On Friday nights and rainy weekend afternoons, a significant portion of Columbia’s population convenes in the game rooms of Columbia’s local game stores. Between walls of card sleeves, tabletop miniatures, playmats and booster packs, players partake in Yu-Gi-Oh! duels, four-player Magic: The Gathering games and a plethora of board game sessions. Tables crowd with gamers, and the chatter of Magic judges and dungeon masters is heard throughout the store. On busy days, these stores resemble a bustling medieval tavern, much like the ones that started many a Dungeons and Dragons campaign.
Of course, these scenes are commonplace among the world’s local game stores, commonly referred to as LGS. These small businesses cater to the nerdier side of their communities, supplying tabletop games, accessories and, most importantly, events. It isn’t uncommon for an LGS’ weekly schedule to include almost daily events, ranging from Pokémon leagues to Warhammer tournaments. Still, game fans show up at their doorsteps throughout the week.
Columbia is no stranger to the LGS phenomenon. A broad range of game stores host the city’s game community. Each shop provides a place for gamers to play in tournaments, meet new people, and express their passion for their favorite games.
Passion is a foundational element of The Side Deck, one of Columbia’s newest local game stores. Haley Malonjao, the events manager of The Side Deck, mentioned how her experiences playing competitive Yu-Gi-Oh! spurred on the creation of the store.
After Malonjao became interested in Yu-Gi-Oh! during high school, she started playing in late-night tournaments at local game stores. Oftentimes she was accompanied by her parents to the store, leading her father to be interested in becoming a Yu-Gi-Oh! judge,
“Over a period of time he got very good at judging. He is often on the admin team at various larger events,” commented Malonjao.
The duo eventually began to go to Yu-Gi-Oh! tournaments together, with Malonjao playing and her father judging. Through this venture, Malonjao’s family acquired lots of Yu-Gi-Oh! products, lots of which were sold online. Eventually, this business blossomed into The Side Deck.
Now with The Side Deck, the family tries to create a safe space for gamers of all ages.
“We kind of did a spin-off on a gaming café to make it more family-friendly for parents of kids to come in and play,” Malonjao said.
The physical layout of The Side Deck reflects this play-focused philosophy. Glass counters line the checkout deck, displaying some of the store’s most high-value cards. Next to that is the café that serves a variety of hot drinks. From there, nearly half of the store’s space is taken up by gaming tables. Sometimes they are used to host tournaments, sometimes they host board game demos. But oftentimes, they are used as meeting spaces for role-playing campaigns, card game playgroups or curious players trying out a new game from the store’s board game library.
“We’ve been a big believer in being a family-run game store where we do tournaments,” said Malonjao.
Of course, operating a game store that runs such a variety of events has its own challenges. Malonjao discussed the difficulties of keeping up with the rules of the games stocked by The Side Deck, as new sets and expansion packs often add more mechanics to many of the games.
“As I started working Yu-Gi-Oh! events, because I also became a Yu-Gi-Oh judge, I had to keep up more with the meta of the game like ‘What’s going on?’, ‘What cards am I going to cast?’, as well as the normal ‘What is the policy of this game?’ because every game is different,” she said.
Still, the constant evolution of these games keeps them exciting.
“But, the fun part is new things are being released all the time for players to build decks and play against each other,” commented Malonjao.
These players are central to many local game stores’ businesses. Day and night, on weekdays and weekends, Columbia’s local game community shows up to these stores to play their favorite games. As such, these stores must provide an environment conducive to gameplay. The Side Deck is no exception.
The Side Deck sells products from many different games, such as Magic: The Gathering, Pokémon, Yu-Gi-Oh!, Lorcana, and more. Moreover, the store organizes weekly events for many of these games. On top of all this, The Side Deck’s employees attend game conventions and maintain contacts with companies in the game industry to stay up to date on the latest developments in the game world.
The Side Deck also tries to create a positive environment for playing games, one that is welcoming and comfortable to all of its players. Part of this environment is its family-friendly nature, so The Side Deck asks players to refrain from crass language when playing at the store’s public tables. Additionally, the store often runs events catered towards younger audiences, such as their family board game nights and their Pokémon summer camp.
“We just try to keep a wide range of games available, and then also make sure our temperament is that for a family-friendly environment,” said Malonjao.
Creating this positive environment is the core ethos of many local game stores. These stores don’t just exist as a place to buy games but as a cultural hub for the gamers of their respective cities. The world’s game stores, including The Side Deck, wouldn’t have any sense of community without nursing an accepting, friendly environment. These positive environments are what keep players coming on Friday nights and rainy afternoons.
“We just want a comfortable environment for any families or friends in Columbia to come and have a safe space to do their nerd things with each other,” said Malonjao.
With local game stores like The Side Deck, every city can have a space for these “nerd things.”