Amazing Alumni: From Jenga to Operation, Well Played brings back old-school board games

Virginia Taylor
Arts & Features Staff Writer
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Sitting around large wooden tables in the sunny game room, Asheville locals and visitors share cups of fresh coffee as they try their luck at Battleship, practice steady hands in Jenga, and race to the Candy Castle in Candyland. For the owners behind Well Played, Asheville’s board game cafe, they hope this space will feel like a second living room to those who visit.
        “We’re about facilitating fun, centered around classic and modern board games,” said Kevan Frazier, one of the three owners of Well Played. “If you come to Well Played and don’t have fun, then we’ve totally failed. Thus far we’ve never had anyone leave and say they didn’t have fun.”
        Well Played, located right off of Wall Street in downtown Asheville, is one of the only board game cafes located in the South and the only one in Asheville. Modeled after a popular concept

Head game master Tanner Johnson sits with the game wall, where most of the games at Well Played are kept. The business now owns over 600 games.

developed in larger cities worldwide, the first board game cafe did not exist in North America until 2010, opening in Toronto, Ontario. Frazier first heard about the concept from his friend Cortland Mercer and immediately saw the potential.
“Cortland was reading an article about board game cafes in March of 2016 and sent me a text message with a link to the article that said ‘This would be my dream job.’ So that night I did my reading and did all the research and the more I read I thought, ‘Wow, this has a totally Asheville vibe,’” Frazier said. “Cortland and I went up a couple weeks later to Toronto and went to nine of 12 board game cafes there and we were just like, ‘why is there not already one of these in Asheville?’”
        Following their trip to Toronto, Frazier and Mercer partnered with another friend Steve Green and began to put a business plan together. By May 2016, Well Played was deemed financially realistic and by September 2016, the business was up and running.
        “We knew that a big part of our challenge was that no one here would know what a board game cafe was and that we needed to use that time to not only build interest, but educate what that meant,” Frazier said. “We thought that if we figured out how to do things that are fun, the customers would just come in. Gaming always comes first.”
        Though Frazier, Green and Mercer all work jobs alongside co-owning Well Played, they started Well Played from a place of passion and a desire to create a community space. All three active alumni of UNC Asheville, Frazier said their time at UNCA truly helped shape their desire to start this project.
“UNC Asheville taught us how to work and how to go explore something, even if it was unfamiliar,” Frazier said. “I mean how many times at UNC Asheville have you started in a class that you don’t know anything about? It teaches you how you are able to use some of those things you will learn and apply them to other classes as well.”
        As Well Played began to take shape in the Asheville community, Frazier, Green and Mercer began to bring on staff members to ultimately form the Well Played team. There from day one was Tanner Johnson, the head game master at Well Played.
        “I was the first employee,” Johnson said. “I remember when the space was painted a different color and we had different things in here. I remember helping with the painting, with the sheet rock, with the lifting and doing whatever I could to help the project get off the ground.”
        Now Johnson holds the official title of head game master, assisting those visiting Well Played with everything from finding the perfect game to helping with the rules of play. For Johnson, this is an opportunity to turn a passion into a job.
“In college, I was actually invited to the apartment of someone I had met and he showed us a game that none of us had ever played before. Immediately after playing I thought, ‘Wow, this is something I could really get into,’” Johnson said. “I thought I’d just buy a couple of games but then it sort of snowballed into an obsession where I’d probably bought way more than I should have owned at that time when I was just finishing up college. I had a private collection that I had made into sort of a mobile library and would take with me when I would go to parties, gatherings, things like that.”
        After meeting Mercer at a similar gathering, Johnson later got involved with the creation of Well Played when Mercer remembered his board game collection and pitched him the plan for the business. Johnson felt that the project aligned with his own approach to board games.
“I think games do a really good job of fostering natural conversation,” Johnson said. “There’s a lot of things you learn when you play a game with someone, you learn their level of competitiveness, you learn their attention span, you learn how to work together and levels of cooperation, things like that.”
        For UNCA student Myles House, this community aspect is one of her favorite things about visiting Well Played.
        “It’s a fun atmosphere to sit with all your friends or family members and play games,” House said. “It gives you something to do, but it’s not too distracting and you can still interact with people.”
        September 2018 marks the second anniversary of Well Played and both the owners and staff look back proudly on how far they’ve come.
“The proud moments are when we walk in and the room is full with everyone from age eight to 88,” Frazier said. “When you look out on the crowd we’ve got people of every age, gender, ethnicity and sexual expression, we want everybody to see themselves at Well Played. Nobody’s excluded. Those are the things we’re most proud of.”
        As for the future of Well Played, Frazier, Green and Mercer hope to even further integrate the community of Asheville through game development.
        “We are going to be continuing some preliminary work we’ve been working on about game development to help grow a makers community,” Frazier said. “We’ve been meeting with some folks who are looking to grow that in Asheville and we really want to be a key part of that.”
Well Played has become a familiar in the Asheville community, but hopes to continue to expand its business model to other cities nationwide.
        “I think we’re definitely at a point where most people who are familiar with Asheville have at least heard of us, whether they’ve had a chance to come in the door or not,” Johnson said. “We’ve got really good brand recognition and I think that’s something that can grow to the point of not only greater success here in Asheville, but even to the point where I think multiple locations could certainly open down the road.”
As a native of Asheville, getting to be a part of the small business community and watch a business grow is a personal experience for Frazier. Through Well Played, the owners hope to be a part of a growing Asheville.
        “When I was growing up here, this was a rough town. A lot of folks have a hard time believing that because they’re so used to Asheville today, but when I was a little kid in the seventies and a teenager in the eighties you didn’t come downtown, downtown was rough,” Frazier said. “So for me, for us to be a part of that next chapter in a successful downtown Asheville is really important and it’s exciting to see.”