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Monday, October 11, 2021

Bespoke Gaming Tables - or - What Have I Gotten Myself Into!?!!??

As a card-carrying member of Gen X, I was on the leading edge of roleplaying games and large-scale organized wargames. While miniature wargaming had been around for decades, the genre saw a dramatic increase in popularity during the 1980s and 1990s with the release of Warhammer and Warhammer 40K. As a student in both graduate and undergraduate school, you tended to play your games where ever you could find space: kitchen tables, card (AKA "poker") tables, pretty much anything with an open flat surface was fair game. If you were really lucky you made it to the occasional tournament with modular tables and terrain. Fast forward several years, and gaming as an industry has taken off. Those starving Gen X college students are now often professionals with far more disposable income. So in addition to more games being available, new places to actually play your games started to make it to market.

Wil Wheaton's Tabletop web series did a lot to increase the popularity of board gaming, and his show featured a beautiful gaming table in every episode. I believe that this was actually the Emissary by Geek Chic, one of the earliest companies creating high-end tables for gaming. Robert Gifford, the owner of Geek Chic, even went on the show Shark Tank in 2013 to raise additional capital for his business (more on that in a bit).

Geek Chic had a whole line of tables with a wide range in prices. Each of them was essentially made by hand from hardwoods and plywood veneers with each example custom-built for the customer. The buyer could choose their own options and woods for the project. At the top of the line was the Sultan (pictured above), I always thought that it was a very cool table, but it was ridiculously expensive ($15K - $22K+ - see the price list below!). It was also very large and fairly ostentatious, and therefore even if I had the cash, it was not really something that would easily fit in my home (not saying I'd turn one down if someone had showed up at my door with one!). 

That being said, Geek Chic did have one particular model that I really liked. It was called the Spartan (pictured below). Despite its Classic Greek name, the style of the standard model was more Japanese inspired than anything else. In fact, they even called one of their trim styles the "Shoji" in reference to the sliding doors used in Japanese architecture starting in the Kamakura period, though other styles were available. 

There were a lot of things to like about this particular table. The exemplar appeared to be made from a nice walnut and maple combination. There was storage underneath (and as a miniatures gamer, I can tell you that you always need more storage!). There was not only a vaulted playing surface, but there was a row of leaves that ran along the top of the vault to create a second surface. So, say you had a weekend wargame or puzzle or whatever going, that could sit on the lower surface while the leaves would allow more daily use. The design even included a rail system that allowed you to add shelves, dice trays, cup holders, or whatever a gamer would need for marathon sessions along the edges.

However, as with the Sultan, there was one problem. One really big problem, and that was the price. A 4' by 6' table started at $6150 - almost five years ago. Add the widthwise leaves (at least $250) and say four trays ($400), four cup holders ($200), four card/counter holders ($420), and four dice trays ($140) and you're already over $7500 and you haven't even added shipping or any other incidental costs.

There was another big problem as well, and not just for me and my desire to own a really cool gaming table. When Geek Chic went on Shark Tank in 2013, their revenue for the first year was $2 million, but they were still $100K in the red. By 2017, the financial picture had gotten much, much worse. On June 19, 2017, Polygon reported that Geek Chic had shut down. Subsequent bankruptcy proceedings revealed that Geek Chic faced $7.5 million in liabilities with only $1.4 million in assets. The Bankruptcy settlement auction raised only a little north of $335,000 - well short of the $7.5 million in liabilities. This left a lot of customers, who had put down hefty deposits, stranded and out a lot of cash.

The timing of Geek Chic's demise was important for a couple of reasons. In 2017 we moved into our new house, and I finally had a decent gaming room. I had great plans in that pre-COVID world of getting a permanent table set up and bringing people over for semi-regular miniatures, role playing, and board gaming. For the time being, I set up a plastic folding table and used three sections of 2' x 4' painted OSB to make up the playing surface. With Geek Chic gone, I explored other builders, but no one had anything quite like the Spartan and even their basic tables (which to my eye weren't quite as nice as the Emissary) were prohibitively expensive. However, I've been a hobby-level woodworker since I was a kid, and I have a good friend locally with a decent woodshop and years of experience... so I had an idea...

Why not build my own? I could take the best features of the Spartan, but modify them to suit my needs and desires. Living in Portland I have access to stores like Crosscut Hardwoods and Goby which could get me all the walnut, maple, and anything else I needed. It wouldn't be "cheap", but it would be a heck of a lot cheaper than paying someone else to do it. So I ultimately took the plunge and started planning out and then building the table. The process has not been smooth, nor has it been fast, but the table is finally progressing toward completion. Over the next few months, I'll be periodically adding additional blog entries showing the construction of the table from the first initial steps, through completion of the sub-assemblies, and finally to the (hopefully!) completed unique version of the Spartan!


  1. I'm very interested in seeing what you come up with. As a I move towards retirement I'm spending a lot of time getting my wood workshop completed and "tooled" up. A gaming table is definitely on my list of projects and I have been accumulating pictures for design purposes.

    1. I'm waiting to get my main computer back with most of the photos on it, but I'll be running a whole "play by play" on building the table on the blog.