The Dice Latte
Joey Croner, a PhD candidate from Idaho, is bringing a little more community to Korea. A former college lecturer with a master’s degree in TESOL, he has recently opened The Dice Latte – the first expat owned board game cafe. Located very close to Hoegi Station and nearby a number of universities, The Dice Latte is already playing a valuable role for life in Seoul.
“I’d been teaching at a university,” says Croner. “And I wanted to try something different. We [Croner and his wife] had a decent collection of games.”
Croner and his wife, Cleo, started spending their spare time researching how to open a business in Korea. They acquired a stockpile of games to satisfy every need and started looking at real estate on weekends. Eventually, they landed on the third floor of a non-descript building in a neighborhood more famed for pajeon and makgeolli than RPGs (role play games) and strategy games.
“People suggested we should be closer to Itaewon,” says Croner, “but we wanted to make a place that was for everyone.”
In fact, one of the difficulties Croner faced was the constant question of whether The Dice Latte was just a place for foreigners. Croner insists that this is not reality.
The Dice Latte is near three universities. According to Croner, the clientele is mostly Korean throughout the week, with larger groups of expats settling into the cafe over the weekend. Ultimately, Croner welcomes everybody.
“It’s a place for everyone who likes games, coffee, and cake,” says Croner. “It’s about getting people to try something new. A lot of the expats that get involved in gaming want to do something other than go out drinking. We have a lot of couples, groups of co-workers, church groups, and gaming friends.”
Croner encourages further togetherness by hosting regular language exchanges on Thursdays, as well as events aimed at bringing the two communities together via their interest in gaming. While a natural segregation between locals and expats exists at The Dice Latte like every other place, Croner sees gaming as a way to bridge the divide.
“A lot of times there is a big table full of Koreans and another full of expats,” he admits. “Sometimes there are crossovers, though. A lot of games aren’t language based so this could be a good cultural exchange.”
Halloween saw an all night gaming party with dedicated tables for English and Korean, but there were also games being played by people speaking both languages.
The Dice Latte is certainly filled with games. They are stacked or lined up neatly on shelves in the middle of the cafe and along the back walls. A message board has fliers and notes for upcoming events and groups looking for new members. A glass cabinet is full of fantasy miniatures. Giant die of various numbers of sides are in a box next to a well-worn rule book for card games. There is also a large library of role-playing guides and indexes for the novice players amongst us.
“People come in to play some heavy games,” says Croner as he searches a back shelf. He is looking for a copy of Bruxelles 1893, which has a double board and is apparently a bidding game with architectural themes, maybe. Croner says that it is one of the games he would have to play with a novice to help them understand.
The Dice Latte’s game selection is vast enough to keep most gamers happy, whether they are casual or dedicated. The most popular title in the cafe is Rumi Cube. He owns several copies and they are often all out on the tables at once. The second most popular game is Clue.
“We have about 230 games here,” says Croner. “On slow nights they [the staff] learn the different games; that way if someone comes in and doesn’t know how to play something, we can help them out.”
On a busy Saturday, his staff is bouncing back and forth from tables with game help and coffee. The Dice Latte serves a range of cafe favorites as well as pastries. His most popular food item is the rum cake, but his Nutella cheese cake is incredible. Croner has used his previous experiences of cooking for restaurants in the US while working his way through college to serve up game friendly, nostalgia fueled comfort foods like lasagna and chili on the weekends. “I make the pasta from scratch,” he says with obvious pride.
Customer Piotr Konieczny PhD, a professor at Hanyang University’s Department of Information Sociology, remarks on the café’s unique features. “There are dozens of gaming cafes in Korea,” says the professor, “but The Dice Latte is the first gaming place run by an expat, so it is unique because it is easy for us expats to talk to him.” Konieczny is in between games. He is a frequent customer and can be found at The Dice Latte on most Saturdays. He is with a group of fellow game enthusiasts that are about to play an involved-looking game with colorful miniatures. He is also, conveniently enough, writing an article about the sociology of gaming.
“I think places [like The Dice Latte] allow the gamers to ‘come out’, admit they are geeks, and enjoy gaming face-to-face, not just online,” he says. He adds that there is a comfort in places like The Dice Latte that is simply inviting to the expat living so far from home.
“The Dice Latte is the first [gaming location] in Korea where I feel back home,” he says, “where I can chat to the shop owner about games and stuff.”
When Croner finally sits down in the middle of that Saturday rush, he is obviously pleased. The weather in Seoul had finally turned wintery, adding that little something to the café that tends to keep folks in the warmth of home. It is a measure of success that there is not an empty table in the house. In fact, some tables have had to be moved to accommodate a large group of Koreans that have just walked in.
“It is a lot of work,” admits Croner. “There’s the food and drink and keeping up on the games but it is enjoyable.”
“My original concept was a lot simpler,” he says. “My wife jumped in and made it a lot bigger than I expected.”
Starting a business in Korea is difficult, but Croner considers himself lucky that he didn’t encounter any serious roadblocks. He found the community to be supportive. “A lot of people really want you to do well,” says Croner. “Even the contractors want you to be happy. I was really lucky that way because this is something you really can’t do by yourself. Everyone comes here to have a good time. There aren’t a lot of bad days because we are surrounded by happy people.”
Time: Tues – Fri 1pm – 11pm / Sat-Sun 11am – 11pm (Closed Mondays)
Transport: Line 1 or the Jungang line to Hoegi Station (Line 1, Exit 2)
Turn left and walk to the major intersection. The entrance is under the yellow “New Bee” sign on the other side of the crosswalk.