When you step inside It’s Your Move Games on 49th Street and Telegraph Ave., you feel like you’ve been transported to a fantasy world.
The right side of the shop is lined with shelves stuffed with every kind of board game you can imagine, from classics like “Settlers of Catan” and “Risk” to obscure out-of-print titles such as “Stalin’s Tanks,” a 1980’s war game. The left side of the shop is stocked with an assortment of fantasy card games like “Magic: The Gathering” and “Pokemon,” as well as a shelf dedicated to roleplaying game books.
The roleplaying section is co-owner William Kreber-Mapp’s personal favorite, who fell in love with the cult classic RPG “Dungeons & Dragons” as a kid growing up in Kodiak Island, Alaska.
“There wasn’t any place like this. There was no game store where we could walk in and crack open and have the store owner explain to you how it works,” Kreber-Mapp said. “Whether you’re at school, work, or home, there’s stress in those places; everybody needs a third place like [It’s Your Move Games] where you can de-stress.”
Kreber-Mapp and his ex-wife Rue Mapp founded the store in 2003 with the intention of building a relaxing gaming environment. Their friend Sally Amsbury ran the store for six years before William returned in 2010 alongside co-owner Chris Specker. In addition to selling and renting games, the shop also hosts weekly community game nights and special events. Currently, It’s Your Move is hosting a youth summer camp program, where kids learn how to play card games and role-playing games. Events have helped keep the shop open during the pandemic.
“The majority of our business comes from events, and community members run the events,” Specker said. Some events like Scrabble club are a labor of love, while others, like Dungeons & Dragons, are pay-to-play.
As a lifelong RPG enthusiast, Kreber-Mapp said he feels that kids can learn valuable life skills from the intense fantasy campaigns that simulate life-or-death situations. “It’s getting people to look each other in the face, talk, joke, and face real-life moments together. In our society where everyone has their face pressed to their phone all the time, we’re losing that [community building skill].”
Volunteers run most of the gaming events and some, like Aaron Waters, have transitioned into being part-time employees.
“When they first opened, they ran commercials on the science fiction channel and Comedy Central because they figured that would cover most of their audience,” Waters laughed.
After visiting once, Waters never left. The East Bay native grew up playing board games but often drove to San Francisco because there weren’t many tabletop games stores in the area. “Here we’re always running gaming events and we try and get people involved so they’re not just standing around watching other people,” Waters said. “We try to be inclusive.”
While they do sell games in-store and via their online service, the shop’s business model can seem more like a community hub than an actual business. Sometimes this entails taking care of customers in ways that go beyond gaming. For example, as Specker was speaking to The Oaklandside, a child enrolled in the D&D summer camp walked up to her and asked if she had any gauze; the kid’s baby tooth had just fallen out.
“80% of the time it’s amazing,” Specker laughed. “It’s this chaotic, happy, just cool environment.”
The store also serves as a UPS delivery site and they started offering the service during the early days of the pandemic to bring in some extra revenue. Most of the people who get deliveries sent there live in Temescal and this is a way that newer residents are discovering this neighborhood staple.
Gaming had always been a lifelong passion for both Specker and Kreber-Mapp, but it was never supposed to help pay the bills. Kreber-Mapp had worked a multitude of jobs in Alaska, San Francisco, and Oakland before the idea of starting a game store ever materialized. He was a cannery worker, a commercial fisherman, a deck hand on a boat, a domestic assistant, and even a sous chef, and a line cook.
”I had this desire to experience as much stuff as possible,” Kreber-Mapp said. “In 2003 I got into an industrial accident, and I had to figure out something to do because I wasn’t able to work a regular job. Rue and I had talked about it, put some money aside, and got this space and opened it up as It’s Your Move Games.”
As the years went on, it became more and more apparent to Kreber-Mapp and Specker that they had to double down on the community aspect of the store. Specker started by increasing the size of their gaming library and including more games from local makers.
“You can get all this stuff online now and we’re not going to compete with Amazon with Catan or Monopoly,” Specker said.
The increased game library also gave them a bigger inventory for rentals and in-store gaming.
Before Specker joined as co-owner she worked as a real estate agent and was a member of the Green Party.
Specker had already been an avid customer of It’s Your Move Games and attended because she didn’t find most of the Bay Area’s gaming spaces to be welcoming or diverse. “I went to a few game stores and there were no good stores for women who wanted to do role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons. it was all men,” Specker said. The sexism and also racism prevalent in the tabletop gaming industry is nothing new.
“Female game designers have faced a lot of discrimination, and people of color in the gaming world have faced a lot of issues,” Specker said. “I think because of my experience having to search for those few welcoming spaces, it’s really important to have our space be welcoming.”
Bill Huang, an Oakland native who has been volunteering at the store for the past year, joined the store’s gaming community because of Specker’s welcoming attitude. “When I was growing up in Oakland Chinatown, there was this place where I would hang out with my friends and play video games but it’s long been shut down,” Hong said.
Specker said that it’s important to her and Kreber-Mapp that the store isn’t just for North Oakland locals, but for everyone living in Oakland who loves to play games. Most of their outreach happens through local schools and they also advertise their business in the Pink Pages, an LGBTQ business directory. “It’s really important for this space to be welcoming,” Specker said, “and we have to work to try and bring all these communities together.”
Huang daylights as a software designer, but it’s clear that his true passion lies in working at the store and helping to strengthen the community that Specker, Kreber-Mapp, and the previous owners had worked so hard to build. “I’m just here to do my part,” Huang said.