If you’ve never opened a game store at the beginning of a deadly pandemic, Ian McLeod can confirm: “It’s scary.”
“I’d never signed a lease before,” said McLeod, whose Buckley game shop Rock Paper Games had its grand opening at its new location March 23, 2020 – the same day Gov. Jay Inslee issued his two-week stay-at-home order.
“My thought was, ‘Oh my gosh. I’m responsible for all this money now,’” he said. “It was this horror. It was terrible.”
And it could have been the death knell for one of the few business catering to card, tabletop and board gamers in the farthest reaches of King and Pierce County.
But RPG has hit its stride in the last year, buoyed by a swell of community support and McLeod’s own work ethic. Laughter fills the store from the card-playing, miniature-painting and dice rolling gamers, many of whom helped put the store together in its current location.
“I never really had any goals on taking money from this,” McLeod, 36, said. “You don’t start a game store if you want to be a millionaire. You gotta really like people, man.”
He’s one of four vested owners of Rock Paper Games. Fellow owner Larry Exner, who handles the store’s legal matters, met McLeod working at their mutual day job at OMAX Waterjet.
Exner saw “natural talent” and work ethic in McLeod and agreed to invest in his project, even though Exner didn’t know much about gaming beyond Monopoly and Risk.
But “I knew his instincts were correct,” Exner said. “He sells like a demon … but he’s honest, he has integrity and that’s what’s drawing the crowd.”
THE STATE OF PLAY
Rock Paper Games, located at 691 Main St. in Buckley, is open from noon to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and closes on Sundays.
The modestly-sized shop features four card tables and two tables for big strategy games like Warhammer 40,000. RPG stocks gaming standbys like Magic: The Gathering cards and rule books and miniatures for Dungeons & Dragons and Warhammer.
Megan Richard and Justin Camacho are Buckley locals who have been playing at RPG since the beginning.
“Ian’s been the greatest guy we could have asked for in this community,” Richard said. “He’s put so much love and attention into this place, and really cares about everybody who comes in here.”
RPG has been like a second home, Richard said.
“It’s kind of hard to find a space where you can enjoy yourself and also feel like you’re in a safe space, especially being female. That’s been my experience with a lot of spaces. … But coming here, I felt like I had that place to be, to play games as an equal and to express myself.”
There hadn’t been anything like it locally, Camacho said. The closest game shops are in Auburn and Puyallup, he added.
“A lot of places can be hit-or-miss,” Camacho said. “There are several places I’ve been to where people start throwing a fit, because you’re playing for casual, just to have fun.”
The two that evening were playing Warhammer 40,000, a wargame involving galaxy-spanning battles between the future of humanity and armies of twisting demons, skeletal androids and planet-devouring aliens.
But it’s not all elves and laser guns at RPG. One of McLeod’s customers has a massive collection of tanks and World War II miniatures, and McLeod sells some of his homemade and painted tank miniatures through the store.
Some shop regulars, like middle school humanities teacher John Bratt, develop their own games too. One of those is Bratt’s board game “Varsity,” which is inspired by high school sports. Bratt and his wife live in Bonney Lake, and RPG is “by far” the closest game shop for them.
“There’s a pretty thriving gaming community stretching all the way past the Canadian border and all the way past Portland,” he said. “So Buckley might not be the biggest town around, but it’s certainly going to draw people in.”
McLeod, a former painter and painting teacher for the massive wargame manufacturer Games Workshop, also offers free painting lessons.
“It’s giving somebody a skill that they get to have forever,” he said.
The store offers quarterly miniature painting contests that are judged over Facebook. Once they can open fully and safely, they’ll have more and bigger events, he said.
And anyone who loves game shops knows they foster relationships beyond the dice and cards. McLeod has been able to teach young kids to play Pokemon, deliver game materials to local schools and provide a safe space in Buckley for people who need it.
“Ian is the oasis of possibility” for many of the youth in town, Exner said.
Around November, McLeod made keys for some of the people who’d stuck around the store for a while and told them they could open the shop when he’s unavailable.
“There is so much distrust in our society, that when you give someone trust, they really take it,” he said. “They really run with it. Especially in a small town like this, you can still trust people.”
No one, including himself, is taking home a salary, McLeod said. Profit goes back into the store, and many volunteers will, for now, get compensated with shares in the business. McLeod said he wants to start paying wages as soon as possible.
IF YOU BUILD IT…
McLeod’s interest originally was in making games. But getting a new card game on the market could be a million-dollar project.
So McLeod figured that starting a game store could help him find like-minded people to play and critique the games he makes, and in October 2019 landed on a kiosk at the Buckley Public Market with $1,000 worth of product to sell.
“They gave me a really good deal,” he said. “They gave me my first shot.”
McLeod saw Buckley as an experiment. His goal was to raise a self-sufficient community space for gamers, create some jobs, and move on to his game-making dreams.
“If you can start a successful business out here, you can start a successful business anywhere,” he said. “And I knew this area was an average of 15 to 18 miles to every nearest game store.”
Four months later, Brian Meier, the owner of Brazen Hearts Tattoo, moved his business and offered the old Main Street spot to McLeod. Volunteers helped McLeod move RPG to its new home.
McLeod may have a knack for fantasy games, but he had no incantation that could stop the coronavirus pandemic.
“I know our logo is a wizard, but my spells aren’t that good,” he joked.
COVID-19 put McLeod in the position of paying all the operating costs of a new business with a dearth of customers, and RPG was put in dire straits.
Then, Dan Sivils, a Buckley man who’d represented RPG at a game manufacturing expo, managed to snag the store about $2,000 in free sample products. It was the shot in the arm McLeod needed to keep the doors open.
Around June 2020, with only $5 left in a store bank account, the winds started shifting in Rock Paper Games’ favor.
“It was that close,” McLeod said. “If I was trying to pull up on a plane, I felt like if I put my hand out the window, I could feel the wheat growing on the ground.”
Over January and February, McLeod sold more than the entire previous year. Now he’s running out of space to stock stuff at the store.
“It’s a great problem to have,” McLeod laughed. “It’s still a problem, though.”
What’s next? RPG is looking at bringing McLeod’s painting lessons and game development advice to the world through video streaming platforms like Twitch. McLeod wants to connect gamers like Bratt with his friends in the industry, invest money into their ideas, and use the store as a launching pad for their games. And he’s itching to get more involved with schools and the local historical society.
Whatever happens, McLeod believes anyone can do what he did.
“I don’t know what I’m doing,” McLeod said. “(But) I beat all the odds. I just survived numbers as bad as the Great Depression. If you want to follow your dreams, stop talking about it, and just put your first foot out there. That’s literally all it takes.”