Boardroom battles: Dubai-based community gathers to play designer board games

Tabletop Café is a Dubai-based community where enthusiasts of all ages gather to play a new breed of designer board games. The aim is to bring back face-to-face interaction in a technology-driven society.

Members of Tabletop Café, a community of board-game enthusiasts, play a game during one of the group’s twice-weekly meetups at Gloria Hotel in Dubai Internet City. Antonie Robertson / The National
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Sheldon Cooper is sitting in his "spot" hunched over a board game dotted with several miniature figures, while Leonard, Raj and Howard are strategising their next move in Settlers of Catan. Their girlfriends walk into the apartment, joking about the guys' antisocial existence.

It's a laugh-out-loud scene of the sort that fans of American sitcom The Big Bang Theory can identify with and perfectly illustrates the geeky theme of the show.

In reality, however, these ­intricately designed tabletop games encourage an inclusive community of people who are determined to bring back face-to-face interaction in our ­technology -driven society.

Filippo Cipriani is an active part of Tabletop Café, a local example of this community. The 43-year-old Italian has a collection of 1,568 board games he has amassed over seven years.

He isn't a simple collector of common games such as ­Monopoly, Scrabble or chess – his cupboard is stocked with designer games, a new crop of ­strategy-based games that have gained popularity in the past two decades thanks to the constant interaction between players, simple game rules and relatively short game length.

Last week, Cipriani, a resident of Dubai, walked into Sky Lounge of the Gloria Hotel with a suitcase packed with some of his recent purchases. He was greeted by several avid gamers. He put his phone away and proposed starting off the night with a "relatively easy strategy game", Among the Stars.

At the far end of the hall, other gamers had spread out a massive Star Wars Galaxy Rebellion map and were setting up highly detailed miniature X-wing aircraft ready for space combat.

Members of the community meet every ­Tuesday and Saturday for some video-free game time.

“Here, you can play with a real person and it’s much nicer,” says Cipriani, as he distributes space-station cards to each of the four players sitting at his table.

Among the Stars is a city-building game set in a war-ravaged galaxy. Players are tasked with constructing space stations to promote diplomatic relations and peace.

“There are different styles of games but I like the non-­confrontational kind,” says Cipriani, who bought most of his games in Europe before moving to the UAE last year.

“They work well with my daughters, as well – so we don’t have these arguments at home, like ‘Oh Daddy, why did you invade [my territory]?’,” He has three daughters, ages 11, 13 and 14.

Throughout the room, players are sitting around elaborately designed boards contemplating how best to expand their French city in the game Carcassonne, or develop their vineyards in Tuscany in ­Viticulture.

Sitting on a sofa in a corner, 24-year-old Angelo D'Silva is trying to get to grips with the rules of the game Gravwell.

"I got into tabletop gaming after watching American actor Wil Wheaton's YouTube show TableTop, on which he plays his favourite board games with celebrities," says the sailor, who joins the group whenever he is in Dubai. "I spend thousands on the latest games."

Matt Wilson, who goes by the title “chief play architect” in the group, says it particularly attracts gamers interested in designer gamers, which were originally known as Eurogames because of their geographical origins.

“Seasoned gamers know these games but others who have grown up on traditional board games have probably never heard of them,” says Wilson. “And that’s what adds to the fun.”

These strategy games emerged in the 1960s in Germany, which still produces the most designer board games. The tabletop-­gaming movement enjoyed a resurgence in 1995 when Settlers of Catan, a multiplayer board game in which players develop settlements, was published in Germany. It caught the attention of gamers outside of Europe because of the non-­confrontational and fast gameplay style. In recent years, they have been gaining in popularity again.

"Board games have had a bit of a revival in the past 10 years," says Wilson. "And it started with Catan, where all the players are involved till the very end and it doesn't go on for hours – unlike Monopoly, which can go on and on. Those games have died a death. This new wave of games are a lot more interactive – a lot more planning and bluffing goes into winning them."

Wilson, a brand manager from the UK who moved to the UAE in 2005, sowed the seeds of the tabletop group a few years ago when he got together with a few like-minded players at coffee shops for impromptu sessions. The community grew and he decided to set up a group that could meet after work to ­socialise.

“There was a group I used to play with back in the UK,” he says. “But there wasn’t anything of that kind here. So I started going for sporadic meetups, and it just grew from there.”

He says the group aims to create a place where people can leave their stress at the door.

“We want to bring people around a table where they can enjoy other people’s company,” he says. “They aren’t stuck behind a computer or smartphone, and can switch off from the stresses of the day.”

While it may seem like a clichéd “gathering of nerds”, Wilson says the group is actually an inclusive group open to gamers of all ages and experience levels.

“The idea is to remove any barrier to entry in this group,” he says.

“When you buy these games, sometimes the rule books are too complicated. So we bring them here and teach each other. We are learning new games all the time.”

Experts say board games can improve logical thinking and learning skills, and encourage social interaction. A study published in the The New England Journal of Medicine in 2003 also noted that playing board games decreased the incidence of dementia and Alzheimer's.

Cipriani says he encourages his children to bring out board games when friends come over to play for these reasons.

“The other thing that I like to teach as a parent is learning how to lose in a game and sportsmanship,” he says. “Sadly, most sports are competitive and it isn’t cool to lose in them if you’ve spent all your life mastering them. With board games you can lose without feeling bad and it also teaches how to be courteous and gracious to opponents.”

Games can also be educational, with some modelled on historic events.

"When I bought Tesla vs Edison: War of Currents, we researched the whole AC/DC feud between the two geniuses and that was very interesting," says Cipriani.

The ultimate aim is to set up a cafe and game store to encourage more people to play.

“It would be a success if someone walks into the store, plays a game and then buys one to play with family and friends,” Wilson says. “Even if they don’t come back, we know they are spending time with real people.”

• Tabletop Café meets at the Sky Lounge, Gloria Hotel at Dubai Internet City on Tuesdays and Saturdays. For timings, visit