Two Fort Worth businesses are rolling the dice on a growing ‘board game lounge’ trend

About eight years ago, Patrick Lai was in Toronto on a solo business trip. A lifelong board-game player, he decided to check out a place he’d heard about: Snakes & Lattes, described as “North America’s premier board game cafe.” Just how premier would soon become clear to Lai.

“I traveled in January, and it was pretty cold,” Lai says. “I walk up to Snakes & Lattes, and there’s a line out the door. There are people just sitting there waiting. So I walk up to the hostess stand, and they say, ‘There’s a two-hour wait to get seated.’”

Lai asked to take a look around. He saw people at the bar, playing games and drinking. Couples playing games. People at a table for 10 playing games.

“I thought, wow, this is a pretty cool experience, this is a cool atmosphere,” Lai says. “They have multiple locations, so I went to another location ... one mile away. That one had a line out the door as well. This was January in Canada. People were waiting outside to play board games, and I thought, ‘Fort Worth needs something like this.’ “

Later this year, Fort Worth will get something like that: Lai is one of the co-founders of Game Theory, a board-game lounge that is set to open by year-end in the growing South Main Village on Fort Worth’s Near Southside.

It won’t be the only board-game lounge coming to Fort Worth: Friend & Foe Board Game Cafe is working on a lease in the TCU area. But Game Theory expects to open in the fall, and Friend & Foe will likely open later.

Although Game Theory will serve food and drinks, including cocktails, the focus will be games. Lots of games.

“When you walk in, we’ll have what we call game guides,” says Lai, who founded Game Theory along with his wife, Erika Lai, his brother, Tim, and a friend, Adam Hoang. “We’ll sit you down, explain your selections from a library of, say, 500 games. And then they’ll set it up, they’ll teach you how to play and walk you through that entire process.”

There’ll be a “library fee” of $5, and monthly subscriptions will also be available. Classic games will be available, but so will newer board games — some of which can get pretty complicated. It’s not unusual to go into a bar or a coffee bar and find a small selection of games to play, or to find a board-game meet-up happening somewhere. But Game Theory is trying to cater to both casual and hard-core gamers.

“We’re trying to take a different approach to board games, where most places will kind of stick board games on a table or a shelf and the onus is on the customer to say, “here’s the game I want to play,” Erika Lai says. “I probably represent the majority of the population in that I don’t keep up with all the hard-core games. It’s definitely more Patrick and his brother who keep up to date on everything. So for me, if I was in that situation, I’m going to go grab what I know, like a Scrabble or a Monopoly.”

Lai adds that Game Theory believes in the teaching process, to the point that his brother Tim is putting together a menu that gives customers highlights of the games and quick snippets of how to play.

“People have such short attention spans now that I think of it just like a board game night at a friends’ place or our place where everyone’s been drinking, and you try to teach a board game, and if [one] person doesn’t understand a board game well, everything collapses,” Lai says. “We’ll set it up, kinda walk you through it, give you a test run to help you get up to speed quicker, so you can try new games.”

Patrick Lai, who is from far north Fort Worth, and Erika Ramos Lai, who grew up in a Fort Worth family with deep south side roots, met at the University of Texas at Austin when they were in a co-ed business fraternity. Board games played a part in their family histories.

“I come from a very competitive family,” Lai says. “Video games and board games, but board games were fun to me because I have a sister who’s an overachiever — valedictorian, Ivy League, all that stuff — but she could not beat me in games. That was the one thing she could not beat me in. Monopoly, Risk, spades, simple games like that, she did not like playing with me. She was better at school, but I’m better at games.”

Lai says that his family is also pretty blunt and to the point, but board games helped them spend time together and generate conversation among one another. Erika Lai says something similar about her own family — and about getting to know Lai’s.

“Board games were the easiest way to bridge the generational gap for us,” she says. “We would visit my grandparents, and we’d play card games like Uno. It was literally the easiest way to peel my grandparents away from the TV, get my sister and I into the kitchen, my mom in the kitchen, all of us having a good time. When I met [Patrick’s] family, it was an easy way of ... getting to know his family and bond with them.”

Game Theory’s food menu will be simple: Lai says the flagship item will be a puff-pastry-style meat pie, which he compared to an empanada or an Australian meat pie. There will be sweet varieties as well. The idea was to give customers something they could eat with one hand, so they could use the other hand in game play.

Drinks will have a couple of twists: alcoholic Capri Sun-style drinks, and something called the Ice Breaker, which will be topped with a frozen, flavored disc that customers will break with a small hammer, breaking the ice and flavoring the drinks.

But the menu will be on the small side.

“I think the draw is having a place to play games,” Lai says. “I wouldn’t call it a full-service restaurant. The staff is going to be focused on the gaming experience. It’s more tapas, more snacking style than ‘come here, have a full-blown dinner.’ “

Game Theory recently held a preview event at Wild Acre Brewing Co., just southeast of downtown Fort Worth; more events will be announced as the opening comes closer. For updates, follow @gametheorytx on Facebook.

Friend & Foe has also been doing board-game meet-ups at various venues around Tarrant County (in fact, it had one at HopFusion Ale Works, on the Near Southside, the same night as Game Theory’s event). But as far as locking down a location goes, Game Theory has advanced a few spaces ahead of Friend & Foe. The competition between them, however, is more friendly than foe.

“We’re in different spots,” says Corey Goodwin, co-owner of Friend & Foe. “The spot we’re looking to is closer to TCU and will pull in a different crowd than the spot they’re going into on South Main. And from what I know — I’ve talked to them a few times — we’re just going to have two different atmospheres going on.”

Goodwin says that Friend & Foe’s meet-ups have drawn a wide range of ages, from pre-teen children to people in their 60s, and that he hopes the cafe will have a similar clientele.

“Our atmosphere is going to have that tone,” he says. “Very well-lit, very open, kind of your basic cafe menu — sandwiches, soups and salads. We’re not trying to be very unique in that sense, we’re being more unique in our focus on events and getting people in the door and what they experience when they’re in there.”

Goodwin’s partners are Ashley and Brad Davis, who Goodwin says is their real board-game guru. Goodwin and Brad Davis are former roommates, and that led Goodwin to become a player. Brad Davis had been following the board-game concept for a long time and was looking for someplace larger than a hobby store to have game events.

“He’d been kind of tracing the evolution of them, and he texted me one day and said, ‘Hey, do you want to start doing something like this?’” Goodwin says. “I said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’ “

There will be a similar $5 fee for library access, as well as a similar mix of classic and modern games. “Some people will come in and see a wall of games and go, ‘Wow, I didn’t know there were this many games,’ so we’ll hire and really train people,” Goodwin says. “They won’t have to know every single game we play but they’ll have knowledge of our entire library.”

Friend & Foe has regular board-game socials twice a month at the Collective Brewing Project, 112 St Louis Ave. in Fort Worth, and twice a month at HopFusion Ale Works, 200 E Broadway Ave. in Fort Worth. It does non-brewery events as well: Its next scheduled event is at 6 p.m. Friday at Stir Crazy Baked Goods, 1251 W. Magnolia Ave. in Fort Worth. For a full list of events, visit the @friendandfoebgc Facebook page.