Tabletop board game enthusiasm is on the rise and growing! Have you noticed the way in which board games are increasingly working their way into our broader cultural conversation? It feels like I’m hearing (and reading) about them everywhere these days. Organized board game nights are quickly becoming the “go to” gathering event for friends getting together and the kind of games being played just keeps growing. Even classic role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons are having a bit of a cultural moment and resurgence. All this made me curious to learn more.

With a bit of digging, I realized that this trend shows no signs of slowing. The consulting firm, ICv2, estimates the market for “hobby games” is about $880 million a year at this time and they go on to explain that there has been “double-digit annual growth” for the past decade in the market. Over a decade of growth? There are a lot of industries that would kill for this kind of trend and it’s happening with board games.

Why is this interest building and where is it going? In this writer’s eye, I feel like one aspect of the answer is a bit of a reaction to the increasing isolation of technology in our culture. We’ve been getting together on-line more and more each year since the mid-90s and things like board games bring us together in a way that is both personal and utterly fun. It’s a great excuse to laugh and the creativity and range of experience offered by games today is better than any other time that has gone before.

Meet The Rook

As with any industry that’s seeing success, businesses form to create new gathering spots facilitating the culture. One great example here in Cincinnati is The Rook, located in the Over-The-Rhine area at 1115 Vine Street. Just entering its third month since opening its doors, I took some time to sit down with Zach Leopold, one of two co-owners, to find out what it’s like to create a new business catering to board games and board game fans.

Joining him in the morning hours before he opened his doors for the day, Zach was kind enough to sit down with me, surrounded by games, and share the story of The Rook. My first question to him was probably the most obvious as I asked where this all started? How did this room full of fun come to be? Zach knew this answer immediately. His vision for the business was to create “the perfect board game night” for his customers.

In his eye, there are a three things you need for a great game night. First, you surround yourself with any game you could possibly want to play. Looking at the walls of The Rook, it was clear this goal had been achieved as I would be hard pressed to challenge their selection of over 800 games. Next, you need great cocktails and quirky fun party food. With those cornerstones in place, you only need add hospitality, an environment that feels welcoming and the potential to meet new people with shared interest and you’ve set the stage for a great game night. Games, food and drink plus community equals the perfect game night!

Zach explained that this is actually a business he started with his father. Not a stranger to the entertainment business, his dad owns Scallywag, a pirate themed laser tag business with two locations in the area. Zach joked that between the two of them, they were “easily some of the biggest geeks in the city.”

Thinking a bit deeper for the answer Zach added, “I’m a board game nerd at heart and I’m always looking for that perfect game night experience.” He explained that, for him, this involves alcohol and pizza rolls; basic ingredients that have to been present. Also, it can’t just be any old alcohol. It has to be the good stuff. Reaffirming the point he added, “These are the qualities I look for in a perfect board game night, whether or not I own the business.” This idea became the core of The Rook’s business plan. Quirky food, drinks that elicit nostalgia, a comprehensive game collection and people having fun. Pretty simple, right?

The Rook specializes in hand made pizza rolls and interesting drinks designed to elicit nostalgia. Take for example, their “Capri Against Humanity” cocktail which is a fun twist on the name of the Cards Against Humanity game. This cocktail literally comes in a Capri Sun pouch sitting in a fancy tear drop glass. It’s a twist on the traditional strawberry / kiwi Capri Sun and rolls in strawberry rum and is garnished with kiwi. They’re shooting for, as he described it, “a childlike nostalgic experience, only boozed up for adulthood.”

Zach did admit that giving people a quality experience was well within his wheel well, but food and beverages has been the learning experience they’ve had to work toward. He now feels quite comfortable saying they’ve done well to mold their distinctive mix into the flavor of The Rook and people are enjoying it. They’re looking forward to unveiling a new menu soon and it’s going to be loaded with fun twists.

From the topic of food and drink, our conversation turned to one of location. The spot where The Rook sits in Cincinnati is pretty prime real estate. It’s also clear, once you explore the place a bit, that they have a lot of space to play with which is impressive. There’s the main game parlor downstairs and an entire second floor filled with tables and room to stretch out and play your game of choice. They have so much room that they just recently booked their first wedding and reception. Expecting about 100 guests to arrive in spring of next year, they will have games on every table and expert game hosts on hand to teach guests how to play. A full wedding? Yes, that’s how much space they have to offer.

Asking about how he feels they fit into the Vine Street/OTR community, Zach explained that there is absolutely a place and a need for their kind of business here in Cincinnati. There is a culture out there that very much wants to have fun. The Rook caters to those individuals who are bored with the television filled sports bars where there is nothing to do but drink. He explained that he felt people are looking for a quality experience where they can make connections in a relaxed, fun environment. As I surmised at the start of this article, he reinforced my notion that our lives may be filled with awesome technology, but it isolates us through the work week. People want a spot where they can reconnect with friends, family and even new people. What The Rook ultimately offers is a place where people can sit around, interact and laugh. Zach summed it all up saying, “I think people thirst for that and we can give them that experience.”

Reflecting on the day-to-day, Zach shared that as the owner of a small business, it certainly comes with its own unique stress. He explained, “All the problems come to me but then I walk out here on a friday night and I see a couple guys playing battleship and drinking beers, that’s all I need.”

Having explored The Rook a couple times now independently of our interview, I will freely assert that the business is hitting it out of the park. I’ve already mentioned their game selection, but what I didn’t mention is the fact that they have a staff more than willing to teach you new games. These game hosts as they are called really set the place apart in my opinion. One on occasion, I grabbed a game with a group of friends which none of us had played and watched as the host broke it down for us quickly and efficiently. Further, they did it with a genuine love and enthusiasm that only comes from sharing a game they enjoy. When the individual remarked that they wished they were off duty so they could sit down and join us, I believed it to be true and that made the entire experience all the better.

I expressed my enthusiasm for these individuals to Zach and shared that, for me, board gaming culture can sometimes come off as standoffish to irregular gamers, The fact that the staff here showed patience, knowledge and honest excitement really struck me. They took a real interest in ensuring we had a good time. Zach smiled and explained that they were the single easiest people to find when building the family of The Rook. When accepting applications, he received dozens for the bartender and kitchen crew positions, but literally a couple hundred when it came to the game hosts. Zach summed it up well…

“We have a huge culture and I’m amazed by what’s happened in the industry over the last few years. I have incredible game hosts and they bring a whole element to this business that they are inventing on their own. This takes a special kind of person and we have a whole lot of them here. It’s exciting.”

When I arrived, I noticed a sign near the front covering upcoming events. Digging in and asking him what was upcoming, it was clear that The Rook is filling out it’s week well. First, they are doing Monday meetups. With themes like “If You Love Uno You’ll Love…” where they take games individuals already know, in this case Uno, and then introduce similar games that are more fun, strategic and adventurous. With game hosts on hand teaching the rules, their goal with this weekly event is to expand what people are interested in playing (and enjoying).

On Tuesday’s, they are introducing Tournament Tuesday. Zach was quick to point out that these are not like tournaments you would find at a gaming a convention. Here your are not joining a nine hour long tournament. Instead, it’s just three hours during which you get to play a couple games in a relaxed environment. It’s meant to offer people a slightly more competitive board game experience while still maintaining the aesthetic of The Rook. As for new games, they have more arriving all the time as part of their budget goes to acquiring new games. At the time of our conversation, Zach had a crew returning from GenCon loaded up with the newest and coolest games which they planned to soon roll out at The Rook. What better way to play the newest games? Have The Rook teach them to you. Of course, in addition to cocktails, food and fun, they also sell games to eager fans who want to take the experience home with them.

Before we wrap up this article, I asked Zach if he could share his current game recommendations for adults. Here are 10 games you should be playing!

First up, three adult oriented party games including Codenames and Funemployed. Next, a few choices are added to the mix for that strategic euro game lover in your life featuring Betrayal At House On The Hill, Pandemic, Lost Cities and Splendor. If you are looking for a little more upper level strategy you might try Dead Of Winter or Roll For The Galaxy. Last but not least, here are your social deduction games featuring Avalon The Resistance and Coup.

Zach shared, in closing, that Avalon was easily his current all time favorite game. Of course, that only stands until a better one comes along and you can guarantee he’ll be playing along with his friends to find it.