A Gamer’s Guide to Manhattan’s Hobby Shops

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I’ve mentioned here more than once that my childhood was full of hobbies including model rocketry, model railroading, plastic kit building, Dungeons & Dragons, comic books and miniatures wargaming. Like generations before me, hobby stores and the now-vanished hobby areas of large department stores and five-and-dimes were where I felt at home from an early age.

I moved to New York City in the mid-1990s when much of Old New York started breathing its last gasps. Along with the closings of many storied NYC bars, restaurants, clubs, book stores, comic shops and movie theaters, hobby shops of all types are becoming more and more a thing of the past here in the Five Boroughs. The causes of the decline of hobby shops in the city are many, including rising rents, loss of customer interest, the growth of online hobby retail and many owners simply retiring or passing away.

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The New York Times recently did a great little story on Rudy’s Hobby and Art in Astoria, Queens, and I’ve also become a semi-frequent visitor to Trainworld just a few subway stops away from my apartment in Brooklyn. These outposts in the outer boroughs hold on, but many of the classic shops in Manhattan have not. At the top of many city hobbyist memories is Polk’s Hobby Department Store which once occupied five floors at 314 5th Avenue. Like many businesses, Polk’s was a family-run affair headed up by two brothers beginning in the 1930s. The iconic store carried radio controlled boats and planes, slot cars, plastic model kits, trains and all matter hobby supplies which fueled the imaginations for generations of kids and adults. For the observant nostalgic, a quick glimpse of Polk’s survives in a scene from 1972’s The Godfather (photo at top).

Like Polk’s, most of Manhattan’s other hobby stores, like Carmen Webster’s on 45th Street and America’s Hobby Center on West 22nd Street, have likewise vanished from the city’s streets in recent years. At the same time, Brooklyn has seen a surge in gaming-specific stores and play spaces such as Kings Games, Brooklyn Game Lab, Twenty-Sided Store, The Brooklyn Strategist and Nu Brand Gaming. In Greenwich Village, The Uncommons now sits along the old “Chess Row” south of Washington Square, and a Games Workshop can be found a few blocks away well stocked with Warhammer and 40K players on any given weekend.

For the dedicated scale model hobbyist and gaming enthusiast, a few remnants of the traditional densely stocked hobby store of the past still live on in Manhattan. In almost all cases, online suppliers are a more economical option than purchasing from a local hobby or gaming brick-and-mortar store. However, it’s still hard to beat the experience of browsing a shop in person and having conversations with fellow customers and proprietors who share a passion for a hobby. I recently spent a sunny late summer day poking around in a few of my favorite NYC hobby shops that tap into that unique experience that still lives on.


Jan’s Hobby Shop

1435 Lexington Avenue

(212) 987-4765

IMG_4284Way up on Lexington Avenue in the East 90s,  Jan’s Hobby Shop is just the kind of store that fired my youthful imagination. Plastic soldiers, model kits, model rockets, paints, brushes, videos, books and hobby magazines are stacked floor to ceiling in the tight space of this classic hobbyist’s paradise. Kits from hundreds of manufacturers from around the world, from the common to the obscure, cover all eras, skill levels, scales and price ranges. Ships from the Age of Sail sit across from Star Wars X-Wings, ancient siege weapons are just down the aisle from Cold War artillery and all manner of cars, tanks, ships and planes fill every bit of space between. For the more advanced scale modeller, a handy selection of balsa, plastic styrene, brass tubing and specialized glues and construction materials sit at the ready.

IMG_4286Plastic soldiers from a variety of manufacturers, eras and scales at Jan’s

IMG_4287Paints and plastic model kits line the walls at Jan’s

IMG_4285Fred Hutchins’s WWII era experimental aircraft models

At the heart of the store on any given morning, store manager Fred Hutchins sits behind his workbench working away on his latest project. In my short visit with Fred, I learned of his lifelong love and work in aeronautical engineering. His ongoing project, at the rate of 30-50 models per year, is to build to scale every experimental aircraft built during World War II. In the cases nearby, much of Fred’s exquisite work is on display, and if you are a polite and patient visitor, he is more than happy to engage in a brief history lesson. Conversation with Fred, modeller-to-modeller, is just the kind of experience only found in a hobby shop and makes a visit to Jan’s worth the trip.


The Red Caboose

23 West 45th Street

(212) 575-0155

www.theredcaboose.com

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For a hobbyist like me, basements are portals to secret worlds of play hidden away from the normal world above. That’s where you’ll find The Red Caboose, tucked at the end of an easy-to-miss entry hall and then down some narrow stairs to a subterranean hobby wonderland. Focused largely on N and HO scale model railroading, The Red Caboose is lined with glass cases of rolling stock and engines from the steam era to today. Tourists may also find their way here to buy up some authentic scale New York MTA subway cars which may be special ordered to reflect specific routes past or present.

IMG_4283Cases of trains and row upon row of model kits at The Red Caboose

The Red Caboose is a place beyond trains, too.  Rows of shelves are devoted to kits for all sorts of buildings, bridges, industrial complexes and natural scenery, some of which have made their way to my wargaming tables over the years. Rotating racks of scale scratch building plastic, metal and wood parts, along with paints, brushes and other supplies provide a solid inventory for miniature modellers. A decent selection of military and civilian plastic kits and pre-built die-cast scale models can likewise by found, making a stop at The Red Caboose about much more than just trains.


The Compleat Strategist

11 East 33rd Street

(212) 685-3880

www.thecompleatstrategist.com

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As a budding role playing gamer in the 70s and 80s, I was fortunate to live near a college town where the local bookstore and five-and-dime each stocked a handy selection of Dungeons & Dragons books, miniatures and magazines. Tucked in the pages of later issues of those magazines, I occasionally saw ads for The Compleat Strategist with an inventory which sounded like a dream for my hungry gaming appetite. As a resident New Yorker today, a quick visit to “The Strat” over a lunch hour or on a weekend is an amazing escape for a quick purchase or just time spent browsing the latest in gaming.

IMG_4281The Compleat Strategist is NYC’s destination for serious gamers

The store is long, narrow and deep, with shelves of games, books, miniatures and accessories piled to the ceiling. Boardgames, chess sets and puzzles occupy the rear half of the store. A massive selection of boxed historical strategy games stretch down one wall toward an inventory of paints and miniatures ranging from Games Workshop and other fantasy lines to collectible games like Heroclix. RPG books and reference materials fill out the front of the shop along with buckets of dice, stacks of collectible cards like Magic: The Gathering and two large racks of gaming periodicals. Downstairs, the Compleat Strategist also hosts mini gaming tournaments most weekends, rounding out the total experience for the city gamer looking to stay connected to a vital hobby community.


Gotham Model Trains

224 West 35th Street, 13th Floor

(212) 643-4400

www.gothammodeltrains.com

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Down a generic block just north of Penn Station, the tiny and well kept Gotham Model Trains occupies a thirteenth floor space in a building housing a jumble of small businesses and professional offices. The shop is mostly about trains, and the tight inventory offers a well-edited counterpoint to the sprawling warren of shelves at The Red Caboose. I like the nice selection of Woodland Scenics ground cover, shrubbery, trees, gravel and other scratch-building materials in plastic, metal and wood on the walls and racks.

IMG_4279The well-curated inventory of Gotham Model Trains

But trains are the thing at Gotham Model Trains, and over the years this has been my local go-to for a few pieces of track needed in getting a little circular railroad running under my Christmas tree. Multiple scales, controllers, buildings, scale figures and a small selection of railfan books round out the inventory surrounding the sweet little N scale layout greeting you at the shop’s entrance. Stopping in at Gotham Model Trains, like a visit to any of Manhattan’s surviving hobby shops, you can’t help but have the irreplaceable experience of a living breathing hobby.

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New Game Weekend: Arkham Horror

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Released in 1987 and then vastly revised in 2005 and 2007 by Fantasy Flight Games, Arkham Horror is one of the modern classics in horror-fantasy boardgames. This past weekend, the creatures of Arkham Horror invaded our home in Brooklyn, and my sons and I have a new favorite.

Based on the writings of H.P. Lovecraft and his Cthulhu Mythos, the game casts 2-8 players in the roles of investigators in the fictional town of Arkham, Massachusetts during the interwar period of the 1920s. The New England town has been beset by the terror of strange rumblings of monsters invading the streets accompanied by weird magic, supernatural beings and strange goings-on. The mission of the investigators is to travel through portals to Other Worlds and seal them before a great Ancient One emerges in the town. Along the way, investigators accumulate clues, arcane items, spells and skills by visiting various locations in the town. If the portals are not closed in time, the horrific Ancient One rises and squares off in a final epic battle with the investigators in a last-ditch effort to save Arkham and the world as we know it.

wtcoversIssues of Weird Tales magazine featuring the work of H.P. Lovecraft from 1927 to 1937

H.P. Lovecraft is a darling of gamers and science-fiction/horror fans, and his influence resonates throughout today’s pop culture of movies, comic books, fantasy literature and gaming. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Lovecraft published a series of short stories broadly placed in the weird fiction category combining elements of horror, science fiction, fantasy and crime genres. With its troubling themes of peril and unknown, weird fiction was perfectly suited for a broad mindset of American society just emerging from World War I, living through the Great Depression and watching the storm clouds of World War II gather on the horizon.

Weird fiction found a home with the cheap pulp-paper magazines popular in the first half of the 20th-century including dozens of titles such as Argosy Magazine, Amazing Stories, Western Story Magazine and Weird Tales. Within their wondrous and often racy covers, pulp magazines featured everything from western adventures, jungle stories, Victorian detective tales, sword and sorcery plots and science-fiction wonders. Authors such as Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert E. Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Lovecraft could all be found side-by-side within these magazines. The stories from pulp magazines were of profound influence on countless later 20th-century writers and directors, perhaps most famously with Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. As kids in the 1970s and 80s, reprints of many of these pulp tales filled the heads of my circle of friends and informed our lifelong interests in all things weird and fantastic.

CsketchA 1934 sketch of Cthulhu by H.P. Lovecraft

One of Lovecraft’s most enduring stories, The Call of Cthulhu, was first published in Weird Tales in February 1928. The story recounts a mystery of an ancient cult of a mythic tentacled beast known as Cthulhu and the worldwide quest to uncover its origins and its new rise to plague the modern world. Through subsequent stories by Lovecraft and other writers, the world of the Cthulhu stories grew to be dizzyingly expansive in it depth of detail and plot. Today, Lovecraft’s Cthulhu universe serves as an insidery geek shorthand that stretches from stories, games, comic books and compendium reference books to clothing, statuettes, cupcakes, tattoos, jewelry and countless other collectibles.

10649826_10203907450141018_1116891535581886976_nArkham Horror from Fantasy Flight Games gets unboxed at our house

My older son recently scored a free copy of Arkham Horror after serving as a counselor in training during the summer day camp program at Brooklyn Game Lab, and we jumped into a full weekend of playing this wonderful game. People familiar with products from Fantasy Flight Games will find a box of incredibly well-designed pieces, with a richly-illustrated game board and hundreds of cards, playing pieces and reference sheets. The rules are daunting and require several plays to wrap one’s head around, but eventually Arkham Horror moves along briskly in a couple hours of gaming.

The game is basically a race against time until the Ancient One awakens to destroy the town. Much like an adventuring party in role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, players choose to play as one or two of sixteen roles such as a researcher, magician, gangster, nun, archaeologist or drifter. Each character begins with set standard and specialized equipment, money, spells, skills and allies laid out on a card depicting base abilities. The abilities — speed, sneak, luck, lore, will and fight — are each measured on a track that allows a player to boost or lesson their effectiveness at the beginning of each turn. Players move to various locations within Arkham where they find clues, engage in encounters or perform other actions like healing at the hospital, hiring allies at the boarding house or shopping for items at the general store or curiosity shop. Armed with items, skills and spells, characters either engage in combat with revealed monsters or attempt to slip by them. Taking damage from monsters or other encounters reduces an investigator’s Stamina (ie, health or hit points) or Sanity, driving the player closer and closer to death or madness.

At the end of each player round, a Mythos card is revealed opening a new portal to the Other Worlds, spawning new monsters and moving monsters already in the town. A character moving to a portal spends two turns journeying in one of eight Other Worlds where they may encounter more monsters or find objects. Upon emerging from the Other World, a character attempts to close or even seal the portal at the location. Each turn, the Ancient One moves on step closer to awakening. Players must either close or seal a set number of portals before the Ancient One arises for a final battle with all the players.

10639448_10203907820550278_4188666163549777050_nArkham Horror laid out for our first games this past weekend

 Like Lovecraft’s written work, there is an enormous amount of story in Arkham Horror. The game plays like a rich role-playing game with backstories on the investigator characters and detailed information on the various cards and monster pieces. Since the game is collaborative, everyone either wins or loses, making collective planning and playing to each character’s evolving set of equipment and abilities a must. For instance, certain characters may be more adept at moving quickly and acquiring valuable items while other characters may be better suited to go to battle with physical or magical beasts. In a battle with the Ancient One, the collective strengths of the entire group will combine to have any hope against defeating the creature and saving Arkham.

My sons — ages 14 and 9 — played three games of Arkham Horror with me this past weekend, and it’s a big hit at our house. We’re all fairly experienced gamers and we’ve logged many hours with some pretty heavy boardgames like Civilization, also from Fantasy Flight Games. Arkham Horror is suggested for ages 12 and up, and the flavor text on the game cards and mechanics were a bit on the challenging side for my younger son. With that said, with a little help on the heftier vocabulary words, he enjoyed the story, collecting items and using various combinations of gear, spells and skills to destroy some monsters and seal portals to the Other World. By the end of the weekend, my older son and I also started getting a handle on using characters in combination to effectively work through the rising tide of beasts and terror in the town. No matter the age, Arkham Horror is going to push any gamer’s skill and sanity to the limit.

New Game Weekend: The Resistance: Avalon and One Night Ultimate Werewolf

avalonwerewolfThe mechanics of common and secret knowledge among players creates the basis for so many games we play. A game like chess has everything set on the board for everyone to see, and it is only a player’s skill and strategy that remains secret until revealed in a series of successive moves of action and reaction.

More typically games involve some level of secrecy either in cards hidden in a player’s hand or pieces set on a game board ready to be revealed at specific moments during play. Deduction, reason, probability, informed guesses, manipulation through bluffing and revelation of information drives much of the action of these games.

Almost 30 years ago, Mafia was created by a psychologist at Moscow University. In the game, two players act as the mafia with their identity known to each other but not the other players. The non-mafia participants take on a variety of other roles, each with select knowledge of the other players and abilities to effect other player roles. With starting roles assigned, the game enters a “night phase” with all players shutting their eyes. A non-player game moderator bears witness as the mafia players and any accomplices kill off other players in secret. Next, all players open their eyes for a “day phase” and changes in the situation of the game is revealed. Players still alive in the game discuss the new conditions of the game, and attempt to discern the mafia players among them in subsequent night and day phases.

As Mafia spread outside of the former Soviet Union in the mid-1990s, it took on a horror-themed variant known as Werewolf. In the new version, players act as werewolves or villagers attempting to identify and kill off each other in night and day phases. Once players have an understanding of the basics of Mafia or Werewolf, neither game really requires any special equipment. This had made these games popular as pick-up party games with hardcore and casual gamers alike (my wife recently played Werewolf on a company retreat as a team-building exercise).

wwcontentsCards, markers and free app from One Night Ultimate Werewolf

In the past two weeks, I had a chance to play two of the more popular modern versions of these games at Metropolitan Wargamers and Brooklyn Game Lab. One Night Ultimate Werewolf is the latest riff on the classic game from Bezier Games with werewolf players hiding among villagers with a variety of roles. These include colorful characters like the Minion who knows the werewolves and only wins if they survive, the Seer who secretly knows identities of other players and the Tanner who has a death wish and wants to be killed before the werewolves are found out. Along with the cartoon artwork on the heavy-carded playing pieces, this version of Werewolf comes with a free app which acts as a game moderator and timekeeper.

avaloncardartCard artwork from The Resistance: Avalon

The Resistance: Avalon is a the sequel to the sci-fi-themed The Resistance from four years ago from Indie Boards & Cards. Players of Avalon take on good and evil roles from Arthurian legend and set out on a series of quests to root out the opposition. After roles are set, a king is selected each round to select other players to participate in a quest. All players vote to approve or deny the selected party on their quest, and then players on the quest vote for the quest to succeed or fail. The evil players win if more quests fail than succeed, so each quest round is the chance to reveal who may be working alone or in concert to win the game for the evil side. Like the more traditional, Mafia game, Avalon involves a non-playing moderator.

With all these games, the colorful pieces and cards are just jumping-off points for the real action which takes place among the players. Accusations are slung, theories are posited and alliances are built and then dissolve in minutes. In the games I played recently, people spent a lot of time just staring into other people’s eyes, looking for a glint of deception or a sly twinkle of acknowledgement. What has made all these games in their various names and variations so enduring is that human nature itself becomes the mechanic of the game. Whether the game is Mafia, Werewolf, Resistance or Avalon, the only real equipment needed isn’t in a cardstock box but in what each player brings with them to the table.

Come Play Zombicide With Me At Brooklyn Game Lab April 29th

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I’m thrilled to be lending a hand hosting an evening of Zombicide at Brooklyn Game Lab in two weeks on Tuesday, April 29th, 2014.

Since opening a few months ago, Brooklyn Game Lab has been grabbing a lot of press as the latest space in New York City to take hold of the recent boom in tabletop gaming. Through its innovative afterschool programs, the Lab has provided space for children to not only play games but to stretch their minds in developing their own ideas into playable games of heir own. When the kids head home, the Lab has been filling up evenings and weekends with adult gamers on theme nights, singles mixers nights and a recently-packed International Tabletop Day.

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Zombicide: Season One base game from Guillotine Games

To kick off the summer, Brooklyn Game Lab (353 7th Avenue @ 10th street in Park Slope, Brooklyn) is hosting a night of the incredibly popular Zombicide board game from 7-10pm on the 29th of April. Admission for the evening is just five bucks, and I’ll be there to help run a couple simultaneous games of survival and zombie carnage.

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Zombicide survivor and zombie miniatures

I first played Zombicide about a year ago, and I can’t wait to drag some more people into this easy-to-learn and gorgeously-designed game where either everyone wins or everyone loses. Released in 2012 via a Kickstarter from Guillotine Games, Zombicide and its subsequent Toxic City Mall and Prison Outbreak expansions pits up to six survivors against a growing zombie horde. Players collaborate as they kick in doors, search for supplies, arm-up with a variety of weapons and mow down scores of zombies. If you’re a zombie fan, a game fan or just fascinated at the prospect of meeting some people and battling through the zombie apocalypse for an hour or two, you should definitely come by the Brooklyn Game Lab.

For more info on this an other upcoming events, check out the Brooklyn Game Lab calendar.

New Game Weekend: Revolution! and Carcassonne

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This past Saturday was International Tabletop Day, a day where tens-of-thousands of people around the world crowd around tables in dining rooms, basements, clubs and hobby shops to do what many of us do year-round — play games. My youngest son and I spent the afternoon at Brooklyn Game Lab, a recent entry into the growing list of New York City venues dedicated to unplugging and playing tabletop games with friends and strangers alike. The scene in Brooklyn was like that played-out worldwide with a packed house of experienced gamers and newcomers joining together, rolling dice, racking up points, playing cards, placing tokens and role-playing through a massive variety of games. At Brooklyn Game Lab, players faced off with a variety of games like Betrayal at House on the Hill, Love Letter, The Resistance: Avalon, Tokaido and even a few games of Chess. My son and I had a go at two games which were new to us — Revolution! and Carcassonne.

rev picIn Revolution! from the decades-old Steve Jackson Games  players vie for power in a town through a secretive combination of blackmail, strong-armed force and out-and-out bribery. With four new players at the table, Revolution! was a quick learn and exciting fast play in just under an hour’s time.

securedownload-1A player’s secret bidding card in Revolution with Gold, Blackmail and Force tokens

Revolution! has an interesting secret bidding mechanic where players simultaneously bid their Force, Blackmail and Gold tokens on a dozen citizens of the board’s town such as the General, Priest, Printer, Mercenary or Spy. Once bids are placed, players remove their screens to reveal their bids. Bids to influence the same character are resolved through a simple Force beats Blackmail, Blackmail beat Gold and ties result in no effect for the round. Once a player wins influence over a character, the effects dealt out through additional earned Force, Blackmail and Gold tokens, Support points or placement of Influence markers in one of the town’s areas such as the Tavern, Town Hall, Market or Harbor.

securedownloadOur game of Revolution! from Steve Jackson Games at Brooklyn Game Lab

The game continues with subsequent rounds of bidding which progress into evolving strategies and agendas as the town’s areas fill up with player Influence. As the board is filled, players in Revolution! shift in their need for Force, Blackmail and Gold tokens, seeking to not only control the board but shift and undermine their opponent’s already-placed pieces. Controlling an area of the town brings additional Support points when the game ends, and the player with the most points on the outer scoring track wins.

carcassonneFor our second game of the day, we got into the now-classic Carcassonne from 2000. Distributed by Z-Man Games in the United States, Carcassonne is a tile-placement game where players build-out and a kingdom dotted with cities, roads and monasteries. Carcassonne is a quick learn, and the random tile choice at the beginning of each player’s turn creates choices in matching the tile to the multiple potential fits on the table.

In placing a tile, a player also makes a choice in placing a meeple on the board and in doing so, placing a bet on potential points. In placing the first tile of a city, a player may place one of their colored meeple pieces with the hope of closing off the city with additional tile plays which score points on the number of subsequently connected city pieces at a two points apiece. A monastery scores nine points when the eight surrounding tiles are placed, and roads are scored at a tile each once a route is closed between two endpoints. Victory points are tracked on a scorecard next to the growing kingdom of Carcassonne, and each tile played reduces the chances from the finite number of potential tiles in the draw pile. Playing against three experienced players in my first game,  I was able to score highest on some chancy bets and lucky tile draws.

International Tabletop Day is 24 hours of celebration of games, chanced strategies played out and opportunities to try something new. At the Brooklyn Game Lab this past weekend I found myself in my element surrounded by passionate gamers questing for victory and fun and more than a few hours of play. Games focus on this one day per year, but for a lot of my fellow gamers, they play out week after week until next turn  rolls around on the calendar.

A Place To Play: Brooklyn Game Lab

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Living and gaming in New York City is all about space. While gamers worldwide enjoy games in their basements, garages, dining rooms and even dedicated spaces, gamers living in the five boroughs wage a constant struggle for tabletop real estate. It’s in this context that Brooklyn Game Lab opens today and joins a mini-boom in storefront gaming spaces and stores that have opened over the past five years throughout New York.

Brooklyn Game Lab is the vision of Robert Hewitt, a former Silcon Valley game developer, designer, co-founder of game app company HashGo and ESL teacher in Brazil. Carrying his start-up experience and a passion for games and teaching, Bob’s mission for the Brooklyn Game Lab is to provide not only a space for play but to challenge players to think about games beyond what comes right out of the box.

Located in the heart of Brownstone Brooklyn’s Park Slope, the core of the Brooklyn Game Lab is an afterschool program focusing not just on kids playing games but evaluating games and creating homebrewed expansions. The curriculum involves player self-evaluation of gaming mechanics, strategy and tactics, as well as a reward system which will allow kids to earn merits as their gaming prowess develops. Euro, cooperative, social and conquest games like Settlers of Catan, Forbidden Island, King of Tokyo, Werewolf and Small World will serve as jumping-off points.

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Aside from the afterschool program, the Brooklyn Game Lab also features a number of After Hours gaming events targeting adult players. Mondays are Miniatures Night with a revolving series of fantasy and war-themed minis games the likes of Star Wars X-Wing, Space Hulk, Warhammer 40K and Flames of War for experienced players and curious newcomers alike. Wild Card Night on Tuesdays invites outside groups to host favorite go-to games for their own members and drop-ins from the general public. Thursdays are Singles Night, bringing in 20-somethings to roll dice, play cards and mingle. The old mainstay, Magic: The Gathering, occupies the Friday night slot, and weekends will provide opportunity for open gaming.

The 32-seat space will focus solely on the game curriculum and  special events for the time being, although there may be room for retail and private party rentals in the future. Things are off to a great start for Brooklyn Game Lab which is opening with a fully-booked afterschool program including my oldest son who will be a particpating Monday afternoons. Meeting with Bob for coffee last month, I was glad to connect with another passionate gamer looking to put a spin on New York’s gaming spaces. Getting kids engaged in games for life and igniting a developer mindset in them makes Brooklyn Game Lab a very welcome new space for the community.