We are surrounded by hundreds of board games we’ve never seen before. As a staffer named Adam starts explaining the organization of the library-esque Meepleville back room, my boyfriend and I identify a couple of intellectual properties—they made Lord of the Rings board games?—but fail to recognize a single selection in the BoardGameGeek.com Top 100 section. I wonder where our game nights have gone wrong.
Ten minutes later, Meepleville owner Timm Metivier is showing us how to play Ticket to Ride (No. 84 on BGG), which looks like a train-themed Chutes and Ladders but requires chess-like strategy. We’re not revealing embarrassing things a la Loaded Questions or trying to bankrupt each other like we do during Monopoly. Instead, we spend 90 percent of the game quietly pondering our next moves. It’s surprisingly fun, as is collaborative card game Forbidden Island, where instead of playing against each other, we team up against the game itself. The game sinks us in the end, but having paid only $5 for nearly four hours of entertainment, we feel like winners anyway.
Tabletop game cafes are a fairly new phenomenon—especially to Las Vegas—but they’re not some random concept. They’re born out of what The Guardian has deemed the golden age of board gaming, which had its Nirvana moment a decade ago with The Settlers of Catan, the 25-million seller that introduced most North American gamers to European-style gaming. Those new-school games now join numerous deck-building franchises (Magic: The Gathering, Pokémon); role-playing games in the tradition of campus mainstay Dungeons & Dragons; enduring favorites like Jenga, Uno and Clue; and the adult party game cottage industry spurred by Cards Against Humanity. Not only is it once again cool to spend Saturday night around a board game, there might be ample opportunity to also do so on Saturday afternoon (as was the case July 8, when pre-release gatherings for Magic expansion deck Hours of Devastation competed with a regional event for the countrywide Unrivaled tabletop tournament at Gameworks).
Then again, nerd culture has become pop culture, but other reasons abound as to why tabletop gaming isn’t just a cult or family pastime. Catan has proved that games could be more interesting, more visually dynamic and more tactically dimensional while still carrying mainstream appeal. The Internet vastly increased the exposure of such games, from BoardGameGeek to Wil Wheaton’s popular Youtube series TableTop, as well as how they get made and funded (thanks largely to Kickstarter). With video game fatigue settling in for some, physical tabletop games are the new vinyl records, which is to say people are yearning for something that literally feels more authentic. And speaking of trends, know what goes well with that craft beer at your local brewery, or a cocktail at The Nerd nightclub? A lively game.
As such, dedicated game spots are also on the rise. Enter board game cafes, where you pay a daily cover to play as many games as you want, and various snacks and drinks are available for purchase so you don’t have to make a Chipotle run. If you want to buy the game you just tried out—a popular practice given how games can cost $50 or more—a sealed copy might just be sitting in the nearby retail section.
Inspired by the pioneering Toronto’s Snakes & Lattes, Metivier opened his own—and Vegas’ first—cafe in January 2016. His staff wears shirts that say “Where Everyone Knows Your Game” to emphasize the cafe’s welcoming, Cheers-like atmosphere—even beer and wine will be available by September—and something-for-everyone collection, now 2,000 games strong. “Anyone can come here, from 2 to 99, of any level to ability, and I can find a game for them and teach them how to a play it,” says general manager Richard Dana. “There’s nothing else that combines that level of openness and availability [and] social community aspect.”
“My number one product is an experience,” says Metivier.
In the year and a half since Meepleville has been open, other game cafes have opened, including Groundswell Legit Coffee and Board Games, Reboot Video & Tabletop Game Lounge and, most recently, Tables Board Game Spot, which opened in June as the lone board game cafe east of I-15. Besides spreading the gospel of board gaming, its m.o. is social interaction. If you need new players, you can place a marker on your table inviting others to join you. And there’s even a dedicated night where staff organize games around single or duo customers, fostering introductions and new acquaintances. “In general, that’s [tabletop gaming’s] major appeal,” says co-owner Albert Smedley. “There’s all these new games, but the real joy for those who play is the people they get to play with.”
Engagement also plays heavily into the success of Little Shop of Magic, Vegas’ oldest and largest tabletop game store. It’s technically a retail outlet, but half of its real estate is dedicated to game play, including customers testing some the store’s games. Store manager Brooke Rutledge—her actual title is Chief Sorceress—says LSOM’s open-door play policy and event calendar are born out of a genuine embrace of the gamer scene in Las Vegas. “We have Meetup groups that come here,” she says. “We have several people who had their first dates here because they knew they’d be able to play. We actually had a couple who invited us to their wedding because they met here. It’s really about building a community.”
While Vegas isn’t a tabletop Mecca, it possesses the capacity to become one. It’s a city of entertainment and experiential escape. Its geek offerings are growing. The heat drives people to indoor activity. And tabletop gaming’s inherent socialness can counter Las Vegas’ awkward sense of community. “There’s this opportunity that maybe has a bigger draw in Las Vegas than in other cities where people are more neighborly,” says local tabletop enthusiast Stephen Vargo, who also does work for Vegas-based gaming manufacturer Iello (King of Tokyo). “That [social] void in the way people live here opens the potential for a business model that allows for [gamer] money to come in—and for people get to know each other more.”
Tabletop gaming can’t come close to matching the audience and dollars of either video gaming or live entertainment. But it can serve as an alternative to those industries.
“You’re not in an audience watching a screen or people perform,” says Vargo. “You’re not at home playing your PlayStation with Flyboy4649 for the next four minutes. There’s that itch board gaming scratches for playing eye-to-eye with something tangible. Now you know the person next to you. Maybe you actually go to a show together.”