In one corner storefront on California Avenue, every square inch of the wall space is covered with bright board game boxes up to the ceiling.
This is Gamelandia, the Palo Alto area’s new spot for not only buying and renting board games, but also community gathering. It is home to dozens of events per month, such as the recurring “Friday Night Magic” event where dozens gather to play Magic the Gathering, kids’ Rubik’s cubing club meetings and more.
The store found immediate success in Palo Alto since opening in late October, co-owner Lisa Joyce said.
“We’re really interested in serving this specific community and doing outreach with the people here so that people can feel ownership of the store … and make it their own,” Joyce said.
Behind the eclectic selection of products is Retail Manager Kyle Talbert, who has racked up 14 years of gaming experience. He said he curates the product selection through a mix of word-of-mouth, researching reviews and utilizing personal connections with board game designers.
“We are here for the community,” Talbert said. “We have a space for people to come, families to come and gather and get off the iPads and computers and have some time together to play all different types of board games.”
Co-owner Berry Hatfield, who is Joyce’s husband, said that the store’s inventory and events also purposely cater to the teen audience.
“There aren’t a lot of things for high school kids or college kids to do socially that maybe don’t involve a lot of money or don’t involve [drinking],” Hatfield said.
It even facilitates romance.
“We get a lot of people come here on first dates,” Hatfield said. “It’s a great first date place because we’ll put a game in front of you, and we’ll walk you through it. And you can tell if someone’s worth going on a second date with within about 10 minutes of a board game.”
On Friday nights, it houses the recurring “Friday Night Magic” event where dozens gather to play Magic the Gathering. “Open Play” is hosted most days a week and dozens of other events pop up.
There is something for everyone at Gamelandia, including for those younger than the typical teenage demographic. One popular event is Pokemon classes for children from 8 to 12 years old. This is the session that Sales Associate and Palo Alto High School senior Connor Lassila teaches every Sunday afternoon.
“It’s so much fun watching them enjoy themselves,” Lassila said. “I know a lot of kids are now spending more time just, like, on their phones. … I wish it was around earlier when I was growing up, but hopefully this will be a big part of their childhood.”
Renee LeBlanc, a fundraiser at Stanford University whose son attends the Pokemon sessions, said she was impressed by the way Gamelandia filled the city’s niche for a board game store.
“We’ve been here a number of times now and I have a three year old and they even have games for him, which is kind of surprising,” LeBlanc said.
LeBlanc said that Gamelandia serves almost as an educational opportunity for her children.
“I’m just so excited to teach my new kids new games,” LeBlanc said. “I ogle at all of the games on the shelf.”
Having this effect on the community is one reason Joyce and Hatfield said they had always wanted to construct a store like Gamelandia. Their plan only came to fruition, however, when they moved to the Bay Area from New York. There, Hatfield was a production manager in late night comedy for shows like HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver while Joyce acted in film and television.
“Lisa got diagnosed with leukemia … and then had to go through treatment,” Hatfield said. “And then we finished up treatment in New York and then the pandemic hit. We were like, ‘We gotta get out of here.’”
When the couple arrived in Palo Alto rather abruptly, the timing was simply right.
“We basically had to move out here very quickly,” Hatfield said. “I thought, well, I want to meet people like me here in Palo Alto. I’ll just go to the local game store. And then I realized there wasn’t a local game store. And that’s when it was like, ‘Oh my gosh. Do it here.’”
When Hatfield started looking for the best location for their storefront, he made sure to do his homework.
“I had this little people counter and I had this little people counter to see what was coming by, and honestly, the restaurants did the heavy lifting on that and the restaurants kept this whole strip going because it brought people out,” Hatfield said.
So, California Ave. it was. It proved to be a good choice; Hatfield said Gamelandia benefits from the foot traffic of California Ave.’s Sunday farmer’s market — and on practically every night of the week, attracting people having dinner elsewhere on the strip.
Inside its doors, while some may be hesitant to commit to pricier games, they can opt to rent them for $10 and play for two hours in the store — surrounded by fantasy-esque murals that span across almost all playing spaces.
“We wanted it to be one-of-a-kind artwork in these spaces so that it really felt like tailor-made to serve the people here and give them a space that was playful but still relaxed and with beautiful stuff to look at while they’re playing games,” Joyce said. “And just a place that felt like it had a lot of homespun energy.”
With all of that “home-spun energy” in mind, Gamelandia has yet to become a franchise — and Joyce said it may stay that way.
“I think people get a little burned out from franchises, or from things that feel really cookie-cutter, and you kind of lose the human touch,” Joyce said. “There’s such this nostalgia and tactile comfort around the board games that it feels right to have something that has a lot of humanity in it.”
One more plus of board games, according to Joyce? They facilitate easy interpersonal connections, even for the introverted.
“It’s low-stakes social interaction so that you don’t have to be socially adept,” Joyce said. “You can be sort of introverted and feel like you may be socially awkward and still find a place here to just sit down and bypass all that.”
Gamelandia is open on 290 California Ave. Suite A from 12 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Mondays, 12 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Tuesdays through Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sundays.