Monday, July 30, 2012

The Quest for the (Un)Holy Grails

So, I took a road trip down into the New England States recently.  As soon as people heard my plan they were all like "OooooOooo, the shopping down there is awesome!  You can get some great deals on coats, shoes, clothing, piston engines, salt and pepper shakers, batting practice helmets, spice racks, shower curtains and...BLAH, BLAH, BLAH..."

Lemme get this straight right now: I hate the fuck right outta shopping.  If the sole falls off my shoe then I replace it but I certainly don't pro-actively go out and waste my time buying boring shit just because it's cheap.  Besides, it's my vacation, why the hell would I want to make myself miserable by going to a bunch of fucking outlet stores and rummaging through endless boxes of winter boots?

Having said that I was in the market for a few, shall we say, items of antiquity.  Namely:

(1) A Holmes-era D&D Basic Set, a Mentzer Expert rule book and/or a Rules Cyclopedia.

(2) Old D&D/AD&D modules from the 70's or 80's. 

(3) Any supplements for the Marvel Super Heroes RPG.  

(4)  A metric shit-ton of cheap-ass board games, specifically ones that either me or Wil Wheaton have played recently (namely Tsuro, Gloom or Kingdom Builder).

Since we literally threw this trip together at the last minute I really didn't get a chance to do any research before I left.  Mercifully, even sad, smart-phoneless bastards like myself get a reprieve nowadays since every hotel has a public access computer that you can use to sniff out every local game store.  All I needed to do was find a street address, program the ol' GPS and hit the road.  

In an effort to properly document the stores that I visited during my trip I've decided to rate each one based on organization, price and the number of non-traditional games in stock (read: titles other then Dirty Minds, Awkward Family Photos or the disturbingly-Freudian Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Cheese Touch Game).

I'll use my sliding scale of "1" to "6" die pips, "6" being a Gaming Mecca and "1" being a thrift store with only a single soiled copy of Justin Bieber's Always Be Mine Board Game with the "Kiss & Dare" cards missing.

In Bangor I found Three Geek Gaming (which the "Bitch In The Box" kept mispronouncing as "Three JEEK Gaming") on 677 Hogan Road, just a stone's throw from my hotel.

Unfortunately the store had only three notable contents: Warhammer paraphernalia (which I don't play), collectible card games (which I'm still in a twelve step program for) and an oppressive atmosphere of complete and utter desperation.  I was also really put off by the random debris and garbage just lying around, not to mention the female warden shop-keep who kept hovering around us as if we were gonna try and make off with the till (which I can only imagine was just a-burstin' to capacity).

C'mon, guys...stop living the game store stereotype!  Sadly, Three Jeek Gaming only rates two pips outta six.

Although "The Jeek" was a total bust, the store right next door at 683 Hogan (invitingly named Bull Moose) turned out to be something of a revelation.  They had a veritable treasure trove of books, CD's, DVD's, Blu-Rays, video games and a small smattering of board, RPG and collectible card games.  Obviously this isn't their focus (there isn't even category for it on their website) but they did have some cool specialized titles like Power Grid, Lords of Waterdeep and Arkham Horror.

Even though they didn't have a huge selection (and certainly nothing that I was in the market for), the place was impeccably organized and the prices actually looked really good.  I'll definitely make a point of going back there someday.    

After buying a new board game you can hypothetically kick back and read the rules 
flaked out on one of Bull Moose's comfy chairs.  

Bull Moose scores three outta six pips on the Board Game Mecc-O-Meter.

Also of some note is a place called BAM! (a.k.a. Books-A-Million), which I'd describe as a two-tiered entertainment warehouse with a Conservative Christian bent.  I knew that things were gonna be slightly askew when the "Hot New Reads" display at the front of the store featured tomes by verbal lunch-money thief Bill O'Reilly, human Sleestak and all-around whackadoo Ann Coulter and weepy manboy Glenn Beck.

With retailers showcasing pathologically paranoid manifestos like "Demonic: How the Liberal Mob Is Endangering America", it's little wonder why America is so fucking polarized.  

Anyhoo, notwithstanding the sizable Christian book section, they did have a pretty decent little game nook upstairs.  Unfortunately, most of it was mediocre, calendar / puzzle store detritus that makes most veteran games like myself want to punch kittens in the face.  But amidst all the Angry Birds, Wine Wars! and Glee The Bored Game crap, there were a few encouraging titles like Reiner Knizia's The Hobbit,  Game of Thrones: Second Edition, and Dixit.

Obviously this wasn't the sort of place where I was going to find a first print "Palace of the Silver Princess" module, but the place does deserve a mention.  BAM! scores a "2" on the Board Game Mecc-O-Meter.

In fact, decent board games seemed to turn up in the unlikeliest of places.  Even the Target department stores had such incongruous fare as Zooloretto and Ticket To Ride as well as a small smattering of Fantasy Flight titles (!) like Lord of the Rings, Rune Age and Deadwood.

My American readers are probably looking at this and thinking: "Jesus, Target...really?!?!", but here in Canada the concept of finding a decent board game in full-line department store is a completely foreign concept.  Recently Target acquired Zellers, a chain of Canadian department stores that's been around since 1931.  Although I'm deeply saddened by another blow to our retail heritage, my anguish will be assuaged somewhat if I can pick up a copy of Elder Sign whenever I want.      

For it's surprising mix of organization, fair prices and variety, Target actually scores three pips out of six.

While walking through the Bangor Mall I spied a family finishing up a game of Cities and Knights of Catan, which I thought was kinda cool.   Much to my wife's delight, I stopped and started interrogating them:

"Excuse me, but do you know of any stores in town that sell games like this?"

"Hmmmm, I'm not sure," replied the Mom.

"You can prolly getit on th' innernet!" one of their unctuous larvae unhelpfully replied.

"Did you try Bull Moose?" the Dad offered.

"Yep," I responded.  "Great store but they didn't have what I was looking for."

"THIS IS WHAT THE BOX LOOKS LIKE!!!" another brat proclaimed.

"Shut up, kid, the grownups are talking!" I snapped back.

I took this as a sign that I'd exhausted all of Bangor's possibilities.  It was time to move on.

When I arrived in Salem, Massachusetts the following day I literally tore the "Games" page out of the Yellow Pages and took up the gauntlet again.  My initial detective work proved discouraging...

Game Zone in Salem: video games.  *Ick*
Muddle Puddle Toys & Games in Salem: mainly kids stuff.  *Bleargh*
Marino Enterprises in Lynn: wholesale distributor of games?  Findings inconclusive.
Go Calendars & Games in Cambridge: mall crap.
Patriot Games in Lynn: more new-fangled 'lectronic stuff.

I was a tad surprised by this since Massachusetts has a pretty major gaming pedigree.  Your Move Games, makers of Battleground: Fantasy Warfare and Battle for Hill 218 make their headquarters in Sommerville.  And I'd certainly be remiss if I didn't mention that George S. Parker established Parker Brothers in his hometown of Salem way back in 1888!

There are signs of this proud heritage everywhere, including the Salem Museum:

Considering how important Parker Brothers games were to so many of us and how historically relevant they were to the modern industry, shouldn't there be a museum dedicated to these guys in town?  Seriously, what's one less store that sells incense, tarot cards and mandrake?  Come on, Salem!  Get on it!

Although I'm not the biggest fan of Monopoly, I certainly have a soft spot for Clue.  The austere and subconsciously unsettling imagery used in the 1972 version certainly makes a lot more sense now that I know what prompted the Brother's Parker to come up with their own take on the British game Cluedo.  The related story of murder and the creepy mansion that it happened in is a tale definitely worth researching.

Despite a noticeable dearth of dedicated game stores, I did find two awesome shops in Salem.  The first was Harrison's Comics and Collectibles at 252 Essex Street in Salem:

When their website says that they specialize in "Magic the Gathering, Yugioh, Pokemon TCG, HeroClix, Vanguard and Naruto"  they ain't whistlin' Dixie.  Unfortunately, I'm not really into any of that stuff right now.  Admittedly, they do carry a fair amount of RPG stuff, including the new AD&D reprints but I couldn't bring myself to spend $100.00 on something that I already own in triplicate.

Honestly, if it came down to comics and collectibles, I'd have to break out the ol' d20 to give them a score.  But since we're only looking at board, card and role-playing games (and they scarcely mention such things on their website), I can only give Harrison's three pips out of six.  

The other shop in Salem is the nondescript-looking Red Lion Smoke Shop on 94 Washington Street:

I kinda got the impression that the Lion's Golden Age was back when books like this were on the shelf...

At face value, it looks like the kinda place where middle-aged dudes once congregated to chain smoke, play Squad Leader and shit on one another for hours on end (er, not literally).  It's feels like an old grognardian war cave that has since fallen into disarray, a store which once lived large off of wargame, RPG, CCG and nicotine addiction until video games came along as an easier vice to mainline.

Up front and towards the right of the store they have some chess sets and a few sun-bleached board games that look like they probably came with the place.  To the left, behind the counter, is a sizable assortment of collectible card games.  And then, in the back, they have comic books, action figures and about a veritable lungful of new and vintage RPG stuff.

Which is where I found these four beauties...

Finally I'd struck gold!  At five bucks a pop, I couldn't pass up this deal, even if the stuff reeked of  pachouli and cigars.

Although it's about as organized as the inside of Gary Busey's head, The Red Lion is a charmingly schizophrenic shop with tons of cool stuff to rummage through and discover.  I give the place a solid three pips outta six.    

While paying for my stuff I asked the clerk if there were any dedicated board game stores in the area and they couldn't think of anything.  And with that, I knew that my work in Salem was done.

Ironically my big score didn't come until I came back to Canada.  Even more ironically: a divine intervention of stupidity made me miss-program the GPS, sending us to Fredericton instead of Saint John.  But, in retrospect I was never so happy to fuck up, since fate that day led me to right to Strange Adventures on 68 York Street.

Now, I've been patronizing the Halifax location since the early Nineties, but this was the first time I've every visited this particular store.  Just like the other sites, Fredericton's Strange Adventures is a wonderful place featuring a respectable assortment of comics, graphic novels, t-shirts, toys and games.

On my first pass through the store, I really didn't see anything special.  But then, as I passed by the rack of Forth Edition D&D stuff, I spied the following treasures tucked away at the bottom of the carousel:

I could scarcely believe what I was looking at.  I didn't even own the first printings of the core books!  The five AD&D manuals and the two boxed sets were bundled separately and priced at only $60.00 a pop.  I nervously looked around, gingerly slid those paper n' cardboard jewels off the rack and hastily made my way to the cash, casting furtive sidelong glances at my fellow patrons.

"Back off, get yet own childhood memories!" I yelled at a soccer mom who dared stray too close to me.

As I carried my precious lootz out to my car, I marveled at my luck.  Before anyone could catch me I quickly tore away from the scene, feeling like a considerably geekier version of Mark Wahlberg in The Italian Job.

I've since had a chance to examine this haul, and I gotta say, I really lucked out.  It's all in incredibly good condition.

For having well-kept stores with a nice cross-reference of goods at excellent prices, I heartily give Strange Adventures Fredericton four pips on the Game Mecc-O-Meter!

Before I close this out, there are two other retailers worth mentioning.  The first is Gamezilla on 1211 Prospect Street in Fredericton.  Take heed, these comments also apply to the other location I frequent, which is on 511 Mountain Road in Moncton.

 Gamezilla Fredericton...

,,,and the Monctonian chapter.

Gamezilla used to be my pilgrimage site for board games and RPG's in the Maritimes.  In fact I'm pretty sure that I've single-handedly put at least one of the owner's kids through college.  Unfortunately, they seem to be leaning more and more on video game sales and rentals nowadays, which is a trifle sad.  Despite these real market dictates, Gamezilla still manages to carry a nice variety of titles at semi-reasonable prices.  Plus the staff at the Moncton location are all friggin' awesome.

"Here at Gamezilla we have loads of board games.  We're also well-equipped to handle all of your 
high-shelf retrieval needs!"   

For their clean, bright, spacious stores and moderate prices, the Gamezilla chain rates a "4" on the Gaming Mecc-O-Meter.

Finally, there's The Comic Hunter on 465 Main Street in Moncton.

In spite of their name, these guys easily have the greatest selection of new and used games in the Maritimes.  We're talkin' Library of Congress here, folks.  Just look at this shiznit:  

Seriously, you could spend an entire day rooting through this stuff (and I actually have on occasion).

The only major downside is the store's consistently higher-then-average game prices.  For example, I picked up Gloom at a store here in Hali for $24.95 recently and The Comic Hunter wanted $28.95 for it.  *Tsk, tsk*

Because of this sad fact, I've gotta downgrade The Comic Hunter from great to good.  Still, I give 'em four pips outta five!

So, there you have it!  The next time I venture down into the New England States I'm hoping to spend about a week in Boston and venture out on some Lovecraftian day trips.  

In sharing this quest, I'm really hoping to help you, my fellow gamers, get oriented if you should find yourself in these very same places.

Oh, by the way, in a future entry I'll show you exactly what's inside those Moldvay D&D boxes.  Little did I know that there'd be even bigger surprises lurking within!

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