It’s long after Saturday midnight in Marche cafe. A group of university students sit huddled around a table, utterly absorbed. They’re not talking philosophy or arguing politics. They’re not even drinking. In this CBD cafe, the strongest thing on the menu is a double espresso but the real kicks are to be found in the venue’s vast selection of board games.
Open until 2am on weekends, Marche is equally popular with international students and local families – who tend to visit the bright and airy cafe during more sociable hours. The games on offer range from the classic (Game of Life, Guess Who? and Cluedo) to the cutting edge (Cards Against Humanity).
While Marche is Melbourne’s first dedicated board-game cafe, there are plenty of other venues offering a selection of games. Also in the CBD is Cafe Giraffe, in Fitzroy there’s The Rooks Return, and St Kilda has the charmingly retro 29th Apartment.
You might expect these old-fashioned games to have disappeared in the wake of their more glamorous, screen-based rivals, be they Portal or Candy Crush Saga. Instead, we’re in the midst of a new, cardboard-based golden age.
Ross Hipkins, who owns the chain of Mind Games specialty games shops across Melbourne, attributes the current board-game boom to the arrival of “Euro games” such as Settlers of Catan and Carcassonne. While he says Hungry Hippos and Monopoly continue to sell well, the latest batch (mostly German) are far less likely to end with a bad loser upturning the board.
“With some of those classic games, you know you’re losing 10 minutes in and then you’ve got to sit there for over an hour, losing more and more,” Ross says. “There are a lot of what they call co-operative games now, where you’re playing against the board and you’re all on the same team.
“Computer games are something you do on your own. People are more interested in sitting around with their friends, having a bite to eat, playing a game, socialising and interacting. Board games have always offered that.”
Ross says he’s seeing more and more parents come into the store, looking for a more social form of kids’ entertainment. One such parent is children’s author Chris Miles. A long-time gamer, Chris regularly meets friends to eat, drink and play Dungeons & Dragons. Recently, he’s seen his seven-year-old daughter show an interest in old-fashioned gaming.
“A lot of people are worried about kids spending too much time on screen, so there’s a natural desire to provide some entertainment that’s not screen-based,” Chris says. “That’s never been my primary issue; it’s more that all games are fun, so it’s good to have variety.”
Chris says his family enjoys a range of games, from Once Upon a Time, in which players use their cards to tell a story, to Star Wars: X-Wing, which sees him and his daughter stage a space-bound dogfight with plastic miniatures. “For her, it’s fun if mum and dad join in the game as well, but there’s also the tactile quality of these games. The physicality of it is appealing.”
It isn’t just board games that are enjoying a revival. In seeking a physical alternative to virtual games, some parents are looking even further back. Like Chris, writer Myfanwy Jones has a long history with gaming, although her interest lies with the sort of parlour games whose popularity peaked in the 19th century. While writing her best-selling compendium Parlour Games for Modern Families (co-written by Spiri Tsintziras), she became aware of a new generation of parents yearning to escape the iPad.
“It’s been much more successful than I expected,” Myfanwy says. “Which says to me, in all kinds of ways, people are trying to slow down and simplify, and trying to reintroduce things that have fallen away.”
Myfanwy’s book offers up lost entertainment including drawing games (such as Squiggle, made famous by classic ABC TV show Mr Squiggle), movement games (Blind Potatoes sees the family picking up spuds while blindfolded), word games and games of dice, cards and marbles.
She knows first-hand that time pressures can discourage parents from trying something new – or even something very old – with their offspring. “There was a certain amount of convincing people their kids would enjoy it if they gave it a go. I think just carving out an hour on the weekend is a really fun way to start, have tea and cake and play a game. I just think, you might drag them there but then they’re going to enjoy it and come back.”
Although Myfanwy admits her children did call her “the strictest mother in school”, they always enjoyed the daily, dedicated playtime.
“It’s not time that you regret. You don’t finish a game and think, ‘Oh god, that was a waste of time’ – as you do if you’ve been playing Candy Crush.”
Where to play
Marche cafe 63 A’Beckett Street, Melbourne. 9663 8898. mbgcafe.com.au
Cafe Giraffe 302 Little Lonsdale Street, Melbourne. 9640 0889
The Rooks Return 201 Brunswick Street, Fitzroy. 9417 1401. therooksreturn.com.au
29th Apartment 29 Fitzroy Street, St Kilda. 9534 0485. 29thapartment.com.au
Five board games to get your family hooked
Settlers of Catan 10+
The seminal Euro game, Catan sees players assume the roles of settlers, each attempting to build and develop holdings while trading and acquiring resources. Catan Junior is available to get younger kids started. (One hour to 90 minutes). catan.com
The other big one. Here, players construct a medieval landscape. (30 to 90 minutes). carcassonnecentral.com
Players construct a story based on the cards in their hand. (30 minutes). http://en.libellud.com/games/dixit
Rory’s Story Cubes 4+
Players use a mix-and-match selection of nine cubes to create stories that mash up genres and themes. A great one for kids to play on long car trips. (Variable length). storycubes.com
King of Tokyo 8+
In this dice-based game, players control giant monsters, trying to get into Tokyo to trash the place, while other players try to stop them. (30 minutes). iellogames.com/KingOfTokyo.html