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Staying ahead of the game for two decades

Gnome Games celebrates its 20th year in business as a go-to for all things gaming

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February 24, 2023

NORTHEAST WISCONSIN – Though its four physical locations are nestled throughout Northeast Wisconsin – with its flagship store located on Ridge Road in Ashwaubenon – Gnome Games’ gaming presence spans the world.

As the store celebrates 20 years in business, Owners Pat (head gnome) and Paula Fuge (Ms. Gnomer) said they would be remiss if they didn’t reflect on what got them to where they are today and what the future of the gaming business looks like. 

A look back
Pat Fuge said Gnome Games got its start in 2003 in a small 1,100-square-foot store on Main Street on Green Bay’s east side – which they opened to support its running role-playing events at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

“We started with role-playing,” he said. “I’ll be honest, we didn’t know anything about cards at all. When we started, we wanted a spot where the kids locally could get together and play games.”

By early 2004, Pat said the East Main Street location became too small, and the hunt was on for a new location.

In early spring of that same year, Gnome Games set up shop in its current Ashwaubenon location at 2160 S. Ridge Road – which Pat said more than doubled the store’s size at nearly 3,000 square feet.

Pat said the popularity of the business’s in-store gaming concept led to the reestablishment of its east Green Bay presence – which it did in a makeshift location in the former East Towne Mall from 2006-10.

“This was more of an in-store gaming location,” he said. “We still sold things, but gaming was the main focus.”

After that location shutdown, he said they rented a facility near the Brown County Library’s east branch to host larger events, but had yet to pull the trigger on a permanent east-side location.

Pat said that was until 2018 when the property next to Happy Joe’s Pizza (1683 E. Mason St.) became available.

The couple purchased the building and officially opened its second location – Gnome Games East.

Up next was the expansion to Appleton.

Pat said the Appleton East location opened its doors at W3169 Van Roy Road on the east side of town in 2015 “at the request of a flock of Pokémon moms.”

As a self-proclaimed forward-thinker, Pat said he is constantly trying to stay one step ahead – which led to the opening of the newest member of the Gnome Games family – The Gnoshery.

A full-service board game cafe, The Gnoshery opened at 23 N. 3rd Ave. in Sturgeon Bay in early 2021.

Unlike its other locations, Pat said The Gnoshery has a cafe offering food and beverages.

“It was a bit smaller than we thought we needed, but the coffee bar was already there, and the kitchen had just been renovated,” he said. “So, we threw a lot of energy into it, and we’ve come up with a successful model from that.”

It’s been a slow growth, but Pat said that was expected. 

What was unexpected, he said, was the “Gnome Lovers” from across the country who traveled there. 

“People have come up there for ‘game-cations,’ especially this winter,” he said. “We’re getting a number of people who will stay at… area hotels and then they’ll come grab some games and go and play.”

Gnome Games West opened its doors at 2160 S. Ridge Road in Ashwaubenon in spring 2004. Chris Rugowski Photo

Pat said all of the expansions and new programs Gnome Games has had in the last two decades are “with the overall goal of providing the communities we serve with the best possible tabletop experience in a community-responsible manner.”

Over the years, Pat said the biggest and still-most-relevant change they made and kept was creating a centralized purchasing point that allowed them to grow and do things more efficiently and effectively.

A cutting-edge idea
When the Fuges came up with the idea for Gnome Games, Pat said it was cutting edge for the gaming industry.

“The year after we opened, we went to the Game Manufacturers Association Convention, and boldly said we’re going to have in-store play and dedicate half of our space to in-store play,” he said.

At that time, Pat said it was nearly unheard of.

“I had people from Wizards of the Coast (a game publisher – primarily based on fantasy and science fiction themes) tell us they didn’t think it would work if we dedicated that much space (to in-store play),” he said.

Twenty years, and hundreds of in-store games later, Pat said that ahead-of-the-game idea continues to hold strong in all four Gnome Games locations.

Being in business for two decades, Pat said he’s been able to watch children grow up in his store – and now even bringing in their own children.

“We call it the nostalgic return to gaming,” he said. “We’ve had parents who have been our customers since age 12. They’ll get married and have kids. We’ve had them stop on the way home from the hospital and show off the babies like we’re grandpa and grandma.”

Pat said they feel honored to share gaming with generations of gamers.

“(Parents who played at Gnome Games when they were children) will bring their kids back in to learn how to play whatever game they played – they’ll get them involved in it,” he said. “Like recently at the Ridge Road store we had moms and dads playing Pokémon with the kids, which is neat.”

Pat said it’s nice to see how gamers who come into the stores change over the years.

“Gaming had been a male-centric activity for so many years – and that’s no longer the case,” he said. “The tables are open for everybody who comes in.”

Strong connections
Pat said not only has he and his wife made strong connections with their customers and players, the same can be said for its staff.

“What’s neat for Paula and I as the owners is the family and the community we developed has not only been with the players and the customers, but with our staff, too,” he said. “We hear a lot about the last year and a half with staff turnover and it being hard to find staff. We still have a bit of a tough time finding staff, but generally, when we find staff, they stick around for a long time. We’ve got some staff who have been around 10-14 years.”

Pat said he has witnessed Gnome Games grow to become a respected asset to the community.

“The other thing that’s developed naturally is the elected officials and non-elected officials see us as a value-add to the community, and that’s important for us,” he said. “Traditionally, game stores have had the classification… of fringe. We’re mainstream now.”

Part of the given respect, Pat said he thinks has to do with its community outreach efforts over the last 20 years.

“We support a number of different community organizations,” he said. “We do an annual sock drive where the socks go to the different shelters. We do ‘Wrapping for a Reason’ where we give the proceeds of that away. We’ll do food drives. We go to schools and play with the parents, during after-school and evening hours, giving mom and dad a tool to communicate with the kids.”

Gnome Games has thousands of board games, puzzles and family games, as well as tabletop classics, including Magic the Gathering, Pokémon, Yu Gi Oh, Warhammer 40K and Dungeons and Dragons. Chris Rugowski Photo

Pat said the community is an essential element to Gnome Games.

“Every time something bad has happened, the community has always stepped up to help in ways we didn’t expect,” he said.

The COVID-19 pandemic, Pat said, was like nothing the store had ever experienced.

“It was a situation where we all had to come together to get through as a team to provide our service to the community,” he said. “It made us look long and hard at how we handled the safety of our staff first, with the Gnome Mission of providing the best in tabletop experiences to the community.”

That included the launch of home delivery.

“It meant changing how we handled everything,” he said. “As a company, it meant doing whatever we could to keep our staff gainfully employed to help them get through it as well. We had school districts calling the day after the lockdown was announced – we were identified as an essential (business) the next day.”

Pat said they took that responsibility seriously.

“And it’s helped us afterward as well, with better processes, safer operations and an overall commitment to our staff we will do whatever we can responsibly to take care of them,” he said.

One of the most impactful changes Gnome Games made during the pandemic, Pat said, was the online ordering and curbside pickup with virtual shoppers in the store.

“We perfected our puzzle wall showcase for customers so they could see the images, interact with us while they shopped from home and we safely hand delivered the same day or the next day in Northeastern Wisconsin,” he said.

The future
Now that he is in his 60s, Pat said he has begun thinking about ways to perpetuate the business – evolving and paving the way for store managers to take over ownership of a property.

He said the store has also received numerous inquiries from around the country about opening up a location.

“We have made the conscious decision to perpetuate the business as a full-blown company, Gnome Inc., which allows our managers to take real ownership, and eventually own their own stores,” he said. “That process is well underway and will allow us to look at putting specialized locations like the Gnoshery in Green Bay or Appleton.”

Pat said it also opens up the possibility of entering new markets.

“(In areas where leadership) shares our passion, energy and commitment to the communities we already serve,” he said. “As well as in areas where community leaders have invited us to bring great things to the tables in their community across the U.S.”

The beauty of the gaming industry and ability to forward think, Pat said, gives Gnome Games the ability to reach outside Northeast Wisconsin.

He said the business is now in a good position to potentially offer location licensing opportunities.

Pat said Gnome Games isn’t just a game store, but rather a community-backed idea that creates a space where anyone who wants to learn, educate, create and be a part of an ever-growing community can, and without judgment.

If there is a need and a desire to bring a Gnome Games or Gnoshery to a community, Pat said he’s always “game” to discuss it, and if they can make it happen, they will.

“It’s that ability to bring a synergy between the community and different aspects outside the microcosm of gaming,” he said.

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