Local Business Spotlight: Zombie Planet
From the Batcave to the Sanctum Sanctorum, plenty of the great heroes of fiction and pop culture have a legendary location that they can call home. For many years now, Zombie Planet has been that home for the gamers and hobbyists of the Albany area.
Zombie Planet offers the Capital District the newest and highest quality board games, trading cards, miniatures, comic books, and much more. In addition, they provide a vast and open gaming space in tandem with their sister location, the Fortress of Gaming, located just a couple of minutes away. The Fortress also has its own onsite café.
I had a chance to sit down with Dimitri Vasilakos, one of the store’s managers and son of Zombie Planet owner & founder, George Vasilakos. We discussed the store’s history and expansion, the current gaming scene, and overcoming challenges as a modern small business.
How long has Zombie Planet and the Fortress of Gaming respectively been open, and what are the differences between the two spaces?
We are turning 20 years old in May. The Fortress of Gaming has been open for one year now. Zombie Planet is the mother store. Back in the day it was everything: a place to play, a place to buy, a place to just hang out with your friends. Now we have evolved to having our main store, where you can get all of our products, and then the Fortress is our event space. The events at the mother store, we could have like 40 people, whereas at the Fortress we can fit a couple hundred people.
Where did the idea for a second space separate from the main store come from, and how was the process of expanding?
This has been my father’s dream now for the last several years. He wanted to open a nice place with its own café where people can sit down and just fully enjoy the space. Zombie Planet was all of that to an extent, but we evolved. I mean, Covid made us evolve. During the pandemic, it was down to me and my father. That time showed us a lot about this business. We saw a lot of other long standing clubhouses and game stores close down.
We adapted. We had a delivery service for a while, we revamped the whole POS system, and put up an online store. Then we looked at events and said how do we do this safely? And that’s how Fortress came to be. It came out of necessity. The safety guidelines now aren’t as strict as they were in the pandemic, but then and now, we’re able to hold such events comfortably.
The expansion process was interesting though. It happened over the course of six months, and it took a village. We had a lot of our community come out of the woodworks and want to build this new space with us. It made the expansion process so much easier. I get choked up thinking about it, seeing those people from the community we’ve had here for 20 years come out and help. Their support made the whole process so much smoother than we thought it would be, and we’ve been going strong for a year now. It’s crazy to see such a dream come true, and to just be here.
What do you think is different about being in a real, physical gaming space in 2023, in an era where a lot of gaming and communication is done online?
Nothing ever beats sitting across from a player, and getting that winning hand, and you just know it. And they DON’T know it. Then when you play it, it just feels great. But it’s always going to come back to that sense of camaraderie. We’ve got D&D and Pathfinder games starting up here again. During the pandemic, I tried online campaigns with websites like Roll20, and man, I hated it. Zoom and Discord are great, because you can foster friendships online. But then being able to take that group, be in the same room with 6-7 people, sitting at the same table together, crawling through a dungeon, solving puzzles, it’s that connection. You can’t beat that nowadays.
We have Pokémon nights on Thursdays, and getting to see people that have been coming here since I was a kid, now teaching their own kids how to play Pokémon. Then after that, getting to see the kids come in every week with their friends, playing in tournaments, watching their face light up when they pull their first great card from a pack, I mean that’s why we do it, you know?
We’ve seen gaming and collectibles over the last several years becoming more and more ingrained into pop culture. Some of these hobbies unfortunately have a history involving gatekeeping that can cause a disparity between novices who are casually starting out, and veteran collectors. How do you guys deviate from that and keep the gaming community diverse and open to everyone?
We create the space, and we let the community come in and use it. We’ve found that the veteran players who come here often just want to grow the community. We host all kinds of open play events, and a lot of the people who show up are kids. Sometimes it’s as simple as us going to some of our patrons who have been coming here for the last twenty years and saying “Hey, this person’s new, walk them through how to play.”
Of course you’re going to have some people who bring their best, most expensive cards or decks to try and stomp everyone. But for the most part, our community is great at recognizing when someone is new to a game, and will sit down with them to show them how they can get better, and it just helps the whole space grow.
As there are many different mediums through which to game, there are many different kinds of gamers and fandoms. While many people likely find themselves in multiple categories, are there any subgroups that are by far the most passionate?
Oh man, talk to any wargamer about their wargame. Warhammer players, all of them are so passionate about everything, down to how you paint the models to the lore behind the army itself. I love that, I love seeing that enthusiasm. They’re a hoot to be around.
What’s one game or collectible that at first seemed obscure but you came to find was, or would become very popular?
I’ve had a few of them in the last year or two. Things will just blow up at the drop of a hat. Gundam is one that I didn’t expect there to be such a large following for. And I’d say Pokémon. It was such a dying breed, and then Covid happened, and suddenly everyone was chasing that Charizard, and everyone’s having fun with Pokémon cards again.
What’s a good game for people who are just starting out trying to get into board games or tabletop games, and what’s an underrated game out there right now for some of the more experienced players?
I hate to sound cliché, but everyone loves Settlers of Catan. It’s a well put together game, it’s hit every home. It’s always a great starter. You learn the basics of building up resources, thinking a few turns ahead, what are the other players up to, all that stuff. It’s a good game to get into. Ticket to Ride is another game that’s a great starter.
As for underrated games, we sell a lot of smaller games, and people will breeze over them, thinking they’re just beer and pretzel games, but some of them are a lot of fun. Dungeon Drop comes to mind. The idea is you’re adventurers in a dungeon, your characters have abilities, and you’re trying to steal as much treasure as you can before the dragon comes and gets you. The board moves around, there’s fun little dexterity tasks with blocks, it’s phenomenal.
You guys are a bastion for gamers and hobbyists in the Albany area, and an important piece of the local business scene around here. What do you hope to see in the next few years across the gaming landscape?
Honestly, whether we grow, whether we die out, or whether we stay the same in the next ten years, it doesn’t matter where gaming goes. What it’s all about is community. We’ve had those moments in this space. It’s special when you buy your first D&D book. And then you come back for your second D&D book, and your third, your fourth, your fifth. Opening your first pack of Magic cards, you just can’t recreate that. But honestly, as the years go by, I would just like people to keep it going. I just want this community to keep going. They’ve given us 20 amazing years. I would just ask for 20 more. It’s as simple as that.
Zombie Planet is located at 1238 Central Avenue, Albany and the Fortress of Gaming is at 18 Railroad Avenue, Albany. You can follow Zombie Planet on social media and keep up to date with all of their events by hitting the links below.
From game stores, to restaurants, to music venues, thank you as always for supporting local businesses!
Zombie Planet Website Fortress of Gaming Online Store
Zombie Planet Social Media: Discord Facebook Instagram
Photos by Jackson Tollerton.
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