MANCHESTER, NH – It’s 8 p.m. on a Wednesday night and a couple in the front of the house are working their way through a version of Operation – a Marvelous twist on the 1960s Hasbro classic board game in which players try to extract internal organs from Cavity Sam without triggering his big red light-bulb nose buzzer to signal a surgical fail. Only in this iteration, Operation Hulk, if your tweezers slip while trying to cure the big green superhero of his toxic gas, Hulk will howl and growl, and his eyes glow green.
Hunter Moore and Caitlin Handy are having more than a few laughs based on their flimsy surgical skills. They started off the evening board gaming with Rock’Em Sock’Em Robots, then transitioned to Jenga before attempting to operate on the Hulk. More than an hour after settling in at Boards & Brews, they agree they’re having a great night out.
“It’s almost overwhelming – in a good way,” says Moore, who lives in Concord and works in downtown Manchester. Handy, who also works downtown, said they noticed the new board game cafe in passing, and are glad they stopped in. They’ll definitely be back – with hundreds more games waiting on the game wall to be mastered.
This is precisely what Central High School grad Keating Tufts, co-founder of the Elm Street establishment, hoped would happen when he Kickstarted a crowdsourcing campaign back in December of 2017, quickly surpassing the fundraising goal of $20,000, allowing Tufts and co-owner Dave Casinghino to renovate an empty storefront at 941 Elm St., and create the kind of space they hoped would make the downtown more of a destination.
There is some strategy involved in building a board game cafe in a city that, by all accounts, is a bona fide college town, one that’s fast becoming a magnet for millennials seeking a livable, walkable lifestyle, where technology jobs abound.
Creating a family-friendly place for gamers of all stripes to gather, eat, drink, and play games was the simple objective.
And so far, so good, says Tufts, who this night is helping tend bar, while slinging food orders, pouring brews and advising customers on game selections – there are more than 900 games available on tap.
It’s New Hampshire’s first game board cafe. Tufts admits there is something satisfying about opening up a downtown business that caters to his particular interests – sure, he likes a good board game as much as the next guy. But his greater interest is making sure his hometown evolves into a place that he wants to live in, one that is thriving, and perhaps not so centered on a solitary model of drinking establishments.
Not that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with the bar scene. Although he’s not a drinker himself, Boards and Brews offers several local brews on tap, as well as a selection of spirits. But it’s about the destination – providing a way for people to connect in a more meaningful way than already exists, says Tufts.
“Look around,” he says. “Do you see anyone on a cell phone?”
Sure enough, there is not one person Snapchatting or Instagramming.
“He got some messages, but he’s not looking,” says Handy, too focused on curing the Hulk of his Rage Cage without unleashing his inner beast to check her phone, either.
The timing of this business model is also strategic – the board game industry is booming, experiencing a double-digit percent growth spurt over the past few years, with current global sales of board and card games at nearly $10 billion. And board game developers are cornering the Kickstarter market, with more than 15,000 projects currently seeking start-up funding – it’s where Cards Against Humanity began.
On top of all that, New Hampshire happens to be a hub of gaming research – resident international expert on the social science behind gaming, Dr. Karen Flanagan, teaches Film and Media Studies at Dartmouth College, and is founder of Tiltfactor game research lab.
“I’m really weary of saying things like, ‘Games are going to save the world,'” Flanagan recently told NPR. “But it’s a serious question to look at how a little game could try to address a massive, lived social problem that affects so many individuals.”
The saving grace of gaming for all of our social ills is a story for another time. For now, Tufts – and the growing number of Boards & Brews customers – are all about interactive fun and games.
“I’ve come here for the last three days,” says Lauren Frament, 26, who has returned to master Onirim, a solitaire card game in which the player is a Dreamwalker, lost in a labyrinthian dreamscape of doorways and nightmares.
“I like that you can come here and play a new game, or play one you already know, and meet new people. It’s a breath of fresh air. There’s beer if you want to drink beer, but I don’t drink,” says Frament. “It’s fun and laid back, moreso than a traditional bar. I’m over the whole bar scene,” says Frament. “It’s just nice to kick back and relax and play some games.”
At a nearby table Jillian Dupras and Mark Beznos are in the middle of a chess game – this one, a Harry Potter-themed board, with elaborate playing pieces.
“I was out with my brother the other day on Elm Street and I spotted it across the way,” says Dupras, who invited Beznos to come with her to check it out.
“We’ve had lovely service. They met us right away. We were overwhelmed by the number of games, and I like how the drink menu is themed to games,” says Beznos.
The vibe is a little different from a typical bar, in that it’s hard to hear the music over the conversation – Tufts has a YouTube loop of Childish Gambino tunes playing on an overhead TV, but you must strain to hear the lyrics over the din of game chatter. The menu features mostly snacks, appetizers and sandwiches, a few dinner plates and desserts. In addition to coffe, tea, beer and wine, there are classic cocktails and game-themed drinks – like Apples to Apples, chamomile-infused rye, pineapple, lime, and cinnamon syrup muddled with fuji apple.
Friends Andrew Sakach and Kevin Zsovak are playing Dominion with newbie friend Matt Donnelly, who recently moved from Maine to Manchester. Donnelly found his way to Boards & Brews this night after searching for a local game board meet-up. Sakach and Zsovak, already there, invited him to join them in a round of the medieval-themed deck-building game that involves accumulating Victory cards while navigating pre-industrial, monarchical, and feudal social structures.
At the far end of the bar Jade Erlman and Myles Clarkson are staring at one another’s foreheads.
“OK, you are very old-school Disney,” says Erlman, playing a modified version of Hedbandz. They’ve abandoned the timer, and the “yes and no” question guidelines.
“It’s a story with all animals and one human – but not the Jungle Book,” Erlman prompts. Despite her best efforts, Clarkson is still clueless.
“I don’t think he thinks of it as a Disney character,” says Erlman, who suggests the character card affixed to Clarkson’s forehead has a bouncing tiger friend.
“I’m Winnie the Pooh?” says Clarkson. “That’s Disney?” he adds, confirming her suspicion that there is always a lot to learn about cartoon characters.
They have been to other board game cafes before, but this is their first visit to Boards & Brews – Erlman came to celebrate her 21st birthday with a board game bender, and her first glass of legal wine.
“Isn’t that so cool?” says Tufts. “She came here to celebrate her 21st birthday.”
Boards & Brews is located at 914 Elm St. Hours are 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Sun. – Thursday and 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Fri. and Sat. Players pay a $10 game fee.