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Digital detox! Many are moving from screen to board for entertainment

board game, board love Phalgun Polepalli and Shwetha Badarinath founded Dice Toy Labs, which launched India-centric board games like Chariots of Chandragupta in 2019.

Bengaluru-based film-maker couple, 43-year-old Amisha and 52-year-old Shyam, have been taking a weekly engagement very seriously for the past four months. Participating in this activity is sacrosanct, and all prior work commitments are put aside or put on hold.

It’s not what a regular couple might indulge in — couple workouts, yoga sessions or travel. The duo is spirited to battle it out on a table instead, playing their favourite games like Coup, King of Tokyo, Azul, Splendor. Wondering what these games are? These are innocuous, nontoxic recreation activities on boards that test the sprightliness and sporty nature of your mind. There’s also killing and deception, fake and fraud — but all for clean, wholesome fun.

A board game lovers’ community might just be burgeoning in your city as well. Most of these games are a hit, so much so that they are all the rage now.

“Coup is one game that we both are absolutely in love with. It is a card game that involves bluffing and assassination, and finishes in about 20 minutes. We are so hooked on playing it that we have never missed a session. Moreover, we don’t just attend these sessions outside, we have also started buying these games to play at home,” says Bengaluru-based Amisha. The session she’s talking about is a weekly event called Tabletop Thursday, now in its 170th week, organised by a board games collective called ReRoll at Lahe Lahe, a cultural community hub in the heart of Bengaluru.

ReRoll is one of the many communities helping revive the board game culture in India by organising regular events for people to play all kinds of games. But their impressive collection has given oft-heard names like Ludo, Scrabble, Snakes and Ladders a miss. Games like Pandemic, Ticket to Ride, Sagrada will mount your mind on a race track, keeping you hooked for hours, devising strategies to emrege the winner. Most of the games played in these communities have originated in the US or Europe.

Board game enthusiasts have classified US games as mainly warring in nature, while European games are a mixed bag involving tactics of trade and the economy, and absolutely zero confrontation with competitors. “The board game culture is one of the few things not referenced in popular culture. It’s so much more than the games we have grown up playing or hearing about. In our collection of over 200 games, Catan is the only mainstream one. Because there is not much awareness among the masses, the visibility of and access to these games is inadequate,” says 26-year-old Karthik Balakrishnan, who co-founded ReRoll in 2016 with a small group of friends. For an entry fee of Rs 200, one can play games for three hours at Lahe Lahe. The group also organises a meet-up every Wednesday for people who prefer slightly more complex games.

Over the years, the Bengaluru board game community has evolved the most, with three different collectives operational right now —ReRoll, Victory Point, Meeples. But other cities are catching up fast. In fact, the Delhi board game community is perhaps the oldest, and people have been getting together and indulging in the “healthy hobby” since 2011. Kolkata has had a chess hangout corner under the Gariahat flyover since 1985, which has grown from a humble pavement setting to a legitimate club, boasting of tables with laminated boards, arched lamp posts and stools laid out for anyone who likes to chase an endgame. In Chennai, board game-themed cafes and lounges are gaining popularity and momentum with the likes of The Board Room and The Board Game Lounge, spread across the city. Mumbai, too, has cafes like Creeda and Pair A Dice centred around board games, while Bengaluru has Dice N Dine, and a cafe called Board’em has just kick-started in Gurugram. “We are completely packed on weekday evenings as well as on weekends, with most people belonging in the 25-30 age group. There are 15 different types of Monopoly in store, and four different variants of Ticket to Ride. Our food menu is in sync with the games we offer. For instance, our pizzas are prepared on a rectangular base and our steak and sizzlers are also differently made,” says 28-year-old Srikanth Reddy, head of operations at Dice N Dine.

The contextual highlight in the Maximum City, however, is not its board game community. It is a board game convention called Meeplecon, being organised by the earliest members of the city’s board game group for the past three years. The footfall at the annual convention, held on December 15 last year, was around 4,000, with entry-ticket charges of Rs 250 for kids and Rs 500 for adults. The convention included around 100 game events. About the inception of the annual convention, 34-year-old entrepreneur Prashant Maheshwari, who also co-conceptualised Meeplecon, says it is a classic case of hobby turning into a potential business opportunity. “The youngest member at the event would be around eight years old, playing with the oldest member, who could be as old as 70 or 80. There is a general reluctance among people to explore or learn and, therefore, not many have heard of these amazing games. To combat this, we have our volunteers at every table at Meeplecon, who teach people in about 15 minutes and then they are free to take it forward,” Mumbai-based Maheshwari adds.

Digital detox

Board games have existed since time immemorial. Who does not have fond memories of playing Monopoly, Business, Chess, Jumanji as kids, huddled together with friends and family? Unfortunately, as times changed and the screens around us pushed out humans and board games alike, that thrill and fun got lost somewhere. However, as people seek to find ways to undergo that much-needed digital detoxification, board games are serving as potential alternatives. “Thanks to the internet, people are exploring niche hobbies to primarily get off the internet. And since the board game community is so well organised, with a few people involved being very enterprising, people are going back to the basics, and discovering this plethora of games to indulge in,” says 26-year-old Aakash Swain, a Delhi-based analytics consultant and an active member of the Delhi board gamers’ community.

This need for a detox was observed by 29-year-old Riddhi Dalal, owner of Creeda, The Board Game Cafe. She saw the number of customers choosing to keep away from mobile phones to play increasing steadily.

“People have become overtly addicted to the digital world, and while playing, they are completely engrossed in the game. Even if it’s about an hour, they are happy to have fun without a gadget. Then board games also provide an alternative reality that millennials prefer,” Mumbai-based Dalal says. The business model of Creeda is such that a person is required to play a board game with an initial fee of `150 for an hour on weekdays and `250 an hour on weekends. The amount is usually paid to the staff for teaching first-timers. After playing for sometime, one can order food or beverages, too.

The concept of games is another factor driving the trend. You need not be great at planning your day or life, for that matter, but with just a bit of training and regular practice, you can find your way through the toughest of games, and learn some life skills. “There is a growing interest among people to do things that are not alcohol- or music-based. While playing games at a table with a bunch of people you meet every week or month, you grow a sort of fellow-feeling and a sense of community that is nurtured. It’s a unique proposition of how to spend time,” says Balakrishnan. Delhi-based, 36-year-old Sanjay Gianchandani agrees. “Some of my closest friends today are the ones I met through the Delhi board gamers’ community on social media platforms,” the consultant engineer, who is also one of the earliest members of the community, points out.

Board games have also traditionally been associated with geeks. There are multiple references to a whole lot of games in The Big Bang Theory, for instance, that most geeks relate to. Those working behind the scenes believe that this “smartness factor” is proving to be advantageous for community-building and awareness. “There is a strong notion that playing board games will make me smarter. And rightly so, because there are games with a variety of themes that involve racking your brains. If it’s a game where you need to create an empire or a spread, you have to deploy skills of trade,” says Maheshwari, with a chuckle.

Accessibility troubles

As long as our knowledge of board games was limited to the toy shop near our homes that housed the most common and easiest games we grew up playing, there was no trouble whatsoever. However, with time, avid board game players continue to discover a variety of games launched overseas almost everyday and the acquisition of these pose the biggest hurdle.“Most people source games from their friends and relatives living abroad, because even if a lot of them are not exorbitantly priced, getting them imported can become an absolute nightmare because of the heavy customs duties,” rues Gianchandani. “Since the rules are not clear to everybody, getting a board game imported can actually be just as difficult as importing a high-end car,” he adds.

Phalgun Polepalli, 38-year-old director of India’s only board game publisher Dice Toy Labs, says while customs is not a “devil” in the whole acquisition scene, a lot of people face the brunt in a bid to escape it. “To get a game imported, the first cost incurred is the maximum retail price of the game and the cost of shipping it to India. Once the game reaches the customs department, three more types of levies are added —TIF (total cost, including insurance and freight), customs duty based on the TIF, and storage cost charged by the shipping company involved in case of delays,” Bengaluru-based Polepalli explains. “The only way to escape all these costs is to go through a freight forwarder, who takes care of every cost incurred. But the goof-up there presents itself in the form of Bill of Entry (BOE). If the BOE is not made upfront or beforehand by the shipping company, all the above costs along with documentation charges and taxes get added, making the game dearer than the original price. However, if you have a business account with the shipping company, it will do it for you at the initial stage itself, thereby reducing your overall cost,” he notes.

“The only way to escape this menace is to have manufacturers in India, but the awareness is so poor that it will take a while before we can see that happening,” Polepalli says. “There are no established Indian game designers and that’s a big challenge. So this business can perhaps never be profitable,” adds Balakrishnan.

However, a few players like Dubai-based Bored Game Company, an online marketplace for board games, are trying to turn the tide. Founded in 2018 by brothers Aziz and Moiz Bookwala, the portal now boasts of 500-800 board games in the range of `1,000 to `15,000, shipped across India. Since most of these games are the US and Europe-based, the company sources them through a network of distributors and publishers spread across the globe. “Sourcing is definitely a challenge, so we try to get as close to the publishers as possible. We are keeping the prices low by reducing our margins, but, hopefully, as volumes pick up, we would be able to monetise the business,” says 32-year-old Dubai-based Aziz Bookwala. The bestseller games on the company’s portal right now are Scythe and Wing Span. The company’s catalogue has grown almost 900% since its inception. Most of the demand comes from Bengaluru, Mumbai and Chennai for now, says Bookwala, adding that they ship nearly 20-25 games per week on an average.

Designers to the rescue

Indian publishers can only start manufacturing games if there are enough designers and artists working behind the scenes to come up with unique ideas. So far, a chicken-and-egg situation has been prevailing in India. Lack of demand has been triggering a supply crisis and vice -versa. “India has brilliant designers. Our major design institutes provide top-notch education, but there is not much awareness about board game designing. So, a major chunk of talent goes into fashion or graphic designing,” notes Polepalli. However, once he started spreading the word that his company will publish the works of board game designers, people started pitching in through a WhatsApp group called Game Design Lab and via a public group on Facebook titled Game Designers Collective. Thus, Polepalli’s company Dice Toy Labs launched two India-centric board games —Yudhbhoomi and Chariots of Chandragupta — in 2019. Besides publishing, Dice Toy Labs has also started undertaking manufacturing of board games at almost one-tenth of the previous cost. Due to the cost attractiveness and innovative elements, a lot of board game designers abroad have started contacting Dice Toy Labs for manufacturing purposes as well.

Hyderabad-based 30-year-old Kritika Agarwal also released a board game called Bustle in 2018 with her business partner Ritika Agarwal, following the advice they received from the Game Design Lab group. “Though Ritika and I started designing board games in 2017, we discovered a way to publish our work after coming in touch with the community. Challenges are aplenty for board game designers in India. No one has done this kind of work before, thus there are no guides. But, now that the board game community is growing, hopefully things should start looking up soon,” she says. Kritika has an MBA degree and was running a gifting company prior to taking the leap of faith and moving to board game designing full-time.

Times, indeed, seem to be changing now as a number of Indian board game designers are looking to turn the tide in their favour. While our rich history is definitely one of the predominant themes in most Indian-centric games, the power play of politics seems to be a success factor too, at least in terms of sales. During the Lok Sabha polls last year, a number of designers created games around political themes and saw great success. Games like Shasn—The Political Strategy Board Game, Mantri Cards, Manifesto, The Poll: The Great Indian Election Game have been launched in the past one year. Almost every board game community and cafe in the country has a copy or two of these games, indicating they are a clear hit among Indian masses.

“Board games are an interactive form of learning, and an experience that people engage in willingly. The way we are taught about elections is poor. So it occurred to me that I should come up with a way to break it to people through an experiential methodology,” says Delhi-based Abeer Kapoor, creator of The Poll: The Great Indian Election Game. “Our game mechanics is informed by the language of politics. It is the experience of elections that we have gamified. It is available in Hindi too. Through this medium, people get the scope to move away from the value judgment setup of good and bad politics, and from stated preferences like liberals, leftists,” he adds.

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