For a lot of people, board games either evoke fuzzy nostalgic childhood memories or unfurl anecdotes about how their sister punched a wall while playing Monopoly at Christmas. But in the past half a decade, there has been a revolution in the genre, with beautifully designed and conceived games increasing in popularity. The most popular sell millions of copies and fans and communities just as committed as those you’d find for the top video games.
Board gaming hasn’t quite tipped over to wider popular culture yet, but it’s only a matter of time. Say it loud, and say it proud: we have finally caught up with our European neighbours, and have realised that board games don’t have to be terrible.
Cast aside your dusty copies of Guess Who and Trivial Pursuit, with their ginger moustaches and questions about 1980s soap stars. Instead, this writer tips Carcassonne, Ticket To Ride and 7 Wonders as excellent gateway games into a world of fun and cardboard.
The rise of board games has meant the concurrent rise of a whole new type of establishment: the board game cafe.
There are, however, some squabbles over what was the first board game cafe in the UK. One thing everyone seems able to agree on is a board game cafe can’t simply be a cafe (or, as is also popular, a pub) with some board games in it. It needs to be a specialist space, with a large archive of games, and people on hand to help you understand what’s going on.
One establishment with a fine case to be Britain’s first is Edinburgh’s Games Hub, which has been serving up table top battles since 2012 (and will soon have chips, the website tantalisingly reveals). Oxford’s Thirsty Meeples is newer, but boasts hundreds of games – 1,700, they claim – alongside craft beer and snacks.
London’s first, however, is definitely Draughts in Hackney. Situated in the railway arches near Haggerston station, with the bright orange hipster express of the London Overground trundling overhead.
Inside, there is beer, snacks, local cola, and the quiet hubbub of many different games at various stages of completion.
At the back, is the games library: hundreds of games, all categorised and lovingly maintained. A game guru is on hand to make suggestions, though on our visit, a lot of people had chosen for the classics. There were two separate games of monopoly, a couple playing connect 4, a lively attempt at jenga, and lovers bonding over Mousetrap.
But there was also an intense battle of Hannibal: Rome and Carthage (think Risk, only less annoying); Ticket To Ride: Europe edition (your chance to become a 19th century rail magnate and crush your friends, who are also 19th century rail magnates); and Ultimate Werewolf (convince your fellow ignorant villagers that some poor unsuspecting soul is a Werewolf, using a combination of cunning and lies, and laugh in triumph when the villagers burn him. Not literally of course).
It was a very inclusive space. I saw people of all ages playing, as well as a hearty gender mix.
And the staff were extremely attentive without being annoyingly so. They clearly are used to people not quite knowing what they should be doing. Our own guru noticed that my friend and I were sitting folornly with 7 Wonders while waiting for some of our party to arrive. So he made us try another game as we waited – a 2 player offshoot of the game we were hoping to play. Fun: achieved. Thank you games guru.
We ended the night playing Suburbia, a game that appeals to the frustrated town planner inside all of us. My own suburb was a beautiful mix of residential, lakes, and poorly judged zoning strategies. I lost, but I would have liked to have lived there.
Not that I could have afforded it, mind.