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Tips and Tricks for Board Gaming at Cafes and Pubs

Ivan Sorenson asks,

Gaming in pubs and cafes: [What are some] do’s and don’ts.

Thanks for the question, Ivan.

I’m going to make an assumption here. I’m going to assume you are asking about public gaming events where a group of gamers gather at the local cafe or pub to play games with a variety of different people. If I’m wrong about this, and maybe you were looking instead for date night game suggestions or tips for playing with your mates at the local watering hole, let me know.

Since launching the Windsor Gaming Resource back in 2002, I’ve run a variety of tabletop gaming events at a variety of venues. Many of these events have been at local coffee shops or cafes and at a couple of local pubs. Playing in public is not the same as playing at home. Similarly playing at a pub is not the same as playing at a cafe. So, let’s take a look at each of these separately.

We also discussed this topic on Tabletop Bellhop Live Episode 12 – The Next Round is on You.

Disclosure: Some links in this post are Amazon affiliate links. As an Amazon associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.


Tips For Gaming at Cafes and Pubs, The Short Answer:

Do’s:

Lots of different games being played at this gathering of tabletop gamers.
  • Scope the place out first.
  • Ask for permission.
  • Watch for table size.
  • See how private the area will be.
  • Check the lighting.
  • Pick games based on the location.
  • Keep drinks away from games.
  • Be courteous.
  • Treat all games as if they were your own.
  • Support the venue.

Don’t’s:

  • Just show up and expect to be able to play games.
  • Bring games with lots of little bits.
  • Bring your own food and drink.
  • Show up expecting to find players for a specific game.
  • Abuse someone else’s game components.
  • Eat greasy or saucy food and play at the same time.
  • Expect everyone to have the same tastes as you.

Tips For Gaming at Pubs and Cafes, The Long Answer:

It’s one thing to host a game night or show up at a friend’s place to play games. In most cases you know everyone that will be there, you know the games that will be played (often ahead of time), and you know what to expect. There are rules (often unwritten) in place about bringing your own food, drinks, etc.

It’s a completely different thing to show up at or to attempt to host a public play event. Ivan specifically asked about cafes and pubs so I am going to focus on those spaces. Gaming at public venues like this is very different from gaming at someone’s home, and it’s also different from playing at a venue dedicated to gaming, such as your FLGS.

I’m going to break this down into two sections as there are differences between gaming at cafes and at pubs. By pubs, I mean any venue that serves alcoholic beverages and for cafes, I mean coffee shops, sandwich shops, or full-on restaurants. Now there is a lot of overlap between these two types of venues and I can’t think of anything that applies to a cafe that doesn’t apply to a pub. Pubs just have some additional considerations.


Things You Need to Consider When Gaming at Cafes:

One of the first things you should do before gaming anywhere is show up and check the place out. Don’t just walk in and look around, actually patronize the place. Things to look for include: the size of the tables, the number of tables, how busy the place is, how loud it is, what the lighting is like, and what their hours are.

A shot from one of the many Hackforge game nights.

If the place you are considering is packed and their tables are in constant rotation, realize this is not a good place for a gaming event. The owners aren’t going to want a bunch of gamers hanging around for hours taking up the tables that could be filled with a rotating set of regular patrons. Sure your group may buy food and drinks but are they going to buy as much as multiple tables full of customers who finish their drinks/meals and then leave?

You want a place that is going to be good to play games at. A place with tables that are going to fit the games you want to play and that is well lit enough that players aren’t going to have a hard time actually seeing and using the game components. Now, this goes both ways, if the place has small tables you can plan out the games to be played to account for that, but don’t expect people to play Catan on one of those standard two seater round coffee shop tables. The same goes for lighting. Not all games require reading or being able to easily distinguish colours, but many do. The games and the venue should be a good fit for each other.

Once you find a venue be sure to ask if you can use the space. This is important. Don’t expect to show up with a bunch of gamers and assume that you can take up a bunch of tables and play games. Some places will welcome a group, especially during slower hours, but others may not want you there at all.

Noise levels are a huge consideration. Consider how loud the venue is on a regular night as well as how loud the games that people will be playing will be. On one side, it’s hard to play a heavy game when there are lots of distractions. Ont he other hand, it’s also not fair for people trying to patronize the cafe if there are people yelling, screaming and running around playing Happy Salmon. If it’s a quieter place plan to bring more involved heavier games that require focus. If the venue is usually loud then consider some crazier louder games, like Pit or Strike.

Be sure to have someone playing host. When people walk into the venue they should be greeted and asked: “Are you here for the gaming event?” If someone shows up who isn’t there for the event, explain what it is and invite them to join in. This can be a fantastic way to get more people involved in the hobby.

Often people showing up to a game night for the first time are highly nervous. They don’t know anyone and aren’t sure of the protocols.

Playing Azul at a bar during Origins.

Someone should be welcoming people in, letting them know any specific game night rules, and telling them the best way to get into a game quickly.

This is another important part of having a host. Someone should be making sure that games are getting started, letting people know if games are looking for players and letting people know when new games are starting up. I’ve run and seen events that also use a sign based system, where tables with a game about to start put a sign on the table saying “looking for players.” Another useful sign to have is one that reads, “looking for a teacher.” This leads to another consideration, make sure you know how to play the games you bring. A public game night is not the time to crack the shrink on your new hotness and sit down and try to figure out the rules. Stick to games you already know and love.

Make sure there’s somewhere to store people’s games. I hate to say it but one of the things you need to worry about at a public event is someone’s game “going walking.” Make sure there is someplace to store people’s games that is either behind closed doors or in sight of multiple people.

Be courteous both to the players you are playing with and to the games you are playing. You are probably going to be playing with strangers. Remember your manners, be polite, etc. This extends to the physical games themselves. Don’t bend or fold cards. Ask before riffle shuffling. Don’t eat and handle game components at the same time. Consider avoiding foods like ribs or wings and if you must eat finger food, do so in an area away from the games. Use coasters. and place drinks on side tables away from any boards or cards when possible.

Get your attendees to support the venue. This is a huge one to me. Nothing annoys me more than people who show up to a public game night and don’t do anything to support the place that is hosting. Remember you are the guests and you want to be invited back. At the minimum buy a drink, or even better buy a meal, or you can take it a step further and make everyone happy by buying a sharing plate for your fellow gamers. Tip well. If you make it worthwhile for the venue to host you they will be very happy to have you back. Do not allow people to bring in outside food and drink. The unfortunate reality is that I’ve caught people doing this multiple times over the years and this should be nipped in the bud as soon as possible.


Additional considerations for when you’re gaming at pubs:

All of the above applies just as well when planning an event or gaming at a pub. There are a few more considerations due to the fact that some of the gamers will probably be partaking in adult beverages.

Don’t get drunk. This isn’t a drinking night out with friends. This is a gaming event where drinking can be part of the fun. Don’t overdo it and if you are hosting, watch for other players overindulging. If you or someone else does want to kick it up a notch, stop playing games and don’t interfere with others who are playing games. Maybe move to the other side of the pub, or find a private booth, hang out there and enjoy your night, just don’t interfere with the games going on.

Dinner, drinks, and Queendomino.

Protect your games. While this is also somewhat true of cafes, it’s at pubs that you really need to worry about greasy fingers, spilt beverages and toppled components. I’m not one to sleeve my cards but if I have a game I plan to bring out to pubs regularly, I’ll sleeve it. Laminating player boards and aids is also not a bad idea. Actually varnishing boards is not unheard of. It’s inevitable at some point that something is going to get spilled. I’ve got a copy of Ascension that I’ve brought out to pub events that will always smell a bit like Upper Canada Lager.

Beware of live bands and other events. Maybe this is a local thing but I’ve found over the years that venues like to book live bands and open mic nights for the same evenings that they have gaming events scheduled. Often I’ve been running a regular event to one week show up and suddenly discover that there’s a band setting up. I find it almost impossible to play games when a band is playing. There’s the distraction, the noise, and the fact that the place usually dims the lights once the band starts playing. All of which is not good for gaming.

My biggest suggestion to counter the split event problem is to make it worth the venue’s time by packing the place and having everyone make plenty of purchases to support the venue, so they don’t need something else to boost sales on game night.


Coffee Shop Games: Board Games That Are Great For Playing in Cafes

In general, before you get to know the local group and who will be at a specific event, you want games that are easy to teach and that play quickly, like in under an hour and a half. Once you get to know the local players, maybe you can consider bringing out heavier and longer games. There’s a group here locally that plays Merchants & Marauders at every public game night, but that’s not the norm.

The one advantage of shorter games is that people can get multiple games in over one game night and can mix up who they play with throughout the night. If you are hosting, make sure you suggest this. When you see a game ending, step in and suggest the table split up to play with a different group for their next game.

Resist the temptation to bring epic multi-hour games with lots of components. For one, they are too much of a commitment for many players and secondly, if there are lots of little pieces they can easily get lost. So leave Twilight Imperium at home. However, I have found public game nights are great for meeting new players that I can then invite back to my house the next weekend for a big epic event game like TI.

Playing board games at a cafe public game night.

So-called gateway games, or welcoming games, are your friends here. Catan, Carcassonne, Sushi Go, Splendor, King of Tokyo, Survive: Escape from Atlantis, Love Letter, Forbidden Island, Kingdomino, Queendomino, and Zombie Dice, to name a few.

When playing in public, flashy games are great for getting regular patrons to come over and take a look, and you can then invite them to get involved. Games like Cash n’ Guns, Colt Express, and Takenoko tend to draw a crowd. A fantastic game that is both flashy looking and a great gateway game is Azul.

If the venue is loud you will want to avoid games with a lot of in-game communication required. Pass and play games like 7 Wonders or most deck builders like Clank! or Ascension can be good for louder spaces, as are trick-taking games like Wizard or Diamonds.


Pub Games: Board Games That Are Great For Playing in Pubs

Now there’s nothing saying you can’t play standard hobby games at a pub. Pretty much all of the games I listed for playing at cafes can fit. It all really depends on the venue. But I think there are some styles of games that are suited best for playing at pubs.

Pubs are where you want to break out your party games. Team games like Codenames and Concept are good for big groups as are many social deduction games. Even I can be convinced to play a few rounds of The Resistance or Coup after a drink or two. Telestrations is always a hit at every public event I’ve brought it to whether there is drinking going on or not. For a great coaster based bluffing game check out Skull. Dixit is another one that I’ve found works great at pubs, though make sure to protect those cards!

Azul is a great game to play at a bar or pub.

A pub is pretty much the only place you will catch me playing “take-that” games. Games like Fluxx and Munchkin almost never hit my table at home but I have fun playing them over a few drinks. These games don’t require much focus and are great for playing while chatting with your fellow gamers. Grab a copy of Bang! and combine social deduction, team play and take-that all into one game.

By far my favourite games to play at pubs, over everything I’ve already mentioned, are dexterity games. There’s something about the challenge of dexterity games, which grows with the consumption of adult beverages, that is totally fun for me.

We once played fifteen or so rounds of Pitchcar in a row at Villain’s Beastro here in Windsor. I’ve picked columns from Villa Paletti up off the floor of two different KofC halls. My copy of Junk Art has made it out to three different pubs so far. You also can’t go wrong with Hamsterrolle.

Dexterity games have the added advantage of catching people’s attention and drawing over non-gamers to see what you are doing. They are also very easy to teach, so it’s easy to get that curious patron in on the next game.


So there are some of my thoughts on gaming in cafes and pubs. What are your thoughts on playing in public? Let us know in the comments below.

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One Response

  1. I agree that it wud be a good idea to ask the pub before you set up in there. I feel like it would be a good place for me and some friends to meet up at the local pub. but I wouldn’t want to make the owner mad. I’ll have to keep that in mind finIdeicd to use a pub to play some games in with my friends.

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