Wednesday, May 25, 2016

FLGS Quest 2016 - Phantom of the Attic

Phantom of the Attic's tucked away, yet awesome storefront!

First Stop

The first leg of my quest to tour Pittsburgh’s friendly local game stores (FLGS’s) took me to Phantom of the Attic in Oakland. Phantom Games was my first exposure to Pittsburgh’s tabletop gaming scene when I moved to the area in 2000. Actually, I discovered my first role-playing group by responding to a flyer posted on Phantom’s bulletin board, a group that would eventually include two of the players who still sit at my table regularly. 

If you are unfamiliar with the Pittsburgh area, the Oakland neighborhood is home to four of the city’s universities. Phantom of the Attic, on Craig Street, is sandwiched between the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University. Phantom Games is on one side of Craig Street, and Phantom Comics on the other and both locations are on the second floors of their respective buildings. 

As soon as you enter Phantom Games you realize you’re in for a treat, and your wallet is going to be in trouble. Every square inch of the location is wall-to-wall gaming, with no nook or cranny wasted. Dice, cards, and other gaming essentials are at the front of the store, but as you venture back you’ll find role-playing games, board games, miniatures, and war-gaming models. If you’re in the mood to play, Phantom Games keeps a pair of large tables for demos and pick-up games.

In that rare instance that you can’t find something in the store, chances are that owner Jeff Yandora can find it for you.

Me and Jeff!

A Phantom Dwells in Oakland

Jeff is a staple of Pittsburgh’s tabletop gaming scene, and has been the owner of Phantom of the Attic in Oakland since 1990. The Oakland store first opened in 1983, with subsequent locations opening in Greentree, Monroeville, and Greensburg. In 1990 the original owner decided to sell the locations to the managers of the respective stores. For Jeff, a University of Pittsburgh alumni, Phantom of the Attic in Oakland became home.

“I went to Pitt, and I just stayed here,” Jeff commented, in regards to Phantom of the Attic and the Oakland neighborhood. Since purchasing the original business, Jeff mentioned a few changes in Phantom’s location but all on Craig Street. The current location has been open since 2008. 

The relative hustle and bustle of being at the heart of a college community certainly brings Phantom of the Attic a lot of foot traffic, but Jeff notes that their location came sometimes be a detriment. 

“A problem we do have is we’re not on the first floor.” Sure enough, if you keep your eyes level and ahead, it’s easy to miss Phantom Games, located at the top of a staircase from the sidewalk. 

Even with the challenge of a second floor storefront however, Phantom Games capitalizes on its location. 

“What you can sell is dictated by your environment,” says Jeff. “We have a clientele that is diverse in their interests.” Tabletop gaming involves strategy, tactics, and above all else: imagination. Some of the brightest minds in the country regularly frequent the shops on Craig Street, and many stop in to see what Phantom Games has for sale. College students, professors, and campus administration alike all purchase games and comics from Phantom of the Attic. 

A view from the front of the store

Get 'em While They're Hot

I’ve had the pleasure of spending two afternoons at Phantom of the Attic recently, as part of Goodman Games’ Dungeon Crawl Classics World Tour. Living in a digital age, it’s wonderful to have a vibrant haven for gaming enthusiasts located in the heart of our city. Amidst all this technology, Jeff believes that 2016 is a “maddeningly brilliant time to be in the industry."

Tabletop board games are solid sellers for Phantom of the Attic, and availability from distributors can be a challenge for Jeff. 

“Which board games in particular?” I ask, in regards to the biggest sellers. 

“Whatever’s a 'hit', if we can get it,” Jeff says. “Supply's an issue."

A fantastic online review can actually make it hard for Jeff to find inventory for Phantom games, with every other retailer in the country dueling with online sellers for copies.  You wouldn't know it by looking at Jeff's inventory though.  All of the popular games from our local game club are on the shelves, and my wife picked up an expansion for Ticket to Ride while I was doing the interview.   

On the role-playing front, Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition is Phantom’s top selling product-line, followed by Fantasy Flight Games’ Star Wars. Jeff noted that Paizo’s Pathfinder sales, while decent, have definitely dropped off since 5th Edition's release. We spoke a bit about the previous edition of Dungeons & Dragons, to which Jeff blamed some of the sales difficulty on the poor economy of the late 2000’s. 

Back in 2008, Phantom of the Attic held a special midnight release of the D&D 4th Edition Players Handbook. According to Jeff, for those first few weeks “[D&D4E] came out of the stable like a crazed nightmare!” Sales for the product line soon dry up, however, and Jeff recalls 2008 and 2009 being the bleakest years for overall sales at Phantom of the Attic.  It wasn't just discord over the new edition hurting sales.  Pittsburgh gamers were just pinching pennies during the Great Recession.
Fortunately time have changed.

Aside from Wizards and FFG, you’ll actually find a myriad of other RPG products at Phantom of the Attic, with Jeff carrying just about every other contemporary title. Savage Worlds, Fate, Numenera, Mouse Guard, 13th Age, the list is incredibly long and varied, and Phantom’s new stock is hot and fresh. There’s also a large selection of gently used products for sale, carefully sorted by rules system. 

That’s where I did my first shopping in 2000 as a broke college student!


Fighting for the "Geekery Dollar"

From super hero movies to Star Wars, Phantom of the Attic is at the epicenter of a growing movement.

“There is a general swell in geek interest,” Jeff says.

Even still, like many other FLGS’s, Jeff has to deal with a lot of competition. Online retailers like and Barnes & Noble can undercut local game stores, offering products at impossibly low prices. Kickstarters are another source of competition, allowing gaming companies to skip distributors and retailers and deliver straight to the consumer. Even when a Kickstarter offers a retailer reward, the benefits are nebulous. 

“You need a cash flow to operate a business,” Jeff says. When Phantom of the Attic participates as a retailer in a Kickstarter campaign, Jeff’s return on investment may not come for several months or even years. “You need to stay liquid.”

You also need to stay ahead of trends, and Jeff has taken note of the rise of digital resources and PDF copies of gaming products so prevalent in Kickstarter campaigns. Through a company called Bit & Mortar, Phantom of the Attic can include, with purchase, free digital copies of many of their products, such as 13th Age and Lamentations of the Flame Princess. 

Indirectly, Jeff believes there is business pressure from other geek activities. From conventions to cosplay to services like Loot Crate, everyone is competing for Phantom clientele cash. 

“There’s more competition than ever for the geekery dollar.”

Crazy RPG selection!

Time to Play

Walking into this interview, I envisioned FLGS owners playing games nonstop, whether in the store or in their off hours. Jeff dispelled this myth.

"I don't game as much as people think I do."

Even with a store full of new and modern games, Jeff’s heart actually lies with historical war games. He still recalls his first war game, “1776”, purchased as a gift from his mother in 1976. A few years later some fellow war gamers introduced Jeff to Dungeons & Dragons. 

But even with the obvious time constraints of owning his own business, Jeff still manages to find some time to play board games and card games with friends. He admits that he is now “very super casual” when it comes to his gaming. 

“The last time I played an RPG it was ‘Villain Mission Force,’” Jeff says. Friend, game designer, and fellow Pittsburgher Scott Pyle game mastered the session, using Scott's own Super System rules set. 

Jen spending money!

Your Next Destination

Here's hoping for a lovely weekend, and if you're looking for something relaxing to do, why not stop by Oakland to visit the shops on Craig Street?  Jeff and the folks at Phantom of the Attic are ready to serve up slices of high-quality geek products. Whether you're interested in role-playing games like me, or any other manner of tabletop gaming, I'm pretty sure your experience will leave you very satisfied. 

Definitely make sure to spend some time with the incoming used books as well, as there is always a gem to be found in those stacks!

I'd like to thank Jeff Yandora and the staff at Phantom of the Attic for participating in this interview and letting me come visit the store. I appreciate Jeff's openness to participating in this project, especially since he is my guinea pig!

If you have an idea for another location for me to visit as part of the FLGS Quest 2016, please let me know!  Also, we'd love to hear your stories about other retailers in your area. 

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