Even on a sunny afternoon at Snakes & Lattes Annex, many Torontonians didn’t mind acting like kids inside. A few months ago, an elderly man traded pawn moves with a school-age girl. A cluster of millennials dug into the German-style strategy classic Carcassonne. Up front, where board games are sold, an Ottawa entrepreneur held a stack of boxes under one arm as he consulted Steve Tassie, one of the cafe’s game-teaching gurus, on what to stock in his own board-game cafe.
In walkable Toronto, every major street seems to offer a space for playing old-fashioned tabletop games, with drinks and snacks on the side. Several, like Castle Board Game Cafe near the University of Toronto, evoke dorm lounges with plain chairs and soft couches.
Shareable plates are a constant across the game cafes, but the beverages of choice vary. Each serves up its own blend, whether tea, beer, wine or espresso. But walk into any and you’ll hear the same conviviality: fast talk, laughter and rolling dice. The one thing you’ll rarely see is someone’s head buried in a glowing phone screen.
There are so many of these game rooms in Toronto that the popular metro culture site BlogTO named its top 20 local board-game cafes two years ago, and commenters have been noting new ones ever since. Toronto has become a model of how popular these games can become across a single city. At least a dozen dedicated board-game cafes have popped up around the United States, including in Manhattan, Boston and Los Angeles.
More than the Canadian winters fuel the cafes’ ubiquity here, cafe owners agree. Certainly geek culture has grown more mainstream. The TV blockbuster “Game of Thrones” and its board game variations play a role. European strategy games like the Settlers of Catan have carved inroads into the North American market. And the irreverent Cards Against Humanity has become such a runaway hit that its stock at Snakes & Lattes Annex takes up an entire sales wall. The cafe hosts monthly game developer nights so creators can test the next big things. “We’ve seen the evolution in Canada,” said Aaron Zack, a Snakes & Lattes partner. “It’s not about labeling yourself as a geek. It’s literally about having fun with your friends.”
Entrepreneurs in Thailand, South Africa, England, India and Mexico have called or visited Toronto to learn how these nondigital, fully analog, pay-to-play cafes operate. Many of the Canadian cafes charge several dollars a person (often for unlimited play time, as well as a food and drink minimum). They manage game inventories, thousands of pieces, and offer staff experts to teach the rules.
Toronto’s scene started rolling when the French-born Ben Castanie, who was inspired in part by the Parisian toy libraries that lent playthings to families when he was a boy, opened Snakes & Lattes Annex in 2010. He named it after a favorite Canadian game called Snakes & Ladders, sold as Chutes and Ladders in the United States. “We just thought it would be cool to put board games on a shelf,” Mr. Castanie said.
Experimenting with logistics, he and two business partners, Mr. Zack and Aaron Slade, pared their selection to 1,000 games. They sorted the game menu into categories like Party, Strategy, Trivia and Classic Americana (think of Battleship and Mall Madness), and hung squares of pixelated art on the walls. Hiring “game gurus” to advise on rules, Mr. Castanie said, was most important, ensuring that players feel comfortable exploring unfamiliar games.
With three-hour wait lists on busy nights, the Snakes & Lattes Annex has been a hit. Its cafe serves endless coffee and panini to the immigrants and college students who live in the immediate Koreatown area and the bordering Annex neighborhood, from which it gets its name.
After a 2014 attempt at an intimate, date-ready cafe called Snakes & Lagers, the partners last September replaced the cafe with the much larger Snakes & Lattes College, a lively and group-friendly 7,500-square-foot space in the nearby Little Italy neighborhood. It features 16 wines and craft beers on tap.
At one of Toronto’s more laid-back board-game spots, Bampot Bohemian House of Tea and Board Games, the air is suffused with peppery chai spices, and no alcohol is served. Hookahs and 150 loose-leaf teas are available, along with vegetarian surprises like poutine soup. Mark Newell, a Scottish former burlesque dancer, opened the cafe in 2014.
Once a family home, the earth-toned space is full of pillowy nooks. Bampot hosts craft circles, philosophy discussions and sign-language practice sessions alongside its menu of 170 games. “We have people who come for board games, for tea, for shisha,” Mr. Newell said. “It’s very diverse. That’s the beauty of it.”