The store’s facade might look like any other along the strip mall on Bernadette Drive, but cross over the entrance’s threshold, and you’ll be transported into a cavern filled with treasure.
Or you might find yourself caught between two warring factions in a battle for new territory. You could become witness to sorcerers trading spells with any number of other mystical beings.
It all depends on which games people in Valhalla’s Gate are playing that day.
Kate Burton co-owns the tabletop and board game store with her husband, Mark Burton, and their two other business partners, Thad and Suzanne Yonke. The store opened in August 2000, and in the 19 years since, it has become a hidden oasis for Columbia’s gamer community.
Kate sat down with Vox to talk about the best parts of her unique job description and the store’s first-ever Extra Life event, a national fundraising effort in which people pledge to play video games in exchange for sponsor donations toward the Children’s Miracle Network.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you first become interested in tabletop gaming?
I played games growing up with my family. Not my mom so much, but my dad. My dad was big into Axis and Allies and Risk. He was a big cheater, too, but he loved to play games with the kids, and so that’s one of the things we did when we had free time.
Then I went to college and played games with my college roommates and my friends on my floor, and then I met my husband and we had a regular gaming group. Then he and I kind of just started going to game stores across the country, looking in game stores, shopping, finding the games that were really great, and then we tried to open one.
When you went on these trips, were you going specifically to visit the game stores?
No, usually we were going somewhere for either business or on vacation with family, and then we would just make a plan to go to a game store. Sometimes we would plan a stop, like if we were driving to Ohio, and there was a game store in Indiana that we had heard about, we’d make our route be so we could go to that game store on our trip.
What made you finally decide to open Valhalla’s Gate?
I had gone back to grad school. I wasn’t sure what exactly I wanted to do, but I didn’t want to be a property manager for the rest of my life. So I didn’t really have a plan of what I wanted to do, but it kind of seemed like I was just wasting money taking fun classes rather than actually progressing toward my future.
We knew we wanted to have kids, and I wanted a job where I could bring my kids, but I could still work and make money that we needed and care for my family. So when I had the opportunity to open a game store that could be my job, where I could set my own hours and I could have my kids with me, it was perfect.
What does your involvement with the store look like now?
Running the game store is my day job. I’m the manager; I do the hiring. My husband helps me a little bit with ordering, and he’s always there and keeps things going and comes up with projects. He does all of our IT work, but the actual day-to-day running of the store is my job. And Thad Yonke and Suzanne Yonke are still our partners. Suzanne has a teaching job, Thad works for the county, but they’re both still co-owners.
Do you and your staff play all the games your store carries?
No, we do not. I would love it if we did. That would be amazing. We have a huge number of games. It’s in the thousands. We try to know at least the selling points of all the games — Is it cooperative? How does it play? Is it worker placement? Is it resources? Is it deck-building? — so that we know and can direct people.
So many tabletop games are about teamwork and banding together. Does there seem to be a sense of community among customers at Valhalla’s Gate?
Yeah, we have a lot of regulars. We like to greet our customers by name. We like to get to know them. We like to know what they like to play and kind of encourage them if we find a new game that’ll be exciting to talk about. But I also like when they find each other and have conversations and have friendships outside the store.
It’s really awesome, this sense of community and involvement people have. When my daughter, Emma, was little, because she was at the store with me all the time, our customers who had children would feel comfortable bringing their children in to play with my daughter while they shopped, and that was really cool, too. You get to see them grow up.
What gave you guys the idea to host an Extra Life event this year?
We try to support different charities. We often do the food bank and the Buddy Packs. This year, we were thinking about Extra Life and someone over at Extra Life said, “Hey, do you guys know about Extra Life? Would you like to do something with Extra Life?” And my husband and I started brainstorming what could we do to help. November 2, we had a Market Day scheduled, and I was like, "You know, we always raise money, we have people reserve tables, and then we donate that money to a charity, so why don’t we donate it to Extra Life?" And we were like, "Okay, we could have more playing games where we collect a fee, and we donate that money to Extra Life, and then we start encouraging people to build their own teams or come play board games." And then we had an event created.
Is there anything people need to do to get involved?
They can just show up, and we’ll help them, but if they look at our Facebook page or our website, they can register on our team, or they can create their own team so that they have sponsors ready to go.
Do you think your store’s success says anything about the community of people in Columbia interested in tabletop games or board games?
I don’t know if it says anything. I think we have a very strong and involved community of people who play games, who love games, and people who want to play games. I hear all the time, “Oh, I never have friends who want to play this.” Well, come to the store. Bring your game to the store. We’ll find you people to play. You don’t have to stay home. Come have fun.