They are serious about playing games at Victory Point Cafe

Today there are gamers and there are gamers.

Gamers of the newfangled kind fight their opponents through avatars, know the meaning of MMORPG and accessorize with headsets.

Original type gamers face their opponents, take pride in reading a “tell” and accessorize them with a table.

Victory Point Cafe 1797 Shattuck Ave. Open daily, hours online. Book in advance to reserve a table and game. For inquiries, call 510-982-6325.

It is this second type of gamer for which Victory Point Cafe in North Berkeley was designed. “We’re keeping it completely analog,” says co-owner Derek DeSantis. “We don’t have any of the hallmarks of a game store.” That means no fluorescent lighting, no flashy electronic signage, no junk food snacks, and—perhaps most tellingly—no screens. Instead, you will find natural lighting; homemade sandwiches, pizzas and salads; and a curated selection of locally produced coffee, beer and wine.

“We wanted to create a cafe/community space where people weren’t just staring at their phones,” said DeSantis. “Tables are as high-tech as we’re going to get.”

DeSantis and his partner Areg Maghakian settled on space in the North Shattuck neighborhood in 2015 after exploring possible sites in the South Bay and San Francisco. “Everything about Berkeley clicked for us,” DeSantis said. “It has an active inner city, about 10,000 potential new customers a year from the university; and a really healthy gaming community.” Example: They have events every day of the week, from hosting Meetup groups to Yu-Gi-Oh! tournaments, to a casual, relaxed Draft & Drafts evening for Magic the Gathering players, among others.

Cafe owner Derek DeSantis. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

DeSantis got the idea for the cafe while lying in bed one day musing about how far his then job in software licensing 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: environmental awareness. “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 sooner.”

So when DeSantis and Maghakian founded the cafe, the first assignment was to make everything green. “If there’s something we can do, we’ll do it,” he said. To that end, the cafe was one of the first Berkeley businesses 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 leftovers, favor locally sourced produce and include vegan options on the menu. DeSantis herself confesses to have a soft spot for the vegan BLT.

While the era of online gaming was on the rise, the timing of Victory Point was favorable. Despite America’s millions of basement poker players, kitchen table mahjong players and dining room table Scrabble heads, the country only had 20 dedicated board game cafes in 2015. There was only one of those 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 perpetually challenging games like Chess and Go, to popular newcomers like Anomia and Ark Nova. And for rusty players and newbies, Victory Point has a game guru on site evenings and weekends.

Life was good and business grew, until the pandemic hit. DeSantis is blunt on that subject. “It was a nightmare,” he said. “Our entire business model is based on face-to-face interaction, with different people touching the pieces. So you can imagine.”

In August 2020, six months after the pandemic, DeSantis caught a break: an opportunity to take over several in-store parking spaces for a park. With the help of the City of Berkeley Office of Economic Development and the North Shattuck Association, DeSantis was able to speed up the park and create 40 new seats.

Parklet at Victory Point Cafe. Credit: Kieron Slaughter, City of Berkeley OED

But even he was skeptical it would attract people during the pandemic. “Nobody here knew what a park was before COVID,” he said. ‘Or at least I didn’t. It felt like a total gamble.”

A gamble that fortunately paid off. The outdoor seating not only increased its space by 40%, it also attracted non-gamers looking for an alternative to their apartments and dorms. “I think we’re known to have good coffee and food,” DeSantis said. “In addition, people loved the large tables and the natural lighting when sitting outside.”

In fact, DeSantis recently took advantage of the City’s Parklet Pathway to Permanence program to turn the temporary park into a permanent one, enabling the vibrant, socially interactive space he always envisioned. The cafe’s new park complements five others in the North Shattuck commercial district, an area that has benefited greatly from the city’s outdoor commerce program.

With these changes, Victory Point Cafe has turned into more of a mixed-use space, hosting book clubs, poetry readings, and other non-gaming events.

“We’ve noticed a lot of great things that fall into the intangibles category,” DeSantis said. “We’ve had people meet in the cafe and get married. We’ve had people come here on their birthday because they first met here. It’s exactly what we wanted: to be a cafe that also creates a community.”

And while the cafe can get rough at times, Berkeley board gamers tend to play nice. Swearing, a distinct feature of home games, is usually muted. “The public space aspect tends to keep it pretty under control,” 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 that dramatic,” he said. “I mean, he didn’t knock over tables or anything.”

Victory Point Cafe has a library of 800 games and employs game gurus for beginner nights and weekends. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

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