ASHEVILLE — Glossing over more than a hundred cubbies, Cortland Mercer pulls a box from an alphabetized row. It reads “King of Tokyo.”
“So what are we playing?” I ask.
“It’s kind of like a Yahtzee-based mechanic game, but the premise is you are different monsters vying for supremacy in Tokyo,” he explains. “If you like dice-rolling, you get to try to match and make pairs to do damage to other players.” He drops a set of eight green and black dice on a thick maple tabletop in the back room of his new business on the edge of downtown Asheville.
It’s not the first set of dice Mercer has played.
About a year and a half ago, the Charlotte native picked up a newspaper and read an article about a new phenomenon sweeping through Europe and southeast Asia: board game cafes. He sent the link to his former professor at UNC Asheville, Kevan Frazier, with a simple message: “This would be my dream job.”
Frazier admits that he had never heard of the concept before, but the deeper he dove into researching the cafes and restaurants that touted group gaming, the more he liked what he found.
“This was totally the right vibe for Asheville — everything about this feels good,” Frazier recalled thinking.
Mercer and his team flew up to Toronto where innovators like Snakes and Lattés — a play on the classic Indian game of luck — have mainstreamed public gaming in North America. Canada’s largest city now boasts more than 20 game board cafes, where both locals and tourists gather.
And whether it is to play a vintage favorite like Scrabble or a new sensation like Ticket to Ride, patrons are getting back to basics.
“I got really excited about the community building part of it,” Frazier said. “It was a space that folks could just come be who they are and put their technologies away.”
After a year of planning, design and collecting, Mercer, Frazier and Steve Green opened the doors to Well Played in May 2017. Locate the giant iron (in front of the Flatiron Building) at Battery Park Avenue and follow the cobblestone down Wall Street and you’ll find their brainchild and Asheville’s very first board game cafe.
“We took it as a really good omen that there was a giant Monopoly piece at the top of the street,” joked Mercer.
Well Played is only the third board game cafe in North Carolina. Carolina Tabletop in Pineville has an impressive library for visitors just south of Charlotte, while Geeksboro in Greensboro is more of a “nerd hangout” hosting a wider range of activities including sci-fi cinema, trivia and stand-up comedy nights.
There is a more mainstream vibe at Well Played, where a giant-sized Connect Four on their front patio is often occupied on warm summer evenings. Walk inside and you’ll be met with clean lines and a friendly team member who can walk you through instructions and game rules.
Some of the games are free, but for $5 customers can select from a wall of more than 500 games of strategy or cooperation. The boxes are color-coded by difficulty, and blue dots signal that the game can be played with only two people.
On Monday nights, Well Played hosts a meetup where singles and couples are teamed up with strangers to play four-plus player games. Tuesdays draw in Dungeon & Dragons lovers, with the staff running three-week-long campaigns. And rotating tournaments and guest instructors like Mike Cline, an N.C.-based international chess master, keep programing fresh and inviting for newcomers.
“You look at the wall, and some people can be overwhelmed,” Frazier said. “And then some folks know exactly what they want — they pass Go, and keep heading.”
Even the owners admit they haven’t played all the games on the wall, but their resident Game Masters have and can walk anyone through a new or old set of rules.
“Our head Game Master, Tanner, literally knows the rules to all 500 games in our collection, and that’s not an exaggeration,” revealed Frazier.
“A savant might be the word … and part relationship consoler,” chimed in Mercer, with the owners revealing that Tanner has stepped in more than a few times to help families reconcile disputes over rules and penalties.
But whether it is healthy competition or playing toward a common goal like preventing the spread of a deadly disease before mankind is wiped out in “Pandemic,” board games bring family and friends face-to-face.
In a world where socializing has gone digital, Well Played is helping to facilitate more meaningful interactions — one takeover of Tokyo at a time.