'Congratulations, you guys are in charge of a unicorn stable'. Overheard from one of Thirsty Meeples' experts explaining a game to another table, this pretty much sums up what visitors love about Oxford's first board game café. The humour, warmth and imagination involved in sustaining such a unique place goes some way to explain why, unlike many of its neighbours in Gloucester Green, the café has surfed the unforgiving wave of Oxford's tricky business conditions and continued to thrive.
I went with my partner on a Friday night, and the place was buzzing despite this being a less traditional weekend activity, proving that organised fun can be the best kind. Whether you are considering a particular game and want to try before you buy, want to satisfy a serious competitive streak, or indulge in something completely silly, you will find all that here (sometimes even rolled into one game). The encyclopaedic knowledge of the hosts, coupled with the volume and range of games available, ensures there is always something to discover - so you'll always have an excuse for a return visit.
The furniture at first looks more functional than cosy, but after a few hours of intense sitting I was not uncomfortable in the slightest: I suspect, therefore, that the chairs had been carefully chosen for prolonged occupation, a thoughtful touch for which I was very grateful by the end of the night! Similarly, the tables were of varying sizes, to accommodate groups large and small, giving the impression that everyone is welcome.
At times, genuine squeals of delight emitted from some of the larger groups, though this may be in part due to the café being licensed: the variety of beers, wines and even cocktails available would rival most pubs. If caffeine is your poison of choice, however, you will also be well-catered for: espressos and flat whites sit alongside characteristically creative pistachio mochas and caramel lattés.
The food offered has certainly evolved in the last 5 years: whereas in the past, the snacks were seen as necessary sustenance for fuelling gaming marathons, there are now a range of dishes that are a pleasure in and of themselves. The vegan chickpea and spinach pie disappeared from my plate so quickly that I was (sadly) unable to photograph it, while there is a daily rotation of flavours of gourmet sausage rolls: on the evening I visited, the options were sweet chilli, barbecue and stilton. The range of freshly made sandwiches sounded equally as delectable, and my 'Munching Matilda' (brie, prosciutto and spicy mango chutney) did not disappoint. With all that in mind, I was surprised to discover that the root vegetable couscous pot was not in fact the fresh bowl of fresh delights I had expected, but a new middle-class version of a Pot Noodle. This was a minor flaw in an otherwise excellent menu, but I feel like others deserve fair warning!
For those with a sweet tooth, there is a range of cakes available (plus the 'parents' nightmare' sweetie bowls on the kids' menu - their words, not mine!). However, I decided (after ordering a chocolate orange hot chocolate) that I had been quite indulgent enough...
My overriding impression of Thirsty Meeples is that it has benefited from a huge amount of attention to detail, producing a very special place where the café aspect is of equal importance to the board game element, and an experience that will be memorable and enjoyable, whether you are a novice or a dedicated board gamer.