‘It’s all about the community’
Deon Voss has found that the game of life can be all about the games.
Founder of Voss Media Board Game Cafe in Galesburg, he’s not only the purveyor of hundreds of games and owner of hundreds more that are available for play, he is also the architect of a unique community.
During the height of the pandemic, Voss, an avid online gamer, said he found plenty of time to get on the Xbox and play with friends.
“But during the pandemic – I call it the blip – we went almost a year, a year and half, without being able to sit across from our friends and family,” he said. “You missed being able to sit across from people and have that social interaction, that moment when they move that piece, or there’s that interaction with each other, that moment when you’re working together or against each other, while you’re having a snack or a drink.”
He has more than 800 game titles for sale on the retail side of the business located at 180 W. Michigan Ave., Suite D, in Galesburg. The gaming side of the business has over 460 games for people to play at one of the business’ game tables. It costs nothing to come in and shop.
To play, customers can purchase day passes or monthly, yearly, or lifetime memberships. The cafe doesn’t have much in the way of food except for snacks and a cooler full of Michigan-made sodas – but patrons are welcome to bring their own food. It does offer more than 30 game events each month as well as a role play game room decked out like a castle with gray stone-looking walls made of styrofoam and heavy red curtains.
Voss is catering to all of those people who miss sitting around a table, building worlds, strategizing, moving pieces, rolling dice, building decks, combing directions trying to figure out the rules to a new game.
People like Josh Cribbs, whose wife told him to check out the store after seeing it posted on Facebook. The Leonidas resident now makes the trek to Galesburg two to four times a week to play.
“It’s all about the community,” Cribbs said. “It’s absolutely amazing. I don’t know if it was Deon’s intention to build what he’s built. This is a place where you can come out and meet new people. It is really amazing. These are good people who are welcoming and open. Everyone is a teacher and a student when you come here.”
Board games have long been a part of Voss’ life. Growing up in Galesburg, he said his family was poor, but they would hit sales at the Goodwill and garage sales. And, one thing you could always count on finding at those places were used board games, sometimes for under a buck.
“It would be like, ‘Cool. Mom, can I get this? Can I get this?” he said.
Eventually, he got into video games, but he always maintained an interest in board games. Then, one day, a friend asked if he’d ever played Dominion, a deck building game with a medieval theme. Players can purchase cards that affect how the deck functions and can impact other players.
“I call it my gateway drug,” Voss said. It opened his mind to a different level of board gaming and inspired him to start building his own board game collection.
After graduating from Galesburg High School and then a stint in the army, Voss returned to the Kalamazoo area. His interest in video gaming, board gaming, and music producing led him to get an online degree in entertainment management, and he eventually went to work for S2 Games, a video game company that had a development location in Kalamazoo.
Voss spent several years at S2 before eventually launching his own game production company, which would provide development support to other companies.
“Video games and board games go hand in hand,” Voss said. “A lot of times when we were developing a video game, we’d sit down and put it on paper first, put it on a board so we could play it through a little bit, see the actions and scenarios. A lot of times when you’re working on a release or just needed to get your creative juices flowing, we would sit down and play a really good game.”
But, then Covid hit — and work dried up as his markets in China, India, and Pakistan struggled with the pandemic.
A New Game in Town
He wasn’t sure what he was going to do next, when a friend suggested he try selling on Amazon.
“I thought, ‘yeah, I guess’. It will get me some income so I don’t lose my house. I still have a family to support,” he said. “So, I started selling board games and collectibles and toys on Amazon because, I told my wife, ‘If I get stuck with stuff I can’t sell, I want to have stuff that I’m not mad about.'”
It went well enough that Voss began thinking about opening a small store, which would provide him access to more game distributors. Then he and his family took a vacation to Branson, Missouri. While there he went to his first board game cafe and was immediately enthralled with the idea. He came home and began researching board game cafes, culling their websites for ideas that he could use to build his own business.
Voss Media Board Game Cafe opened in September 2021. He said he’s close to approaching profitability, with more than 100 paying members. They are often attracted to the special events such as the Workshop Wednesdays, in which the store’s game masters will teach customers how to play a game from the library, or the Unboxing Thursdays, when staff and customers learn how to play a new game together. There’s a once-a-month Smackdown, a tournament where the winner gets their photo posted on the wall of champions, and a “triathlon,” where teams of players can earn medals if they win three cooperative games.
“When I opened, I thought I was going to be a retail shop. What I ended up being is more of a board game club or a gym for board gamers. People can come and do different events and meet other people that enjoy the things that they enjoy. I created a social environment.”
Counter to the stereotype of gamers, more than half of his members are females, he said. The cafe gets a fair share of families and couples coming in to try his games, too. His first customers were a couple who came in for their anniversary. One customer, Brian, comes in every Wednesday with his 9-year-old daughter to play board games together.
“They will always have that. She’ll remember that for the rest of her life, those moments and feelings and experiences. Since opening, I’ve met amazing, helpful people who want nothing but to see me grow,” he said. “You know you’re doing something right if that’s the direction it’s going. You’re doing something good.”
Deon Voss Game Recommendations:
All-Time Favorite: It depends on my mood, but I’ll always have a place in my heart for Dominion.
New Favorites: Kanban EV, which is about developing electric vehicles, and Golem, which is based on the Jewish myth and combines elements of deck building, worker placement games and marbles.
Easier, Family Friendly Fare: Ticket to Ride, about building cross-country train lines, and Shifting Stones, a game about creating patterns.
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