Opening any new business can be a roll of the dice, but for Cardboard Cafe owner, Josh Rivers, it’s been far more move ahead than miss your turn.
The cafe turns four this December, with a special open house Dec. 19, welcoming gamers and non-gamers alike to come in and enjoy the atmosphere.
The dominating feature of the cafe is the games – hundreds of them sit neatly on shelves, inviting players to browse through the selection to find the one right for them.
However, the cafe also has a light menu (printed on magic cards, no less), as well as hot coffee and cold beer to wash it down. Customers can get wrapped up in a three-hour marathon (at just $6 for unlimited stay and play), and have all the sustenance they need a few feet away.
Over the past four years in business, Rivers said the Cardboard Cafe has undergone constant change and development to make sure local gamers get a truly local experience.
“We try to feel out what’s our style,” he explained. “What works best for this community as opposed to other cities and locations.”
“We try to do something different, but keep it something that’s wanted… that’s needed and desired from the gaming community at large.”
But just who is the gaming community?
Rivers said it ranges. As London’s only board game cafe, they are different from anyone else in the city. Still, it’s not all gaming enthusiasts who walk in the door.
“We found a big part of our market is people who are new to games or don’t have many,” he said. “They want to try out a couple (hundred) games with their friends and have something to do rather than just sitting and having a coffee.”
Accessibility and inclusiveness are key to the cafe’s success, as is making sure that there is enough for the serious, more complicated gamers to play and something for those who just want something simple.
What’s hot? It depends…
As for what’s on the shelves, curating the game collection is a mix of seeking out what customers ask for and discovering hidden gems. Rivers said he receives many donations from people who want to hand off their collections, in addition to garage sale and thrift store finds.
New games are often based on what people are asking for, as well as what’s up and coming from designers and publishers.
“I try to reach a balance of the classics to games that are brand new releases,” he said. “From new designers and publishers to those you get at a garage sale and say, ‘hey, that’s got most of its pieces.’”
The board game community is a great resource to find out what’s hot and what’s not.
What makes the best board game?
Something that engages the entire group, Rivers said. The idea games are ones you can get into and learn fairly quickly but still offer engaging play.
“Something you can get into but are not reading rules for an hour and a half,” he added. “We try to avoid games where one person has a good time and the other people are miserable at the end of a three-hour session.”
Gamers seeking gamers
If the collection is consumer-driven, so are many of the sub-communities that frequent the cafe.
Wanted posters adorn the wall like something out of a geeky wild-west, seeking out players for specific games. The Cardboard Cafe also has several sub-groups on their social media page where gamers can find other players and organize meetups.
“A lot of people who come in are into something that’s just pick up and play, but for something more obscure or something where there aren’t many people looking to play it, we also have our players wanted board,” Rivers said. “We’ve got people looking for anything from D&D to Monopoly.”
In addition to promoting players, the Cardboard Cafe also opens its doors to local game designers – including Rivers himself. Game designer nights allow game authors to come in and test their creations in a constructive and supportive atmosphere. There has never been a better time to come up with and pitch ideas to publishers.
“It’s been really neat to see the industry open up,” Rivers said. “It’s a lot easier to get into now because there are so many avenues for publishing.”
Creating board games is not going to make you a fortune, he noted, but creators do it for the love of games, coming up with interesting mechanics, movement and card schemes. The feedback received at local designer nights goes back into the development of the games themselves.
Among the local offerings on the Cardboard Cafe shelves are Junkyard, Rock Paper Wizard, and Legend of Cora.
Every game board has those one or two squares that keep sending you back, and for the Cafe itself, that’s been the months of road construction of Dundas Place.
“It’s not been very constructive,” Rivers joked. “It’s going to be nice when it’s finished, but it’s certainly been very difficult for people trying to get here.”
The project was initially proposed to be done in October/November, but has been carrying on longer than expected. It definitely shows on the till tape, Rivers said.
However, the Cafe has a large network of supportive regulars who keep it afloat, and over the summer, Rivers ran an indiegogo campaign for upgrades to the business.
“We’ve got amazing feedback from that, and a lot of wonderful support,” he said. “Our regular groups have been amazing in coming out and supporting us. They still come out when the construction is bad…
“They are the ones who keep us going.”
Learning the rules
So what has Rivers learned in four years of business?
“Everything,” he said. “Running a cafe or small business isn’t for everyone and it’s not easy. There is a lot of stress and pressure that goes along with it and you need a lot of persistence.”
Owning a board game cafe may seem like a dream job – playing games and drinking coffee all day does sound pretty sweet – but it’s been an eye-opener for Rivers about how hard having a small business can be. Still, it’s been an incredibly rewarding experience – something he wouldn’t trade if he could.
And now that the Cardboard Cafe is passing GO for the fourth time, it’s easy to see that Rivers is holding his own in the game of Life.
Photos by Gerard Creces