New concept? How about a board-game café

JUSTIN YOZZO’S apartment has three floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in the living room. They’re jam-packed, but not with books. Everywhere you look, you’ll find nothing but board games—hundreds of board games.

Yozzo, Jack Claxton, Matthew Buell, Morgan Dickey and Rachelle Au have been playing board games for as long as they can remember. They’ve conquered the world of Risk, and stormed the beaches of Normandy. They’ve gone on Magic quests and settled the plains of Catan. Now, they’re rolling the dice on a dream to create Oklahoma’s first board game café, Loot & XP.

The café will offer patrons hundreds of games to play at their leisure while sipping coffee, snacking on sandwiches and pastries and, for adult patrons, beer. Yes, beer. It will be a family-friendly environment, and they have no intention of serving liquor, but board games aren’t just for kids anymore. They’ve come a long way, branching into complex and mentally stimulating escapes for all tastes.

Most people would be hard- pressed to even name more than 10 board games, but today the selection goes far beyond childhood staples like “Monopoly” and “Sorry.” And, though everyone has probably had a near-friendship-ruining meltdown over “Boardwalk and Park Place,” most people just don’t know what they’re missing.

“That’s definitely true. The kind of Renaissance of board games started in 1995 with ‘Settlers of Catan,’” Yozzo said. “That’s kind of this generation’s ‘Monopoly’ and, ever since then, German games have been penetrating the US market.”

“They’re a little more strategic and themed, and that caused American game developers to produce more interesting stuff. Not the Hasbros and the Milton Bradleys but newer game developers, like Fantasy Flight and AEG. These are the new companies that make really good games. France even got in on it, so now we’re getting different games from different countries.”

Claxton said a lot of credit for the concept goes to the first game café of its kind, a Toronto café called Snakes and Lattés, where game gurus on site can guide people to the right game and teach them how to play. He said that’s what they’re striving for.

“It’s a mix of traveling the country and around the world,” Buell said. “It’s kind of a brainchild from when I went to Japan and saw these Internet/manga cafés. When I came back to the states, I visited Seattle and they had wonderful places where they had huge storefronts with a restaurant side and a retail side. We’ve never had that kind of experience in Norman and it’s about time that we have something like that here.”

It will be a full game store and a café, but for $5, patrons can purchase a day pass to play any games in the store and hang out with friends at 10 permanent gaming tables and in the lounge. The lounge will feature top-shelf coffee, sandwiches, paninis and desserts from Waving Wheat Bakery and, on special-event days, pizza from Pizza King.

“We’re very dedicated to having a quality product, even though we’re primarily familiar with games. We put a lot of research into making the coffee and tea quality,” Claxton said.

The sprawling selection at Loot & XP will give everyone a chance to find their favorite game, even if they’ve yet to play it. The games will be organized by time commitment, theme and difficulty level so patrons can explore new games without feeling lost.

The name itself, which springs from the game concepts of gathering loot and accruing experience points, reflects another novel concept. The store is a game in itself. Players can accrue experience points by playing, buying and winning games that translate into rewards points and prizes.

As anyone who’s played a game of Risk or Axis and Allies would guess, the store will have long hours. The plan calls for the store to be open daily, from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., from Sunday through Thursday; and 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.

“We definitely want to have hours for the early risers and people who want to have an all-night gaming experience,” Buell said.

Special events, like party gaming, trivia nights and murder mysteries, are in the works, as well.

“When we have special events, we’ll probably have special hours, too. That’s a big thing we want to do is host tournaments and teaching events to encourage people to check out new games,” Buell said.

A year into conceptual development and planning, the café is still a dream, but with about a week remaining on the group’s Kickstarter page, they’ve already managed to exceed their $6,000 goal, raising nearly $10,000, and the dream is closer to becoming a reality.

The group that got its start hosting tournaments at the Norman Public Library in 2013 has already incorporated the concept, is armed with a business plan and is closing in on settling on the location. It’s down to two: Robinson Crossing Shopping Center (1300 N. Interstate Drive) and Madison Square (24th Avenue Northwest and Hemphill Drive). Once that’s finalized, the gaming braintrust aims to have the café up and humming by the fall.

“Matt and Justin are the passionate face of the company that had the original idea,” Dickey said. “As we started talking about it and thinking about what we could all do, we realized we all had different specialties. I have experience in accounting. Rachelle has experience with web design. Jack is a longtime friend who also has experience with gaming. We have some family friends who have experience with the law. We consulted a lot of people when trying to figure out how to make the dream a reality.”

It’s a bold idea, but along the way the group has found more support than anything else.

“I don’t know if anybody said it was a crazy idea. A lot of people we talked to just said, ‘Wow! When are you opening?’ We’ve had more well-wishers than anything else, especially since it is a proven business model. It just hasn’t been done here,” Yozzo said.

Au said people who play games know what they’re getting with this group.

“People have confidence in this dream,” she said.

Loot & XP is a unique concept to Norman and Oklahoma. Like any new business, it’s a roll of the dice, but for these entrepreneurs, it’s one they can’t wait to shoot. They’re gamers, after all. Game on.

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