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Nob Hill store caters to board game revival

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — “Can you move through the tempest zone as many times as you want?”

Jest Phulin is sitting with three friends at a table in the jam-packed Empire Board Game Library store, plotting his next move.

The group is playing Eko, an area-control war game. But there are no life-like warriors, assassins and thieves hacking and slashing their way across a computer screen. There is no joystick or mouse involved.

Eko consists of a flat, irregularly shaped board stacked with blue, white and woodgrain tokens. Oh yeah. And a rules book. Calculated decisions, not reflexes, determine the action and the outcome.

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Phulin is still learning this game, but he knows what he can’t do.

“I can’t reinforce there because it is next to an enemy building.”

Faced with no moves he likes, Phulin makes the best move he can. Minutes later the game ends as one of Phulin’s friends establishes enough strongholds and captures enough enemy emperors to secure sufficient victory points.

Shrugs and congratulations, and then it’s on to the next board game. Maybe Scythe, or Terra Mystica or Sheriff of Nottingham.

Customers head into the Empire Board Game Library. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Filling a need

Board games? Didn’t they disappear with sock hops, Hula-Hoops and “Huckleberry Hound” cartoons? Weren’t they chased out of the playing field years ago by video games such as “Grand Theft Auto V,” “Resident Evil 4” and “World of Warcraft”?

If so, the dozens of people taking up every table at Nob Hill’s Empire Board Game Library on a recent Saturday haven’t realized it. Granted, this was a special Saturday. The store was celebrating its second anniversary. There was free cake.

But Empire, which has more than 700 board games available to rent at $3 an hour ($2 for kids 10 and younger, $1 for adults 65 and older) is often busy. Check it out on Wednesday nights when the Dukes of Dice gaming club meets here, or on Friday and Saturday date nights. Sunday afternoons are favorite times for families.

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Empire owner Rory Veronda, 47, said it’s difficult to get a handle on why so many people are into board games these days. He just knows it’s true.

“A new game will come out, and it will generate as much buzz as the latest electronic device,” he said.

Chris Holm, 46, a member of the Dukes of Dice gaming community, said a major reason is that board games are not just Monopoly and Scrabble these days. He said board games experienced a jolt of popularity in America in the 1990s when German games started making inroads here.

The the staff at Empire Board Game Library are learning to play the game Banishing. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

“A lot of the European games are more cooperative (than competitive) and have a depth of strategy,” Holm said. “It’s a lot of fun focusing on the people you are playing with. And board games are cost effective, less expensive than the bar and restaurant experience.”

That’s especially true when you have the option of renting them by the hour at Empire, which also sells games.

“Everything that is on my retail shelf is in my (rental) library,” Veronda said. “Some of these games are $60 to $100. Before you plunk down that kind of change for a game, you’d like to play it a few times.”

For seven years, Veronda operated Opium, a nightclub in Downtown Albuquerque, and he later worked for Jack Daniels whiskey in Denver. But Veronda, himself an avid player who favors board games with World War II or Sherlock Holmes themes, was looking to start a new kind of entertainment center, something that combined board games and cafe-style fare – coffee drinks, sodas, snacks, pastries, sandwiches and salads.

He was inspired by similar stores in other cities, especially board game cafes in the Canadian cities of Edmonton and Toronto. Veronda put his own spin on the concept and came up with a business that sells board games, rents the games for play in the store and serves food and nonalcoholic drinks. He created a store he’d like to go to, but he believes Empire fills a need beyond his own.

“Nob Hill and Albuquerque needed this, a place for normal adults to interact with each other – but not in a bar or restaurant,” he said. “There are not a lot of options that do not involve alcohol. And we are an incredibly safe place for women. When I opened up, that was one thing I wanted to make sure of.”

Shelves full of card and board game await customers at the Empire Board Game Library. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Always engaged

On a recent Wednesday afternoon at Empire, Holm is setting up Baseball Highlights 2045, a board game in which players manage baseball teams made up of a mix of human, robot and cyborg players.

Cyborg players, Alex Goldsmith, 26, explains, are human players with mechanical parts, pitchers with mechanical arms, for example.

Goldsmith, until recently an Albuquerque TV reporter and weekend anchor, is, like Holm, a member of the Dukes of Dice community. And he is a co-founder, with Albuquerque attorney Sean Ramirez, 35, of a weekly board gaming podcast. He said a vibrant board-gaming subculture existed in Albuquerque before the Empire Board Game Library opened, but the store gave the players a place to meet.

“You see all kinds in here,” Goldsmith said. “There are heavy gamers, people who have a big passion. There are people on dates. You see groups of women. You see families with kids 6 and up.”

Goldsmith said that popular as the new-style games are, there is a nostalgia element that draws some people to Empire.

“People remember sitting around the table and rolling the dice,” he said.

That was the case on a cool and rainy Friday evening when friends Deejay Chavez, 22, a nursing student, and Tomaiis Herrera, 29, the owner of a Nob Hill-area beauty and skin care business, found themselves in Empire, facing off across a table in a game of Scrabble. The two young women had been at dinner in a nearby cafe and decided to stop at Empire, a store they had heard about but never been to before.

Herrera said board games were a big part of her life when she was growing up with her brothers and sisters in California.

“My grandmother taught us to set the table and play board games,” Herrera said. “We played Scrabble. My grandmother had this beautiful Scrabble game that was raised on a Lazy Susan and had drawers.”

Chavez remembers playing Pictionary with her family when she was growing up in Mora. She was impressed by the large collection of games available for rent at Empire.

“The games keep you challenged,” she said. “You are still learning.”

And still remembering.

“It’s a memory of people you love,” Herrera said. “And you are creating a (new) memory that will stick.”

Attorney Ramirez said he is at Empire every Wednesday with the Dukes of Dice, a lot of Fridays with his fiancee and some Sundays with his teenaged daughter.

“Board games seem like an anachronism with all of the plugging in – computers, phones, I-pads – today,” he said. “But I think there is an attraction to the tactile part of it. You are moving things around, not just pushing buttons. And I think the games have gotten better.”

Today’s games are more often like Terraforming Mars, one of Veronda’s favorites, in which players take the role of corporations trying to create oxygen and plant life on Mars.

Or like Sheriff of Nottingham, which is not a swashbuckling adventure pitting Robin Hood against the sheriff. Instead, players take the part of merchants and the peril lies in trying to slip illicit goods past the sheriff’s guard and into Nottingham’s marketplace.

The best thing about the new breed of games, Jest Phulin said, is that in most of them all the players are in the game until the end.

“The (classic) American-style games are elimination games,” Phulin, an Empire store employee, said. “In Monopoly, somebody goes bankrupt, or in Risk someone gets captured and they are out of it and just waiting for the game to end. And there is very little strategy. You throw the dice and do what the dice tell you.

“But in European-style games, strategy is more important than luck and you play to a set end condition. Everybody is fully engaged all the time.”

Jest Phulin, in case you are wondering, is not his real name. Adapted from the name of a character in Robert Aspin’s novel “Phule’s Company,” Jest Phulin is his store name, his gaming community name. His real name is John Sanders.

Phulin said he only got into board gaming four years ago as a way to meet people. Playing board games at Empire, he said, is an excellent dating experience.

“The classic date is you go watch a movie and are sitting in the dark for two hours and not talking to each other,” he said. “Here, you can visit while playing the games. It’s great for finding out about personalities.”

Could be you find out about tempest zones you don’t care to move through.

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