bristol pubs

New ways of drinking: the board game cafe

Chance & Counters isn’t a pub, or even a bar. It’s a board game cafe. And on Friday night, it was remarkably busy.

There are five branches across the UK, in Cardiff, Birmingham, Leeds and Bristol, where there are two.

It was founded here in 2016 after a successful Kickstarter campaign, and the original branch is at the bottom of Christmas Steps in town.

The cafe we visited is the larger, newer branch on Gloucester Road.

It had previously struck us as something of a cursed location, with one business after another launching, struggling and crashing in these same premises.

Perhaps it was too big for most concepts, looking empty even with 20 people dining.

Maybe launching a pork-themed restaurant wasn’t a great idea at the exact moment one of Britain’s most hippified cities fully embraced the plant-based food revolution.

Or maybe it was just in no-man’s land, beyond the main run of hospitality venues around The Arches, where the charity shops start.

But then, last year, we walked past Chance & Counters on a weekend evening and paused to gawp in astonishment.

It was not only busy but positively jumping, with a crowd of hip young things spilling onto the street, flirting and sharing cigarettes as they compared notes on gameplay and tactics.

Are board games… are they cool now?

Since then, we’d been looking for an excuse to visit.

Friday night at Chance & Counters

We don’t mind the odd board game ourselves, but Ray’s brother is a positive enthusiast.

He is also teetotal and often has to endure pubs where there is nothing much for him, and where the atmosphere sends him to sleep.

So, when we met for dinner on Friday, we proposed a detour.

Over games of Tsuro and Sushi Go! we got the opportunity to watch a new type of ‘third place’ in action.

What’s different? Well, for one thing, you pay just to be there. It costs £2 per person, per hour. That gets you use of a table and access to the extensive library of games in the centre of the cafe.

It’s waiter service only. They greet you at the door, clock you into the system, and point you to a QR code on the table for the menu. Then, after a while, they return to take your order.

Ray had Lost & Grounded Helles (draught) and Jess went for non-alcoholic Bristol Beer Factory Clear Head.

Ray’s brother (teetotal) and partner (driving) both had hot chocolate.

Also on offer were wine, spirits, cider, shots, fancy milkshakes, fancy milkshakes with booze, soft drinks, smoothies, floats, mocktails, teas and coffees.

Most groups, as far as we could tell, had a mix of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks.

After a while, it did start to feel, if not like a pub, then at least like a Proper Night Out. The hubbub and liveliness of the crowd saw to that.

There were large groups of eight or ten stretched along banqueting tables; couples on first dates (we think); less nervous couples playing card games over glasses of wine; and lads knocking back pints while getting increasingly competitive.

It felt effortlessly and refreshingly inclusive, with space for all sorts of people, from evidently shy to extravagantly alternative.

We agreed we’d go again. Certainly if we’re hanging out with Ray’s brother, but perhaps even on our own, as a change from the norm.

Poor old pubs

Sitting in a couple of more traditional pubs on Saturday, we were struck by the contrast.

In both there were only a handful of older drinkers staring, sullen, at TVs bolted to the walls, and nobody seemed to be having much fun at all.

We wondered how these struggling publicans might feel about the option to charge people just for being there, at £2 an hour, as they sip their cider.

3 replies on “New ways of drinking: the board game cafe”

A couple I know back in Toronto run a board game cafe. The pandemic was hard, but they survived on retail sales of board games and supervised outdoor play for the kids during the school breaks. Now that life is back indoors, they are busy most nights of the week – either with specific hoated theme nights (D&D, quiz nights, settlers of Catan, etc.) or just small groups coming in to have a few drinks and play something. Also get daytime traffic with parents bringing the kids for a few hours of distraction.

“It felt effortlessly and refreshingly inclusive, with space for all sorts of people, from evidently shy to extravagantly alternative.”

I guess the same could be said about Quiz Night (often Tuesday and Thursday) which seems to be a feature of half the pubs around neighbourhood studenty Sheffield. That quiz might well be the only time folk visit the Blind Monkey but they probably go every week, and even drinking soft drinks tend to lose a bit of inhibition throughout the evening.

Most likely the folk at Chance & Counters aren’t going more than once a week, either, but it’s probably consistent trade.

Our local has quite a decent selection of board games (Catan and Carcassonne), and we’ve been meaning to do more boardgaming there for a while. The problem is it’s too damn busy evenings and weekends, and – although we’re both retired now – we’re not really weekday afternoon drinkers. Perhaps we need to find a struggling pub with board games…

As for BGCs proper, my 2p worth is that the only one I know well (which for various reasons is Thirsty Meeples in Oxford) has a good beer offer, but took out the hand pumps when it reopened after the pandemic – partly because of that, but also because – as I was saying a bit back – with the mainstreaming of ‘craft’ in general … it’s become increasingly clear that you can do the craft thing without doing the CAMRA thing. The decasking continues…

Comments are closed.