Why board game cafés thrive in Edmonton

By Michelle Ferguson August 9, 2018

Gamers play the game Photosynthesis at Board N Brew in downtown Edmonton -- Shayne Woodsmith/EEDC

When a friend's forgetfulness left board game enthusiast Brian Flowers twiddling his thumbs at a party, he and his friends came up with the concept of a board game bar — a licensed venue where a vast library of games could be played with beer in hand.

Two years later, Table Top Café opened its doors in the Roper industrial park. Despite being a little out of the way, this unique entertainment venue saw its wait list creep up to 80 people, as gamers and non-gamers alike clambered to try it out.

“I always liked the idea of having a communal hangout for customers into the nerdier hobbies,” says Flowers, who opened a second Table Top location along 124 Street in 2016.

While coffee shop patrons have often enjoyed a game of checkers or scrabble with their lattes, the concept of dedicated board game cafés — with stacks of games and staff members to explain the rules in under five minutes — appeared in South Korea in the early 2000s.

Board Game Cafés in Edmonton

Table Top Café
With over 500 unique titles at each location, a revamped menu and a new (sheltered) outdoor patio there’s no shortage of fun to be had at Table Top Café 2.0, located on 124 Street.
Must try: Enjoy a Philly Cheese Steak, made with in-house roast beef, while playing Azul, a quick Soduku-like game for two to four players.

The Hexagon Board Game Café
This bright, clean café was opened by two architecture graduates, Kellie Ho and Randy Wong, and is located just steps from their alma matter.
Must try: A game of Settlers of Catan (after which the café is named) is a must while visiting the Whyte Avenue establishment.

The Pawn and Pint
Located in a residential area in the city’s west end, this cozy joint doubles as a local pub.
Must try: A game of Tsuro (think Snakes and Ladders, but way more fun) and a range of Alberta craft beers are sure to delight gamers and pub-goers alike.

The Gamers’ Lodge
The wood paneling and vintage Star Wars posters at this 124 Street café will have you reminiscing about summers at the family cabin.
Must try: Everything on the menu sounds both hilariously geeky (see Qui Gon Gin and Cheese-3PO) and super scrumptious, but we suggest a bowl of Chewbaccamole and a game of Codenames to start your night off right. 
Board N Brew
This modern downtown café is buzzing with energy and is one of the newest additions to Edmonton’s table top scene.
Must try: A cup of freshly brewed Rogue Wave Coffee will keep you alert as you try to intercept a coded message from the opposing team playing Decrypto.

Eventually migrating west, the first official board game café to open in North America was Snakes and Lattes in Toronto. Launched in 2010, the café is cited as the inspiration for several establishments across the country, as well as across the border.

Board game cafés can now be found in most major cities around the world, including Edmonton.

“North America is of course a bit slower to these trendy concepts, so they were just being introduced to North America as they were on a decline in Asia,” says Kellie Ho, co-owner of The Hexagon Café, a board game café located on Whyte Avenue.

Ho and her partner Randy Wong were teaching in South Korea as the fad was starting its overseas decline. The couple spent many late nights bonding with co-workers over a game (or two) of Settlers of Catan — a wildly popular German title that involves collecting and trading resources to build a civilization.

Brian Flowers of Table Top Café -- Provided

“It was such a great experience to have this one thing bringing these people from various parts of the world together,” Ho says.

When Ho and Wong returned to Edmonton two years later, they were determined to open a board game café of their own.

In 2014, The Hexagon (named after the shape of the fictional island of Catan) became the city’s second board game café. It has since relocated to a larger space along Whyte Avenue to accommodate demand.

Today, Edmonton counts seven board game cafés, making it one of the highest board game café per capita cities in the country.

Board game cafés owe much of their popularity to the rise of Eurogames. Invented in post-war Germany these thoughtful, impeccably illustrated board games emphasize strategy over luck and often focus on co-operation instead of competition.

Unlike classic American-style games, they are also played relatively quickly and do not usually result in the elimination of players — making them more approachable and less likely to end in tears.

The most iconic Eurogame is Settlers of Catan. Released over two decades ago, it was the first to gain mass appeal outside Europe and helped reinvigorate the medium, which had become associated with titles like Monopoly, Sorry! and Risk.

“Those [American] games are iconic, but at their core they’re kind of terrible,” says Robert Trueblood, owner of The Pawn and Pint in Callingwood.

Nearly all 160 games carried by The Pawn and Pint were released in the past five to 10 years — considered to be the golden age of table top.

But game mechanics alone are not responsible for the 28 per cent increase in board game sales in the U.S. last year, nor the rise of board game cafés.

Gamers' Lodge owners Carissa Chan and Justin Bourassa -- Chris Onciul/EEDC

Justin Bourassa, co-owner of The Gamers’ Lodge — a cozy, cottage-like café located on 124 Street —believes table top’s increasing popularity stems from a desire for more genuine social interactions.

“People miss interacting face-to-face,” he says. “Everything is on the phone or on Facebook.”

Whether working together to stop a terrible disease from killing humanity (Pandemic) or trying to amass the best combination of sushi dishes (Sushi Go!), it’s about spending time with friends and family.

This certainly explains the unanticipated success of Table Top’s first location. Originally conceived as a gathering place for heavy gamers like Flowers, the café drew in a surprising number of people in search of something different to do on a Friday or Saturday night.

“There were a lot more casual people than I originally intended,” Flowers says.

Not that he’s complaining. Earlier this year, Flowers partnered with a B.C.-based franchisor to grow Table Top into a national brand. He aims to open as many as 75 franchise stores across the country.

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