I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about covering a game store in Irvine Spectrum. It’s not that I don’t love it; I mean, who hasn’t had an awkward first date there? However, its stores aren’t exactly known to be unique local businesses. I feared this would just be another major franchise shop among the crowd, but that worry began to be quelled when I first stepped inside.

It’s a pretty big store, to be fair, but there’s something about it that made the energy feel cozier than one would expect. It almost felt like it was half its true size. That’s not to say they don’t have a lot of stuff. Whether you want toys for your kids, casual board games for the family, cards from Pokémon, YuGiOh, Magic: The Gathering and more, or a wealth of Dungeons & Dragons manuals, it seems like they’ve got it all.

(Courtesy of The Game Chest)

Yet it still feels like a small, local shop. There’s a reason for that, I came to find out, and it was revealed to me in my discussions with Karen Altwein, the co-owner. 

I didn’t realize she was the co-owner at first, though. She was working the register (where I don’t usually see store owners) and had just finished with a customer, so I asked if there was anyone around that I’d be able to talk with about the shop. In that moment, she told another staff member to take her place at the register, and she let me know she’d be free to talk with me right there and then. She handed me a business card, which then fully clued me in on her position (given that it’s inscribed on said card), and we sat down at an empty table. 

As she tells it, this whole venture was birthed by herself and a fellow local mom, Maryam Al-Hammami. They opened their first location in Mission Viejo, and their intention was to create a safe space for their children and their friends to play while developing a love for games.

Happy Customer at The Game Chest (Courtesy of The Game Chest)

In that effort, they’ve worked to offer everything that a typical game store offers and more. Perhaps the best example of this effort is their game rental library.

“Our rental library is a unique concept. People can come in and rent a game for a week for $5, and I think it’s amazing. You can also rent table space in addition to the games themselves. We have D&D campaigns, we do Pokémon tournaments, we have Magic: The Gathering tournaments, we do DragonBall, we do Vanguard, we do Keyforge. Basically, we are the destination for specialty games.”

Seeing this dedication to providing something for gamers of all stripes, I wondered if she had a history with gaming herself. This apparently wasn’t the case. 

“I had a late career change,” she explains. “I used to be in the corporate world of consulting, but my business partner [Maryam] had a long-standing love of games and a history in retail and running toy stores. We collaborated and this is what came out!” 

Speaking on how they initially connected, she noted that a mutual friend had set them up together. “Maryam had this dream, I was looking to get out of consulting and change directions entirely, and that’s what we did.”

“People love that we have gaming in the Spectrum, cause there’s almost nowhere else to come in and game. Our customers are really into specialty card games like YuGiOh and Magic: The Gathering, and they’re looking for a place to play too. We have tournaments, and people just come in to do casual play as well.”

Her favorite part of running the store, you wonder? “Being able to play multiplayer Commander [a format of Magic: The Gathering], that’s my favorite. I love game night, and I also love raising the next generation of Pokémon and Magic players. We do summer camps, and kids 7 and up come in; we’re doing science [activities] at our other stores, we’re doing Pokémon camps, and they just have such a great time.” 

Her mention of those camps made me want to talk about the connections between games and positive child development, and she was more than happy to discuss her perspective. 

“We’re also a homeschool vendor, and so much of what we do here is educational. Probably 80 percent of board games could be considered educational. They’re teaching strategy, there’s some math and reading, and the collectible card games are a great example. You’ve got to be really strategic when you’re looking to play Magic. You’re counting, anticipating, you’re making connections between different cards and card groups. There’s so much learning in there, and then there’s the human connection.”

(Courtesy of The Game Chest)

“That’s the best part of a destination store like us,” she continues. “Yes, you can buy some of these things online, but you can’t walk in and rent a game from Amazon, and you can’t have someone teach you how you play at Amazon either.”

“I’m proud to say that our community is really welcoming. Very diverse, very accepting. I have “grown men playing kids’ games,” as they call themselves, but they’ll teach you, and they’re so patient. We just started a weekly Keyforge event, and the guys and girls that play are beyond welcoming. That’s what I love, too; I see so much diversity across age, interest and gender groups. You can come in and have never played before, you could walk into a tournament, and they’ll teach you how to play. That’s just magical. You can’t walk into a lot of places and just have people accept you and help you.”

“That’s also the great thing about our Open Game Night. People will come, they won’t know how to play certain games, and they’ll just join a group, or maybe form a group with people, and learn a new game!”

It’s not just game nights over here, either. In fact, there are plenty of special events going on to keep people coming in! “Pre-releases are the big deal,” Karen says. “Each of the collectible card games will come out with a new release about every three months, and the pre-releases are a favorite event. The kids that play Pokémon at our store cannot wait for a pre-release, they get so excited! [Players] get a pre-release deck and they have to draft it right there in the store, and then they play in a tournament. It’s new cards, oftentimes new players, and they’re one of the funnest things that people attend here.”

Even though they’ve got an awful lot going on already, I was curious as to whether there were future plans for expansion or new events. “Well we’ve got the next series of pre-releases, the new Pokémon’s coming out next month, the next Magic: The Gathering series is coming out, so there’s always something coming up. Of course, in July and August, we have more summer camps, so that’s what we’re focused on now.”

She had some last words for the good people of Irvine as well: “Remember, we are your friendly local game store. Even though we’re in a great big mall like Irvine Spectrum, we’re a mom and mom store, and we’re only here because of the community’s support.”

Be sure to visit them at their Irvine location, as well as their Mission Viejo and Torrance stores if you happen to be around there. Also, be sure to check out their website to stay updated on events and everything else they’ve got going on!