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Dig out the Scrabble and Monopoly – board games are enjoying a revival.
Written by Jayne D’Arcy. Photos by Shannon Morris.
At Queen of Spades, a cosy brick-walled former shop with rustic timber tables, book-lined shelves and a fireplace in inner-city Fitzroy, couples, trios and groups of four are eating, drinking, chatting and playing board games. Yes. Board games.
For $5 each, patrons have access to the cafe-bar’s 200-plus games including traditional chess, Scrabble, backgammon and Connect 4 through to modern classics and the newest releases. There’s good music and they can order a beer and a burger or bar snacks while they play.
Queen of Spades began as a pop-up in 2016 when game fans Amanda Holmes and principal business partner David Quin decided to open a place where people could get together and play. They found a cafe that closed at 4pm and negotiated to come in at 5pm to run a board game night.
Melissa Rogerson, co-chair of Boardgames Australia.
‘Backgammon was played in ancient Mesopotamia more than 5000 years ago.’
“We did that for a few Thursdays, then added a Friday, then brought in a cafe manager,” says Amanda. In July last year, Queen of Spades took over the whole place and is now open six days a week until late. While most people come in for a game or two, they also encourage marathon sessions with games that can take up to six hours.
While board games have been around for a long time – backgammon was played in ancient Mesopotamia more than 5000 years ago and the board game Senet was found at Egyptian burial sites dating from around 3500 BC – their popularity is on the rise, and not just in cafes and bars. Star Trek: The Next Generation actor Wil Wheaton’s YouTube videos of playing games with a changing roster of actor friends has more than 4.7 million views, tournaments and games conventions are growing in popularity, and sales of games have seen massive growth, with global market researcher Technavio predicting worldwide sales to grow by more than 29 per cent between 2017 and 2021.
But it’s the social factor that is driving the growing appeal of board game cafes. Enthusiast Ares Liu opened Marche Board Game Cafe in Melbourne’s CBD when he couldn’t find a place where he could gather his friends to socialise and play games.
Melissa Rogerson and her daughter Eleanor playing Bamboleo.
“We were the first board game cafe in Melbourne, and we were unsure how people felt about playing board games in a cafe,” he says. But the venture has been a success. “We host several board game meet-ups which attract many people who enjoy playing games, and many new friendships are made.”
‘We know what people are attracted to in games is variety.’
Melissa Rogerson, co-chair of Boardgames Australia, a non-profit organisation that aims to raise the profile of board gaming and promotes the idea that games can help improve social, maths and literacy skills, is researching board games as part of her PhD in human-computer interaction at the University of Melbourne. She has access to 1300 games at home that she plays with her husband and two teenage daughters. And while she doesn’t need to visit a board game cafe to play, her research indicates why people might be drawn to them. “We know what people are attracted to in games is variety. They love the idea that there are lots of different games there.”
Melissa has access to 1300 games at home.
Tournaments and board games conventions are popular. Canberra’s Cancon, Australia’s biggest board game convention, had its largest crowd this year, on its 40th birthday. Closer to home, ShepparCon is held in July in Shepparton, and BorderCon brings social gamers (tournament-free playing) to Albury-Wodonga over the Queen’s Birthday weekend in June.
“Typically for us, winter is a quiet time. However, winter last year was probably one of our busiest periods,” he says. “We realised the trend was that the poorer the weather the more people order [food] online.” As a result, his sales and service numbers jumped by 25 per cent.
‘Playing games takes me into another reality space.’
Melissa has also found that it’s Millennials who are driving renewed interest in the age-old pastime.
“Ten years ago, there were hobbyists and children and families playing board games. These days we’re seeing a lot more adults playing games, and it’s particularly being driven by that 24 to 35-year-old age bracket,” she says. “They’re looking for something that is a fun thing to do in their spare time.”
And having fun, and a relaxing break from their busy lives, is why people play. As Amanda Holmes explains: “Playing games takes me into another reality space. I get really involved in the game, really involved with the group of people I’m with. That’s what makes it social, and everyone gets together and gets involved with that same space. For me, it’s like reading a book, but with a bunch of people.”
What we're playing now
Each July, board game enthusiasts wait for the announcement of the Spiel des Jahres (Game of the Year) in Germany, with games stores stocking up as soon as the finalists are announced in May. More than 1000 new games are released for it each year.
Popular past winners include:
Qwirkle (2011), a game with wooden blocks where players aim to complete a line with six shapes or colours
Dixit (2010), where players make up sentences using the six cards they hold
Ticket to Ride (2004), where players collect cards to claim railway routes
Carcassonne (2001), a tile game set in medieval France; and
Settlers of Catan (1995) where players assume the role of settler; building and developing their holding.