It’s date night. Dinner reservations are made, movie tickets purchased and the new outfit is ready. It’s a nice time out. But before you can blink, it’s over and you’re out $100 or more.
Dan Hoffman, fondly known as “Legend Dan,” prefers a more reasonable choice that provides hours and hours of continued entertainment — board games.
“Everybody likes games. Board games are the best entertainment-for-the-dollar value you’re going to find,” says Hoffman, owner of Canton Games, located on the bottom floor of a corner row house at Fleet and Essex streets.
From the outside, his shop looks like a typical home in a quaint, small town. But past the bricks and white-painted wooden exterior is a dream come true for board game enthusiasts of all ages. Along the pegboard shelved walls of the narrow store are hundreds of games, in brightly-colored square-and-rectangular boxes, with photos of animals, Vikings, shapes and landscapes, all sealed in shiny plastic to keep contents safely inside.
There are puzzle games, games that require teamwork, strategy games and competitive games. There are also mystery games, gift-wrapped for the holidays so patrons can “surprise” themselves with a game.
Playing games is among Hoffman’s earliest memories. “I’ve been playing games my entire life,” says Hoffman, who with a laugh describes designing his first game at age 2 when he threw items on the floor and cried until they were retrieved.
Hoffman grew up in Owings Mills. At 13, he met Keith Levy, founder of the Games Club of Maryland, who invited him to play.
“It was super-intimidating,” Hoffman recalls. “I was the youngest in the room by almost 20 years.”
They played Titan, which didn’t impress Hoffman too much, and then they grabbed Settlers of Catan. “I had played Scrabble and Monopoly, and didn’t realize you could do things with dice and roll them and move around the boards,” he says.
That experience opened his eyes beyond Sorry, Monopoly, Life and Parcheesi, which Hoffman says were essentially the “same game.” He was exposed to games of strategy and decision-making with the “outcome in your hands, not the dice.”
A Legend is Born
In 2000, Hoffman graduated from Western School of Technology’s computer graphics program. After heading to the Digipen Institute of Technology in Seattle for video game design, he started a gaming group and worked for a game store.
Disinterested in the academic program, he realized his calling. He would open a board game store and call it Legend Games.
“I was going to be the legend the store was based on,” he says.
Realizing he needed business training, he returned to the East Coast and enrolled in classes at the Community College of Baltimore County in 2003. At a gaming convention, he met the original owner of Canton Games and joined the staff part-time.
Within a few months, he was the store’s assistant manager.
Six years ago, Hoffman became owner. With approximately 400 games in stock, and about 300 from Hoffman’s personal collection that serve as store demos, Canton Games hosts game groups as a member of the Games Club of Maryland.
People come to the shop from all over to drop in and play, whether it’s open board gaming on Saturday afternoons or Tuesday evenings. It’s a way for people to try a new game before buying it.
Hoffman also encourages people to bring their own games to get some practice or learn new strategies. The store also hosts playing events such as Magic Commander on Sundays, Magic Standard on Mondays or Dungeons & Dragons on Thursdays. There’s an event each day of the week.
The Great Equalizer
Games provide an escape from politics, workplace drama and family stress, Hoffman says. It’s a good way to sit down with folks, look into their eyes and interact. No phones or computers or Internet are required, he says, and all ages can play together.
“Anybody who’s going to have a good time sits down and plays,” he says. “It’s an equalizer. Everybody’s on the same page.”
Lacey Etzkorn, a third-year graduate statistics student at Johns Hopkins University, happened upon the store on the way to the supermarket one day. She’s now a regular on Saturdays and also a member of a school board game club. Her first game purchase was Betrayal at House on the Hill, and she likes Clank, but she has no real favorite.
“I play whatever they show me,” she says. “I go along with it and learn new games. Then, I practice online so I can beat these guys.”
Josh Leiner found Canton Games online when he searched for a game group to join. The inventory coordinator for an architectural metals company, Leiner says he likes testing out new games at the store before ordering them, and admits he’s made friends through the groups.
His favorite game? War of the Ring.
Kevin Hansen says he comes for the camaraderie, the chance to work his brain and have fun. Among the oldest of the participants, he admits to playing most titles, from Scrabble, Sorry, Battleship and Fireball Island as a kid and board games on the mess decks while serving in the U.S. Navy.
“As long as people are having fun, it’s good for me,” says Hansen, who buys a new game every few months. “It’s always an escape that takes me away from stress.”
Many of the gamers, like Hoffman, flock to gaming conventions to participate in tournaments and see the new offerings.
“Gaming conventions are vacations for me,” says Keith Levy of the Games Club of Maryland. “It doesn’t even compare to a week at the beach, and it’s a quarter of the price.”
The Games Club of Maryland hosts Euroquest, an annual convention at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Baltimore North in Pikesville that attracts up to 400 attendees over five days in November each year. Participants learn new games and play their favorites with guidance from experts.
The Games Club of Maryland has 35 “locations” in houses, churches, game stores, community centers, senior centers and bookstores in the Old Line State, Washington, D.C., Delaware, Pennsylvania and North Carolina, where people meet regularly to play games.
“Gaming is an amazing hobby for everyone,” says Levy, a Randallstown native who at one time had 1,000 games in his Reisterstown house. “Gaming creates unity, helps bring people together, puts everybody on a level playing field.”
It’s the one activity that an 80-year-old and an eight-year-old can do together, says Levy, who manages the Mind Games store in Columbia Mall.
“I prefer the face-to-face experience,” he says, in contrast to video and online games. “I like human contact and to share with people what I love to do.”
Linda L. Esterson is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.