Through the kindness of a Grandma, myself and Mrs Joe had the opportunity of a night away from our lovely 2-year-old son. What would we do? Go and play board games of course! Being under an hour from Grandma’s we decided that Nottingham – the sometimes-dubbed ‘Board Games Capital of England’ – would be our destination. The city has earned this title through the presence of not one but two dedicated board games Cafés and our itinerary revolved around sessions at both.
Leaving at Friday lunchtime we soon arrived (in the pouring rain) at our hotel on Maid Marian Way and headed to the city centre. As a current resident of Coventry I was surprised at just how much more Nottingham offers for a city with an almost identical population. There were craft ale bars, artisan coffee shops and indie stores everywhere alongside the more famous attractions of the commanding Castle, Lace Market and underground caves. Throw in the iconic Trent Bridge cricket ground and it has all the makings of a really great city! I hear they also used to play football here.
Enough of the context, onto the gaming...
We started at Dice Cup who were celebrating their 1-year anniversary, marked by generously waiving the standard table charge. Their tagline is ‘run by gamers for gamers’ and it certainly had that feel – a young and alternative community revelling in their spacious gaming cavern and all-Vegan menu. The feel is more towards the fantasy and role playing end of the spectrum, but having said that there was a very good range of Euros available to play and as hardcore Euroites it was pleasing to see classics Catan, Carcassonne and 7 Wonders all being discovered by visiting groups!
We kicked off with a game of Alhambra which somehow we had both managed to avoid playing in all our gaming years. Would happily play again but we felt no urgency to add to our personal collection with geometry not a favourite gaming mechanic. Mrs Joe won fairly comfortably to take a 1-0 lead for the weekend.
We then broke out Pillars of the Earth, a game that I had really enjoyed at a club night a few years ago but has been impossible to source in recent times. Given the scarcity it was surprising how pristine the set was and full marks to Dice Cup for including in their library. Following the learn we got into the dynamics of the game quickly and completed in good time, a nail-biting finish resulting in a one-point win for Mrs Joe.
Having diligently collected metal for most of the game I was devastated not to acquire a metal-scoring craftsman, a consequence of the final round event! Nonetheless it was as enjoyable as I remember it from my first play with its interesting twists on a classic worker placement - the distinction between resource workers and master builders, the fixed limit of master builder actions and the increasing efficiencies of craftsmen. Definitely on the ‘to own’ list should it ever be reissued (I hear rumours of early 2018).
After a non-playing look at Orleans, Between Two Cities and Tigris & Euphrates we headed back into town with the rain unexpectedly relenting. We had a great time in Dice Cup but it is a very different experience to somewhere like Thirsty Meeples – we weren’t offered any ‘games guru’ input, there isn’t a table service for food/drinks and it wasn’t furnished or heated comfortably. This is a reflection on its focus on being a community of gamers rather than being a café experience. As a result I suspect it has a dedicated core customer base (it was full when we left) but less likely to draw in those new to the hobby. I would still recommend a visit, but know what to expect.
After an excellent and speedy dinner at Thai street food restaurant Zapp Thai we headed on to Ludorati, just a stone’s throw from the hotel. It was immediately clear on entering that Ludorati is an entirely different proposition with ultra-minimalist chic stylings, a café-area for non-gamers and a wide range of food and drink (including alcohol). It was about a third full when we entered at 7pm but by closing time (a slightly too early 11pm) every table was occupied including the glassed-off ‘Cube’ room. The games collection is beautifully housed and the range is excellent, with a pre-visit email confirming our desired games were in the café for our visit.
We started our session with Lantern, superbly demonstrated to us by dedicated Games Master Damon. Each table had a side-stool available for the Games Master which was a nice touch, and he remained for the first couple of rounds to make sure we ‘got it’. A great service. With similarities to favourites Splendor (it kills me not to Anglicise…) and Jaipur we thoroughly enjoyed Lanterns, and in taking both the ‘10’ and ‘9’ all-colour awards I racked up a much needed first win of the weekend.
We progressed onto Village, a game much-considered but never played. The theme of Medieval life suited us perfectly (why play with dragons, zombies and spaceships when you can raise livestock?!) and the ‘death’ factor oddly provides a light-touch as well as a novel game advancing mechanism. Yet again it was a close game but my extensive travelling proved decisive over Mrs Joe’s more effective dying. Another one onto the ‘own’ list.
Our final contest of the evening was Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small, another out of print game we were keen to experience. Well versed in standard Agricola it was quickly obvious this is a much lighter game, although it certainly retains something of the strategic richness. Being in a rush to finish before closing time we probably didn’t make the most of it with certain scoring conditions only being discovered later when we returned to the hotel for final scoring! Nonetheless another enjoyable battle which Mrs Joe triumphed in to end the day 3-2 up.
The only negative of the evening was the 11pm closing. Given the Cafe remains open until midnight on a Saturday this is surely something they should extend to Friday, especially given how full the place was.
Realising we are more ‘chic geek’ than ‘comic-alt geek’ (forgive the crude stereotyping) we decided to spend our Saturday session at Ludorati and make use of our 10% discount with the (compulsory) loyalty card acquired the previous evening. Having sampled a couple of local ales on that first visit I turned to the caffeinated selection which was a little disappointing – my large Americano was tasty enough but fell well short of most coffee shop ‘small’ sizes (and on a more personal gripe I always prefer a filter option to be available rather than exclusively espresso-based coffee). Still, minor complaints, and Mrs Joe reported her milkshake to be very good.
Having seen it raved about on every ‘top 10 games of 2016’ video the internet cared to muster we thought we’d give Terraforming Mars a go. We enjoyed the theme of making Mars habitable despite it being somewhat outside our usual taste (space-based, no sheep) and we were excited to experience an engine-builder, not having a substantial example in our collection.
The gruelling learn time belied a game that moved with real pace and mechanic simplicity once up and running. The game dynamics didn’t disappoint although the contest became increasingly unbalanced in my favour with excellent card draws and a lack of additional players to ‘peg back’ the leader. We abandoned the game before the end as the outcome was clear and we were keen to save both precious time (sessions are charged by 4-hour block) and general marital wellbeing.
It’s a game I’d certainly like to play again with more players and with the ‘non-beginner’ starter rules, which I’m sure would lead to a better balanced and a more strategically sophisticated game. I enjoyed it enough for it to go on the ‘own’ list though this was a somewhat contested assertion. As most British retailers appear out-of-stock at the moment we probably have until UKGE to resolve…
Wanting to bash through something lighter we learnt Fungi, which turned out to be our final game of the session. There were some nice twists in what is a fairly straightforward collection game, although the cards could do with redesigning to distinguish the mushroom sets more clearly. Mrs Joe won to take the weekend score to 4-3.
We retired to the café area for lunch, consisting of a hearty toastie and panini respectively, before heading back to rescue Grandma. Overall the Ludorati experience was excellent and I hope they continue to grow commercially (it was only 25% full when we left at 3pm on Saturday) to ensure the long-term sustainability of the gaming experience offered.
The gaming didn’t finish there as in the evening we rewarded Grandma’s kindness with a spin of her newest acquisition – Ticket to Ride: Switzerland. An audacious ‘claim all the 6 links and hope they can be joined up to make my routes’ strategy paid off to deliver me a comfortable win and took the weekend spoils to a satisfyingly democratic 4-4.
The main surprise of the trip was that we didn’t return with a new game despite each café having a shop area. Both were reasonably stocked (if not particularly competitive on price) but there was nothing in our ‘known but not owned’ category and we weren’t in a speculative mood.
Waste of a childless 24 hours? Not one bit! After this great weekend we would hit the tables of Nottingham again in a heartbeat.
Pleased to hear you enjoyed your trip to Nottingham. Your assessment of The Dice Cup and Ludorati is pretty spot on (in my opinion, anyway). Both good but catering for slightly different crowds.