Gaming for good: This Detroiter's board game business hopes to bring jobs and education to the city

Three things have characterized most of Lee Gaddis' life: problem solving, entrepreneurship, and an unconditional love for his hometown of Detroit.

These traits were the motivating forces behind Alphabase, an internet cafe he opened downtown in the mid-1990s to early 2000s. As the world became more digital, Alphabase was a place where Detroiters could access technology.

One time an older man brought in a computer still in its box to the cafe. He asked Gaddis to teach him how to use it so he could communicate with his grandchildren via email.

Gaddis assembled the computer, set up an email, and had him play Solitaire so he could learn how to use the mouse. The man left knowing how to use the computer, and Gaddis felt a great sense of fulfillment. 

These traits have continued to shine through in his current business, Gaddis Gaming.

The TableTopper

A few years ago, Gaddis and his friends were playing "Star Wars: X-Wing," a miniature war game based on the science fiction franchise, but didn’t have the right size table to play it. When they went to buy a gaming table, however, they discovered that it was well out of their price range. 

That inconvenience got Gaddis thinking of ways he could make gaming equipment more accessible.

"One thing school taught me was how to take nothing and make it into something … how to take the spark of an idea and fan it into a flame," Gaddis says. "That's what led me to doing what I did."

Gaddis' idea eventually became the TableTopper — an innovative gaming table that can be placed atop any size or type of table and played with any game.

Gaddis setting up the TableTopper
He never anticipated that the product would turn into a business, but after receiving interest from others, he recognized the opportunity to start something bigger. In 2014, he launched Gaddis Gaming and created an ecosystem of gaming products centered around the TableTopper. 

He's since held two Kickstarter campaigns to experiment with and further refine the design of the table. His first investor was Susan Howes, a retired Hour Detroit editor who is now his business partner. 

Today's version of the TableTopper is ,a modular, lightweight, 4-by-6 feet board that can be broken down to 4-by-4. The patented and thoughtful design features "out-of-play zones" where players can store dice, cards, or miniatures, and a cup holder. It won't scratch the surface of a table and it minimizes the clanking sound made from rolling dice.

Gaddis Gaming has sold hundreds of TableToppers and received worldwide demand through the online store. Products retail at game stores in Garden City, Berkley, and Wixom in Michigan, and Jamesville, Wisconsin.

"People tell me that I have some of the best tables in metro Detroit," says Adam Goldberg, owner of Imperium Games in Wixom. He currently has 10 TableToppers at his store and credits it for enabling him to be more efficient with his space by doubling the number of gaming tables when he hosts big events.

Gaming for good

During the early phases of the TableTopper, Gaddis wondered how he would manufacture it. Many people advised him to do it in another country, but since jobs are needed in Detroit, he didn't want to look elsewhere.

He's since dedicated himself to ensuring that every product sold by his company is one day made here. "I refuse to relinquish our innovation and capacity to make things outside of Detroit," he says. "In order for this legacy to continue to be of value, it has to be of value to a larger community."

Gaddis Gaming currently manufactures in Clawson, but Gaddis and Howes are looking to purchase a warehouse in Detroit. 

He also wants Gaddis Gaming to eventually become an employee-owned cooperative, and is working with the Center for Community Based Enterprise to develop the business model.

Everything has essentially come full circle for Gaddis. He grew up a gamer, but his attention was taken away from it during his late teens and early 20s. When he went to college, it was art that revived his interest in gaming, which is a growing industry that has shown no signs of slowing down.

But Gaddis sees even more social value in his product than jobs and community wealth. There's also the potential to get youth interested in history. For Gaddis, gaming is a gateway to lifelong learning.

Historical figurines on the TableTopper
Gaddis used to teach at Youthville, a former development center that offered programs for youth in Detroit. As part of his graphic design program, students were required to write a paper about veterans in their family. One student discovered that he had five generations of family who had served in the war but had never talked about it.

After completing the assignment, students played a game using the history they learned as a basis for the rules, which taught them history in a way that was more real than reading an abstract passage in a book. Gaddis and Howes have taught through gaming was as volunteers at the Oasis Center in Highland Park, and Gaddis hosts an art class on Wednesdays at GateKeeper Games in Berkley, and runs games at local stores to get people involved and help others improve their skills.

He believes that the potential impact of gaming is endless — it exposes people to new possibilities, builds communities, promotes creativity, and strengthens decision-making skills. Through Gaddis Gaming, he hopes to "breaking the cycle" of youth feeling they have limited career options. 

"I remember sitting in on his classes, and he was always talking about entrepreneurship," Charles Saadiq, a local artist who used to teach at Youthville, says. "He taught students that there's more detail in video games than what you see, and that certain processes can be transferred into creating a business."

Saadiq recalls the guidance and leadership Gaddis provided to his students, and he describes him as an "unsung hero" for his commitment to the youth. He most vividly recalls the passion and hope Gaddis had for Detroit's future, even during a time when it felt like all hope was lost.

This article is part of "Detroit Innovation," a series highlighting community-led projects that are improving the vitality of neighborhoods in Detroit, while recognizing the potential of residents to work with partners to solve the most pressing challenges facing their communities.

The series is supported by the New Economy Initiative, a project of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan that's working to create an inclusive, innovative regional culture.

Photos by Nick Hagen
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Read more articles by Kristen Davis.

Kristen Davis is a journalist and 2017-18 Challenge Detroit fellow.