Gloucester Green in the somewhat theme park-like medieval city of Oxford is a large hexagonal clearing that presumably was once green, but has for many years now been bricked over in a rather unpleasant way that makes it feel a little bit like a disused car park.
It hosts about eight kebab shops of indistinguishable variety and a few other eclectic stores. Sandwiched between an Apple computer specialist repair centre and a furniture renovation community project is a café which, when it opened in 2014, was the first in the UK of its kind. They serve cakes and coffee and all that – in fact they now have a license too, so they also sell craft beers and stuff – and there are chairs and tables with napkins and jars of sugar and so on. So far, so familiar.
The walls of this place though, are lined from floor to ceiling, from front to back, shelf upon crammed shelf, with every size and shape of board game you never knew existed. It’s like being in a library, but they ain’t books. This place is called ‘Thirsty Meeples’, and it’s a board game cafe. The staff are, and I don’t mean this disrespectfully at all, essentially massive board game nerds – they know all the rules to all the games and are as knowledgeable as they are enthusiastic when it comes to teaching you the rules.
The formula is simple: grab a coffee and a slice of cake with your mates, choose a game from the shelves, and play away to your heart’s content. More such venues have sprung up since – ‘Draughts’ in East London is essentially the hipster cousin of ‘Thirsty Meeples’.
There are probably more since, and more yet to come. I haven’t checked. What interests me about ‘Thirsty Meeples’ is that if you walk past it late on a Saturday morning, it is completely full - in fact you’d have to book a table in advance – and full not with a predictable array of young semi-bearded faces, men the likes of which are typically associated with Dungeons and Dragons and Games Workshop and tee-shirts sporting sarcastic and esoteric slogans, but with people of all types.
Yes there are those people for whom games are a full time hobby (and believe me there are games out there, unknown to most consumers like you and me, that boast rule books thicker and more difficult than Ulysses ) but there are also elderly people with grandchildren, young professionals on dates, couples with kids and couples clearly getting away from kids, and pretty much everything in between.
There’s not even a distinct sense of classism about the place; Oxford is by and large an expensive and affluent area, but whenever I’ve looked through the window of ‘Thirsty Meeples’, I’ve never thought it looked like a rich-kid’s playground.
This rare and, I think, rather wonderful diversity has everything to do with the activity at the heart and on the walls of ‘Thirsty Meeples’. I should confess now: while by no means an enthusiast, I really love board games. I love how wilfully and knowingly and proudly anachronistic they are. I love that by their inherent accessibility – you don’t need technological wizardry or physical fitness, you just need the game and the people – and their mix of competition with imagination and design, they occupy so effectively that rare and unchallenged space in our national psyche as spaces for coming together across our generational and cultural divides.
A ‘meeple’, by the way, is the term for our physical avatars on a board game – eg The Hat or The Battleship in Monopoly – those tokens of our symbolic equality on the board. These games demand a base level of attention from all participants, a suspension of seriousness from adults and a little patience from children, playfulness from the serious and concentration from the silly, co-operation and competition in equal measure.
Everyone has to step towards one another in a board game, to give up a little ground; they’re purely relational in a way that other ‘communal’ activities like video games or TV are not.
This is why they are so often associated with certain occasions, like Christmas or camping holidays – times when we traditionally suspend our most selfish desires to accommodate the group, to come together.
So when I walk past ‘Thirsty Meeples’ and it’s overflowing with activity, it’s exciting because it not only represents an appetite for new forms of play, and an endearing embrace of the sheer aesthetic pleasure lost in the digitation of entertainment – isn’t ‘Monopoly money’ still an enduring image for good reason, isn’t the comedy of the candlestick in the library still intact? – but also an eagerness to find community in the commitment a board game demands, a hunger for the relations they form, a thirst.