.Character Advancement

New gaming cafe opens in downtown

Sometimes life’s biggest chances come down to just a roll of the dice. Especially when that chance is on GAME Santa Cruz, the city’s first gaming cafe.

GAME—which stands for Games And Merriment Emporium—opens this month at 1101 Cedar St. (in the old Tabby Cat/Cafe Bene building).

Patrons can grab a cup of coffee and a slice of pie, and sit down with old, or soon-to-be, friends to play one of the over 300 tabletop games in the cafe’s eclectic library. Not just confined to traditional board games, tabletop games also include genres like role-playing games (or RPGs, e.g. Dungeons & Dragons) and card games.

While there’s already a couple places in the county for people to congregate and play—like Mythic Games, which caters to tabletop miniatures and Magic the Gathering, or Sword and Board in the Capitola Mall—GAME will provide the downtown gaming community a place to sit, eat, drink and play games that have come out in the last decade.

The idea came to Westly Pannell, an avid gamer himself, one late night while watching YouTube.

“As someone who runs a board gaming community, I wanted to share my love of board games,” he says. “So how do I get board games to people who normally don’t play?”

The algorithm suggested a page called Snakes & Lattes, North America’s largest board game bar, with locations throughout the U.S. and Canada.

“And I thought, ‘I could do that,’” Pannell remembers.

He had already been selling tabletop games out of a downtown video game shop since 2015, using tip money from his then bartending gig to pay for inventory. What started with a shelf grew to a 9-by-12-foot section.

Pannell has also hosted a weekly game night since 2014, when he and friends would gather on the porch of the deeply missed Cafe Pergolesi.

“For people under the age of 21 and who don’t have a lot of money, where do they go?” he asks of downtown Santa Cruz. “Especially with the loss of Pergs, Logos and the open spaces we used to have.”

That’s where GAME comes in.

Players can rent one of the four smaller tables (which seat four) at $28 for two hours or the main table (which seats six to eight) at $42 for two hours. That’s about $7 per person. For games that take longer to play—like RPGs—players will be able to rent tables in four-hour blocks for $60.

For inexperienced gamers, or those wanting to try something new, GAME will host tutorial nights regularly. For the more experienced players, tournaments are definitely in the cards.

“I think his idea is awesome and it’s a good location,” says Eric Schmidt, a local RPG enthusiast and gamemaster.

Along with his friend, storyteller and gamer Matt Steele, Schmidt hosts the Gamer Gaggle, a salon-style gathering for tabletop role-playing fans to meet. There’s no gaming at the Gaggle; instead, its purpose is to introduce gamers to one another in hopes of forming new friendships and more game nights.

They started the Gaggle (which meets every second Saturday of the month from 2 to 4pm at Abbott Square) out of the necessity to fill a void.

“Over the past few years we’ve observed there isn’t really a good, connected gaming community here,” Steele explains.

“We’re friends who get together to talk about gaming, but it’s always better to have more people in the conversation. It’s also more interesting to have different perspectives. We really missed that in-person ability to sit down and geek out with someone.”

For those on the go, the cafe part of GAME serves gourmet coffee and espresso drinks from a rotating list of different premier roasting companies. Add on a slice of pie—or a savory hand pie—made by Edith’s Pies in Oakland, owned and operated by ex-Santa Cruzan Mike Raskin. Vegetarian and gluten-free options will also be available.

Along with selling new versions of the titles in its library, GAME also sells all the shiny, collectible accouterments like dice and miniatures.

However, don’t expect titles like WarHammer, Magic the Gathering or Cards Against Humanity. While GAME does carry competitive games, many in the collection are cooperative or solitary in nature.

Take Wingspan, a massively popular 2019 card-driven, engine-building game created by Elizabeth Hargrave with breathtaking art by Natalia Rojas. Over a course of four rounds, players accumulate resources to build habitats to collect different birds (all based on real-life species). It’s competitive in that everyone competes to win, but instead of screwing over one’s opponents, players are focused on their own hand.

For those who think the game industry is dead, think again.

According to ForbesBusinessInsights.com, the board game industry accounted for $13.06 billion in 2023 and is projected to reach $32 billion by 2032. Gaming cafes add to this increase, along with more popularity among Gen Z and millennials than previous generations, and—of course—the 2020 lockdowns.

And other factors are in play for the rise in tabletop popularity.

Like Wingspan and Sleeping Gods, many of today’s games are multiple moves away from seminal but antiquated ones like Monopoly. Crowdfunding sites, such as Kickstarter, make it easier for independent creators to fund their ideas with an already-built-in market.

Last year Kickstarter reported a collective $226 million raised for tabletop game projects.

But before anyone skips a turn and gets in trouble, Pannell ultimately believes the life of GAME all comes down to having fun.

“The focus will be on the experience,” he states. “Every game that goes on the shelf is vetted. We play-test it before we sell it.”


“As someone who runs a board gaming community, I wanted to share my love of board games. So how do I get board games to people who normally don’t play?” Westly Pannell


  1. Westly,
    Your recent announcement in the Good Times and interests in games, game board and tables caught my interests. I also have a long standing interests in games, stemming from hose long, dark nights growing up in New Hampshire, playing board games and card games. These developments led to the creation of another, perhaps more psychological, set of card games designed to stimulate social and emotional intelligence and well-being. These are described in the web site below and focus on the use of the EQD deck of cards, a sample of which I left in the door slot to your new gaming salon. If you are interested, please contact me, as I would like to donate a number of EQD decks to your efforts. Best wishes,
    Ray Launier


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