by Lorie Lewis Ham
Board and card games have become more popular again over the last several years. People want to do things together with friends and family in real life, not just on the computer. Interestingly, a lot of people during the pandemic even started playing board and card games on Zoom as a way to feel like they were together with people they couldn’t see in person.
Jennifer and Scott Ward opened Crazy Squirrel Games and Toys in Fresno in 2010. After the first couple of years, Jennifer took over the running of the store completely. Recently, KRL took a moment to chat with Jennifer about Crazy Squirrel, and what it has been like for them during the pandemic.
KRL: What inspired the opening of the store?
Jennifer: I previously worked at The Fresno Bee, but was debating leaving to get my master’s and pursue a college teaching career. After a couple years of debate, I finally quit that job (AME for Online Media), but then out of the blue a week later my husband was laid off from his job.
So, frankly, we panicked for a couple of weeks. Here we were two professionals and then suddenly both unemployed. Clearly, I wasn’t going to be able to afford going back to school. So he started sending out resumes (this was back in the recession of 2010, remember) and I started prepping my very first independent business plan. We’d been avid gamers and I knew I was going to need an extremely challenging job. Those two things converged and eventually we had a plan for Crazy Squirrel.
Our mission as a store: helping you have fun with family and friends. We’d much rather you get the right game for your group than the most expensive game.
KRL: What all do you carry?
Jennifer: We carry a wide range of mostly analog games; we added toys in 2019 when we moved to our new location (still in Fresno, just moved 2.5 miles to a better location and building). That means we have things such as Ticket to Ride, Pandemic (yes, it’s a game — and game out more than 10 years ago, but is still very popular), Melissa & Doug toy products and Squishables. We also have a wide range of role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons. And card games such as Magic and Pokemon.
KRL: Can everything be purchased online as well?
Jennifer: You can buy just about everything we have in stock on shopthesquirrel.com. We offer in-store and curbside pickup on everything and shipping on most things.
KRL: Have you noticed board games becoming more popular over the last several years? If yes, why do you think that has happened?
Jennifer: Board games have seen a lot of growth in America over the past 10 or 15 years, but the past five have just been an explosion of games and gaming in general — even throughout the pandemic. There’s a new style of gaming — different from what those of us who grew up in the ’70s and ’80s are used to. They tend to be about an hour, and have a little luck but also a lot of strategy. They’ve moved away from the “once you start losing, you know you’re doomed to fail” and have found more of a balance so that all of the players can usually enjoy the entire game. Plus, we’re seeing a lot of parents come in who are excited to get their kids into gaming — and it’s a fantastic way to spend some quality time together as a family or with friends.
We’re also seeing a lot of new role players, especially in Dungeons & Dragons. A new edition came out a couple of years ago (5th edition) and it’s really generated a lot of excitement among gamers. They get excited and then get their friends and family into the game. And we’ve seen a lot of that continue via online games during the pandemic.
We’re seeing libraries embrace gaming, offering game days or D&D games (note: we do some programs with the Fresno County Library).
In addition, we’re finding more “gameschooling” programs — homeschoolers who embrace using games as part of their education. Because, sure, games are fun, but a lot of them are also educational. One of the most popular games in 2019 was named Wingspan and it was all about birds — in fact, you could learn a lot about all kinds of birds just by playing the game (that game’s designer Elizabeth Hargrave released a name game named Mariposas last year and it’s all about the lifespan of Monarch butterflies).
I think people were just looking for fun ways to enjoy the company of others.
KRL: What are some of your most popular games?
Jennifer: I’ve mentioned a few, but here’s some more:
– Ticket to Ride: we consider this a great “gateway game.” You’re building railways throughout a country (the first one is the USA) and earning points by connecting cities assigned randomly to you. There’s now several versions and expansions for this game.
– Dungeons & Dragons: D&D launched in the late ’70s and is now in its 5th edition. You play fantasy characters adventuring throughout the land, usually being heroic. The big draw is you can try on all kinds of different character types (anything from a sword-wielding fighter to the glib bard or the healing cleric) and personalities. We find it’s a great way to explore parts of your personality.
– Pandemic: Yes, there really is a game named Pandemic. It’s co-operative, so you and the other people playing are working together to save the world from a pandemic. You each have a special role. Co-op games have been on the rise in recent years and offer a great opportunity for gaming without getting overly competitive. For younger gamers or gaming families, we usually suggest Forbidden Island. You’re trying to rescue items from an island sinking into the ocean by all working together.
– Pokemon: HUGE resurgence in this classic card game during the last year. Same thing for Magic: The Gathering.
KRL: What things have you done to help survive the pandemic?
Jennifer: We were fortunate to receive two PPP loans, helping us keep as many hours in payroll as possible. We also started our new online shopping site shopthesquirrel.com. We changed product lines a bit, bringing in more puzzles to help get through the slump is an example.
There were also a few publishers out there who provided brick & mortar stores product at no- or low-cost. That was incredibly helpful and I know we’ll be stocking those products even more because of the relationship we’ve developed with some of those companies.
And while we couldn’t run events in the store, we did offer online events for a while. One popular thing we did was bring back was our “garage sale,” but made it a virtual event where buyers reserved a time and we video-walked them through the sales floor.
Now we’re starting to think forward — we’re doing some small upgrades, for example. We’re taking a look at our event offerings (we’ll start offering in-store events after our entire team and their household members have been vaccinated since they’ve all indicated they want to be). Things will be different for quite a few months, but we want to make sure we find the balance between safety, fun, and business survival.
KRL: Can you tell us more about the virtual events, and will those continue as things get safer for in person events?
Jennifer: We’ve tested out a few things, the most popular was how we re did our garage sale. We had people bring in their items for sale at least 3 days before the sale and created an online form for them to more easily label those games. Then we sold reservations for video calls — so we could walk customers through the items available without having to be in the store. Turned out (once we got over a technical hurdle) to be really popular. We’ll continue the reserved times once we do another one (I’m working on a date now) because it really helped, especially for those who couldn’t physically make it to the store.
We’re also going to maintain shopthesquirrel.com and will keep up curbside pick up requests as well as shipping. Those are two easy things that also make it easy for others. For example, curbside is so much easier for a parent who has multiple kids in the car and just wants something quick and easy. And with the geographic area of the Central Valley, shipping just makes sense.
And we’ll continue doing a lot of the video streaming we started. We had purchased the equipment right before COVID, but hadn’t really used it as much as we should have. Now we’ve got that experience to continue getting better at it.
And we’ve always prided ourselves on the cleanliness of our store. Now we’ll just have even more hand sanitizer available for everyone.
KRL: During normal times, what are some of the things you offer in your store for your customers?
Jennifer: During normal times, we have a packed events calendar. Usually something every day. When we moved, we built in some private gaming rooms.
We were running about 150 people a week through D&D games
Magic and Pokemon tournaments
We held giant regional events for games such as X-Wing (a miniature game where you build a team of various Star Wars ships and their pilots)
Thursday board game nights
Our annual 24- or 25- hour gaming marathon to raise money for Valley Children’s Hospital via Extra Life.
Working with Central Valley Gaymers, a group for LGBTQ+ and allies
Honestly, losing the ability to safely run events during the pandemic has been one of the biggest hits of the last year — not only the revenue lost, but the fact that the staff and I are so used to having the community and people in the store at all open hours. We missed the sound of people really having a great time.
KRL: What are you most excited to get back to in the store as things get safer?
Jennifer: Ha! The honest business side of me: getting back to making profit. We moved in 2019 and took on some debt for our new build out. I’d really like to get that paid down. The gamer/owner side of me: getting events back. One of the great things of having a game room is getting to see our customers enjoy the products they’ve just purchased. I miss that.
KRL: Where can we find you online?
KRL: Where are you located?
Jennifer: 7711 N 1st St
Fresno CA 93720
The SW corner of 1st & Nees
KRL: Anything that you would like to add?
Jennifer: I just encourage everyone to try to spend some of their hobby dollars at local stores. Business is tough in the best of years, but 2020 presented challenges none of us were ready for. There are some great stores in the Valley and they’re working hard to be successful.
Also, I was recently named the Retail Division chair of GAMA (gama.org) — that’s the international trade organization for game publishers, distributors, and retailers (really anyone in the industry). One thing that means is I’m talking with retailers all the time around the world about what’s going on (the other thing that means is I have even more work than I did before!).
Check out Crazy Squirrel’s website and social media to keep up with upcoming events!