In a world where documenting your every move on Instagram is the new norm, three entrepreneurs in Dubai decided to club together to change the story.
Saifur (who prefers Saif) Rahman, Hamsa Paramalingam and her brother, Vaihundan (who goes by Vai), are old friends who grew up in Dubai. They've seen the city change exponentially over the past 30-plus years, but as more elaborate and trendy cafes and restaurants open up, they've noticed the time the city's residents spend interacting and connecting – rather than staring at their smartphones – seems to have diminished. They'd had enough, and so they opened Unwind Specialty Boardgame Cafe on Hessa Street.
"We wanted to be different," says Vai. "Everywhere you throw a stone there's a cafe, so we wanted to incorporate the community aspect as well."
“We loved board games when we were kids,” adds Hamsa. “We didn’t have internet or phones, so that’s how we connected with our families. We wanted to bring that back a bit, and restart social interaction. There is a need to get back to talking face to face again, rather than over electronic screens.” As the trio had spotted successful board game cafes popping up around the world, they decided to take a risk.
While Hamsa had been working in the trading industry and Vai owns his own distribution company, Saif was already firmly embedded in the city’s hospitality sector, as an operations and marketing manager for a group of restaurant brands. It was his dream to branch out on his own. “When we heard Saif wanted to open a cafe, we thought it wouldn’t stand out,” Hamsa admits, adding that allowing visitors the opportunity to “unwind” was very much a top priority. “We thought people should feel like they can sit here. There’s nothing negative, just positive vibes everywhere.”
How much does it cost to play?
The cafe serves food, drinks and desserts, but it also has a selection of more than 500 board games for customers to play, and this is its unique selling point. An hour or two of game-play costs either Dh27 or Dh42, and a gamesmaster will help you choose the right pastime based on your interests, and also explain how to play so you don’t waste any time trying to understand any complicated rules. There’s also an all-day gaming rate, set at Dh84, and a shelf of classics – such as Monopoly, Taboo and Jackaroo – that people can play for as long as they want, free of charge.
What kind of games will you find?
The games are split into three categories, Vai explains. These are “competitive”, “co-operative” and “party”. “We get the best games from all over the world and locally as well,” he says. And they add to that collection all the time, trying to source options that are a bit different. “We also learn most of them so we’re able to teach customers how to play.”
Hamsa prefers strategy-based games; her favourite one at the moment is called Lords of Waterdeep. Vai says he and Saif are a bit “less complicated” and both love a social role-playing, card-based party game called The Resistance. “In a group of people there’s a spy among us and we must figure out who that is. It’s interesting, argumentative and a fun bluffing game.” Hamsa quickly interjects: “Vai used to be a terrible liar but now he’s very good because of this game,” she says with a laugh.
She and Saif also recently tried a new card game called 5-Minute Dungeon, which literally finishes in five minutes, and immediately added it to the collection. “Abalone is another new game,” adds Saif. “It’s a little step down from chess but has some fun elements.” He says customers will often start off with an easy or familiar game and then progress each time they come back. “They enjoy the whole evolution of it.” Right now, Sleeping Queens is a customer favourite. “It’s a simple card game but people love it.”
“We’re trying to reignite the board game culture in Dubai,” says Hamsa. “People want Monopoly and Cluedo, but as they’re coming in, they realise the selection is so much wider and more expansive. They are more curious about newer games and eventually they branch out.”
And what about the food?
Then, of course, there’s also the food, which has been designed to suit the homely atmosphere. “We started with a simple menu,” says Saif. “It complements the games and time frame.” There are light snacks, pizzas, salads and all-day breakfast items, such as avocado on toast, an omelette and a peanut butter and jam sandwich. There are also acai bowls and a few light desserts. The fastest-selling dish is the nachos, Saif says. “It’s called Ticket to Nachos, and it’s named after a game called Ticket to Ride.” They’ve paid close attention to details like this.
And how is the business going?
While the cafe has only officially been open for two months, the team already see up to 170 people flood in on each day of the weekend. Many of them are repeat customers, as they're quickly building a growing fan base. This is also thanks to Tuesday's theme nights, which started recently. "We like to highlight a different selection of games," Saif explains. They kicked off with an Avengers: Endgame night prior to the film's launch, followed by a murder mystery night and then a focus on fantasy. "We had strangers playing board games with each other," says Saif. "Some people may be really into them but have no one to partner up with. So they can come here and become friends. It's a good community-building environment we've set up."
It might seem effortless now, but Unwind Cafe was a long time in the making. The trio first had the idea in November 2017. They researched games and the business for the whole of 2018. It then took them five months just to find the perfect location (when they did, however, it was “love at first sight”, says Hamsa). Once they’d done that, there was a 10-month period in which construction was being finished, and every small detail was being fine-tuned. “When you’re doing something new in the UAE, it has to be proper,” says Saif. “We changed things over and over again until we finally agreed we had to stop or we were never going to open.”
The team has since expanded beyond the cafe’s walls, too, as they also take the Unwind experience to homes and corporate offices. “All you have to do is give us a table and chairs and we bring everything else,” Hamsa explains. “We bring a gamesmaster, the games, accessories and make sure everyone has a good time. We help the underdog and make sure no one cheats. It’s a great team-building exercise, as we have games that improve communication, synergy and teamwork.” Two hours of play costs Dh150 per guest, and you can play three to four games in that time, she promises.
“We just want to bring back those nostalgic times,” says Vai, “when you sat with friends and family and played games. We want to make that connection with people.”
The best thing about it all is that, because they’re sourcing games from all over the world, there’s no language barrier, adds Saif. “Everyone can play, as long as you know how.”