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A sample of the games on offer at Boxcar, one of Calgary's board game cafes.

Rolling the dice with board game cafés

Calgary was slow to the board game café trend, but the city is quickly catching up, writes Dan Clapson

Walking into any restaurant for the first time, you're rolling the dice. Good service, bad service; delicious food, abysmal food. You've just got to hope for the best. The same could be said about playing a board game, so why not take your chances on an establishment that merges friendly competition, food and drink?

Back in 2010, Toronto's Snakes and Lattes set the scales, becoming the first premium board-game concept café in Canada. It has shelves and shelves (and shelves and shelves) of virtually every game imaginable sorted by level of difficulty. Want to sit down for a quick game of Uno and a coffee with a friend? Not a problem. Want to stay all day and do a full-on nerd with an hours-long session of Dragonscape? You can do that too. With massive success and national buzz, it was only a matter of time before similar businesses began popping up across the country.

These days, you can satisfy your caffeine fix at Monopolatte in Ottawa, bite into Neapolitan-style pizza and games at Vancouver's Pizzeria Ludicia, or sip craft beer and play Settlers of Catan at Board Room Game Café in Halifax. Just to name a few.

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Calgary has been a little behind on this particular trend, but three gaming cafés have opened over the past six months. As it turns out, the combination of playing games with a side of food and imbibing at Pips Board Game Café, Boxcar Board Games Café or Metal Galaxy Social Games and Bistro is a new-found recipe for local success.

Friends socialize over drinks and appetizers at the Boxcar Cafe, a newly opened board game cafe in downtown Calgary.

Friends socialize over drinks and appetizers at the Boxcar Cafe, a newly opened board game cafe in downtown Calgary.

Chris Bolin/For The Globe and Mail

"It's been really fantastic," says Pips Board Game Café co-owner Shea Ashbee. "We've been open almost four months now and fairly busy ever since we opened the doors. … On the weekends we always have wait lists for tables."

Pips was the first of this particular genre to open in Calgary. Shortly after, Metal Galaxy Social Games and Bistro popped up on McLeod Trail and Boxcar in the Beltline. All offer somewhat of a different vibe. Boxcar boasts a hipster-chic look, while Pips – being in Marda Loop – has a more comfortable neighbourhood-type of feel. Metal Galaxy is part game café and part store. It is where you are likely to find the gamers who really mean business and not so much people just popping by for a casual game of Life.

If you go:

Pips Board Game Café

2015 33 Ave. SW, Calgary

pipscafe.com

587-349-0047

Boxcar Board Game Café

1215 1 St. SW, Calgary

boxcarcafe.ca

403-383-0000

Metal Galaxy Social Games and Bistro

4624 Macleod Trail SW, Calgary

metal-galaxy.com

403-253-1414

Hexagon Board Game Café

10123 82 Ave NW, Edmonton

thehexcafe.com

780-757-3105

Table Top Café

5716 75 St., Edmonton

tabletopcafe.ca

587-524-5323

Although his modern gaming eatery is only a couple of months old, Boxcar co-owner Wylon Wong is quick to point out that it was a couple of years in the planning. "I came to Calgary about three years ago [by way of Toronto], and there was nothing like [Snakes and Lattes] here," he says. "About two years ago, I started putting together a plan for Boxcar, doing all the financials, getting the budget together, and last year in February I started looking for a lease. That took about six to eight months, and here we are now."

The name itself is an ode to rolling a pair of sixes while playing craps. Mr. Wong explains that the name inspired the train-like branding and interior design of white walls with bold primary-coloured strips.

On the business side of things, does Calgary already have too many players in the board-game café scene? Mr. Ashbee says no. "The city is definitely big enough to have three of us operating. Actually, it could probably use a couple more," he says. "We all offer completely different experiences. If you visit all three, you'll go back to the one that suits you the best. We're definitely not fighting over the same clientele. It's really nice that way."

Chris Bolin/For The Globe and Mail

Edmonton has also picked up on the trend, with Hexagon Café and Table Top Café.

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Board games are undeniably entertaining, but just like an ingredient in a kitchen, there is more than one way to play a game. One province over, Saskatoon's Bartari – the name derives from one of the original gaming consoles, Atari – offers a lively video-gaming experience from Nintendo classics like Blades of Steel to newer first-person shooters such as Call of Duty.

"The social aspect that we create here is so different," owner David Mah says. "Being in an atmosphere with a lot of other people gaming, eating and drinking is extremely fun. There's a lot of excitement and energy in the room which can't be duplicated at home."

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