Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 29/3/2019 (424 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Two weeks ago, Olaf Pyttlik, the co-owner of Across the Board Game Café, was returning to Winnipeg from a board-game conference in Reno, Nev., when the news was splashed all over every screen and every newspaper: an Australian white supremacist had gunned down worshippers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, killing 50 people.
The terrorist attack rocked the small island nation and reverberated all over the world, sparking, in the weeks that followed, conversations about xenophobia, gun control and social media’s role in radicalizing people.
Like many people, Pyttlik wanted to do something — and, as someone who has created a community-building space that brings people together over food and board games, he was uniquely positioned to put on an event that could link Winnipeg Muslim and non-Muslim communities.
On Monday, Across the Board will host Play for Peace from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Shawarma Khan and Across the Board will be donating food, and the suggested minimum donation of $10 will go to the Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council.
"It’s going to be an evening of togetherness, having a few laughs and building a human connection," says Pyttlik over coffee in his sunny, board game-lined café.
Fostering a human connection is something Across the Board does well in its day-to-day. The Exchange District café, which opened on Albert Street in 2014 and has since relocated to more spacious digs in the McKim Building in 2016, has proven popular. On Saturday nights, the place is packed.
Pyttlik himself immigrated to Canada from Germany 27 years ago to study music (Across the Board is not his day job; he’s a composer and producer by trade). Making newcomers feel welcome is something he wants to pay forward.
"I am a visitor to this country myself," he says. "I’m from a different culture, my experience in Canadian culture is that I’ve been extremely welcomed here and, for me, Canada is a symbol of cultures getting together and co-existing in a pretty incredible way. What I always thought was so lovely about Canada is that, in the Canadian culture, it is encouraged to maintain your identity of who you are and where you came from. As Canadians, or anywhere in the world, I think it’s important to learn to live together, to respect each other’s traditions, each other’s faiths, each other’s beliefs, each other’s values. Violence is the opposite of what we as a Canadian society stand for."
Obby Khan, the owner of Shawarma Khan, was eager to team up with Across the Board and provide Middle Eastern eats for Play for Peace.
"Myself, as a minority Muslim in Winnipeg, I have a little bit of a voice to let people know that even though what happened in New Zealand happened far away, it can affect us all," he says. "A chance to raise some money, raise some community, have some fun — it’s pretty promising and awesome."
"Canada is far from immune to what happened in New Zealand," he adds, pointing to the Quebec mosque shooting of January 2017, when six worshippers were slain. "That really hit home. We should really do anything we can to raise awareness and build community."
To that end, Pyttlik has seen firsthand just how powerful board games can be when it comes to bringing people together. A decade ago, Pyttlik was diagnosed with cancer, and board games provided an important lifeline to his friends and family, especially when he was in recovery.
"I experienced a bit of depression coming out of that," he says. So much of his energy had been spent fighting the disease that he found he had difficulty reconnecting with people. Sometimes he struggled to make conversation, other times he become easily overwhelmed going out in public. And so, when people paid a visit, he’d pull out a board game from his extensive collection, one he’s been building since he was a teenager in Germany.
"Sometimes I didn’t feel like talking and that was OK," he says. "I could still look at people, and be comforted by their presence. For a few moments, my brain would allow me to focus on my next strategic movie, or focus on the nice, pretty pieces, or whatever versus the one-track mind of fear or depression."
'As Canadians, or anywhere in the world, I think it’s important to learn to live together, to respect each other’s traditions, each other’s faiths, each other’s beliefs, each other’s values. Violence is the opposite of what we as a Canadian society stand for'
— Olaf Pyttlik
Pyttlik and his wife began hosting bi-weekly game nights that became hugely popular, and the business idea for a games café was planted. Nearly five years later, Across the Board has resonated with Winnipeggers, and is a microcosm of the enduring global popularity of board games.
Pyttlik has a few theories as to why tabletop games continue to not only survive, but thrive. For one, they don’t discriminate. Regardless of age, gender, ability, background, you can find a game to play. "It’s for everybody," Pyttlik says.
Across the Board’s demographics support this; he sees patrons both young and old, from all backgrounds. (In case you’re wondering what’s being played at the café, the classics remain popular, so your Connect 4, your Game of Life, your Clue. Ticket to Ride is another big one, as is Settlers of Catan. Party games such as Cards Against Humanity, Concept and Code Names are also hits.)
Board games force you to be in the moment with the people around you.
"It’s a chance to do something different for a while, to have your mind kind of go in a different place and forget about your daily troubles. Even though, right now, I think board gaming is as big as it’s ever been in history, we all have memories from our childhoods playing games. With our families, friends. At the cabin, at home. I think human connection is important to anyone, in any culture, in any age."
For the generations whose childhoods were largely unplugged, board games may take them back to a time when things seemed to move a little slower, when it was more common to gather around a table, face-to-face, and share an experience. In an era in which entertainment is increasingly personal and happens in front of the chilly blue glow of a screen, it would seem that people are craving the kind of connection tabletop gaming can provide.
"It does seem to be, right now, particularly resonant right now with people because of the technology, I think," Pyttlik agrees. "I spend most of my day in front of a computer. I love my phone, I love my tablet. But no matter what it is, you cannot replace human experience at the same table. Thus the name Across the Board — this is what we wanted to say, even with the company name, that it’s about being together in the same place. Interestingly enough, I get this a lot from our customers and they go, ‘Wow, I look around the room and very few people take out their phones.’ Once you have that connection, the technology suddenly becomes less important."
That said, technology can also be used to build connections. At the event on Monday night, Pyttlik hopes to connect to Counterculture, a board game café in New Zealand, via video chat.
"The plan is we’ll have a screen and a FaceTime connection here so attendees can actually say hello to people in New Zealand and see there are people on the other side of the world who do what we do and have similar interests," he says. "We’re hoping that connection adds a nice little touch to the evening."
Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.