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Interview: Bonus Round Game Cafe’s Drew Lovell on Opening Chicago’s First Board Game Cafe

Bonus Round Game Cafe. Photo by Marielle Shaw.

This past Friday in Wrigleyville, it was game time. Not for the Cubs, who were still in Spring Training out in the sunshine in Arizona, but for Chicago’s first board game café. Bonus Round Game Café is a labor of love brought to fruition by Drew Lovell and his wife, Courtney Hartley, along with some friends and the help of enthusiastic Kickstarter backers. Bonus Round hopes to be a place everyone can feel comfortable exploring the world of tabletop games, and at least in my experience, is already living up to that promise. Their shelves are already full of games that run the gamut from Candyland to Catan, with a suggestion list already filling up, and their back of house is producing amazing shareable sandwiches and snacks and fantastic coffee. 

We visited the café just before the grand opening to get an idea of who they were and what the café was like and sat down with Drew Lovell to discuss how it all came together and where it’s going.  

Bonus Round Game Cafe. Photo by Marielle Shaw.

So when did you guys decide you wanted to open a board game café? 

I used to run a record store back in California, and on our honeymoon, my wife Courtney and I went to Toronto. While we were in Toronto we came across a board game café called Snakes and Lattes. They were the very first board game café–at least most people recognize them as being the first one. Since then, board game cafes have exploded all over the place, but there’s not one in Chicago yet. So, rewinding–our honeymoon is over, we had a great time at Snakes and Latte, a great time with the rest of Toronto, we go back to California, and I’m getting burnt out on the record store at that point. A lot of it was me being like ” I’m kind of done working for other people.” 

I wanted to do something and say that this was mine, and we started talking and thinking “hey, we can do this.” I’ve experienced running a business- it wasn’t my business but I was running it for somebody else. Courtney comes from a catering background so she’s got a bunch of food experience, and between the two of us we made it work.  

That’s awesome. Did you guys meet because of tabletop gaming? 

We actually met over the internet. We were dating long distance for a long time. She lived in SoCal and I was in NoCal. We were driving back and forth to see each other. And y’know, here we are now. We’re actually going on 10 years together. This will be our sixth wedding anniversary three or four months from now. 

So what brought you to Chicago? 

I’ve got a lot of extended family out here and lived here for a couple years after high school. I really missed the city and wanted to spend some more time with my grandparents. It lined up pretty well for us to be a great time to move here. 

When did tabletop gaming come into the equation for you? 

I was always into games as a kid, my stepdad really got me into them. He would teach me chess and a lot of lighter stuff at the time. I was into them as a kid and then moved over to video games and tabletop gaming was less of a thing for a long time. I’d say back about the time Courtney and I started dating I started getting back into it, so about 10 years ago. Courtney wasn’t into it as much but slowly but surely, she found a couple games that she really latched on to and she was like “oh man, this is really awesome.” It’s a lot more just finding what that game is for you. Once she had that experience, we started bouncing off of each other in that sense, and kept building on it.  

Bonus Round Game Cafe. Photo by Marielle Shaw.

How did you guys build your game library? 

We’ve been doing popup events for about two and a half years now, around the city. Mostly at bars and cafes. As we were running events, we started hitting capacity and that was a lot of the impetus. Building our library was just kind of us doing events and adding more stuff to it. We still have a lot of stuff we want to add to it. There’s a decent number of games right now, but we want it to be more, so that when somebody comes in and asks for a game, the answer will be yes as much of the time as possible. We actually started a game suggestion notebook and each month we’ll be taking requests, things that seem like they’re good fits for the café and adding them. There is a such thing as a café game and not a café game. 

What makes it a café game or not? 

I would say how teachable it is. If it takes me upwards of 20 minutes to teach, it’s definitely not a café game. We’ll probably still try to get some of those–these guys in the front are playing Dominant Species which is definitely not a café game, but for some of those, we’ll have it but you’re gonna be on your own for learning it. We’re gonna make sure we message that out. We want the experience to be good for everybody. We want people to know if they’re going to take that off the shelf they know what they’re getting themselves into.  

Bonus Round Game Cafe. Photo by Marielle Shaw.

How do you manage making profits when games take so long to complete? 

A big part of that is our food. Our whole menu is made to share. Even the sandwiches are pretty big portions, so if you split them between two people you’d feel pretty full. If you’re continuing to play you’re hopefully continuing to order food, but then the other part involves a per person table fee called our game pass. It’ll be $7 to stay as long as you like and play however much you want. We’re here to help you with that, and that’s the way to recoup the longer table turnover time compared to a typical restaurant. It’s pretty standard for a lot of board game cafes. 

Ours is going to be 7 flat, and we’re going to be implementing that in about a month. We had a Kickstarter, and one of our goals was to waive it for the first month to say thank you to them. So we have that going now. We’re also probably going to be offering a discount for groups of four or more.  

Let’s talk games in a little more detail. What are some of the newer games you’re excited about right now? 

There’s a game called Nmbr 9. With board games, me being hooked on stuff is a lot more of stuff that I enjoy teaching people because I have a lot less time to play games than most people think I do. People expect me to blow their mind with the most fun game to play but it’s been hard for me to find time to enjoy playing games, so most of it is me enjoying teaching it. So, this one I really enjoy teaching. There’s another game, Santorini, I really enjoy teaching as well. It’s really good.  

What are your controversial tabletop gaming opinions? Do you have games everybody loves that you don’t like or a game you love people just don’t respond to? 

I don’t like Settlers of Catan. I think mostly it’s just that whenever I’ve played it, nobody ever wants to trade me the stuff I want, like, ever, and so that one never clicked with me. There are negotiating and trading games I do like, but that’s not one of them. And then my game that I call it my “licorice” (because I like licorice candy and nobody else seems to) is Robo Rally, which is a classic Richard Garfield game. It was the game he made before Magic: The Gathering and in it, you’re programming robots to complete this obstacle course race and it’s a chaotic, nothing-goes-as-planned sort of game. I really dig it and for the longest time I would teach it to friends and they’re like “this is lame I don’t want to play this” but since being out here in Chicago and teaching people, suddenly it’s like “let’s play that again.” I’ve had to be like “Wait, what? Is this the same game?” 

What’s been the hardest thing about opening the café? 

The hardest thing by far was just getting a lease. It was heartbreaking. We were trying to find a place for a year and a half and there were times we thought we were going to sign the next day and for whatever reason it went wrong. Really it was, there was a lot of blood sweat and tears that went through that. But it worked out because now that we’re in this location, I wouldn’t pick anywhere else in the city. This location is sweet.  

I was going to ask you about that. Obviously you’re going to get Wrigleyville crowds pretty readily… 

Yeah, yeah and we have. It would be nice if it was a little bit bigger because we filled up real fast Friday night and it was one of those things where we had people coming in and some of them signed up for the wait list and some went on to find something else to do that night and that’s kind of a bummer because we want everyone to come in and play and it’s good for us if we have more customers, but it’s still enough room to breathe. We didn’t want to pack tables so tight that noise is more of a factor.  

What’s been the best part of doing this? What’s been your favorite moment up til now? 

The best part about it, and  what’s felt good to me is this weekend we had exactly the crowd we wanted. No tables shared anything in common with each other. We had families in here, we had couples, groups of friends, people that came in to play a solo game by themselves while eating a sandwich–people from all different backgrounds. We want people to feel welcome here and we also want to introduce people to games who never really got into it.The last thing you played might have been Monopoly three years ago on Thanksgiving. But if you come in here and you’re like “Oh, well I’ll just watch” that’s when I’m like “Oh we got ’em” because I know we can blow their mind and really make sure they have a good time. 

Bonus Round Game Cafe. Photo by Marielle Shaw.

That’s a great thing. So part of it for you is you can interact with people and see what you might like. And I noticed you guys had some lighter fare, like Sorry, too.  

Candyland’s gotten played a couple of times already.  

I’d totally play Candyland. 

Our whole mission statement – everything about what we’re doing is we’re trying to introduce games to people that don’t normally play them or people that don’t feel welcome in traditional gaming spaces.* 

That’s an admirable goal, and I can’t wait to see it play out. 

Bonus Round Game Café is everything we hoped it would be—great people in a great location doing something they really love to do. The care and passion for tabletop gaming is evident everywhere, and the café itself is cozy and inviting. Staff is knowledgeable and friendly, but even more importantly, inclusive. If you’ve ever had any curiosity about the world of tabletop gaming, you couldn’t find a better place to get your feet wet (and have a great cup of coffee or a hearty bite to eat) than Bonus Round Game Café. We can’t wait to see what’s to come for Drew, Courtney and the Bonus Round staff and extend congratulations to them for their café opening. If you’d like to visit, Bonus Round Game café is located at 3230 N Clark Street, and you can visit their website or follow them on Facebook and Twitter for more on events, hours and chances to go play.  

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