initially hosted an official Dungeons & Dragons night on Wednesdays, which became a victim of its own success. Word of the game’s popularity quickly caught on among kids. Soon, so many Moms and Dads were dropping off their children for evenings of Dungeons & Dragons that Josh was put in the difficult position of turning away children — which was especially painful given Josh’s passion for making Fair Game a place for kids to develop their imaginations.
And the sheer numbers of kids involved made it hard for the Dungeon Masters to maintain the role-playing spirit (and true purpose) of the game.
“At first I was delighted and surprised at how many kids were there,” he says. “But then Dungeons & Dragons devolved into nothing more than mechanical dice playing instead of role playing. In a true role-playing scenario, players need the luxury of time to explain the motivations and nature of their actions. But I discovered you can’t do that inside a 90-minute encounter on Wednesday nights. The whole experience became overwhelming.”
So reluctantly, Josh discontinued the Wednesday encounters. But then something interesting happened: a smaller core of enthusiasts (the one my daughter and I joined) decided to empower themselves by setting up their weekly encounter in Fair Game. In doing so they created a self-sustaining community.
Each week the group of approximately eight players, ranging from kids to adults, spend as many as six hours gathered around a table under the guidance of Dungeon Master Frank Foulis — experiencing carefully constructed encounters that might include adventures with magical swords and even a battle with the Headless Horseman (for an encounter that occurred the Saturday before Halloween).
The games are played at a leisurely pace. You don’t show up, sit down, and start rolling dice. You talk with each other. You compare notes on the dexterity and initiative possessed by the players you have created. And you speculate about your chances of defeating the massive fire-breathing dragon that Frank has unleashed on the earth.
Ironically, from the cancellation of the Wednesday encounters, a community has coalesced.
Making Fair Game a destination for gamers does more than create goodwill. The store benefits from the word-of-mouth marketing that occurs when people are drawn to the hum of activity at 5150 Main Street in Downers Grove.
“Our advertising budget is virtually zero,” Josh said. “Our primary means of getting the word out is word of mouth, our website, references, and online search.”
He elaborated about the importance of search marketing: “There is a huge website called Board Game Geek,” he explained. “When our name appears on their boards, Google trolls through Board Game Geek, and our name then surfaces on Google’s search engine landing pages.”
Of course, through social media, you can do a lot with an advertising budget of virtually zero. Fair Game operates a Facebook page, Twitter feed, and a blog on its own website. But its most vibrant community lives in the store seven days a week, one game at a time.
Ironically, it’s the community that brings the most reward to Josh — more so than the games themselves.
“A lot of the games I play now are not necessarily my favorite games but the ones that I’m teaching my customers to play,” he said. “Many of the more complex board games can be daunting for non-gamers. I get a lot of enjoyment teaching people a game and seeing the spark that happens when someone realizes, Wow — Conflict of Heroes is really cool. This is not Shoots and Ladders.”