In South Korea they have cafes for everything. Cafes with libraries of books and comics to read, cafes where you can rent LEGO to play with, or where couples can romantically craft rings for each other under the expert guidance of metalsmiths. Of course they have cat cafes as well, but those must be becoming passé because in Seoul you can also choose from a sheep, raccoon, or reptile cafe instead.
Several years ago though, a trend kicked off there that was less particular to Korea, one that was more likely to catch on around the world than petting a snake and drinking an Americano. In these cafes you and your friends pay a small fee for access to a library of board games and spend the next few hours rolling dice, playing cards, and betraying each other to win. In China they’re called “zhuoyou ba” and in Japan they are “bōdogēmukafe”, based on the English name for them: board game cafes.
What games we talkin’?
The games you’ll find at board game cafes aren’t your typical family games, although Cluedo and chess might be on the shelves, you’ll find a more modern fare instead. James Mackay of Melbourne’s Games Laboratory says they have three titles so popular they’ve had to be replaced multiple times: Pandemic, a co-operative game about racing around the world to cure disease epidemics; Takenoko, in which players compete to create the bamboo garden most attractive to pandas; and Settlers Of Catan, a classic German game of island settlement and trading.
It’s a café, right?
Some board game cafes focus on the cafe side – The Hungry Hippo in Adelaide has an excellent menu that features ‘scrabble salad,’ ‘battle chips’, ‘settlers of chickan’, and ‘hungry hungry haloumi’ – while others are closer to internet cafes in their intent, with soft drinks and chips the main refreshment options and the focus squarely on playing games. A few are full bars – Toronto’s well-named Snakes & Lattes cafe branched out and now there’s a Snakes & Lagers as well – and underneath the Games Laboratory is the Alchemist’s Refuge bar, where you can take a game from their upstairs library and enjoy it downstairs with a beer.
Bars and cafes like these go against the cliches of board games, and the places people go to play them. “The stereotype of game stores is places down a dark alley full of neckbeards playing cards,” Mackay says with a laugh. “We wanted to go against that. We have a clean store with lots of natural light. Our typical customers are people on their way to do something else later on – maybe they’ve finished work and they want to meet up with friends, play some games, and then go out later. It’s a part of their night.”
Australia’s leading the charge too
Melbourne has three board game cafes – as well as Games Laboratory there’s Marche in the city and Kayjays in Footscray. Sydney had Norita, until it met its untimely demise. Brisbane has the Go Lounge, Perth has Cafe Myriade, and Adelaide has the aforementioned Hungry Hippo. They’re catching on slowly, and while several of the first ones to open didn’t last long the current batch seem to be prospering as a trend for board gaming continues to spread.
According to Mackay he was prompted to turn the Games Laboratory into a board game cafe because “people from overseas, from France and all around the world, would come to Melbourne and visit our shop and ask ‘Why aren’t there any board game cafes in Australia?’ They’re everywhere else already.”
Did we mention you’ll have fun?
Board games have an advantage over other forms of entertainment in that they’re inherently social, that they have to be played together and they work best with a group of friends sharing a table. In the same way that we aren’t as willing to pay for music any more but will still spend plenty of dosh on going to music festivals, the fact that a day spent playing board games leaves you with a shared experience and a set of memories to take away makes them more valuable.
Playing games with your friends certainly feels more fulfilling than piling another shelf of entertainment junk into your house. They are expensive though (a copy of Catan might set you back $80, depending which edition you get), and renting them makes sense – especially if you can get something caffeinated at the same time so you’ll have the focus you’ll need to win.
(Lead image: Snakes & Lattes)
Jody has written for The Big Issue, Brisbane Times, and Rock Paper Shotgun. He is currently planning a trip to South Korea, where he will enjoy rich cultural traditions like K-pop and very fast wi-fi.