Game theory: if it’s old, it’s sold

by Allison Keene

At Games Unlimited in Squirrel Hill, you can find Scrabble, Settlers of Catan, Dungeons and Dragons cards and even a Hebrew version of Banana Grams. What you won’t find is a video game.

Since he opened the store in 1976, Games Unlimited owner Bob Schwartz has survived the booms and depressions of the gaming industry and discovered the perfect recipe for keeping its doors open: no technology.

“The only screen we sell here is an Etch-a-Sketch,” says manager Kylie Prymus.

Games Unlimited boasts an impressive collection of board games, party games and puzzles from around the world. Prymus says the most popular sellers are EuroGames, which are complicated multi-player board games such as Settlers of Catan and Pandemic.

The small store is packed with rickety wood slat shelving Schwartz took from a failed business. The heavily scratched wood and glass display cases hail from a downtown jewelry store. None of the furniture has changed since 1976. It and Schwartz, the original owner, are fixtures in the store.

Schwartz and his business partners renovated the space themselves, which itself has quite a colorful past. The goal, Schwartz said, was to save as much money as possible for the fledgling business.

“We took a butcher shop, which was what this was, with blood and live chickens running around, and turned it into the store,” Schwartz said. “What I learned was that we had to do this cheap. Every penny has to go to the games.”

Employee Kylie Prymus poses in the shop.  Photo by Alyssa Kramer

Employee Kylie Prymus poses in the shop.
Photo by Alyssa Kramer

If the counters are a little scratched, the customers are too busy looking at the game selection to notice.

Pittsburgh natives Peggy and John Nikolajsk are surprised by the number of games packed into the small store. John doesn’t think it’s possible for a store to survive just selling games.

“I thought [Games Unlimited] would be video games,” John says. “I’m surprised it isn’t. I never thought of a store devoted to games – and games I never heard of.” He gestured at the bookshelf dividing the party games section of the store from the EuroGames, where Prymus is helping another customer find a birthday gift for his niece.

Prymus selects a board game off the shelf and offers it to the customer, leaving a box-shaped hole in the jigsaw puzzle of the stacked games. The customer smiles and heads towards the cash register.

“It’s like a candy store,” John says.

According to Prymus, who is set to take over ownership of the store next year, Games Unlimited used to sell video games very successfully, but fluctuations in the market forced them to abandon the product. Now, they specialize in board and party games only.

The last time Games Unlimited sold video games was in 1983, when Atari released the console game Extra Terrestrial. The game

sold so miserably that Schwartz said the entire video game industry nearly failed.

“When that cartridge came out, the whole industry went belly-up,” Schwartz said.

After facing severe financial trouble and closing down two stores, Schwartz decided to only sell board games. He believes this decision saved the business.

According to Peggy, a store devoted entirely to board games is an “old-fashioned idea,” but one that encourages conversation between the players. John agrees, adding that board games offer more opportunity for conversation than video games.

“Some of our best conversations with our grandson happen over meals and games,” John says. “I don’t see that happening with video games.”

For Prymus and Schwartz, gamers’ desire to socialize is what keeps their niche business successful. Customers come to Games Unlimited because they want to socialize with people who love games..

“They come here to find a game to play with friends,” Prymus says.

Prymus joined the game industry to turn a passion into a career. A former video game critic for Joystick Magazine and doctoral candidate at Duke University, Prymus specialized in the ethics of online communities, particularly video games.

Unable to find a teaching job and “after a few years of banging my head against the wall,” Prymus decided he needed a change.

He became Schwartz’s apprentice at Games Unlimited in 2011 and switched his interests from video games to board games. He says the drawback of video games is that they are not a social activity and require high skill levels.

“Nowadays, video games are so complicated. You can’t sit Grandma down on the couch and play,” Prymus says. “People want to sit in the same room. They want to play together.”

Having spent much of his college years in board game clubs and informal gaming nights, Schwartz is passionate about board games. When he graduated from Duquesne University in 1969 with a degree in business administration, however, he worked in the retail departments of Chrysler Motors and Gimbels Department Store.

After working for a decade in “a room with an adding machine,” Schwartz decided it was time to pursue his passion as a career. Games Unlimited allowed him and three friends from Duquesne, Fred Voelker, Tom Rogan and Frank Carrol, to turn games into a profession, Schwartz said.

“It was a feeling that we could do better in life and that it was time to do something we liked,” Schwartz says, smiling and shaking his head. “There was nothing like this; our parents told us we were crazy, and they still do.”

According to Prymus, Schwartz’s gamble affected the gaming industry both in Pittsburgh and nationally.

Schwartz consistently relays customer requests to manufacturers, facilitating new products and serving customers’ needs. One such product is large-piece puzzles for older customers that line the back wall of the store. According to Prymus, they didn’t exist before Schwartz called manufacturers and asked for them.

When Games Unlimited first opened, Schwartz said it was a leading player in the developing video game field, selling such industry legends as PacMan and the Atari game system.

Schwartz attributes Games Unlimited’s success over three decades in the fluctuating gaming industry to luck and good timing.

Schwartz’s first bestselling item was Dungeons and Dragons in 1978. A customer’s suggestion inspired Schwartz to carry the game two years before other mainstream game stores, a success that eventually led them to become a Dungeons and Dragons distributor.

He mirrored that success in later years with Trivial Pursuit and Rubik’s Cube, which he stocked before they became popular. Schwarz said at one point he was selling “100 [Rubik’s cubes] a day,” but he was unimpressed by his own success.

“It’s the luck factor of having products that people want,” Schwartz said, shrugging his shoulders. He adjusted his gray, frayed baseball cap and sat back on his wooden stool.

According to Prymus, Games Unlimited’s success is due entirely to Schwartz’s dedication and knowledge of the industry. He says Schwartz is a skilled veteran of the gaming business and responsible for its success in Pittsburgh.

“He single-handedly changed the industry,” Prymus says.