These days, there are gamers, and there are gamers.
Gamers of the newfangled sort battle their opponents via avatars, know the meaning of MMORPG, and accessorize with headsets.
Gamers of the original sort square off with their opponents face-to-face, pride themselves on reading a “tell,” and accessorize with a table.
It is this second type of gamer that Victory Point Cafe in North Berkeley was designed for. “We keep it completely analog,” said co-owner Derek DeSantis. “We have none of the hallmarks of a game store.” That means no fluorescent lighting, no glaring electronic signage, no junk food snacks and — perhaps most telling — no screens. Instead, you will find natural lighting; housemade sandwiches, pizzas and salads; and a curated selection of locally sourced coffee, beer and wine.
“We wanted to create a cafe/community space where people weren’t just staring at their phone,” DeSantis said. “Tables are as high tech as we’re going to get.”
DeSantis and his partner Areg Maghakian settled on the space in the North Shattuck neighborhood in 2015 after scouting out possible locations in the South Bay and San Francisco. “Everything about Berkeley clicked for us,” DeSantis said. “It has an active downtown area, some 10,000 potential new customers each year from the university; and a really healthy gaming community.” Case in point: they have events every day of the week, from hosting Meetup groups, to Yu-Gi-Oh! tournaments, to a casual, laid back Draft & Draughts night for Magic the Gathering players, among others.
DeSantis got the idea for the cafe while lying in bed one day, musing on how far afield his then-job doing software license compliance in Silicon Valley had taken him from his core interests and values. Among those interests: getting together with friends to play games. Among those values: environmentalism. “I’ve always approached life with the environment in mind,” he said. “My minor in college was environmental science — it would have been my major if I’d known about it sooner.”
So when DeSantis and Maghakian set up the cafe, greening everything was the first order of business. “Basically if there’s anything we can do, we do it,” he said. To that end, the cafe was one of the first businesses in Berkeley to enroll in East Bay Community Energy’s 100% renewable energy plan (which will be the default option for EBCE’s commercial customers in Berkeley starting next month) and the cafe became a certified California Green Business in 2017. They also offer only compostable cups and lids, compost coffee grounds and scraps, favor locally sourced products, and include vegan options on the menu. DeSantis himself confesses to a weakness for the vegan BLT.
Even though the era of online gaming was ascending, Victory Point’s timing was auspicious. Despite America’s millions of basement poker players, kitchen-table mahjong players and dining-room table Scrabble heads, the country had only 20 dedicated board game cafes in 2015. Of those, only one was in California. Victory Point Cafe was the state’s second.
Players pay $7.50 for unlimited hours of play — on any of the 800 titles in the cafe’s game library. Selections range from nostalgic favorites like Monopoly and Risk, to perennially challenging games like chess and Go, to popular newcomers like Anomia and Ark Nova. And for rusty players and newbies, Victory Point staffs an on-site game guru evenings and weekends.
Life was good, and business was growing, until the pandemic hit. On that subject, DeSantis is blunt. “It was a nightmare,” he said. “Our whole business model is based on face-to-face interaction, with different people touching the pieces. So you can imagine.”
In August 2020, six months into the pandemic, DeSantis caught a break: an opportunity to take over several storefront parking spaces for a parklet. With the help of the City of Berkeley Office of Economic Development and the North Shattuck Association, DeSantis was able to fast-track the parklet, creating 40 new seats.
Yet even he was skeptical that it would draw people out during the pandemic. “No one around here knew what a parklet was before COVID,” he said. “Or at least, I didn’t. It felt like a total gamble.”
A gamble that, thankfully, paid off. The outdoor seating not only expanded his space by 40%, it attracted non-gamers looking for an alternative to their apartments and dorms. “I think word got out that we have good coffee and food,” DeSantis said. “Plus people liked the big tables and the natural lighting when sitting outside.”
In fact, DeSantis recently leveraged the City’s Parklet Pathway to Permanence program to turn the temporary parklet into a permanent one that enables the lively, socially interactive space he had always envisioned. The cafe’s new parklet complements the five others in the North Shattuck commercial district, an area that has taken great advantage of the city’s outdoor commerce program.
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With these changes, Victory Point Cafe has morphed into more of a mixed-use space, with book clubs, poetry readings and other non-gaming events.
“We noticed a lot of great things that fall into the category of intangibles,” DeSantis said. “We’ve had people who met at the cafe and went on to get married. We’ve had people who come here on their anniversaries because they met here first. It’s just what we wanted — to be a cafe that also creates a community.”
And while the cafe can get raucous at times, Berkeley board gamers tend to play nice. Swearing, a definite feature of home competitions, tends to be muted. “The public space aspect tends to keep it pretty in check,” DeSantis said.
And only once in the cafe’s seven years of existence has anyone ever stormed out after losing miserably. “And even that wasn’t really that dramatic,” he said. “I mean, he didn’t knock over any tables or anything.”