Tabletop gaming has been around for hundreds of years. Chess dating back to before the seventh century. But for Calgarian Gord Johansen it was just something that him and his friends did in high school. Now, he owns and operates the largest tabletop game store in the world, and it’s on the edge of the city’s core.
“I liked history and historical games and my friends and I would just sit around and play. There were only two games a year or whatever,” recalled Johansen.
Johansen used to buy games from Woodwards, a local department store that has long faded away.
Tabletop gaming wasn’t a huge industry or a wildly popular hobby when Johansen began playing in his teen years. But in 1974, when Johansen was in university, Dungeons and Dragons was published and it changed tabletop gaming forever. The game grew wildly and opened the door for tabletop gaming to expand into the massively popular hobby that it is today.
Johansen left engineering in university and transferred to the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology to pursue power engineering. After he graduated, he bought a house.
He attended a tabletop gaming convention in the United States and spoke with a distributor about buying and importing games. Soon afterward, he began to sell games that he had imported to his friends out of the basement of his house. His business helped him pay off his mortgage a little easier.
“Eventually someone asked me why I wasn’t selling to people other than my friends.” In 1981 he took over a small tabletop gaming business that had been started by an older woman who had little interest or knowledge of tabletop gaming. She had started the business in 1973 and was selling out of a small, 450 square ft. building on 12th Ave.
SentryBox Takes Off
And so, Sentry Box began. Their first building was located in Marda Loop and it was 1,400 square feet. Eventually, they moved from that location to a new, second location in Marda Loop. In March of 1994 Sentry Box moved from their 2,800 square ft. building in Marda Loop to their current location which was a whopping 13,000 square feet. After renovations, it’s now the largest tabletop game store in the world, at 19,000 square feet. The Sentry Box inventory holds over 100,000 different items.
“I thought we’d sell out of this location for the next 20 or so years and then I’d retire and be done. But here we are, 24 years later and we’re still going. It’s great in many ways but also kind of a bad thing because people don’t want me to leave. I see people at conventions and they don’t want me to leave the business.”
In an age of technology and innovation, one may wonder what the future holds for tabletop gaming. However, Johansen doesn’t believe it’s going to die any time soon. “It’s actually been surging. People who played these games when they were younger are now older and introducing their hobby and passion to their children.”
The fifth edition of Dungeons and Dragons, which was released in 2014, has sold more than all the other editions combined. “Six years ago, we would sell $2,000 dice per month. Then the fifth edition of Dungeons and Dragons was released and we began to sell $4,000 of dice per month, then $6,000 per month. Last December we sold $16,000 of dice.” Last year Sentry Box sold $160,000 of dice alone.
Johansen says that the demographic of tabletop gamers is much different now than it was when he was younger. “When we were playing as kids, you know, it was 99% male. Now there’s an outstanding number of female gamers who love playing games with each other. There’s mixed gaming groups of course, but there’s also girls who will play games with each other as a girl’s night.”
Johansen declares that board games are a great tool for teaching kids. “It’s interesting how you can teach so much stuff with games: history, geography,” he said.
Sentry Box has a booth at the Calgary Comic Convention every year. Johansen said that it’s hard to make profit at the expo, because he calculates they need to sell $12,000 worth of merchandise to break even, but they do it. He loves interacting with people at the convention.
“I grew up in the area now known as Marda Loop, and as a child, Gordon of the Sentry box was very kind to me,” recalls one Sentry Box customer.
“I grew up around the Sentry Box. I remember in 95 or 96 when I was just a little kid my dad took me to a Magic the Gathering tournament. I won using a Silver deck, the guy I was up against freaked out,” said another SentryBox customer.
Johansen said, “People ask me, why buy so many games? And then it hit me one time. It’s like a wine collection. The flavor is the difficulty and you have different games to play with different friends at different times.”