Facing COVID-19 is hard enough as a small business, but what if your business model is built on face to face interactions, comradery and socializing?
That’s the magic at Dragon Forge Games in downtown Brainerd — a tabletop game business whose model is largely predicated on games like Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons & Dragons, where people come together to take part in roll-play games, board games, dice games and the like. Not only does Dragon Forge Games offer an assortment of game-related items for purchase, it also offers a venue for players to gather and participate.
Jeremy Arndt, along with his brother Noel, founded Dragon Forge and has been running the business for more than half a decade. Before that, Ardnt said during an interview Wednesday, July 22, he hailed from the southeastern area of the state, then spent close to two decades in the Twin Cities metro, before settling in the Brainerd lakes area about eight years ago. Ardnt described the unique challenges of his business.
In a day and age where people have myriad options to entertain themselves, Arndt said, there’s been a significant resurgence of tabletop gaming in the last 15 years or so. Much of this can be chalked up to a shift in pop culture, where fantasy franchises like “Lord of the Rings,” “Harry Potter,” “Game of Thrones,” and “The Witcher,” among others, have taken nerd culture mainstream. As the fantasy genre continues to be popular, more players will come.
But, there’s another element at play here as well, Arndt said, and it’s largely unique to tabletop gaming — the sociability of it. Novels, comics, TV shows, video games and the like are all popular pastimes as well, he said, but good old-fashioned card games and board games offer people the opportunity to bond and intimately connect with others of similar interests — something that’s only become more valuable, not less, with the advent of America’s social media-centric society.
“You can play all the fancy computer video games, or on consoles, or whatever and they're great, but they don't really lend themselves to the human element of gaming, the social arena,” Arndt said. “People started to revert back to tabletop gaming where they can be face to face because of that social element, along with playing a fun game. It just adds a lot more to the experience than just sitting on your couch, having the person right next to you or across the table from you, and being able to have that really immersive social experience.”
Enter COVID-19 earlier this year.
Dragon Forge Game’s current location on South 8th Street is a new one, recently acquired after roughly five years in Baxter. When the state shut all non-essential businesses down in late-March, it actually gave the Ardnts an opportunity to fully renovate and equip their current facility to showcase merchandise and host games. Arndt said he understands the rationale behind the closure and why Minnesotans have to cooperate in order to stop COVID-19.
But, that doesn't mean it’s been smooth sailing. Things like government loans, health care and unemployment benefits suddenly came to the forefront. When they did reopen in early May, the Ardnt’s suddenly had to be creative about hosting tabletop gaming again. They spaced out their tables, placed bottles of sanitizer spray on each gaming surface, established strict non-contact rules for their players to follow, started cleaning religiously, and set their own capacity limit at 10 players at a given time. For a while, that last provision was something of a question mark, Ardnt noted, because it was unclear just what the building’s max capacity is with multiple gaming rooms and significant remodeling removed walls and expanded spaces.
That, Ardnt said, and there may be much more to come in a year that’s unpredictable to the upteenth degree.
“For some businesses like ours, especially any business that relies on a social element, it’s still one day at a time,” Ardnt said. “If it gets announced tomorrow that we need to close retail stores again and go back to online and curbside, it would be a blow. Absolutely. It would be a blow, but so be it.”
“If it means that if it means that our society can heal faster and, and then we can actually get back to some sense of normalcy sooner than later then to me that's worth it,” Arndt later added.
It’s nerve wracking and stressful, juggling all these moving parts during a pandemic, but Arndt remained positive in many respects. He spoke glowingly of Brainerd’s downtown, noting it’s been a place he’s wanted to establish his business for close to a decade, before circumstances sidetracked him to Baxter for a while.
In short, he said, the downtown Brainerd location is bigger, better and more accessible to the public. For a niche business, which may be best advertised by old-fashioned word of mouth, Ardnt said the move to Brainerd is already paying off — even if initial returns are a bit stunted by COVID-19.
“I’m just so happy to be downtown. I mean, just in general, the feel of the store is better. Even in the midst of a pandemic, we’re still seeing more faces, things are really positive, and they're moving in a really good direction,” Arndt said. “I'm just stoked to be downtown and be a part of things downtown.”