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An illustration shows players congregating at a game store that looks like a bar Illustration: Lianne Hazendonk for Polygon

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Long live the friendly local tabletop game store

As tabletop sales have moved more and more online, physical game stores have found new ways to evolve

It’s not exactly a hot take to point out that retail stores are having a rough go of things lately. That goes double for a niche offering like an independent board game retailer, or FLGS (“Friendly Local Game Store”), as they are commonly referred to within the tabletop hobby.

Online retailers have for years represented the most significant threat to the FLGS, and it’s not hard to see why. They typically offer lower prices, wider inventories, and the convenience of being able to buy games in your pajamas. And if a tabletop gamer does venture into an actual brick-and-mortar business, they are often able to find a product they want in the ever-growing board game sections at Target, Walmart, and Barnes & Noble, big-box stores pushing into the hobby game market with the same techniques they used to annihilate so many other retail sectors. That these big-box stores are, themselves, rapidly ceding ground to mega e-tailers like Amazon might feel karmic, but it’s cold comfort for the FLGS that’s now being undercut twice. Meanwhile, the explosion of crowdfunding and direct publisher e-commerce has left retail stores out of the customer loop entirely, especially when it comes to the splashiest and buzziest new releases (many campaigns offer retailer tiers, but they require a cash-strapped store to preorder a game that has at best barely left the design stage, meaning it will be months to potentially years before a return can be earned).

To top it all off, a certain recent (and still ongoing) pandemic sent foot traffic through the floor, shuttering retailers of nonessential goods for weeks, months, or more — many of which, despite heroic efforts by the industry, never reopened.

So, that’s the bad news. Friendly Local Game Stores, already operating on margins as thin as 5-10%, have struggled in the last decade and especially the last two years, and it seems likely many won’t survive another 10 years of ever-stiffening competition, pandemic waves, and the customer and publisher habits that have developed and calcified as a result. Those that are still here in another decade will have succeeded despite formidable odds and trends.

But if retail is dying, tabletop gaming is still a growing market — if anything, the pandemic has been a shot of adrenaline in the much-chronicled “gaming renaissance” that’s seen the hobby as a whole grow and broaden. So from the ashes of all those shuttered and soon-to-shutter FLGSes, a new form of tabletop retail business is rising up. Let’s call them FLGCs — Friendly Local Game Cafes.

A FLGC is basically half coffee shop, half tabletop gamer’s paradise, and there are already more than 800 scattered around the world. Guests enjoy food or drinks as they crack open any of the hundreds of games available from a carefully-curated lending library. If they love the game, they can usually buy a brand-new copy from behind the register, but that’s not really the point.

“We don’t care too much if someone buys a game,” says Greg May, co-founder of The Uncommons and co-owner of Hex & Co. “We’re perfectly happy if they simply join us when they want to play anything at all. For traditional retailers, that’s heresy.”

The Uncommons, a FLGC in the heart of New York City’s Greenwich Village, occupies the tight footprint of what used to be the Village Chess Shop (a monument to a New York you can increasingly only experience by watching movies from the 1970s, the Village Chess Shop shuttered in 2012, its farewell post calling itself “more of a curiosity or portrait than viable retail environment”).

The Uncommons has done quite well for itself. It opened in 2013 with the help of private investment, a modest Kickstarter campaign (disclosure: I was a $20 backer), and a splash of excited press. Tables of various sizes accommodate a total of 60 to 70 players, and are packed most evenings with gamers laying down cards and throwing back beers, purchasable at the cashier along with bagels, teas, smoothies, and other light bar and coffee shop fare. A feature wall is given over entirely to a selection from what the company claims is “the largest [board game] library on the East Coast of the USA” — with over 1,000 games, far more than the wall could hold, much of that collection is on “semi-permanent loan” to Hex & Co., which boasts two uptown locations even larger than The Uncommons.

The lending library — or rather, the $10 cover charge to access it for three hours — provides the store’s principal source of revenue. The cover charge initially provoked skepticism from the online commentariat, but it hasn’t stopped people from flocking to the cafe since it opened. There’s a reason for that, explains Uncommons general manager Danny Dyer:

“People coming in, sitting down, playing games, spending that community time trying out games, they aren’t sure if they would necessarily want to drop the whole price of the game. But $10 to play it, versus $60, $70 to buy it? Sometimes you save a lot of money realizing Oh, actually, I’m good. One time is plenty.

Not everyone comes in with a specific game they’re looking to evaluate. Many players, especially those just getting into the hobby, see that wall of games and don’t even know where to begin. So naturally, they turn to Dyer or one of his co-workers for tips, or even a full tutorial.

“People will say, ‘Do you have any fun games?’” Dyer relates, his eyebrow cocked. “And I say ‘No, there are no fun games, not a one. Sorry, you’re out of luck.’”

But then he gets down to business: “I want to get a sense of the game genres they might be interested in, especially people who don’t necessarily know the name of those genres. Like if somebody comes in and they’re like, ‘Oh, we love Root — like, oh, OK, let me show you some other games that are in that vein. Things that are asymmetrical, or have a lot of character to them.” Dyer and his staff often suggest three or four games at once: “A little bit of a spread. Like, this game is really easy. This game will take you probably 15 or 20 minutes to learn. This might be a little bit harder than what you’re looking for, but it’s really great and matches what we’re talking about.”

The friendly, curatorial approach is a far cry from the surly nerd gatekeeping so famously skewered by The Simpsons’ Comic Book Guy, behavior so notable among some FLGS staff that gamers often wonder if the “F” in FLGS stands for “friendly’’ after all (though, of course, #notallFLGSes). No FLGC worth its salt would employ staff like that, says Steve Tassie, chief gaming officer at Snakes & Lattes. He believes that a key pillar of the model is staff that are “jeuliers — like sommeliers, but for board games.”

If Uncommons is a cafe, then Snakes & Lattes is a mini restaurant empire. Founded in Toronto in 2010, the company has since expanded to eight locations throughout North America, often acquiring and expanding preexisting venues. Most Snakes & Lattes stores boast a chef-prepared menu, private spaces, game boxes organized in a grid and individually color-coded (“Green games are easy to learn, yellow games are a little more challenging, and the red ones are really tough. Plus, if it’s a game that’s really good for two people, we put a blue sticker on it”), even drag brunches and comedy nights. The stores served as an inspiration for Uncommons and Hex & Co., as well as many others, which in turn inspired other stores — or, as Tassie calls them, “children” and “grandchildren” of Snakes & Lattes.

“We’re hardly the first board game cafe in the world. They existed in Europe and in Asia long before we came along,” Tassie acknowledges, pointing out that there are plenty of FLGSes that offer chips and soda, and also many bars that have a shelf with a few copies of Scrabble, “or maybe a box of Trivial Pursuit questions on every table… but we’re the first in North America really to be serious as both a restaurant and about board games.”

Snakes isn’t secretive about the way it does things — in fact, a few years ago it ran a 24-part video tutorial touching on every aspect of its operations, from staffing the kitchen to guiding customers beyond familiar-but-basic fare like Monopoly and Munchkin. It can be so open about its approach because it considers very few businesses, even retail gaming stores, to actually be competition.

“It’s really about the experience. That’s really what we’re trying to capitalize on and offer to our guests: something that they won’t find anywhere else,” says Snakes & Lattes’ Canada & U.S. marketing director Anaïs Guilbert. “I would say that the places we compete against — though I don’t consider them direct competitors — would be other entertainment venues. Places where people can go for food and drinks, but don’t offer board games. So it’s like, when people are going to go out, they ask: ‘Are we gonna go to the movies tonight or to Snakes & Lattes?’”

“We’re in competition as much with Alamo Drafthouse as we are with any FLGS,” adds May. “The Uncommons was perhaps answering the questions of about a decade ago: Namely, could New York City rents support a gaming bar and cafe? Hex is meant to be our look at the future.”

And what does that future hold? For Hex’s West Side location, already large by Manhattan standards: “doubling in capacity early next year, with upgrades to private rooms, tournament systems, and vast improvements in our kitchen.” And, separately, an entirely new, third Hex store opening downtown in just a few weeks, with an even grander vision: “full liquor and cocktails, full kitchens, A/V, live-action role-playing events, higher-end retail operations with customizability, one-of-a-kind items, prize balls, 3D printing, and much more.”

It’s an ambitious plan, to be sure, and May is sanguine about the possibilities. But to any FLGS looking to revamp into a FLGC, he has some words of warning:

“Retail spaces cannot transition easily into experiences. Very, very few if any stores have started retail-only and moved smoothly into a cafe or bar model without literally moving to a new location and starting fresh. Every part of the business is different, from employees to layout to supply chains to back office needs, even building and health codes.

Becoming truly experiential, especially looking towards the future, requires setting aside traditional retail entirely.”