Talking Paper Interview Series: Lauren Bilanko

Lauren Bilanko co-owns and operates fantasy games outlet Twenty Sided Store (TSS) in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. In April 2016, she and co-owner Luis Chato will celebrate five years of serving customers from their storefront at 362 Grand Street, and providing a friendly backroom space to players of Magic: The Gathering, Dungeons & Dragons, Settlers of Catan, and other games. Those loyal customers generated enough word of mouth to earn TSS the title of "Best Game Shop in New York City" from the Village Voice in 2014. Following a store expansion, Bilanko collaborated with Nomadic Press to present The Backroom Theater music / reading / film showcase in December 2015 within the refurbished gaming space. In advance of the TSS five-year anniversary, I interviewed Bilanko about her business, some of the popular games she sells, and the enduring popularity of tactile games crafted from paper and cardboard.

On Opening Twenty Sided Store

We opened in April 2011. This space was half the size. We just had the east side of the storefront. About two years in, we resigned the lease and took over the west side of the storefront. Our biggest goal was—and still is—to really try and build up our retail and hone in on being a premiere event space to do some higher-quality stuff. Especially now that there are a lot of people doing regular weekly events, our space gives us a little bit more room to get creative with specialty events, and things that other people aren't doing. Our event with Nomadic Press was awesome, so I'm really excited to do more stuff like that and embrace the whole idea of "geek" in its full capacity. I think people get bored of the same old go-to-the-bar-and-get-drunk kind of thing. So to be able to offer an event space for adults where we can do some really unique stuff, we change it up. I've been in this neighborhood since 1999, and even in my apartment, I threw parties. It's what I like to do. I like getting people together for fun stuff.

My studio was right next door on the corner. It was like a live-work space. So my apartment and my studio were next door. Then there was a gallery on Havemeyer Street called The Change You Want To See Gallery. They were a co-working space during the day and kind of an activist gallery. On Friday nights, Luis would run Magic tournaments there, because they had the space to do it. Every single time he ran a tournament, he had to set up the tables, bring the merchandise, bring down the product, and basically set up a store every week. It got to be a lot, and he kept thinking, “It would be really great to just have a permanent space that was ours to run these tournaments, so we're not setting it up every single week.” So when we first opened, I fully thought I was going to continue just taking on my freelance [photography] clients, and said, “Well, I can help you get started, because I'm freelance. I can take a couple months, and maybe just do some jobs in the morning.” At that point, we opened at 6:00 pm. So it was six to midnight, and we were only running events. We didn't have a retail store. Both of us were working. Luis is a programmer. Then really quickly this just became a full-time job, and we realized, “Oh my gosh, there's nowhere around here, and people want games.” So it turned into “If you don't see something, ask, and we'll order it.” Then we'd order one for a customer, and one for the store, and one for a customer, and one for the store . . . all of a sudden, “We need to have a retail store.” So I crammed as much stuff as I could in that original space, and it was basically splitting at the seams. We were really hunting for a bigger space when our landlord came to us and said we could just take the whole storefront over. We thought that was great, because we were already established here on this block, and in this location, and moving to another location would be a really big step and a lot of work. I sometimes still feel like we're too small. Because there's a lot of stuff that I know we could sell that I would like to sell. We try to rotate some of our stock a little bit. We introduce things, and when they sell out, maybe introduce some different things. Like puzzles kind of come in, and fade out, come in, and fade out at different moments. So we really stock up on them over the holiday season, when we know a lot of people are into that for gifts. Then we get more into some of the game expansions when you start getting into the winter and people are like, “I want more for what I have.” We kind of flow that way. I would love to be able to have room for bigger and better displays. A lot of the stuff we do, we still kind of do on special order. Space is limited. We really fine-tune and curate the stuff that we sell in the store based on the synergies of what goes together, or what we've got going on.

On the Store's Neighborhood

Over on Bedford Avenue and Kent Avenue, everything is turning very corporate. There is an Apple store going in, Whole Foods, J. Crew, Levi's . . . This neighborhood really started off as an artist community, with people doing really creative things, and a lot of boutique stores, and unique places that you couldn't find anywhere else. You could only find this shop in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and nowhere else. Now, it's turning into any-town USA, and we have a lot of shops that are on every corner of every block everywhere in the country. But down here at the end of Grand Street is still maintaining and has a good foothold with the most amazing places to eat, drink, socialize, and visit in Brooklyn. I think it’s a really special place to come and visit. There's a little bit of everything. I live on this block, and sometimes I don't ever even cross the street of the island that I'm on, because everything that I need is right here. I've got my favorite local bar. I've got my place that I want to go have breakfast, go have lunch. I have my place where I can get coffee. Laundry is across the street. My grocery store is right here. It's kind of an amazing thing, and people come because the businesses have good reputations, a good vibe, and we all kind of vibe in such a great way that we just synergize. None of us are competing with each other, yet none of us are so different that we're just a one-stop shop. People who come here want to go eat at the restaurants around the corner. People who go hang out and play in the ski-ball leagues at Full Circle will want to come here, and pick up a board game to take home. A lot of people who are into geeky hobbies tend to be in finance, and lawyers, or have jobs where they need suits—and we've got the custom suit people. Then, we've got a lot of actors and people who are into improv, who play role-playing games. That really goes a long with Ghost Robot, which is doing movies and music videos and working with local artists. I think it's a great block, and I think everybody who's lasted the test of time on this block are people who are really maintaining that kind of community. 

On Settlers of Catan

It's the new household staple, and a gateway game. I would say it spawned a resurgence of tabletop board-gaming culture. Thinking about Monopoly, you sit down, and it probably takes about 3–4 hours to get through a game. And once somebody claims like Park Place, then it is usually very hard to strategically beat them. The nice thing about Settlers of Catan is that your board changes every single time you set up the game, so there's a little bit of randomness to it. There's also a lot more strategy to it. There's a barter and trading mechanic, which is interesting—"I'll give you two wheat for one ore,” or something like that. You can play the game the first time, and run through maybe an hour and a half. But once you get really good at it, there's players who can play it in 45 minutes. So what Settlers has sort of introduced to people is that a lot of these games are becoming easier to learn, faster to play, with more complexity, diversity, longevity, and replay-ability than some of our nostalgia games.

People who are really into Settlers of Catan are really into Settlers of Catan. They just want everything Setters of Catan. They want the travel edition, because it's got all the nice little drawers, and the cards fit into a thing so they don't blow away in the wind when you're at the park. You've got this nice travel edition that you can take with you. The dice game is new. It’s very quick. In 15 minutes, I can just get my Settlers fix—roll some dice, go through the map, and very quickly have that little competitive edge maybe at the bar, or somewhere like that. We've got really small five-dollar expansions that add different resources or tiles that you can place on top of your existing board. Then we've got our big-box expansion. Cities & Knights is probably the most popular one, which has a little bit more political stuff going on. Seafarers adds water. Traders & Barbarians adds a little more resources. Then you've got Explores & Pirates, which combines this idea of seafaring and resource management going on in a bigger board. Now there's also the Star Trek: Catan. So if you're a big fan of Star Trek, basically the same game, but now you're in a sci-fi setting.

I used to be really into punk rock music, before the Internet made it so you could just check out music online before you bought it. I remember walking into a music store and being really nervous like, "Oh my gosh. I have no idea what I'm looking for. I don't know what these bands sound like. I don't even know if I'm looking in the right section, and I'm totally scared to ask that really cool-looking person behind the counter, because they're going to think I'm a total idiot." And I see that on people's faces when they come into this store. They're like, "Oh, cool, I love board games." Then they're like, "I've never heard of any of these games." You can see their eyes scanning for Scrabble, and Monopoly, and Clue, or Risk even. Then I'm like, "Oh, well you probably would love Settlers of Catan." So now that people have been playing Settlers of Catan, and people are starting to know about it, I like to have it in the front window as this eye-catching thing that makes people say, "Oh, I am familiar with that game. I feel comfortable to walk in the door, because I know what that game is, and I feel good about the fact that everything is not going to be totally foreign to me." Then our staff is really great about just really jumping in and answering questions, and asking questions too—like, “How many players do you have?” is really important. "Are you planning on playing in a party atmosphere, or have you planned a four-hour sit-down game night with some serious gamers?" All those things will really make a difference as to what kind of games we recommend. If you really want to have a more casual environment where people are dropping in and out of the game, maybe you want to go to Cards Against Humanity or Timeline. If you want a little more of a sink-your-teeth-into-it game, maybe you want to play Magic: The Gathering or Netrunner, or some of the GMT games like Twilight Struggle, which is going to be a six-hour game for two players, really intense.

On Dungeons & Dragons

Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) just had their 40th anniversary two years ago. Comparatively, Magic has been around for 20 years. They're both owned by the same company, Wizards of the Coast. Fifth Edition [D&D] is the new edition, and I think it's really great. I find it is the glue of all editions. No matter what edition you started on, and no matter what edition you really loved playing, Fifth Edition has a little bit of that in it. Over the years, Dungeons & Dragons is like a tree where everything just got piled on and on and on, edition, edition, edition, add more stuff, add more stuff, add more stuff. And all over sudden, the top of the tree couldn't withstand the weight, and it just ripped the roots right out. So Wizards of the Coast stripped everything down, rebuilt the core to have a really strong base, going back to the main key features of the game—which are your six ability stats and really bases everything that you wanted to add on to the game around the basic concepts of what makes it D&D.

Now, you can have a player at your table that is brand new, who's never played before, who when they level up just wants to take an ability stat bump to keep their character sheet simple. Then you might have an advanced player that wants to take feats and all these extra abilities, and their character sheet becomes three-pages long, but they're really into that. Now, these two can play side by side and their characters are balanced. All the [Dungeon Master] really has to know is what level you are at, what character and race you are, and then they can formulate a very balanced encounter and a balanced game without a lot of effort. I think that really makes prep time easier, and allows a Dungeon Master (DM) to say, "Oh, I really love what 3.5 was doing with all these different puzzles and tables," or "I like that in earlier editions the numbers didn't get so big," or "I loved having this tactical combat thing going on in Fourth Edition." Now you can combine them all, and use different parts of that, and really create a game that is catered to your play group. All of the older editions are very easily adaptable into the Fifth Edition rules.

The starter set is great, and it's very affordable—it's 20 bucks. It comes with a really sweet set of dice and a starter source book which has the basic rules. What's really nice about that is even if you graduate beyond the starter set, all the items in there are still really useful. I like to have it because the booklet has all the conditions and stuff on the back. It's a great little table resource to have that the players can pass around, look up spells, or use as a refresher of basic rules. It's a lot lighter than trying to port your player's handbook around. If you're playing level one through level five, that book is really great to always have with you. The set has an adventure in it also, and it's really great. This adventure also teaches DMs how to DM as they're running the adventure, with tips on what to do in situations, which is really great.

We also sell books that are campaign settings you can build adventures out of. Some are a little bit more streamlined into how you would structure your adventure. Some are a little bit more sandbox-y and open, so you can take bits and pieces and create your own story. The first two [for Fifth Edition] were Hoard of the Dragon Queen and The Rise of Tiamat, where you're hunting down the cult of the dragon, and you're trying to stop Tiamat from being risen from the nine hells. Then you have Princes of the Apocalypse, which is kind of based on an area of the Forgotten Realms. So you're in this town, and you're discovering that there are weird elemental things going on. That one is really open and allows you to explore a bunch of different towns in the Forgotten Realms, with a lot of mystery that can be uncovered and unraveled in many different ways, totally depending on how you're running your game at home. It's great if you are really focused in that setting, or if you just want to take bits and parts to include in your other settings. Out of the Abyss is the storyline we're in right now [in store gaming], which is dealing with a lot of the Underdark, the Drow, and some different things that are happening under the surface of the world and still sort of set in The Forgotten Realms. Then we've got the core books, which is your players handbook, your monster manual, your dungeon master's guide. These three core books really dictate your game. Everybody gets a player's handbook at some point. The Fifth Edition Monster’s Manual is amazing, with motivations and locations of the monsters, as well as the stat blocks and really amazing pictures. The Dungeon Master's Guide gives amazing tips and ideas for creating your own campaigns, and taking the starter set to the next level—like, “I really want to do an underwater campaign”, or “I want to do a space campaign.” So then, “How do I create my own world?” There's all kinds of different tips in there on how to really hone your game and make it special.

On Selling D&D Books

When we first opened, we thought, “Why would we sell roleplaying games? Everybody can download the PDFs for free online. There's no point. Nobody's ever going to come in here and ask for a book. Why would we carry them?” Now you can see, we've got an entire wall of books, because people actually want the books. People come in and say, “Oh, I'd really love to just have this book at my table,” or “I love flipping through the pages,” or “The artwork is so amazing. I can't even believe it.” Sometimes I feel like the monster manual is like a coffee table book. It's so beautiful with the full color art, and the descriptions and everything. I was at the coffee shop up the street, and there were a bunch of little kids running around. I was writing a campaign, and I could tell the parents were trying to muster the kids, and trying to pay the bill, and then get everyone going. There was a little lounge couch area, and I said, “Hey, why don't you guys come sit next to me?” I handed them the monster manual, and they were just totally glued to it. The parents looked at the one kid and said, “I literally have never seen him sit still for more than like three minutes doing anything.” He flipped through every single page of the monster manual—probably spent like 20 minutes looking at it—and his mother was like, “This is unbelievable.”

I think the quality of art [in D&D monster manuals] has always been good. I look back at like some of the original artwork, and I'm like, "Oh my god, this is so amazing!" I think it's great that they work with so many different artists. It's definitely a career. I mean people are studying game design in school, and creating fantasy art is a legitimate business. Look at every single game that needs flashy artwork. I would say the games that I have trouble selling are the ones that don't have the greatest artwork on the cover. It's not as eye popping and as catchy. There are definitely games that have been reprinted with updated artwork on their covers, because it’s been proven that they were able to sell more copies of that game just from giving it a makeover.

On Magic: The Gathering

Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons & Dragons both exist in the multiverse, even though they're completely separate. You've got the Forgotten Realms in Dungeons & Dragons, and Ravenloft, and these different planes that exist. Then in Magic: The Gathering, you've got Zendikar and Innistrad, and Tarkir. These different places are like different planets. There's this whole entire world that's being created in the lore of what's happening. Dungeons & Dragons is a shared storytelling experience, whereas Magic: The Gathering is like a two-player battle where you are a planeswalker and I am a planeswalker, and we are each summoning creatures to do our bidding in a battle to the death, essentially.

Typically in Magic, somebody would start off with an intro deck that is maybe a two-color, 60-card deck, which you would play in what they call a "constructed" format. So it's a deck that's already constructed and ready-to-play right off the box. Then there are other formats that you can play, like limited. The limited format consists of taking booster packs, which we sell for $4 in every set. In a booster pack you have 15 randomized cards. There's a rare card in there. Maybe you get a mythic rare. There are different rarities to the cards, which determines what frequency they're printed at. So commons and uncommons are printed at a very high frequency. There's lots of them. So when people open up lots of booster packs, they have an overload of certain cards. Sometimes we buy them for cheap, or they're donated to the store, and then we create these bulk bricks which are made of commons and uncommons. For people who play very often, open up a lot of booster packs, they already have a lot of the cards that are in these bricks. But if you're just starting out, and you don't play in a lot of tournaments or limited tournaments, then it's hard to get some of the basic cards that you need. So if you start off with an intro deck, and you've got a white & green deck, maybe you just want to get a brick of white cards and a brick of green cards, and now you can start to build your own deck. You can take this deck apart, add in some other cards, and play around to see what else you can come up with. I think the most interesting part about Magic: The Gathering is that players can create their own decks. They have different synergies. Maybe on the tournament level there are tried-and-true decks that everybody is playing with. But on the beginner level or casual level, you can play with a deck that really speaks to you, where you can understand what's happening, the different steps that are going on, and the synergies that are playing out in those decks. Maybe you want to make just an all-elf deck. You can get very creative and you can get goofy. There are many, many, many, many ways to play the game, which I think makes it very special. People relate it to a combination between chess and poker with really great fantasy themes. So you can really understand what you're doing when you're doing it. It's not just card A comes in and has this ability that destroys you. It's, "My flying creature is going to come in, and you can't reach it because you don't have another flyer, or a creature with reach to attack it back. So I just go ahead and deal damage to you." There are things that play out in the flavor and in the lore that really make the game special.

We have an extensive library of magic card singles that basically come from opening booster packs, and then selling those individual cards on the secondary market. The value definitely changes based on rarity and based on availability. So the cards go out of print, and every quarter they're printing a new set of Magic cards. Once a card goes out of print, it's never printed again. It's paper, and paper wears out. Eventually there just aren't as many cards in circulation. So if there are not as many cards in circulation, and that card is in high demand (meaning a lot of people want to play with that card), then the value goes up. The value of cards is always changing. We update our buy list and our sell prices on a daily basis.

The secondary market has nothing to do with Wizards of the Coast at all. They create a retail product that is packaged and sold. After that, the secondary market is built up and created out of demand and consumer popularity. Because there are people who are looking for very specific cards to build their deck, or they see pro players playing with a specific deck and they'll come in with an entire deck that they want to purchase. Deck lists are often posted by tournament players of what decks they're playing and which decks are doing well in the tournaments. Then a lot of players are like, "Oh, I don't want to take the time to play test something new. I'm going to just try out this deck that somebody has already spent a lot of time constructing, and see how I do with it." Because there is a little bit of luck to the game as well as strategy. You can have a lot of people playing the same deck and have all different outcomes, based on what they drew, what their opponent did, and how well they saw the next step ahead of them. There are some tiers of play. When you get to the pro level, you hit this wall for a while. Then once you break through that barrier, it opens up almost an entirely new game.

The store started as a place to run Magic events. Luis was running Magic tournaments around the corner before we opened the store. So Magic was definitely 100% of our business when we first opened. We only dealt with Magic. That was it. We maybe had two or three board games. Then we slowly built up our collection to the point now, after five years, Magic is just another item that we have in our very extensive retail collection. When we started, the first six months of our business was dedicated to Magic, so we have a very large Magic following in the community. For a very long time, we were the only store in this area. Now, over the last two years, five or six other stores have opened up. There's one store in South Brooklyn that's been there forever. There was another store in Manhattan that was out of business maybe five years before we opened. So for five years, there was a need for places to play Magic and service that need. There were other places that sold board games, but not places where you could go and play. Now there is, and other stores have opened up doing similar models to what we do with organized play and providing services. But I think we are still one of the only places in the area that sells Magic card singles. At this point, it's almost a separate business for us. Board games are another thing. Our library of Magic card singles is getting pretty extensive. We’ve had to expand our storage capacity for that. I think the next step is really digitizing our collection and getting it to a place where we can just service people faster. We've made a lot of improvements, going from binders to handwritten sheets, to now having people be able to order their cards ahead of time online. Then we pull them, and do the mustering back and forth over email, so that somebody can just walk in and their cards are ready to pick up. We want to get that even more efficient, and really speed up the process, because there were definitely points when we were doing handwritten sheets where we just couldn't pull cards fast enough. We had a lot of demand from people who wanted them, and we just didn't have the capability to really service that demand. But as we grow, we're able to put more things in place to better serve our customers.

Three of our regulars qualified for the Magic Pro Tour. Luis and I spent a couple of weeks really preparing them, doing drills, and then sponsoring them for the Pro Tour. We definitely are planning more competitive events that will be ways to sort of practice [for tournament play]. For example, there is a grand prix tournament coming up, and it's a team sealed format. The basic idea is that we're going to be running a drill which will allow people to spend one event coming in and going up against other competitive players by talking, discussing, really understanding the format, and getting in a lot of work and practice. Think about it like basketball, when you're doing sprints up and down the court. Then the following weekend, we will have a tournament for real prizes. So you can take what you've learned in the drill, and apply it in this tournament as sort of a lead-up to the actual grand prix. So we're hoping to prime and prepare our regular community and local player base, so that when we send them off to these tournaments, we'll see them do well. So not only do we want to have beginner events where we teach people how to play the games, we also want to have events for competitive players where they have a community and a resource to get better, and to take the next step. I think that's fun and important.

On the Store's Gaming Area

Having a game play space is nice, because we can have local board game designers come in and demo their games and teach people how to play. We've got store copies of most of the things that we sell so that people can see. Even just to be able to open up a box and show somebody what the pieces look like and how well the game has been manufactured and constructed. We really pride ourselves on curating a game collection of high-quality games that are not just going to be very flimsy and fall apart. These are games that you are going to have in your family and want to play over and over again. New York affords us to be in a community where there are a lot of local game designers that are excited to show off their new games, and play test. We can offer private parties, and we can do tournaments and all kinds of other things that really give people an opportunity to try games they've never tried before. We talked about Dungeons & Dragons, but we also have an entire wall of other roleplaying games that have come out since Dungeons & Dragons. Pathfinder had a lot of the staff that was on D&D, and then went off and created their own game, and now it's very popular.

There is also the Star Wars RPG. So maybe you want to play a Jedi, or somebody who's got the force, or maybe you want to play the Outer Rim. We were able to do an entire Star Wars week, where every night of the week we ran a different event around the Star Wars theme. One night was the Star Wars board game. So we did Star Wars Risk. We did the Star Wars card game. Then we did the miniatures game. We had people come and do demos and teach people how to play. Then we did the Star Wars RPG, and did the role playing games where there's three different starter boxes. So we had three tables going, where each table was running one of the different starter boxes. We also did Star Wars trivia nights, which was a super fun social party where you test your Star Wars knowledge.

Branded games [like Star Wars] are really kind of like hit or miss. If it’s a branded or a franchised game, sometimes the game mechanics aren't so good. The Star Wars stuff is produced by a company called Fantasy Flight, which is also known for producing really great games. Not only is there a company that's got a history of producing really amazing games, but now there is a franchise added to that which people are super excited about. So it's like a win-win situation. I wouldn't say that franchise games across the board always work. There are a lot of franchises that are very expensive for some of these game companies to purchase and to continue. Margaret Weis is a great writer who has written stuff for Dungeons & Dragons and started her own RPG system. She started a Marvel campaign set in her Cortex system, and it was really successful and super popular. People really loved it. Then at some point they just lost the rights to the Marvel franchise. That was a really big bummer, because it was off to such a great start, and people were really into it, and it's a great system. The Cortex system really, really worked for a superhero campaign, with the way the dice work and the pools work. It really synergized with that setting.