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More than Play

From that very first night I happened by Chapel Street, I was charmed. Maybe it was the hot pink facade that unapologetically spans three storefronts. Maybe it was the two life-sized kobolds—a kind of monster from Dungeons and Dragons (DnD)—that grumbled at me from the window display with their spears raised, like guardians at the shop’s front door. It was most probably, though, the ambience of Elm City Games (ECG) on a busy night: tables by the windows were filled with customers chatting away, while a giant rainbow flag greeted passersby.

“It’s just our natural state of being,” says Elm City Games owner Matt Fantastic, whose larger-than-life last name evolved from a joke gone too far. “We’re queer-owned…and most of our staff is some varying flavor.” 

Originally founded in 2016 as a corner inside the now-shuttered Happiness Lab café, the business has grown along with its community to take on three storefronts, which now house some of the three thousand items in inventory that line the store’s floor-to-ceiling shelves. The brightly painted rooms flanking the store’s interior are the game café areas where, for ten or twenty bucks, customers are free to play on one of the shop’s game nights.

With their Hell Fire’s Club baseball hat and long unruly hair, Fantastic initially struck me as Eddie Munson from Stranger Things come to life. Like Eddie, Fantastic grew up playing Dungeons and Dragons, and evoking Eddie’s famous guitar solo of Metallica’s “Master of Puppets,” Fantastic had a brief career in the nineties Brooklyn musicscape, where they played in “loud angry bands.” 

Though Fantastic nonchalantly answers that the store is queer-owned, the abundant progressive imagery that pervades the store—the massive rainbow sidewalks just outside, the little queer identity flag stickers for sale—is very intentional. As Fantastic affectionately characterizes it, the store’s strategy is to be “aggressively progressive.” 

“It’s important to put it really out there that ‘hey, you can come here and be whoever you are,’” Fantastic explains. “No one’s going to say something, you know, negative or hurtful or even just thoughtless.” 

Fantastic tells me that over the past seven years, ECG has been a place where LGBTQIA+ patrons have felt safe enough to come out. Some use ECG to figure out a different way of presenting themselves than they would at work or home or school. For a lot of players, ECG acts as a safe space to negotiate queerness. 

Elm City Games hosts its online community on Discord, where players mingle, talk smack, and organize game nights. This is where I struck up a conversation with Brenda W. after she replied to my post, commenting that her first experience using her preferred name as an openly trans woman was at ECG: “I never once have had reason to regret that decision.”

Brenda had mostly been interacting with the ECG community through the Discord server, when she started questioning her gender. She had yet to settle on a name, a hesitation she explained was “mostly due to internalized anxiety on my part, making me doubt…whether or not the name I chose was right, whether it would feel good hearing other people use it, as well as worrying about what would happen if word got back to my parents.” 

Inside Elm City Games.

She happened to be in for a game of Armada with another player from the ECG Discord, who only knew her by her username. They were making comfortable small talk before the match, until he asked for her name. Her mind went blank; the little script she’d rehearsed in her head went out the window. 

“I just stood there awkwardly for a moment and explained that I was trans and in between names at the moment,” she explained to me over Discord message. “He was totally cool with it, so I took my shot with my favorite of the choices I’d been kicking around.” She told him she was trying the name Brenda. 

Hearing the other player sound her name out back to her abated her initial anxieties. “From that moment on, I’ve been Brenda and I couldn’t be happier.”

When I asked what made Brenda feel that ECG was safe enough to come out, she pointed to the store’s owners, Matt Fantastic and Trish Loter, who both had multiple pronouns listed under their Discord usernames, and who, in her eyes, “generally cultivated a left-leaning political culture and attitude, both in-store and in the server.” Other stores Brenda had visited didn’t feel quite as welcoming; one store in Wallingford was particularly rude to new customers and tolerated homophobic remarks made by other clientele. 

“Games traditionally have a reputation for being this domain of, you know, shitty men,” Fantastic explained to me, “There’s just this kind of casual shittiness.” ECG aims to upendshed that. Fantastic describes the archetypal board gamer as the “um, actually” player who’s a real stickler for the rules. Ben Walter, a staff member at Yale’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion by day and a Magic: the Gathering (Magic) regular by night, recalls the experience of playing at a Magic convention, describing it as “a rules, lawyerly environment.” A lot of the fun in Magic, for Walter, lies in the tabletop conversation during which alliances and rivalries are formed. ECG game nights are typically more conversational and allow players to backtrack, whereas official Magic games are played strictly by the book. If you blurt out any inaccuracies, Walter explains, the “um, actually” gamers are sure to cut you off and recite the rulebook. He pauses, searching for the right words to name this impulse. “It becomes this very mansplainy, masculine desire to prove yourself by being right…So it’s not fun, honestly.”

For DnD game night—the store’s most popular game—Dungeon Masters (DMs) are briefed on ECG’s standards. An institution in its own right, DnD is a collaborative game in which players roleplay as adventurers of their own creation, banding together to take on a journey spun by the Dungeon Master (DM). Fantastic explains that during gameplay at ECG, general swearing is okay but casual homophobia, misogyny, or any hate speech is “like super not cool.” Fantastic continues, “Really it’s about having fun…We want people that are excited to share their love of DnD with new people.” He emphasizes that “welcoming players of all backgrounds is a big priority to the organizers.”

In this spirit, ECG organizes the Elm City Adventure Squad, a beginner friendly, in-house program for DnD. Though Luke Mastalli-Kelly, software engineer by day and DM by night, is no stranger to running campaigns, he admits that there’s a lot more consideration that goes into programming a session for ECG than for the typical DnD campaign. “It needs to be inclusive in a wide variety of ways,” Mastalli-Kelly writes over Discord message, “I’ve [run DnD] games for everyone—from a kid who hadn’t played much DnD and mostly wanted to fish, to folks who have been playing since the very first editions of the game and are focused adventurers.” It strikes me how thoughtful Mastalli-Kelly has to be to include everyone in the game. For the fishing-obsessed kid, he had to find a way to have fishing advance the plot: “I think he eventually caught a fish that was grabbed by one of the Sahuagin [or a half-man, half-sea creature monster] stalking the boat. Gave him a unique reason to care about the threat!” 

I couldn’t help but think back to the groups of friends I had seen through a window that very first time I happened by in one of the game rooms, laughing over Chipotle takeout. Mastalli-Kelly and his fiancée had gotten involved with game nights almost as soon as they moved to New Haven in January 2020. He also hosts a separate DnD game night, spun out of friends he made from previous Elm City Adventure Squad games. “That’s how I actually met folks who turned out to be neighbors in my little apartment complex before I moved into a house.” Now, Mastalli-Kelly holds a weekly game night in his home. 

At this point, I was itching to join a game night at ECG. As luck would have it, a spot had opened up with the Elm City Adventure Squad. For my very first foray, I revived a character I had imagined from my 13-year-old fanfiction days: Kat—a hot, emo, dark magic-wielding, half-demon type of few words (officially, I was a Tiefling Warlock). Kat was joined by Mockwind, a grouchy, money-chasing warlock; Garuda, an aloof, novel-writing Owlin Sorlock (a half-owl humanoid of a mixed class combining sorcerers and warlocks); Damion, a brooding hero-type fighter; Ranger, a bumbling Barbarian Dwarf with the catchphrase “It’s Dwarfing Time!”; and Dax, a pint-sized Fairy Ranger who doubles as a sheriff with an on-and-off Southern drawl. Snee, our ventriloquist Dungeon Master, led us through a storyline of his own creation—we six adventurers had been hired to take out a kobold infestation that was terrorizing a town. 

The front window of Elm City Games.

We marched through with Damion and Dax at the helm, who had a good cop, bad cop schtick going. The others spewed out catchphrases in character (sound effects included) as I lucked out by roleplaying with sparse words. Over the course of the four-hour session, the guys chipped away at my introversion. Roman, a retiree who commandeered Ranger the Dwarf, won me over with packs of M&Ms. As we looted the corpse of a champion we’d defeated, Terry interrupted, “We should let the newbies have first pick.” Michael had picked up a powerful magic item—the Wand of Fish Magic. In a gruff voice, Michael presented the wand to me: “To congratulate the youngin’ on her first adventure.” Andrew, who had been explaining the game to me, smiled kindly, “It does a lot of damage for a level one character.” 

The Wand of Fish Magic proved to be quite pivotal. The final boss, a Kobold King backed by a wizard, had effortlessly thwarted my fellow adventurers’ attacks until it became my turn. For the first spell I would ever cast, I was ready to bring out the big guns. Under my breath, I announced my plan: “I wanna nuke ‘em.” Everyone pooled together dice for me to roll. It added up to twenty-two, more than enough to end the Kobold King in one blow. Snee grinned at me, “How do you wanna do this?” I described what came to mind: clutching the wand with both arms, I (as Kat) fired a giant orb of magic straight into the Kobold King, completely eviscerating him from the face of the earth upon contact. Complete K.O.. The table reacted gleefully, perhaps with a tinge of pride, at the newcomer who dealt the finishing blow on the tough boss. Afterward, I got to keep the wand in Kat’s inventory, a token of triumph. 

In the seven years since opening, the ECG community has been a revolving door. Fantastic offers, “We have some people that think they’re coming here temporarily and ended up staying a long time and other people who are here from the start of the first semester and then, two days after graduation, they’re gone. We see people that come to visit again, [although] they may have moved away three years ago.” 

Though Brenda lives a town over and can’t drive, she makes it a point to visit the store whenever she can. “I’ve tried to duck back in because finding a truly safe and accepting place in the gaming community—or in life in general—is hard as hell for me sometimes.” For her, and for quite a few other regulars who commute from out of town, the inclusivity at ECG is worth it. 

Come May, I’ll be moving out of New Haven. I might not see the guys I played my very first game of DnD with again (Michael, Andrew, Terry, Roman, Patrick, and Snee), but we’ve formed a Discord thread named Kobold Cave. I like the idea that I’m still tethered to them in some way, and that the Kobold Cave we surmounted lingers somewhere out there, no matter what. 

As we wrap up our conversation on a quiet Sunday afternoon, Fantastic has to leave and greet their guests—friends from a now-defunct gaming convention, coming to catch up over a round of games. “We’re a social club built around games,” Fantastic grins as we walk out, “[but really we’re] community first.”

—Ashley Chin is a junior at Yale-NUS.

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