The Rise of the Board Game Cafe

In this golden age of board games, we’re a bit spoiled as fans of the hobby. The number of great titles that are being published gives people countless gaming options. Scores of new gamers are born into the hobby every day, ensuring its continued growth. One of the major driving forces in ushering new people to gaming has been the modern day board game cafe. More and more game cafes are popping up around the world. They have taken off across Canada, the States, Europe and Asia. The models change depending on where you go, but the core idea of getting together with a group of friends and playing board games for the evening no longer sounds ‘nerdy,’ it’s actually a pretty cool thing to do. 

One of the first game cafes to hit the scene was Snakes and Lattes in Toronto, Canada. Five bucks gets you unlimited access to their entire game library, which is one of the largest public collections of games in North America. Snakes has been around since 2010 and now boasts two locations in Toronto and over 70 staff. It has a bit of a mythical reputation with gamers from around the world making pilgrimages there. 

The first big impact Snakes made on the game cafe model was the development of the Game Guru position; the heart of any great game café is their Gurus. These are the game sommeliers, trained at finding the right game for any situation or group and then expertly teaching the rules. A talented Guru can take a group of inexperienced, but eager players and find games that will open up a new world to them without being overwhelmed.

Steve Tassie is the Head Guru and Library Curator at Snakes and Lattes (you can also see his excellent videos on The Dice Tower’s Board Game Breakfast). He is an expert in not only assessing the gaming needs of a table, but also teaching the game in a clear, concise way, ensuring they’ll be able to start playing in no time. People tend to underestimate the amount of skill it takes to teach a set of complex rules to new gamers. Learning how to layer information in an effective way is just like any lesson plan a teacher may have in school.

“In an industry with razor thin profit margins, board game cafes have shown themselves to be a way to get more customers in the door, and the model provides more revenue streams than just selling games,” explained Tassie.

“Some publishers spend a fair bit of money and energy on demo teams. Their job is to show off the publisher's games to as many potential customers as possible. At Snakes and Lattes, we see close to a quarter million customers a year, and demonstrating games is what we do.”

Not every game is a good cafe game. As much as the Gurus may love some titles, they just might not be a great fit for the cafe gaming environment. As a Guru, the goal is not to share the game you’re most pumped about with the customers, it’s to find the game that is going to work for that group. Here are some of Steve’s tips for good cafe games:

Wide appeal

I don't mean to say mass market games are better (although many mass market games are among our most frequently played titles), but games that appeal to a greater range of people are more successful in the cafe environment. We get quite a few serious hobbyists, but we also get lots of people who refuse to play games with wizards or dragons or zombies. We're always looking for games that will appeal to college students, grandparents, and game enthusiasts alike. 

Short teach time

 Or at least a low teach-time to play-time ratio. Our game Gurus can see hundreds of customers a day, so sitting down to teach monster strategy games to every table just isn't possible. We love a game that a table will play for five or ten times longer than it will take to teach them.

Small footprint

We have plenty of games with large boards, or that take up a lot of table space, but the less square footage a game takes up, the more we like it.

Tassie takes the enjoyment of each customer as his own personal responsibility. “I love to share my love of gaming with others, whether it's getting super nerdy with other devotees, or introducing newcomers to something awesome, yet accessible, that just might turn them on to my hobby.”

As with anything, the future of gaming is unknown, but Tassie has a unique position to see trends forming. Snakes is like an incubator that can show very quickly what audiences are going to want in their gaming experiences going forward.

“Recent years have seen tremendous growth in the board game industry. Huge amounts of new games are being published every year, convention attendance is growing in leaps and bounds. New people are getting into the hobby, and of course board game cafes are springing up around the world in unprecedented numbers.”

As the industry continues to take shape and grow, the board game cafe model has proven itself a valuable partner to publishers. There is no better sales pitch for a game, than a person who is an expert in the rules and they can’t wait to teach them. To a café, a good game teacher is worth their weight in gold, and the Gurus at Snakes and Lattes are some of the best in the world at their jobs.

So check around where you live, and see if you’ve got a game café. If you do, pay them a visit, you might just find a new place to play new games with new people!

The Rise of the Board Game Cafe

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