Board game cafes hope to do more than entertain

In a world focused on technology and obtaining the latest gadgets, we find ourselves immersed in a society that lacks social interaction. With phones and other smart devices now serving as personal extensions of ourselves, a Calgary café reverts back to basics when games weren’t on screens but boards.

Dorota Ulkowska and Pascal Espinosa are the owners of Metal Galaxy Bistro, a popular board game cafe that recently opened its doors a second time after relocating

to 4624 Macleod Trail S.W. With a combination of corporate and retail skills, the duo realized Calgary lacked a niche board game cafe market, which has seen success in other Canadian cities, like Toronto, over the past decade. After extensive research that included travelling to Toronto to visit several extremely popular board game cafes, they decided to roll the dice and put into motion the idea of owning a board game cafe while also promoting interpersonal collaboration — a shared passion of theirs.

“I think in general, society has just gone so far away from direct interaction and we need it and we don’t realize it,” says Espinosa. “But I think that people start to reconnect and start playing a board game it’s almost like they’re coming out of their caves and all of a sudden it’s sunlight, right, they are re-emerging and finding out that this is actually really cool, they just forgot about it.”

Ulkowska echoes this observation with firsthand experience watching her kids utilize technology.

A couple reads the rules of a game they’re playing for the first time. Metal Galaxy Bistro offers customers the option to try out games for only $2.50 per hour per person, an affordable option compared to dropping 40-50 dollars on a game you might not like. Photo by Kate Holowaty“That skill of actually connecting individually is starting to be lost in our generation and especially in the younger generation as well,” she says. “Both Pascal and I have kids and we are noticing that they don’t even know how to interact, they don’t even know how to order something at a restaurant because they’re so used to being on their phone.”

Metal Galaxy Bistro isn’t the only board game cafe gaining popularity in Calgary. One may speculate where this resurgence in “simple,” technology-free entertainment comes from, but Espinosa believes that it’s derived from a subconscious human need to socialize.

“I think it’s just a sign that we really need this, and the thing that’s made a big difference is that a lot of the board games that have come out are designed to really promote social interaction, diplomacy, they are not as competitive as they used to be,” says Espinosa. “It’s not as cutthroat like how Monopoly used to be for instance, so it makes it easier for people to have social interactions around the game instead of just focusing on the game. The game is sort of like the tool that gets people together.”

Jeremy and Tara Rose have been frequenting the cafe at both its old and new locations, often bringing their young daughter Ella with them. They believe that another reason the popularity for board games is increasing is because of their affordability.

“It’s a less expensive community that you can get involved with that you don’t have to spend thousands and thousands of dollars to do,” says Tara. “It’s a social thing, so it gets you out of your house so you’re not looking at a computer screen 24/7.”

A group of players play Yugioh in a tournament hosted by the Metal Galaxy Bistro. Owner Pascal Espinosa oversees the tournaments but the atmosphere is always casual, non-intimidating and open to all skill levels. Photo by Kate Holowaty “It’s not as cutthroat like how Monopoly used to be for instance, so it makes it easier for people to have social interactions around the game instead of just focusing on the game. The game is sort of like the tool that gets people together.”

But Espinosa still receives questions about the cafe’s potential because the economy has been hard on other family-run businesses.

“I think we’re a great option for this economy,” he explains. “You know, movies are expensive, going out is expensive and I think we have the more affordable option and I think that we can actually feed on the economy not doing so well because people can come in and play for two to three hours and only pay 10 bucks.”

And he’s right. Metal Galaxy Bistro has been busy since it opened, and after seeing the new space it’s easy to understand why.

The open concept space is colourful. The walls feature punches of orange and red that are contrasted by grey wooden floors and stainless steel finishes. Well-organized board games line the walls beside glass displays that feature popular game figurines. The roar of laughter and chatter erupts from people of all ages as they shuffle decks and strategize their next move. And the staff is friendly when answering questions from patrons, a skill learned from Espinosa.

Owner Pascal Espinosa stands behind the retail desk while talking to one of his staff members. Espinosa hopes that Metal Galaxy Bistro will help people reconnect. “People forgot how to connect, we have a thousand friends on Facebook but how many friends in real life?” he says. Photo by Kate Holowaty “I’m never in a hurry; actually I never try to sell them anything… I just need to make sure they are feeling comfortable and having fun to just chit chat about their day or what’s going on,” says Espinosa. “It’s just a natural approach. They don’t feel like they’re in a business, they just feel like they’re safe and they’re home.”

And with Ulkowska’s mother behind the cafe counter taking orders while Pascal chats with his regulars, the environment shows why people have followed this business to its new location.

Along with affordability, the cafe also features several unique factors. These include Magic: The Gathering custom decks that Espinosa creates himself; alongside a full retail store and board game library that allows patrons to order any game on the market.

But Tyler McIntyre, another longtime patron of Metal Galaxy Bistro, says the real reason the cafe stands apart is because of Pascal.

Metal Galaxy Bistro features games that focus on a variety of different skills including creativity, strategy and collaboration and if you can’t find the game you’re looking for they can order it for you no problem. Photo by Kate Holowaty“The second time you go in there he knows your name. He’s really good with customer service, any questions, he’s always really good at answering them,” says McIntyre. “It’s awesome, that’s probably half the reason for coming here when it opened because Pascal is such a good guy.”

Ulkowska hopes all patrons leave the cafe feeling better than when they came in and they created memorable new experiences.

“I want them to remember the experience that they had playing a particular game, laughing like mad, or learning something about the other person, the experience, that’s what I want them to remember.”

Thumbnail image by Kate Holowaty

kholowaty@cjournal.ca

The editor responsible for this article is Jodi Brak, jbrak@cjournal.ca