© 2024 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
A series about Kansas City’s neighborhood hangouts and the customers who bring them to life. Tell us where to go next!

Meet the '3 generations of nerds' who find their escape at Overland Park's TableTop game café

Three men around a table playing a board game in a busy café.
Zach Perez
Three regulars of Cardboard Café enjoy some drinks while playing a game of Ticket To Ride.

For almost 30 years, TableTop Game and Hobby and its sister shop Cardboard Corner Café have created a second home to a growing community of tabletop and RPG enthusiasts. For some, it's even the reason why they moved to Kansas City in the first place. "This is our tavern table," one regular says.

This story is part of an occasional KCUR series called The Regulars, about Kansas City’s neighborhood hangouts and the customers who bring them to life.

Matthew King and his friends arrive at TableTop Game and Hobby around 6 p.m. on a Monday night. As they peruse a display case of intricately painted miniatures, the group hears noise grow in the next room and realize they’re later than usual.

They quicken their pace as they pass two menacing staff members, a nearly four-foot-tall blue Kobold named Sssteve, and a hungry looking blue dragon head named Olga.

Inside Cardboard Corner Café, customers are already shouting out rule explanations, ordering drinks and arguing over whose turn it is in initiative.

“This is a place where you can step away from your day to day work,” King says as they secure a table. “You can come up here and kind of escape all that with other like minded individuals who are all here for the same thing.”

Dozens of people shuffle around King and his friends to reach a tall shelf that runs the length of the cafe’s south wall, holding hundreds of board games available for playing.

Two men lean over a large table covered in small set pieces and miniatures in a crowded café.
Zach Perez
Matthew King (right) finishes setting up a game of Star Wars Legions as the remaining tables in Cardboard Corner Café fill up.

King begins setting up the table for a game of Star Wars Legion, but as he lays out squads of 2-inch clone troopers and B1 battle droids, he’s continuously interrupted by people stopping to say hi.

“It's like Cheers from the old ‘80s TV show,” says King. “All the other regulars know who you are.”

Across the room, Madeline Turnipseed grabs some drinks from the bar to bring back to her friends, but stops at nearly every table she passes to greet a familiar face.

“I really feel like this is an extended living room or kitchen almost,” Turnipseed says. “This is our communal heart. This is our tavern table. This is the place where everybody comes.”

That feeling is actually one of the reasons Turnipseed moved to Kansas City in early 2020. She had visited game cafes and shops in several different states, but it was Tabletop that won her over.

“The people that we've met here, the relationships that we've formed… this definitely has a very welcoming atmosphere,” she says.

Moving and growing

A large white shelf holds hundreds of different, multicolored board game boxes.
Zach Perez
Shelves in the main store front of Tabletop Game and Hobby hold the hundreds of different board games sold at the store.

Phil Kilgore first opened TableTop Game & Hobby in 1994. He says the business was inspired by his hobby of painting toy soldiers, which he often turned to for extra income.

“I ended up getting connected with an individual that just wanted to have a good place to take him and his kids to go have fun,” says Kilgore. “There wasn't anything like it in our area, and he ended up investing in my idea.”

TableTop operated for 11 years in its original location in Lenexa, Kansas, but by 2005, Kilgore says they’d grown too big for the location.

“We started off small because there weren't that many products to sell,” he says. “But then we had to move from there to another location, stayed there for five years and then bounced again.”

Kilgore says he grew tired of moving, and in 2016 decided to find a permanent home in Overland Park — moving one final time to its current location near 95th and Metcalf.

The expanded storefront had more space for their huge offering of board games, tabletop manuals, miniatures and paints, as well as game rooms where customers can try them out for themselves.

Staff began to organize more in-person events such as tournaments, miniature painting classes and game tutorials. In 2020, they added Cardboard Corner Café next door to feed the growing crowds — a place to host game night every night.

“Phil told us, ‘Hey, I want a bar and café but I don't wanna run it. Can I invest in you?’” says café owner Madeline Davis.

Davis first came to TableTop as one of its regular customers, traveling from the Missouri side of the metro to meet friends inside the game rooms, before joining the staff in 2018.

Cardboard Corner offers coffee drinks, beers and cocktails, but they're best known for their dozens of sweet, savory and spicy waffle-centered dishes — from cookies and cream to hashbrown casserole to the "wacho" (that's a cornbread waffle filled with taco meat, queso, pico de gallo and sour cream).

Several wooden hexagons with different engravings hang on a white wall.
Zach Perez
A wall of plaques in one of Tabletop Game & Hobby's game rooms shows the chronology of the business' multiple moves.

Just a few months after opening, the cafe’s waffle presses fell silent due to the pandemic. The businesses stayed connected with customers through a public Discord server, and it was this online connection that helped them reopen safely the following year.

In early 2021, members of the Discord helped Davis staff Cardboard Corner for a full week after all but two of her staff tested positive for COVID.

“The community literally kept the café running for us basically,” says Davis. “It was humbling to see that people cared so much.”

'A place that everyone wants to go to'

Davis isn’t the first regular to become part of the game shop team.

“As a wee bairn of 16, my mom would take me to the store in the minivan and I was an insufferable little nerd tyke,” says Walter Stewart. “I was one of the first customers of Tabletop.”

Stewart is 43, and spent much of his young adult life coming here to play tabletop role-playing games like Vampire: The Masquerade, which puts players in a gothic-punk version of the world where they assume the role of vampires.

Stewart began working at TableTop in 2008, and is now a manager and co-owner. He sees himself as a representation of what makes the store special.

“We have customers now that are in their third generation of nerds,” Stewart says. “Those little nerd grandbabies are in here. We’ve just fostered a place that everyone wants to go to and people can pass down to their kids.”

A large fiberglass statue of a Kobold from Dungeons and Dragon is draped in a black hoodie and wears a staff badge..jpg
Zach Perez
Store employee, Sssteve, stands atop a display case, guarding the store from evil doers.

Larson Wiley, 40, started coming to TableTop when he was 13. Now he wants to help younger generations find their place here, too.

“I’ve seen a shift in the gaming community from a very gatekeeping set of old men who aren't very forthcoming with their knowledge, to a broad, beautiful spectrum of people who come in and play and feel comfortable doing so,” Wiley says.

For the past few years, Wiley has used the store’s game rooms to teach kids how to play the popular tabletop war game Warhammer 40k — set in a distant future where human civilization is under siege on all sides by hostile aliens and supernatural creatures.

Despite the game's complex and sometimes intense nature, Wiley says the players have fallen in love with it.

“One specific memory was with a mom and her son, watching his eyes glow as he started seeing his little miniatures and models come to life,” Wiley says. “He got all excited about his army. It was a lot of fun and very rewarding.”

On this Monday night, Wiley is taking a break from his teaching role and playing a few casual rounds of Warhammer with friends. They laugh and poke fun at one another’s tactics beneath a framed replica of the famous “Scotland Forever” painting.

One room over, Turnipseed passes a wall covered in community-made artwork as she heads out for the night. It’s just as busy and loud as when she first arrived.

“These people are my family here,” Turnipseed says. “They're the people that I want to spend my free time with. Absolutely.”

She walks by customers talking about which recently-announced games they plan to back on Kickstarter, ordering just one more plate of chicken and waffles, and trying to find a time when everyone in their Dungeons & Dragons party can commit to another session.

These customers won’t go home for several more hours — although many would say, they’re already there.

What Kansas City establishment should KCUR visit next? Tell us here!

As KCUR’s Community Engagement Producer, I help welcome our audiences into the newsroom, and bring our journalism out into the communities we serve. Many people feel overlooked or misperceived by the media, and KCUR needs to do everything we can to cover and empower the diverse communities that make up the Kansas City metro — especially the ones who don’t know us in the first place. My work takes the form of reporting stories, holding community events, and bringing what I’ve learned back to Up To Date and the rest of KCUR.

What should KCUR be talking about? Who should we be talking to? Let me know. You can email me at zjperez@kcur.org or message me on Twitter at @zach_pepez.

KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and award-winning podcasts.
Your donation helps keep nonprofit journalism free and available for everyone.