Business partners didn’t understand potential of opening a “hip” board games café, says founder of Bohemia Boards & Brews

16-03-2018

Bohemia Boards & Brews, is a café/pub/bar that boasts a library of some 500 board games, is one of a kind in the Czech capital, a trendy, well-designed venue for both gamers and non-gamers alike.

Bohemia Boards & Brews, photo: archive of Douglas KaufmanBohemia Boards & Brews, photo: archive of Douglas Kaufman Want to grab a coffee or a few beers to play a quick party game with friends? Or play an intricate war game on a lazy afternoon? This café in Prague’s Vršovice is the place for you. Since opening last July, tables at the venue are regularly booked.

I spoke to owner Douglas Kaufman at BB&B this week to find out what was attracting people to modern board games. We began by discussing how he got the idea to launch the business in the first place.

“My background is in marketing and I worked on the agency side for a while and then I did some consulting work in 2016. And as that job came to an end, I began thinking about what to do next. I was kind of getting burnt out from everything and it was time to try something new. And it was around that time that I began hearing about board game cafes opening up in different countries. I mean, I had sort of been aware of them before but then I thought why didn’t something like that exist in Prague?

“From there, things went relatively quickly: in 2016/2017 we put together the business plan, we found the space, hired staff and opened in July of last year, first for a trial run and then regularly. So it was about six months and here it is.”

You say ‘we’ – you are the owner, do you also have business partners?

“I use the royal ‘we!’ (laughs) But no, when I originally got the idea for the business there were a few people who were interested, but to be honest nobody understood the concept, really, until we opened. There were people who said ‘oh, you should have live music’ or ‘you should have comedy nights’; and I would explain it’s a board game café and we have food on offer. So when I tried to explain whether they wanted to come in with me on the project, they didn’t understand how it would make money.

“The trend is that people don’t just want to go out anymore but they want to meet and ‘do something’.”

“There were originally potential partners, one a game designer and the other a guy who had a board game café in the UK – one reason I had the business plan – but for one reason or another that didn’t work out. So I told myself, ok, I have the money, I’ll just open it on my own and see if it is able to stand on its own two feet.”

I suppose if it didn’t work – if it hadn’t worked – as a board game café, it wouldn’t be too hard to reinvent as any other venue, a regular café or bar. But from I’ve heard and seen the opposite is the case: you are very busy. So in fact, you tapped into a need and a market which existed here.

“I think so. The thing is, modern board gaming has its epicentre in Germany – it is really very popular there. We are one country over and board gaming has grown really popular here. They didn’t necessarily have many options outside of their home or a few clubs before now.

“So the idea was to meet three main criteria here: for Bohemia Boards and Brews to be a place where a) people could borrow and play games, b) which would have really nice atmosphere which people could come out and enjoy, gamers and non-gamers alike, and c) has food and drink and could be an alternative to regular bars or cafes we’ve been visiting for 30 years.

Bohemia Boards & Brews, photo: archive of Douglas KaufmanBohemia Boards & Brews, photo: archive of Douglas Kaufman “The options in the past were kind of limited and now the trend is that people don’t just want to go out but they want to meet and ‘do something’. The board game café taps into this new trend. People want to do things, they are going to escape rooms, there has been resurgence in the popularity of bowling, there are all these places which are new and interesting where you are not just going to hang out but there is something to do when you get there. That is the wave we are riding.”

When I first moved here it was all about the pub and alcohol, as anyone who lived here I the ‘90s will remember. Maybe that hasn’t changed: but at some point you sort of getting tired of talking about politics or ‘solving’ the world’s problems by your sixth beer!

“Especially nowadays when problems seem to be so prevalent and society is so polarized. So yeah, I think that sitting around and playing a game instead of arguing about politics, I think is appealing to people.”

Who is your customer? Is it someone who already knows games or came once with a gamer who introduced them to the hobby?

“It is hard to say. But I think you can break it into three basic categories: the smallest are the really experienced gamers, who come with a group, who already know many or most of the games in the games library, who want to play a heavy game or even bring their own.

“Staff at the café teach the rules to the games, removing one of the top barriers for many to play new games.”

“The next group is one gamer with a group of non-gamer friends, who says let’s go here tonight and maybe play one or two shorter games. The third group is similar, and there you’ll have one gamer and the rest, who primarily want to play a fun, quick social game. That is probably the biggest group, the group you hear lots of laughter from at the table, when they are playing something like Cards against Humanity.

“So they come, and if they don’t know the game already, one of the staff explains the rules.”

That is one of the number one complaints of non-gamers: I don’t want to learn any rules!

“Oh yeah, rules are the worst! I am sure that the rules are the single biggest barrier for non-gamers to get into board games is that someone has to read five or 10 pages of rules. I mean, it has gotten better, there are all kinds of player aids which simplify the process and the main thing is that at the café we have people to help. If you are taught how to play a game, it might take as little as five minutes or ten, compared to half-an-hour or an hour to internalize the rules on your own.”

Was that obvious to you back when this was only a concept? That you knew you would have to have staff that could explain the rules?

Bohemia Boards & Brews, photo: archive of Douglas KaufmanBohemia Boards & Brews, photo: archive of Douglas Kaufman “Yes, for sure, that was a main part of the business plan and the idea.”

Let’s talk about some of the different genres of games: you have 500 which may be daunting for newbs but a lot of them are lighter, fun, easy to learn. Then there are heavier games and really heavy titles. I am not sure I could see myself playing something like GMT’s Here I Stand in this setting (a massive game which covers the political and religious conflicts of early 16th Century Europe) but I guess somebody might.

“Usually you’ll see that on a Sunday when we are not that busy and you can have the space all day that we’ll get a group that books one of the large tables at the back to play something big. We have a guy who comes about once a month, who made his own giant version of The Game of Thrones game to accommodate 10 players.

“And they set up this massive game and play from about noon to about 10 at night. It’s this massive game and by the time they are done they all look drained. So they leave looking a bit dejected and the final players fighting they look… they look like they have actually been through the real Game of Thrones.”

All those betrayals…

“Exactly! I am sure it all wears on your soul after a while, after nine hours!” (laughs)

It’s a kind of gamers’ dream, especially for those who have families and all kinds of commitments…

“The Brews in the name is not only beer, but also coffee and tea.”

“You don’t have three hours to play a game or sometimes even one. Now that many of us have families, it is much harder to get together for two hours a week, so huge games like that are less common for me now.

“Also, as I get older and my brain doesn’t work as well anymore (!) I am learning to appreciate games, for myself and for our customers, games which are fast, offer something clever, bring a social element to it, I love games nowadays where everyone is standing up around a table and throwing dice or there is a moment where you go ‘Yeah!’ at the end. I don’t know if those would be games I would enjoying the most if they were the ONLY games I was playing but I certainly appreciate them a lot more now.

“By comparison, the group I play with usually play a lot of Phil Eklund games, which are super intricate.” [Editor’s note: Eklund’s games include titles such as High Frontier about what it takes to design a rocket to get into space to fulfil a mission or Pax Porfiriana about the 33-year reign of dictator Porfirio Díaz, who ruled Mexico with an iron fist until he was toppled by the 1910 Revolution] Now I don’t have time for that anymore, and, like I said, these days I prefer stuff where I can just sit down for a bit and play super fast.”

It is true that finding a short game with a simple ruleset but a bit or even greater depth (something designer Reiner Knizia has always been highly respected for) is great. We’ve been playing a lot of Kingdomino which is a really great little game…

“Yeah Kingdomino is so good. That is exactly what I am talking about. That is a game I can teach in three minutes but it’s super clever and super fun and has some interesting choices and I can show it to a family that has never played board games and sit them down with it and they are having a great time within seconds.”

Bohemia Boards & Brews, photo: archive of Douglas KaufmanBohemia Boards & Brews, photo: archive of Douglas Kaufman If we talk about the café itself, what kind of state was it in before you began transforming it? Was it already a bar or was it something else?

“It was something else and it looked nothing like this. There is the main room we are in now and the big back room and the back room used to be a children’s indoor playground and the front was a big kitchen and bar and parents could sit out here and eat and drink wine or coffee or whatever. It was completely different.”

Was everything pastels?

“Everything was all pastels and primary colours the ceiling had white fluorescent lights. It was night and day.”

The interior design now was clearly done with the help of an architect…

“Yes, her name is Helena Paz and I gave her a couple pictures and sort of a mood board… My basic idea was that I needed a place that was if you are standing outside in December and it’s snowing and you look in the window, that is where you want to be. Very cosy, warm and inviting and she did an amazing job fulfilling that vision.”

16-03-2018

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