Ride your toad into battle: The Rook Room encourages adults to play games, get creative

People attend a Puzzlepalooza event organized by The Rook Room in Des Moines. — courtesy of Tony Tandeski

Because of their similar sounding surnames, their shared love of board games and their charming banter, Annelise Tarnowski and Tony Tandeski almost seem like siblings. But the pair of best friends met while volunteering for the Drake Alumni Board. It was there they realized that they had a lot more in common.

“After most meetings, we’d stay, like, an hour at the office just talking about board games, talking about D&D, to the point where the staff was like, ‘We need to close for the night, will you please leave?'” Tarnowski told Little Village. “But it got us thinking, there isn’t really a place where you can do this for a long time because they close. You can’t play board games because you feel like you’re taking up a space or places will close. Other cities have board game bars or cafes. Why don’t we have one?”

And while the pair says their brainstorming started out hypothetical, eventually they realized that they could be the ones to do it.

“I always say it’s like one of those jokes everybody has with their friend group. But then you get to a moment where you both click and look at each other. And you’re like, are we both serious about this?” Tandeski explained.

So through planning, gaming, scheming and the like, The Rook Room was born. The Rook Room is an organization that hosts pop-up game nights at different locations around the metro. They also host themed events, learn-to-play events and tournament play.

But while The Rook Room seems like all fun and games (and mainly it is), there are some very real psychological benefits to adding a healthy dose of play into our lives as adults.

The Rook Room founders Annelise Tarnowski and Tony Tandeski. — courtesy of Tony Tandeski

According to a 2014 NPR article, play “helps us maintain our social well-being … Playing is how we connect.”

This could be because play is inherently vulnerable. Not only are we opening ourselves up to the possibility of losing in front of others, but many games require us to suspend our disbelief or pretend in a way that might feel uncomfortable. But for all these reasons, play is also an important component in relationships. It can build trust and help us get to know our teammates better if we are willing to enter those spaces together.

“And that’s part of why The Rook Room works,” Tarnowski said. “The whole idea is being able to connect with people, but not through the weather, or politics, or scrolling Instagram together, or whatever it is. But there’s still vulnerability, there’s still connecting and sharing happening [through play].”

Players compete in a Settlers of Catan tournament hosted by The Rook Room in Des Moines. — courtesy of Tony Tandeski

Play can also challenge us to see the world differently. Tandeski recalls a time when he was leading a one-shot Dungeons and Dragons campaign for kids and he decided to throw in a giant toad for the players to battle. But the kids responded to the threat in an unexpected way.

“They decided to do a bunch of animal handling checks. They ended up pacifying the toad, riding the toad into battle, and I’m like, ‘I did not plan for this,'” Tandeski remembers. Since Tandeski hadn’t expected this turn, he even tried to dissuade the players by portraying the toad as unimpressed and lazy. But the players were committed to riding the toad.

“You give this same scenario to a bunch of adults, they’re just gonna pull out their swords and move on with their lives,” Tandeski said. “Kids are so imaginative with everything they do. If I could impart one piece of advice to these kids it would be like, ‘Always keep these ideas. Never let anyone tell you that your idea is a bad idea. It might not work that time, but keep with this creativity.'”

While The Rook Room hosts pop-up events now, they are striving towards getting their own permanent, brick-and-mortar home for their games and their gamers. The details are still pending and the full realization of the venue could still be a few years out, but that hasn’t stopped the pair from dreaming big.

Players at a Clue and Cupcakes event organized by The Rook Room in Des Moines. — courtesy of Tony Tandeski

The Rook Room’s building is expected to have a bar offering themed cocktails, staff members who can help you select a game and teach you the rules, and all of the special events that Tandeski and Tarnowski are already executing.

“We always talk about the third space,” Tandeski said. “You have work, you have home, and then you have a third space where you can feel comfortable — usually you know people, but you can just come in and relax.”

If you’re skeptical about the idea of unwinding with a competitive board game, you’re certainly not alone. Tandeski and Tarnkowski are all too familiar with tales of people who have sworn off board games due to overly competitive friend groups and gatekeeping.

“We always say that there’s no bad game,” Tandeski said. “So if your bread and butter is Candyland, it’s like, we are here for it. We’ll make it happen. If it brings you fun, if it brings you joy, if that is what you love, do it.”

Tandeski and Tarnowski are committed to making The Rook Room available, comfortable and safe for everyone. They emphasize the importance of providing games playable by people with all different types of abilities, hosting events close to bus stops, and being aware of the game developers they are supporting.

“We’re both queer and trying to create … a queer space, but also encourage queer game developers,” Tarnowski said.

Tandeski added, “We know we’re a sort of small Des Moines, Iowa-based business, but whatever we can do to have an outsized impact on the industry as a whole, we want to be part of that.”

Find upcoming events from The Rook Room on their website and stay updated by following them on social media.

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