How Board Games Conquered Cafes

As social life gets ever more digital, new coffee shops and bars encourage face-to-face interaction via the likes of Settlers of Catan and Connect Four.

On a gorgeous fall day when most of New York City was outside enjoying the weather, I spent part of the afternoon in a small storefront trying to figure out if my son was a French or Russian spy. Next to us, a family with three kids attempted to get off a sinking island, while in the back of the store, six full-grown adults huddled over a billiards-size table covered with what looked like a model of Mordor. And then, just as I was about to steal the key to the embassy and unmask my son as an Italian spy, my sandwich arrived.

As I looked around the packed space, watching customers come in and purchase games, settle down at tables, and order coffee, I marveled at the sheer number of people who had opted to spend their Sunday afternoon indoors playing board games. At first, “board-game café” sounds like the punch line to a joke about hipsters, a place where people with beards ironically argue over who gets to be the top hat, perhaps (and in fact Brooklyn has three such places). But in the past few years, board-game cafés have popped up across the globe, in places as varied and far-flung as Galveston and Beijing, and if the number of people seeking funding on Kickstarter for these types of establishments is any indication, lot more board-game cafés could be opening up in the near future.

Most of these cafés are thriving. The Toronto board-game café Snakes and Lattes, which bills itself as the first such café in North America, recently expanded to a second location that serves alcohol. At The Brooklyn Strategist, a more kid-oriented game café that I visited recently in brownstone Brooklyn, business has been so brisk that the owner is working to convert the backyard into usable game-playing space.

Board game sales are correspondingly up, with sales at hobby stores rising for the last five years in a row, and growing by 20 percent last year, according to ICv2, which tracks industry sales. Adults and kids the world over have all come to the conclusion that what they really want to do on a weekend is open up a cardboard box and decide who gets to be the blue piece.

While some board-game cafés cater to kids—The Brooklyn Strategist opened in response to what the owner saw as a growing need for after-school activities that didn’t involve sports or crafts—the majority are geared toward a mix of adults and families during the day, shifting toward an adult crowd at night. And, more importantly, they’re aimed at non-gamers—many of the cafes have a dedicated staff member to help customers choose from a massive wall of games and understand the rules of their game of choice. In other words, customers are typically people who didn’t spend their teen years playing Dungeons & Dragons in the basement rec room.

It’s easy to chalk the board-game café trend up to the current fascination with retro geek chic, but the rapid proliferation speaks to something deeper: the need to connect with people in a public/private space, the need to have a meaningful interaction that doesn’t use emoticons, and perhaps the need, in an increasingly complex world, to work with friends and family toward a clear goal.

“Adults who spend all day sitting in front of a computer want to spend time with people,” says Jon Freeman, a neuroscientist who left the research world behind to open The Brooklyn Strategist. “It’s really about people having like-minded, shared experiences. We’d lost access to that, and places like board-game cafes have opened up access.”

In addition to providing a physical place for people to interact, it may be that people are turning to board games now because the games themselves come at a time when people are starting to lose the ability to interact and have conversations with one another. Sherry Turkle has said that “we are tempted to think that our little ‘sips’ of online connection add up to a big gulp of real conversation. But they don’t.” But with a game there are rules and there is a logical structure to the conversation. For people who are used to interacting with others primarily online, board games may help ease the way back into face-to-face conversation.

“I grew up playing board games with my family, and we had the best conversations about life and learning around them, because they gave us turn-taking and rules and fairness,” says Mary Flanagan, a Professor of Film and Media Studies at Dartmouth College and also a founder of the Tiltfactor game research lab.

“Board games structure social interaction in a really safe and helpful way. Face to face conversation is getting weirder and weirder,” Flanagan says. “Board games help us get along and communicate.”

Board games themselves have changed a lot in the past decade. When we talk about board game sales and cafes, we’re not talking about a sudden interest in playing The Game of Life. The games that people tend to line up for at a board-game café are so-called European-style games that can be played quickly (no more five-day-marathon Risk sessions that take over the dining room table) and involve strategy and, in many games, cooperation. In Pandemic, one of the more popular cooperative games, players work together to stop the spread of four diseases; in Castle Panic, players unite to defend their castle against an invading monster horde. Players of strategic games get to try their hand at competitive farming (Agricola), building railroads to connect cities (Ticket to Ride) and developing a medieval French town (Carcassonne).

It’s worth noting that the pieces for some of these types of games are lovely to hold in your hand. The treasures in the game Forbidden Island, which players must work together to collect before the island they’re on sinks, feel weighty and sparkle like miniaturized versions of something Indiana Jones would have risked his life to save from the Nazis.

The cooperative aspect of many of the newer games also helps make them less traumatic for competitive types who hate to lose. Instead of rushing around a board trying to capture everyone else’s pieces while half-heartedly saying sorry, you’re all in it together as a pandemic threatens to wipe out civilization. You need to work with your fellow players and interact in a meaningful way in order to win the game. And when you do manage to win as a unit, it feels good, albeit in a slightly silly way, as though you’ve been caught crying at a Lifetime move. But for many, this is preferable to having your friends exhibit what Freeman refers to as the “game-smashing behavior” he’s occasionally witnessed at his café.

In addition to the cooperative aspect, many of today’s games require complex strategies that make them more compelling to play, and to return to.

“The games that existed when we were kids were not particularly interesting,” says Freeman. “Monopoly basically has one strategy and if you figure it out that’s how you play the game. There were some games that had a high degree of strategy, but these were primarily war games, which had these ultra thick rulebooks. You felt like you were reading a math text book.”

Today’s games typically have fewer rules and more variability. As opposed to a single winning strategy, many games have multiple ways to approach them, or strategies that evolve depending on who the players are or how the game board comes together. And in games like Settlers of Catan or Carcasonne, even the boards themselves are different in each game.

In an increasingly complex world, board games allow players to put their problem-solving skills to the test just as they do in real life. Chess, Flanagan pointed out when we spoke, “may have been a good model for how war operated at one time,” but it bears little resemblance to war in the modern era. If our games reflect society, then perhaps modern society no longer sees things in the black and white of chess pieces. Today’s game players do not want to do mundane things like purchase real estate, collect an allowance, or even take over Europe. They’re looking for bigger challenges. Today, when someone opens up a board game, it’s so they can travel to mythical islands, build cities with roads and infrastructure, and save the world.