Behind the doors of a shop on Palo Alto's California Avenue is a brand-new game wonderland that aims to appeal to everyone — even people who say they don't like games. Filled wall to wall with colorful game boxes of all sizes, Gamelandia has games for Dungeons & Dragons and "Twilight Imperium" fans to casual jigsaw puzzlers; for small kids still developing hand-eye coordination to adults looking for raunchy party games (which are stored in a special cupboard above the reach of youngsters). The store has everything from enamel pronoun pins and indie games to greeting cards and Pokémon cards. There's even a whole display of cat-themed games and toys for fans of felines.
Gamelandia, which is in the midst of its soft opening, was founded by married couple Berry Hatfield and Lisa Joyce, who first moved to Palo Alto from New York about a year and a half ago. When they arrived, they were surprised to learn there wasn’t a game store in town.
"It's the heart of nerdom, and there wasn't a game store," Hatfield said.
So they decided to create their own, curated with Hatfield and Joyce's values of inclusivity and fun in mind.
Both Hatfield and Joyce have had accomplished careers in the entertainment industry — Joyce has an extensive acting history with credits from "Insecure" (she plays Issa Rae's nonprofit co-worker Frieda), "Law & Order," "Boardwalk Empire," and "The Good Wife," among other shows, and Hatfield's production management credits include work with "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver" and "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert."
The couple relocated to Palo Alto partly because of Joyce's health. She was diagnosed with leukemia in the months before COVID-19 broke out, and when it did she had to be very cautious because leukemia impairs the immune system. She's now in remission, but when isolation and quarantine were the norm, it was important for her to be able to connect with friends over games, she said. The pandemic cut many people off from in-person interaction with friends, and now that case rates are easing it feels all the more powerful to get together to foster camaraderie, community and connection, she said.
"We need that, as people," she said.
Board games are having a resurgence in popularity right now, the owners say. The latest edition of Dungeons & Dragons is the game's most popular ever, thanks in part to the hit show "Stranger Things," and Magic: The Gathering launched an app that made it easier for new players to learn the game, Hatfield said.
While many brick-and-mortar stores have suffered from competition with internet retailers, Hatfield said that their business offers something you can't get online. It's a place where you can stop by on your way home from dinner or work and have someone recommend a game and explain to you how to play it, he said. Hatfield attended a series of board game conventions to make sure their supply of games highlights what's new in the industry, while the store's plushy selection was specially curated by three children who are family friends.
The city of Palo Alto has been talking for years about ways to support local businesses, a conversation that has become particularly urgent since the start of the pandemic. It has excluded small businesses from its proposed business tax, and the city manager has just hired an assistant who is focused on economic development.
The sense that community members are hungry for a fun spot to buy and play games was evident at lunchtime on a recent weekday when the store was closed, as several people approached the storefront, peered in and tried to open the front door.
"People have been trying to pull the doors down," Joyce said.
A central component of their game store is the gaming rooms in the back of the shop they're developing. Decorated with murals from artists Morgan Bricca and Graham Yarrington, the rooms and the store’s extensive game selection will be available for free play, where people can reserve spots like they would at a restaurant, or drop-in at a rate of $10 for two hours. Another room will be available to rent for private parties. In addition, Joyce has an office where she'll offer tarot readings. The store also plans to host its own Dungeons & Dragons campaign, where people can drop in and join ad hoc sessions. And they're open to adding programs based on what the community is interested in.
"If they have games they're really passionate about and want to run it and teach people how to do it, we'll incorporate them into the programming," Hatfield said.
The store also serves another community purpose. Hatfield points to the 2019 book, "The Board Game Family: Reclaim your Children from the Screen," by Ellie Dix as the philosophical heart of their store. The book talks about the many ways that board games can serve to help people open up to each other, learn developmental and social skills and ultimately bring families closer together.
"I know that playing games has contributed enormously to my ability to interact with others, manage failure, work creatively with available resources, experiment with multiple paths to success, solve interesting problems, adapt to changing situations and make decisions quickly," Dix writes in the book's introduction.
She also asserts that the rise of crowdfunding has helped make it more feasible for independent game designers to publish their games, which has driven a recent wave of innovation and creativity in the medium. "This isn’t a renaissance of board gaming; it has never been this good," she writes.
The store will highlight contributions by the sizable local game designer community through a presentation series called "Meet your Maker" and will make an effort to carry games by local designers, like one on its shelves called "Gosh Darn Bubbles" by San José resident Michael Sanchez.
Joyce is also hoping their store can serve as a safe space to escape from stressors. For some teens in other communities, Joyce said, having access to a brick-and-mortar game space where they could escape for a couple of hours after school was what helped them get through pandemic isolation.
"They can find their tribe and they know that for that hour and a half, two hours (or) four hours, they're in this other world. I think it really helps," she said.
The store is now open Wednesdays through Fridays from noon to 9 p.m., Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. during the soft-opening phase. Gamelandia is set to hold a grand opening Nov. 6 at 10 a.m. and plans to host a Halloween party from 4-9 p.m. on Oct. 31 with a pet costume contest, gaming and candy.
Kate Bradshaw is the associate editor for TheSixFifty.com, a sister publication of the Palo Alto Weekly.