When you think of board games, what springs to mind? Monopoly? Mousetrap? Scrabble? In a world dominated by online and console gaming, these names sound almost anachronistic, relics from the pre (and post) war era, recalled with a twinge of nostalgia, a reminder of what people used to do for entertainment.
Not so, according to Nabil Homsi, founder of Travelling Man, one of the North’s leading comic and gaming shops, which was founded right here in Leeds. In fact, Nabil says board gaming is more popular than ever. What’s more he can prove it, because he opens his shop up several nights a week to dozens of enthusiasts keen to get around a table to play a veritable cornucopia of modern games. And if you think we’re about to enter Dungeons and Dragons territory, think again.
“Board games are massive right now, bigger than they have ever been. There’s so many different kinds out there and some are really very popular indeed. We stage regular board game nights, where people can come down and play a game from our library. We also take part in tournaments, which are really big and attract dozens of players. Sometimes you feel like all the ideas have been done but then someone will produce something amazing.
“You get games to do with building train tracks to genetics and DNA, all of which sounds dull on the outside but they all have strategy and you find yourself being drawn in. Then there are games centred on Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, fantasy games like Talisman and Catan and other ‘gateway’ games which make people realise there’s more to that world than just Monopoly.”
Having recently turned 50, Nabil finds himself in the enviable position of having turned his childhood hobby into a business. His fascination with gaming can be traced back to his youth. He grew up above his mum and dad’s newsagents shop on Selby Road and clearly remembers the moment which changed his life.
“I always remember the 70s as being a bit dreary,” he reminisces. “But then there was this comic which came out called 2000AD and I remember seeing it on the shelf in my parents’ shop and thinking, ‘Wow, what’s that?’. Around the same time, Star Wars was released and that really blew my mind.”
He became heavily involved in adventure gaming, fighting goblins and ghouls with nothing other than scraps of paper, a 20-sided dice and his own imagination. His obsession only deepened during his school days and even after he left John Smeaton high school, he was still obsessed.
But then reality came calling and he had to enter the world of work.
“I got a job at a place called WW Textiles in Pudsey, which I managed to hack for about 18 months. It was in this windowless warehouse. I will always remember seeing this chap retiring after at 65, he’d worked there his whole life. In that moment, I saw my future and I just had to get out.
“I was still living at home at the time, I was 19 and my mum was saying ‘What are you going to do?’ Luckily, she was super supportive and kind of let me do my own thing. I think she always knew I would do something but that I had to find my feet. At the time, I was still playing a lot of games and I wondered if there might be some kind of business in it.” He got in touch with a distributor and began selling games from the boot of his car. Before long, his bedroom was stacked full of games and he began flirting with mail order but even so, it was hardly enough to make a living. “It was at that point I thought ‘I need a shop’,” he recalls. “I actually opened in Featherstone to begin with and it did well there, just not well enough. The thing about it was that we had people coming to us from all over the place and I thought if they were coming to Featherstone, how much better would I do in Leeds?”
His first proper shop opened in 1991 at Hyde Park Corner. “I was probably just nicely naive enough not to worry about it failing or about overheads and things like that. I was still living at home, so my thinking was if it failed, I would just start again.”
Evidently, it didn’t fail. In fact, it flourished. Within two years, he had moved into the Corn Exchange, where he expanded rapidly, eventually taking over five units. From there, he opened branches in York (1997) and later in Manchester and Newcastle (2004). In 2007, he moved to his present premises on Central Road, Leeds – a stone’s throw from the Corn Exchange – which recently expanded to take over the adjacent unit.
Step inside and it’s about a million miles from the cliched image of a gaming shop. It’s bright and colourful with plenty of space to move around in, with neatly organised shelves packed full of board games of every colour and design you could imagine, each one a portal into another world.
Step around the corner and you will find racks of comics, a touchstone for the erstwhile ‘geeky’ universe of this sci-fi genre and simultaneously the multi-billion dollar Hollywood superhero movies of today, such as Iron Man and Avengers. It’s a connection not lost on Nabil.
“It’s a strange one because I see us as being niche and not niche at the same time. You have Marvel comics, owned by Disney, you have this multi-billion pound industry that spawns from the world of comics and games.
“I always see this business as the grass roots for what comes up in Hollywood. Board gaming is bigger now than it was when I started.”
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Nabil Homsi started his games business when he was 19, after becoming hooked on Dungeons and Dragons while at school. He also cited the comic 2000AD and Star Wars among his inspirations.
The name Travelling Man came about because he wanted something different. He says: “I didn’t want it to be ‘Something Dungeon’ or ‘Den’. The idea was that whenever you played one of these games, you went on a journey, which is where ‘travelling’ came from, hence Travelling Man.”
One of his favourite games is called Splendor, essentially a strategy card game and one of the biggest selling games in the world. “It’s hard to describe it,” he says. “But when you start playing it, it just does something to you and you get hooked.” So much so that he and his partner recently came 2nd and 4th in national championships.
Another big draw is Magic: The Gathering, a card trading game owned by Hasbro which has an estimated 20m players worldwide and whose pre-release events regularly draw crowds to Nabil’s shop.
He also says the world of gaming has changed, becoming far more inclusive, so gone are the days when it was a male-only preserve. “We try hard to make the shop inviting and open, we get people coming from all backgrounds and ages, men and women.”
Board game night is every other Tuesday - anyone is welcome to attend.
Nabil is also one of the supporters of the Thought Bubble comic convention, which was founded by his friend and fellow company director Lisa Wood (whom the YEP featured recently), now into its 12th year and which is running today and tomorrow in Millennium Square, Leeds.