Despite personal computers, the Internet, and a host of nifty hand-held gadgets, old-school tabletop games have never been more popular or diverse. With increasingly higher levels of geekiness becoming fashionable, it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that activities like role playing games are becoming mainstream.
Words can be Hurtful by Jamie McCaffrey
It also shouldn't come as a surprise that businesses have caught on to the trend, and hobby and game stores (as well as the newer game cafes) are popping up like ground hogs after February.
Leaving aside the intriguing phenomenon of game cafes for another day, here is a list of some of Toronto's best tabletop game stores. They'll sell you the games, supply the accessories and expansion packs, and, in most cases, run tournaments and casual gaming nights as well.
But first, here's a brief and basic gaming glossary.
Tabletop Game: If it isn't a physical sport, or something played electronically, then it's probably a tabletop game. This large group includes card games, board games, and those huge, complex set-ups some people do with all the little figurines (which are usually called miniatures).
Board Game: You know, games played using boards. Some classics include Monopoly, Snakes and Ladders, and Risk, but this family has evolved a huge amount in the last few decades, and has produced some truly mammoth mutant offspring involving cards, dice, tons of little tokens, and multiple rule-books.
Card Game: While this title obviously applies to games like Poker and Old Maid, in the context of game stores a card game is one with its own specially designed cards, and not with the standard four-suit, 52-card deck. Magic: The Gathering is probably the best known of these, but there are many others. If you've absolutely never heard of these things, think of your grandfather's baseball cards, and then imagine that he could shuffle them together into a team to play against other similarly outfitted opponents.
Role-Playing Game (RPG): These are games wherein players control a single game character with distinctive attributes (and possibly even a personal history) and play them through a series of simulated adventures. The great granddaddy of them all is probably Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), but as with the card games, a whole bunch of them are kicking around out there.
Dungeons and dragons by Scott Swigart
Wargames: This is where the miniatures really come in. Generally table-top wargames involve players pitting armies of little pieces against each other, with pieces representing either historical human troops (as in a WW2 re-enactment, for example) or various fantastical ones (dragons, orcs, the Millennium Falcon), depending on the game.
The Hairy Tarantula
Locations: Downtown: 354 Yonge St (2nd Floor) North York: 6979 Yonge St
Phone No.: Downtown: (416) 596-8002, North: (647) 430-1263
Hours: Downtown location: Mon, Tue: 11-8; Wed, Thur, Fri, Sat: 11-9; Sun: 12-7. North location: Mon, Wed, Thur: 12-8; Tue: 12-7; Fri: 12-11; Sat, Sun: 12-7
The first store that I visited was the Hairy Tarantula at 354 Yonge Street. At 23 years old, this place is a pretty venerable institution in the Toronto game world, and has now sprouted up a second, larger location, also on Yonge, just below Steeles.
While possessing a considerable range of products, and lots of personality, the downtown Hairy T may be a bit bemusing for first-time visitors. Or second-time visitors. Or neat freaks.
You enter by an unmarked door on the street, distinguished only by a small painting of the store's eight-legged, comic-reading mascot, then climb a long, narrow flight of stairs that takes you up to a series of large connected closets crammed with cards, comics, role-playing rule-books, anime, manga, figurines, board games, and a bunch of other odds and ends.
Alright, closets is a bit of an exaggeration (only a bit though). But the place really is crammed. It feels like a used book store, with most of the space taken up by loot-covered tables, surrounded by walls of shelves—most of which go all the way up to the ceiling. This does not seem like the best place for a beginner, but it feels as if you get geek cred just for finding it and going in.
According to the current owner, Emmett Leon, the store started out selling mostly comics and collectible 'sports cards' back in 1992, and stocked Magic cards back when they were strange and new.
Now, they still sell lots of Magic stuff, as well as wargame miniatures and the most impressive collection of role-playing books I've seen in any of the stores on this list.
Mr. Leon told me that there used to be a real live tarantula on the premises, but the excessive vibrations from the nearby subway were too much for for the sensitive arachnid. Now they just have cats (and a floppy spider stuffed toy menacing customers at the cash register).
Anyone interested in the various Harry Tarantula events (such as Magic tournaments, D&D games, and one board games night per week) should note that they all take place in the larger North York location. For their full schedule, go here: http://www.htnorth.com/wordpress/?page_id=91
I passed this place while looking for the Hairy Tarantula, and while they're physically quite close to each other, the two stores could hardly be farther apart in their presentation. The Tarantula is hidden, cramped, and slightly illicit-feeling. Mind Games is spacious, wide open, impossible to miss, and, in comparison at least, sparsely stocked.
I'd label this as a fairly good store for the gaming novice—it's nicely displayed, not intimidating, and supplements the board games (and a handful of cards and game pieces) with jigsaw puzzles and slight of hand illusions.
Although Mind Games may look at first like the clean, square, churchgoing neighbour to the attic-dwelling weirdo that is the Hairy T, this isn't quite the case. You can find all kinds of odd things here, and the juxtaposition just makes them odder: innocent brain teasers and exploding golf balls (and tinned 'emergency underpants'?!) on one hand, fairly realistic fake weapons on the other. At the back of the store, I found a 'beer bong' and racy word games stacked around a collection of remote-controlled monster trucks. To complete the confusion, their selection of board games for young players (say, 10 and under) is better than most of the other stores I visited; their primary commitment, it seems, is to variety. They've even got water guns.
Unlike all the other stores on this list (half excluding the Tarantula), Mind Games is a chain, with outlets in Ontario, B.C and the U.S. There is also a Mind Games Cafe on Yonge Street, several blocks above Eglinton. While the downtown Toronto store hasn't really started running events yet, they do have a general board game night and a puzzle club.
No remote-controlled vehicles or frat party accessories here (although the extremely straight-laced and squeamish may want those emergency underpants in the quite likely event of a goblin raid). The sci-fi and fantasy warfare elements of gaming are on full display at Dueling Grounds, from the racks and shelves of creature figurines and tiny spaceships, to the dragon head in the window. If you've ever dreamed of visiting a store with a chainsword on the wall, this is the spot for you. If you don't know what a chainsword is, you might find the place a bit strange.
Like the Hairy Tarantula, this doesn't feel like a place for gaming virgins. Sky Sorensen, the assistant manager, told me that when the place started up 11 years ago their focus was on cards and miniatures, and while they've branched out into board games and some rpg-related materials, this is still very much their area of expertise. In fact, Mr. Sorensen thought that some of their miniature collections might be the best in the city.
"I'm pretty sure we probably have the most extensive collection of Dungeons and Dragons miniatures and Star Wars miniatures," he told me "and – as far as I know – Flames of War and War Machine Hoards, probably."
They also have model paints and some fake rocks and grass to make your playing terrain more realistic.
The downside of their miniature fixation is that the board game selection at Dueling Grounds is quite small—probably the smallest of any store on this list—although that still doesn't stop them from having Star Trek Settlers of Catan. It also doesn't stop them from running lots of events down in their spacious basement, although these are mostly Magic or miniature based games. Their Warhammer tournament is apparently quite large. While Mr. Sorensen was quite emphatic that their gaming community included all ages, the store does host a 12-and-under Magic meeting every Sunday afternoon.
Like their nearby cousin the Hairy T, 401 Games started up in 1992—but as a convenience store, rather than a game or comic shop. Over the years they drifted into sports cards (which they still do sell), and then into Magic and board games. Somewhere in all that expansion and evolution, they also picked up and moved from their eponymous address to 518 Yonge Street, keeping their old name for the sake of the brand (and causing only minor confusion in the process. Apparently, some people call the store wondering if they're located near highway 401).
Whether it's 401 or 518, this is still the same section of Yonge (between Bloor and Dundas) that Mind Games and the Hairy Tarantula occupy. I'm guessing Ryerson University may have something to do with it. The store is big, and while not quite as slick-looking as Mind Games, it appears to hold three or four times as much. It's also a bit more specialized. No puzzles, no magic tricks, no comics, and only a modest shelf of role-playing books. There are a few miniatures—as well as collectible figurines, and things that I'd call dolls—and some accessories like card sleeves and even clothing (for people, not cards. Gamers aren't that weird).
Mostly though, they do card and board games. Lots and lots of board games.
They also have a particularly pleasant place to play said board games. The sign on the outside of the building does say 'board game lounge', after all, and the fair-sized second story of 401 is taken up with tables, chairs, and nice big windows. You can come in, pick a board game from the special renting selection, and pay $2 per person per game to play for as long as you'd like (well, until the store closes, anyway). There are also many organized events, including a free board game night every Wednesday at 6, and a free deck-building night every Thursday at 5:30.
Hovering up on Mt. Pleasant Road near Eglinton, this is the most wholesome, kid-oriented installment on this list. It's here to brighten your rainy days and give your mind a workout. It's small, cheerful, colourful, and packs in a surprising variety of amusements.
The creation of the non-profit Chess 'n Math Association, Strategy Games first opened in Montreal as a meeting place for chess teachers (and one hopes, their pupils). Since then, it has spread to Ottawa and Toronto, and has branched out quite a bit in its focus. While still very chess-centric, the decade-old Toronto store has a fair selection of board games, along with some brain teasers and jigsaw puzzles.
Not surprisingly, there are no chainswords on the walls here, and you have to look a bit to find pictures of scantily-clad adventuresses. I wouldn't even bother to look for miniatures, graphic novels, or rpg manuals, but there's a whole shelf of chess books and a trophy case for chess prizes.
All this isn't to say that there isn't the odd zombie or orc about the place. You can still find some Magic: The Gathering cards, and Walking Dead Monopoly (not to mention several versions of Munchkins, and a whole lot of other board games). All of the events organized by the store itself are connected to chess, but I'm told that other game players do rent the space from time to time.
There may be sputters of protest, but I'm going to proclaim Meeplemart the most impressive—not to say overwhelming—store on this list. Since I spent much of my time in the place wandering around in a daze, I'm going to leave it to owner Steve Lefort to give you an idea of the sheer scale of things.
"In terms of number of different products carried, Meeplemart is the largest online game store in the world. We carry over 50,000 different gaming products in 3,778 different categories. We specialize in board, card and wargames, miniature gaming, collectible games (CCG's & TCG's) and role playing games. We also carry a broad spectrum of puzzles, toys and pop culture collectibles. With over 15,000 different miniatures alone, we have the largest selection of miniatures in Canada (possibly in the world). Meeplemart also has over 5,000 unique board and card games and over 800 unique wargames, also the largest selections in Canada."
I'd also like to add that they've a considerable area devoted to miniature paints and other set-up accessories. It's a bit like model trains—only with dragons and robotic armour.
While all of the places discussed here have their own websites, and most will sell you things online, Meeplemart actually started its life selling board games on the Internet. According to Mr. Lefort (who bought it in 2008) the store has gone through six different online versions, and seven different street locations.
A word about locations: the current site is not quite as mysterious and hard to find as the good ol' Hairy T, but it's getting there. A small sign outside marks a bland, multi-story, multi-use building, and signs inside point you downstairs. Yes folks, this place actually is in the dungeon—although really, thinking of it as a cave full of treasure is much more appropriate.
Game and Hobby Zone
Yet another denizen of the game-rich Bloor-to-Dundas stretch of Yonge Street, the Zone is actually a bit North West of the others, in the trendy Cumberland Terrace complex in Yorkville. It has a fair selection of board games, as well as puzzles and other hobby-ish things. Don't bother about the rpgs or wargame miniatures though.
Face to Face Games
Face to Face Games - Hedron - one one of the ancient stone monoliths
found throughout the plane of Zendikar
Finally, another game store that isn't anywhere near Yonge Street. Right on the corner of Danforth and Woodbine, Face to Face is heavily skewed towards Magic: The Gathering, but also has some board games and other goodies. Unlike the Game and Hobby Zone, Face to Face does run events, and has a sister store in Montreal.