Game Change

Photo: Hour to Midnight
Visitors solve puzzles to escape at Hour to Midnight in Portland

Puzzle and board game businesses modify tactics with the closure of in-person entertainment. 

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Business has slowed at Guardian Games in Portland, though not as much as one might expect. 

The gaming store, which had to cancel in-person trading card and strategy game events due to COVID-19, has seen a strong upswing in sales of puzzles and board games, helping to counteract the loss. 

Despite the surge in mobile and online gaming in response to the pandemic, board games have not been replaced as a source of entertainment. 

It is quite the opposite, says Guardian Games sales manager Nathan Early, who maintains the social aspects of in-person puzzles and board games are not as easily replicated by the online experience. 

The board game and puzzle industry has seen this kind upswing before. 

“We have noticed that just like during the Great Depression, when sales of puzzles skyrocketed, we are seeing puzzles skyrocketing again,” says Early.

The demand shift has caused the gaming store to make adjustments. Guardian Games has updated its online store and now offers curbside pickup. 

It has also created a local supply chain.

Statue of Anubis in ancient Egyptian room under construction. Photo: Hour to Midnight

Many puzzles and board games are manufactured abroad, which has led to supply shortages because of the pandemic. Guardian Games partnered with Pomegranate Puzzles, a local puzzle maker, to generate a steady flow of products to its store. 

“Like everyone else we weren’t prepared for a pandemic,” says Early. “We have had to transform the business to meet customer needs and our abilities.”

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Early says the store has also seen an increase in sales of the board game Pandemic, which brings players together to contain the outbreak of a global disease. 

He compared it to the increased sales of Monopoly during the Great Depression. 

“Sales of Monopoly went up because I think it gave people some semblance of control,” he says. “I think people are seeing a pandemic in real life and like to imagine trying to stop it.” 

While it is difficult to operate an in-person escape room with a ban against public gatherings, Ed Wolf, co-owner of Hour to Midnight, an escape room in Portland, says the sector is a highly creative one and has found ways to innovate.

“There are some remote game room experiences some people have been experimenting with,” he says. “A user logs in and there’s an operator already in the building. The customer would call in via the computer and would manipulate the operator remotely around the room, trying to solve the puzzle.” 

This sort of experience has gained popularity in Europe. It is something Wolf and his business partner are considering implementing themselves.

Visitors must solve the puzzle of this throne in the ancient Egytian room. Photo: Hour to Midnight

For now Wolf and his co-owner have been performing maintenance and cleaning in the building, calling in staff to give them employment.

“Many of our employees are college students and this is their only supplementary income,” he says. “We pride ourselves on being two nice guys doing business, not two business guys trying to be nice.”

Wolf has also been using the pandemic to work on his passion project, a state-of-the art Egyptian-themed escape room, which he and his partner have been building for two years. 

Smiling pharaohs look on as visitors try to solve the escape room. Photo: Hour to Midnight

He does not expect the Egyptian room to turn a profit, considering how much time and money they have invested. For him the Egyptian room is a labor of love. 

“We want to bring Hollywood-quality or above Hollywood-quality experience to our users,” he says. 

“We focus on bringing customers good theater and good fun. We take care of our people, and everything else is second to that.”

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