Offline gaming circles linking up on internet

Photos by Marlena Sloss/The Herald
Warhammer 40,000 models painted by Woodrow Major are set up outside his home in Ferdinand on Monday.


Matthew Powers sees the local shop as a big arena.

Game Knight, a hobby store that describes itself as a hub for all “the nerdy stuff that doesn’t need to be plugged into a wall,” has become a regional gathering spot for those seeking an offline gaming mix.

“It’s just a great place for people who may not usually even get to be social,” said Powers, who is a regular customer at the temporarily-closed business. “But for people who are into that world, that don’t usually have a means of getting to share that with other people, it’s a great way for them to come together.”

Friendships are forged inside Game Knight’s walls. As COVID-19 shuts down social events worldwide, however, the shop’s regulars have been forced to explore different, remote ways to scratch their gaming itches — and keep their tight-knit communities alive.

Doing so isn’t always possible and can present challenges. But as they wait out the coronavirus pandemic, some local players are doing their best to remotely tap into groups and activities that enrich their lives.

Woodrow Major of Ferdinand stands for a portrait while holding a Warhammer 40,000 game model outside his home on Monday. Major is a tournament organizer for the miniature war game, which he said cannot be played online easily because it uses physical models.

Those who travel to the business — which has moved from Huntingburg and will one day reopen in a new location on North Newton Street in Jasper — do much more than buy merchandise.

Inside, some of them play board games. Others compete in collectible card tournaments, play parts in mystical role-playing adventures, or discuss various fandoms. Until distancing precautions forced the old storefront to close to the public, multiplayer video game tournaments had also successfully launched at Game Knight, further expanding the store’s scope.

Its regulars can be broken into a few different subgroups. Each of them are approaching the new normal in their own ways, and a selection of them are described below.

Gregg Kieffner of Huntingburg organizes Pathfinder Roleplaying Game sessions at the shop. Similar to Dungeons and Dragons, participants each serve unique roles in a detailed, fantasy-laced campaign that tasks them to use teamwork to achieve a common goal. One player is designated the “game master,” and they are in charge of using their voice to set the journey’s scenes and lead the party through the twists and turns of an intricate story.

The Game Knight crew’s ongoing adventure has spanned three years and is on pace to wrap up in December. And even though they can’t meet up in person to march through the strategic, dice-rolling-filled adventures, the quest is still continuing via the internet.

For the first time, the seven-member group of shop regulars is now using a website called Roll20 to simulate the dice throwing that is used to determine different outcomes in the games. The team is also tapping into an online chat client called Discord, which allows participants to enter a lobby and speak to each with microphones while progressing through their campaigns.

The experience is different. But for the foreseeable future, it works. And it still feels like a community.

Normally, Game Knight also hosts weekly gatherings centered on a strategy card game called Magic The Gathering. To play, participants assemble decks with cards they own and face off against each other. Sometimes, the assemblies fill several tables with upwards of 20 participants.

Jan Ilgen of Huntingburg regularly attended those game nights before they were paused. He said attendees of all ages and from all walks of life would take part in the contests in a welcoming, open and friendly way.

“It’s really a strong community in that sense,” Ilgen said. “Where everybody kind of communicates on the same level, and kind of looks out for each other and just has a good time together.”

He has been playing an online version of the game on his computer — named Magic: The Gathering Arena — more than usual to fill the competitive void that has formed in recent weeks.

He admitted, though, that it doesn’t feel exactly the same. He still feels the competitive satisfaction when beating random opponents, but he misses the banter that comes with playing in person.

“The only thing I’m missing is being able to talk about Magic,” he said. “Being able to talk strategy, or after a match, being able to say, ‘Hey, just an FYI, if you would have done this instead of this, you probably would’ve beat me.’ Things like that. In the online [version], you don’t have that.”

Not all games played at Game Knight have made the transition online, leaving the communities fractured in some ways for the foreseeable future.

Woodrow Major of Ferdinand organizes the shop’s far-reaching Warhammer 40,000 tournaments, which have brought in people from as far away as Nashville, Tennessee; St. Louis; and Cincinnati.

“And obviously we can’t be doing that during a pandemic,” Major said.

While the miniature war game can be played virtually through a software called Tabletop Simulator that is intended to emulate board game experiences online, Major said his group has not been using it while social distancing.

“It’s not really the same experience,” he explained. “We tried it out and decided that we’d rather just wait.”

The pieces used in the tangible game are models carefully built and painted by the players, and the online version slices away at the social nature of the game, he said. Tabletop Simulator’s interface also drags out the game, and moving the many models with a mouse and keyboard is clunky.

One of the shop’s quarterly Warhammer tournaments has already been canceled, and another could be scrubbed, too. It hurts Game Knight, Major explained, because entry fees to the internationally sanctioned tournaments bring in “hundreds of dollars” — but it’s also the responsible thing to do, he noted.

Still, Major said Warhammer players are keeping in touch and even growing their community.

“We have a Facebook group for the local players, and we’re planning to organize a league,” Major said. “Because we have several players who are newly interested in the game and wanted to get started, and now they can’t. So, we are making plans for organizing a league after the restrictions are lifted.”

Game Knight plans to open its Jasper location as soon as it can. When that happens, it will again fill with life.

“At the end of the day, we’re all geeks and nerds,” said Jacob Neukam, one of Game Knight’s three co-owners. “And we’re very passionate about the things we like. But it’s always hard to find people to share those interests with.”

He continued: “So, probably when we open up, I don’t even know if we’re gonna be playing any games. It’s gonna be a lot of people talking with each other, probably catching up. And then just trying to get back to that sense of normalcy and that routine of, ‘I get to see people again.’”

More on