Plenty of people are familiar with D&D, the story-based tabletop game Dungeons and Dragons. But how many know R&R — Robert and Ryan?
Friends and now-business partners Robert Cormican and Ryan Wales teamed up to create something new: Chaska’s only game store.
It all started with a seemingly simple question.
“Hey, you want to do something really dumb?” Wales asked in the middle of the pandemic, referring to opening the game store.
Cormican’s immediate answer? "Yes."
Now, that question has shifted to, “How will you ‘Forge’ your adventure?”
It’s the tagline atop the website of The Forge, Chaska Commons’ newest addition in Beadville USA’s old lime-green and purple-painted space. Since opening in February, just four weeks after taking over the space, customers have been streaming in.
Walk inside and you’ll notice the atmosphere immediately. Tattoo parlor meets coffee shop meets game store, as the two put it.
“You know what I mean? All the cool lo-fi (music), really fun feelings, but at the same time like you could also walk in and we're jamming metal,” Cormican says.
Wales grew up in game stores just like the ones they spend 70 hours a week working in now. The two play everything, for the most part: Dungeons and Dragons, Magic: The Gathering, Warhammer, the list goes on.
Wales lives in Cologne with his wife and two dogs; Cormican is moving from St. Paul to Chaska with his wife and child (and another on the way). They both worked office or restaurant jobs for years before they got sick of working for someone.
Change is what they craved.
“That's what kind of makes us a little bit different from some other game stores in the area,” Cormican says. “We’re always changing, and we’re always challenging ourselves. Like, can we do a little bit more?”
Cormican and Wales, donning backward baseball caps and sleeves of tattoos, have their plates full. For now, they’re the only two employees. Though definitely laborious, they say there’s plenty of fun mixed in, thanks to the people who walk in the door.
“This is more than a store, more than a job,” Cormican says.
“We’re living the dream. Yeah, there’s work, but I get to do the things that I love everyday,” says Wales. “Our customers turn into our friends very, very quickly.”
“It’s such a welcoming atmosphere,” a passerby says as he’s addressed by his first name, John, like an old friend. “That’s one of the things that I like about the store, is feeling comfortable.”
Following coats of fresh red paint and building handmade tables and shelving, the fun stuff began: A treasure box of colored dice for the kids. Nightly community events. A silly prize board (spin the wheel and get ‘beanboozled’ by a nastily-flavored jelly bean, anyone?). Posters and art galore.
Sure, games are a big part of The Forge. But it’s mostly about the people.
“You have that core group of people that you’re playing with every week or biweekly or whatever it is, and you know, a lot of times you get close with those people,” Wales says. “They’re a part of our game room … We always laugh.”
That laughter is a part of the store’s soundtrack. One minute there’s an intense, movie score-like track overhead and the next is drowned out by people just having fun with each other.
“To have a spot that people can come and just kind of nerd out and be themselves and enjoy these things? And to do it for a living?” Wales says.
At The Forge’s opening, people trickled in to play games. Home, The Forge, then back home was their routine to stay safe from the virus.
“People would come out, and they don’t leave their house because of COVID, and they would come here once a week. That would be their one excursion out into the wild,” Cormican says.
Now that many are vaccinated and mandates are lifting, people are feeling more comfortable. These past few months have been busy, to say the least, customers driving in from cities across the metro and state.
“Any small business owner will tell you, ‘You don’t make money in the first year of opening,’” Cormican says, noting it wasn’t the case for them. “I’m not saying we’re making crazy money, but we’re much higher than our projections we expected.”
All they wanted was to survive through the pandemic, but the community far surpassed that. Why, you ask?
“It’s just cool. It’s like Toys 'R' Us for adults. It’s awesome,” Cormican says.
“These are the things that take you out of your normal everyday bummers,” Wales says, as Cormican grabs a miniature piece he spent hours painting.
The Forge’s games aren’t like your classic Scrabble or Monopoly sets. Instead, customers invent their own fun.
“Nowadays, the games are video games in a box,” Cormican says. “You open up (and) you’re literally so immersed that you’re like changing your voice as you play. It’s hyper-specific, thematic, really cool stuff … Back then it was like, alright, we’ll just roll two dice, move here, yeah. Now it’s like, are we gonna survive this?”
The Forge plans to partner with nearby medical clinics and schools to get often-unaffordable Pokémon card packs in kids’ hands.
With the game’s popularity, it can be hard to find all the things needed to play. That’s where Wales and Cormican come in, assembling packs for younger folks who might love the game.
“I really remember how important my shop was to me as a kid, and I think one of the things that does get lost in all of the Pokémon craziness right now is the fact that you know, when no one can find packs that means kids can't find packs. That means kids can't get products,” Wales says.
Or if they do, all their lawn-mowing money goes to one box of cards.
“If we can do anything to kind of help that out, especially with the hospitals or the schools, it wouldn’t take a lot for us to be able to do that,” Wales says.
Meanwhile, the partners will continue doing what they do best: Growing their gaming oasis, R&R style.
Hugs, tears, reminiscing and congratulatory comments were everywhere Friday afternoon at the Charlson Thun Community Bandstand area in Victoria.
Most of that emotional atmosphere centered on tributes for Sgt. Michael W. Notermann, the sole Victoria resident killed in action during the Vietnam War.
Many of Notermann’s 12 siblings, along with a handful of his 1967 Chaska High School graduating class, were in attendance for the city’s volunteer appreciation program, that included recognition of Notermann.
Ann Miller, one of Notermann’s sisters, said she contacted city officials about a possible tribute for her brother.
“I knew that other cities name streets and things for fallen soldiers, so I approached the city of Victoria last summer, asking them respectfully if they would consider something, since my family has deep roots in Victoria,” Miller said.
“I was hoping for something last year, which would have been the 50th anniversary of his death, but COVID took that away,” she added. “The city put this together and we are extremely thankful. It means so much to all of us who think of and miss Mike every day.”
Miller, of Owatonna, is using old letters, cards and notes, as well as interviews with relatives and friends, to write a book about Notermann, called “Victoria’s Hero.” She expects to have it available early next year.
“When my mother passed away, I took possession of my brother’s letters. She saved every postcard, every letter, every note when he was in the service,” Miller said. “I told my family that I would duplicate the letters and get them back to them. As I got to the letters, I realized there was much more to Mike's story, so I started thinking, it’s bigger than this, and got going on the book.”
Miller admits it was “kind of gut-wrenching” at first to read the letters.
“I just want people to know about Mike, about what he and our family all went through,” she said. “It’s about so much more than just a soldier dying in combat.”
Notermann was the seventh of John and Ethel Notermann’s 13 children. He lived his entire life in Victoria, including working at the family’s grocery store, until being drafted and heading off to Army boot camp in April 1969. He was 19.
He began his Vietnam tour of duty about 11 months later and was attached to 199th Light Infantry Brigade, 5th Battalion, 12th Infantry, D Company. He was killed June 19, 1970, while trying to destroy an enemy supply chain just inside the Cambodia border. He was 20.
Among the estimated 100 spectators at Friday’s ceremony in Victoria was David Drews, a “hero” and “brother” to the Notermann family, according to Miller.
“Dave went under threat of enemy fire to carry Mike’s torn body out of the jungle after he died,” Miller said, while mostly directing her comments to Drews, who wiped away tears. “From the bottom of my heart, my family’s hearts, we thank you for your courage for getting Mike back to us.”
Drews, now of St. Anthony Village, said he routinely visits Notermann’s grave site in Victoria despite struggling with emotional scars.
“I went over in September and Mike came in March. When I found out he was from Minnesota like me (Minneapolis), we were like brothers,” Drews said after the ceremony. “We’d talk about White Castles, the Twins, things like that.
“I never talked much about all of this until about 10 years ago and now I go to reunions and it helps a lot,” he added. “I had some contact with Mike’s family, then not so much, and then about four years ago again. It’s been really good.”
Drews said he was 20 and “right behind” Notermann when he was killed; adding that he felt it was his duty to remove Notermann from the scene.
City officials announced, almost exactly 51 years from the date of Notermann’s death, that he was the city’s first Community Builder award recipient.
Victoria Mayor Deb McMillan said the annual honor is designed to recognize individuals, groups or organizations for their community service.
Marty Doll, Victoria community and economic development director, also unveiled an artist’s rendering of a memorial to Notermann that will be placed at the Carver Park Reserve overlook in a new city park planned in the Downtown West development.
A name for the new park has not been selected, but is expected to honor the military.
“Today has been so special,” Miller said at the close of the event. “This means everything to us, but it also doesn’t take away from the sadness of losing and missing Mike, even these many years later. We know we are not alone in our loss and we think of those families too.”