Weekend Anime gamer Brandon Pierson of South Portland shows off his two favorite cards. The red one is an alpha edition Lightning Bolt that premiered in 1993 and is now worth upwards of $400, Pierson said. The second is an alpha Raise Dead card, not worth as much as the first but Pierson likes the dark artwork depicting a skeleton, he said. Chance Viles / American Journal

WESTBROOK —  Weekend Anime’s tight-knit community of gamers is missing its regular and frequent “party-like” gatherings at the Main Street store.

The 17-year-old business is weathering the pandemic by pivoting to online sales of its games and Japanese pop culture items, but co-owner Julie York said the financial aspect isn’t as important as COVID-19’s impact on the “family of nerds” that call the shop home.

On any given pre-pandemic day, gamers would show up at the store to huddle around its large table for a game or two, but dozens packed the place on Fridays and there was always a full house on tournament days and for other special events. Over the past year, pandemic restrictions have meant no gatherings and no tournaments and other events at the shop, which has been serving solely as a retail space.

Gamer, former employee and tournament judge Brandon Pierson of South Portland said he didn’t realize how much the shop played a role in his social life until the pandemic.

“People come for the game and stay for the social aspect,” Pierson said. “I’ve made a lot of friends through gaming.”

His in-person play has been on-hold since the pandemic, save for smaller games with a close group of friends. He’s played online, too, but it’s “more lonely,” he said.

“It’s not the same, and I really miss being in person,” he said.

This is one of Brandon Pierson’s favorite cards based on the artwork. “The card became an inside joke at the shop because someone would do something, and I’d say ‘didn’t say please,’ and play this. People started saying please after playing cards,” he said. Chance Viles / American Journal

Pierson is a Magic: The Gathering veteran, who has been playing for over a decade. Magic is the most popular of the many card games played at the shop, York said.

In Magic, two or more people play against one another, starting by drawing a hand of cards. Then, they use the monster or “spell” cards in their hand to battle their opponent down to zero health. Pierson says it has the chance aspect of poker with the strategy of chess.

With countless play styles and a cult following since its inception, Magic cards can range in value from 1 cent to thousands of dollars. Pierson has cards in his collection that are worth up to $400 each, he said.

“I’ve taken years to develop and work on some of my sets,” Pierson said.

Collecting is a big part of the game, but the draw for many is playing in-person. When the Westbrook shop is full it has a party-like atmosphere, Pierson said, with everyone happy to temporarily step outside of reality.

Tim Peare of Westbrook enjoys role-playing games similar to the popular Dungeons and Dragons because of the interaction with others. Role-playing games don’t involve cards and often are discussion-based.

“Unlike your conventional board or card game, the point of a role-playing game is not to win but to live somewhere else for a while,” Peare said. “It draws people in because it’s a modern-day form of what humans have done since they developed language, which is telling stories.”

Peare partakes in “dungeon crawl” games in which a storyteller takes participants on a journey through a labyrinthian environment. Players work out scenarios the storyteller puts forth. The stories tend to be handcrafted by a dedicated member like Peare.

For example, a story he is working on involves fighting monsters in a world influenced by pulp fantasy writer Fritz Leiber. Other stories include different inspirations and mediums, with some worlds even being taken from Magic: The Gathering or historical fiction.

“What I think a lot of us miss is sitting down after work or on a quiet Saturday afternoon and indulging in a hobby with people who understand,” Peare said. “Kids, teens and adults who have been playing games for as long as they can remember making friends and feeling accepted.”

Nick Danforth of Westbrook said you don’t need to be an insider or die-hard gamer to enjoy the gatherings.

“I’ve been going to Weekend Anime on and off for just shy of a decade now, and let me just say that the community they’ve built is nothing but excellent. Everybody is nice, fun, easy to talk to and just wants everybody else to be included,” Danforth said.

That’s why the shop opened, said co-owner York, who is also a teacher in South Portland.  The goal was to bring people with common interests together and mix all sorts of board games, in-depth card games, miniatures and Japanese anime and pop culture in one place.

“People are social, and if you can find your people, the people you get jazzed with, like the things you like, do the things you do, it makes you comfortable and people love that,” York said. 

The games can be purchased at other outlets in the area, but those stores don’t have the dedicated playing space Weekend Anime has, where Pierson said staff will teach and test any given game with newcomers.

Pierson said he supports the decision to suspend tournaments and socializing in the store for the health of the community, but like everyone else, he looks forward to a return to normal gaming. For now, “dealing with it” is just a part of the game, he said.

“I think Magic and the community has ultimately taught me what it means to grow,” Pierson said. “The game is always changing, something new always coming out. It’s a never-ending challenge, and I am no a master. I love how it always keeps me on my feet.”

A group plays a Magic: The Gathering draft at Weekend Anime pre-pandemic. In a draft, players take turns selecting cards from unopened packs to create their decks for the battle. A draft is one of numerous ways to play Magic: The Gathering. Contributed / Weekend Anime

More of Brandon Pierson’s Magic: The Gathering cards. He says each card has a unique personality between the effect it has on the game and the art, which company Wizards of the Coast sources from real art pieces or commissioned originals. Pierson’s collection includes cards signed by the artists. Chance Viles / American Journal

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