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“We had to quarantine our games”: Friendly local game stores’ struggle to survive during coronavirus

Board game café owners and retailers on the impact of lockdown and social distancing.

Board game store Leisure Games
Image credit: Leisure Games

Rebekah Jordan’s board game café had been under new ownership for exactly three days when the UK government announced a lockdown in response to coronavirus. “I was devastated beyond words,” she tells me. The café is Playopolis in Rochester, Kent, which she’d run with her brother since 2016. “We created Playopolis from our love of gaming with friends, and the desire to create a safe space for all who wanted access to the geekier side of life.”

After her brother moved on, Jordan took over the café with her friend and business partner Charlotte Pinder. Then everything shut down. “We didn't actually even get to have a full week,” she says. Initially, they considered operating a takeaway for both food and games, with a rental scheme. “The logistics of it just didn't seem to work for us on paper,” she continues. “We just didn't think we would make any money that way.”

Playopolis board game cafe interior
Playopolis, in Rochester, had been under new ownership for less than a week when lockdown took effect in the UK. | Image credit: Playopolis

Well-established businesses were hit just as hard. Mike Berry’s father, Tony, opened Leisure Games in London back in 1985. “It was on the recommendation of a friend,” he recalls. “Neither of us was really games enthusiasts, but as we learned about the hobby we both quickly grew to love it.” The shop has gone on to become a fixture on the London gaming scene, with its website claiming “what may well be the widest range of tabletop games in the UK”.

I thought that everybody would be in the same boat and we would get through it.

That reputation made it better placed than some others to weather the storm. “I thought that everybody would be in the same boat and we would get through it,” Berry says. “We have always operated a good mail order service so, as soon as I realised we could keep operating that, switching to concentrate 100% on mail-order wasn’t a problem.” It worked. “The business functioned pretty well, all things considered,” Berry smiles. “We saw a massive increase in online sales.”

Board game store Leisure Games
London's Leisure Games shifted to online sales to make up for lost footfall. | Image credit: Leisure Games

Jordan had to come up with some new ideas to keep her business afloat. “We set about hosting online quizzes every Saturday for 14 weeks,” she tells me. “We charged a small fee to enter the quizzes and offered vouchers to winning teams. We also did some charity ones and ones for families, too.” As well as keeping a revenue stream flowing, the quizzes won some new customers. “They were attended by regulars from the café but also people as far as America,” Jordan explains.

Online quizzes gave me something to do and a way to feel connected to the community.

Having something to focus on also proved to be personally helpful to Jordan. “The quizzes gave me something to do and a way to feel connected to the community I have been part of for years,” she says. “Saturday nights kind of felt like going out.” That sense of community was helpful to Berry, too. “Several suppliers sent out free ‘care packages’ of promotional items,” he says.

Indeed, the way gamers across the world came together during lockdown was wonderful. Brian Slattery runs a game café for other employees as a side project at his office in Singapore. “Before we shut down, we messaged out to the community about games they can borrow and take home,” he explains. “We’ve stayed active by running a trade programme, and setting up our Game Gurus to teach and run virtual game sessions over video conference.”

This was a personal project Slattery had built up himself, and he wasn’t about to let it fall victim to the virus. “I have a lot of pride in building a gaming community this size,” he continues. “While I couldn’t game as much during lockdown personally, it was great still being able to connect people to games, be an ambassador for the hobby.” Like Jordan, he also found it a comfort during the anxiety of quarantine. “It was a great stress reliever and break from the monotony just to connect with my community online,” he admits.

It was great being able to connect people to games, be an ambassador for the hobby.

The two UK businesses two had very different experiences of trying to get government support. Switching to mail-order helped Berry avoid needing the furlough scheme for his staff, and he was able to get a grant to cover lost revenue. Jordan contrasts her experience as “an uphill battle carrying a bag of rocks on our shoulders”. The problems stemmed from the change of ownership. “We were not eligible as we were counted as a new business, despite being run by me for four years,” she explains. “Eventually we were able to furlough our small team, which was a massive relief.”

Playopolis board game cafe interior
Playopolis initially struggled to be eligible for the government furlough scheme, despite running for years. | Image credit: Playopolis

By June, life was allowed to return to a vague semblance of normality for most of us. But for shop owners, there was a whole new set of obstacles to navigate. “We had to quarantine our games,” Jordan laughs. “It at least has the unexpected bonus of keeping the library very tidy. We have fewer tables and fewer covers but I think we are fairly fortunate. Customers have all been so glad to be back.”

We are not seeing anything like the same footfall as pre-lockdown, and new restrictions have only made that worse.

While Leisure Games did well with online sales during the lockdown, that success didn’t last. “Online sales quickly tailed off,” Berry admits. “We are not seeing anything like the same footfall as pre-lockdown, and new restrictions have only made that worse.” He’s carrying these concerns into the future. “A retailer cannot keep running indefinitely paying the overheads but not getting the benefits of the High Street,” he explains. “It also concerns me that so many people who have always enjoyed shopping in a bricks-and-mortar store are now getting used to online shopping.”

Board game cafés like Playopolis continue to offer gamers a reason to visit, providing they take the suggested safety precautions. But it’s still an uncertain future for the entire industry. At the beginning of October, the Lucky Sparrow games café in Glasgow was forced to close after the government schemes refused to support it. It’s a fate that’s on Jordan’s mind.

“Like a lot of people, I think that there will be a second lockdown,” she muses. “I worry none of the help will be provided. But I’m keeping everything crossed.” She pauses. “And sanitised.”

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