On a Wednesday afternoon in late April, just over a month into the COVID-19 pandemic, downtown Asheville appeared to return to its usual bustle. Vehicles clogged Patton Avenue and College Street, prompting surprise delays for motorists who’d become accustomed to the newly noncongested metro area.
The cause of this sudden flurry of automobile activity? Well Played Board Game Café, whose giveaway of 100 surplus titles from its collection brought Wall Street and surrounding roads to a standstill for over an hour.
“That was a crazy day,” says Well Played co-owner Kevan Frazier, who made last-minute adjustments when interest on the giveaway’s Facebook event page far exceeded expectations. “We had stickers, and I reached out to several friends in the business community — everything from Buchi to the farmers market — and they all gave us stuff to give away. And so when all got said and done, we gave out stuff to more than 300 different cars and turned away another 40 that we finally were like, ‘We’re out of everything!’”
With many businesses still closed, those that have reopened operating at reduced capacities, and many people choosing to remain at home whenever possible, it’s oddly appropriate that this temporary influx of urban normalcy was caused by an analog form of entertainment. Frazier notes that board games have had a resurgence for the past 15-plus years and thinks that much of this popularity stems from them being “a separation from the digital.”
As communications have increasingly shifted to Zoom and other electronic platforms during the pandemic, making in-person connections all the more meaningful, Well Played is tapping into that communal desire with its new board game rental program. The endeavor allows customers to borrow any of the café’s more than 500 different titles and numerous jigsaw puzzles for a five-day loan. Rental costs are $5 or $10, based on game value, and offerings can be renewed for an additional five-day period. Food and drinks may also be ordered.
Customers reserve the games or puzzles online, pull into the pickup lane in front of the café during business hours and, while wearing a mask, meet fellow masked gamemaster Tanner Johnson at the front door. Once returned, games are removed from the library for a minimum of 24 hours, during which they’re sanitized with what Frazier says is the same type of commercial ozone generator used by hospitals. Though customers can play rented games on the patio’s tables, the take-home option aims to provide a responsible substitute for Well Played’s in-house experience.
“Our entire concept is about a lot of people gathered around very closely with each other, all touching the same thing over and over. It’s not a good recipe for a pandemic,” Frazier says. “We do think that if we were open back inside, we would have takers. But we just, at this point, don’t feel we can do that in a reasonable, safe way.”
While Well Played has the advantage of an established clientele to tap into, Jan and Kurt Darnell, owners of The Kingmaker’s Draft on South Main Street in downtown Hendersonville, were just getting started and all set to launch their first business in March. The café offers 300-350 games, plus alcoholic beverages, coffee and light food options. To work out inevitable kinks and improve their services, the couple planned to invite friends, family members and fellow local entrepreneurs for a series of soft openings, gradually ramping up for an official start at the end of the month or early April. Then the pandemic hit.
“During the first phase, we just completely shut down. We’d go in and unbox games, maybe pour ourselves a drink and get some coffee, just to keep ourselves in the place,” Kurt says. “Then Phase 2 hit, and there was some concern of how we actually fit in to that, because there isn’t really anything there talking about board game parlors. We kept hearing on one side, ‘Well, you serve this amount of food, so you could be considered a restaurant — go ahead and open.’ On the other side, we were hearing a lot of, ‘No, you’re kind of an indoor recreation, more along the lines of a pool hall or a bowling alley or an arcade.’”
New to the industry, the Darnells looked to Well Played as well as The Sideboard in Wilmington to see how they responded to each reopening phase. When Gov. Roy Cooper extended Phase 2 for five weeks through Sept. 11, the couple decided to start hosting small groups of no more than 10 people and follow a quarantine and cleaning procedure similar to that of Well Played.
“[Customers] basically get the place to themselves right now,” Jan says. “We just felt like that was a better approach to it, not just because we want to open, but we still want to make sure we maintain that respect for what’s going on right now.”
The option has proved a welcome one for Hendersonville residents, including a group of friends that hadn’t been out for anything social since mid-March, but had their anxieties quelled by the Darnells’ commitment to safety. Such feedback has given the business owners confidence to stick with the small-group plan for the time being and wait until Phase 3 to fully open, at which point they hope to be a balm for even more people.
“It’s creating that social engagement that you wouldn’t otherwise get around TV or video games — and, in fact, that’s pretty much the entire reason why we set up the place,” Kurt says. “It provides an almost forced way of interacting with other people that they might have been missing while stuck inside.”