Armagideon Time

Sometime during the last few weeks of 1987, my pal Scott spotted something interesting in the back pages of the current issue of Dragon Magazine. Buried between the ads for custom character portraits and play-by-mail adventures was an ad for the Compleat Strategist, a small chain of stores specializing in role-playing and other games.

What set this retailer apart from the scores of others advertised in Dragon was the fact that one of the its stores was located in Boston, on Mass Ave not too far from the Auditorium T station. I’d never ventured past Medford’s (now-demolished) Meadow Glen Mall during my previous public transit excursions, but Scott had made a handful trips into the city proper and thus took the lead in planning our geek pilgrimage.

The trip involved a the 134 bus to the Wellington Orange Line Station, a switch over to a B, C or D Green Line train at Haymarket, and a five minute walk towards the Christian Science Center from the corner of Newbury Street and Mass Ave. It seemed pretty straight forward of paper (or, more accurately, the subway map on the back of the local White Pages book) but felt intimidating in practice, thanks to chatter from concerned parties about the store’s proximity to what city-fearing suburbanites have termed a “bad neighborhood.”

Our parents didn’t forbid the trip, however, so we spent a cold December Saturday jumping from bus to train to trolley car in pursuit of anticipated treasures. We got to the Back Bay without a hitch, but had some difficulty locating the shop itself, as it was located in the recessed retail concourse on the ground floor of a brutalist behemoth.

It was far smaller than we expected it to be, maybe half the size of the generalist hobby store in the Burlington Mall. What it lacked it floor space, it made up for in the utterly bewildering variety of STUFF on display. There was an entire wall of Warhammer miniatures and shelf after shelf of games and supplements that I’d never seen outside of magazine ads.

It was overwhelming to behold. We had planned and made the trip to the store without any specific purchase as an objective, and whatever subconscious wish list I might’ve had got drowned out by the array of choices laid out before us. In the end, I left with a handful of dice selected from a bin by the register and the Armies of the Night module for Twilight 2000.

I discussed the module in detail a few years back. It’s a blatant rip-off of Escape From New York, reworked with some really problematic racial politics for the game’s post-nuclear near future, and sporting some shamelessly derivative interior art. I’m also pretty sure the designers of The Division videogame liberally borrowed from it, because that ouroboros ain’t gonna eat itself.

Though I made only a dozen or so visits to the Complete Strategist in over the next decade, I can still clearly recall each purchase made there. The experience had other lasting consequences, as well. Unlike my suburban peers, whose “gateway” into the city was Harvard Square, the Boston of my teen years was the Mass Ave corridor of the Back Bay. Even after I discovered Cambridge’s wonders, I still gravitated back towards Newbury and Boylston.

The neighborhood was also where I saw my first genuine punk rockers, gawky kids with spiked hair and studded leather jackets. I laughed at their absurdity at the time, unaware that the contagion had started to spread to depths of my own subconsciousness.

9 Responses to “Role-Playing with the Changes: Nearly compleat”

  1. Cygnia

    God, I remember that place…picked up “Mightier Than the Sword” for 7th Sea (1st ed) there.

  2. Christopher Pinkleton

    Wow. I think I visited one of these once in Minneapolis? In a super snotty “galleria” mall? Mom was not willing to shell out for anything.

    Maybe repressed menories are real. I think they had a bunch of Traveler stuff. Haven’t thought about that in years.

  3. Jon H

    Amazingly it’s still open, just moved to Commonwealth Ave by BU.

  4. GE

    This really shakes up some visceral memories for me.

    My analog was this bizarre gaming shop – the first I’d ever learned even existed, and I have no recollection now of its name – in the basement of the Paramus Park Mall. The basement was laid out like some weird fantasy dwarven Levittown with identical 10×10-foot “houses” arranged in a perfect grid of carpeted avenues under a very low ceiling. I remember there being only a handful of those wood-paneled and windowed houses that were even rented out by stores,, and the whole basement stretched out from those few lit establishments, to dimmer areas with empty houses, to absolute darkness that was awfully creepy. I don’t even remember how I found out about the place; my mom was gracious enough to drive me and do her own shopping while I explored. I ended up buying an absurd amount of dice – I was always a sucker for interesting dice.

    I think I only went back one other time, with a couple of friends, and we climbed the stairs back up from the subterranean village to hang out by one mall entrance and read whatever we got. It’s funny to me that, almost 30 years later, I can still vividly remember the place. I’m sure it’s long gone by now – I don’t know if that basement even exists anymore.

  5. Kevin Lighton

    GE: I think you’re thinking of GameMasters, which was actually in Bergen Mall (Paramus Park never had a basement shopping level). The store moved to the main level of the mall when management decided to phase out the Village Mall (to use the official name of the basement subsection), then to an independent storefront in a nearby town after some problem with management (rent, location, communication; I don’t know), underwent a couple of ownership and name changes (Clubhouse Games, which was terrible, then Gamers Gambit), and finally moved to another town, but is still in business last I heard.

    (From the department of “More than anyone is likely to want to know about north Jersey game stores.”)

  6. GE

    Wow – I should hire you to clean up my memories, Kevin! That’s it exactly – one of those warped childhood reminiscences now polished up and looking just right. Sincere thanks – I have way too many of those, and used to rely on my brother to give me the real version of what I only hazily pictured in my head.

    “Village Mall” is an apt description, and once I read that, the memory snapped into focus. There really were just a dozen or so places down there – otherwise it was all empty storefront “houses” in that village, and it was really dark and spooky. I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re right that location was the problem – I mean, sure, it probably lent a bit of atmosphere to the experience for a bunch of pre-teen gamers, but it was pretty tough to discover for those same pre-teen gamers. I don’t know if older kids (or adults) had an easier time of it.

    Keep that department open – even if I’m your only customer, I truly appreciate the refresher.

  7. Joe Gualtieri

    The current location (and the only I’ve ever known) is right near the Paradise, if not actually part of the same building.

  8. Scholar-Gipsy

    I’ve been to the Boston Strat a ton of times, but I never got there until late in my hobby gaming nerd life; I went to college in NYC, and I remember the strange, glorious time when there were *three* Compleat Strategist outlets in Manhattan alone. The one at Rockefeller Center was mostly board games and puzzles for the tourist trade, but the one on 57th near Columbus Circle was a proper geek paradise. Both are long gone now, sadly, leaving only the cluttered flagship on 33rd. Anyway, when I got to the Boston store, I remember how tiny it looked in comparison.

    No New York snobbery intended here, by the way, as I’m a Massachusetts boy myself (Wormtown represent). My very first game store was Worcester’s grotty and unwelcoming Fabulous Fiction, which also stocked SF novels and comics, and was run by a horrible toadlike man with a persistent glottal cough. He was disgusting along numerous axes, but for an eleven-year-old gamer, that store was Wonderland, and it still pops up in my dream life even now that I’m in my mid-forties.

    (None of this is of any interest to anyone else, but this post seems to have turned into a Proustian forum for vanished game store reminiscences, so I figured I’d pile on.)

  9. Cygnia

    Fabulous Fiction! Right in the heart of Main South. That place was a fire hazard waiting to happen, but when I was able to sneak down there, I found some good stuff.

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