Draughts: A Q&A with Toby Hamand

Draughts Cafe recently opened its doors in London as the UK’s second dedicated board game café, and Ready Up were there to see if that “new game smell” we all know and love applies to an entire building (apparently it does, but that might have just been the cool new neon logo hanging at the back of the room). Attending the opening party on November 14th (I should point out here that I did Kickstart this project) gave a vision of the café at its best. Just the right amount of people had been invited to fill the twenty or so gaming tables (each of which had a neat nested shelf for storing the game box and plates of food), just enough to create a nice buzz, but not so many that anyone was without a game to play.

The cafe itself is spacious and airy, nestled as it is beneath the railway arches near Haggerston station, and the huge glass facade floods the area with light, making it a far cry from the dingy backrooms board gaming is usually condemned to

My friend and I settled down to a game of Lords of Waterdeep with 3 other gamers looking for a immersive but not overly taxing experience, perfect for a relaxed evening and a couple of drinks from the café’s well stocked selection of craft beers. One of the staff taught us the game, revealing his enthusiasm and knowledge of the medium – it was clear that we were amongst like minded people. Later that evening I graduated (regressed?) to a game of Cards Against Humanity with a group of complete strangers (always the best kind of people to play it with as you know you’ll never see them again), meanwhile the next day I found myself playing a dexterity game that saw you stacking wooden pieces on a rocking wooden pirate ship with a father and son. I’m not sure you can get a bigger contrast than that, demonstrating there’s something on offer for everyone. For the rest of the day the Ready Up contingent settled down to fight fires (Flashpoint Fire Rescue), build ancient wonders (7 Wonders) and out swim sharks (Get Bit!), as well as gorge ourselves on suitably themed gaming snacks (Jelly beans and honey coated nuts – yum!).

The café itself is spacious and airy, nestled as it is beneath the railway arches near Haggerston station, and the huge glass façade floods the area with light, making it a far cry from the dingy backrooms that board gaming is usually condemned to. The minimalist decor and atmosphere, reminiscent of a hip New York loft space, embrace the welcoming spirit the founders Toby Hamand and Nick Curci have tried to cultivate, which will no doubt make the place accessible to the curious public as much as hardened ludophiles. We quizzed Toby about his thoughts on the opening of Draughts and the future of this little oasis of geekery in the East End.

Toby and Nick with a handful of games
Toby and Nick with a handful of games

Ready Up: Your launch party had a really nice buzz to it and you seemed pretty busy on your opening weekend. Were you happy with it?

Toby: We’re very happy with how our launch party went, but we definitely learnt a lot about how to run the space in our first two weeks. We’re trying to improve all the time.

RU: This is only the second dedicated board game café in the UK. Why was this the right time to embark on this adventure and what were you up to before this?

Toby: I worked as a sound engineer before this, pretty much completely unrelated! Board gaming has got bigger and bigger over the past 10 years, and it was just a matter of time before someone opened a dedicated board game space in London.

RU: As you suggest, there’s been an explosion of interest in board gaming over the last decade and particularly the last few years. As someone who is now actively promoting the global dominance of board games, why do you think this renaissance is happening?

Toby: I think it’s partly due to the prevalence of video games. Everyone under the age of 30 has played video games at some point, but when they get older they don’t necessarily want to spend their free time in front of a screen (especially if they do it all day at work!), and board games provide a social and fun way for people to scratch their gaming itch.

RU: What makes a board game café different from the pile of games you might find at your local watering hole?

A view of the playing area. Source: Draughts Instagram
A view of the playing area. Source: Draughts Instagram

Toby: We have more of them! And we actively prune and maintain the collection, adding new games, removing unplayed ones and replacing damaged ones. They’re the feature rather than the sideshow.

RU: You’ve mentioned being inspired by the excellent Snakes and Lattes in Toronto, what makes you similar and different to that illustrious temple of geekery?

Toby: We think their ethos is perfect for what we wanted to do – specifically they (and we) have tried to be as ungeeky as possible. They hire staff who are personable and approachable, who can teach games without being patronising and scaring away newcomers to the hobby. We also shared their view of unlimited gaming, we hate the idea of imposing timing restrictions on people playing.

RU: For those who might be unfamiliar, how does sitting down and playing a game at the café work?

Toby: When you come into the café, you are greeted by one of our Gurus. They will explain the cover charge (£5 for unlimited playing) and get you a table. Then you are free to explore the collection, or if you need help, our guru can recommend/pick a game for you and even show you how to set it up and start playing straight away, rather than having to read through the rulebook.

RU: Your collection looks really impressive. Tell us about it and what kinds of people it caters for?

Toby: It caters for all kinds. We have games that take 30 seconds to teach, and games that take 2 hours to teach. We have party games for up to 60 people, and two player strategy games. Everyone should be able to find something that’s perfect for them.

RU: You guys were initially planning to start rival ventures before joining forces. How did the partnership come about?

Toby: Nick found the Draughts website when he was researching his idea for opening a board game café. We met up and after a few weeks we decided that our business plans were very aligned and thought it made more sense doing it together than opening two rival cafés!

RU: I really love how open and spacious the venue felt. What made you choose Haggerston?

Toby: We were originally looking at a space in Stratford, but once we saw the arch in Haggerston we pretty much decided on the spot that it would be much better. The brick arch is inimitable in any other space, and creates a great atmosphere.

RU: I was really impressed by the drinks too. The coffee was great and you have some of my favourite beers – including Brooklyn Lager and Vedette in cans, which I’ve never seen before. Who is responsible for stocking the shelves and what’s your favourite gaming tipple?

Toby: Nick and myself decided on the beers to stock. We tried to get lots of local craft breweries, and as a New Yorker, Nick has seen the increasing trend of canned beers and wanted to stock them as they become available.

RU: How have you integrated yourself into the London board game scene? I’m thinking of relationships with entities like Playtest UK, Shut Up and Sit Down, London on Board. Are you in a competitive or cooperative game with them?

Toby: We have spoken to Shut Up and Sit Down, London on Board and we even have a playtester who frequents Playtest UK meetups working for us. We are certainly interested in some collaborations, but haven’t arranged anything yet while we find our feet.

RU: I know you’ve barely just opened, but what are your plans for the future? I’ve heard talk of game design days and what about tournaments? What about a podcast?

Toby: We’ve already hosted one board game design workshop and it was a great success. We are looking to do more, as well as other events: tournaments, themed gaming evenings, maybe even board game speed dating!

RU: Imagine I was an alien and (as unbelievable as it might seem) I’d never played a board game before, what would you recommend I sit down and try? On the flip side what’s your favourite gamer’s game so far this year?

Toby: One of the simplest games is ‘Elk Fest’, a very simple dexterity game where you have to flick tiles across the table in order to move your elk faster than your opponent. A more complicated game which is fairly new is Dead of Winter, where you have to work together to run a base during a zombie apocalypse in Canada, but one player may secretly be a betrayer!






Leave a Reply