Dunsmuir's Wheelhouse is board game 'oasis'

Tim Holt
Jon Dally and Hannah Smith at their board game “oasis,” 
better known as The Wheelhouse restaurant in Dunsmuir.

Ever since Snakes & Lattes opened in Toronto nearly 19 years ago, board game bistros have been proliferating all over the place – in the U.S., Europe, and Southeast Asia. But if you’re a board game fanatic, the 474-mile stretch of Interstate 5 between Eugene and Sacramento is a virtual desert, with nary a Risk, Azul or Monopoly board in sight.

Except for one lively spot: “We’re a board game oasis,” said Jon Dally, one of the owners of Dunsmuir’s Wheelhouse restaurant. With nearly 300 board games on the restaurant’s shelves, a wayward board gamer coming through its doors for the first time might feel he’d stumbled into board game nirvana.

Dally and his partner Hannah Smith met 10 years ago while both were working at a Starbuck’s in Philadelphia. Sometime after that, as Smith put it, “a whole new world opened up to us” when they discovered a board game called “Settlers Of Catan.” It was one of the first of a new generation of board games that went beyond the more traditional ones based mainly on luck or a throw of the dice.

“Settlers Of Catan” is a complicated game that, to oversimplify, requires each player to build his or her own pioneering settlement with an accumulation of resources that include wood, sheep, bricks and iron.

“I like the way Catan makes me think on a lot of different levels,” said one dedicated gamer, Neil Carpentier-Alting, who’s also the theater director at COS. “You have to strategize the best way to use all those resources to achieve victory, and there are several different routes you can choose from as a path toward winning.”

The new generation of board games that began with “Catan” in the 1990s require more thought and skill to win, and tend to involve more interaction among the players. You can see how this new breed of games would, for some people, become something more than just a way to pass the time.

Dally and Smith eventually moved from the East Coast to Fall River Mills, where they started a small organic farm. Three years ago they opened The Wheelhouse.

When they decided to take their first real vacation from the restaurant last March, it was to attend a five-day board game convention in Las Vegas. They were joined by two of their employees, Lauren Watters and Josh Freeman. It was five days of nonstop board gaming, including tournaments with some of the rock stars of the gaming world. Then it was back to ... well, more gaming.

“It’s always game time here,” Dally said of his restaurant. “There’s always someone here who’s happy to teach you how to play the games.”

Josh Meyer, a Wheelhouse cook, has a special fondness for “Ultimate Werewolf,” which he enjoys playing with his buddies.

“Each time we play it’s never the same. There’s always a chance that someone will unexpectedly win, that something crazy will happen,” he said.

One section of the shelves is devoted to games for kids. Those and some of the adult games are available to patrons free of charge. For the rest of the games there’s a set fee of $5 for all-day, unlimited play.

Board games are a good way for families to spend time together, and, as Smith noted, can be a welcome escape from those glowing screens.

“When people are playing our games they’re not on their phones, and they’re having real interactions with people,” she said.

Dally pointed out that you can learn while playing and that there are games that deal with just about any subject you can think of, from bird identification (“Wingspan”), to trains (“Ticket To Ride”), to farming (“Agricola”) – and, of course, werewolves.

They can also be a welcome form of escapism. Not surprisingly, they’re popular in the harsh climates of Canada and the midwest. Smith and Dally got out the board games on their farm when the temperatures rose above 100 degrees and it was too hot to work.

Last year, during the prolonged fire season, the games came out at The Wheelhouse, “to keep our minds off the wildfires,” Smith said.

The Wheelhouse, at 5841 Sacramento Avenue, is open Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. and on Fridays and Saturdays from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.