Thousands of years ago, ancient peoples discovered that putting numbers on shapes could allow for a fun game of chance to pass the time between hunting buffalo or getting eaten by dinosaurs. Fast forward a few millennia and a former Illinois insurance salesman named Gary Gygax and his childhood friend David Anreson use those numbered shapes to create Dungeons and Dragons, which for the last forty-nine years has sat on the golden throne of tabletop role-playing games thanks to its easy-to-use rules. In this dark age of company overreach, this once great pillar of the community is crumbling under the weight of corporate controversy, and fans are seeking new domains to create their own model characters and worlds, and to share their stories. Luckily, there are quite a few kindly niche shops in the hour-drive-of-my-house that specialize in tabletop games. These hobbyists are more than happy to embrace gamers with new games, and plenty of people to play them with.
Haven Games and Hobbies, Enfield, Connecticut
Haven Games and Hobbies of Enfield, Connecticut, is an enticing and relatively new venue that opened post-pandemic in April 2023. With each step down the long, sleek entryway, the thumping beat of Doom Eternal’s soundtrack grows louder. Dozens of small, painted eyes track gamers from the display case of Warhammer miniatures as they pass into the main room. Bryan LeBlanc, the store’s owner and a tabletop veteran, is often engrossed in conversation with patrons—concepts for new space marine armies, inquiries on new Magic the Gathering sets, and plenty of questions about the current state of TTRPGs.
“Try to get a good angle,” he says, noting the number of empty bottom shelves where books for the Fallout and Dune RPGs once sat. “We actually had to sign a contract with Modiphius to get more product in,” he explains, “We just keep selling out.” The beginnings of a proud smile grow into a beaming grin as a group of model-toting teenagers waltzes into his shop as if it were a second home.
Despite corporate greed, the dungeon-crawling classic still seems to have its market. “We actually have a ten-DM multiverse campaign going on,” he says, looking into the wide, table-filled connecting room, where four players have already begun setting up a miniature city to do battle. There are piles of rulebooks stacked high beside them. One player, clad in a flatcap and a knowing grin, slams a foot-tall robot down amongst the inch-tall men. A sigh culminates from the rest as the fate of their game is spelled out before them. For players looking to finally squeeze into a local community, Haven’s fresh face is the perfect place to roll the dice.
Tabletop Gaming Center, Newington, Connecticut
Standing tall and bright like a Statue of Liberty for roleplayers within a decaying shopping plaza is the Tabletop Gaming Center. Its floor space is expansive and well-split. To the right, a library’s worth of shelves carry games of any concept you could think of. To the left, pairs and groups of focused combatants roll handfuls of dice onto colorful playboards and ponder lengthy card text, but Monday night is special. It’s board game night.
On Monday night, every other lesser-known publication gets its limelight. A group of flannel-flared teens discovers mechanical mysteries in Tales from the Loop, while three women—animal ears clipped to their hoodies—war as furry critters in Root. A pair of parents can even be found playing with an age-worn box of Scrabble while their kids set stacks of cards for Munchkin. Each table contains its own microcosm; its own community within the community, gleefully beckoning over new players curious enough to watch over their shoulders. With its expansive inventory and plentiful patrons, the Tabletop Gaming Center is the ideal spot for those looking to start something new.
The Battle Standard, Windsor, Connecticut
Right off Exit 44 in Windsor, Connecticut, next to the Tobacco Valley Gun Shop, across from the combination KFC/Taco Bell, is The Battle Standard. Here, the expected stock of names like Wizards of the Coast and Games Workshop bulks up their options, but the real magic (aside from the gathering) is in the display cases, which are filled with hand-made marvels like delicately carved dice boxes from a local woodworker, d20 earrings from a local jeweler, and plenty of business cards for model painters. These tall, well-lit sections are layered with pre-made and donated models that split up every section of triple-A merchandise, and even the scraps of model kits left over for aspirants to sift through. Their inventory—and their ambitions—are loaded with community interest.
“Oh, Iron Hands? You’re gonna want some redemptors in there,” suggests an employee clad in a red uniform to a young man eagerly clutching a very small but very expensive box of polyurethane. He points towards a table by the award-filled window, where a woman covered by flecks of acrylic squints at an elaborate-looking robot model under a lamp. She smiles and hands it to him, encouraging him to look it over. At the Battle Standard, inspiration is their most prolific product.
Games N Friends, Springfield, Massachusetts
Games N Friends defines the age-old method of min-maxing. Its sky-blue walls are framed with a dozen wooden bookshelves and white, plastic folding tables stand vigil within the center space. All of it is flooded by the fluorescent white light from above. Despite its simplicity, the shelves are packed with books and boxes, from the deeply decorated lids of The Werewolves of Miller’s Hollow or the brutalist black covers of The Horus Heresy. The tables are smothered with cards and miniatures. At the back of the room, a half-dozen players—from schoolkids fresh off the bus to nine-to-fivers relaxing after a shift—crowd around a single table. The air is charged with their cheers and laughter.
Jessie Chisholm, one of the shop’s employees, sits surrounded by small, plastic jars of vibrant paints. His hands move with gentle precision, applying touches of yellow to the bones of a dragon skeleton he holds steady in his other hand.
“It was going to be a dracolich, but the party I DM isn’t high enough level,” says Chisholm with a hint of disappointment.
Chisholm glides around the store like a curator, examining and explaining each individual section of the store, from the brand new lights in the model case, to the d20 bath bombs, to the single eight-and-a-half-by-eleven picture of the worm from The Dark Crystal hanging on the otherwise empty wall. His energy and dedication are contagious, popping by each table to see how games have progressed and hyping up the competition. Games N Friends feels as much like a store as it does your friend’s basement, and that’s the best part. The people inside are customers, employees, and players, but most importantly, they’re friends.
Header Photo Credit: Ryan Shermer
Ryan Shermer is a Staff Writer for The Blue Muse Magazine.