As a secondary school student in the ‘80s, there was little on Orchard Road and its environs to interest me. Most of Orchard Road was supermarkets or hair salons. There were bookstores, but one could only browse for so long.
Somewhere during that time, a shop appeared that became a haven and attained an almost mystic quality to students and other young men searching for something different. Selling comics and more importantly, hobby games, the shop acquired a semi-mythical reputation. These “hobby games” and collectibles, despite the mundane terms, aren’t the everyday games or toys that populate the shelves of department stores, but more complicated undertakings that require a certain level of commitment, strategic thinking and, some might say, obsession with detail, to master.
Leisurecraft, run by the mercurial Mr. and Mrs. Wong, had its first incarnation at Stamford Road, before moving into Orchard Road itself. Though it largely dabbled in comics, which were undergoing a boom primarily because of their supposed investment value, it also carried a selection of games that were an evolutionary leap from the Monopoly or Risk board games you would find in department stores.
The games the store carried were a mix of board games and role-playing games. In the latter, you took up the role of the hero, rather than just reading or watching it. There were RPGs set in Middle-Earth, Tolkien’s fantasy world, as well as Hyboria (the setting of Robert E. Howard’s Conan) and even in the Star Wars Universe.
I remember staring at the clear plastic and scotch taped wrapped books wondering what awaited within. The notoriety that some of the games have, such as Dungeons and Dragons with its rumour of Satan-worship, only heightened their attraction.
“Leisurecraft was around in the ‘80s, and as schoolboys few of us could afford their wares. The few who did bought conservatively. Board games were not as advanced as they are now, miniature tabletop games were still restricted to historical settings, and RPGs were more popular,” recalls Grey Yuen, a dedicated gamer.
The shop was to gamers what a good music store was to a music aficionado. It was the rarest of things; a shop where one belonged.
Over the years, the shop developed a loyal clientele, but the Wongs sold it off and are said to have moved to Canada. It moved to Midpoint Orchard in the 1990s.
Ten years ago, after it had morphed into a store called Ground Zero, the current owners took over and renamed it Paradigm Infinitum (PI). The name of the shop is a nod to the multiple paradigms or universes of the games that the shop carries, and PI has managed to survive despite new challenges such as online piracy, eBay and online discount game shops.
In that same decade, numerous other game shops have come and gone on the local scene – even one at Plaza Singapura set up by Games Workshop, the British manufacturer of some of the most popular games and figures worldwide. Comics-Mart, a former stalwart of the local game scene, practically disappeared overnight a few years back, and is still much-missed and mourned.
PI appears to be still growing strong, and the fabled “game store in Orchard” is a place that fully embraces the geek, well before it was fashionable to do so.
Midpoint Orchard is a scrappy shopping centre that seems unfazed by the frantic construction of neighbouring malls like 313 Somerset and Orchard Central opposite. PI has recently expanded from one corner unit to occupy twice the original shop space, while the building’s other tenants include a store selling winterwear all year round, one selling sexual aids (there used to be two), numerous hair salons, a real estate training centre and an electronics shop.
When you walk into PI, the games are handsomely displayed, and there are glass shelves where you can view the intricately painted figures used in a number of the games, such as Warmachine or WH40k. While some games are the size of briefcases, others are more compact. Mixed in with esoteric titles like Sentinels of the Multiverse and Miskatonic School for Girls are card games spun off from more mainstream brands such as Angry Birds, Uno and Monopoly.
But this is no mere shop. Compared to the gaudy, showy and closed-in interiors of most Orchard Road stores, there’s plenty of room to breathe. Ranged in front of the shelves are large, nondescript tables where gamers can sit down, paint miniatures or play a game. There’s even a bunch of gym lockers to one side of the shop, which patrons can hire to store their games and miniatures. Come by at night or on the weekend and you’ll find a bunch of gamers, many still in their office attire, rolling dice, joking and having a good time. Various nights are devoted to certain games, such as Tuesday for A Game of Thrones, while weekends are free-for-alls.
You’re also likely to bump into the owner of PI, Damien Chua (no relation to the author). Also known as Bear to the regulars, his business card bears the words “El Presidente or Lead Tyrant”. (“When government agencies see the title Lord Tyrant, they wonder how the hell they should address you,” he says.) Chua started out with role-playing games when he was in Primary 3, beginning with Basic Dungeon and Dragons. He was a customer at Leisurecraft and credits the store with kickstarting his interest in the hobby – one that became a business when, at the age of 28, he took over the shop with two partners.
The shop’s legendary status is both a boon and a curse. “I cannot move anywhere,” he says. “The legacy cost of moving out is too difficult.” Fortunately for him, the gaming business is still going strong. Board games have undergone a renaissance in the past few years, with the appearance of board game cafes in Singapore and television series on board games on YouTube (including the new Tabletop, featuring American TV personalities and unabashed geeks Felicia Day and Wil Wheaton). The games earn a fiercely loyal following and, with collectible card games and miniature wargaming, make up the core of PI’s business. A few years ago, a second PI shop opened at Fusionopolis.
Running PI has been an uphill task and a lesson in the school of hard knocks. Relying on any one game or type of game could be a fatal decision for the business. Chua recalls how a game line he stocked went from a base of 60 players to almost none after an expansion gutted the game. He also attributes the often lacklustre sales of role-playing game products to the complicated setup needed for a game, with a Games Master who oversees, creates and administers the campaign, and multiple players. If one person cancels, the game is unlikely to proceed, ruining everyone’s plans, Chua explains. Compared to MMORPGs such as World of Warcraft or Skyrim that give instant gratification, it’s far more troublesome to set up a face-to-face game.
Despite the close ties he’s developed with the local gaming community, as both a gamer and a business owner, Chua is all too aware that “you cannot let it remain as a hobby if you run a shop. This has been rammed down my throat by other storeowners,” he says. So he has gradually expanded his interest in and knowledge of the other games that he sells, to the point where he now knows at least a little bit about almost all the games that the store offers. That’s no mean feat, considering that PI stocks 15,000 different items (and if you can’t find something in the store, he might be able to locate it in his warehouse).
Unsurprisingly, the core group of PI’s customers are men aged 20 to 30, though there are a growing number of female gamers as well.
Most gamers got into the hobby when they were in secondary school but as adults they tend to drop out, particularly when they get married. Chua recommends, in all seriousness, that his married customers bring their wives down to the shop so that they can see what’s going on. “Seeing them roll dice and shout at other men once a week, as opposed to the alternative of KTVs and bars, I’m sure they can get permission from their wives to come back,” he says.
As gamers have matured, so have their tastes. Chua says there are plenty of gamers with their own gaming dens in their homes, where they “drink some wine and roll dice.” However, the store has always emphasized itself as a venue for gamers, and both newbies and old blood that have been around since the store’s Leisurecraft days can still be seen playing games or painting miniatures.
In 2007, Chua and his partners were inspired to start SPORE Con, a convention dedicated to hobby games. Although they lose money on the event every year, they still continue to organise it. This will be the fifth year of the convention, with gamers coming from all around the region and the occasional game creator popping by on 26 and 27 May. The Con is a casual affair, at first held at Choa Chu Kang Community Club and now at Pasir Ris East Community Club. Admission is free, it has a cosy, laidback feel, which suits Chua well, and there is a focus on introducing games to new gamers. To him, it makes a “you are not alone kind of statement”. “You can make new friends or sit at your own table and play your games,” he adds.
It is that balance of keeping old customers happy while drawing new people to hobby games that keeps Chua on his toes.
To help him, at present PI has a staff of 16, a number that leaves Chua looking a little confounded on how the store has grown to such a headcount. The staff are generally knowledgeable about the games, but with the sheer number of games it’s hard to know everything.
Adan Jimenez, who joined PI as Marketing and Merchandising Manager last December is also known as the comic man. He says of the shop, “A lot of people think we only cater to those kinds of gamers who have been playing for years and already know what they want, but that's totally not true.”
Jimenez says the staff is knowledgeable and can help people who are just starting to play board games or card games or RPGs, or even tabletop games like Warhammer Fantasy/40k or Warmachines/Hordes. Or even just people looking to get something for the gamer in their life.” According to him, staff often get into spirited discussions about which version of a game is better, with things becoming more heated when they talk about which army in WH40k, one of the store’s most popular products, is better.
Ten years from now, Chua hopes that the store can be “more like Forbidden Planet”, a chain of hobby stores in the UK that cater to games, comics and related merchandise. He hopes to open a few more stores in Singapore and for PI to expand regionally. Most of all, Chua would like to sustain a “shut up and take my money” shopping experience, he says with a laugh.
Undoubtedly, as I step into the store, I get the kid-in-a-candy-store feeling, even though I rarely have time to play, I still do purchase the odd game or two, if only to admire the material or even the mechanics. It is somewhat akin to purchasing a watch to look at its ticking insides.
For longtime customers of PI (and its predecessors) like Alvin Chong, their hopes – and affection – for PI are more straightforward. “I think it's the location – it's in the middle of town but it's pretty much stayed the same, with the same soul, in the same somewhat seedy building,” says Chong. “It's as if everything around it will change, like Emerald Hill next door, but it will stay as it is, somehow, forever.”
Words Dave Chua
Images David Ee