Always in the back of Shaw Mead's mind is a board game that he could someday design. He calls it "Humans & Hobby Stores." Players each represent a small retail shop trying to keep the lights on amid online competition, fickle customers and ever-rising costs. The rules are hard to pin down, but the game requires resource management, worker placement and creative thinking. The player with the most money at the end wins.
Mead, 44, has been playing this game for most of his adult life -- and he's become quite the expert at it. As the owner of Mountain View's hobby emporium Game Kastle, he believes old-fashioned, tactile board games are the perfect antidote to the frenzied world of smartphones and computer screens. And Mead has shown remarkable success in tapping this climate of tech fatigue to draw people into his shop and enjoy the slow pleasures of a round of Settlers of Catan.
"Silicon Valley is actually a mecca for hobby gaming enthusiasts, and the tech culture totally plays into it," he said. "People are realizing this need to interact with others on a social level, to get away from their screens. And board games have become a great connection point."
By the standard of retail operations, Game Kastle's growth has been meteoric in recent years. Mead opened his first Game Kastle store more than 15 years ago in an out-of-the-way industrial section of Santa Clara. After years of learning the rhythm of the business, he decided to expand by opening sister stores. A Fremont Game Kastle launched in 2009, and then the Mountain View store at the San Antonio shopping center opened in 2015.
The Mountain View branch was a turning point, Mead said, when "he knew he was onto something." The store became profitable almost immediately, and that's when he believed he had found the right formula for nurturing customer loyalty that could be replicated across the country.
"We knew we had something that could be expanded on a much larger scale," he said. "With hobbies, the sky is the limit there's always something new happening in this industry."
More recently, Game Kastle has adopted a franchise model, becoming what Mead believes is the first game store to license out its brand. New independently owned Game Kastles have opened in Reno, Nevada, Austin, Texas and Des Moines, Iowa , along with three in South Carolina. Mead expects 11 branches to be open in the coming months, and he says he is getting "flooded" with calls from people interested in opening their own stores.
This growth of a local game store is all the more remarkable at a time when the retail industry is in the doldrums. Last year was considered to be one of the worst years on record, with more than 9,300 brand stores shutting their doors across the U.S, according to the research firm Coresight.
This trend hasn't spared entertainment retailers. Toys R Us, which devoted considerable shelf space to board games, closed all of its stores in 2018. Meanwhile, the video-game chain GameStop has seen its stock plummet more than 80% over the last five years, leading some market analysts to speculate that bankruptcy is imminent.
In this context, the success of Game Kastle is somewhat of a mystery. The Mountain View store is particularly unusual: It's hidden, tucked in the back of the San Antonio shopping center with only a small window decal to announce its existence to anyone passing by.
Once you step inside, the store opens up. At 8,000 square feet, the Mountain View store is like a huge cave, filled with rows and rows of tables and chairs. On any given weekend, these seats are filled with hundreds of customers, taking part in board game clubs, Warhammer tournaments and Dungeons and Dragons sessions.
Many players come to Game Kastle and leave without spending a dime. In fact, the business devotes only a fraction of its space to actual sales merchandise. One corner has a few aisles of board games and collectibles along with some simple snacks and drinks for sale. Otherwise, Game Kastle is entirely filled with playing space for anyone to use, mostly without charge. The store even provides a library of free loaner games to play; those who don't have anyone to play with are encouraged to join a table and meet new people.
It's certainly generous, but how does it work as a business model? Mead explained that when Game Kastle first started, he was laser-focused on maximizing sales space, but he eventually realized it was a losing strategy. Amazon and big-box retailers could simply run circles around small shops in terms of inventory and pricing. His advantage was to offer a better experience, giving his customers a feeling of membership in a community. Eventually he realized that creating long-term loyalty should eclipse the temptation for immediate sales.
"The retail is an afterthought for us. Sure, that's where we make the money, but it also comes from creating a community of loyal customers who want to support us," Mead said. "The draw is the events that we put on and the community. As long as we can get folks to come in, we can foster a feeling of community."
The Mountain View store echoed with silence on Monday morning, when Mead met with the Voice for an interview. Finding a seat was not a problem -- there were literally hundreds of empty chairs to choose from around game tables in the store's play area. Mead brought over his franchise manager, Seth Amsden, who he credited for spearheading the expansion strategy. The two of them were wearing matching polo shirts emblazoned with the Game Kastle logo.
Sure, the store was vacant right then, but it would be a different picture on any night of the week, Amsden explained. On weeknights and weekend afternoons, Game Kastle is packed with overlapping events and gatherings of different tribes of gamers. Chess enthusiasts could be playing next to Pokemon kids, or a Magic the Gathering tournament could be playing out at the same time as a role-playing club is painting figurines. It is routine for 200 people or more to attend big events like release parties or regional tournaments.
"We'll be filling up this space almost every weekend when we have multiple groups coming in," Amsden said. "For us, it's not about having one big event, it's about having a lot of events all the time and creating a lot of activity."
Some of these events can be monetized, Amsden said. Game Kastle might collect tournament entry fees and award store credit to the winner. For collectible card games, the store hosts draft events that require players to buy card packs from the store. The store has recently been experimenting with a children's summer camp and youth program in which kids ages 10 and up learn various life skills through game playing. Each month, Google rents out the Mountain View store for a corporate board game night.
But for the most part, the store's packed schedule of events is mainly there to bolster Game Kastle as a brand, making it the go-to place for all things gaming. As long as players stay loyal, the business side is secure.
"You can't buy that on Amazon," Mead said. "All we need to do is create every opportunity for our customers to support us."
One important group that has also rallied around Game Kastle is the Bay Area's circle of professional game designers. The store holds biweekly meetups for designers to showcase their prototype games and get feedback. An annual playtesting expo, Protospiel, has become Game Kastle's most popular event, drawing upward of 350 attendees.
Matthew Leacock, a Sunnyvale-based games designer, said the Mountain View branch has become his regular haunt for finding new games and meeting other designers. A surprising number of former tech workers in the Bay Area are now throwing their creativity into board games, he said.
At one point, Leacock got into a conversation with a Game Kastle staffer who began talking up Pandemic, a game that has sold more than 2 million copies. Leacock tried to hide the fact that he is the game's designer, until his wife spoiled his fun.
"I was just delighted to hear other people talking about it," he said. "It's fun when you run into circumstances like that, but I guess you have to resist the urge to ask people what they think of your game."