“We’re trying to reuse things from the site’s previous life,” Dice Portsmouth co-founder Rikki tells me as we tour the newly-opened board gaming café, sited next to The Wedgewood Rooms on Albert Road. Indeed, whilst the smoke-stained walls and musty stage area of the old Southsea Conservative Club have been replaced by floor-to-ceiling scaffold planks and a library of 500 board games, the booth seats remain, reupholstered. “They’ve got another 30 years in them.”
Rikki and his fellow co-founders Lee and Andrew scored the Albert Road location following three years spent struggling to tie down a property. A wildly successful midsummer Kickstarter campaign originally had the trio aiming for a December 2015 launch, but this goal was quashed by let-downs from landlords of places on Grove Road South and Elm Grove. The former Conservative Club venue is perfect, though. You know the place — it almost became a strip club.
Dice slots naturally into the growing community of independent businesses shaping the western end of Albert Road/Highland Road, with The Merchant House and Need Street Food, Hunter Gatherer, The Beer Musketeer, etc. But Dice isn’t just a new place to hang out. It’s a new way to hang out, with social dynamics you mightn’t find in other places.
Rikki said: “I’ve become hyper-aware of people turning up to our events at other venues with nobody to game with.
“Our gaming gurus” — the encyclopedically-minded Dice staff who help players understand new games — “have often introduced individuals to groups of gamers, especially when the game would be improved by extra players. We’ve also looked at a sort of ‘traffic light’ system on tables, which we might have at certain events, or, eventually, all the time. ‘Green’ would mean, ‘anyone can join our game’. ‘Amber’ would be, ‘you can join if you know how to play’. That kinda thing.
“When you play board games together, there’s a social structure. It’s the ultimate icebreaker.”
Whilst the smoke-stained walls and musty stage area of the old Southsea Conservative Club have been replaced by floor-to-ceiling scaffold planks and a library of 500 board games, the booth seats remain, reupholstered.
As if building a kickass board gaming venue and solving the social anxiety of finding friends wasn’t enough, the Dice crew have also prepped a lush menu of food and a fine selection of beers, coffees/teas, and cocktails.
If you’re going for something a bit more substantial than bar snacks — the Mediterranean vegetable sandwich is perfect — you can book one of three bespoke-built gaming tables which have fold-over flaps, so you can eat without interrupting your gaming configuration. Just brilliant.
Anyway, back to those old booths. Rikki started the story: “We found a local upholsterer who wanted to work with us, went to their workshop, and there was just this overwhelming selection of fabrics to choose from. You’re a designer, Jeeves — you’d never be able to leave.
“The staff at this workshop started asking us questions like: what is Dice? Is it a slightly rich blue or more of a neutral gray? And none of us are interior designers, so the whole process was very interesting.
Lee chimed in: “In a way, what we’ve created is an amalgamation of places that we like to go to in Portsmouth. The scaffolding board on the outside sign is a bit Home Coffee, the colours are from places like Meat & Barrel and The Merchant House. We’ve absorbed what we like.”
Back to Rikki: “We actually had that sort of ‘Merchant House teal’ in our original concepts, when we first started looking for a venue. And we assumed we’d be using that blue on the outside, too, but when saw a render of how it would look, we all backtracked in unison. Stepping back and taking another look made us realize all of the façades around us are quite grey. The Wedgewood Rooms to the left of us and Creatiques to our right — we couldn’t interrupt that with our teal!”
And back to Lee: “Plus, places like The Merchant House suit the blue, because there are much larger windows and quite simple frames. The grey we’ve gone with for the front of Dice really brings out the detail of the latticework at the tops of the window frames. Makes it look a bit regal.”
One of the first things you’ll notice when you step inside: the food/drink menus are stacked in a wooden newspaper holder, a holdover from the Conservative Club days. A hand-painted note on the holder reads ‘NOT TO BE REMOVED FROM CLUB PREMISES’ in a bold yellow serif face. So, naturally, the Dice crew honoured the demand and kept the furnishing on site.
To my delight, this interview about Dice had become a little bit ‘Architectural Digest magazine’, so indulge me on one final story from Rikki — about scaffold boards: “Suppliers grade them on how dirty they are, it turns out, or how much paint is on them from previous uses.
“The old worn-down wood is actually more valuable. Not just because it’s a trendy look, but because boards which have been trodden and rained on for years tend to be smoother. See, these are the kinds of weird things we’ve learned since we got the venue three months ago!”
Rikki and Lee formed their friendship through years of playing Magic: The Gathering at Southsea Models sited a little way down Albert Road from Dice’s location. “That’s been quite hard: keeping the personal camaraderie smooth as disagreements rise while we’re working on Dice stuff,” Rikki noted. “Clashing on a decision and then going down the road for a pint at The Merchant House was a bit weird at first, but we got used to it!”
Lee added: “It balances out really well. I get quite hyped up over things we could do with the interior, whilst Rikki is more likely to approach those sorts of things with a level-headed and realistic financial viewpoint. We never forfeit our respective ideas, though — we just find a compromise.” One of Lee’s favourite parts of the interior are Etsy-sourced prints depicting blueprint-style schematics of classic games like checkers, Scrabble, and chess.
Rikki concluded: “Some of the best things about Dice came about as a result of Lee pushing me!”
Inclusivity is one of the biggest aims for Dice. Their passionate gaming gurus are the secret ingredient to achieving that goal. Lee told me about a segment he’d heard on Radio One, during which the presenters discussed how they’d gone to a similar place in London and been broken in with a game that totally didn’t suit their interests by a rushed staff member. I can vouch for Dice’s gurus — they’re Google-like in their game suggestions and rule explanations.
Lee regaled a time when a group of ‘slightly rough salt-of-the-earth Pompey lads’ came into the gaming club at the college he worked at, with an initially scornful attitude towards the idea of board gaming. But Lee, familiar with the lingering stigma, completely flipped their stance with a welcome demeanour. “By the end of the session, they were the most excited, competitive group in the room, completely invested in games like Cult Express. Proper in it to win it, they were.”
Individuals, friends, families, couples, young, old — Dice really is a place for everyone. Rikki noted he’s particularly excited to end the all-too-common sight of groups sat in the pub together glued to their phones. Checkmate, millennials. The official opening day on Saturday 13th October, which saw Portsmouth South MP Stephen Morgan cutting the ribbon to declare the café/bar launched, had the whole venue packed to bursting with all demographics. It was an incredible sight to see.
It’s not just demographic inclusivity, either. You can game for 15 minutes, or you can game for 15 weeks. A quick round of Love Letter when you’re a little early for a Wedgewood Rooms gig? Sorted. A massive campaign played over the course of several months? Absolutely.
Naturally, the founders hope the hype stays alight. There are countless events on the cards to help fan the flames, such as themed nights and multi-day tournaments centred around long-play titles like Dungeons & Dragons. Beyond that, Lee and Rikki mentioned the embers of an ambition to turn Dice into a chain of venues. Their day jobs are cool — Lee designs board games to help plan naval strategies! — but nothing would compare to overseeing a board gaming café franchise.
Portsmouth has already been blessed by something Dice-like in the past: Game Over, the (literally) underground video gaming paradise sited in a basement-level casemate on High Street in Old Portsmouth. Game Over’s owner, Steve Lowe, will be working with the Dice crew to bring a small selection of retro arcade cabinets to Dice. They previously married up on a board gaming/retro video gaming event at Portsmouth Guildhall which sold out and went down a storm.
Also housed within Dice’s scaffold board walls is a retail space, so you can take your favourite board games home with you. Seeing the IKEA shelves stacked with glistening shrink-wrapped boxes is a perpetual source of Christmas Eve excitement. Farewell, every paycheck in Southsea.
Dice Portsmouth will undoubtedly become a second home for many people. Round up everyone you know, head along, book a table, order some food/drink, play something you know, play something totally unfamiliar, and enjoy Southsea’s latest gem from 10:00am/11:00 am ’til 10:00pm/11:00 pm.