On any given Wednesday night, a peek through the partially cracked blinds of Cooper-Young's Midtown Toys reveals a glimpse into an alternate reality -- people gathered around miniature tabletop villages, complete with tiny trees, tiny hills, and any number of tiny mythological creatures, knights, and dragons.
No, these people aren't architects planning the future of some far-off universe. They are gamers playing one of a couple different versions of "Warhammer."
"Warhammer Fantasy" is set in a world that bears some semblance to medieval Europe with its knights, dwarfs, and elves. "Warhammer 40,000" is Fantasy's opposite. Play takes place in the 41st millennium as powerful armies of space marines take on giant cockroaches and various bad guys.
"We'll do demo games anytime someone comes in and wants one. Ninety percent of the time, we'll drop what we're doing and help you out. They're free," says sales associate Nick Alexander.
For a first-timer visiting the store, it's a bit surprising not to find shelves of Teddy bears and Barbie dolls lining the walls. With a name like "Midtown Toys," one would expect the traditional amusements, but the store is actually filled with a seemingly infinite number of little silver people in plastic, suspended from pegs on the walls. These are tabletop-gaming figures in their raw, unpainted form. Gamers are expected to paint each character by hand, and with figurines about an inch tall, this task requires an inordinate amount of patience.
There's usually someone at the end of the sales counter, paintbrush in hand, carefully applying color to miniwarriors, as several other figures, still wet with paint, are spread out to dry across the countertop.
The gaming goes on in a room off to the side, with about 10 or so dinner-table-size platforms set up with various pieces of terrain ranging from ancient ruins and trees to tumbledown structures that appear to have been bombed.
The gamers -- mostly ranging from high schoolers to 30-somethings -- are deeply engaged in what appear to be very confusing and meticulous games of Warhammer. In the futuristic version, tiny guys in space-age armor hide behind giant tanks as they vie for one another's lives, while elves and vampires battle it out among miniature replicas of ancient castles in the fantasy version.
After a roll of the dice, the players use a tape measure to move characters to exact points on the table. Whether or not a hit is made against the enemy depends on what number is rolled. Joe Scott, 24, who plays the fantasy version, likens the game to a "big, blown-up version of chess."
However, unlike chess, the possibilities with miniature gaming are endless. Players can combat with various numbers and types of characters, and the Warhammer rulebook contains several scenarios for gamers to choose from.
"The figures are worth a certain point value based on how powerful they are. You agree to play to a certain point level, like a 1,000-point game or a 1,500-point game," explains Chris Maddox, the store's manager. "It's really up to the player which figures he wants to use, but he has to stay within the points total."
Serious gamers put a lot of time and money into their sport. Since characters are purchased individually, it can take a while to collect enough to play. To get started with Warhammer, a gamer needs to shell out about $200. A couple other miniatures games, such as those marketed by WizKids, are a little cheaper and cost more in the range of $40 to get started. Midtown Toys sells other brands as well, but none matches the popularity of Warhammer.
Tabletop gaming isn't just for kids. Alexander says people from ages 6 to 60 come into the store to play. And the sport is growing. Games Workshop, the manufacturer of Warhammer and a few other similar games, such as the miniversion of Lord of the Rings, recently moved their North American distribution center to Memphis. Its headquarters are in England, where the game is hugely popular. Human resource director Ben Evans says they'll eventually open a Games Workshop Battle Bunker store, which offers open gaming and classes for beginners, in the East Memphis area.
"The industry is really growing, and once people get into the hobby, it's something they stay with. With Games Workshop moving into town, that's really building a lot of interest," says Greg Spence, co-owner of Midtown Toys. "They've even had salespeople coming in here and helping us reorganize and plan events."
Spence says they'll eventually begin hosting more tournaments, working closely with Games Workshop to increase interest in the hobby.
"We're hoping to get our own Games Day, which is like the big event for this kind of stuff," says Alexander. "It'll be kind of like the Super Bowl, only with miniature games."
The gaming room at Midtown Toys is available at no cost on Wednesday nights and Saturday afternoons. For more information, go to MidtownToys.com.