I was walking down the sidewalk with my family on a crisp Autumn day in New York City. It was the weekend, and we were exploring Greenwich Village near Washington Square Park. The streets were overflowing with the Saturday crowd, growing denser near the bars and restaurants as dinner time drew closer. As dusk set in, we reached the end of Thompson Street when we saw a curious sign hanging from a store front that caught our attention. The sign showed three colored squares set in a plain white rectangle, with an icon in each square. In the left square there was an icon of a teapot, in the center an icon of mismatched-game pieces, and in the right square an icon of a steaming cup. The name of the shop was listed below these squares: the uncommons. It was a simple sign. Even the name of the store was set in all lowercase. Yet, the simple sign communicated effectively as to what awaited us beyond the sidewalk and the window display of retro games and odd props. Having just started our own business centered around game development and publishing the previous year, we were drawn to see what the uncommons had in store.
What we found inside mirrored the simple sign: an assortment of refreshments and games. College students and families, young and old, sitting together at tables with card games and board games in front of them, immersed in their play and laughing. Cups of coffee, lattes and herbal teas, as well as ready-to-drink teas and beers were being enjoyed as much as the game play. Behind the tables were shelves stacked from the floor to ceiling with games that could be reserved, checked-out, and played in the shop, just as books are checked out from a library. At the counter was a menu for ordering hot drinks and food items like bagels and sandwiches, and by the door there were cold cases with teas, juices, and craft beers. The crew that manned the counter were friendly and eager to talk games with us. Just as a librarian can recommend to you a new genre or show you the best-sellers list, the crew recommended game designers, best-sellers, and new games in well-loved genres.
Shaper browsed the table-top games with miniatures. Our daughter studied the brightly stacked boxes of card games. I, as usual, was drawn to the food and the environment. Having spent the last 5 years studying consumers and trends in the food and beverage industry, I studied the people and the space itself. Set up like a library with shelves of games and a small kitchen, the combination could not have been more welcoming and convivial. The people in the space defied a prescribed stereotype that those who enjoy board games are somehow all young and male. There was a varied mix of age, gender, and race. With a massive game library on hand, it was easy to imagine a game for every walk of life. I noticed how there was not a phone or laptop in sight. This was not an internet café or a coffee and food café. This was a game café where friends and family members sat across from each other and bonded in real time, caught up together in a momentary bubble of fun, food, and experience. What I witnessed was memory-making in progress, the way that playing tactile games and tasting food makes a lasting impression upon our senses. Overall, I witnessed a way for people to live in the moment through well-designed game playing experiences.
After we visited the uncommons that day in late 2020, we made it a point to check out the other game cafés around the city. The library of games, tables, and kitchen concepts were all relatively the same, with some cafés getting much more serious about their food and beverage offerings. There is a lot of evidence to back up how this gaming and kitchen concept is catching on. According to FSR Magazine which follows next generation trends in food, “People love to play games while noshing on their favorite snacks, so it’s no surprise that the foodservice industry has hopped onto the trend. Board game cafés and bars have been appearing in major cities, where guests can enjoy a game of Cards Against Humanity with their coffee or beer.”
Board Game cafés are not new, however. The trend is said to have begun in South Korea, where the capital, Seoul, had 130 cafés in 2004. Other large cities in East Asia followed the Korean trend, and by 2012 an estimated 200 cafés occupied Beijing, meaning it took less than a decade for these cafés to emerge and garner attention. Many of these cafés offered 24 hours of gaming, instructions from staff, and free drinks. While it was not the first board game café in North America, Snakes and Lattes in Toronto established itself in 2010 and is often credited with proliferating the idea of board game cafés to various entrepreneurs in the city and the western world, going on to inspire the likes of Draughts in London, Thirsty Meeples in Oxford, the Tabletop Board Game café in Cleveland, Loot & XP in Oklahoma, Small Print on Prince Edward Island, and Bonus Round Games in Chicago. Apparently, Snakes and Lattes' business model acted as the blueprint for many of these cafés. In 2016, over 5,000 board game cafés opened in the U.S. alone.
Even in a world where physical closeness has been ravaged by a pandemic, the board game café trend continues its trajectory. According to the Digital Journal, a publication that captures statistics and trend analysis, Board Game cafés are emerging and expanding in the following key regions:
North America: USA, Canada, and Mexico
Asia-Pacific: China, Japan, Korea, India, and Southeast Asia
The Middle East and Africa: Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Turkey, Nigeria, and South Africa
Europe: Germany, France, the UK, Russia, and Italy
South America: Brazil, Argentina, Columbia
The most active cafés are the following - see if you can spot the one from your region, although it does appear to be more of a Western hemisphere-leaning list:
- Mox Boarding House (café Mox)
- Game Knight Lounge
- Victory Point café
- Gamehaus café
- The Uncommons
- Tavern of Tales
- Good Game Grill
- Board Room DC
- Jokers are Wild Game café
- Well Played Board Game café
- The Rook and Pawn
- Mac and Chess
- D4 Tabletop Gaming café
- The Wayward Kraken
- Tabletop Board Game café
- Pawn and Pint
- Emerald Tavern Games and café
- Empire Board Game Library
- Friend & Foe
- Board Game Republic
While the list above is of key players in the café space, there is an outlier in San Antonio Texas that must be mentioned here. Voted the best game store in North America by the Game Manufacturers Association, Knight Watch Games has a space devoted to experiential game play. The owners, Paraic and Brenda Mulgrew, pride themselves on creating incredibly immersive, multi-sensorial atmospheres for games, where players enter the castle, play games for no cost, paint, and enter the Death Star to play with friends. You must see it to believe it by watching their video. The efforts of Knight Watch Games is part of the movement that is taking game play beyond the living room. Note: as far as I know there is no café or kitchen on-site, but food is welcomed and there are refrigerators for customer use.
Digital Journal also organized the cafés by their most popular game “type.” Surprisingly, look what made the list before Warhammer and Dungeons & Dragons:
- Dungeons & Dragons
- Other Board Games
That’s right - Monopoly heads this list, indicating a broad demographic of players and preferences. The board game café concept serves the casual hobbyist as well as the dedicated campaigners.
In addition to their extensive libraries, these cafés feature a kitchen or a bar, or sometimes both. One dedicated writer and game enthusiast at Meeple Mountain compiled a Worldwide Board Game Café List of 851 Cafés, which he appears to update regularly.
Adventure Together would like to serve the community with a game-play experience space that includes food and beverage, and goes beyond to include the arts, as so many in our community are creative and inspired to paint, build, and prototype. If you have a game café that you love to visit in your region, tell us about it on our community Discord.
Love and games, Co-Founder Hero