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Chance Kirchhof of Critical Hit Games talks running a community-focused gaming store

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Owner of Critical Hit Games Chance Kirchhof -- photo by Britt Fowler
Owner of Critical Hit Games Chance Kirchhof — photo by Britt Fowler

Critical Hit Games is an Iowa City gaming store founded with the mission of being a gaming store with a community focus. I’ve been visiting pretty regularly since I first moved to the area a few years ago, and find it to be a great place to game in a fun and open environment. People can visit 702 S Gilbert St. to play card games and miniature games, or to check out their selection of board games. I stopped in to talk with Chance Kirchhof, who took over the store from Kate Hoynacki-Fry and Landon Fry last fall (who had in turn taken over from original owner Jerod Leupold in 2010). Kirchhof had taught with Iowa City schools but has long been an avid gamer, and was excited for the opportunity to pursue a career change that kept him involved in the community.

Is working in a school a little bit different from running a Friday Night Magic?

Not as much as you would think! A lot of similarities: a lot of behavior issues, classroom management, that sort of thing. Organization is key — making people feel safe and welcome, having things planned out ahead of time so people know what to expect, those are the similarities. There’s some differences as well; a lot less paperwork.

What do you think the role of a game store is in the community?

I think it’s twofold…we want to appeal to gamers of all ages, but it is important for people to feel they have a safe place to play, give their kids a place to come and engage in group activities that will keep them out of trouble and avoid those that aren’t as productive.

It also keeps people’s mind’s sharp. Competitive gaming is very important. You get to feel what it’s like to win, what it’s like to lose, what it’s like to compete — it doesn’t mean you have to go out and be cutthroat in your life, climb over people to get to the top, but it’s important to test yourself, test your mental skills, against other people and enjoy the results whatever they may be.

Photo by Britt Fowler
Photo by Britt Fowler

It’s an interesting atmosphere — you might see a pro gamer in here, for example Josh McClain, who plays professional Magic, or you might see a seven-year-old kid, sometimes at the same event, and people seem really friendly and open and willing to bring new people in, no matter what their experience level.

We want that. I try to reinforce…community leaders. Warmachine has one, Heroclix has one, etc.; someone who organizes all the events, whether a tournament or a league series. So if someone comes in, says, “I want to play Pokemon,” or whatever it might be, I immediately contact that person, say, “I have a new player interested,” and they immediately have that liaison, to welcome them to the group, let them know what the schedule is, what we do here…so they feel like they are wanted. Not just, “Well, we play Thursdays; show up or don’t.” More, “We want you to be here, here’s our group, here’s why it’s fun.”

Cool. And that seems to be working. What kind of games did you like as a kid?

Well, everyone probably remembers Axis & Allies — a military board game that took a whole weekend to play. There was a version they had that took place in feudal Japan called Shogun…my friends and I in high school would meet and play for the whole weekend. We’d load up on the Doritos and the Mountain Dew and that kind of stuff on Friday night and we didn’t finish until Sunday night. I really enjoyed Parcheesi, strangely enough — I used to play that with my great-grandmother a lot. When she first showed me I thought, “This is an old person’s game,” but I really got into it.

So, when we were kids, you sometimes had your indie game like Shogun, but you went to the store, you mainly see Parcheesi. Now you go to Target, you see Dominion, and Sheriff of Nottingham, and all these in-depth board games. How do you think gaming and the culture has changed over the last 10–20 years, and what is the gamer’s role in that?

I think gaming culture has been swept up in kind of a pop-culture revolution where you grew up in the ’80s, you were interested in D&D, or comic books, board games, that type of thing, you got stuffed in a locker for that kind of stuff. And all of those people have now grown up, we’re all in our thirties and forties and fifties. We kind of run the show, so to speak. You see that in the box office with all the super-hero films; comic books are legitimately considered one of the only true American art forms — comic books, Jazz, it’s a very short list.

Photo by Britt Fowler
Photo by Britt Fowler

So the game store doesn’t have to be a thing in the corner where the nerds go after school, but you can bring your kids there. We bring our kid here.

It wasn’t that long ago when parents were pushing to ban Magic from schools. They were concerned that it was bad for them, they were playing Magic or D&D, and it was a fantasy world…

With demons and angels…

Demons, exactly. And now we have parents that trust their kids to hang out here for a couple hours, sometimes they call ahead to order cards for their kids or whatever it may be. They’ll check in, “How’d they do? Did they behave?” but it’s completely accepted. People understand, like all these other games, [that] it’s something that will work your math skills, work your socialization skills, so people are overcoming all those prejudices. As well as those kids from the ’70s and ’80s growing up now and bringing it with them.

How do you see Critical Hit evolving in the next few years?

My business partner Wayne and I, we have plans. We want to continue with Critical Hit’s plan of community-based gaming. We do want to expand eventually, if not here, then to a larger place somewhere here in the Iowa City area. We don’t plan to move it away by any means. We want to host bigger events, regional events for games like Netrunner, Game of Thrones, Heroclix, things like that. We want more space, more staff, bigger events. And more school leagues. We peripherally support a City High Magic league. But they’re so busy during the school year, it’s kind of hit-or-miss. We want to solidify those sorts of things and have tournaments for state championships, get all the high schools in.

Get the different clubs from different schools to meet and play whatever their game is?

Exactly. To reinforce this notion of playing in a group, playing in a league — these are social games. We want to put these groups in front of each other; a big event could put them in friendly competition, meet like-minded people, grow the games, grow the community….

And those high schoolers, they’ll go off and get jobs, they’ll have incomes — not only will they be good customers, but they’ll care.

Exactly.

They won’t be jerks at the store, because it’s their store too.

They’ll have a vested interest. We want the adults here, too. The teachers and the bankers, we want them to come in, play games, provide good role models for the kids. We want them all here.

I’ve been coming here for a while, and I just love the music you put on. Maybe that dates me — but I’ll be sitting here and the Smiths will come on. I can play Magic to the Smiths all day. How do you approach the music?

One of the things Kate and I disagreed about — can’t say enough good things about my predecessors, they’re wonderful people, but we did disagree about music. She would usually play the music she liked, which makes sense, she’s here all day. Maybe it was eclectic, not necessarily to everyone’s tastes. When I started…I looked around: most of the people were about my age. Kids will come in, but they’re so visually stimulated with what they’re doing that music means less to them. It’s more for the older people. So I made a conscious decision to mainly play ’80s. I do have a list of ’90s. I have a list I’m working on now, a road trip, ’70s sort of thing. But I want to play music that people have positive connotations with. Gamers are often very well-adjusted — surprising to some — and they have fond memories, especially people our age. They grew up loving that stuff and now that nerd culture has become mainstream….

Yeah; They Might Be Giants is suddenly a well-known band.

People know and respect them. I run a summer camp in July with 14-year-old kids, and these guys love TMBG. They were born in 2002.

Mink Car era.

Exactly, and I bring up “Ana Ng,” the album Lincoln, and they’re like, “They’ve been around since the mid-’80s, they must be 1000 years old.” So that stuff, sometimes Def Leppard or Phil Collins, I play stuff that I enjoy, but that others will like, too. Sometimes we get requests, “That’s enough ’80s for now, can we shift decades?” And we do, it’s fine. The music was a conscious choice to fill our ears with good thoughts.

So DJ, teacher, sometime referee, purveyor of all sorts of goblins and cyborgs and strange things…

Goblins and cyborgs and apes.

Any other hats you have to put on?

Cleaner, sometimes. We’ve had people sick in the bathroom, have to deal with that. But we’ve got some summer help, now, so we can delegate.

James E. Trainor III has been an avid gamer since Mario first crawled out of a sewer pipe. When not drawing cards and tapping lands, he teaches acting for local youth groups. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 202.


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