Steve Tassie combines two of his passions—board games and teaching—into one perfectly winning job.
I Want Your Job finds Torontonians who make a living doing exactly what they love to do, in any field, and for any salary, and asks them how they did it.
When Snakes and Lattes, Toronto’s first full-fledged board-game café, opened in Koreatown three years ago, Steve Tassie started going every day, offering his gaming expertise to novice board gamers, and using his experience to guide groups through thorny strategy games or raucous party games. Eventually, he was hired as a game guru, an on-site consultant who works with customers to find them a good match from Snakes and Lattes’ library of 3,000-plus games.
He credits his background as a stand-up comic for his approachable nature. His Bachelor of Education from Trent is also an asset. “It’s not good enough to know the games,” he said. “You also have to be able to teach them.”
Tassie, who has also worked as a game designer, has found that the job has a surprisingly romantic aspect: “We’re a super-hot first date place in the city, and we get a number of people who come back to us six months or a year later asking if they can propose to their girlfriends here.”
Our interview with Tassie, about “breadstick games” and what it takes to get a job in Toronto’s burgeoning board-game-café industry, is below.
Torontoist: What kind of service does a Snakes and Lattes game guru actually provide?
Steve Tassie: A game guru—and we have many here at the café—acts as a sommelier for games. If a party comes in and they don’t know what to play, the game guru finds out how many people will be playing, what they like and dislike, what they’ve played before, and what they think they’re looking for. The guru will make recommendations based on that information. Many of our customers have no idea how to answer the guru’s questions about those things, so a very important aspect of the job is to know a broad range of games, and to know the entry-level games that 90 per cent of our customers will never have seen before but will be able to enjoy.
There’s a large body of games that we’re all familiar with—in fact, we have an established list of what we call our “core games,” and if you want to be a guru, you need to know the games on that list. Those are party games, kids’ games, word games, light strategy, heavy strategy. They’re the ones that are successful here at the café. People enjoy them, and they want to play them multiple times.
In addition to the recommendations, the game gurus are also here to instruct the guests on how to play the games they’ve chosen. Part of it is knowing what to teach and what not to teach—we have games that take 45 minutes just to learn to play, and if we have a guru teaching a party how to play, say, Game of Thrones, that means 85 other people are getting no attention whatsoever. One of the things we look for from a business standpoint is a game that a low teach-time/high play-time ratio. We also have our “breadstick games,” which can be taught in two minutes or less. For us, they’re the equivalent of the bread you get in an Italian restaurant: they tide you over until a guru has time to give you something meatier. Gurus are also responsible for making sure the library is organized and easy to use, and we do game maintenance.
What makes a good game guru?
The number-one thing that makes me good at my job is the fact that I’ve been playing games my entire life. My parents taught me games when I was a child, and I spent hours playing Crokinole and Kerplunk at my grandmother’s house. Very early on, I upgraded to more complicated games like backgammon, and chess, and mah-jong. That early exposure to games turned into a lifelong passion, so I’ve played probably 600 or 700 different games in my lifetime—which is more games than your average person knows even exists. Obviously, not every guru is that well-versed in games, but if you come in looking for work here and you can’t list a good twenty or thirty games that you know really well, you’re not even going to be considered. Aside from knowledge, there’s passion. People don’t come here just to play games and be introduced to new games, but also to have an experience with someone who really likes what they do and who is presenting some of their favourites. The enthusiasm our gurus bring to the table is part of what makes us stand out from any of the venues offering board games across the city.
Can you tell right away when something is going to come into the café and get played relentlessly?
Not always! We spend a lot of time online, immersed in the world of the hobby. That being said, there are games that somebody will hear about and think it sounds interesting, but it just doesn’t catch on, and sometimes games that we’ve overlooked will get a resurgence. For example, there’s one called Revolution that came out a few years ago and didn’t get a lot of play action right away, but one of our gurus tried it and just said, “Guys, this game is great. We’ve got to get it out there on the floor.” It’s been quite successful for us since that happened.
It feels like board games are having a moment right now: 401 Games has moved into a bigger space, and Wil Weaton has TableTop, a popular YouTube show about board games. What draws people to board games?
Prior to about 1995, when Settlers of Catan made it big, if you said “board games” to someone in North America, they immediately thought of Sorry, Monopoly, Scrabble—party games and very simple roll-and-move games. Then Settlers happened, and people became aware that there’s a lot more you can do with the format. The board games developed since that revolution really give players a sense of agency. You can do things in these games: there are choices to make; there are consequences and rewards; there’s risk. Things come up in different sequences, so they have to be resolved in different ways. Because of the way the games are made, they provide a different experience every time you play.
There are other factors as well. People thought that the video game industry was going to kill board games, but there’s been a tremendous amount of synergy between the two industries. There are plenty of iPad apps that are ports of board games, and we recently got in Bioshock Infinite: The Board Game. It goes both ways. Certainly board games are not as huge an industry as video games, which are the number-one entertainment industry in the world, but board games have things that video games don’t. For example, I’m not on a headset, talking to someone in Bangkok. As cool as that is, it’s not the same experience as sitting at a table with someone, looking them right in the eyes when I lie to them about where I’m going to move my troops. There’s the tactile experience: there are games that are fun to play just because you’re physically touching interesting components. There’s also the fact that the family can sit down and enjoy together. People who don’t want their kids to play with guns can sit down and play most board games.
What happens when you encounter someone in a group who just doesn’t get it? Either they don’t understand the game, or they take it in an angry direction?
Fortunately, we don’t get a lot of people who display such poor social skills. Yeah, people trash talk, and they might get angry about something that happens in the game, but I’ve never seen anyone here throw an honest-to-goodness temper tantrum. But! We frequently get tables, or individuals at a table, who just don’t get it. They don’t understand how the game works, or the purpose of the game. We get some people who come here because it’s a hip place to come, rather than because they’re actually interested in board games, and with people like that, our best weapon is the breadstick games. They’re simple, but they can get the most cantankerous or inattentive person involved with what’s happening at the table. Life is too short for games you don’t like.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Photo by Kaitlyn Kochany/Torontoist.