Game On

Board games are experiencing a Renaissance, with fresh concepts, complex strategies and inclusive approaches.

Above: Spirit Island is a complex game in which players defend their island home from colonizing invaders. Table games, with their boards and imaginative pieces, have an engaging tactile quality. 

Writer: Brianne Sanchez
Photographer: Duane Tinkey

Mary and Joe Roth

Joe Roth is a sommelier for board games. Similar to how a wine aficionado can recommend the perfect chardonnay for those who like a dry white with an oaky finish, Roth can translate your appreciation for, say, Settlers of Catan into a recommendation for Carcassonne—another game of tile placement and area control. Or maybe you’re looking to try out a quick two-person game you and a colleague can polish off on a lunch break. (He suggests you reach for Patchwork.) But what Roth is most excited about is expanding the palates of both novice and experienced players alike. 

“It’s about getting people to try new things and creating a safe environment,” says Roth, 38, who launched the Dealt Hand, a curated board game business, with his wife, Mary, this past April.

The emergence of businesses like the Dealt Hand is evidence that the modern board game culture is reaching Des Moines. Across the country, analog games are experiencing a renaissance, thanks in part to crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter opening the field for a new wave of concepts that bring a fresh perspective to the hobby. Today’s hot games feature high-quality graphics, complex strategy and innovative approaches to collaboration that appeal to game geeks and grab the attention of casual players, too. 

“With there being so many more board games, it’s not enough to just build a farm and try to collect points,” says Des Moines-based game designer Neil Roberts. “They have to stand out.” 

Games like Spirit Island push back against the colonialist perspective of many traditional games, and a game called 14 Days takes on the debilitating nature of migraines for a two-person role-playing game.

Inclusive Experience

Game boxes stack up for an evening of entertainment with the Dealt Hand, a company built on the fun of board games.

Joe Roth is eager to talk about inclusivity in gaming, and even more eager to be part of the movement that’s pushing for it. 

“There’s a huge lack of designers of color and female game designers,” he says. “Part of what makes any game or story great is when it’s not just mechanically interesting but also telling a story that’s a new way of thinking.” He adds that new voices challenge norms and result in more interesting products.

And the more people who see themselves in board games, the more popular the games become. Roth seeks to offer an inclusive experience for both new and experienced audiences and build a business while he and Mary, 37, both hold full-time corporate jobs and raise their 3- and 6-year-old daughters. 

“We’ve been playing games for a really long time, and we have a lot of family who are small-business owners,” Joe says. “We’ve seen what that means in terms of personal sacrifice. The joke is that if it doesn’t work [as a business], it’s a really expensive way to buy a bunch of board games.”

Their dream is to open a board game cafe, like those that have cropped up in other Midwestern cities—such as Omaha (Spielbound near Midtown Crossing), Kansas City (Pawn and Pint) and Saint Louis (Pieces)—and are popular internationally. 

Pop-Up Concept

Critics rave about the game Takenoko, based on the unlikely premise of growing bamboo faster than opponents, and before a panda can eat it.

The Roths are testing the local market by launching the Dealt Hand as a pop-up, a suggestion Joe got from his brother, Geoff Wood, the owner of Gravitate, a growing coworking community. Two Drake grads, Annelise Tarnowski and Tony Tandeski, are also testing a board game bar concept, popping up as the Rook Room, with their own take on game nights and collaborations.

The pop-up concept requires lugging games by the shelf-load to creative locations. For a $10 cover, attendees at a recent “board game brunch” at Art Terrarium could play any games from the Dealt Hand’s traveling library, grab a drink from a portable cooler, purchase chicken and waffles from a caterer, and take home a small plant as a party favor. 

“It looked intriguing because we like plants and games and drinking,” says Lindsay Anderson, 29. 

Anderson and her friend, Whitney Wolf, are playing Bears vs. Babies, a hilarious monster-building card game wherein the goal is to create creatures that battle baby armies. The women muddle through one round on their own before Joe Roth has a chance to pop by and offer a clear explanation. As more games are pulled from the shelves, Joe dashes among the tables, checking in on players and serving as a neutral interpreter of the rules. 

“There is a lot of system knowledge,” he says. “The more board games you play, the quicker you can pick that up. I translate that for people who don’t play a lot.”

Partnering with local coffee shops and breweries to host events has been a success. On one Sunday afternoon, Firetrucker Brewery in Ankeny was almost evenly divided between bicyclists and board gamers who had stumbled upon the Dealt Hand via social media or who had been invited by a friend.

Cards from the classically styled, contemporary card game Illimat. 

Eclectic Mix

The Dealt Hand’s games includes some popular selections—Codenames, for example—and other more obscure or expensive games people might not add to their collections until they’ve had the opportunity to play a few times. The Roths also have newer releases, like Wingspan, the first female-designed game to break into the Top 100 list at 

The Dealt Hand tracked down an early copy of Wingspan, a hot commodity. It’s hard to believe a game about collecting birds into biomes would be buzzworthy, but the beautiful board and meaningful topic is turning board gamers into birders, and birders into board game players.  

Bryan and Emily Gilbert of Ankeny booked a babysitter to experience the Dealt Hand as part of their anniversary celebration. Bryan co-hosts a podcast about board games called “The Games We Play,” and at Firetrucker they were randomly paired up to play Wingspan with another couple who went to a board game cafe on their honeymoon in Vietnam. 

“Board games are a great way to take out the awkwardness of meeting and talking to new people,” Bryan Gilbert says. For him, getting paired with strangers at a pop-up isn’t too different from meeting friends-of-friends at an at-home board game night. 

Bringing people together is another element of the Dealt Hand’s philosophy, and the driver for Mary to do much of the behind-the-scenes work on building their business. “Someday there’s going to be a ‘We met at the Dealt Hand’ wedding,” Mary says. “I told Joe that’s my measure of success.”

Considering there is a Jane Austen-inspired game called Marrying Mr. Darcy in the Dealt Hand game library, such a romantic notion might not be too far off.

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