Real business story

Chance & Counters: Building a team that complements your business vision

Chance & Counters is a café that combines board games with high-quality food and drink. We visited its Bristol site with co-founder Steve Cownie to find out how he turned a simple idea into a phenomenally popular concept that’s booked up weeks in advance.
The front of Chance & Counters Bristol

Chance & Counters has built up an engaged customer base that goes beyond die-hard board gamers

Board game café Chance & Counters was founded on a belief most business owners can relate to: that something could be done better.

Board game fans Steve Cownie, Luke Neal and Richard Scarsbrook opened Chance & Counters in Bristol in May 2016. The three friends had spotted a gap in the market for a place that offered board games, great food and drink, and an inclusive environment – the sort of place they'd want to spend time themselves.

It was immediately popular with Bristol's board game fans, but careful curation of the environment has broadened their customer base to include everyone from families to freelancers who just want a good cup of coffee.

Since launching, the café has opened sites in Cardiff and Birmingham, and has plans for another two more.

We've highlighted the five factors that have been key to Chance & Counters' success:

  • Location
  • Team
  • New customers
  • Expansion
  • Embracing change

You can quickly navigate to the topic you're interested in by clicking the relevant link at the top of this page.

Our behind the scenes look at Chance & Counters is part of a number of other deep-dive profiles we have. Make sure you have a look the others:

Choosing the right location

Find out how Chance & Counters went about selecting the location of its first site using smart customer research and at a time when it couldn't afford to get those big decisions wrong.

Build a team that complements your business vision

When Chance & Counters first opened, the café received an influx of messages from people who were keen to work there. But finding staff who have both a passion for the industry and the necessary customer-facing skills isn't always easy.

It’s not hard to see why staff are so integral to Chance & Counters’ success. At its Bristol site, there's a handful of people to take reservations, welcome and seat customers, allocate board games, explain game rules, pour drinks, serve food and tackle unexpected issues, from broken bathrooms to missing game pieces.

The 60-seat café could easily feel hectic, but a hiring strategy that balances passion and practicality has resulted in a strong, capable team.

Staff need to be able to engage customers

When customers arrive at Chance & Counters, “games gurus” are on hand to help people choose the right game for them. There’s as little pressure on the customer as possible – gurus will ask what sort of game customers are in the mood for, then factor in considerations like the size of the group and their levels of engagement.

Within minutes, a small selection of games are brought over and the guru will explain how each game is played until one is picked.

For staff to explain an unfamiliar or complicated topic, it requires good communication skills and the ability to engage people from the start. At Chance & Counters, the team hone in on this ability to pick up on signals and recognise the requirements of different types of customers.

“Personality is key. We look for people that can talk passionately and engagingly, without getting into the nitty gritty straight away,” co-founder Steve Cownie explained. “You don’t want someone to dive straight into this extensive history about how the game is set in the land of Ancient Greece.”

Use real-life experiences to roleplay scenarios

During interviews, Steve and co-founder Luke Neal simulate difficult situations to see how each candidate would react.

“In one scenario, we’re four pissed lads who’ve just come from Walkabout. We don’t really like board games, but this place has been recommended to us. What do you pull off the shelf? This gives us an insight into what their board game knowledge and instincts are like,” Steve said.

“When they choose a board game for us, we’ll tell them we don’t like it. We’ll see how people react to someone cutting you off mid-flow.”

An alternative scenario is the first date couple, where candidates are challenged to choose a board game that will encourage interaction and won’t require too much thought. Another is the “lovey-dovey” couple where the game acts as a sideshow since they’re mostly there for quality time.

To provide specific examples of situations staff could come up against, it’s useful for the owners to have some experience in each area of the business. At Chance & Counters, each of them has worked as a games guru and has first-hand knowledge of what’s required from the role.

Be clear about requirements

It’s always important to make sure candidates understand the less glamorous side of a job too. There’s a tendency to romanticise working in an industry you’re already a fan of, so being thorough early on can ensure businesses hire candidates who are fully prepared for the role.

“It’s good if they’ve got some experience with the realities and techniques of hospitality. You might like board games, but you’ll also be cleaning dirty toilets and mopping floors. It can test your willingness to work in a hospitality environment. We look for people who understand it’s not all fun and games – literally,” Steve said.

Learning to delegate

Several of Chance & Counters’ first employees were people who had backed their Kickstarter campaign. Another was a long-time friend from Birmingham, who had first introduced them to board games.

It helped to have staff on board who were already fully invested in the company’s purpose, but Steve admits that it was tough to learn to delegate. Although the team had created the business with the intention of growing it, they were protective of their roles in the early days.

“After about a year and a half, we put a general manager in place and all took the same Saturday off. We were checking our phones every five minutes: is it on fire? Have they run out of smoothies? It’s a time we look forward to now though. We put in six months of work, so you know everyone’s got it and you’ve done everything you can to remove roadblocks,” he said.

The team persuaded friend and avid gamer Dicky Duerden to join their Bristol team when the first café opened. He remains the head of games and also handles much of the brand’s marketing and PR

Making a niche business attractive to new customers

For businesses that operate in a niche, having a ready-made group of local enthusiasts can be a good thing – but it can also be a crux.

How do you attract new customers and expand if your business is perceived as intimidating and exclusive?

“We wanted the place to be welcoming. Sometimes board game cafés can feel quite intimidating when you walk in. If you’re new to board games or you’ve just played Scrabble, some board game establishments can make you feel like you’re not welcome or like you don’t know where to start,” he said.

Define your “secret sauce”

Visiting other board game cafés has been an integral part of understanding what makes somewhere feel welcoming. As Steve explains, the team started by identifying things that would make their own experience better. They realised that if these things appealed to them, they would appeal to other people too.

One example was the café’s food and drink. The menu on offer had to include more than your basic bar snacks and be able to compete with local pubs and restaurants. This would help to diversify their customer base, drawing people in for lunch who didn’t typically play board games – but might end up picking something to play.

Steve recommends that businesses hone in on elements that are lacking in other places: “It can give you a sense of what your secret sauce could be.”

Simplify your language to break down barriers

The team have also used their own experiences to shape the language used at Chance & Counters. For new customers who come in with a preconceived conviction that they don’t like board games or won’t understand the rules, using jargon is the easiest way to reinforce that stance. Simplifying your language can help people to see a subject in a new light.

“We generally talk about games in quite a childish way, which is something we encourage with customers. We’ll describe something as a ‘shitty little party game’, for example. If we use that sort of language, we know we’ll be able to engage with people, especially if they don’t identify as hardcore gamers,” Steve said.

“The second you start throwing board game terms around, you’re limiting the customers’ ability to get what you’re talking about. Using normal, everyday language will help you to get a better feel for what people want – meaning you’re more likely to introduce them to a game they’ll enjoy.”

Pitch to the customer with the least experience

Learning who to address in a group of people has also been an essential part of drawing in new customers. Often one person will be interested in board games and they’ll bring friends along to Chance & Counters. As Steve puts it, that person wants to share their hobby – they want it legitimised.

It’s an important lesson for any business leaders working in a niche to consider. If staff match their language to an expert in a group, the rest of the customers stay excluded. If they aim their pitch at someone in the group who is new to the subject, everyone can understand.

“It’s good for all the people who don’t know if they want to be there. That’s what we’re defined by, really. We want to make board games feel relatable to anyone,” Steve said.

Building a solid customer base

Discover how the Chance & Counters' formula makes board games accessible to a range of customers to keep them coming back.

Creating a welcoming space

Clockwise from top left: custom tables provide space to store board game boxes and drinks; avid gamers are invited to test brand new games each month; board games are divided up by speed and number of players; the open kitchen adds to the warm, friendly atmosphere

How pop-ups provided a gateway into new cities for Chance & Counters

To expand into another city, business leaders need to have an in-depth understanding of exactly who their customers are and why their business has worked so far. Board game café Chance & Counters took the leap after a year and a half.

When co-founder Steve Cownie started looking at potential cities, he initially set his sights on Brighton.

With a thriving food and drink scene and a hub of creative industries, it was where their target customers were. But when the team stopped to consider the logistics, they realised it wasn’t the best choice.

“We looked at a few sites, but it’s a three-and-a-half-hour drive from us. What if something hit the fan? What if someone called in sick last minute on a Saturday night? It’s not feasible for any of us to get there fast enough to cover,” Steve said.

Chance & Counters has since expanded to Cardiff and Birmingham. Steve talked us through their research process and how pop-ups stores have been central to their marketing.

Research the culture in a city

Chance & Counters settled on Cardiff for their second location for a number of reasons. It didn’t have a board game café already, so they wouldn’t be going up against an established competitor. It had a university and lots of young professionals, making it a similar audience to their Bristol café. Finally, it was a 45-minute drive over the bridge, putting it at “arm’s length” if something went wrong.

When it comes to finding a site, understanding the successes and limitations of your previous sites can help businesses to continuously improve. Being surrounded by other independent shops and pubs in Bristol had helped Chance & Counters to attract their target customers. But the site lacked natural light and good air circulation, which was something the team was keen to improve on in Cardiff.

“We had to speak to more people about what the going out culture was like. Cardiff is a very different beast to Bristol. It’s a lot more about getting dressed up and going for a night on the tiles, whereas Bristol is much more casual and people don’t usually get dressed up. We had to do a lot of research about the areas people go out and drink in,” said Steve.

Use pop-up stores to attract the local community

Before launching in Cardiff, Chance & Counters ran pop-ups in bars that shared a similar ethos and customer base. For a business opening up in a new city, connecting with an established company can help to give your brand more weight.

“We got in touch with Tiny Rebel, who had a pub just around the corner from our Cardiff site. It’s a big part of how we market going into a new city – what we do in a venue that represents us,” Steve explained.

Engaging with the local community helped to quell nerves about launching a second site. Their first had been backed by an engaged Kickstarter campaign, which had given them a tailwind going into their Bristol launch. The pop-ups enabled Chance & Counters to start generating similar interest in Cardiff.

“Cardiff was a super scary thought,” Steve admitted. “It’s a terrible idea to just open the doors and expect people to come in.”

Less than a year later, the team ran pop-ups in Birmingham, visiting a huge food market and award-winning independent bar 1000 Trades. As Steve explained, they found locations based on where they would want to visit – they class themselves as their own target audience.

“We didn’t run a pop-up in Birmingham anywhere that I hadn’t been tipsy in. One of the places was even somewhere I went on a first date with my girlfriend. If it was good enough for my first date, it’s good enough for us.”

Partnerships with local bars and breweries play an important role at Chance & Counters. The team runs pop-ups in bars that share a similar ethos and customer base to test out new cities; once open, local food and drink features strongly on the menu

Regular change keeps a business fresh

While it's natural to focus on new sites when you're growing, don't fall into the trap of letting your original concept go stale.

Steve recommends that businesses regularly review their offering and make tweaks to keep things fresh for customers. At Chance & Counters, they introduce new games and switch up the seasonal menus every few months.

Avoid a one-size-fits-all approach

When a new branch opens, a co-founder typically spends six months working there to get to know the team and customers in the area. Steve has relocated twice to set up the Cardiff and Birmingham sites and admits the upheaval isn’t easy – but he can’t picture anyone else doing it.

“It’s hard to imagine sending someone to set up a Chance & Counters and not seeing it until after a month. Each city has been so different and we don’t want to do a one-size-fits-all approach. We don’t want every Chance & Counters to follow exactly the same format,” he said.

This experience helps the business to focus on who the current customers walking through the door are – not who walked through six months ago. As Steve puts it, it’s a perilous way forward if you start losing touch with customers.

Originally, the core audience of Chance & Counters were avid gamers who had backed its Kickstarter campaign. Now, its audience has shifted to a more varied demographic. In the daytime, the café attracts the freelance crowd too – people with laptops who just want a cup of coffee and a slice of cake.

Adapt to changing customer expectations

It's not just customer demographics that shift with grows – it's expectations too. If you've just opened and customers are walking in, their expectations will naturally be lower than if they've made a reservation weeks in advance.

“We’re now full so far in advance. You get the type of people that are making plans to come a week or two ahead, so there’s more expectation. You don’t book a pub, so you don’t have any set expectations there,” Steve said.

“Imagine if you rallied together a group of people into committing to something a few weeks ahead, then you arrive and there’s not any food you want or they’ve sold out of something else. You’re going to be pissed. It keeps us motivated to keep up with expectations.”

Expanding further

The next step for Chance & Counters is to expand further. In addition to finding a bigger Bristol site, the team has plans to open another two sites in different cities.

The main challenge will be moving outside of the comfortable proximity to their Bristol site. Cities like Sheffield, Leeds and Edinburgh have thriving independent scenes, but would be a huge leap from their South West base. If something happened, it would take the founders three to four hours to arrive. Hiring someone local to take on a senior leadership role will be crucial.

Once they hit five sites, Steve explains, the team will see how they’re feeling: “At that point, we’ll see if we’ve scratched the itch enough.”

What we learned from Chance & Counters

Chance & Counters is a business that really understands its customers: the games they want to play, the food they want to eat and the environment they want to do it in. From building custom-made tables to hiring "games gurus", Chance & Counters demonstrates what you can achieve with a clear, unwavering vision.

Here’s a short summary of some of the lessons learned:

  • Be pragmatic about where your customers are when choosing a location
  • Use real-life experiences to roleplay scenarios in interviews
  • Create your secret sauce by honing in on elements that are lacking in other places
  • Run pop-ups and connect with an established company to give your brand weight in a new city
  • Don't let your concept go stale. Think about who's walking through the door now, not who walked in six months ago
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Questions to ask yourself

Each Chance & Counters founder worked as a games guru and had first-hand knowledge of what was required. That insight helped them hire people who had the right skills for the role.

Thinking about how your offering could appeal to a range of people will diversify your customer base and make it more sustainable.

It's important to keep things fresh for customers. The Chance & Counters team introduces new games and switches up the seasonal menus every few months.