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Roll the dice: timeless fun at board game cafés

Board games have been around for centuries and are regularly played in the comfort of home, with friends or family. They have been a source of fun that is free and relatively private. But all that’s changing, at least in certain cities, with the recent emergence of board game cafés and pubs.

 Kayla Schultz, Daniel Kolanko & friends are regulars at Ottawa’s board game cafés/lounges. [©Melissa Novacaska]

Kayla Schultz (left), Daniel Kolanko, and friends are Ottawa board-game-café regulars. [photo © Melissa Novacaska]

These are public drinks-venues that cater to board game enthusiasts who come as a group or alone, pay a roughly $5 per-person cover charge and choose from hundreds of boxes of games, for unlimited playtime. From classics such as Scrabble, Cranium, Battleship and Guess Who to more recent games (Cards Against Humanity, the Catan series), your board game café stocks them all. Typically these are mainstream venues, also offering food, hosting a wider clientele.

Board game cafés emerged as a Canadian trend in Toronto in 2010, and a year later in the United States; from 2012 to 2015 they have expanded across North America. A few are located in Europe (London) and Asia (Guangdong), but the movement remains mainly North American. Toronto alone has roughly 20 such places, including Snakes and Lattes and Castle Board Game Café; other involved Canadian cities include Edmonton, Vancouver and more recently Ottawa.

The handsome stone house of The Loft Board Games Lounge on Waller Street. [Photo© Melissa Novacaska]

The Loft’s handsome stone house on Waller Street. [photo © Melissa Novacaska]

‘Boarding houses’ of Ottawa

The Ottawa market is still small: only two board game destinations. Café Monopolatte at 640 Somerset West, a small, more traditional café, led the way in 2012. It’s a quaint spot, located nicely near Carleton University, geared toward both young and old. It emanates a baked-goods-and-latte feel, yet is licensed. The Loft Board Game Lounge, which opened last May at 14 Waller Street—another perfect location, right by the University of Ottawa and the Rideau Centre—appears on the inside like a large kitchen/living room (with glass tables, wooden chairs, large couches) but also offers a pub basement. The Loft seems more for a rowdier, younger crowd; Monoplatte is more a place of calm and reserve.

Café Monopolatte has proven popular not only with youth and early-to-mid-twenties people, but also with families who want a nice time out without going anywhere too rowdy or expensive. Monopolatte visitor Gerald Williams, a gentleman in his early fifties, said he came initially with his children for some “quality time,” which can be hard to find amid the week’s routine: “Coming to a place like this on a Sunday is a great way to spend time with those closest to you.  And being able to enjoy a little friendly competition together is even better.”

A soothing break from technology

Monopolatte also lets players get away from their electronic screens and return to a nostalgic time when communicating with others was not based largely on mobile devices or the web.

'The Settlers of Catan is one of the more popular games young adults are catching on to play.' [©Melissa Novacaska]

The Settlers of Catan is among the more popular games for young adults. [Photo © Melissa Novacaska]

Valerie Fleck, a recent Algonquin grad and newbie to the board-game-lounge scene, said she had no idea what to expect at The Loft, but had heard good reviews. “It’s actually a cool concept, and the fact that it’s like a bar but more calming is different, the good kind of different,” she said. Fleck is pretty social, but says she’s seen random people come in and ask to join her group, which she was more than happy to allow. “If this is where all the non-social individuals typically want to hang out, then I’ll definitely let them join and get them out of their shell,” she said.

 ‘It’s like a bar but more calming.’ – Recent college graduate Valerie Fleck

Carleton University student Mike Sylvia said he checked out Café Monopolatte for the first time this past summer and now stops by every so often. “It’s a neat concept that makes me question why I need to constantly have my technology on,” he said.

No matter what your opinion on board games—whether they’re fun or, well, boring—these two cafés definitely represent a growing North American trend. “If these places continue to form, it might just get us more focused, and bring us back to making connections with real people rather than virtual beings,” Sylvia said.

[Front page photo © Melissa Novacaska]