A Pilgrimage to Gaming Mecca

I refer to a trip I undertook, braving the crossing of the mighty Hudson River, from New Jersey into the borough of Manhattan, to visit what has been the centerpoint of gaming in the greater New York City area for nigh on three decades or more; the Compleat Strategist.

When I was growing up in the 1970’s and early 1980’s, the Compleat Strategist was a mind-blowing experience for me. I coaxed and conned my mother into taking me on a regular basis (usually agreeing to also visit the Museum of Natural History in the same trip– very much of a cheat, since I loved going there as well). I purchased my first real wargame there (Invasion America), and was a steady customer of both wargames and, later, RPGs, at both the main store at 11 East 33rd Street (I still have the address memorized, which is a real feat considering my normally-atrocious memory for such things) and the store in Montclair, NJ. I actually worked in the Boston store after college in the early 1990’s. But it was that store, mere steps from the Empire State Building, that always held a soft spot in my heart.

I’d not made the time to visit it in more than a decade myself, and with some time off from work, I and one of my friends from the game I run (as well as one of the more fanatical and enthusiastic Ogre Miniatures players) hopped the train into Manhattan and, after encouraging him to his first true “dirty water dog”, brought him to the Strategist. It helped that the temperature, even in late November, was edging towards 70 degrees.

This is less than a quarter of the actual store, tightly
packed but with treasures on every shelf.

This, my friends, is what a real game store should be like. It occupies a narrow NYC storefront, and is quite literally packed from floor to ceiling with games of every type. Not just the newest and hottest stuff; they’ve accumulated things over the decades that even the staff don’t realize is on the shelves (although one of the staff was nearly encyclopedic in his knowledge of what was where, and they were all friendly and helpful in the extreme).

The newest stuff is between knee and slightly-above-eye level. And there is TONS of it. Games, modules, miniatures, paints, magazines, cards, supplements for a hundred games I’ve never even heard of. There is a wealth of older stuff near the floor and on the top shelves, as well. Stuff from the early 1990’s (and some even earlier) that’s still in the shrink-wrap because it’s been on the shelf since it first came out. I’m talking Starfleet Battles, Advanced Squad Leader, Lost Worlds…

The OSR is more than well represented, too. Castles and Crusades had a very decent piece of shelf space, as did Labyrinth Lord and a number of other products I recognized and was greatly heartened to see. My previous FLGS couldn’t even special order this stuff, but the Strategist has it on a shelf at eye level.

Plus they have wargames. Not just what passes for wargames today with either plastic or metal miniatures (although they had those too) but real, honest-to-goodness hex-and-counter wargames. And they carry the version of Strategy & Tactics magazine that actually has the game inside the magazine, unlike the version carried in Barnes & Nobel (which is still good, but sans ludi). It was like being transported back to 1977. Except for the prices of said magazine (ouch!).

I ended up picking up a solo game from a company of which I’d never heard, DVG, called Field Commander: Rommel. My friend picked up a pair of games, Discworld and Ivanhoe. They all look like fun, and I’m particularly looking forward to breaking out Rommel on those long blissful winter afternoons when the wife and daughter are off on some mission or other.

Just about the only thing they’re lacking is space to play games, but in this environment, that seems natural. This is a place to browse and peruse and buy. [EDIT: Apparently there is gaming space in the back room and below. All the better!]

We had completely lost track of time, and when we emerged it turned out that we had spent two and a half hours in the store, blissfully unaware of the time, pouring through the old and new stuff on the shelves. We followed up with a long but enjoyable walk to the Strand Bookstore down in Greenwich Village (which boasts 18 miles of bookshelves, and somehow manages to discount even new books), with a brief detour to the comic store Forbidden Planet (which, I am reliably informed, also has a shop in Leeds).

All in all, this was a terrific day, and the terrific selection of the Strategist, combined with the really helpful and knowledgeable staff (even if they hadn’t ever heard of “The Emperor Must be Told” by Victory Point Games… ahem…) made this an enormously pleasurable trip I’m eager to repeat.

Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

21 thoughts on “A Pilgrimage to Gaming Mecca

  1. I haven't made a trip to The Complete in years. It used to be a monthly trip at the very least.

    I really should go again soon. Might even tempt my son away from his computer with the gaming jungle available for him to peruse.

    Forbidden Plant isn't the same since they changed locations years ago.

    I avoid the Strand, as it is like a spacial and temporal warp when one is in there 😉

  2. Northy: As Tenkar said, Forbidden Planet's not the same since they moved across the street (still head and shoulders above most comic book stores I'm familiar with, though). Sorry for flubbing the town– at least I knew it started with "L"!

  3. It's nice to see game stores that have been in business for so long. The first game store I went to "The Little Tin Soldier" in Minneapolis, MN is no longer around. But I have great memories of going there.

  4. Nice write-up. I believe that there is a small space for role-playing off to one side through a door which eventually leads to the bathroom and a stockroom. In addition, I believe that they have a basement space where a wargaming club meets and plays.

    Like you, I am always amazed by their quantity and diversity of stock, both new and old. Did they still have the old "Vor: the Maelstrom" boxed set, circa 1999?

    Sometimes one can get lucky and find that they are blowing out some old stock, like about 8 years ago when they dumped their Warzone and Void stuff after both games' respective companies went out of business for the second time.

    Other times, not so much (see the aforementioned Vor boxed set, still retailing for the original MSRP last time I checked a few years ago).

    I'm glad you had a good experience with their staff. Unfortunately, I can't say that I have had the same.

  5. mksiebler: Can you be specific? It's always been my experience with every store I've ever heard of that they will act on reports of their customers being ill-treated by the staff. (And not just game stores.)

    I can personally attest to that in no less than three occasions. And every time, it's made the store a better place. If you had a bad experience at the Strategist, let the management know.

  6. I try to get to CS every other visit to NYC (and preferably, every trip when possible 😀 ): it's a fabulous trove of wonderful stuff which I would undoubtedly buy more of if I wasn't usually always flying home (bulky board/war games get squashed in checked luggage…).


  7. All I can say is very cool. Having never been to New York I would never have thought of them being there. When I finally do make the pilgrimage there I have another place to visit. Thank you for sharing this.

  8. I've been a Compleat Strategist regular since I was 14 (never you mind how long ago that was! It was a long time ago, OK? Sheesh).

    The place has been a second home for me throughout the years and at one time or another I'm been there for good times and bad with the owner and staff (and vice versa).

    Worked at Forbidden Planet when they had an upper-midtown location near Bloomingdales, even serving as Asst. Manager for a while.

    The Planet is indeed more of a Comic Book and Toy place then a haven for gamers but the art book section holds endless inspiration.

    Love live the Strat!

    Come on a Saturday and check the back room. You'll probably see my group playing back there.

  9. It's great to know they're still around! I'd love to go back there, in a weird life-circle sort of way. It has been too long.

    Thanks for the memories.

  10. I haven't been there in years. I used to go to TCS in Montclair. That's where I bought Man-to-Man, and got started on what is now GURPS.

    I remember buying some minis at the NY TCS but I can't remember which ones, now. Every time I go to NYC I want to stop there, but my non-gaming companions are never that into it.

  11. DVG is Dan Verssen Games, and Dan has been in the gaming business for a while. He is probably best known for his earlier games published with GMT Games, including the Down in Flames series, as well as Hornet Leader and Thunderbolt / Apache Leader.

  12. I used to go to The Compleat Strategist every Thursday (payday) during my lunch hour when I worked on West 34th Street. One of the things I miss about living in NYC. 🙁

  13. I lived in NYC for most of the 90s and never realized that the Compleat Strategest was even there. But then I was not much in a gaming mood back then. Still, I used to go to The Strand and Forbidden Planet at its old location on B'way and …10th? Maybe 11th? It was between Union Square and the old Tower Records, as I recall. Never much for the dirty water dogs, my street food of choice was usually a pretzel and a packet of those cloyingly sweet-smelling but oh so delicious honey roasted peanuts.

  14. While the Stat is a nice store as far as stock goes I think they are missing a few things. For starters they do have a space for gaming but don't open it up very often. I think open gaming is essential to building a gaming community, which Is essential to a game store.

    Secondly. They simply aren't very friendly. They aren't rude, but they never go out of their way to talk to you. Now maybe they figure they've been around long enough that they don't have to put effort in, which may be true, but meh.

    I still support them and buy from them when I can, but there is a new store in the area. Twenty Sided over in Brooklyn (Williamsburg off the Bedford L stop, only the first stop after 1st ave for those of you who would never think of leaving manhattan : p). It was opened earlier this year but a young couple and is doing GREAT. They have tons of tables for gaming and a good selection of product that is still growing, and they will order anything for you. They are super friendly and talkative and do their best to make you welcome and comfortable.

    Check it out! http://www.twentysidedstore.com

  15. I so want to go there!

    We have nothing of consequence in my area, and it's over 100 miles to the nearest large (-ish) city where the offerings are still only so-so.

    You are very fortunate to have such a place nearby.

  16. I know this comment comes late – very late – but it made my day. The Compleat Strategist was the very first gaming store I ever visited, during my very first visit to the US. I was living in Argentina at the time, and the time, and got gaming materials from Wargames West (awesome company; wish they still existed), and one bookstore that brought stuff rarely, and at hyper-inflated prices. This was back in 1993, when RPG's were still (I believe) a nascent hobby in Argentina and South America in General. My father likes to tell the story that the moment I walked into the store, this big goofy grin drew itself on my face and I almost fell to my knees with joy and awe. As you well called it, I had just made my pilgrimage to Mecca.

    Your post made it all come back in one big rush. I bought the Second Edition Player's Handbook and Dungeon Master's Guide, The Ravenloft and Dragonlance Boxed Sets, and three sets of dice. It was the final nail in the coffin that is my love for the hobby.

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