Alex (left) and Rhys (right) are staff at Chance & Counters. Credit: Caleb Tutt.

Beers, burgers and 700 board games: New breed of bars monopolising Cardiff’s share of a £12bn industry

Chance & Counters is riding the wave of a board game renaissance

YOU might have a hard time spotting Chance & Counters in Cardiff city centre.

The entrance on St Mary Street is a sneaky little yellow gate squeezed between Pennyroyal and Prego Wine Bar.

Behind it is a narrow Victorian staircase and at the top of it I meet Rhys Chamberlain, the director of one of Cardiff’s quirkier establishments.

The entrance to Chance & Counters on St Mary Street. Credit: Caleb Tutt.

His business, Chance & Counters, taps into the market for tabletop games in an industry that has undergone what Rhys calls a “board game-based renaissance”.

The global board game industry was worth nearly £12 billion last year and it is expected to continue growing.

It’s the same picture in the UK, where revenue is expected to break £70m next year.

Since 2019, the board game market in the UK has almost doubled its annual revenue and board game bars and cafes are riding the wave, popping up on high streets across the country despite the difficult wider economic climate.  

Rhys is evidence of that.

The original Chance & Counters opened in Bristol in 2016 and saw its first expansion with the Cardiff branch two years later. He announced earlier this month that Chance & Counters had just opened its fifth site in Leeds. 

“As a business, we’ve expanded massively this year,” he said.

“We’ve had two new sites in the last eight months and the hope is that that will continue going forward”.  

“The number of first dates we see is unreal”

Chance & Counters prioritises food and drink service, employing bar staff and chefs who also share a passion for tabletop games.

Chance & Counters is run by people who are passionate about board games for a reason – because “they’re nerds and they want to host space for other nerds”.

But Rhys says their offering is not just about “geekery becoming mainstream”.

“There is a market for doing something while socialising,” he says.

“All that kind of analogue interaction. We see everything from families on school holidays, to date nights. The number of first dates we see is unreal. 

“We fundamentally are all about having a food and drink offering that is good enough that you could come here and just have food and drink and consider us a competitor in that market,” he said.

“And we happen to have 700 games.

“The beauty of here or cafes like this is you can come back time and time again. And every time I will have something new and shiny for you if you are interested.” 

Chance & Counters has a collection of more than 700 tabletop games, retiring some that are overused and introducing new ones upon release.

It is not just board games that are over-performing during the cost-of-living crisis. Bars and cafes marketing themselves on activities in general have tapped into a niche that hospitality-only establishments lack.

Rhys points to the examples in Cardiff of Flight Club (darts themed) as well as the likes of Roxy Ball Room and Boom Battle Bar, which offer a wide range of activities including axe-throwing, curling and indoor crazy golf.

These places also offer food and drink but theme themselves around larger-scale activities – such as pool, bowling, and karaoke – and so aren’t direct competitors with the more sedate word of board game bars.  

Chance & Counters occupies the floors above Prego wine bar on St. Mary’s Street.

Like any business though, Rhys still needs to adapt to the ongoing cost-of-living crisis. 

“There are a lot of other businesses in the UK where their heart and soul are board games, but you’ve got to sell some food and drink to make some money,” he said.

“We pride ourselves on having that food drink offering that is as good as anywhere else with big nerds who love board games.

“We all know that there’s a lot of difficulties and tensions on the horizon. We’re still grappling with how to make them work whilst making sure it’s accessible to people. You never quite know what’s going to happen, without getting political.” 

“I’ve seen someone throw a pint over someone and walk out”

Bargoers at Chance & Counters. Credit: Caleb Tutt.

It’s evident that Rhys and the other staff at Chance & Counters genuinely enjoy their jobs.

“Where else is a portion of my job just enthusing about something that I am enthusiastic about?” he said.  

“The best part is teaching games and introducing people to a game they’ve never thought to think of, but they leave with their new favourite game.” 

The bar draws in both “heavier gamers” and those simply after a place to socialise with regular events such as Wednesdays, which focus on a social deduction game called Blood on the Clocktower.

A group playing the game ‘Photosynthesis’ on a Tuesday night. Credit: Caleb Tutt.

I popped in on a Tuesday night dedicated to Dungeons and Dragons – a fantasy role-play board game which has won a dedicated following since its inception in 1974.  

Next to tables of dedicated “D&D superfans” were couples on dates, groups of mates, and people just there for a catch-up.

“That is, more than anything else, what I love as you do get such a mix of people,” said Rhys.  

“It’s a really varied role. All of our team do a little bit of everything.”

It turns out this even means mediating arguments. Much like the traditional Christmas scene of a family bust-ups over Monopoly, Chance & Counters occasionally sees tempers fray. 

“Yeah, I’ve seen someone throw a pint over someone and walk out,” says Rhys.

“We have seen many a thing. People are competitive. What can I say? We’re here to arbitrate when necessary.”