When you’re in the business of board games, you understand that the best games are a mix of strategy, skill, and luck. Even the perfect plan can be undone by an unlucky roll of the dice. When the pandemic hit in March, the team behind Well Played Board Game Café found themselves in exactly this situation.
Founded three years ago as the first board game café in the state of North Carolina, their café had firmly established itself as a fixture in downtown Asheville, cultivating a zealous fan base of local customers while simultaneously building a national reputation as one of the best board game cafés anywhere in the world. Not only was the library huge—offering more than 600 games—but Well Played had also figured out those other intangibles: a cute brand, a beautiful and fun interior space envisioned by local design team Shelter Collective, and a surprisingly robust menu of comfort foods, snacks, and drinks.
Despite the momentum, in early spring they were facing an existential crisis. How could the business survive a pandemic? “The financial model worked because people crave connection and play, but when the pandemic started, we knew we’d need to start thinking creatively,” said Kevan Frazier, co-owner of Well Played. “We had a massive library of board games and deep relationships with the community—that’s how the idea of a rental program began.”
The café remains closed, but in late August Well Played re-opened with a new rental business. They are now channeling the old-school Blockbuster model and sharing their extensive game library with the public. For just $5 or $10, anyone can use their website to reserve a board game for up to 5 days, and while picking up the game, they can help themselves to the perfect pairing of snacks and drinks.
New Game, New Rules
The concept of a rental program is simple, but for a business that operated as an entertainment-driven restaurant, it’s a huge shift. “The first thing we had to figure out was a software solution that could help us manage our massive game inventory,” said Frazier. It wasn’t easy to find. They needed a program that integrated with their existing website, had an easy-to-use, consumer-facing portal, and could work with their equipment and credit card processors.
They couldn’t find a software that could do everything, but ultimately chose a solution called Booqable. After some digital troubleshooting, back-end workarounds, and a lot of data entry, they had a system that worked.
A Mission Bigger Than Winning
It’s taken a lot to get the new rental business started, but Frazier understands running a business is a lot like his favorite board games: The more challenging the task, the more rewarding the result. “The initial interest in the rental program has been tremendous, but we know this is just the beginning. We have to keep figuring out ways to stay relevant,” said Frazier. “We started this business because we believe in the power of play, critical thinking, and friendly competition. Nothing about our mission has changed.”
The game isn’t over yet, but it’s certainly a reminder of the creativity and fun that embodies the entrepreneurial spirit of Western North Carolina.
Safety First, Fun Second
While the redesigned website takes much of their business online, Well Played still needed to plan carefully for the in-person aspects of the experience as well. They have a robust system in place: They’re not allowing customers inside the store (curbside pickup and drop-off only), requiring masks, frequently cleaning the space, and they’ve come up with a unique solution for the games themselves. All board games returned to Well Played are removed from the library for a minimum of 24 hours, and during that time they’re sanitized with a commercial ozone generator, the same type of device commonly used by hospitals.
From in-Store to Online
The inventory management system was in place, but Well Played needed a way for customers to actually order games online. That meant a complete website redesign. “Before, our website was information first—we wanted to educate customers about what a board game café was. Now, we essentially needed an e-commerce site,” said Frazier. With the help of local marketing agency ProEcho Solutions, they were able to pull it off. The end result is a redesigned website that helps people search for the perfect game, snacks, and drinks, complete with category specific content descriptors and embedded search functionality.