Eli Edwardson was traveling in Canada when he noticed a new trend emerging: board game cafés. Popular in cities like Toronto, board game cafés offer the standard coffee and bakery items as well as an opportunity to engage their fellow patrons in contests of wit or strategy. The chain Snakes and Lattes, which currently has four locations in Toronto, charges only a $5 fee for access to the more than 1,000 board games lining the walls at each of their cafés.
After returning to their home in Grand Rapids, Edwardson and his wife Hanna, both 27, felt they could recreate the experience locally. In the fall of 2017, they created West Michigan Game Knights.
As a mobile board game night host, Edwardson travels to locations such as Elk Brewing in Grand Rapids at least once a month to share his collection of games with patrons at no charge. He generally brings around 15 different games to each event and rotates them regularly, occasionally giving away old games as he adds new titles to his inventory. With many modern board games boasting price tags of $40 or more, the gathering allows players to enjoy the selection and discover which games they enjoy without first paying the expensive retail price. Edwardson understands the “intimidating” elements of learning a new game, and his goal is for everyone to enjoy their evening without having to read a complicated rule book.
“I will teach, set up, explain, do whatever people need,” he said. “It’s a way to sit down without a phone for a little while and just talk and connect.”
If familiar titles such as “Apples to Apples” are in his arsenal that evening, he brings other games that are similar so that he may suggest them to players who are hesitant to branch out.
“If I see (customers) grab a game on their own and I’m not talking to them, I can then 15, 20 minutes later bring another game to them and teach it to them really quick, and that gets the ball rolling,” Edwardson said. “I’ve seen people play through five new games in one night.”
Although there is no rule stipulating that players must turn off or silence their mobile devices, Edwardson has noticed a decrease in cell phone use, provided he’s “done a good job” and adequately matched up players with compatible games.
“If I can get a group playing the right game, generally the conversations grow and the phones go away,” he said.
He has seen his share of converts to the board game scene. He told the story of a guest who came to an event but also said he didn’t like board games. Edwardson brought him a copy of “Timeline,” a game where players are dealt cards featuring different inventions and must place them in chronological order. Were windmills invented before the printing press, or after?
“So I teach (this game) to him real quick, and I come back to check on him, and he was on Amazon ordering the game to buy,” Edwardson said. “Those are the moments where I’m like, ‘See, you thought you didn’t like games because you were thinking of playing ‘Uno,’ and that’s not what you wanted to do…’ It’s fun to get these people to realize that there’s a little bit of stuff for everybody, and that’s why I’m here.”
A simple, easy-to-learn game that has been very popular at Edwardson’s game nights is “The Mind.” The premise is simple: everyone gets a card with a number on it, and they must be arranged in a pile in ascending order. The catch? No one can show their card before playing it, and no one is allowed to speak or gesture to each other in any way.
“All you do is stare at each other and try to get focused in and decide how to play,” Edwardson said. “It’s perfect for that environment because… it’s exactly what we’re trying to achieve, which is just straight connection. Trying to connect with someone eye to eye to achieve a goal.”
Recently, Michigan-based comic book and game store Vault of Midnight hosted their own board game night at Rezervoir Lounge. Kaitlin Diemer, 28, of Grand Rapids serves as the company’s events coordinator, and has seen both groups of friends and individuals attend their events.
“It’s a great way to meet new people,” Diemer said. “A lot of people who come alone are new to the city, they’ve just moved to Grand Rapids. We try to use ‘Vault of Midnight’ events as a way to introduce our customers to one another and build up that community around the shop.”
Citing her own personal experiences, Diemer suggested that having a game already set up also helps take the pressure off those who may find large groups intimidating.
“As someone with social anxiety, it’s nice to have an activity laid out that you can focus on, and then let the conversation naturally flow around that,” she said.
Diemer’s favorite game currently is “T.I.M.E Stories,” a cooperative futuristic game where time travel exists and players must inhabit bodies in other different realities and dimensions in order to repair a fault or paradox that threatens the fabric of time and space. The original game has players “uploaded” into characters at a Victorian-era asylum, but expansion packs take gamers to alternate timelines in locations such as a Lovecraftian universe or ancient Egypt.
“I think board games now are so creative,” Diemer said. “You see all sorts of amazing artwork, really cool storytelling, and different genres… It’s not just ‘Monopoly’ or ‘Clue’ anymore. There’s a whole world out there.”
Ben Stitt, 37, of Grand Rapids attended the board game night at Rezervoir Lounge. A systems engineer and veteran, he has previously volunteered for Extra Life, an organization that hosts fundraising gaming sessions to benefit Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals. He was invited to the gathering by his new coworkers.
“I love board games, I love meeting people, and these guys asked me,” Stitt said. “I just started working (with them) a month ago. Nice way to get to know your coworkers.”
At Elk Brewing, West Michigan Game Knights typically draws in around 40 people at their events, which are open to all ages. Roughly half of the attendees are regulars who attend every game night, but the others are first-timers. Edwardson often sees couples on their first dates.
“If you go out on a date with somebody… there’s a lot of pressure to have a good time and have a good conversation, and (a game night) just stimulates that,” Edwardson says. “It relieves all that pressure because you’re just doing something together and then the conversations roll naturally.”
For him, seeing people enjoy themselves is enough of a win.
“I don’t care if somebody walks away wanting to buy this game,” Edwardson said. “That’s not really the point to me. I just want somebody to walk away with a more memorable night.”
Board Games at GRCC
The Grand Rapids Community College Board Gaming Club offers a weekly opportunity for GRCC students to get their board gaming on without even leaving the campus.
The members listed some advantages to in-person gaming vs. the online experience.
“If you’re doing a video game… you’re very much focused on talking about the game and what you need to do,” said Josie Disselkoen, 20. “With board games we can just play a card game and get to know each other and talk about something completely different.”
“There isn’t the toxicity that can happen with online games,” said Nic Gibbard, 18, of Wyoming.
“Plus, let’s face it, with board games you get a lot more laughter than (video game) Smash Bros,” said James Smith, 30, of Grand Rapids.
GRCC Board Gaming Club President Daniel Brechting, 19, of Sparta, cited the ”long-term friendships” he’s made as one of the best things about the organization. Others agreed that it was the quality of the people that mattered.
“You can have all the best games in the world, but if the people aren’t great it’s not worth it,” said Charlie Bushman, 23, of Rockford. “It’s the people that make it what it is.”
Gibbard recalled the time the group played “the unicorn game that made no sense whatsoever,” but still had a good time.
“If the game sucks but the people are great, you make fun of it and you keep going,” Gibbard said. “When nerds unite, fun things happen.”
Members meet on Thursdays from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. for various card and board game playing, and on Wednesdays from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. to play “Dungeons and Dragons.” All meetings are held in room 55 on floor G2 of the Main Building. Membership is open to all students and more information can be found at their Raider Connect page.