No Rules Required to Enjoy Board Game Cafes and Bars

Vigilante in Austin, TX features many of the trappings of a regular gastropub – including quality, made from scratch food and plenty of beer on tap – but adds 160+ board games to the mix.

Whether you’re a Cards Against Humanity pro, a clueless Codenames novice, or a Monopoly-loving masochist, there’s something for everyone at America’s newest obsession: the board game cafe.

For the uninitiated, and if the name didn’t completely give it away, a board game cafe is an establishment that, in addition to the usual beverages, refreshments and snacks you’d find at a local watering hole, also stocks a healthy selection of board games that run the gamut from casual to intensely strategic. Like many former relics of nerdiness that have now received mainstream embrace, board game cafes are popping up around the country to give those young and old a place to relax, reconnect and get their game on.

The concept has been popular in Asia in years, but thanks to globalization and the general public’s desire to engage with one another without a screen present, the board game cafe has begun to find mainstream popularity here in North America too. Don’t worry, these aren’t literal dungeons for Dungeons and Dragons fans.

There are great gastropubs like Austin, TX’s Vigilante; laid back bars like Nashville, TN’s Hurry Back; elegant environments like Pour Haus Wine Bar in Los Angeles; cozy corners like The Uncommons, in New York; or Gothic game rooms, like the Chicago Athletic Association’s Game Room.

While the intensity or the degree of skill required to participate in the games on offer varies from cafe to cafe, part of the success of the board game cafe — and indeed, lest we forget, the board game — is its appeal to both gamers and non-gamers alike.

At the Game Room at the Chicago Athletic Association, guests can enjoy chef-driven fare and craft cocktails along with a selection of classic games. Photo by Clayton Hauck.

The board game industry has been enjoying somewhat of a resurgence in the last few years. For once, millennials are being credited with saving an industry rather than killing it. Though it may seem ironic for a technology-obsessed era, almost 5,000 new board games were introduced to the U.S. in 2016, and sales topped $1.4 billion.

Board games have been revamped and rebranded from the days of Candyland, and savvy entrepreneurs have realized the demand for spaces to play both new-breed and classic board games that can also count as getting out of the house. Add in the promise of quality coffee, craft beer and snacks, and you’ve got quite the recipe for some good, clean fun.

It’s easy to dismiss the board game cafe trend as being the newest hipster activity of the hour, and one that will crumble as quickly as artisanal cupcakes or fidget spinners. But for every hipster trend that fizzles out, there are some — like Polaroids or vinyl record players — that have stuck because the experience is genuinely more satisfying than the modern equivalent, no matter how throwback it may seem. And board game cafes have demonstrated their potential to fall into the latter category.

Let’s not forget the enduring popularity of classic games like dice, cards or dominos on street corners around the world, including your own mother playing solitaire on her iPad. The familiarity of the medium — one almost everyone grew up playing in some way or another — make board games approachable for all, and the permanence of their presence throughout history shows there’s still something there to be enjoyed, no matter how techy our modern tastes may swing.

Activity-driven spots like the board game cafe — or its close cousin, the barcade — are the perfect way to spend time with friends without feeling obliged to truly “go out”. The game stakes can be as high as you make them, but the pressure is off, the social interaction is natural, and maybe there’s even some happiness to be had by following a set of rules for a while in our increasingly chaotic lives. Couldn’t the world use more places to have fun?

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