TROY -- Evenings at Bard & Baker buzz with the sound of dice rolling, cards shuffling and people chatting or cheering. What’s often absent is the sound or sight of a cell phone.
The board game cafe doesn’t necessarily discourage the use of cell phones — there’s no policy against texting or anything like that — guests just don’t seem to feel the need to stare at their screens.
Instead, they’re playing tabletop games, placing tiles and moving pawns the old-fashioned way. For a $5 fee, guests play any number of games from Bard & Baker’s extensive collection of board games.
It’s a refreshing environment for Charlotte Guyton, the co-owner of the board game cafe. Before opening Bard & Baker in Troy last week, she worked in hospitality for years, first at The Point, an elite resort with fine dining on Saranac Lake. She later worked for Clark House Hospitality in Troy as the General Manager of Restaurants.
“That was something that drove me crazy about the hospitality industry. I still love it [and] I will always love it, it’s my passion. But I saw this general fade away from people talking to one another at the table,” Guyton said.
Guests from around the Capital Region come to the cafe, sometimes in groups and sometimes on their own, to play tabletop games and grab lunch or a drink.
The game library is extensive; with over 400 games on the shelves and more coming in. There’s not only classic childhood games like Monopoly, Risk and Battleship. There are sections dedicated to Euro Style games, which tend to focus on strategy and cooperation over luck. “Settlers of Catan” is perhaps the best and one of the most popular examples of this type; where players colonize an island and build settlements, requiring players to negotiate and trade for resources.
Other sections include party games, where “Cards Against Humanity,” and “Jenga” find their place. Then there are the light strategy games like “Forbidden Desert,” and “Patchwork,” followed by story-centered and role-playing games.
“When I say we have 500 games, [people] say ‘There [are] that many games?’” Guyton said.
For the beginner board game player, it might be overwhelming. That’s where people like Ariel Dominelli come in. As a board game curator, she helps people pick out the type of game they would most like to play. Though she hasn’t yet played every single game in the cafe’s library, she’s familiar with most of them and learns as many as she can in her downtime.
Dominelli is one of five curators at Bard & Baker and to those who haven’t been following the industry over the last few years, it might seem like that’s overdoing it. But with thousands of board games coming out every year, it’s important to have a curator or librarian who knows his/her stuff.
According to ICv2, a board game trade news site, sales of hobby games in the U.S. and Canada reached $1.44 billion in 2016. That number is only going to go up, according to Cision; the global board games market size is expected to grow next year and keep growing. It’s projected to reach $12 billion by 2023.
Board game cafes are also starting to pop up around the world. Bard & Baker is the first to open in the Capital Region.
Guyton and her partner, Bryan Connor, who is the head game curator and manages the kitchen, first got the idea for the cafe about two years ago when they were on vacation in New York City.
“Our favorite way to vacation is to come up with an itinerary with like 20 places to eat in one day and bop around and experience all these different cafes and bars and restaurants,” Guyton said.
The one they were most surprised by was The Uncommons, a board game cafe in Soho.
“When we walked in it was just alive with people talking, which is very different from then fine dining restaurant scene that I come from, which is very silent. . . [it’s] all forks and knives on plates,” Guyton said.
It also struck her that there was a wide range of people there; from families with young children to college students. “. . . all brought together because they love games,” Guyton said.
As soon as she got home, she started researching everything about board game cafes, trying to figure out if it might be plausible to have one in Troy. After doing months of research, she entered the All Over Albany Small Business Grant Competition and won the popular vote.
“The community erupted in excitement. I was not expecting it,” Guyton said.
They started buying second-hand restaurant equipment, and 80 percent of their equipment is from businesses around Troy and the Capital Region that are no more. Then in January of 2018, she took the Capital Region Entrepreneur Bootcamp Class and got a grant and soon after that she signed the lease for the perfect location in Troy: the corner of the News Apartments building.
Bard & Baker is in the same location that The Troy Record used to be, on the corner of 5th Ave and Broadway. They’re on the first floor of the building and it’s a perfect spot because it’s bringing in people from the apartments, people from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and people who are curious and happen to be walking by.
Because of all the buzz between the All Over Albany Competition and on social media, they’ve been fully staffed from day one, said Guyton.
“We never formally announced that we were hiring,” Guyton said. They never had to either because as soon as word got around that there was going to be a board game cafe in the Capital Region, people began reaching out to Guyton. Many said it was their dream to work in a board game cafe, and who wouldn’t want to play and recommend games during their working hours?
One of the biggest challenges to the cafe so far is getting people to understand exactly what a board game cafe is.
“A lot of people think it’s a bar with Monopoly and Jenga and maybe a couple of other games,” Guyton said.
Bard & Baker’s $5 fee allows guests to play as many games as they’d like all day. Considering some of the games can cost upwards of $60 on their own, it can be an especially good deal for hobby board gamers. Guyton and Connor spent around $10,000 to stock their game collection. Because the games are meant to be played several times a year, not several times a day like they’re going to be at the cafe, they’ve also had to invest in extra copies, card sleeves, and protective sprays. The game-play fee helps them keep up with their selection, said Guyton.
But it’s not all fun and games. There’s also a full menu. It’s built around the idea that board games are nostalgic to many, reminding people of family game nights or evenings with friends.
“We wanted items that would make you smile when you saw them,” Guyton said.
There’s shareable snacks like Teddy Grahams and Cheez-It, but there’s also pizza bagels, BLTs with fresh ciabatta bread or an almond butter, berry jam and banana on brioche bread, scones, and cookies.
It’s a mix of nostalgia, sweet and savory. Their drink offerings are similar; with classic cocktails and craft beers as well as sodas, teas and coffee.
One of Guyton’s and Connor’s concerns in opening the cafe was the culture of exclusion that can sometimes accompany board game hobbyists. Games that require a high skill level and familiarity to play, like Magic: The Gathering, can be tough for new players and new board gamers especially to break into.
“The gaming industry brings people together, but there’s also a lot of gatekeeping, especially with women and gaming and that really frustrated us,” Guyton said.
It’s part of the reason Guyton and Connor decided to include such a wide range of games and to create an environment that isn’t only welcoming to people who already love and play board games but for beginners as well.
“Our hope is for people to walk in and immediately feel welcome, regardless of your skill level, regardless of your preference,” Guyton said, “Even if you don’t want to play games, we’ve got a little puzzle nook where you can hang out.”
Right from the first night, a little over a week ago, they’ve been packed just about every evening and even during lunchtime, when people come in and learn new games on their lunch break.
“Some of the most beautiful moments we’ve had at the cafe so far are when solo individuals come into the cafe and end up joining a group that is already playing. Everyone is just so friendly,” Guyton said.
In their first week, they’ve noticed a few people come in by themselves and easily find a group that welcomes them; introducing them to a new game or maybe playing one of their favorites.
“We’re hoping that Bard & Baker becomes this community space where everybody gets together through the shared enjoyment of games to interact with one another, to create friendships, to create these wonderful moments,” Guyton said.
Bard & Baker, located at 501 Broadway in Troy, is open from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tue.-Thu., 9 a.m. to midnight on Fri., 10 a.m. to midnight on Sat. and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sun. For more information visit bardandbaker.com.