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Getting on board

Published Sep 10, 2015


Dawn Kennedy

Who has fond memories of board games? As a child, I begged aunts and uncles to play backgammon with me and spent many happy afternoons with friends, amassing properties on Bond Street and trying to stay out of jail. I loved Monopoly as much as climbing trees and collecting tadpoles.

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Then, as a teenager, the games were packed away. Until my uncle Robin developed a mid- life passion for Trivial Pursuit. Although he didn’t matriculate, Robin, a successful entrepreneur, prided himself on a well-honed general knowledge. He knew the capitals of countries that I didn’t even know existed. It became a holiday tradition that I would return home from university to a solid thrashing at Trivial Pursuit. “What on earth do they teach you at that college?” He would enquire at the end of another session of humiliation.

Walking past the recently opened, Big Box Café, Cape Town’s first board games café, brought back mixed memories. Could I recapture the pleasure of Monopoly afternoons and heal the trauma of Trivial Pursuit, I wondered? Haunted by the past, I articulate my game playing rules to the French co-owners, Emilie Lelouch and Eric Breteau: No complicated rules; nothing that makes me look stupid and definitely no general knowledge.

Emilie and Eric promise that they have just the thing. Pulling out what looks like a tin of lozenges, they dish out circular cards. The concept of Dobble is simply and can be enjoyed by all. “It’s better than alcohol and gets any party going,” says Emilie and she’s right. Who could imagine what fun can be contained within a 7 cm diameter tin! Soon, we are so caught up in the excitement that there is no time to wonder what the people walking past the café might be thinking about the strange scene inside – four people banging their hands on the table and yelling “splat”, “ice cube” or “green man.”

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Having warmed us up with Dobble, Eric brings out Gloobz, a game published in 2014 which has taken France by storm. I find it complicated and frankly, not to my liking. But Eric promises, “It just takes practice.” Bored my attention wanders and I notice the elderly man who has set up camp in the corner with a solitaire style game. Although it’s early morning and no ouzo is being served, I’m reminded of the old men in Greek cafes passing the time playing backgammon.

Both Dobble and Gloobz are games that test reflexes.

As Emilie says, while games are fun, many have an educational component and are often used by psychologists and educators. There are games that can help with vocabulary, logic, imagination, eye hand co-ordination and spatial representation. In fact, this Saturday, a teacher of the deaf is bringing a group of his students to interact through the games.

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Games are a great way to connect regardless of age, sex or race. As The Big Box website states, “No matter who you are, where you come from, your skin colour, your language, your religion, your wealth or your poverty: rules are the same for everybody! All players begin together and end together and each one has the same chance to win.”

Eric and Emilie have launched a social development programme that aims to supply 20 schools and orphanages with 500 fun and educational games free of charge in 2015.

Having stretched our mental muscles with fun and flippant games, it’s time to move on to a chin stroking game of gravitas and strategy called Quarto. The aim is simple, to get four of a kind in a row. Moving the wooden pieces thoughtfully has a meditative clam.

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Playing board games is a great way to get to switch off the cell phone and actually socialise with another human being. It’s also a great test of character and reveals the cheating CEO or the timid mousy type with a tenaciously competitive side. As Emilie says, “You can see all sorts of surprising things come out of people.”

Both Eric and Emilie share a passion for flight. Emilie is a circus performer who specialises in an aerial scarf act. In 2006 she established the Kalahari Company that offers aerial and other circus entertainment. The couple made Cape Town their home when they came to here in 2009 to enable Eric to complete his private pilot license.

The Big Box Café is a sister company of LA Grosse Boite in La Rochelle. When Eric and Emilie came to Cape Town they began to import games from France and to host board game events in various schools and cafes around the city. While scouring the classified adverts for a venue to practice her aerial scarf act Emilie noticed that the Pure Café, close to her home, was up for rent. The couple decided to set up a Big Box Café and were handed the keys to the premises on Eric’s 45th birthday.

The Big Box Café is a wonderful space. You can pop in and play games as long as you want, enjoy a cup of Tribe coffee and a sweet or savoury crepe. The staff is well versed in the rules of the myriad games that are on offer and willing to pull up a chair and participate.

As children we learn through play but as adults we are encouraged to put aside childish things and pack away the toy box. But something is lost in all the seriousness of the adult world. Many geniuses, who have furthered our knowledge, have attested to the importance of keeping a portion of our lives for play. As Einstein says, “play is the highest form of research.”

So pop into The Big Box Café, switch off your smart phone, kindle your play instinct. As the famous quote (attributed to Benjamin Franklin, George Bernard Shaw and others) says, “We do not stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”


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