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Board game cafes: Why game night no longer means staying in

The desire for a shared experience drives at least as much business as the chance to try laying out a medieval French city in Carcassonne Classic without first plunking down $69.99.

Sean Faeth (l.) and his children, Rebeka and Ryker, play Pathfinder, a fantasy role-playing game, at Knight Moves Cafe in Somerville, Mass., on family game night, Dec. 13.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
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Game night for the Faeth family can take a little more preparation than clearing off the coffee table and getting out the Scrabble board. This time of year, it means putting on coats and hats and heading out the door to Knight Moves Cafe in Somerville, Mass.

Mr. Faeth is such an ardent gamer that he helped the cafe organize a “Family Knight,” where his two kids – 8-year-old Ryker and 6-year-old Rebeka – could play along.

“Ryker and I … we’ve come a bunch of times and learned new games, which then translates into us buying games at home,” he says.

The board game renaissance has continued to defy the digital age, with sales of hobby games in the United States and Canada growing a reported 21 percent in 2016, with more than $1.4 billion in sales. More than 208,000 people attended GenCon, a tabletop-game convention, in 2017.

Now, board game cafes are popping up all over – from Texas to India to Australia – offering patrons food and drink, as well as access to libraries of as many as 1,000 games, as at GameHäus Cafe in Glendale, Calif. Titles stretch well beyond Monopoly, Risk, and even Settlers of Catan to Pandemic, Ticket to Ride, and Codenames.

Faeth and his son, Ryker, chose a game from a cupboard full of options at Knight Moves Cafe. The cafe offers coffee, snacks, and a massive board game library.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
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“Games are so expensive ... it’s nice that you pay $5 [cover charge] and get to play whatever you want,” says JJ Evans, from Lexington, Mass., and a customer at Knight Moves Cafe who was playing Settlers of Catan with friends earlier this month.

Space to hang out together

But the desire for a shared experience – offline – drives at least as much business as the chance to try laying out a medieval French city in the game Carcassonne Classic without first plunking down $69.99.

“The thing that … we hear from our customers that’s appreciated is just the sense of community,” says Emily Conway, manager at Emerald Tavern Games & Cafe in Austin, Texas.

When board game cafes began a few years ago, the idea took advantage of something that was already happening, she adds.

“Everyone thought they were the only ones taking a favorite board game to a bar or to a restaurant and hanging out with their friends,” Ms. Conway says. “[As] the idea is spreading of this board game store-cafe hybrid, people are realizing, ‘Oh, this is really what I've been looking for.’ ”

Customers also welcome the chance to put down their smartphones, says Taylor Christianson, a manager at Knight Moves Cafe. “It deters people from using screens, which is a big deal in today’s socializing, for sure,” Mr. Christianson says.

Game pieces for Pathfinder, a fantasy roll playing game, are ready for use at Knight Moves Cafe in Somerville, Mass.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
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Many cafes say that they do see a concentration of college-age students and Millennials among their clientele, the age groups one might expect to patronize these kinds of establishments. But Robert Cron, co-owner of California’s GameHäus, says they’ll also see everything from families with young children to senior citizens. “It is a very broad spectrum,” he says.

Beyond Boggle

Perhaps you’re looking for a game to entertain family when you’re together over the holiday week? Christianson suggests the fast-paced card game Sushi Go! “It’s a very inclusive game,” he says. “The whole family plays at the same time.”

And an almost universal recommendation from board game cafe staff was Codenames, which has two teams facing off and challenges players to say one word that will make their team guess the right clues. “It's similar to more of the old-school party games [like] Charade, Pictionary, [and] Taboo where you have a lot of group interaction,” Conway says.

It’s all about tailoring the game to the skill level and expectations of the players and avoiding the complicated ones – and some board games can be infamously complicated. Cron says he says he has seen people at the cafe get in over their heads very quickly.

“[People] will come in and see this giant wall of games. They'll have only played Monopoly or Trouble or Sorry as a kid and they'll grab something off the shelf because the box is pretty,” he says. “And they'll open it and be like, oh my God, what have I gotten into? What is this? Am I playing a game or am I doing my taxes?”

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