Critical hit: In-person, tabletop gaming’s growth buffing Upper Valley businesses

By LAURA KOES

Valley News Correspondent

Published: 02-14-2023 10:27 PM

WEST LEBANON — When Black Moon Games opened in downtown Lebanon in May 2014, a business focused on in-person and tabletop gaming might have seemed like a roll of the 20-sided die. But as gaming has gained popularity in mainstream culture, so too has its footprint has grown in the Upper Valley, beyond that Mascoma Street store’s walls and beyond Black Moon itself.

Black Moon has expanded to a larger space near Panera in West Lebanon. The new location, at 267 Plainfield Rd., opened on Friday.

“We’re still a specialty store,” said Tony Vandenberg, the Lebanon resident who owns Black Moon. “It’s still a bit of a niche, but there’s more mainstream appeal.”

Black Moon’s move comes following the opening of The Fourth Place, a gaming store and game space, in Hanover in the fall. Locally, gamers are finding community not only at businesses, but other community spaces such as libraries.

Vandenberg describes Black Moon as a tabletop game store with an extensive selection of board games, card games, role playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), miniature games and hobby supplies that go with it, as well as puzzles and thinking toys. Black Moon also holds in-store events, where people can play games and participate in tournaments including Magic the Gathering, a trading card game.

Weekly events are held at Black Moon such as Friday Night Magic, Pokemon Trading Card Game League and, Vandenberg hopes, the eventual return of in-store role playing games that were discontinued due to COVID.

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“I started playing this kind of stuff when I was 12,” Vandenberg said. “I’m 38 now and, you know, up until probably the last 10 years, improv gaming was kind of that thing that nerds do, right? Guys in their basement playing D&D.

“But it’s really cracked into mainstream. It’s become a lot more common.”

There are several ways gaming has expanded in popular culture in recent years. Vandenberg named popular TV shows whose characters are interested in games such as The Big Bang Theory and Stranger Things, as well as a popular web series called Critical Role in which voice actors play D&D.

A strong sense of community has developed around gaming hobbies. Gamers connect with others show have the same passion, and the imaginative elements give players a shared unique experience.

Ian Struckhoff, owner and founder of The Fourth Place, above Pompanoosuc Mills on Lebanon Street in downtown Hanover, shares that passion.

The former tech executive and current Enfield resident opened The Fourth Place in October. Struckhoff, 44, said he had been brainstorming an idea for this type of space for almost 20 years. He felt that Hanover was the right location with the high school and college nearby, and there was not previously a game store in town.

“The whole idea of The Fourth Place is to be something that a lot of towns lack, which is a place to be, a home away from home, a hangout,” he said. “It’s all about being around people who share the things you like to do. … It’s a social space or a cafe with a small comic store, a small game store and a pop culture store, plus a lot to do.”

In the main area, Struckhoff leaves various games on the tables for anyone who comes in to play. Day passes, which are $15, and memberships, $660 annually, grant patrons access to Struckhoff’s extensive game library in “The Wizard’s Tower Room,” which is complete with a table designed specifically for tabletop games. Additionally, there are arcade games and video game consoles, and a cafe is planned.

“I see my job is helping people find critical mass,” he said.

The Fourth Place has sections of games, comics and pop culture-themed toys and keychains for sale. But Struckhoff emphasized that his aim is to provide a space for a community of what he said “people used to call ‘geeks,’ ”

Struckhoff partly attributed the recent increase in gaming’s popularity to “the rise of the internet and social media and the ability to format means that people are finding their crowd.” In addition, he said the demographics of gamers have diversified greatly in recent years. He said gaming was a formerly “homogeneous hobby” that drew mainly white men and boys.

“There’s a certain kind of game store where you walk in and everybody looks the same, and then you might not feel comfortable hanging out if it’s all people who seem to have something in common other than the hobby,” he said.

Struckhoff said there has been an increase in gaming interest among a younger generation with diverse sexual and gender identities who “have created their own vibe for the same hobby.”

The elements of tactical combat are expanded in characters’ interpersonal stories, which makes the games more lively. These storylines have led artists and musicians to create D&D-inspired works.

“I think a lot of it is just community-building,” Jordan Mann, Dartmouth College sophomore and first-time patron at The Fourth Place, said of the store in a recent interview.

At Dartmouth, some people may feel constrained by rules and roles that are imposed on them, Mann said. But, he added, games give people a different set of rules and roles to play.

“It’s a change in scenery and acts on a lot of imaginative aspects that we maybe aren’t tapped on in adult life,” he said.

Elsewhere in the Upper Valley, the Royalton Memorial Library has launched a new game group. The library, located at 57 Safford St. in South Royalton, is hosting Magic the Gathering free plays on Tuesdays at 4 p.m. and will be holding sign-ups on Tuesdays for a D&D group. The library also has various tabletop games available.

The Howe Library, located at 13 South St. in Hanover, also offers a D&D group for adults that meets every other Saturday from 1-4 p.m. in the Mayer Room. Those interested in participating are asked to email Jared Jenisch at jared.jenisch@thehowe.org to sign up. Registration is required for first attendance.

Laura Koes can be reached at laurakoesjournalism@gmail.com.

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