Under the Sun

Under the Sun: Ham and Parcheesi on Rye at Tempe Board Game Cafe

So many choices at Snakes and Lattes in Phoenix
So many choices at Snakes and Lattes in Phoenix Robrt L. Pela
The young couple on their second date were having dinner at Snakes and Lattes, a board game cafe in downtown Tempe. “We just like to do fun things,” explained Ania, the female half of the couple. “So it’s like Friday night and we’re going to play Exploding Kittens and just chill.”

Ania and her boyfriend, Theo, can’t play games at his place, or at hers. “He has roommates and I live with my mom,” she said. “Plus, it’s Friday night and we want to, like, be out and about.”

She pointed to a wall of colorful boxes nearly twice as tall as she. “There are so many games here! Deciding what to play can be a lot!”

The games were arranged by theme: Party, Nostalgia, Dexterity. There was Café Fatal and Kerplunk and Tip It and Telestrations. Clue and Monopoly and Pictionary and Battleship and Candy Land and something called Thanos Rising.

Board game cafes are a thing, particularly in Pittsburgh (which has seven of them, including one called Cardboard Crowns that’s so popular it sometimes has lines waiting to get in) and Canada, where Snakes and Lattes originated. People gather to eat and drink — most board game cafes have liquor licenses — and play Parcheesi and Sorry! and Chutes and Ladders. Gaming fees are usually about $5 per person.

At Snakes and Lattes, a food server took an order from a table of ASU students. “We want to play Dungeons & Dragons,” one young man said. “Can we stay at the table that long?”

Their server told them they could stay all night if they felt like it, then turned to the table next to theirs, where a trio of grandmas who’d driven in from Phoenix were seated. “Can we get someone to explain how to play this Bob Ross game?” one of them asked. “I’ll send a game guru right over,” the server replied.

The guru said his name was Simon, “like the electronic game.” Simon didn’t know how to play the Bob Ross game, but offered to learn. The grandmas decided instead to play Hamsterrolle, a stacking game involving a large wooden hoop and little colored blocks.

“This game is so charming,” Simon said, “but man, it can be so mean.”

He held up a little blue block. “This guy’s the worst, I hate him,” he said, before demonstrating how Hamsterrolle was best played.

Two tables away, a noisy group had settled on Spot It, a child’s matching game with brightly colored circular cards. They had already played something called Crappy Birthday and had stashed a copy of Pandemic Legacy under their table. “They’re really not supposed to do that,” Simon told a blonde woman who had ordered a roasted beet salad and was drinking a mule. “You’re supposed to play one game at a time, and when you’re done, stick it in the game return.”

“I want to play Hungry Hungry Hippos,” the woman confided, pointing to her companion. “But she’s too embarrassed.”

One of the grandmas was eating a poutine, and thought there should be wet wipes on the table. “I’m getting gravy all over this game,” she said, a french fry in her mouth.

Simon agreed that food and board games could be a perilous combination. “We go through a lot of Goo-Gone,” he said. “The real problem isn’t stickiness. It’s that people take playing pieces with them. There probably isn’t a full deck of cards in this whole place.”

Ania and Theo were playing Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots. “The minute we started boxing, our food arrived!” Ania said, then laughed, her mouth full of crispy shrimp taco.

The grandmas were having fun, they said, but the food was terrible and the service even worse. The pretzel bites were just okay. The waters they ordered never came, the latte was terrible, their server brought the wrong soup-and-hamburger combo. “We should have gone to the Chuck Box,” one of them said. But the Chuck Box didn’t have board games, one of her companions pointed out.

A woman with a waist-length braid sat alone near the door, sipping hot tea. Was she waiting to play Pente with a friend? a stranger asked. “No. I hate games,” she replied. “I come here for the tea.”
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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela